When first one creature slew its sibling out of hunger, or fear, or rage, she was born. She did not have thought, because she was an idea. She existed only in the thoughts of others. When the winter came, or when food was scarce, or when the mating season became fraught, or when overcrowding threatened, she arrived. And things died. She did not think that this was good or bad, because she did not think. She simply existed, and grew very powerful, because she lurked in the hearts of all living things. Life was conflict, and struggle, and this turned living things against one another.
When humans warred, they prayed to her. They asked her for strength, to protect themselves. Some of them asked for her to kill their foes, but that was not her way. She was not a being of murder. She was a being of survival. She wanted nothing so much as she wanted to survive. And she found that humans were much the same. They prayed to her in jungles, in wide open fields, in foxholes, in streets, underground. They wanted her favor with all of their hearts, and she gave them gifts. She gave them the strength to protect themselves.
She played favorites. The strong did not pray to her, because they did not think that they needed to. When strong made war on the weak, it was not war. That place belonged to her sisters, Death, or Conquest. She was the one who responded to the prayers of the weak. She made shopkeepers into vigilantes. She made uprisings into revolutions. She made usurpers into kings. She did not do this because she wanted people to die. She did not care about who died. She simply did it because it was in her nature. And one day, she realized that she had become a monster.
It was the strong who feared her most. The ones who had the most to lose hated her, and so they called her an abomination. They were comfortable in the positions that they had, and so they wanted things to stay as they were. They told the weak that they should be satisfied with the way things were. And so even those who she had blessed began to fear or hate her. When she made the weak strong, they began to hate her, too.
She and her sisters kept the world chaotic, and that threatened everyone who had something to lose. It wasn’t because she was vile or hateful. It was simply in her nature. And yet, because she was hated, she began to hate humanity in return. She and her sisters, in the time of a great empire, came together. The four of them agreed that they would destroy the world of men. They rode rampant, and created the threat of apocalypse for the first time; The end of humanity.
And then, the city was proposed. War sat uneasily at the table. She and her sisters shifted with obvious annoyance as their leader spoke with the god Marduk. “Why?” she had asked, her eyes narrowed at the woman Pur across the table. Her red eyes and green hair mocked War. The two were so often conflated, though War’s own rich, dark skin contrasted with the pale white of Fire.
“Because they are building. It is the nature of chaos,” their leader said, a smile on his face. “If you knock down a single stone, it does not do much. But allow them to build a tower, higher, more unstable, and when we knock it down, it will destroy them all. These rules are ways for them to hold us back. They will take advantage of this peace to grow soft, and weak. And when they have grown enough, we will annihilate them. It is inevitable.” He laughed, his voice rich, and low.
War had not cared. She simply wanted to punish them. She had been jilted by humanity, and so, she would see that they suffered in turn. It was not because she hated them. If she had simply hated them, it would be so much simpler to ignore their disdain. But she had been helping humans to survive their wars for so long. And those she had loved had turned their backs on her. “Whatever,” she muttered, as she walked with the other four. White-haired Conquest, blonde Famine, and raven-black Death. And their leader, whose hair was grey. He laughed again at this.
“Have patience, War. It will all prove worthwhile. When we are finished, the humans will be no more. We will have won, utterly.”
And so it continued. She was the downfall of empires. Her sisters were skilled, but she was always the one closest to humanity. A human dynasty could be so powerful that Conquest could raise no force large enough to crush it. It could be so rich that Famine could never empty their granaries. And it could be so vast that even Death’s touch couldn’t empty it. But when War walked with men, even the greatest crumbled. She could take the very strongest and turn them against their brothers, for such simple reasons. And she did it, and laughed, because men had called it upon themselves.
She did not feel guilt for what she had done. They deserved it. She didn’t believe that humans would ever truly die, at any rate. Their civilizations could be shattered, but the humans, their beliefs, their thoughts, they always survived. She still loved that about them. More Cities were born, and each time, they locked the world of the spirits away. But there was always room for War to find her way through. She could not destroy empires with her bare hands. But she had never needed that. All she needed to do was speak with the humans.
She stood among a group of men. White-haired scientists, clever men, full of brilliance. Conquest had invited her. They wore dark goggles, and stared into the desert. She watched with them. There was a moment of pure white that encompassed the world, and then, a roiling cloud of flame, dust, and ash. It rose into the air slowly, leaving behind a pillar of black smoke, like a poisoned mushroom. She watched, impassive. It was impressive. “It will end war,” said one man. She smiled.
“It worked,” whispered another man.
She wasn’t there when the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were impressive, but they were much like the other weapons the humans had made. It would be nearly ten years before she saw the true horror behind it. This time, she stood with a different group of scientists, still white-haired, still clever, still full of brilliance. They stood on the deck of a ship, watching a new weapon. Conquest stood with her again.
There was a flash. There was a sound. And an island was gone. A sun had taken its place, and it blossomed upwards. The Trinity explosion had been a firecracker in comparison. Alarms rang on the observation ship, and it began to move. The explosion had been larger than they expected. They would need to move quickly to avoid being swamped by the man-made tsunami. She watched as the ship turned, the fireball rising higher. Great halos surrounded it, like the radiant crowns upon the heads of angels. Her fingers tightened on the railings.
War had lived since life had begun. She could not be killed by something like that. But the humans had finally discovered a way to destroy themselves. A weapon that they couldn’t survive. And she realized what fear was. Fear was having everything she was, taken away. Fear was there being no more humans to believe she was a person. She realized, in that single, horrible moment, that she depended on them. If there were no humans left, she would exist only as a mindless force, a compulsion to kill. Her love, her hate, her beliefs, her personality, all of these things were because of humans. And tears ran down her cheeks. Conquest leaned across, smiling. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” War said, her voice strained with the horror of it all. She could never let the others know. They wouldn’t understand. They would hate her for it. Their purpose was meant to be unshakeable. They were supposed to destroy the ones who had cursed them as monsters. There was no room for a lack of conviction. For this thing that would end War. “It’s really something.”
In 1989, the call came from their leader. They all met in a diner. He smiled. “The time has come.” She raised an eyebrow. “Five cities have been built. The fifth has been completed, and now, the world of humans and the world of monsters is held apart. We can destroy them all in the course of a few years. The twin worlds will collide, and it will destroy both. Peace will be ours, at last. You will no longer be hated pariahs. We can make them all pay.” Their leader laughed, his voice rich, and smooth. “Judgment day.”
He turned his head towards War. “You will strike the opening blow. If we can land a single telling strike against the cities, then the Sisters will be helpless to stop us. Simply destroying the city will be sufficient, but if you can corrupt it, we can end this war in one strike. Turn the city’s Keystone into a symbol of War, of betrayal, and we shall have the world within a handful of months.” Their leader let out a sigh that was almost sexual, a smile on his lips. “Of course, if you should fail…” He laughed. “It will be alright. Just destroy the keystone, and we can do the rest. As for you, Conquest…”
She had listened as the plan was set out. It was simple, and straightforward. It would work. The Sisters would have no chance against the plan. They were creatures of rules, and peace. They didn’t have it in them to destroy the world, and that was why they were going to lose. Humanity itself would fall, and the Horsemen would be lobotomized. Just like they wanted. As the meeting ended, she stood up, and walked out. She knew where she would begin.
She had known of Echidna’s mad crusade over the millenia. It had been an all-consuming passion of the ancient mother of monsters. Sublimating her own guilt and pain and blaming the actions of her husband and herself on a man who had been ordered into each act. It was a familiar story for the Horseman. Children were such a weak point. War’s part would be simple. She simply had to direct Heracles into her path, and give him enough strength to master her. The man had a curious effect on strong women. Something about him seemed to appeal to them. She had her own theories on why that was, but it didn’t matter. She walked through a marketplace in Greece, and he followed her, fascinated. Men could not resist her.
She sat in the bar. Rough men surrounded her, but they always did. The men in this room did not know exactly what she was, but they could taste a predator. They did not harass her. She had spent weeks here, becoming familiar to them, so they would not be shocked by her actions. Harry entered, his face curious, and walking without fear. One of the men snickered. “Oy, boy, you look a little young. Have any hair on that chest of yours?” A man sitting next to her stood up as Harry walked towards War, purpose in his eyes. The boy felled him with a chair.
The weapons around her came out, and War laughed. She couldn’t help her delight. He was a man of passion, a man of unthinking violence. He simply needed the chance to refine it. So often, Heracles lived an unchallenged life until his wife and children died. And so, Echidna would kill him while he was rough and untested. The man next to her spoke to Harry, and they discussed for a long time. Without their notice, War slipped away.
The fire was going to happen. It was a mad man who did it. War could have whispered to him. She could have stopped him. It would have simply meant that Harry would live with his family until Echidna found him. She would kill the untrained Harry, murder his parents, and then return to her place. She still felt guilt as she watched the man dumping gasoline in the basement. She watched as he set up the rags, oil-covered and pregnant with destructive malice. She watched as the fires caught. And she stayed and watched as the family died. Not because she took pleasure from it, because she did not. But because someone had to be there to witness the sacrifice.
She knew the Constantinou family, as she knew many people. They had taken in a lost infant out of the good of their hearts, and had been drawn into a tragedy. She had considered, for a time, giving Harry the power to break the chain of tragedies he was a part of. But it would be too obvious. He was a hero. If he gained that power, it would be clear where it had come from. He was the wrong person. So she let his story continue, and heard the screams of people dying. It didn’t haunt her dreams. She had heard far too much of it already.
The next interference was in the jungles of Uganda. Harry had been captured by a cell of the Lord’s Resistance Army. He had found a woman who he cared for. Horrible things happened to her, but they never broke her. They had made her stronger. Acanit. She was someone that War could respect. And so, when she walked away from Harry that fateful night, War appeared to her.
“Hard times.” She spoke in the girl’s language. “It’s a good name, you know. Very accurate. You are planning to try to stop the man who does violence to you.” Acanit stared at her. War stood, in all her glory, in the fine red dress that she favored. It stood out in the jungle. That was the way that War liked it. “He will kill you. You are determined, but he is much stronger than you. He will laugh at you, gut you, and then murder the man who you are trying to save. I do not wish to see this happen.”
Acanit’s eyes narrowed. “What do you intend to do about it, whore?” War laughed. A shame about the language. It would have been a wonderful pun if they had been speaking in English.
“I will give you power. I will make you strong. Give you the determination that you need to save this man. You two will live together. It will not be a perfect life, but you will be safe, and you will have a strong child.” War smiled.
“And your price for this?” Acanit was clearly no fool. Her eyes were cool and calculating. She crossed her arms. The girl was thin, her muscles weakened by hunger that she had taken on herself to keep Harry alive. But her heart was iron.
“You will die, and your husband will remarry. He will think of you, but he will move on. Your son will find a new mother.”
Acanit didn’t even hesitate. “I will accept it.” She held out her hand. And War gave her the power that she so desperately needed. War’s power took many forms, but it was almost always subtle, easily mistaken. To Acanit, she gave a willingness to kill, and something to protect. The anger of a mother, to a young woman who would still be a girl in most of the world. War made people hard, even as she scarred them.
War walked unseen by Acanit’s side as the girl entered the colonel’s tent. He was counting his gold. He laughed, as he turned to her, standing up. His breath stank with drink. The clarity that War had granted to Acanit’s vision let her spot the knife at his side. She approached, smiling sweetly, showing no resistance to him. He moved to embrace her, and she slid the knife out of its sheath. He moved to kiss her, and she drove the knife up through the soft meat at the throat. Then, Acanit was sick, her most recent meal adding to the stench of the room as she heaved. She recovered herself quickly, and moved to the drawer. Her skirt was soon loaded with the heavy golden coins, as she moved back to help Harry.
The journey was long, and difficult. The great Heracles depended on her, because she was strong. And she depended on him, in turn. Together, they made a trip that would have killed either of them alone. And with that, War allowed the two of them to escape this place, to another world. She was still there in America, but she had to content herself with smaller ways of influencing things.
Her next step was with a child, a green snake. Alone, afraid, bullied, until a savior arrived. A white-haired girl. And Susan fell in love with her. Perhaps not a romantic love, although War would not be prepared to rule it out. The two of them cared about each other. War inflamed that love. She spoke in the ears of others, and isolated the two from the rest of the community. She could only do a little, but the natural tendencies of those of Zion were easy enough to manipulate. So the two of them had only one another. That kind of loneliness could create desperate feelings. It set the two of them at war with the rest of their city, in a thousand small ways.
The next step came in 2009. Echidna had set out on the hunt. It was time for Harry to meet his destiny. And so, War made a house-call. A young man greeted her, only twelve years old. She knelt down, smiling. “Excuse me, young man. Do you know where your mother is? I’m an old friend of hers. We have to talk about something. Tell her that it’s her old friend, Bella.” The name was not one that she had shared with Acanit. It was more recent than that. But Acanit would know it.
Acanit ushered her son out, and took a seat at the dinner table in the small kitchen. War sat across from her. Acanit raised an eyebrow. “Bella? A curious name for you.”
“It was given to me by someone I quite care about. I rather fancy it. I have come for the price, Acanit. How have you enjoyed these last twenty years that you never thought you would have? Have you been able to live a good, happy life knowing that you would be forced to give it all up, someday?”
Acanit shrugged. “Humans die, spirit. It is something we are all born knowing. I knew that I would die much later than I should, and by doing so, I would guarantee a good man that he would not be bereft when I died, and that my son would be cared for when I was gone. You said it was a price. I saw it as another benefit to my inevitable death.” The woman sighed, and stood up.
“Please, allow me to get you something to drink. You say that it is my time? Will you be cutting me down while my back is turned, or perhaps giving me a last cigarette to smoke while I die?” she asked, as she opened the refrigerator. She hadn’t grown any weaker. War let a smile pass over her lips. There were still moments when she was reminded why she couldn’t stop caring about humanity. Most of them disappointed her. But she still had a few moments where they impressed her.
“Nothing so impressive, I’m afraid. You must take your own life. How, precisely, is your choice, but you need to be dead by the end of the day.”
Acanit took a seat, passing a tall glass of orange juice to War. The red-haired woman lifted it to her lips, and sipped it. “And, just for the sake of my curiosity, what should happen if I refuse to take my life in this manner?”
War nodded. Curiosity was not a flaw, in her mind. It was simply human. “Then when your son dies, there will be no protection for him. Harry will be consumed with guilt, and he will die when faced with a challenge that he will not be able to conquer. You will live a long life, losing both of them. And you will wish, every single day, that you could come back to this moment, and take your own life.”
Acanit snorted. “You are a dramatic woman. You do not need to persuade me. We made a bargain, and I know that it must be fulfilled. I am just glad to know that good will come of the pain.” She stood up. “You may go now. You do not need to see me die.”
And War left. But she was still there, alongside Acanit, watching as the woman drew a bath. Another person dying for the sake of the end of the world. It was not the first time she’d caused someone’s death, but something inside of War stirred as she watched the woman die. The Ugandan girl’s soul left her body. War did not see where it went. She did not know much about the afterlife. It was a human thing. When War died, she would not endure on in any form. There would be no one to remember her. The thought terrified her.
When Harry met Echidna, it was with the loss fresh in his heart. The two wounded myths saw a mirror in one another, and that mirror fostered at first violence, and then love. The two of them grew closer, and promised one another that they would save the boy. When Dean died, it would destroy Echidna. War knew how love could damage a soul. After all, it was love that had drawn her to humans, and it was love that had made their betrayal cut her so deeply. When the Mother of Monsters failed to protect the boy, she would be driven mad by it. A line of dominoes that would guarantee the destruction of Zion. The powerful hated to be reminded of how little power they really had.
There was one last piece to be set into play. The destruction of Zion was not enough. War would have to be made manifest. To unleash herself onto the world. There was a chance that it might fail, but it was not in War’s nature to allow half measures. She did not want to die, but if she was going to, she would die gloriously. And so, she went to visit the young girl named Susan.
Susan’s mother was a Kitsune, and her father was a Tanuki. The two did not draw much attention to themselves. They were natural chameleons, fitting in easily in the city, but they couldn’t have children, and so they adopted Susan. They had taught her how to blend in, to fade into the background. They had thought they were doing the right thing for their little girl, teaching her how to protect herself. It was amazing how easy people made it, sometimes.
War appeared in the girl’s room one evening, taking on the appearance of a teenager, about Susan’s age. “Hey.” She smiled pleasantly. Susan was frightened at first, but when War had introduced herself as an imaginary friend, it seemed to calm Susan somewhat. The girl was used to talking to people who weren’t actually there. “So, what are you working on?” War asked, pointing to the large sheaf of paper stapled together, sitting in her hand.
“Oh! I’m practicing for the drama club tryouts. I’m going to play Juliet!” She smiled brightly. “Me and Isabelle are trying out together. I’ve been practicing for nearly a month.” She looked down at the papers, a look of fierce determination on her face. “I’m going to have this part.” War let her eyes run up and down the girl. Full of the hunger to prove herself. Full of the desperate desire to mean something. It was amazing. It was as though the world wanted to be destroyed. It certainly filled itself with people who could do such damage to it.
“I’m sure you’ll be chosen,” War lied. It was nothing specific that told her that Susan would not get the part. It was simple knowledge of the stories that surrounded people’s lives. She could see them more clearly than most. The green snake; Faithful friend, and insignificant aid in the story of love. The legend of the white snake had played out many different ways. Either Susan would be the truest friend that Isabelle Onnashi had, while never once being recognized, or she would betray her. And Susan’s desire to be noticed, to stand out, was like a bonfire. She didn’t want to be ignored. She didn’t want to be unrecognized.
Susan had been given the part of the nurse. Isabelle had been Juliet. Susan had been terribly kind about it, gushing about Juliet’s performance. It was only in private that she’d spoken. “I can’t believe it!” she said, her fingers balled into fists as she held a pillow over her eyes, soaking up the hot tears. “She forgot three lines, and they still put her as Juliet! Every time, she always gets the attention! I can’t believe it!” She gritted her teeth. “Why does everyone pay attention to her?! Why does she get the roles, and why is she always the one who’s saving me? I just…” Susan sniffed, wiping her tears away with the pillow. “I just want to be special too. Is that so much to ask?”
“Some people aren’t suited for that kind of thing.” War said, softly, compassionately. “Maybe it’s just the way you’re supposed to be. It’s not that bad, right? It’s not like you’d want to see Isabelle hurt just because she’s the one who gets things.”
And so it continued. When the boy, Dean Constantinou, arrived at the school, it caused a stir among most of the girls. Susan had been terribly impressed by him, and harbored a secret crush inside of her heart. She didn’t tell anyone about it. Nobody but her imagination. “He’s just- There are all these little things, you know? He’s really handsome and athletic, but you can see he’s such a kind person, too. He’s always doing little things for the people around him, helping them out. But- Ah, what am I thinking? He’s probably not into someone like me. It’s just impossible. Right?” She looked up at War, as though hoping she would say otherwise. And War was all too happy to oblige.
“I think that a man like Dean wants to be approached. I think that if you picked the right time, he’d fall in love with you. All you need to do is show him that you’re the right person for him.” War felt a little bad about the words. Maybe they were the truth. Even as the two of them spoke, Dean and Isabelle were sitting together, having met for the first time. The story was already in the works. It would break Susan’s heart. It still wasn’t enough, though. But the next day, when Susan wandered home, dejected, her eyes hollow, looking as though someone had ripped her open and tore out her heart, War knew that they were close.
The balancing act continued. Threatening to buckle at any minute, but Susan kept it together so well. She still cared deeply about both of her friends, even as they spent less and less time with her. And when Isabelle told Susan the truth, about the white snake story, Susan nodded sympathetically, and talked her out of breaking up with Dean. Because she shouldn’t give up, just because it was a story. “I just- I can’t stand to see them like this. The two of them hurting like this.” Susan said softly, sitting with War in the small shack. “They know they care about each other. I just want to help them.”
“You could persuade them. Give Isabelle some wine. Slip a little of your own venom into it, so it’s a bit stronger. She and Dean are together, she changes involuntarily, and he sees her. What’s the worst that could happen?” War laughed, softly, a cheering sound. “He dies of fright? That’s the sort of thing that only happens in stories. You know that you want to help them. So do it.”
It had been predictable. A thousand little things lining up perfectly for her, because people wanted so badly to believe they were doing the right thing. When Susan had learned about Dean’s death, she had thrown up into her wastepaper basket. “I didn’t mean for that to happen.” the girl said, her eyes full of tears, as War sat with her, patting her back sympathetically. “They were my friends, they were-”
“They hurt you. Over, and over again. Isabelle always overshadowed you. Dean ignored you, even though you loved and cared about him. They deserved what they got. You know that’s true.” She spoke softly, soothingly. It helped when people thought that your voice was coming from inside their own head.
“You wanted to be the heroine of the story. It could never happen while you were just the green snake. But there’s a way you can make this all right again. If you can help Isabelle save Dean, you can be the hero. Maybe you could even take her place. You just have to be strong enough to change the story. Maybe you can be the noble heroine, who saves Dean’s life, and who is remembered.” Green eyes glittered, as War laughed, the sound just a little bit higher and colder than she had meant it to be. “I can give you that strength.”
Susan had looked up at her. And in a moment of weakness, she nodded. Their hands met, and the power of madness entered Susan. She would become a focus for the insanity, like the eye of a hurricane. It allowed War to bend others through her, and the power itself twisted Susan. She would grow more and more convinced of the rightness of her actions. People were suckers for confirmation biases.
She sat on the lake that night. She watched the stars, feeling satisfied with a job well done, and the little hint of despair that always filled her after she had set things on their path. The city would crumble, she knew. Then, a fish bobbed in the water in front of her, as though trying to catch her attention. War frowned, and reached into the water. It was a Chinook salmon, its white belly and iridescent-green top glittering in the moonlight. It didn’t flee as she plucked it out of the water. “Lady War! I come to beg a boon of you,” The salmon said. She studied it. It was a god. Not a large or meaningful one, but it was a wish-granter. She raised an eyebrow.
“Very well. If your wish is reasonable, I am sure that I could find some amusement in fulfilling it.”
“It is not my wish. A girl of this place begs for aid. She wishes for the return of Dean Constantinou. She wishes for him to live again.” The fish wriggled in her hands, as War stared. “I know this is antithetical to you, War. But perhaps you know of someone who can do this thing.”
“Why should I do this?” she asked, her voice cold.
“I know you, War! You are a being of conflict. Even conflicting yourself. Your plans are known to me, though I cannot share them!” The fish laughed wildly. “You would not start a game like this if there was no possibility of defeat. That is all that I ask. That you set the finest champion you have against your agent in this place. Unless you are afraid to lose when the stakes are at their highest?”
She was silent for a moment under the cold night sky. “He can’t succeed. Humans never do. It’s in their nature to disappoint me. If you think he’ll be any different, you’re bound to be disappointed, too.”
“Then it could hardly do you much harm, could it?” the salmon asked, laughing. She stared down at the fish. Then she sighed, and tossed it into the waters. It swam away in darting movements, as she stood up.
When Pearl entered her office, War was waiting, a smile on her face. Pearl snarled at her. “You. I should have known. Trying to destroy Zion. To bring humanity crumbling down. You know what it will mean for us if the humans are destroyed. What will your victory mean when you are nothing but an errant violent impulse again, War?”
War laughed. “Come now, Fire. We always knew that it would end this way. It was a good run. But the humans will disappoint you every time.”
“Not every time.” Pearl’s eyes burned. War knew only a little about what had sentenced Pearl to Tartarus. The gods had been so arrogant in those days, to think that they could bind humanity down. It had been a strange little thrill to hear that Fire had been freed from its prison down there, in the darkness. The elemental flame had been freed by a human no less. It had been a sign that the primacy of the gods was ending. War did not know the details of the liberation. She only knew enough to be sure that her next words would set everything into place.
“A shame that there is no one you can trust to be your champion now, Pearl. The world of men is so degraded, now. The only heroes have no fire left in their bellies.”
War left the office. And as she did, she could hear Pearl dialing on the phone.
Nash would soon be here.