“Ariel, you wouldn’t believe it. The Raj. The mighty Qing Empire. Even distant Nippon. They were beautiful, exotic, full of languages and philosophies and religions I’d never imagined, and-“
The two of us stood in the small barber shop, its front window stained with soot to the point of uselessness. I studied Jon’s face as he spoke. He had a healthy tan now, so unlike the pallor marking most of the people living in London. His boyish features were alight with joy at what he had seen, his dark hair hanging in curls that framed his face.
This was what gave me the strength to go on. The joy of movement, the freedom to seek something better, the strength that came with new experiences. That was what humanity needed. To never stop moving. It wasn’t about the destination, really. Journey was just a part of humans, as deep and as necessary as breathing and eating. The chance to seek a better future.
“But…” he continued, and then fell silent.
“But?” I asked, inviting him to continue. This was the dark side of the quest I’d asked of him. The barb set in the promise I’d made him. This was where he realized the truth.
“The problems were the same there as here. Hate, need, cruelty, slaughter. There’s no land safe from the Horsemen, is there?”
“No,” I admitted, my voice soft. “There’s no haven, no untouched place. Even the four Cities aren’t safe from what they do. That’s why it was important to travel. But there’s a bright side to things too. You saw it, didn’t you? Every land you visited, every country, every civilization. They all had tools. They all had our gifts. It’s what I told you. Wherever the Horsemen touch…”
His hand pressed into my cheek, a smile on his face. Rough hands, rougher than they had been when he’d left. Yet delicate in their way, precise. Surgeon’s hands. “Everywhere they are, so too are you. Yes, I could feel your touch throughout my journey. Watching over me. Protecting me.” His hand drifted down my shoulder, across my arm. His fingers laced with mine as he pulled me close. “I want to help you. To help everyone. To take away their pain, to be a hero. Please, Ariel.”
I leaned forward, and very softly, I kissed him on the lips.
It always hurt, giving away some fraction of my power. Small slivers of the stuff, the tiniest fraction of what I was, but nonetheless parts of me. But the pain was nothing compared to what I felt when the power returned.
When had it started? So much of the past was a smear, now. My existence stretched back to the first tenuous wisps of molecules that fancied themselves gasses. Maybe my memories from that time were illusions, a story I was told that I mistook for memories. Maybe I hadn’t even been until humans had thought of me. That was the kind of distinction that burned at the Horsemen. But I didn’t care. I was wind and freedom and air. Everything that men fought and died for. Every human needed me, every living thing depended on me. I sustained them in a way deeper, more intimate, than any of my Sisters. I was not mere oxygen. Without freedom, men’s souls died.
And that was why heroism could feel like such a monstrous joke. It gave men the power to make choices, but it took away their freedom. It burdened them with responsibility. With Fates.
“Is that it?” he asked, a frown on his face. ”I was expecting more.” I punched him in the shoulder. The act of impropriety surprised him, but then a smile replaced the frown in short order. “Not in that way. I was just expecting… a rush. Power.”
“It’s there.” I could feel the strength inside of him. I could always tell when I’d done it right. The power to be a hero, the blessing of one of the Sisters. Heroism was weaker than it had been in aeons past. The protection of fate was not as strong as it had been in ancient days, when gods and monsters and devils still roamed the land. But it would do its job. Jon would be protected from misfortune, the little petty failures that killed normal men. The same fate would bring allies to him, and abjure foes he could not hope to beat. I wished I could be happy about that, satisfied with what limited protection I could give him from the world. I settled for enjoying the way his arms wrapped around me.
Each of my sisters dealt with love, and loss, in their own way. Heather had given it up graciously, accepting that one human lifetime had contained enough love for her. Gene was stoic, never showing that she had loved in the first place. Pearl had never given up hope that her love would return. Of course, it wasn’t denial in her case. Someday, her hero would return like the king in the mountain. But that was far in the future.
As for me, I flitted. It was in my nature. I’d loved many heroes in the past, and when they passed on, I was sorry, but I didn’t think of them again. I didn’t look towards the past, towards everything that I’d lost, everyone who had been stolen from me. I looked at Jonathon, and didn’t think of the time, so very soon, when I would lose him, too. After all, every human died. That was what made their lives precious.
I paused, my thoughts derailed from existentialism by something unexpected. He held a knife in his hands. Old but well-kept, it was perhaps six inches long and bent, as though someone had snapped it off at the hilt. Its handle was black silk traced with red embroidery, too long for such a short knife. Its blade came to a jagged, straight end, like it had been broken in the past and never properly repaired. “Jonathan, where did you get that knife?”
“This?” He shrugged carelessly, using it to section a small apple he’d taken from his knapsack. “Just a souvenir from my trip. Nothing special.” He gave me that winning grin. “And I’ve been thinking of a new name.” He bit into the apple slice, juice dribbling down his chin. He tapped the knife against his pant-leg, and grinned. “Call me Jack.”
“I thought there were rules. That you couldn’t take the power back once you’ve given it.” Jack grinned as he spoke, dressed in his shabby-genteel jacket and trousers, the large top hat pulled forward over his eyes. The knife in his hand glinted dully in the gaslight lanterns. Not the bright shine of steel. This was the reflection of light off of liquid. It tinted the yellow down the spectrum, towards an orange hue. A single drop fell from the blade, onto the ground, and I tried not to cry as the tang of iron filled the air.
“We can’t just withdraw the power. And you’re allowed to do what you want with it, no matter what path you take. The part of my soul I gave to you is yours. Until you die.” A cold wind blew through the November streets, turning the dripping blood into a pale red ice. He shivered, but his smile didn’t disappear. “Why, Jack?”
The knife flashed up and slit the wind, creating an eerie whistling noise. “I fought, and I fought, Ariel. But it never got any better. I decided to study the bodies. Investigate the organs, dissect them, explore what was there. I cut into them, trying to find where the Horsemen dwelt. In the heart? In the brain? In the stomach?” He laughed. “Maybe even in the kidney.” He licked his lips slowly, smacking them nauseatingly. “And the Horsemen are in every part of us. Right down to our bones. You made me to stop them, didn’t you? To keep them from succeeding in their bloody task. And there’s only one way to do that.” He laughed, a high, shrieking sound, so unlike the laughs I remembered from him.
I lunged at him like a typhoon and struck him in the stomach, hard enough to double him over, on his knees with one hand pressed against the cobblestones. His strength failed and he crumpled to the ground in front of me as I waited for him to respond. I slowly tensed my fist, knuckles cracking and popping. It felt good to do something. If only I could do it to the ones who actually deserved this. “You’re a damn fool, Jack. You know that’s just what the Horsemen want. And you didn’t need to kill innocent women. Be honest with me. You’re not trying to be some dark hero. You’re just an animal. How did that happen?”
The knife flickered out, and I almost let him strike me. No mortal weapon could harm me, and the futility of it might shock him into submission. Then I tasted the malign energy on it, and flinched. It grazed me, and impossibly, left a cut across my stomach- Shallow, little more than a nick. But no weapon should have been capable of that. In the meantime, Jack threw himself to his feet, and leapt high into the air, landing unsteadily atop a roof two stories up. He turned towards me, and bowed. “Catch me when you can,” he whispered, and the wind carried his words to me. He ran, and I chased.
Several long minutes later, he lay at the edge of the Thames. His eyes half-lidded, his expression serene as his life’s blood dripped from him, despite the broken bones and bruises marking him. I did not love violence, but I was terribly good at it. “Why?” I asked.
“The knife told me to,” he said, letting his fingers curl around the hilt. “It told me the truth of the matter. That our world was doomed, no matter what. That the only peace lay in acceptance.” He took a slow, shuddering breath, and hacked up blood. His body was limp, barely able to move, his arms shaking. “I’m going to die.” He looked up at me, his eyes narrowing. “But it was worth it. To bring all of this just a little closer to the end. You never told me the war was hopeless. That we would lose, inevitably.”
I didn’t say a word. The tears began to drip down my cheeks, and I rubbed at my face angrily. How many thousands, how many millions, how many billions of years had I been? And I still couldn’t hold back the tears as someone I’d loved died.
“Don’t cry, little wind.” He lifted his hand to my cheek, and stroked me softly. His expression grew warm, the anger and the betrayal fading as he died. “It’s finally finished. I’m going, now. The fight is over.” He smiled, and I looked closer at him, frowning, my brows furrowed. Mortals died, and they passed on to the afterlife. I knew that. They kept on being, even if I wasn’t allowed to see them again. Their souls, the connections they made, these things preserved them forever. I watched, and waited for his soul to rise from his body, to pass on to that place where I could never go.
And waited, as the knife slid from his hands and clanked down into the thick river. I would need to find that knife again, someday. I would need to stop it. It was a thing of War, a terrible curse that had taken someone I loved. But I waited for him, until it was clear that no soul would rise.
And then I let out a howl of pain, piercing the night like a wolf’s cry as I realized that he was gone, and nobody but I would remember the good he had done. His soul torn to bloody shreds by the pain he’d inflicted and the pain inflicted on him. And I’d murdered him, never even given him the chance to recover. He was gone forever.
I swore I’d never make that mistake again.
A hundred Marines sat crouched behind a low hillock of earth. From time to time, one of them would lift his head momentarily to take a pot-shot at the enemy. If he was lucky, he would fire a single round and then dive back down to take cover as the heavy machineguns pounded golf-ball sized chunks of the turf out of the hill, eroding their cover by another few precious inches. If he was unlucky, ninety nine marines sat crouched behind a low hillock of earth.
I floated on the gusts of air, and wrinkled my nose. The trenches were perhaps a few dozen feet behind the men, deep and safe and fortified. The German infantry were running forward at a steady pace, crossing the no man’s land practically unchallenged. I took a deep breath, and coughed. The thick stench of mustard gas hung in the air. That explained the dull yellow-brown fog sitting heavily in the trenches. Air made to slaughter.
They were things of War. Brutal weapons that would kill slowly, with pain beyond endurance. Those who survived would be scarred forever by that red-haired bitch. Even if they made it through the initial brush, cancer would take root in their bodies, invariably killing them in a few short decades, bringing them to the most painful end imaginable. I clenched my fist at the thought. I did not like any war, but this was the War to End All Wars, and every terrible weapon that human creativity could come up with was being deployed. The very thought of it nauseated me, to see the clean air perverted into a weapon of such horror.
“Sarge, if we don’t get one of those machine guns up and running, we’re dead.”
My ears perked. I stared down at the hillock to see who had spoken up. A young man with short-cut dark hair was sitting beside the sergeant. His knuckles were white, his expression terrified. But his voice was as steady as the earth.
“Son, do you know what mustard gas is? Do you know what it does to a human body? It doesn’t kill you right away. You linger.”
The sergeant was an older man, a touch of gray in his temples, his rifle balanced across his knees, his expression accepting. He had realized he was going to die, and intended to meet it with dignity and a readied bayonet.
“Every man’s gonna die if someone doesn’t get that gun up and running.”
“If you want my permission to go and die by the most horrible way possible, you have it, son.” The sergeant turned his head away, certain that the conversation was finished. I kept watching the young recruit. He slowly shifted his position, until he was crouched, his rifle left on the muddy earth. Then he seemed to gather his courage, and exploded into a sprint.
He’d covered twenty feet when the machinegun started firing. The MG-08’s rounds were not rifle-accurate. They started hammering the ground perhaps ten feet to his left, twenty feet in front of him, and rapidly swept towards him. I watched, feeling sick to my stomach. But I’d promised not to interfere anymore. I’d been told that there were things more important than a single human’s life, though I didn’t believe it. At least I could watch him strive to be better, in the face of a world with no pity.
As the bullets tore a line in the earth, I saw him fall forward, diving headlong. I sighed softly, shaking my head at the waste of life. Then I saw him roll, and spring back to his feet. He’d dived beneath the line of bullets at just the right time. It was mostly luck that the maneuver had worked, but it was enough. He’d crossed nearly sixty feet before the machine-gun’s operator realized his mistake, and began firing again.
The young private stood over the trench, his eyes wide, his fists clenched, frozen. The machine-gun operator swept the reticule up, until the line of bullets intersected with the terrified soldier.
A terrible wind swept through the Belleau woods at that moment. I clenched my fist as the winds struck the hillock, and diverted upwards, pushing the bullets off target, sending them spiraling into the earth. The gunner cried out as the gust blew dust and oil into his eyes, blinding him. As he was distracted, I took shape in front of the young man. He nearly cried out as he saw me floating, jumping back, his eyes wide. He looked down at his chest. “Shit. I died, didn’t I?”
“I am not an angel, and you are not dead. Not yet.” I stared him in the eye. “Does it mean this much to you, the chance to kill someone? Would you give your own life to see your enemies dead?”
The wind rushed through the woods, making the trees sway and shake. The German offensive was checked momentarily. I would pay for this interference. But this was important. The young man steeled himself, squaring his shoulders, and looking up into my eyes. “I ain’t here to kill anyone. I’m here to do my duty and try to protect civilians of the good country of France from getting conquered. I’m here to try to keep my friends up on that hill from getting shot dead. If the only way to do that is to kill some Huns, then that’s a goddamn shame, but we didn’t start this war.”
I rested my fingers on my chin. The boy had made two great journeys to reach this point. He had travelled into a dangerous land across the ocean from his home, and that alone was enough. But I was more impressed by the trip he had just endured. Running into the sights of the enemy, dodging bullets, and risking all for his friends. A hundred feet could be a longer and more terrible journey than a thousand miles, I knew. I slowly nodded. “I will make you a deal. An exchange. I will give you strength. The power you need to survive this, and to save your friends.”
His eyes narrowed. “I ain’t in the business of giving my soul up for no one, lady.”
“I am not a devil either. And my price is not your soul.” My voice softened, almost to a whisper, nearly inaudible in the wind. “Never your soul.”
He looked down at the gas, and then nodded. “If you can do it-” I didn’t need anything more. I reached into my soul, and gave him the power, pressing my lips to his.
I am the wind. The atmosphere of this entire planet, the atmosphere of every planet, the random shifts in temperature and pressure that created wind and flow. I am everything that made humans think of Wind. That made me immensely powerful. The weakness was that I didn’t know what I could do with that power. I couldn’t experiment. That was why I needed humans and their endless creativity. That was why I gave my power to them. When my power was shaped by a human soul, by their desires and their dreams, it made me more than I had been. Giving my power was not a sacrifice. It was the only way I could grow. The downside was that the only way to gain the power they had created was for them to die.
“My price is that you survive. That you never allow yourself to die. That you fight your end for as long as you can.” I lowered my head, and my voice softened. “Please.”
We both looked down at the trench as the wind ceased. The mustard gas disintegrated, abrading away into tendrils, then wisps, before disappearing. The effect spread out, rushing through the trenches. The private didn’t even hesitate as he leapt down into the trenches, hefting the 1917 Browning into position. A spray of fire sent the German line diving down into the mud, silencing their machineguns for a crucial moment. The wind carried his voice to the hillock and the crouched soldiers. “MEN! BACK INTO THE TRENCH!”
I floated up, above the battle, watching as the German lines broke, and began to retreat under the heavy fire.
He had lied to me, of course. I knew he would die, someday. This war was a meat grinder. But I had given him a chance.
I walked through another world. The heat was overwhelming, humidity hanging like a hot towel across the exposed skin of everyone in the jungle. As I passed, men sighed in relief and fanned themselves, enjoying the cool breath of my presence. I saw many American men. There were practically no Japanese men left on the islands of Saipan. Wounded, healthy, civilian, military, all had joined in the final suicidal rush. Not in order to win the day. Simply in order to make the victory as costly as possible. Simply in order to make sure that more people died. This was War.
I entered the clearing. There were no living Japanese here, and only one living American. And he was not long for this world.
“You lied to me,” I whispered softly.
The young man smiled up at me. He was still a private. He had won, he had survived the war, and he had kept going back. His family back home had died while he was away, victims of the Spanish Flu. The war had been won, but it had offered the perfect way for disease to spread through the world. That was the way of the Horsemen, always building one disaster atop the backs of another. And so he’d had nothing waiting for him at home, no family, no loved ones, nothing but the war. And so he’d returned, time and again.
“I did my best, Ariel. Come on. I’d say 26 years is a pretty good streak.” He laughed, and then coughed violently. A pistol hung in his hands, with no ammo. He had been wounded grievously. The eight bodies around him in the uniform of the Imperial Japanese Army had been wounded somewhat more grievously. “It was funny, I kept wondering when I would have a chance to use my power, to clean the gas from the air. But nobody ever used gas. Maybe we’re getting better, Ariel.”
I thought of the serious men in Los Alamos, and tried to smile. “Maybe.” I looked at the men. “I see you didn’t go quietly.”
“I wish I had,” he said softly, his eyes lidded. “Wonder how many of these men had families. Daughters and sons, waiting for them back home. Wonder how many of them could’ve lived a decent life. They were all men. They all could’ve had long, happy lives. I don’t know if it was worth it. If the bastards could’ve just surrendered, maybe we’d all be going back to something better.” He coughed again, and blood trickled down his lips. “A woman came by. She told me she was a friend of yours. Red hair. Dark skin. She asked me if I wanted to survive.”
“What did you say?” I asked, my eyes drifting to a knife held by one of the dead men, fingers opening and closing experimentally.
“He told me to go fuck myself.”
I whirled, diving and lifting the knife in a single smooth movement. I held it in a reversed grip as War stepped out of the jungle. Dark skin, hair the color of spilled blood, bright green eyes shining as she stood in her red dress. She looked at the bodies arrayed around the clearing, her expression betraying nothing. The private chuckled wetly, and winked at me. “I know the difference between angels and devils, Ariel.”
“Really?” War smiled indulgently. “Does it come from the color of their skin?”
“Nah. Comes from what they ask. She asked me to live. You wanted me to kill.”
“Every human kills to live.” War looked around the jungle, and to my surprise, there was a hint of distaste as she kicked one of the bodies over. “That is far preferable to the alternative.” She looked at me. “Surely you don’t object? You know that my power could save him. I am survival. He has fought mightily today, made War glorious. He’ll be remembered forever. Doesn’t he deserve to live, rather than to die, and rot in this meaningless place?”
My eyes widened. I turned towards the private. I took a deep breath, and focused on him. It’s something I’d done many times, practiced it, ever since Jonathon. I looked at his soul. And there was nothing.
It was not rare enough. This place was filled with brutal battles against men who would die rather than surrender, dying comrades littering the earth. How many people from his original unit were still around? I should’ve seen this coming, and yet I’d missed it again. I took a deep breath, trying to focus. War ruined things. She corrupted them. She turned them against the things they loved most. But she also preserved them. All he needed was a few years. A few years to make connections, to fall in love with a human, to be together with them. To heal.
I opened my mouth, and I couldn’t say it. I’d been fighting War for so long, and telling someone to trust her was impossible. Before I could change my mind, the soldier’s eyes closed. I knelt by his side, and felt his wrist for a pulse. I thought of all the time I’d spent alongside him, all the lonely marches and the countless hours on watch when I’d distracted him, when we had spoken and enjoyed one another’s company. Could I preserve his soul alone, with that thin offer? I had to. It had to be enough. It just wouldn’t be fair, otherwise.
“You know, it’s funny. Maybe if they’d been willing to ask, we could’ve worked together. Maybe we could’ve been helping each other. It’s funny, you know?” The soldier smiled. “Maybe if we’d all gotten along, there’d be nine more fellas walking around in the world today, doing something useful.” He chuckled. “What a goddamn…”
And no soul rose to greet Heaven and live on. I wasn’t enough to preserve who he was.
“This is your fault,” I hissed at War.
“You think I want anyone to die?” She looked down at me pityingly. “Humans must die. They must kill each other. None of us gets any choice in the matter.”
“He chose!” I looked up at her, and to my surprise, she rocked back slightly on her heels. “They can choose! Why the hell shouldn’t we! They could have worked together!”
She was very quiet for a long few seconds. I sat by his side. When she finally spoke, her voice was melancholy. “We’re going to win, you know.”
“Arrogant as always.”
“It’s not arrogance. It’s the fact of the world. You build the world up, make it stronger. But that just makes the fall all the more devastating when they fail. You make them weak through reliance on you. We make them strong through adversity. But do you ever wish…” She stared up at the sky. “Do you ever wish it wouldn’t end that way?”
“What do you-” I looked up, and she was gone. I closed my eyes, and sat by the soldier, remembering him. Nearly thirty years. He’d fought so hard to survive in the midst of terror, only to eventually lose his will to live.
He’d lived longer than many heroes, in a time more deadly than any before. But he’d still lost in the end. I couldn’t trust humans to survive. Even heroism couldn’t protect them anymore. The world was just too small for heroes. I’d let myself hope he was different.
I swore I’d never make that mistake again.
2015, September 6th.
“You’re fucking kidding me.”
“No. Don’t manage me, Heather. Pearl, you’ve fucking lost it.”
The four of us sat together in the diner. It was Sunday. Dean Constantinou was dead. War was making her move. Zion was going to fall. And there was very, very little any of us could do without making things worse.
It all came down to the rules. The fucking rules. As long as we abided by the rules, the Horsemen did the same. None of us manifested in our full forms. None of us took direct action. None of us informed humanity of what was really happening. I knew why we’d made the agreement, I knew why we had to keep it. And sometimes I wished that the rest of my Sisters were a little better at breaking the spirit of the law without breaking the letter.
“I believe in him.” Pearl’s voice was firm, her eyes unflinching.
“You met him once, for perhaps a couple of hours, in the pits of Tartarus. How can you even know that things will work out the way you think they did the last time? Maybe he was thrown in there for a good reason-”
Pearl stood, and slammed her fist into the table, shattering it with a single blow. She stood over the three of us, her eyes blazing, her arms tensed, and even I shut my mouth. Gene sat quietly in the corner of the booth, while Heather frowned down at the mass of splinters.
“None of you came to save me. No hero came to end my torment. No god took pity on me. I was locked into hell, I was tortured for an impossible amount of time, and nobody even came to see me.”
“You know we-” I began, only for Pearl to snarl.
“I KNOW! I know you couldn’t! Because the gods would have been enraged! Because I was forced to pay for my actions! And the only person who ever did anything for me was him! The only one who didn’t say ‘This is how things have to be’! I might still be in Tartarus, having my liver ripped out night after night, screaming in agony, going mad, if it hadn’t been for him! And if you don’t believe in him, if you don’t think that he deserves our trust, then what will happen to me? He saved me when everyone else said my fate was to suffer. He defied Fate.” She sat and let her eyes rake across every one of us. “You all know how badly we need to defy Fate. ”
“You never told us that the man who’d saved you was one of War’s weapons. You never told us that he’d had his soul ripped away.” Heather’s voice was very soft, and very gentle, trying to pacify our sister.
Pearl took a deep breath, calming herself. She didn’t fly into rages often. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d lost her temper. But it was terrifying when she did. “I felt he had been wounded. His soul was in tatters. But he was not broken. I think that we can save him. I think that we can give him the power to save the city, and the chance to regain his soul. Then, he can give up the power. He can live a good life. He can be whole. He can have a happy ending. And we can deal with the Horsemen with the chance he’ll give us.”
“And if we’re wrong?”
“Then Susan will murder her friends. The city will fall to carnage and bloodshed. War will arise to bleed the world, empowered by the fall of the city. Everyone will die. We will lose everything, even our own minds. We don’t have a choice. We have known, all along, that things would get this bad eventually. But when Nash returns to this world-”
“If,” I said.
“When.” Pearl’s voice was hard as steel, and her eyes were even harder. “Then, we will be free. The terrible curse we have labored under for the past five thousand years will be done with. The future will be ours, once more.” She took a deep breath. “I know that he is raw, that he is broken. But I have faith in him.”
“Faith is a thing for humans,” I said, my eyes narrowed. “Those with broken souls are time bombs. They’ll die, sooner or later. Whether it’s because they snap under the pressure, because they go mad, because they simply commit suicide, they’ll break. They betray us by dying.”
“War favors survivors. You know how she is.”
“I’ll meet him. I’ll give him one chance. If he can impress me, if he can prove that he’s worthy of this, then I’ll support you.” I stood up. “Now get the fuck out of my diner.”
The others streamed out. All except for Heather. She smiled up at me, as I glared at her. When the others were gone, she leaned forward. “You’re going to see if he’s a good kisser, aren’t you?”
“Don’t mock me.”
“I’m not. It’s an important trait in someone you love.” She smiled. “That’s what I admire about you, Ariel. You make a mistake, but you don’t let it turn you jaded. You allow yourselves to be vulnerable to the same kinds of mistakes. That’s beautiful. Who knows? Maybe, someday, we’ll stop being disappointed.”
I snorted as she walked out of the diner. It was true. I kept allowing myself to be hurt by humans, giving them chances they didn’t deserve.
I swore I’d never make that mistake again.
2015, September 13th.
I sat in the back of the car. I was fairly certain that Nash couldn’t tell I was there, but it was difficult to be certain. He was sensitive to the things people weren’t supposed to be able to see.
Zion was broken, gone. Not destroyed by a selfish girl’s anger, or by the hatred of one family for another. It had been broken to save the lives of three children. It had been broken for the best possible reason, and I wondered if that was enough.
Nash had taken on our power. He’d become strong enough to fight gods. He’d become strong enough to save lives. He’d become strong enough, in fact, to prove even War wrong. And now, we had a terrible secret. If he was wrong, he had fallen in love with a spirit that hated humanity, and sought our destruction. That was the best possible result. He would become a great and terrible enemy, but one who I could, at least for the time being, still hope to defeat. I’d seen the way he’d taken the power of madness from the green snake girl, making himself stronger, consuming the power of the Horseman that had infused the girl. He could become a terrifying foe if he was given time to mature. But that was still only the second most fearsome possibility.
The Horsemen didn’t change. They were too powerful to change. They were the embodiment of humanity’s rage, its self-destruction, its nihilism, its hatred. If War was telling the truth, she had seen the good in humanity. She had been shown the error of her ways, and she wanted to save humanity. She wanted to save it because Nash was determined to do so. The idea of one human being able to shift the course of the world was frightening.
“Am I sick?” I asked aloud. War turned her head towards me. “If you are telling the truth, then you’ve become a force for good. And that scares me”
“I wouldn’t say a force. I cannot act overtly. If the other Horsemen were to learn of my betrayal, the game would end. The board would no longer be tilted entirely in their favor. The longer we can fool them, the longer they think Nash is one of their tools, the stronger he can become.” She smiled. “It is to my advantage that those who hold my power so often fancy themselves misunderstood heroes. Nash fits in perfectly well with my history.”
“Whatever. My point is, why is that more frightening to me than the possibility that you’re lying?”
“Perhaps you’re afraid of Nash. Perhaps you’re afraid of me. Perhaps you’re afraid that after so long knowing that the world would end, you’re afraid that maybe it won’t. Perhaps hope is terrifying, because it begs the question of what next.” We were quiet for a few seconds. “Perhaps you’re afraid that you could have saved that soldier in the jungle, if you had only trusted me a little earlier.”
“Could you have saved him?”
“Yes. I would have asked him to commit atrocities, tried to persuade him towards them. But with you there to balance him… Perhaps you could have saved him.” War was quiet for a few seconds.
“Nash was supposed to give up the power. To have a soul. He was so happy there, and now he’s plunging himself back into this horror, and this pain.” I rested my fingers against my face, and tried to force the tears back into my eyes. “Why can’t he win, and have his happy ending?”
“Because the world is still in peril. Because things are still fucked up. Four more Cities, and the Horsemen are still ready to ride. But he can make it. He can survive. He can beat them all.”
“And Cassandra’s prophecy?”
War looked straight forward. “Humans don’t have to be bound to prophecy. He’s not a god, he’s not one of us. He gets a choice.”
“I still don’t trust you.”
There was silence for another long few seconds. Then War turned her head towards me. “You interfered.” I raised an eyebrow. “When he fell.” I froze. “Nobody saw it but him. But I was there. He thought he was hallucinating, but he wasn’t. You were there to save him. You saved his life, though I suspect he would’ve survived even without your help. You broke the rules.”
“And?” I asked, throat tight. My interference could cost us. War could tell the other Horsemen that I had broken the rules. They could claim a penalty, taking the life of someone directly. My interference, that I had thought so subtle-
“I always liked you, Aer. You break the rules when you think you can get away with it. You see the truth, that those rules are a binding.” She tapped her nose, and smiled. “I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.”
Perhaps she was still lying. Trying to gain my trust, trying to get under my skin. “And if it helps, Aer, I know where Jack Knife is. Or where it will be, at any rate.” I stiffened. “Yes, I thought that would get your attention. It has come into the possession of a new owner. They’re travelling to New York City. They’ll arrive there some time next August.”
I frowned. “If this is a trick-”
“Then you’ll know you can’t trust me.”
I sighed. “Thank you, War.”
“I have a favor to ask, in exchange.” I nodded, tensed. “When it’s here, in Nash’s head… Call me Bella.”
“He’s really changing you, isn’t he.”
“Yes. It’s frightening.” She closed her eyes and leaned back. “But to survive in this world, things must change. Sometimes they must be forced to change. And I would rather survive, changed, but loved, than die.”
I nodded. “I see.”
“You still care for him, don’t you? You always love the heroes you give power to.”
I blew a breath out through my nose. “He’s one of those heroes who’ll never have a happy ending. He’ll keep fighting until the day he dies. And I learned a long time ago not to love dead men walking. Besides, between you and Pearl, I think the poor man has enough trouble.”
“So, you think that you will go and seek people to give power to again?” she asked, her head tilted, smiling lightly. “Well, who knows. Perhaps it is a time for Heroes once more. I wish you the best of luck.”
As I prepared to drift off, I saw Nash’s eyes drift up into the rear view mirror, locking on mine for just a moment. I left. And as I did, I wondered what mistake I would make next.