In a very real sense, I am everywhere. I am the wind, and the wind is very nearly everywhere. It is a kind of limited omniscience, which is a contradiction in terms, but illustrates the point nicely. If a human being had such awareness, it would be convenient, but they would not be particularly omnipresent. Human focus is limited to a single place at a time. Mine is… less so.
This was how all three of my sisters could join me. Fire, Earth, and Water. Pur, Ge, and Hodur. Promethea, Gaea, Thalassa, Promethea. Pearl, Gene, and Heather. You acquire a lot of names when you’re as ancient as we are, and when humans are obsessed with you. What humans think about, they name, fixing it in place and giving it shape. They’d given us a lot of names over the years. For the most part, it was a beneficial arrangement. We shared so much with them. And yet it was never enough.
The Horsemen are born of humanity. We are merely enlightened by it. Whereas we can see, can be, wherever our element exists, the Horsemen have awareness only through humans. Every human. It is clearest and sharpest through those they’ve given power to, but it can happen with any human. That is why it’s always dangerous to break the rules around humans. It’s not a guarantee, which only makes it more terrifying. Those we had given power to were protected from that infiltration, to a degree. But there weren’t many places left in the world where all four of us could be, and not be overheard.
That’s why the four of us came together on the small rock far out in the harbor. The smoldering remains of a campfire sat in a hollow on the rock, ashes still cherry-red. We all arrived at the same time, appearing at the speed of thought. Pearl stood to my left, combing her red hair out of her face as the wind whipped around us, dressed in her police officer’s uniform from Zion, though she was no longer the police chief there. She bent down, and produced a fire log from nowhere, tossing it onto the embers. The log caught immediately, flames rising from it, licking at the air, fed by the wind. Heather stood to my right, dressed in a toga. Gene was across from me, in overalls, her expression as stoic as ever.
Heather sighed, looking around the circle of us. “I really feel as though we should all be wearing togas. Pay attention to our heritage, you know?” She smiled. “Besides, they’re such a lovely garment.”
Pearl gave her a tired smile. “I would, but it brings back some bad memories.” There was a moment of silence, and she turned her head towards me. “Ariel?”
I nodded. “As I told you, I came here to find Jack Knife, to try to destroy her once and for all.” Gene’s brows furrowed. “Yes, I know, it was reckless of me. It was risky, following War’s advice, and it put me in a position where I could have broken one of the rules. But I think that the rules aren’t going to matter, soon.”
Pearl raised an eyebrow. “This again?” She looked down at the fire. “The rules exist for a reason. They constrain us, keep us from doing harm. I know you chafe under them, but we need the rules. They do more good than harm. They always have.” She waved her hand around. “Look at the city. Look at what they’ve built. They’ve reached out into the stars. I still think that they can escape all of this. You know that the greatest threat to them is what we can do. If we leave the rules behind…” She shook her head. “They just need a little longer.”
I raised my hands. “Look. We’ve had this argument so many times that it’s lost all meaning for me. Let me get down to the brass tacks of what I know. There are five serial killers in the city right now, each empowered by a Horseman. Jack Knife, empowered by War. Jackass, empowered by Conquest. Jackfruit, empowered by Famine. And Jack and Jill, empowered by Death.”
“Cute,” said Heather, smiling sweetly. “I always love when the humans get funny about names.” She frowned. “Five, though. That the Horsemen would have so many in one place…”
“Yes,” I said, frowning. “They’re strong. They’ve been in the service of the Horsemen for a long time. I don’t know why they’ve all been gathered to this place. Jack Knife has been taken into custody, and-” I paused, my attention drifting to Dane’s actions the previous night. Where Jackass had been, I couldn’t see much of anything. It was a disconcerting feeling, like a human becoming blackout drunk. The Horsemen’s servants could fog our perceptions, just as those we empowered could do the same to them. “Jackass was captured by Dane Larson last night.”
“The young woman who helped to stop Nergal?” Pearl said, tilting her head, interest in her voice.
“Yes.” I sighed. “She’s made a deal with Jack Knife and I. She’s using the threat of me to keep Jack Knife from actively trying to corrupt her. I’m unsure how well it’s working. She’s a very angry young woman. There’s also a Jiangshi involved.”
Pearl hissed in a breath, frowning in distaste. “One of the undead? In New York City?”
“Yes. She’s not here because she wants to be. Apparently she broke her word. Someone agreed to help her with it in exchange for capturing Jack and Jill.”
Pearl nodded slowly. She was funny, that way. She hated the parasites, the faeries, the demons, the undead. She didn’t trust the word of anything that couldn’t break its word. “We need to intervene. We need to-”
“Pearl,” I said softly, “I’m worried. By something Dane said.” Pearl raised an eyebrow. “We are, I think you can agree, decent. We don’t use humans. We don’t make tools out of them the way that the Horsemen do. We give them power, it’s true, but we allow them to step away after that. We don’t call them to serve us again and again. We don’t go out of our way to make them fight for us in this war, do we?” I took a deep breath. “The Horsemen throw their tools into conflict, over and over again. If they survive, they become stronger. If they break, then the horsemen can try again. I’m beginning to worry that our own compassion has been a terrible mistake.”
Pearl’s eyes flashed. “What do you think you’re saying-”
“I am saying that our strength is finite. We have been bled away by the Horsemen, giving our gifts to humans without thought. Without realizing what it’s doing to us! We are not infinite, Pearl! And every human that we give power to, who retires to their happy ending, they diminish us just a bit more. We give our power to humans who we care about, we open our hearts to love, and we bleed ourselves dry because of it! When the final confrontation comes- And it is coming soon, the cities already crumble- we may find that we can no longer hope to win even if we give it our all.”
The circle stood quiet for a few moments. Heather looked across at me, and smiled softly. “That’s not all, is it?”
“I don’t know if we can make a difference in this. The forces arrayed against us are terrible. I’m not even sure what they’re planning. There are…” I shivered. “This is something I haven’t shared with the mortals I’m working with. The plague of serial killers in the city are heroes. They’re fated in what they do. That’s why they’re so damn hard to track down. It was a fluke that Dane managed to catch two of them in one night, and one of them broke out of custody while being driven to the station for processing.”
Gene inhaled sharply through her nostrils. Heather’s hand went over her mouth. Pearl clenched her teeth. “It’s-”
“I don’t know, yet,” I said, closing my eyes. “It could be a consequence of all four of the Horsemen acting in such close proximity to one another. It could be an unknown aspect of the powers of Death, or War, or Conquest, or Famine. They’re clever. That’s the big problem with dealing with them.” I shook my head. “If I knew, if I could say for certain that they are breaking the rules, I’d involve myself in a heartbeat. It’d feel good.” I smiled ruefully. “But we don’t know that, do we? The fucking rules hamstring us.”
Gene raised a hand. The three of us turned towards her. She held her index fingers together in a cross, and then made a fist. I nodded. “Jack Knife. Yeah, she’s got the power of War.” Gene raised an eyebrow. “No. I didn’t know that Tsukumogami could do that, either.”
Heather shrugged, lifting her shoulders lightly, dark skin crisp in the fierce summer sun. “It isn’t all that strange, is it? Tsukumogami are a lot like us. Objects, things, that humans grew close to. They treat us like people, and we become people. Is it so odd that objects would become like humans, when treated enough like one? It’s actually a little sweet.” She frowned. “The poor thing. I wonder what might have happened in her life, what might have been done to her, that she took such a dark path. It is an ugly thing to see a human abused by their own kind. A knife would be even less able to protect itself.”
“It’s… an interesting idea. Putting power into an object. A Tsukumogami. They’re so well-suited to working in tandem with a human. It could let them carry the power at arm’s length.” Pearl stared into the fire. “Using the Tsukumogami as a filter for our power. Something resilient. Something that could be passed on. One hero takes it up, and if they fall, or retire, the true source of power continues.” She smiled very softly. “You’re the one on the ground, Ariel. I understand your concerns about our compassion, but we cannot simply stand by. Why not help this Dane Larson?”
I looked down at my hands. “She’s already way too close to Jack Knife. She’s kept a handle on it so far, but… I like her. She’s a good person, and she has the kind of fury that would make a real difference here. But I’m afraid that she’s one hard situation away from breaking.” I slowly shook my head. “I remember when I had so much confidence in people. So much certainty that they were good and decent and strong.”
“Nothing like immortality for ripping away your innocence, is there?” asked Heather, smiling. She stepped closer to me, and her arms went around my shoulders.
Intimacy is a very mammalian trait. The intimate pleasure of touch, the trust and the warmth in sharing body heat and skin contact, they’re things that are instilled in humans from the moment they’re born and feel their mother’s gentle embrace. Humans need soft touches in a way that is almost as elemental, almost as absolute as the way they need food, or water, or air. As a force of nature, I didn’t need those things. But the hug made me feel better. Knowing that I still had someone who cared about me, someone who was watching out for me, it made me feel stronger. Heather was good at that. After a few seconds, she released me, smiling. I took a deep breath, and continued.
“I’m not sure it even matters. She’s a good fighter, but if Jack and Jill become involved…” I crossed my arms. “I don’t know what those two are, exactly. I don’t know how they’ve been able to hide themselves from us so effectively. They’ve killed two gods, and they’re aiming to kill a third. If Bastet dies, we’ll be in bad shape. The only reason we’ve been able to focus so much of our attention on the Horsemen over the years is because she was always there, killing the small threats, the dark gods and the lost things, before they could become a serious enough problem to require our full attention. With her gone, then…”
“She’s going to be difficult for them to find,” mused Pearl. “She’s on her way to Paradise.”
“The fourth city?” I asked. Pearl nodded. “Well, shit. I’m not sure how Jack and Jill will react if they discover that their target is out of their grasp like that. There’s no chance that they’d be able to get inside?”
Heather sighed. “They’d have to be invited. That should mean it’s safe. but…”
“But only if there aren’t any traitors in that city.” I nodded. “Fat chance. But the problem remains. I don’t know whether my power will make a difference, or if it will just make things worse.”
“Never thought I’d hear you say that,” said Pearl, smiling softly. “Your recklessness is one of the best things about you, Ariel. You have never been afraid to do what you believed was right in the face of opposition. We all have to deal with the things that we have been given, without asking, without wanting, by humans. Uncertainty, fear, doubt. But the wind blows which way it might, no matter what.”
I soaked in the words. Of all of us, Pearl had suffered the worst for humanity. I still remembered when the gods had demanded that she be punished for giving humans the tools that had ended their dependence on gods and spirits. It had been one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do, to watch my sister go and not break them for their impudence. She’d gone willingly, and suffered for humans who had forgotten what she’d done for them. Watching her come back, hearing her passion redoubled, her faith in humanity grown stronger, had been incredible.
I sometimes wished I could be like her, growing stronger in the face of adversity, rather than feeling crushed by it. But I could at least take some strength from having her by my side.
Gene still stood across from me, her arms cross, head tilted forward, staring down at the fire.
I had a complicated relationship with Gene. We were different. We were at odds. She was unyielding, I was unceasing. She looked up at me, and frowned. “Look, Gene. I know that you thought my coming here for Jack was a bad idea. But if you can think of anything that can help…”
She turned away from me, and disappeared. I sighed. She still hadn’t forgiven me for what I’d done. I’d be surprised if she ever would. She knew how to hold a grudge.
Heather shook her head softly. “Is there anyone else at hand who we can empower? It is a city of ten million, there must be something-”
“We don’t have the time.” I sighed. “This is a strange attack. We don’t have much in the way of defenses here, but we also don’t have as much to lose. A lot of people might die, but only by comparison to the usual. Even at its worst, these serial killings will never come close to the level of disruption that the near-summoning of Nergal caused. I still don’t know what they’re trying to do. But I’ll tell you if I find someone.”
Heather nodded, and vanished. That left just me and Pearl.
“I’m going to keep an eye on Dane,” said Pearl. “If she looks like the right person, I’m going to give her power.” I shrugged. “You disapprove?”
“I think that you can do her a lot more good than I can. And I think that I can’t afford to give away power, just at the moment. If this does turn out to be what we’ve feared, I need to be as strong as I possibly can.” I shook my head. “I’m worried, Pearl. I’m scared that this might be the spark that ignites it all. I’m scared I won’t be strong enough.”
“I’ve never seen you fail to be strong enough, Ariel.” She smiled, and the two of us stood around the fire as the wind rushed around us, the summer sun beating down. “If you choose to take a stand, if you choose to act, if you choose to break the rules… I’ll be with you, Ariel. All you have to do is call, and I’ll be with you. We all will. Win or lose, we’re in this together.”
I nodded, and opened my mouth. I almost asked how Nash was. But I couldn’t. Not because I didn’t want to know. But because I couldn’t stand to see the pain in my sister’s face again. Pearl turned, and left, and I stood on the rock, alone.
There was only so much that my sisters could do in this. They were constrained by the same rules that I was, they were faced with the same consequences. But knowing that they had my back, that whatever happened, we would be together, meant a lot. It meant that whatever I did, I would do with confidence.
I had to be creative.
I appeared in Washington Square Park. The fat pigeons strutted and cooed as they made their way through the park, gorging themselves on feed from kind souls and incautious pretzel vendors. I approached one of them, and he gave me a golden-eyed stare, his head tilted. “Well, Wind. How’d the meeting go?”
“Could have been worse. I need your help.”
He frowned up at me. “This sounds like it’s getting awfully close to violating the rules. Not to mention, me and mine, we aren’t exactly interested in getting involved in your feud. What makes you think I would ever agree to this?”
I took a deep breath. “This isn’t about me and Jack Knife, anymore. I need you to find the people who are killing. Make them obvious. Make them stand out. Make them memorable. It’s within your power to do this. I can’t force you to do it, I can’t ask you to do more. But this much…” I shook my head. “Give people hints. Let them work it out for themselves. These people intend to harm the city itself, to break it, to denude it of its people, its soul. Let them see the city itself mark them out as outsiders. They will pay attention. I know how good you and yours are at making your displeasure known.”
The pigeon ruffled his feathers, momentarily doubling in size, his breast swelling a bit. “Well, there’s no fuckin’ doubt that we can make a splash. You really think that’s going to be enough, though? Some pigeons crappin’ and making a scene?”
“I’ve got a few others up my sleeve.” I smiled. “Thanks, buddy.” I reached behind my back, and produced a large french loaf baguette. The pigeon cooed appreciatively as I placed it down in front of him.
“Hey, Wind, when you bribe a guy, you don’t fuck around!” He cooed again, and dozens more of his kind descended from the trees, pecking and jockeying for it. “You sure this doesn’t break the rules, now?”
“No.” I narrowed my eyes. “But I’m sure I don’t care.”
My next stop was Dane’s apartment. I arrived in through an open window, left that way because she didn’t use air conditioning. I stepped into the room, and stared.
Dane lay on her bed, still dressed in her clothes from the day before. Her mouth hung slightly open. A bottle of bad whiskey lay empty on the floor by the bed, her fingers a few inches from the wide neck. She was sprawled out. Yesterday had been hard on her. She’d sought comfort in the old familiar things. Those were the kinds of reasons why I couldn’t trust myself to give her my power. She reminded me too much of myself.
Alcohol has a very negative reputation. Yet, it’s a tool like any other that humans make. They use it to hold the world at bay. They’re thinking creatures, and they can’t stop thinking, no matter how much they may want to. Alcohol is a tool that fixes that for a while. It was a testament to the nature of humans how many of them were destroyed by it, sinking into oblivion. But I wasn’t going to lecture Dane. She’d get enough of that from her own body when she awoke.
I thought of Nash, for a moment. He’d been given a similar gift. I wondered whether he was being wise with how he used it. Then I pushed those thoughts away.
I pulled the thin sheet over her, tucking it in. Her expression softened almost immediately, and I poured a glass of water, placing a pair of aspirin tablets next to it, setting them on the bedside table. When she woke up, they would be within arm’s reach.
“Gee, Ariel, you should be careful, you might inadvertently cause a cataclysm by unbalancing the forces of nature and hangover.”
“Hello, Jack,” I said, turning towards her. She smiled in her leather jacket, adjusting her shoulders as she sat on the couch. “You stopped Dane before she killed last night.”
Jack’s expression froze for just a second. Then she gave a too-casual grin, turning her eyes away. “Yeah. Well, she kind of had me over a barrel there, you know? She gets all fucking blood-lusty on her own friend, she winds up killing him, she blames me, she gives me to you. I’m not here to kill people, Ariel. I’m here to survive.” She shrugged nonchalantly. “But we both sort of saw how she responded to stress, didn’t we? That’s what I mean when I say that all of this isn’t really my fault. I mean, I’m just a knife. I can’t make someone behave one way or another. All I can do is give them options. The options to stab, or to not stab. I can’t see what’s wrong with that.”
“Ever heard the quote, ‘The blade itself incites to deeds of violence’?” I asked, tilting my head. Jack snorted.
“Horse-shit. That’s like a man saying ‘Oh, she was dressed so provocatively, how could I help myself?’. Capacity isn’t the same thing as will. Way to victim blame-” She shut up as I grabbed her by the coat. Then she squawked in protest as I dragged her along. “Hey! You can’t do this, you crazy bitch, you swore-”
“I’m going upstairs with you, just for a moment. I’ll bring you back to Dane when I’m done,” I said, as I pushed open the apartment door, closing it behind Jack. “But I have things that I want to talk to you about, Jack.”
“What, like how to keep guys?” she asked, smirking. She saw my expression, and blanched. “Jesus, just a joke, sorry.”
The roof of the apartment building was furnished with a couple of chairs, and a table. I sat down at one, and gestured towards the other. The tainted Tsukumogami sat reluctantly. “Jack, do you know why I chased you for so long?” She shrugged, frowning. “You took someone I loved from me.”
“Hey! I didn’t kill him, okay? You did that! You were the one who beat him to death! What was I supposed to do?!”
“I’m not saying that you killed him,” I murmured. “That was my fault. I did that. I was responsible for that. I could have saved his life if I had been better, and that has haunted me for a long time. But you took him from me. He found you, somewhere, and he came to care about you more than he did me. He lost faith.”
She frowned at me. “I know you want to think that I was responsible for making him into a monster, that all of that was just me magically twisting him around. But all I did was talk, okay? I didn’t make him do anything that wasn’t already in his heart. I think it’s long past time for you to admit that you made a bad fucking choice in the people you fell in love with. Most humans out there are shit, you understand? They’re violent, petty things, who want nothing more than to conquer others, to own things, to be-” She gritted her teeth, and turned her head away, shaking for a moment with the effort of stopping the tirade. I got the feeling she’d said it a lot over the years.. “I can’t remember what I really am.”
I frowned. “What?”
“I don’t remember who I was. Originally. The first thing I remember is your buddy Jack-”
“His name was Jonathan.”
“Whatever! I remember him picking me up. There was a fire. I was… broken. It hurt.” She stared down at her hands, and her shoulders were shaking. “It hurt more than I could imagine. I knew that something was wrong. He smuggled me out of the city, and explained it to me. An old man had died near where Ja- Jonathan found me, his belly cut open. There was an uproar about it. He’d been one of the last of the Tokugawa shogunate’s most loyal retainers.” She shook her head. “But I don’t remember anything before that. I don’t remember who I was. I make up stories, I try to imagine what I could have been, what made me the way I am, but I’ve always been… broken. Humans did that to me.” Her expression hardened. “They broke me. They’ve broken you, too.”
I nodded slowly. “What humans break, humans can also fix.”
“If it’s convenient,” she spat. “If it’s worth their time, their energy. Otherwise, they just replace you. That’s all we are to them, Ariel. Tools. They cast us aside the moment we’re no longer useful.”
“Yes,” I said. “I mean, just look at how eager Dane has been to throw away her father’s tonfa. It makes you sick how disposable things are to some people.”
Jack snorted. “She’s… different. I like her. That’s why I agreed to help her. She might be tough enough. Might.” She frowned. “But you have to test humans. You have to push them, you have to needle them. If you just trust them, you’re going to get hurt. How can anyone just allow themselves to be hurt and used like that? How can you ignore what you’ve learned?”
I frowned. “Yeah. Isn’t that always the way? People make one mistake, then they overcorrect. You get stung by one human, and you decided that you’d always sting them first. Maybe you drive away the ones who’d treat you well, all because you got hurt once.” I sighed softly. “Jack, I don’t want to kill you anymore.”
“Yeah?” she asked cautiously, frowning at me.
“I think I can believe that you didn’t intentionally twist Jonathan. Maybe it was unintentional, maybe you weren’t even responsible and he was the one who twisted you. I don’t know, and I can’t know, at this point.” I paused for a moment, and then leaned forward. “But the past doesn’t matter all that much. You’ve gotten a clean slate with me, but it’s not a merciful one. One more mistake, one more life taken, one more death on your hands, and I’ll end you, Jack. You’re on probation. I’ll throw you into an orbit so perfect that you’ll never return to the Earth. Twirling in the cold and the emptiness, for eternity. Never again feeling the warmth of human hands around your hilt. Remember that.” I stood up.
“Hey, Ariel?” Jack looked up at me, and frowned. “I’m sorry you had to kill Jonathan.”
“I’m over it.”
“No, I don’t think you are. I think that whatever you say, you never get over the people who’ve hurt you. You’re soft, Ariel, soft inside. You care and love humans so much that you keep letting them hurt you, and that’s the saddest thing I can imagine, because they’ll never deserve that kind of devotion from you. You’ve even convinced yourself that its better to be hurt by them than to let them be hurt by their own foolish actions, and it’s tearing you apart.” She stood up, and patted me on the shoulder in a genuinely kind-hearted way. “You don’t deserve that kind of shitty treatment. I don’t know why you think that you do.”
I let her go, watching as she walked to the door, making her way down the stairs.
I wanted to hit something. I wanted to scream. I wanted to shout my defiance to the world. I wanted to break Jack, for daring to pity me, for daring to say the things that lurked in my heart, threatening to be felt every moment of every day. For being so self-centered and narcissistic.
But most of all, I wanted to cry, because she was right.
There had been a time, so long ago, when I had been as free as anything could be. I hadn’t thought of anything, had not concerned myself with anything, hadn’t been threatened by anything. I was free as the wind. I had been freedom itself. Humans had changed all of that. They had named me, bound me, constrained me. They forced me to love them. They had filled me with guilt at their deaths, they had filled my mind with their ideas, they had turned me into a tool.
I stared out at the city. If every last human died, if they were gone, the Horsemen would die with them. War could not exist without humans to wage it. Conquest needed humans to rule over. Famine couldn’t exist without humanity’s plenty. And Death was meaningless to nature. If they had their way, they and everything else would be gone. They would die. But my sisters and I would still be. We would remain standing. We would not be human, anymore. We would not be people. We would be forces once more. We would spend the rest of existence free. We would not even remember what we had lost, because the destruction of humans would take away all of the pain, all of the sorrow, all of the chains and fetters humans had placed on our shoulders. We would not have to be their protectors anymore. We would not have to play the roles they had given us. I would not have to feel the sting of love, the agony of hope, the burn of companionship. We could be as we once had been, free and lovely.
And I would still have my sisters.
All I had to do was involve myself. All I had to do was push things a bit further. I could break all of the chains at once, if only I had the courage.
I thought about that for a long time while I stared out at the city.