Silas Nash stood in the rain, his eyes on Bella, keeping Susan in his peripheral vision. His arms were aching. He could feel the pain in his fingers. The stabbing pains in his nose and forehead, where Megara had hammered him with blows. The soreness of his throat from Harry’s stranglehold. His solar plexus still ached. He could feel sharp pains in his chest, his heart beating erratically. He was shaking. The cold was getting to him. It was almost enough to make him laugh as he studied her. “So, Bella. Just the servants of War, here. What do you intend to have me do to make things worse?”
The woman’s arms were crossed. She smirked. “I admit. I didn’t think you’d make it out of Tartarus. Did you like that little touch? Frightening the girl by letting her see your wounds. I knew that she would recoil from you, that it would scar your relationship. It’s in the nature of people- Humans, or monsters- to fear the things that remind them of death, and pain. There was a very interesting study on the subject I read once.”
“What do you mean by my wounds?”
“You don’t have a soul, Nash.” He gave her a skeptical look. “Oh, it’s not something special. You could’ve had a soul. You had the beginnings of one, once. But I stole everything that gave you meaning. Your mother. Your sanity. Your belief in yourself. I ripped all of that away, piece by piece. I stole your joy in the world. All to make you the perfect weapon. That’s why Cassandra and everyone else in this place recoils from you. That’s why you could take on the Sisters’ power so quickly.” Her eyes twinkled, merry and green. “You didn’t have any soul to conflict with their power. You’re not special. You’re maimed!”
“How the hell am I alive without a soul?” he asked, his head pounding, that familiar anger racing up inside of him. How long had anger been the only thing driving him?
“It’s not a soul that keeps you alive. That’s the job of meat. The soul just makes that life worth living.” His eyes went to the ruby. Black lines were growing outwards along its surface. “Oh, yes. We have a little while, still, before I break free, and ride rampant across the world. Time for us to talk. Time for you to regain your strength, and snap the little green snake’s neck.” Susan took in a sharp breath, her eyes widening. She’d been standing silent while Silas and Bella had spoken, but now seemed hunted, aware that the focus was on her.
“What, Susan? I promised you that you wouldn’t be a side player in the story anymore. I promised you a starring role. I didn’t say that you would live. It’s as I said. If you want to survive, you have to be the strongest. And Nash here… Oh, he’s been getting stronger by the day. He convinced the Sisters that he was a good man, through a bit of temporal trickery. Approaching Fire when she was at her most vulnerable, ‘saving’ her. She fell in love with him long ago, and spent all this time pining for him. She believed that, maybe, just maybe, he was a good man.”
“What did you do to the Sisters? You’re acting awfully directly, here. Aren’t they going to smack your hands if you try to make yourself manifest here? I thought there were rules.” He let his eyes wander. Isabelle and Dean looked in worse shape than he did. He’d thought momentarily of trying to get Isabelle to heal him, but in her current state, it could kill her. Besides, she seemed unconscious. If he was going to do this, it’d be wounded.
Susan was squeezing the knife tight. She could hear what Bella was saying. Maybe he could use that to his advantage. He had to hope that she wasn’t a truly horrid person deep down inside. That she didn’t really want to murder her friends. That maybe she, too, was just a victim of Bella’s madness.
“Oh, that was easy. When Susan here unleashed the Eye, this place was no longer a part of the earth. It is now part of my domain. They cannot interfere here, because of their own precious rules.” She smiled. “It’s rather like the contract, really. It seems like a wonderful idea, to bind the stability of your place to laws, and rules. After all, the people who want to live here are dedicated to keeping those laws and rules already. Order and peace are what they want out of life. But when you depend on the rules to hold your enemies in check, it means you cannot break even the spirit of those rules, while your enemies can.”
She chuckled softly, her eyes glittering. “You know that, don’t you, Nash? The rules are only an impediment to those without will. When you have power, you can choose which rules you’ll follow. You can ignore the commands of others. You can even upset the order of life and death. You can threaten the gods in their abodes, and make them love you for it.” She laughed, and the sound of it was familiar. High, cold, shrieking, mirthless.
He narrowed his eyes. “And what exactly was the gift that you gave me?” he asked, his voice soft. He could feel the anger inside of him. He already knew the answer, but he wanted Susan to know it, too.
“Rage.” Bella smirked. “Just as I gave Susan Madness, I gave you Rage. I gave you the raw strength that you needed. When your pride was pricked, when your significance was doubted, when you were given less than you deserved, I gave you the might to take what you wanted. I gave you power, and fury, and an unstoppable heart. And you did such magnificent things with it, Nash. Humbling the gods of this place, and winning them over. Believing that you could do the impossible, changing stories without a care for the consequences, defying the rules of life and death.” She smiled sweetly.
“And because you were too mad to know the danger, the consequences, you were able to persevere. You did not hold back. And I must say, I am very proud of you.” She cast her eyes over to Susan. “Of course, the girl played her part, too. You were told my methods. I am not a direct person. You were… an experiment. A very successful one, mind you. One that has provided my ultimate victory.”
Nash turned away from Bella. It was hard, like turning his back on a drawn gun. He tensed slightly, preparing for the fatal blow from the red woman. When it didn’t come, he looked Susan in the eyes. He felt the same strange bubbling rage that had built in him when he had stared into the eye hanging over the police station. He held it down just as easily. She seemed slightly shocked by this, as she backed away a couple of steps, holding up the knife. “Susan.” he spoke softly. “What did she do to you?”
“Do-” Susan’s eyes narrowed, her teeth gritted. “You arrogant son of a bitch. Just like the rest of them. You think a little green snake can’t do anything on her own!” She held up the knife, sneering. “Just like those two. Always so in love, always together. Leaving me behind, like I was just a prop!” She grinned, and there was no joy in it. “I accepted power. Enough power to tear this place down! To get rid of Zion, and to be free of it! Enough power that I could go wherever I wanted in the world! I could be a hero! I could be a monster! I could be whatever I pleased, with War’s power, because nobody would force me to play a bit part in their stupid, self-centered love-story!” Tears were flowing down her cheeks, turning her eyes red as she spoke.
“Oh, she makes it sound so grand. I made her a focal point of madness. Distorting the senses of those around her. Making them act irrationally. Altering their priorities. It was a deliciously simple way to work. Subtle. With everyone so focused on you, and the way you were disrupting the city, nobody thought of little Susan. It seemed like a perfect power for some as insignificant as her.” Bella giggled softly. “And of course, I gave her madness, too. The same gift that I gave you, altering her perceptions, changing her mind, making her less stable. It gave her the power to lie to you, because she believed the lies she was saying with all of her heart. ‘I don’t care about them’. ‘All I care about is power’. ‘When I do this, I’ll be free.'”
Susan’s eyes were flicking from Bella to Nash. “Of course, it was all a lie she was telling herself. Because you hate her, don’t you, Nash? You see the way she has betrayed those she loved. She, who grew up surrounded by people who loved her, and cared about her. It was never enough for her. She’s going to destroy the first place that you ever felt like you were accepted. The first place where anyone showed you any love and compassion. All because she wanted more.”
“Shut up.” Susan said, through clenched teeth. “I had a good reason for this. I had… I…” She ran a hand through her wet hair, the knife weaving erratically.
“Why don’t you just cut down the little green snake? It’ll be so much easier to stop me if you do. You could still be the hero, Nash. You could save everyone. But not while she’s alive. If you turn your back on Susan for just a moment, she’ll stick that knife in it. She can kill you, Nash. I made very sure of that.” Bella reached behind her back, and took out a gun. Susan and Nash both turned to stare at it.
The red-headed woman carefully slid out the clip, checking it. “Sixteen bullets. Plenty to put down a mad beast. You know more about her, now. She’s no Izanami. She can die easily.” She slid the clip back, slapping it into place, and clicked the safety off. “Will you accept it, Nash? Be my champion. Only one of the two of you can survive this, now.”
Nash took a deep breath. The sharp scent of rain filled the air, as he looked slowly around the roof. ‘Can you save her’, Irayama had said. But it hadn’t been Isabelle that Irayama had been talking about. Izanami was a mother to every person in this city. “Shove it, Bella.” It wasn’t the coolest line he could muster. But you couldn’t beat it for sheer dismissiveness, and the toxic glitter in Bella’s eyes made it clear that it had hit home.
“Have it your own way. Here you go, Susan.” Bella threw the gun to Susan’s feet. The girl picked it up. “Nash has decided to die heroically, making a point that he is nobody’s puppet. But we both know how untrue that is, don’t we? Just point, and pull the trigger.” Susan stared at the gun, picking it up. Nash saw the look in her eyes, empty and hopeless. She started to lift the barrel, placing it against the underside of her own chin.
Nash had never moved so fast in his life. His fingertips closed around the barrel, and pulled it away, to the side, just as the trigger pulled. Susan’s eyes snapped opened and she jammed the knife into his stomach. He grunted. He hadn’t had the time to summon Gene’s resilience. He took a breath, and blood bubbled down his lips, a dark red spreading across the white dress shirt’s front. “Both such disappointments.” Bella sighed, her head shaking slowly.
“I-” Susan sobbed, and her eyes looked suddenly, horribly clear. She stared down at the blood running down his stomach. The gun dropped from her hand, tears running down her cheeks. “I didn’t want to kill anyone. I just didn’t want to be left behind.”
Nash gently rested a hand on the back of Susan’s head, pulling it against his chest. “I’m not going to let you become a killer that easily.” His voice was ragged, as he hugged her gently. Rain poured down his face, a smile on his lips. Her fingers untensed around the knife. It was his own fault for startling a snake. He reached down, and gingerly pulled the knife free. He was probably doing more harm than good, but he didn’t care. He let go of Susan, and she sank to her knees, sobbing. “I know what it’s like to be powerless to change things, Susan. It’ll be alright.” He gently tousled the girl’s hair, and turned. Bella’s face was cold, and impassive.
“How many times can you sacrifice yourself for the sake of others, Nash?” she asked, her voice a soft whisper. Her voice had lost its harshness, its cold steel grate, as he ran his fingers over the wound. Blood was dripping out. A wound like that could kill a man. He removed his jacket, and placed it around Susan’s shoulders, the young woman trembling in the rain.
“As many times as it takes.” He gave her a cocksure smile. “I can handle it, after all.” He took a step, and his leg gave out underneath him. He hit the ground hard, hands scraping across the gravel roofing of the apartment complex. He was down for only a moment before he pushed himself back to his feet, but Bella laughed.
“Look at you, Silas. You are so careless of your own body. So desperate that you would destroy yourself. How can you ever hope to succeed?” She smiled sweetly as he approached Isabelle and Dean. The two of them were pale. Paler than they had been before. He checked the ruby. The black lines were deeper. There wasn’t much time left. “There’s no hope, now. Zion is doomed. I have tied my essence into the keystone, and soon, it will all fall apart.”
Nash became aware of someone else crouched next to him. It was Susan. Her eyes were red, but she was focused. “She’s right.” The girl whispered. “She had me do something. A ritual. It’s draining the life out of my-” She ran her hand across her face, wiping away rain and tears. “My friends. It’s killing them to provide her a gateway into the world.”
“Oh yes. And I will arrive, full, and terrible. The keystone is important to that, of course. It will determine the form that I will take when I enter this world. The blood of two lovers, slain by their closest friend for petty, selfish reasons…” Bella laughed. “I will be a terror beyond words, Nash. I will be an abomination. An apocalypse. And all thanks to our dear little Susan. I’m sure the two of you will enjoy the life in the world that I will create.” She licked her lips slowly, as though savoring a coming meal.
“Perhaps I will make your little Cassandra strangle her parents. I saw how it hurt you to see Echidna and Heracles at each other’s throats. That will be my world. Wife shall murder husband, lover shall maim lover. Parent shall kill child, and vice versa. I can turn it all rotten.” She laughed softly into her hand. “What a world. I’m sure that you’ll feel right at home, Nash.” She put her hands on her hips and stretched. “Well, I can’t be late. I’ll see you two again in a few minutes. You both fought very hard. I couldn’t kill you myself, after all of that. No, I think that I’ll enjoy seeing what you do in my world.” With another wild laugh, she disappeared.
Nash ran his finger over the ruby. It was cold as ice, and he had to pull his fingers away, sucking on them, frowning. “How does this work?” he asked.
“It- She said it would work like a gas siphon. Once it started drinking up their life, it would keep going. It would be connected to the two of them. She said that it was practically unbreakable. You could take a diamond drill to the thing, and it wouldn’t even get scratched. Even if they died- It’d still drain them away.”
“Is there any way that we can move it away from them? Break the connection, so that it stops taking their life, and stops getting corrupted?”
Susan shook her head, her eyes tearing up. “No. It’s connected to them on a deeper level than that. You could take it to the underworld, and they’d still be connected to it- Oh no.” She stared over his shoulder.
Nash turned. The eye had turned black. It wavered and shivered, tearing open, revealing a gaping hole into… nothing. There was no fire, no brimstone. Just an endless night. He saw a figure there, and it rode a red horse across the most utter black he had ever seen. He turned back to the ruby, trying to think. They still had a minute. “Is there any way to undo the corruption? Could we cleanse it?”
Susan shook her head. “Miss Onnashi might have been able to, but it would’ve taken her hours, at least. I…” She rubbed her eyes. “I just wanted them to not leave me behind. They were going to have a story together, and I wouldn’t be a part of it. I was just going to disappear into the background.” She sobbed softly. “I just wanted us to be happy together!”
He stared down at the keystone. “Susan. Have you heard what the worst that could happen is? If this stone is broken, and Zion is destroyed?”
She rubbed her eyes. “They… Irayama said it would be chaos. Humans and monsters, at war with one another, until both were dead. The end of everything.”
“What’s the best thing that could happen?” he asked softly.
The thoughts ran through his head, spurred by adrenaline and desperation. It was an insane idea, but that seemed to be the only kind he could come up with anymore. “It could work. This place is magical, and at its heart is the idea that we can all get along. There are flaws, there’s conflict.” But there were heroes and monsters living together.
There was a goddess of death who adopted lost children and cared for them like her own. There was a butcher who didn’t eat one ounce of human flesh, no matter how much she wanted to. There were mothers who couldn’t have children, and there were fathers who couldn’t protect their children, and still tried with all their might. There were white snakes who thought they would be alone forever, and there were young men who would have given their lives to prove them wrong.
He held the gemstone up. It was such a fragile thing. “She said that the way this stone was treated was important. Breaking it to kill someone, for selfish reasons, and it would make the world spiral into hell. What if we broke it for the right reasons?”
She frowned. “Even if that worked… how can you be sure, Nash?” she asked softly.
He remembered what Hades said. Faith did not come easily to Nash. Trusting others, that they would do the right thing. He had always been forced to trust himself. Even his mother had lied to him. But she hadn’t, not really. There had been someone in the darkness. Someone who had been watching him, and who had dark plans for him. He held the ruby up to the light. The black lines had nearly reached the center. The sound of hoofs beating the nothing behind him was growing louder. “I can’t. But it’ll save these two.”
He closed his hand around the ice-cold gem, and there was a soft grinding sound. He had expected more resistance, but there was no life in the gem. It was nothing but a stone, and he crushed it without effort. Red and black powder fell from his hand, pouring into a small heap on the ground.
It was not a dramatic change. The magic of Zion disappeared without a fuss, and went out into the rest of the world. The sky was just a little bit brighter, the rain a little sweeter. The trees were just a little greener. And behind them, there was no black hole into space, or mad, staring eye. There was just the horizon. “Did it work?” Susan asked, looking around. Her irises were jade green, with the slit pupils of a snake. He smiled.
“You know, Nash, you really should take up a little chess,” Bella purred. She stood a little ways beyond the two young teenagers, a smile on her face. “This was a classic fork. Threatening in two places. If you had shown greater care, perhaps you could have saved the city, as well as those two children. You must be terribly disappointed in yourself.”
There was a crunch. Megara and Harry climbed up over the edge of the building, looking somewhat the worse for wear. Irayama was riding on Harry’s shoulders, in her tie-dyed shirt. The three of them ran to their children, picking them up, and then stared at Bella. She smiled pleasantly. Irayama hissed out a word in Japanese. “Close! Very close,” Bella said. The red-haired woman laughed softly. “A century of your work, undone in moments. The painful truth of the battle between entropy and order. It takes incredible amounts of painstaking work to create something like this, and a single lonely, frightened girl to destroy it.”
“I liked you a lot better when you just said ‘come and get me’, Bella.” Nash said, crossing his arms as he studied her. “So what’s this? The world isn’t ending around us. There’s no fall of stars. You lost, and now you’re just going to badger us to death? I’m sure that Gene, Heather, Pearl, and Ariel are going to be here any minute, and I bet they could do you a bit of harm for all of this. Why don’t you run away, now, before things get any worse for you?”
She smiled. “Aren’t you curious, Nash? Don’t you wonder what my motive is?” She smiled sinisterly. “All you have to do is meet my eye, for just a moment, and you will know it. It’s such a wonderful secret, Nash.”
“You want to destroy things. It’s what you are. It’s who you are. What more is there to know?” asked Megara, her face cold and haughty, as she held Dean gently against her chest, stroking the unconscious boy’s hair, her stance protective. “Flitter away, spirit. The city can rebuild or disperse as the people choose. You have done nothing more than disrupted life for a moment. It will soon regain its step.”
“Don’t do it, Nash,” Irayama said. “That woman is a thing of darkness. You can’t trust her. She could drive you mad, or steal your soul with a glance. I wouldn’t put any of those things past her.”
Nash considered his options for a moment. His guts ached where the knife had plunged into him. He would have to ask for help with that. His best shirt was smeared with his own blood. His hands hurt. And he wasn’t afraid of her anymore. “There’s nothing more that Bella can do to me,” he said, his voice firm. “She’s given me her best shot. She’s nothing but anger, and hate, and those things can’t control me anymore.” He lifted his head, and made eye contact with her. In a moment, he knew her like he had known few other things in his life, and he realized that a tear was running down his cheek.
She stepped back. A hole opened behind her, into that same dark nothing-space that he had seen before. Her expression didn’t change. He knew that it couldn’t. She didn’t weep. She couldn’t show that weakness. Where she was about to go, there was no room for weakness. But when she spoke, the tone of her voice was nearly enough to break his heart.
“Come and get me.”
Then she was gone.