I remember when the island of Manhattan was first beheld by human eyes. Ten thousand years ago, when the first men crossed the river to visit that island. Like all great cities, it was destined for its place in history. My sisters Gene and Heather had done it, in the ages before there were men. They filled the oceans, they gouged out the lakes, they ripped open the rivers, and these things made it possible for humans to congregate. Where the earth and water mixed, life was in abundance, and humans could be in abundance too. It was my sisters who had brought humans to this place. But it was I who brought the Europeans.
We did none of this knowingly. When we set the patterns of our world, we did not even know that humans would exist. As far as I can tell, we did not even know we existed. We were mindless forces, following patterns, rather than stories. That doesn’t mean I’m not responsible for what happened to the natives of the continent. It doesn’t forgive me for not changing those winds. All I can do is look at the good things that came about from that change, and hope that they outweigh the bad things. If I spent my entire existence focusing on the bad things humans did with my help…
Well, I’d be precisely where I was today. Sitting in Central Park, feeding the birds, and waiting for the information to come to me. If I was any good at not taking responsibility for the actions of others, I’d be a much happier person.
I am Ariel, the Sister of Air. Not a mere spirit of air, not even a goddess of air. I am every gust that ruffles, every gale that blows, every zephyr that cools. The atmosphere of an entire planet. And I am more than that besides, because humans make the strangest connections, and through those connections, they gave me strength, and purpose. And terrible burdens. As I sat in the park, watching them walk by, I resented them just a little bit for that. They didn’t know the harm their words could do to me. They didn’t know the burdens they heaped on my shoulders. They didn’t know the guilt I felt each time one of them died because of my actions.
At this very moment, I was aware of no fewer than four hurricanes brewing, or raging, across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. At least one of them would result in the destruction of homes, in the loss of livelihoods, in the deaths of innocents. It was in my power to stop them. I was the wind and the storm, and not a single storm raged on without my permission to do so. But I didn’t stop them.
There’s a price for every action taken, when you are as powerful as me. If I stopped a storm, it gave my opposite numbers room to act. Every life I saved, they had the power to take. They were not as strong as me, not half so strong. But they had an advantage. They wanted to destroy lives. I wanted to preserve them. And in an entropic universe, it is always easier to destroy than it is to preserve. The big things, the natural disasters, neither I nor my sisters could do anything about that. But when it came to human actions… Well, that was why I was here in the city.
I jerked out of my reverie as the bird fluttered down in front of me. A fat pigeon, it goggled at me. “Well?” I asked. Nobody around seemed to take it amiss. I loved humans, and the way they could take things for granted. I fucking hated it, too, but it had its place. The pigeon bent its head, and gobbled up several large chunks of seed, taking its time to compose its answer. It lifted its head again, and fixed me with those bright red eyes,
“I’m very fuckin’ upset, Wind.” It pecked at the seed scattered across the pavement again, and swallowed a few more kernels, before continuing in the harsh Brooklyn accent. “You understand, I have to put up with a lot of bullshit in this city. The fuckin’ humans are always trying some new thing to kill us off. Falcon breeding programs. Poison. Guns. Fuckin’ government conspiracies. You know they tried to pin that fuckin’ bird flu bullshit on us? Tryin’ to get a good excuse to exterminate us all. I was a fuckin’ war hero, Wind! This is shabby goddamn treatment! What the fuck did I do to deserve this, huh?!”
“Humans give, and they take away.” I leaned forward, and gave it a sharp look. The bird was a spirit of the city. Powerful, as those things went. Many people thought about pigeons. But I didn’t take any backtalk from anything that flew. “The issue at hand?”
“Man, there’s been killings. The humans are going feral. Fuckin’ disgusting. Been killing each other off. Not the usual stuff, not for money, territory, honest shit that a man can feel good about killing for. Hey, I killed my fair share of people in the war.” I raised an eyebrow. “Well, I shat in some kraut’s breakfast bratwurst, anyway. Hey, it coulda killed him, losing a perfectly good meal like that.” The spirit shook its feathers, and cocked its head at me. “But this, this is just fuckin’ senseless. Humans goin’ nuts, stabbing each other, and it’s like the police can’t keep a fuckin’ hold on it. There was that weirdo human I told you about.”
“Jack Black. The Wizard.”
“Yeah. Fuckin’ spooky guy! If the good fuckin’ lord had intended humans to travel through shadows, I don’t think he would’ve required them to make deals with freaky Irish girls to do it! That fucker’s having a happy old time killin’ people off, and there’ve been others. A lot of others doin’ the same thing. This ain’t the usual shit, Wind. This isn’t just humans being too crowded by half and blowing off steam. Something’s mighty fucked.”
I slowly nodded. “I suspected as much. I think it’s Jack Knife.”
“Jesus H. Fuckmeister. So, what, you gettin’ the heroes involved? Gonna organize a good old fashioned ass-kicking? Hey, I hear there’s that guy, what’s his name, Si-”
“No heroes,” I said firmly. “This is personal.”
“Fuckin’ hell, Wind, you’re the goddamn Wind. You’re not supposed to be doin’ Personal.” The spirit cocked its head at me, a red eye flashing. “You ain’t going rogue on us, are you? I hear you been feeling pretty sketchy since Zion went to shit. Whole world’s been getting pretty fucking weird. Hey, humans are assholes, but they’re my assholes, y’know? I didn’t fuckin’ fight a war just to see this shit go to shit.”
I nodded. “The Horsemen are involved. I can at least keep an eye on things. You know me. No telling, but if I find the people who need to know… Well, we can always say a little bird told them.”
“Very fuckin’ funny.”
“I thought so.” I tented my fingers together. “So. There have been killings. And I’m guessing your people know where.”
“Hell yeah we do. Nothing happens in this city. A lot of spree shit. Mass-murders. Some guy takes out a kitchen knife in a subway, stabs seven people. Self-destructive shit, y’know? But there have been others. Four people turned up dead last night, and nobody I’ve met has been able to tell me what the fuck happened to them. Like, a lotta people died last night. These four? I’m not sure how they died, which is saying something. Nobody’s talking about the details.”
I nodded, and stood up. “I can be more persuasive. Where are these places?”
I listened, letting myself visualize the addresses. A restaurant inspector living in a one-bedroom on Roosevelt Island. A police officer living in a studio apartment under the Queensboro Bridge. A young bartender living in the East Village on Stuyvesant Street. And a middle-aged man staying at the Hotel 17, down near Stuyvesant Square. And then, I became the wind.
I am omnipresent, or very nearly so, in the confines of the Earth. Everywhere the wind reaches, through draft and through intent, I am. My human shape is simply a focus of my will and my mind. It can be anywhere I can reach, in the blink of an eye. I can even bring others with me. I used to, in the old days, when I could do more. But arriving in time is a great boon to heroes, and there is an equal cost that my opposite numbers demand in turn.
The window had been left open in the restaurant inspector’s room, giving me an easy entrance to the room. The reason became obvious the moment that I entered, as a miasma filled the room. More than mere stench. It was decay made manifest, my opposite in so many ways. I brought the wind through the room, cleansing the air of the putrid stink of a human life decaying, thanks to the only predators that still fed on them.
He was an older man, white haired. A cut was visible on his arm. Lines of green spread around it, along the veins and arteries. It had been a light cut, little more than a nick.
The world dissolved around me. A young man, lying on the sand, a puncture wound surrounded by the signs of poison, the smell of decay thick in the air-
I returned from the memory, shaking slightly. The last time I’d come face to face with the Horsemen’s work, the victim had been lucky. A devoted mother and his childhood love had worked together to preserve his body, while a champion had won his soul back. He’d been given a second chance. This man was not so lucky. He was just a restaurant inspector. His mother had died years back, he had never married, he had never had a champion to save him. That didn’t mean that he didn’t deserve all of that. But the only thing I could do for him was try to make sure he was the last. And that started with understanding why he died.
The cut was still fresh, the edges jagged. It had barely even scabbed over. It was small, too. I studied the room, and found his badge on the table. Donald Harper frowned up at me, as though chastising me for my refusal to wear gloves while studying the crime scene. Not that I had fingerprints. I picked it up, and breathed life into it for a few moments.
“My master’s dead,” it said. “Please return me to the Department of Health so I may be shredded, and enter the Valhalla of Bureaucrats with him.”
“First, a few answers.” It frowned at me, and looked prepared to ask me for forms. A glare silenced it, and it nodded.
“I am of course at the service of the public.”
“Where was your master wounded?”
“My master visited the premises of 4 Pennsylvania Plaza, New York, NY, 10001.” I nodded slowly. Madison Square Garden. “The food preparation stations for the stadium were in disgraceful condition. He issued a verbal warning, and scheduled another meeting for two weeks. This was yesterday, around midday. The kitchen staff was both unhelpful and quite rude. There were some arguments, before we eventually managed to speak directly with management, and make the magnitude of the problem clear. Undercooked food, lack of proper hygiene, even traces of cockroach feces. They didn’t care! They were just… apathetic!”
“Go on. How did he get hurt?”
The badge seemed to gather itself, and continued, its tone returning to neutral. “While leaving, my master snagged himself on a dangerously loose screw in one of the tables. He…” The spirit’s voice grew more strained. “He returned home, and disinfected the wound, but was unsteady. He took me off, and fell. He, he took every precaution, in cleaning the wound, he should have been fine, he shouldn’t be dead, he’s not supposed to DIE why did my master DIE why did they take HIM and not ME-”
I took the breath back from the spirit. The badge was far from becoming a Tsukumogami. It was a government-issued badge, perhaps ten years of life in it. Nonetheless, it had taken on a fair share of its owner- its master’s personality. And it had connected to him. I opened half a dozen drawers before finding a stack of envelopes, a check-book, and a stack of stamps. I gently placed the badge inside of the folded envelope, sealed it, and stamped it before tossing it out of the window. The breezes would take it where it needed to be. I did not know the details of the afterlife, but I was not prepared to rule out the Valhalla of Bureaucrats. It seemed that the man had died in the line of duty. The least I could do was ensure that his closest companion met him there in the end.
I slowly studied the room. Immaculate sink, no dishes in the rack. Everything clean and kept in order. A selection of vitamin supplements on the table. Anti-bacterial wipes by the stove. This was a man who had lived his entire life in a never-ending war against illness and disease. And there was more to it. There was a lack. This was not some impossibly deadly disease that had swept through the man. If it was, it would be killing others, there would be reports of plague, as there had been last September. This was a man who’d had no capacity to resist illness. Like an AIDS victim, their own immune system so deprived that the most harmless infection became lethal. It reminded me of something that I had not seen in years. An unpleasant reminder.
I stood up straight, and let the wind carry me again. I flew through the city, invisible as a zephyr. The air baked around me in another brutally hot summer. The world had been falling apart in recent years, and this was just another example. I couldn’t say whether it was the physical processes being destabilized by the Horsemen, or simple human carelessness. Perhaps it was both. Perhaps there was no difference between the two. This city was a bubble of heat, the sweat and frustration of two million people creating a pressure-cooker environment. I could feel that tension pressing at my form, trying to force me away. I ignored it and swept through the city, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief at my passing. I could do that much without incurring a penalty. I was not yet so fucking helpless.
The small apartment under the bridge was not open to the air. The doors and windows were locked, the curtains drawn. He didn’t want anyone inside. I took the building key from the superintendent’s apartment, never making a sound as I did. I slowly unlocked the door, and once again was overwhelmed by the scent.
This was not decay. Nothing so complex. Even rot had a kind of life to it. This was the smell of spilled blood. No terror, no sign of a struggle. There had been no force employed here. The table was set for a meal, a set of hotdogs defrosting in the sink. The meal of despair. I could hear the running of water in the bathroom. I turned, and saw the wall.
Medals festooned the wall, along with newspaper articles. Medals of Honor, Combat Cross, Medals for Valor. In so many cases, medals were the booby prize for a man at arms. The thing they gave a widow for a man who had risked all and lost. Four medals of honor had been given by the NYPD last year; Three of those four were posthumous. This man had been the other kind. The clippings spoke of lives saved, both innocent and criminal, at great personal risk. Children and adults, of every stripe. How many now walked the city, because of this one man?
Another flash of memory. A man standing in the rain, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, his clothes torn, towering over a vanquished opponent who could still kill him, rage in his eyes. Throwing his knife away, refusing to take the life of someone who had wronged him-
I wrenched myself away from the wall. The history of great deeds. A life spent in service to others. This was a man who had fully expected to die in the line of duty. I opened the door to the bathroom, and stepped through nearly an inch of red water. I shut off the stream, and stared down at the man, then up at the marks. I’M SO SORRY was scrawled haphazardly across the wall. This was a man who had faced down death time and again. He had saved dozens of lives. Such men seldom had happy endings, but suicide was an even rarer trajectory for them. I looked down at those cut wrists, and wondered.
I returned to the kitchen, and found clippings. Suicides of prominent individuals. Other police officers. A small black address book. There were perhaps a dozen names in it. Ten of them were crossed out, along with addenda of various good deeds. Two remained: Patrol Officer Blake Weiss, the man currently dead in the bathtub. And Deputy Inspector Dane Larson. “Alex’s girl” was written next to it, as was “Saved city from dirty bomb.” I slowly tapped the book against my palm, staring at it.
The man’s badge was nowhere to be seen. His uniform and his gun were likewise missing. All of the things that had most likely been with him. I tapped one of the medals, and considered breathing life into it. Then I looked at the little black book, and held it up, focusing the life into it instead.
“He got him, didn’t he? That jackass got him,” said the book, with a low, grating voice.
“Who?” I asked, frowning.
“Shit. Making assumptions. I don’t even know that the killer’s a he. I don’t even know if he’s a killer. Stupid, stupid, stupid, making assumptions, falling into the old fucking traps, god damn old fool!”
“Hey.” I rested a hand on the book.
“Sorry. Shit. The killer. The guy’s been hunting down… Well, we had a theory, me and Weiss. We thought it was someone who was targeting cops, or rescue workers, or… shit, something, and faking their suicides, killing them. Gunshots, knife wounds, poisoning. Weiss got a hunch about it, left, and when he came back… God damn it. He killed himself. Why did he kill himself?”
I looked at the bathroom, the traces of red water on the ground. “I don’t know.”
“He swore he’d never go out that way. Swore that he’d die at 90 surrounded by crying cops, or doing the right thing. Not like this, not going out like a bitch. That jackass didn’t even have the decency to kill him face to face, man to man. Damn it. Damn. Tell Dane, okay? Tell her. She’s gotta take this on her shoulders, now. Fuck, I remember when she was just a little girl.” The notebook’s voice sounded very tired. I took the breath back from it, and frowned.
There were a handful of things in this world that could compel a man to take his own life. I only knew of one who could compel a man like Weiss to do so. It was the same thing that left a room smelling like despair, with the iron scent of blood tangy in the air. If she was involved with this… Well, of course she would be. I looked down at that name again. Dane Larson. I knew her, of course, like I knew all humans. She was looking for me. Maybe I’d have to let her find me.
I gently removed Blake’s body from the water, and set it down onto the bed. I took the key from his jeans, lying discarded on the ground. All of these things would raise questions. There were no answers, no clues to be found for mortal authorities. Perhaps if I made things stranger and more suspicious, they would find themselves provoked into asking a few. It wasn’t much, but it was the most I could do here. I set the black notebook on the floor at a suspicious angle, opened to reveal the list of names, and scratched Blake’s name out with my fingernail. Then I walked out the door again, locked it behind me, and left the superintendent’s key where it had been hanging.
The wind swept me forward once more. I had a feeling about this next one. It was a feeling that was strongly supported by awful stereotypes, but I was old enough that I’d seen stereotypes come and go. This one felt like my chosen prey. This was the reason why I had come to this city. Nearly a year ago, someone who I considered one of my mortal enemies had experienced a supposed change of heart, and as a show of good faith, had directed me where to find one of the few things in the world I absolutely, unequivocally wanted to kill.
The world knew how to throw me some curve-balls.
This was not the calm, undisturbed scene the others had been. This killer had been identified. The police would find him soon. That wasn’t a good thing. It meant that the true killer would get away with it. I entered the room, and gently meandered through the crowd. The young man had a pair of roommates, one male, one female. The girl was crying, the guy stone-faced.
“It was just- Johnny seemed really sweet, you know? Michael brought him home last night, they seemed to be getting along fine. Michael has a few guys over from time to time, you know, nothing serious, but they’re all kind of jerks. Johnny was different, he was really kind, just arrived here from Iowa, he wanted to get into music, they were talking- And all of a sudden- Michael just rests his hand on Johnny’s, and-” The girl’s eyes filled with tears, and I looked around the room.
The couch was torn and slashed. Lines of tape outlined a space on the floor, roughly human-shaped.
This room had the scent I was expecting. Stress, fear, anger, emotion. There was blood, but the blood was just the cherry on top of everything else that filled this place. No despair. It had been passion, fury that had killed young Michael. Blood hadn’t pooled slowly and serenely, here. I could see where it had been sprayed across the walls. Jackson Pollock-esque paintings, drips and drops of blood that had sunk into the ceiling. I could have questioned the objects here, but there was no need and no point. There was no secret about what had happened here, and who had done it. I could even check over the officer’s shoulder as he studied the pictures that had been taken of Johnny.
In the young blonde killer’s hand was a knife. A simple switchblade. So different from the last time I had seen it, but adapting to the times was one of the powers of the Tsukumogami. That was why the other objects in the room wouldn’t be witnesses, either. Seeing Jack Knife would shatter their minds, the horrific strain of a Tsukumogami gone rotten twisting them, turning them feral. Like a taste of blood turning a beloved family dog savage. They’d cease to function properly. Soon, they’d be thrown out, joining the junk yards. If they were very unfortunate, they would continue to grow worse, haunting humans. Gremlins, tools turned feral, the larval form of something like Jack Knife.
I swept my hand through the room. The spirits of every object in the room tainted by Jack Knife were snuffed out like candles in the wind. It was a sad thing to do, but better to die peacefully than to rot, to corrupt, and to harm that which they’d once cared about. I wasn’t technically supposed to do something like that. But nobody would notice. The objects in this room had simply lost the potential to become people. The rules only counted as long as there was someone to call you on them. I said a silent prayer for them to any god not afraid to listen to me, and looked down at the tape.
In a way, young Michael had wound up the same. Reduced to an object, when he’d once been a person. A far more savage road, but the symbolism between the two still made me feel queasy.
I remembered Jonathan’s face. An idea more than an actual memory. I’d let go of everything but the emotions surrounding him. Love, loss, and such brutal hatred.
I looked around the room, and then fled, a gentle breeze ruffling jackets and coats as I made my way out into the sweltering day, and the small street. I took several deep breaths, to focus myself.
The scent of decay, Famine’s hand. The scent of blood, Conquest’s. The scent of passion, War’s. There was one more crime scene for me to check, but I would have to steel myself, first.
Maybe this was all a coincidence. It was in the nature of the Horsemen to work in coincidence. They seeded the world with plots, and left them to fester and boil over. Jack Knife was just such a plot, a tool of War that had taken on life of its own to spread and poison human minds against one another. Two, even three of the Horsemen’s pawns might have washed into this town at once by happenstance or coincidence.
But to paraphrase Fleming, four times was enemy action.
I swept forward, to the hotel. The hotel’s key hung in the manager’s office, and it was simple to gain access. The room was paid for through the end of the week. A do not disturb tag sat around the door knob. Nobody would be investigating it, until something began to smell. I swiped the card into the reader, and smiled as the door slowly opened.
The room was still. There was no smell here. There was no passion. There was no blood. I shuddered. I could feel Death’s touch in the room, the simple extinguishing darkness that had ended the man’s life. I could see him on the bed, and if I hadn’t known he was dead, it would come as a surprise. He lay on the bed, on his side, facing away from me. He was fully dressed in a business suit, a suitcase sitting at his feet, his hand hidden underneath him. His head tilted away.
I slowly studied the room. Three bullet holes had gone through the walls, but nobody had come in to check. That suggested nobody had realized. I checked his hand, and found a .22 caliber pistol there. A silencer was attached to the tip, and a quick check of the slide revealed the ammunition was subsonic. I had little use for guns personally, but I was always on the minds of those who used them. That came with certain privileges. I looked up at his face, and saw the pen sticking out of his eye. Not a drop of blood had been spilled in the room, but the man had been killed thoroughly.
His identity was a greater mystery. I checked the open briefcase. The place where the gun had been nestled between two sets of underwear was obvious, as was the stack of passports and identification, showing half a dozen different names. I checked the briefcase, and noted that it was somewhat deeper on the outside than the inside. A few seconds investigation revealed the catch. I pulled up the false bottom, exposing a series of rods and parts. The rifle would be fairly sizable once assembled, and I doubted that those rounds were intended for hunting animals.
I had my suspicions already. But I needed confirmation. I didn’t bother to awaken the man’s tools. If they were anything like the man himself, they would be professional, and discreet. Instead, I breathed life into the lamp sitting on the end-table.
It was difficult. It did not belong to anyone. It did not have the spark of someone else’s mind in it. Nothing but an endless smear of senses and impressions. That was still enough for me, however. It looked up at me, and asked, in a very nervous tone, “Am I in trouble?”
“Possibly, but not because of me. What did you see?”
“He was talking to himself. Reading up on something. Someone knocked at the door, and he opened it. Let her in. He seemed concerned about her. A young woman, Asian, maybe sixteen? He started talking with her. He grew a bit agitated. He drew his gun, and tried to shoot her. She… It was over fast.” The lamp shifted slightly, looking at the hole in the wall, only a few inches from where it sat on its table. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No.” I sat slowly down on the bed. I could feel the flash coming.
A girl who nobody trusted. A liar. A little girl who saw monsters. I remembered the look on her face when she told everyone that the only man who had ever believed in her had willingly stayed behind in hell. The look on her face when she’d lied to hide what she’d done. To give everyone a happy ending.
I breathed sharply, and shook my head. No. It wasn’t Cassandra, though there was a reason that the two felt so connected. I knew exactly who it was who had done this. And the thought made me shake. I put my hands against my face, and slowly wept.
I had known, in my heart, that four Horsemen were here. This was not a coincidence, not bad timing. it was a plot, something terrible in the making, and something that I would have to stop. I didn’t know how to do it, but I’d known that I was the one who would be able to make a difference here. I had been prepared for the possibility that I was going to have to throw myself into the teeth of one of the Horsemen’s plots. They had a kind of magnetic effect, forcing away those who would compete with them. It was rare for them to overcome that, and in these numbers, it meant direct intervention.
But for these two to be involved was worse. These two, the ones who Death had hand-picked. Her favorites. The ones she nurtured, and made into weapons. I’d seen their handiwork twice in the last ten years. Both times they had killed a deity. If they were here, then the stakes were that much higher. My own life might be in danger.
I wondered, not for the first time, whether I could trust War. Perhaps it would be better for me to leave, now.
But I thought of the fall of Zion, and I knew I couldn’t let the same thing happen here. If I could stop disaster before it had a chance to snowball, I needed to.
Even if it cost me my existence.