Today is the worst day of Pearl’s life. As an immortal embodiment of fire, as one of the four Sisters who stand between this world and the apocalypse wrought by humanity’s own suicidal urges, and as a being who has spent an unquantifiable amount of time in Tartarus, one of the few places that can be called Hell, this is really saying something. But she’s still justified in saying it.
Imagine that you are very young, and undergoing something truly horrific. Torture at the hands of uncaring captors, whom you cannot escape. Imagine someone arrived, and soothed your pain, and saved you from this fate. Imagine that they then disappeared. It is this kind of encounter that creates one of the more terrible forms of love, that of hero worship. Imagine that you live for a long time, growing mature, perhaps even old. One day, you meet the hero who saved you so long ago, and they haven’t aged a day.
Pearl has been on both sides of this equation. She has been the hero countless times. She’s been the victim only once. Nonetheless, it made a serious impression on her. One could say it’s guided her life ever since. It’s why she’s here, now.
Her savior lies on the bed of the cheap motel mattress. Silas Nash. Former FBI agent, and current fugitive. His dark hair hangs around his head, ragged and uncut. He hasn’t shaved since his assault on the Secretary of the Treasury for the United States, pawn of one of the Horsemen. He sleeps fitfully, as he always does. His arms twitch, fingers tightening convulsively into fists. It’s like watching someone who, on the verge of sleep, dreams momentarily that they’re falling. Except Nash never wakes up out of his nightmares early.
Pearl has told him that she doesn’t love him, though she once did. This is not entirely a lie. Certainly, she cannot have a long-term relationship with him. For so many reasons- his infatuation with another, the fact that she is anywhere from four to nine orders of magnitude older than him, the fact that he has set himself on a self-destructive path and all of the power she gave him, all of the strength she sacrificed for him, has only convinced him that he made the right choice. Sometimes people must sacrifice themselves for the sake of everyone. She knows this, and accepts it, and still she hates to see Silas Nash put it into practice.
Approximately one year ago, in the summer of 2015, Silas Nash saved the world. In doing so, he also saved a large number of people in a more personal way, Pearl among them. She had actually been saved at some prehistoric point in the dim recesses of myth, but trying to keep hold of a timeline in the underworld was a fool’s errand. A man alone in the world, bereft of family, of friends, of meaning, he had found somewhere where he was not just welcome, he was a champion. He could have stayed with them, and lived the rest of his life very happily. Instead, he left. To stay would have meant giving up the power he had gained, and he couldn’t. Not because he wanted the power, but because the world wasn’t safe yet.
Since then, he’s been taking advantage of the gift she’d given him. The part of Pearl’s being she had carved out, and bestowed on him. The first gift she had ever given, and as they say, the first cut is the deepest. Her power gave him control, absolute control, over his own turbulent emotions. Unfortunately, he could only use the power while he was conscious. She could not protect him from his dreams. So she had to sit, and watch, as he twisted in slumber. She rested a soft, warm hand on his forehead, and hoped it was helping him sleep. She felt the loss of that power more keenly whenever she was around him.
“How is he?” War asks, and Pearl yanks her hand away as though she’d been burned. Nash would have insisted Pearl refer to her as Bella. He thought of her as a person, rather than the human urge to fight and struggle with those closest to them. Pearl was under no such illusions.
“Badly. He always sleeps badly. He hasn’t slept well since you… since he was a child, and he’s only gotten worse since he left Zion and started on this mission.” Pearl does not say what she’s really feeling. It’s your fault he’s hurting. It’s your fault he can’t settle down and be happy. It’s your fault he can’t be mine. But there are larger things at stake here than Pearl, and so she’s doing her best not to make this personal. “There has to be a better way to enter Paradise-“
Nash snaps up to his feet with a single sharp movement, hazel eyes opening wide. Pearl fades away. She can’t face Silas. She hasn’t been able to face him since that day. His breath comes in ragged gasps, and then slows, his heart rate returning to normal, his hand dragging across his sweat-stained brow. He uses the power she gave him effortlessly, pushing all of the fear and loneliness and pain down. She wishes she’d been wiser about the gifts she’d given him. He can run his body down forever like this, keep functioning with his soul torn to nothing. She gave it to him to help him master his rage. He uses it to flay himself to the bone.
“Today,” he says, and then coughs. It’s been days since he last spoke aloud, most of his time spent planning and exercising and training. He stands up, and slides his arms around War’s shoulders, embracing her. Her head is pressed against his chest, and from this angle, with that head full of red hair, Pearl can almost imagine it’s her and not War in those lean arms. “I need to strike today. I’ve been laying low long enough.”
“You know that it’s dangerous. He’ll know you’re coming, he’ll know what you want-“
“Famine’s moving, isn’t he?” War doesn’t answer him, and Nash makes his way to the bathroom, speaking from within. “I’ve tried to take it slow, to find a nonviolent way in. But nobody who knows the place will let me in.”
Paradise. Aptly named, one of the five cities, under the command of Prester John, King of the Land Beyond the Sea. Nash had spent the last year trying to find his way in, but Prester John has been suspicious in the wake of Zion’s fall. He’s secured his home. There are only a handful who could find their way to it now, or who could direct others to it. And Nash is not one of them. Not the Serpent of Zion, the Breaker of Cities.
“It’ll be dangerous,” War whispers. “Even for you. Lorickson’s been a servant of Famine for decades. He’s powerful, and canny. He’s more experienced. He’s stronger than you.”
“Aren’t they all?” Silas smiles.
“Please, Silas. I know that you’re confident. I know that you’re strong. Don’t get in over your head.” She takes a deep breath. “It was dangerous, attacking the Secretary of the Treasury like that.”
Nash rests a hand on his shoulder, staring down at the place where the man had nearly slashed open the artery in his armpit. “I’ll be fine.” He smiles. “You know I can take it.” War doesn’t answer. Pearl doesn’t answer. Of course he can take it. He’s wrestled gods to the floor and spit in death’s eye, and it made him value his own life even less. The shower starts, and not much later, he steps out. A simple black tank top, a pair of beige shorts, and black sneakers. Plain. Uninteresting. Hiding who he really is. The only anomaly is the small satchel hanging from his hip, khaki and full to bursting. Inside is what Pearl brought to help him. “I have to go.”
He walks out the door, and Pearl reappears once he’s gone. War gives her a look. “You could go with him, you know. Watch. Give him your support.”
“So could you. He’s doing all of this for you, you know.” Pearl sighs, and sits down on the chair. She normally doesn’t engage, but- “He might die out there. I can’t stand to see him fight. I don’t want him to die.”
“He’s not going to die. He refuses to die.” War stares off into space. “And I do watch him. Every time he fights, I watch him. Because he’s magnificent. You know him. You know the kind of person he is. How many times have you burned the men who yearned to touch you? How many time have they cursed you for what you did to them, for the power you gave them? How many have died cursing your name? Didn’t you ever grow tired of it?”
“They needed the power. Being grateful to me for it was not part of the bargain. Being worthy of it was.”
“And he is different. Because he loves us for the harm we do to him. Each time we betray him, each time we hurt him, each time we place him in harm’s way, he grows stronger for the adversity. He’s the only kind of person who could ever love something like me. Or something like you, for that matter. He recognizes why we hurt him, and is grateful for it. So I watch him fight, and I love him for it.” Pearl sits, silent, staring down at her hands. “You are so afraid to believe in him, aren’t you? You’re just waiting for him to fail you. By dying, by being unworthy. Why don’t you make up your mind, Fire? If I can believe in him, why can’t you?”
Because every time she comes near him, she remembered the flames. Lying manacled to the stone, sobbing, in pain, side torn open by the eagle. She remembered when he saved her, and it terrified her to remember the time she was helpless. The last time she was helpless. She remembers how many times she forced Nash into violence, into pain. She remembers putting him on a path where he would be betrayed by the ones he cared for most, just to save her from that darkness. She doesn’t deserve freedom, and there is nothing she can ever do to make it up to him.
If she hadn’t been so weak, Nash would not have to give everything up.
“I’ll be back when I have another delivery for him.”
Today is the worst day of Pearl’s life. So far.
Today is the worst day of Pete Helzen’s life. Pete is a security consultant. Pete is, in fact, The Security Consultant. He is the man who the Secret Service pays exorbitant amounts of money to for suggestions. He is the man who ensures that no rock star ever again turns out like John Lennon. He is the man who is protecting the twenty-third wealthiest person in the world. And right now he is far out of his depth.
Imagine that you are working for one of the richest men in the world. Imagine that you are the best at what you do, and have been given an impossible task. Imagine that if you succeed, you will maintain your position. Imagine that if you fail, your career will come crashing down in tatters around your head. Imagine that you know, deep down, in your heart of hearts, that you can’t succeed, but have to anyway.
Markov Lorickson is a magnate, a monopolist, a robber-baron, and a captain of industry. He is wealthy in the way that only true bastards can be wealthy. He’s one of the rare class of people who can afford Pete Helzen’s full attentions. Pete’s hair is blonde, and under his jacket he’s kind of scrawny guy, a little shorter than average. He’s usually dressed for a melee, although tonight he’s be dressed in his casual business jacket. He hadn’t exactly expected an invasion.
Eight weeks ago, Markov hired Pete full time. He informed Pete of the fact that he may have enemies, and that these enemies may want him dead. No surprise there, there are probably half a million people at any one time who are suffering because of Markov Lorickson’s actions, and that’s just his direct employees. When it comes to the people who have lived worse, poorer, more chaotic, and more stressful lives because of his actions, the number swells to encompass a majority of the human population alive today.
It was not until two weeks ago that Pete Helzen learned that the vast majority of humanity is not what Markov Lorickson was worried about. That was when some psychotic ex-FBI agent attacked the Secretary of the Treasury and his twenty armed bodyguards. This was, by itself, barely a peg on the weirdness meter that is Pete’s life. No, the thing that was terrifying is that this crazy motherfucker disarmed twenty elite security personnel in public, caught the Secretary of the Treasury, and broke every bone in the man’s right hand. Now the Secretary of the Treasury is in the hospital, and they still haven’t caught the guy.
Most people think that this was the action of some crazy guy who got lucky. Pete knows better, because this crazy guy has been making progressively larger strikes on figures in government, private enterprise, and so on. He doesn’t kill anyone, but the good and the great are scared shitless of him nonetheless.
Thirty minutes ago, two of the guards on the perimeter went quiet. This, in and of itself, is not an emergency worth telling Markov Lorickson about. The guards are not automatons. They get tired and fuck up sometimes. If Pete woke Mister Lorickson up for every single time an employee was a lazy bum, everyone’s life would be a lot more miserable.
Ten minutes ago, the main power line cut off , and the generators came on. Then the generators dropped off. When one of Pete’s men went to check the generators, he found them torn apart like a wild animal, except Pete doesn’t know the wild animal that can claw through steel. Then the man stopped responding on the radio.
“If it’s this guy, you need to be careful,” Mister Lorickson had said. “No nonlethal. If you get the chance, shoot him in the brainstem. Immediately.” Despite his name, he’s got a good old boys American accent, tinges of southern. He’s from one of those Russian families who came across a hundred years ago and supported capitalism like it was a religion. He’s one of the lucky few. Pete might be like him someday. Probably not, now.
“Sir, that would be murder. The legal problems-”
“I will cover any legal problems. I will pay whatever the price is to make this situation disappear. You need to understand me. A handful of people, very dangerous people, got the upper hand on this psychotic son of a bitch. Each time, they didn’t seal the deal. They took mercy on him. They let him catch his breath. And he fucking broke them. I have never heard of anyone getting the better of him twice.”
Pete had tried not to roll his eyes. People got paranoid about their safety when they got rich. They started to believe in things that just weren’t real. They believed they were in greater danger than they really were. Now, standing in the dark hallway, trying desperately to raise his men, Pete is beginning to think that he’s badly underestimated the situation. The control room is empty except for him, and nobody’s responding to the calls now.
Pete spins, raising the shotgun. The man in the doorway raises his hands. Dark hair, wearing the uniform of a security guard, in good order, fairly average height, hazel eyes. He doesn’t look like a blood-soaked nightmare from the pits of hell, so it’s probably one of Pete’s guys. “Why the fuck aren’t you checking in on your headset?”
“Thing’s shot to shit. The lights have been out, and I tried to fiddle with it, but it was fragile…” The man sets a bluetooth headset down on the desk. It looks like the American Tourister gorilla came out of retirement specifically to stress test it. The guy’s going to get fired for this. For now, Pete’s just desperately glad to have another human being in the room. He turns back towards the consoles, frowning. The tiny backup generator powering the camera systems comes back online.
“Thank christ, Lorickson’s on his way to the panic room now.” The mansion is built over what used to be a bank vault. One of the really badass ones, nearly three feet of reinforced high-quality concrete preventing access. Rather than getting rid of the vault, Lorickson repurposed it as a panic room and treasury. Pete saw inside it, once. Lot of damn weird stuff. Swords, suits of armor, knives, maces. An old fashioned armory. None of them looked particularly valuable. Pete didn’t ask, because it’s not Pete’s job to ask why a client is desperate to protect something.
There’s a soft schiff-schiff of paper rustling and falling. A postcard lands on the security desk, and the guard has the common sense to look apologetic as Pete lifts it up. The front has a good looking family- Bronzed mom and dad who look like they work out a lot, teenage son who looks way more attentive than most kids would at the site of ancient Greek ruins in the background, and oddly enough, a couple of Asian girls about the same age as the kid. “Your family?” Pete asks.
“Nah. Just friends.” The security guard leans forward. “Man. This guy’s paranoid, huh? What does he expect to be coming after him?”
Pete frowns, and flips over the card. All is going well in Greece. Dean, Isabelle, and Susan are having a wonderful time. We have been hearing things about you. We have been trying to tell people the truth. But every time we bring up the name Silas Nash-
Pete is very fast. He’s in his current position because his mind works an order of magnitude faster than the average person’s, and so do his hands. The shotgun swings up. The security guard smiles, nonchalant, his finger in the trigger guard, holding it in place so that Pete can’t pull the trigger and send an ounce of lead through the mysterious interloper’s guts. “You’re too late,” Pete says, grinning. “Lorickson’s already in the panic room. You’ll never get him out before reinforcements arrive, that place could withstand the Apocalypse itself. And I don’t have any access codes for it. It’s locked for twelve hours straight.”
Pete’s also very paranoid. His hand on the barrel of the shotgun flicks an electronic switch. The failsafe in the gun triggers, and fires a slug of lead right into the bastard’s stomach, enough pure force to turn the guy’s spine and viscera into a modern art display. The gun barks and the recoil strikes Pete’s arms hard, rolling him back a couple of feet on the chair.
The intruder raises the hand that was not on the trigger guard, and an ounce of lead powder trickles out of his closed fist, piling up on the ground. It reminds Pete, strangely enough, of a magic trick he saw when he was a kid. A combination of a magician pretending to catch a bullet between his teeth, and turning a handkerchief into a bouquet of flowers. “I’ll manage.”
Pete throws himself at the dark-haired intruder. Pete’s got three separate martial arts traditions behind him, and does plenty of physical training. He jabs straight for the man’s eyes with one thumb. Then he notices the hand around his wrist, and the movement of the assailant’s hips. Aikido. Unfortunately, by this time, he’s in mid-air and accelerating. When he crashes into the console, he revises his thoughts. It can’t be Aikido; Aikido is meant to be gentle, and to avoid harming the attacker. Pete can feel his toes, and he’s not a dead man, but the whole world is fading out around him.
“What are you?” he whispers at the strange, terrible thing that walks like a man.
“Nothing special,” says the thing.
Today is the worst day of Pete Helzen’s life. So far.
Today is not the worst day of Markov Lorickson’s life. It’s a close thing, very close- There was one day, twenty years ago, that still seems worse right now. But give it a few minutes. Right now, he is panting, leaning against the wall of his panic room. Markov Lorickson made a deal, twenty years ago, and he has never regretted that deal before. Today, however, it seems that he might start to.
Imagine that you are wealthy. Wealthy beyond reason, beyond the dreams of lesser men. Imagine that purchasing countries is not out of your grasp. Imagine that you have spent twenty years ruthlessly crushing others for the sake of this wealth. Imagine that you have amassed all of this power for a very specific reason. And now imagine that someone has waltzed through your security and that they have come for you, and you are increasingly certain that there’s nothing you can do to stop them, despite all your wealth.
The entire vault shakes violently, dislodging dust from the ceiling in a fine rain. A smile spreads across Markov’s face. Whoever is here is strong, impossibly so. But not strong enough. This bank vault cannot be demolished, as such. It is built to withstand the greatest amounts of violence that someone could use that wouldn’t destroy everything inside. Lesser vaults than this stood untouched in the ruins of Nagasaki.
The vault shakes again, and the massive circular door bends inwards an imperceptibly short distance. Markov steps away from the entrance, and towards his most valuable possessions, while thinking of his family.
The vault shakes a third time. The circular door splits open through the middle. That’s impossible. It’s like tearing apart three phonebooks made out of steel-reinforced concrete. But Markov Lorickson was warned about this. His patron appeared to him, and told him that a man was coming for him. A man who had wrestled Gods and broken Cities. A man who loved War.
Silas Nash is a colossal disappointment, visually. Standing in a dusty black tank top, and beige shorts. Sneakers, of all things. He’s not even carrying a weapon. Markov narrows his eyes, and draws the long-bladed zweihander. He thinks of his son. If his son were still alive, he would be as tall as this zweihander is long. It’s a totally unwieldy weapon for a normal man, meant for psychotically muscular German infantrymen to kill cavalry, or preferably, look impressive in court with. Markov is not a normal man.
“Markov Lorickson. You know why I’m here?”
“You want the key to Paradise.” Paradise. The best offshore bank in the world, because it doesn’t even exist in this world. Lorickson’s key was a gift from his patron. Even the Devil is welcome at Paradise if he has enough money to afford it. “I cannot give it to you. I would be executed for it. King Prester John would have me drawn and quartered. And I have things I must live for.” Markov narrows his eyes, and tries a gambit. “I’ve heard you’ve never killed anyone.”
“That’s true. I’ve never killed anyone. I’m pretty proud of that.” Silas Nash steps down out of the hole where the bank vault door used to be, and drops smoothly onto the shattered face of the metal disc. “I don’t intend to break that streak with you.”
“Then you cannot threaten-”
“I’ll take your power.” There is a moment of silence. This is a statement along the lines of ‘I’ll take your birthday.’ “Oh, I know all about your power. Most people who make it on Forbes, they’re just reaching for the high score. But for you, money is power, isn’t it? The more money you made, the more power.”
“So you intend to bankrupt me?” Markov is breathing a little easier. He doesn’t know. Thank god, this psychopath doesn’t know about the other side of Famine’s tainted gift.
“Oh, no. If I were a government or in some position to do that, I’d spend years weakening you through antitrust actions and so on and so forth until you were manageable. That’s the way people do things in the real world. Slow, piecemeal. I’m going to beat you, and I’m going to rip your power away, like I did the Secretary of the Treasury.”
“That’s impossible. The gift cannot be taken back.”
“You’re right. That’s the deal with them, isn’t it? They give you the power, and from then on, it’s yours. No take-backs.” Silas Nash smiles, and the power goes out for a moment in the vault. He is left backlit, a black silhouette. His teeth shine and for a moment, Markov remembers the story his patron told. This man fought gods, and won. Markov raises the sword into an upright stance, and thinks of his son. Then he lunges.
Silas Nash moves nonchalantly. A blow that could tear through concrete does exactly that, tearing through the wall and leaving a deep gouge, Silas’ palm gently diverting the massive blade to the side with a serene ease. Then a frown comes across his face. Then it’s replaced by horror. Then rage. “Your family died twenty years ago, didn’t they?” A little blood runs down his palm, and the sword isn’t shattered and in pieces. It remains whole. Markov thinks of his son.
“So it’s true. All that strength, all that power… But you can’t break something with a soul, can you?” Markov rests his hand on the hilt of the blade, his eyes closed. His son, protecting his old man. It had been a gamble, a terrible chance to take with his son’s soul, trapped in the blade. But- “You’re wrong. That isn’t my only power. Famine didn’t just let me take power from money. He also let me move that which I value. Hide it.” His blade shifts, and he lunges. Silas backs away, taking a wild dive and coming up in a roll, only to sidestep. The blade moves as smoothly as a dueling foil, those long slashes make it impossible for Silas to get close.
“Why would you do that? Every man has his reasons. Why the hell would you do that to your family? To your child!” Silas’ voice pitches up towards anger for a moment, but then it’s gone like a mirage, the man’s face turned towards neutral. He keeps moving back, and he’s not slowing down.
“I’m not telling them to you. My patron said something. He said that anyone can beat you.”
“That’s true. There’s always hope, when you’re fighting me.”
Markov lunges forward, and slashes. Nash dives under the blow, and his hand tightens on Markov’s right knee, pulling it up sharply, yanking it to the side. Markov’s hand comes down, holding the pommel of the sword bearing his son’s soul, and it cracks into Nash’s skull, driving him into the ground. The dark-haired man transfers the momentum into a roll between Markov’s legs, pulling himself to his feet.
Markov whirls, fast as a tornado, bringing the blade around in a wide arc that should disembowel Nash like one of those horses the Zweihander was meant to kill back in the old days. The blade is not one of those ancient doppelhanders, the true blades of the Landsknecht; It is a modern thing of carbon steel, scientifically designed to be absolutely fucking lethal, and bearing the soul of Markov’s son. It strikes Nash across the midsection at the same time as Nash’s hands come together on either side of the blade, and throws the man into the wall. A crater of impact spreads around Nash, and the pouch on his belt splits open, disgorging dozens of postcards onto the ground. Nash is emphatically not split open.
Markov lunges forward, pushing forward with his right leg. Halfway through the motion, something clicks in his knee and dislocates under the sheer pressure, sending Markov to a clumsy fall. He doesn’t impale himself on the sword. His son wouldn’t betray him like that. But it takes him a moment to get his knee back into place, and pull himself to his feet.
Silas Nash slowly stands up, out of the rubble. He presses the knuckles of one hand into the palm of the other, and a series of snaps and pops fill the air. “Sorry. There’s no hope, now.”
Today is the second worst day of Markov Lorickson’s life. So far.
Today is the best day of Silas Nash’s life. One could say it doesn’t have a whole lot of competition, but he loves his life. He loves his friends. He loves Bella. That’s why he does this.
Imagine that you have felt very alone your entire life. Everyone you love is taken away from you, one by one. Imagine you can’t trust your own mind. Imagine you can’t trust your own mother. Imagine that you fight and struggle and you lose control and hurt innocent people. Imagine that you realize one day that you don’t deserve to live. Then imagine you found out that all that pain was for a reason. Imagine you learn that it was to make you a champion. Imagine that you have been given the chance by someone to be the greatest champion. To humble gods, to protect children, to make sure that nobody will ever have to suffer the way you have ever again. Maybe you would hate the people who did it to you. Maybe you would resent the weak people who forced you into that kind of position. Maybe you would say that you never had a choice in the matter, or that you were fooled, or that you shouldn’t be expected to carry the world on your shoulders.
Silas Nash stands in an ancient bomb shelter as lights flicker around him. Dust falls around him, his hands bleed, his stomach aches from the barely deflected blow. The blonde-haired billionaire retreats, going for the other weapons, the armor, carrying the souls of his family. Nash stretches slowly. They won’t make a difference. The use of the souls of the beloved is one of the more horrific things that Nash has ever seen. Nash will want a reason for it. He won’t kill the man for what he’s done, but there are many things you can do without killing.
A blood stained forest, a Greek woman on her knees, terror in her eyes, a metal knife in his hand, blood running down her arm, her other arm dislocated-
Nash’s emotions drop down to a flicker again. He’s a very angry man even at the best of times. Finally, when he needed it, a gift from a dear friend gave him a way to stop being so angry. He uses it quite a lot now, but it’s not perfect. When he dreams, and when he’s fighting, emotions flicker out of control. He loses his serenity. He loses his certainty. Like the dream he had this morning, of a soft summer day and a feast with friends.
The billionaire armors himself. It’s a broad swath of chainmail, a coif and helmet, designed to shield him. To protect him. It would be useful against any normal foe. Blunting swords, catching arrows, cracking knuckles. But it just makes Lorickson’s blows heavier, and that is to Nash’s advantage. Throwing off the weight of the dream, Nash steps forward, serene, relaxed, feeling the flow of agitation and emotion and moving beyond it.
Markov aims a two-handed blow, enhanced by the strength of his wife’s love and his son’s respect, at Nash’s throat. Nash sets both foot on the ground, and his wrist comes up inside of Markov’s swing. He does not feel anyone’s love. He does not feel anyone’s respect. He does not feel anything at all as Markov’s wrists snap under their own momentum against Nash’s arm, and the sword goes twirling out of the rich man’s hands. There is a twang in the air as it embeds itself in the far wall, nearly a foot deep. Markov tries to lash out with an armored leg, and finds himself overbalanced as Nash catches his heel and flips him onto his back. Nash draws back one hand, slowly and deliberately, letting Markov anticipate it.
The trick of stealing the power of another is simple, now that he knows about it. It’s what Bella gave him when he was a child. He uses it unconsciously every time he fights. Making it permanent is just a matter of emotion. Nash drops the barriers around his feelings, and they flood forth. The rage and anger at everyone who has betrayed him, every woman who has made his life hell, both figuratively and literally. The terror in this dark basement, the fear that he will be too weak, the scorching agony of knowing he might fail the people he cares about. The love that burns in his chest for Bella, the desire to save her, the pride that she trusts him, that for the first time in thousands of years she believes again, and the certainty that he won’t let her down. And the joy of warm summer days in the company of people who care about him. He curls his fingers into a fist, and-
“Stop. Please. My daughter is the key.”
“It was the only way I could save them.”
Nash can smell lies. A handful of people can lie to him. Far fewer since he ate the madness of a green snake. Markov isn’t lying. The barriers come back up and the emotions die down as Nash lowers his fist.
“It was twenty years ago. My whole family- They were in an accident. Comas. I couldn’t afford to keep them on life support for more than a few days, and there was no hope for them.” Markov’s tears run down his cheeks, as he speaks quickly. “The woman in black. She told me that there was a way to save them. She let me move their souls, into these inanimate things. Not something living, not something with a soul, but they’d be- safe. Sustained. I’m trying to protect them. Someday- Maybe I can give them a real shape. Something that’ll let them be them, again. Robotics, cloning, who knows.” His eyes drop. “I know it won’t be cheap. That’s why I do this. All that I do, everything I earn, it’s been- to protect them.”
Nash sighs. Everyone has good reasons. Love is a powerful thing. It can make a man oppress millions, kill hundreds indirectly, to protect the people he cares about. Because he thinks he has no other choice. “The key.”
The man’s eyes drop. He reaches down, into the armor. A slender iron rod appears in his hand. “Famine made me place her soul here. Or else she would kill me. She wanted to ensure I wouldn’t give it away.”
Nash could steal the rod from Markov. How many could he save, just by stealing the man’s daughter from his unresisting hands, and taking her somewhere dangerous? He crouches down, and lifts one of the post cards from the ground. Cassandra Hirosata’s smiling face is visible on it, along with her parents. She’s gotten braces. Nash held up the card, and stared at it. Even with the barriers around his emotions up, he can feel his chest burning. His soul, trying to grow again after spending years as nothing but bloody fragments. Of course, it’d kill him, or worse make him useless, if he felt. If he reconnected with the people who missed him. He closes his eyes. Then he turns away and walks towards the broken vault door.
“What the fuck? Is that it? You come here, cause all this havoc, and you’re just going to leave? Like nothing ever happened?!”
“You can’t save your family if I take your power.” Markov doesn’t answer, and that’s answer enough. “If I steal that key from you, I’m taking your daughter from you.”
“I’d kill you if you tried.”
“No. You had your chance. You failed. You’ll never get another. Your meaningless threats aren’t what’s keeping me from taking it.” Nash sighed. “I don’t need the key. I can tear my way in, if I have to. It’ll make things worse for me. Harder.”
“Because even you deserve a happy ending. Despite all you’ve done, I think you can be better. And maybe this will help. If you don’t do better, you’ll come to a dark end.”
Markov sits silently for a few seconds, as Nash walks across the steel door. “Wait!”
Nash turns. Markov’s arm is outstretched, holding the strange key, shaking. Nash’s eyes travel slowly up from the key to Markov’s eyes. “I’m going somewhere dangerous.”
“Will you let harm come to her if she’s in your hands?”
“Then she’s probably safer with you.” Markov’s eyes close, and tears run down his cheeks. Nash just showed a father who gave up everything that it still wasn’t enough to protect his family, and it’s not the worst thing he’s ever done. He reaches out, and takes the key. He can see the warring emotion. The desire to make a threat, to promise retribution if Nash doesn’t show enough thought. The desire to shock Nash. It all dies under a cold, level gaze. “Please take care of her.”
And Nash walks out of the vault, past the unconscious guards, not a single life lost, because he’s strong enough to save everyone, even the people who hate him. He looks to the side, and sees Bella walking by him, her green eyes staring at him with that strange, eager expression that she always gets when he survives. When he wins. What remains of his soul burns in his chest.
“Next stop is Paradise.” He gently raises the rod into the air, and closes his eyes. He’ll find a way to save Markov’s daughter, too. Maybe he’ll even find a way to save Markov.
Today is the best day of Silas Nash’s life. So far.