Throughout history, War had empowered people. She had harbored the secret little dream that one of them would not come to resent her for what she had done. It was a foolish dream. People resented power, once they had it. They became powerful, and they forgot what it was like to be weak. Once in control, they found she raised champions against them, and they hated her for it. They did not understand that it was in her nature. That she had to do it, because that was what defined her. And so, the people she cared about most ended up despising her.
Perhaps she was unfair. After all, it seemed to be as much in the nature of people to hate her as it was in her nature to betray them. But she never gave up on them. She gave her power without condition. Once she had empowered one of her tools, they were free to do with the power as they wished. They could go against their natures, if they really wanted to. But as sure as day became night, they wound up corrupted by their own anger, their own hatred, their own lust, their own desires. And she watched them destroy themselves. Every single time.
She chose him because he was much like the others. Sensitive, weak, and unimportant. He was an idealist. She didn’t know who his father was. His mother was schizophrenic, and he was not. The mother was filled with a fear of the world. And War had the curious feeling that Miss Nash could see her. She found that amusing. Things came to a head when the boy dreamt of her. War didn’t know the details of the dream, but she felt herself called to it. She waited for him, outside his school, in the shape of a young girl.
The shape was, in details if not in age, the one she nearly always used. It had been in the cradle of humanity where she had become who she was. In a skin soaked in the blood of beasts, she had appeared to men. She had teeth of metal, and eyes that glistened with the greed that drove men to kill their brothers. Her hair was red with the fury that burned in the hearts of warriors. She was unforgettable, and she enjoyed that aspect of her appearance. She had been thought of as a woman, and so she had favored that appearance. It made men love her. It made her stand out.
And so, the boy came to her, full of curiosity. “Hi!” She smiled at him, though the smile didn’t reach her eyes. “I, um. I like your hair! It’s really pretty!” She nodded. She wondered for a moment if she was wasting her time with him. “What are you reading?”
She looked up, and this time, her smile was at least slightly genuine. “The Chocolate War. It’s a very good book. Would you like to read it after I’m finished?” She hated the story. People adored it for how realistic it was. That made it powerful. They presumed that attempting to stand up against conformity was a doomed process. It was everything that she was not.
“I don’t know. Is that like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? I really enjoyed that book.” She raised an eyebrow. A book where a young man ended up getting everything he wanted. She shook her head as he smiled like an idiot.
“No, not really. It’s a story about the danger of not conforming to other’s expectations and demands. I think that you would appreciate it.” She held the book out to him. “You’re Silas, right? It’s good to meet you. I’m…” She paused for a moment, and thought. The name came to her in a flash of intuition. Bella. Beautiful. And false friends with Bellum. A perfect pseudonym for War. She smiled at her own little joke. He would never appreciate it, of course. She doubted that he would even understand the reference if she explained it. “Bella. I’m just finishing up. Here. You’ll promise to bring it back, won’t you?”
He frowned for a moment, and looked around. Then the smile returned to his face. “Yeah. Of course I will.” She walked away from him, and disappeared. She had met so many naive, optimistic men like him. They were full of kindness and light until they had power. Then, they discovered how easy it was to be cruel, and how satisfying. And they gave into it with joy. When the weak finally had the chance to be strong, they were just like the strong. And yet, she kept trying. Perhaps she was a masochist. Perhaps she wanted to be proven wrong. Or perhaps she just enjoyed being proven right.
“I hated it. It just… All of those things happened and there was nothing the main character could do. Everything ended wrong! It was horrible.” She smiled.
“That’s what I love about it. It hurts because it feels so real. It’s the way things would actually happen. The people in power get away with their crimes, the brave lone hero is outnumbered, and loses, because he doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Isn’t there something beautiful in knowing that’s the way the world works? Better than one of those stories where everything turns out just fine because of some contrived coincidence. Besides, what do you think should have happened in the story?” She watched his reactions. The pain he felt from reading the story. The pain he no doubt felt every time he saw the world refuse to conform to his expectations. That kind of man could do such a great damage.
“I think that… Archie should have drawn the black marble. He should’ve had to fight Janza. Or at least Jerry. How could he just get away with everything? How is it more realistic when bad people have everything go their way?” The boy’s uncertainty made her smile. She did enjoy that about the book, providing that little hope that maybe things would go against the villain. But the truth was that the marbles didn’t matter.
“Would it make it better if he got beaten up? What would that solve? He’d still be a horrible person, and he’d still have the power to make others lives miserable. He might get even worse. Besides, even if Archie had his face beaten in AND became a good person, it wouldn’t change the way the world is. Even if you could change things, how would you change them?” She watched him hungrily, like a hawk waiting for some small, squeaking thing to betray itself by making a move.
“I would want to make sure… that everyone has a happy ending.” She grinned. It was all she needed.
“Really? You want to be powerful so you can help? A lot of people say that, but most of them find that the ones they help aren’t very grateful. Even if Jerry had won at the end, people would still be people. They would still be cruel, and petty, and thoughtless. But maybe you’ll be different, huh?” And she gave him the power. For better, or for worse.
She had thought a long time about this experiment. She gave people subtle abilities, because she wanted to make them think. To force them to be creative, to force them to be wise. She decided to do something unexpected. She gave him strength. The power to leech strength from his opponents. He would be as strong as the foes he faced. He would always be outmatched, but he would never be without hope. It was a strange thing for her to give him, and she felt the exhaustion in her soul, as she carved away a portion of her power for him. It was no matter. When he died, the power would return to her, and it was only a modest part of the force that one of the Horsemen held. Much more than she gave most, though.
And with her power inside of him, she would always be with him.
She decided to test him, a few days later. He was a shy, retiring boy. He didn’t fight back when people pushed him. She reached into the hearts of a pair of boys. She inflamed the fear and hatred of that which is different. She watched as they approached. And to her rather great surprise, they approached her, instead of him. One of them yanked a book from her hands. She felt a black rage fill her, and the desire to kill the boy. But that would give away the game. Instead, she said “Give that back!”
One of the boys smirked. “Or what?” The other said something unpleasant, and swung his fist. He smacked Bella, hard enough to leave her ears ringing. The pain was shocking. She was a goddess, after all. But in the shape she was in at the moment, she was nothing but a small girl. Her power hidden away, so that she didn’t raise the ire of the Sisters. The blow made her ears ring, and she fell to the ground, tears in her eyes. It had been so long since she had needed to pretend to be weak.
One of the boys approached her, and lifted his foot to kick her in the face. She raised her hands up reflexively to ward off the blow. She could have disappeared. But it would have spoiled the work she had put into Silas. She would simply have to accept the beating. It was not the first time.
There was a muffled grunt. She lowered her hands. Silas was standing with one foot on the boy’s midsection. The larger boy was on his back on the ground, his leg held in the air, ankle in both of Silas’s hands. Nash wrenched, and there was an ugly noise as the boy let out a howl of pain. Nash’s face was twisted with anger. “Don’t you touch her!” he screamed, as he lifted his foot, and stomped the boy’s face. There was an unpleasant crunching sound as the boy’s nose broke.
The other young man charged at Silas, artless, but with twenty pounds and at least two inches on the boy. Silas twisted, and the boy tripped, his arm in Silas’ hand as he struck the ground, his arm wrenching in its socket, dislocated by the force. Silas stared around, and ran over to her, his arms thrown around her shoulders, tears in his eyes. It was the first time that she had ever had someone defend her.
She hadn’t needed it. It was even rather insulting, for a mortal to think he needed to protect War. But as he wrapped his arms around her, she felt his heartache. There was no pleasure in his victory, no joy in the pain he had caused. He just wanted her to be safe. A small part of her felt sorry for what she was about to do to him. But he deserved it, for his hubris.
When he was dragged away to the principal’s office, she disappeared. All the little places that she had written herself into the world were scrubbed clean. The girl Bella no longer existed anywhere except in Nash’s mind. She left him to his life. Though she still visited him occasionally, the anti-psychotics that he took kept her from being able to reach his mind. That was fine, though. She left him be while the world cut him in a thousand ways, leaving him bleeding and maddened.
And then, she decided to test him once more. It was a simple test, putting him in fear for his life. She inserted herself into an already tense situation, leaping towards him with a knife. She filled his heart with anger and fear, not magically, but the old-fashioned human way, and he shot her. A perfectly justified moment of taking another’s life. And the experience very nearly destroyed him. He was left aimless, drifting, pained, and lost his will. She had almost given him up as broken under the weight when the fish made its request.
She expected nothing of him. Some people were too weak to be strong. Even when they were given power, they feared it. They refused to use it. She was determined to despise him. She watched as he gave into the rage and fought the animated bones. He won, and vomited in horror at what he had done to things that were not even able to think.
It was when her two pawns faced each other that she began to hope. She watched as he put away his gun, faced with an unknown enemy. The two of them fought, Susan biting into him, poisoning him. She could feel the way his heartbeat slowed. And she realized, she didn’t want him to die. She wanted him to win. She sent a message to Cassandra, warning her ahead of time. And so, the girl was there when Nash needed her.
She hadn’t deliberately left a hole in Nash’s disguise. The little seer’s gift was just not worth defending against. And Cassandra was visibly terrified. The seeds of betrayal had been planted with that little moment. It would show Nash the error of his ways. Being betrayed by the girl would do him some good. The three of them walked, War hidden within Nash’s mind. But she could feel the turmoil, the poison eating him away inside. He didn’t want to live.
A part of her considered her options. The plan would work, at this point. She could let him die, and she would still win. She watched him fall to the ground, his life dripping away slowly, the poison stopping his heart. And she realized she couldn’t stand to watch him die. She couldn’t stand another disappointment. She couldn’t stand to see him weak. She wanted him to save her. She wanted, so badly, so desperately, for someone to be strong enough to save her from the suicidal course she was on.
She hated her job. She hated her fate. She hated the inevitability of it. So she pulled him up by the shoulder, and forced him to look into her eyes. She saw the hatred in him. The rage at her. Well-earned. And so she spoke. “Come and get me.” Please save me. He lunged at her, and her heart sank. He was still filled with the anger. The passion and the rage. So she danced out of his grasp, and ran from him, laughing wildly as she did, driving him onwards.
She would give him every chance he needed to fail her, to prove that he was just another worthless human. She ran and pumped her legs, always staying a little bit out of his reach, as she lead him to the doctor’s clinic, where his life would be saved, if he wanted to try hard enough to live. Or he could go and join his mother.
The second time she met him in Zion, she whispered in a deputy’s ear. While Nash was unconscious from a blow that could’ve split his skull if Echidna had wanted it to, she slipped the gun from the car, and took it with her. She carved a message into the bullet, leaving him with the words. “Come and get me.” Please save me.
The next time he called on her strength, it was in the dark and the rain. He fought Echidna. She gave him the strength that he needed to cut and stab, and the other Sisters had trusted him with their powers. It was a heady sensation, seeing the way he was growing in strength. He brought the mother of monsters to her knees before his own soft-heartedness stopped him, leaving her to recover, and nearly getting him killed when Heracles arrived.
She watched as he confronted Izanami, and died. She stood over him, shaking her head. The life had flowed out of him, ripped free, leaving his heart still. “Is this the end, then?” she asked his corpse. “Are you giving up, champion? What a disappointment you are.” His heart pounded, and she stared. It should have been impossible. He’d been touched by the hand of Izanami. Nothing could survive that. But his heart was beating again. She had not thought the blessing she’d given him was that strong. And she felt the warmth begin to flow in her chest. The faintest flicker of hope.
It hurt like a knife. The hope for the end of hatred. The hope that she would not always have to be a monster. She’d thought she had snuffed it out, that she had given it up. The despair inside of her was preferable to this horrible burning. But she couldn’t help but want it. Like someone freezing to death, she clung to the fire, and she smiled, holding back the tears in her eyes. “That’s more like it.” Her voice was a soft whisper. “Come and get me.” Please save me.
The rage filled him like a bonfire, as he lunged. He humiliated Izanami. Then, when she revealed her true self, the rage disappeared from him. His movements became serene, flowing, a calm in his eyes. He wasn’t touching her power anymore. The strength that she had given him wasn’t something he needed. And relying on the simple flow of water, he held Izanami’s hand at her own throat, and forced her to surrender. Without a flicker of anger or the desire to kill her, she was beaten.
War had loved many humans during her long life. She had been disappointed just as many times. Some of them came close to fulfilling her dream. But they all failed in the end. She had been prepared to give up any hope that it would ever change. She had even welcomed that despair. Now, she watched as Nash released his defeated enemy, and turned her into a friend in a single action. It was a madness, of sorts. Infectious. It was the belief that he could really defy the universe.
It was impossible, of course. The victory of the Horsemen was inevitable. Even if, against all of the odds, he could convince the others that they could save this city, they would succeed elsewhere. To expect otherwise from him was a fool’s errand. She was just lying to herself. And as she told herself that, the little ember of hope burned brighter.
He entered Hades. He fell into the flames. He landed in the abyss. And so far from everything, she could reach him only lightly, speaking to him, as he dreamt. His eyes were closed, but she could feel what he was dreaming. “An interesting name I chose, isn’t it, Silas? Taunting you with who I am. Perhaps it was a little unfair to use Latin with a child, but you’re all children to me.”
She taunted him, because she was frightened of what he believed. She couldn’t stand to be disappointed again. She couldn’t stand to trust him, only to see him fail. Watching him there, in the darkness, she raged at him. And she felt his foolish wish burning her. She should never have chosen him. “Oh, Silas. Such a simple dream. Men hope that if they’re strong enough they can stop any injustice, and then they end up committing those injustices themselves. Your innocent wish was exactly the kind of thing I needed.”
His face was twisted with pain. The only person he had ever really had the chance to love. He’d known her for a handful of weeks, and then she had disappeared. And it still tore at him inside. She had wounded him when he was just a child, torn away any chance for love, and a happy life. “There was a Bella, Silas. I visited you, in the shape of a person, and I was very real. And when I was finished, I made sure everyone forgot her. It was easy, you were the only one who had connected with her. I needed to teach you the most important lesson of your life: You are alone.”
It burned her inside. She could still feel the name, ringing in her soul. She had allowed him to use a name. He had forged this weakness into her, she knew. And she had let him. Love was a knife you slid into your own heart.
“I never visited her, you know. She was just schizophrenic. There was no meaning to her madness. She was just twisted by her own desire to mean something. It’s so often the way. Of course, in a way, I was responsible. The human desire for significance, that casts them and those they love into hell… That is me. That is what I am. Your desire to be special.” She knew it would prick him. The young man had lost his mother, and for nothing.
She had known of the madness that was inside of Silas’ mother. She could have saved the woman. She was there in the last moments, when Carol Nash prepared to die. And Silas would know that. He would never forgive Bella. And why should Bella be forgiven? Even if he succeeded, there would be no happy ending for her. But maybe that was fine. She watched as the dream began again, and she felt the hope wane. He wasn’t strong enough. He never had been. She had been foolish to think otherwise.
“Is this how it’s going to end, Silas?”
“Dying as your body starves in Tartarus, your mind lost like Theseus?”
His teeth clenched.
“What a disappointment you are.”
His fists balled.
“You wanted this. You asked for it!”
Just like all the others, he would disappoint her.
“Come and get me, Silas.”
Please save me.
“COME AND GET ME!”
He opened his eyes. And he crawled out of the flames, and comforted a fallen titan, and restored a little bit of hope in those the gods had cursed, leaving War behind. She stared silently into the abyss, feeling the uncertainty in her. And she realized that there was a way that they could both win. There was a way that she could end herself and give him closure. Deal a blow to her plan that it might never recover from. It would just mean creating the right circumstances. She laughed softly to herself. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to die, if it were at his hands. Better than letting him try to rescue her from her fate.
She watched as Hades set the stage for Silas’s failure. The agent tumbled to the asphodel, fool that he was. He should have felt the attack coming. He had trusted Cassandra to his own peril. She watched as he was dragged in chains before the judges. Unsure of himself. Ready to give up, to believe that he was nothing but her pawn. It nearly drove her mad. The bastard was prepared to give up when he thought he had achieved a happy ending for everyone else. And so she walked out of the darkness, to give him the strength he needed to go on.
“Well, well, Nash. So this is how it ends, hmm? I really did think you would be more interesting than this.” She sighed softly, and shook her head. “It seems like you’re a failure, just like all the others.”
“You failed, Bella.” Her heart shivered at the name. On his lips, it sent a frisson of delight down her spine. A name that didn’t mean War. He didn’t know what it did to her, and she wouldn’t let him find out. “Even if I am your thing. Even if I was doing your bidding. Dean was freed. He’s safe. They’re all safe. Nobody had to die, except maybe me. And I’m willing to offer myself up for the chance to see all your plans fail.” She stared, amused. “I finally won, you hateful bitch. Cassandra did the right thing.”
He looked her firmly in the eye, gaze level and steady. Then, she began to laugh wildly, her voice pitching up rapidly towards the manic, her teeth flashing in the light as she bent forward, slapping her knee. It was unbearable. The arrogance of men. “What in the hell do you think is so funny?” he asked, outrage on his face.
“You think the game is over because one of my pieces is captured? Oh, Nash. Sweet Nash. You useless son of a bitch. You were never anything but a distraction. A big noisy bull to distract people from the subtle knife. If you’ll pardon me, my other servitor needs me. Enjoy Tartarus, my disappointing champion. You deserve it.” She turned away, refusing to look him in the eye again, in case he saw the weakness inside of her.
She left him, and watched as Susan turned the happy reunion into a brutal battle. Fights broke out instantly, madness overwhelming sense. The four sisters were scattered to the winds. Bel- War had practically won. There was nothing for it now but for Susan to finish her work. As the maddened girl sacrificed her friends, War watched the three strongest beings in the city tear into one another. They had followed Susan, trading blows, drawn along in the current of the madness, blaming each other out of habit. And now, they were preparing to kill each other.
War didn’t mind it. One way or another, it would all be over soon, and there was a part of her that still greatly enjoyed watching the three of them, torn apart by the love they held for those close to them. It was good to see she wasn’t the only one tortured by love.
Then Nash arrived.
She couldn’t help the delight. He was glorious, the hero she’d always prayed he could be. He had taken hold of all four elements, and he fought with effortless ease. He had crushed his own hatred underfoot without a second thought, and forgiven someone who had condemned him. And he was strong. The three most powerful beings in the city, and he was holding his own. He was winning. She watched him choke the madness out of Harry, and bring Irayama to her knees.
She was War. She was drawn to those who were weak and without power, but her heart belonged to those who mastered the strength that they were given. She watched eagerly as he leapt up to face her. “So, Bella. Just the servants of War, here. What do you intend to have me do to make things worse?” She shuddered internally, feeling her heart pound at the sound of her name on his lips.
She spoke. She wasn’t concentrating on what she said. She felt the weight of the gun. The bullets in it held some of her power. Now, as the corruption filled the keystone, and made her real, she was vulnerable. It was just a matter of making him angry enough. She spoke cruel words. Words that echoed the deepest fears of men. It was easy for her. They came from the heart. She answered his questions, and mocked him. Treated him like an evil man. Acted like the unthinking villain, so confident that she could drive him towards hate. She insulted Susan, whose pain was so obvious to anyone with eyes. She made him angry. And she watched as he fell for it. It was so simple.
He spoke to Susan gently, and War kept pushing. “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.”
She took out the gun. Susan and Nash stared at her. She smiled. And Nash broke her heart. “Shove it, Bella.”
She frowned. He had mastered his passion. The fury burned inside of him, but he didn’t raise a hand against her. She sighed, and tossed the gun to Susan. She watched as the girl lifted the gun. Perhaps with her dead, he would have the rage he needed. And then, he surprised her again. He moved fast, leaving behind a trail of emptiness where the rain had been thrown out of the way, sprinting forward with impossible speed. There was the firing of the gun, and the smell of blood. War’s heart froze in her chest, as she saw the red dripping down, along the length of the blade. “Both such disappointments.”
Her voice was low, ragged, and choked by the smell of Silas’ blood. She’d given Susan the ability to kill him. This was twice she’d come close to it. Nash spoke softly to the girl, and then turned his head towards her. Tears ran down War’s cheeks, hidden by the rainwater, as she watched him impassively. “How many times can you sacrifice yourself for the sake of others, Nash?”
“As many times as it takes.” He smiled, and stepped towards her. “I can handle it, after all.” Then he fell, and it was all War could do not to run towards him. She laughed as he stood back up, and it was giddy and full of panic.
“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? There’s no hope, now. Zion is doomed. I have tied my essence into the keystone, and soon, it will all fall apart.”
The way that the Keystone was destroyed mattered. It was a little hope. She smiled, as Susan spoke to Nash, softly, crouched next to him by the ruby. “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…” War laughed. The nausea filled her. She would lose herself, entering the world in that way. She’d become everything that men feared she was.
“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. Perhaps I will make your little Cassandra strangle her parents. I remember feeling the horror inside of you when you saw Echidna and Heracles at each other’s throats. Wife shall murder husband, lover shall maim lover. Parent shall kill child, and child shall kill parent in return. I can turn it all rotten.”
She laughed softly into her hand, hiding the grimace on her lips. “What a world. I’m sure that you’ll be able to carve out a place for yourself in that, Nash.” She stood up. “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.” She disappeared, and entered Limbo.
In the darkness between worlds, she felt herself changing. The compassion dripping away from her. Everything that made her a person, and not just a thing. She could still feel the gaping wound that was the power she had given to Nash. Maybe he would stand a chance against her. Maybe he would kill her. It was another little hope. But hope was nothing but a prison. She rode forth on a red horse, galloping towards an entrance into the world. And then, the gap closed.
She was shocked. He had done it. He had closed the way, and she was still alive. She stayed in the dark ice of Limbo for a long time, allowing it to freeze the tears to her cheeks. Then, she brushed them away into a cloud of glittering ice, and appeared before him again, faking a cold smile.
“You know, Nash, you really should take up a little chess.” She smiled, and to her shock, it was genuine. “A 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.” Though she was not.
The three parents vaulted the wall, Irayama, Harry, and Megara. Irayama’s eyes burned with hatred. “Yariman!” War sighed inwardly. Another pun, ruined by the wrong language.
“Close! Very close. A century of 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.” Like Bella.
“I liked you a lot better when you just said ‘come and get me’, Bella. So what’s this? 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 stared at him for a moment. He had risked everything to save just two more lives. She wondered for a moment. Then, she let herself be infected with his madness.
“Aren’t you curious, Nash? Don’t you wonder what my motive is?” She gave her cruelest smile. Begging him to shy away. To not reach out to her. “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.”
Megara and Irayama warned the man. They might as well have been telling a child that a stove was hot. “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.” She shuddered inside. That damned confidence would be the death of him. But it hadn’t been so far.
He tilted up his eyes. And she showed her soul to him. The pain. The loss. The hurt. All the ways she had wounded him, all the things she had done, the atrocities and the little nobilities, the pain and the hope. And she showed him the plan. Just for a moment, she trusted him with everything. Then the moment was broken, and she stepped back. The darkness opened behind her.
“Come and get me.” Please save me.
Then he fell. But she knew he would get back up. She believed in him.