I returned to the abandoned church of the Survivor. Fleeing the police had been made easier by the fact that half of them were personal friends or admirers of Dane. That knowledge made me feel uneasy. Loyalty was a wonderful thing to a good leader, and Dane was a good leader. But it could just as easily work for a bad one. The moral quandaries of the thin blue line would have to wait for a little bit longer, however. Perhaps until we were not on the verge of a catastrophe. I walked down into the church’s bowels where, not so long ago, I had seen Dane almost murder someone under Jack Knife’s influence. Now the roles were reversed.
Dane was silent, sitting in the middle of the room. Li Fang Fen sat in a corner, her legs crossed, her head lowered. A hotplate sat in front of her, connected to the outlet which, miraculously or by some vagary of city government, was still providing power. A brass kettle sat atop the hotplate, water simmering. She was staring down at her own hands, and didn’t meet my eyes. That was an entire complicated mess. I had been aware of Li Fang Fen’s reasons for coming to the city, I’d been aware of what she’d been dealing with. I hadn’t realized she’d been planning on taking the offer. It confused me, more than anything. After all, I wanted the excuse. I wanted to punish Jack and Jill, hurt them. Did people think me that soft-hearted that I would have to be goaded into it?
That thought shocked me. When had I started wanting to hurt humans? I’d spent such a long time doing everything I could to protect them, even the ones who had sided with the Horsemen. I’d wanted to care for them. I’d wanted to show them that I loved them.
How long had it been since I’d been close to a human? How long had it been since I’d enjoyed someone’s tenderness, lived with them, watched them grow, trained them and groomed them for greatness? How long had it been since I could be the sole focus of someone’s world, and them of mine? And had it ever actually meant anything? Had I been an equal partner, or just another tool?
The Tsukumogami were like brethren to me. They were a reflection of me and my sisters, in many ways. The natural elements, the world, bent to human will. Maybe I was nothing more than a tool that got too clingy, just like all the rest.
With exceeding care, Li Fang Fen lifted the kettle, and poured hot water into the porcelain pot. She held it carefully so as to avoid chipping one against the other, showing the delicacy that she always did. But was that delicacy out of fear of harming the pot because she did not want it to be harmed, or because she did not want a tool she owned to be useless?
I’d saved Li Fang Fen from the sun goddess, preserved her against a terrible fate. In the moment, I had done it because I had been enraged at Amaterasu. Was it because she had threatened to hurt someone who had been helping me, who had provided me with advice and encouragement and who did not deserve to hurt? Had it been because Amaterasu had hurt me in the past and I only needed an excuse? Had I done it because I wanted so desperately to show that I was still a useful tool, that I did not have to be thrown out quite yet?
The damnable thing was that I didn’t know. I didn’t know myself. I didn’t know what lurked in my heart. I didn’t know what I valued. Jackass had seen that. He’d seen me, more clearly than I’d ever seen myself. And that power was now in the hands of someone much worse than Jackass.
But what I’d said to Ryan still rung true in my ears. The Horsemen were masters of manipulation, of fear. What they were best at was making people hesitate to act at all, choosing the path of least resistance until things were so bad that every choice resulted in a loss. So often, the only winning strategy against them was to behave recklessly and violently. Of course, that too might simply be the next move in their game of chess.
I hate chess. I always start out strong, making strong gains, but as the board empties out, my focus wanes, and it’s difficult to maintain the state of mind necessary to keep playing to win. Focus gets lost. The metaphor becomes unpleasantly literal. I shook my head. “How’s the tea coming along, Fang Fen?”
“Good.” She nodded softly. “Where did you go?”
“Ryan was in trouble again.” I smiled wryly. “What is it about men that they can’t go for a few days without finding themselves in peril?”
She laughed softly, and then looked up, concern blossoming in her eyes. “Is he-”
“Survived. And gave me some very useful news. We’re going to have to take a field trip.”
“Oh.” She nodded, and looked over towards where Dane was sitting in the corner of the room. All things considered, she was looking better than I had expected. Even watching the news of her dismissal last night had not seemed to make too much of an impact on her. She’d selected this church as the place we were least likely to be discovered, taking advantage of the rule of three and of the general distaste people had for coming close by. She sat with Jack Knife on one knee, in the shape of a switchblade, and her father’s broken tonfa on the other. I sat down across from her.
“Has Jack Knife said anything?”
“Quiet as a church mouse.” She shook her head. “I don’t know why she isn’t answering me. I can’t feel the pact with her anymore, either. A brief taste of power, and gone again.” Dane slowly rolled the knife in her palm, staring at it. “Is it me, do you think? Am I just doomed to be alone or something?” She looked up at me. “I never felt this way before, you know? I was comfortable being on my own. I thought the kind of person who was desperate for a romantic relationship was just… pitiful. But when your life is on the line and you can’t form a stable connection to someone to save your life…”
“Doesn’t always have to be romantic,” I said, shrugging. “But it often is. Romance is a connection between souls, a spiritual intimacy. It’s hard for it to not get a little weird.” I leaned back, staring down at the knife. “I was surprised to see you do that for Jack. To kill someone because they hurt her.”
“I…” She shook her head. “I couldn’t stand what he did to her. She’s vulnerable, she’s been hurt so many times before, and to see her actually being tortured like that, to hear him bring up something from her past, not even because he wanted to hurt her, but because he wanted to hurt me-” She winced. “I don’t think that killing him was the right choice. And I think that she’s not the killer you thought she was.”
“That’s a good question,” I admitted. “What the hell is she, in that case?”
“We’re all made innocent, right? None of us are killers from the start. Even knives, apparently.” Dane ran a gentle finger down the handle of the blade.
“So, Dane, I know that the kiss was rather longer than it had to be, but are you…?”
“I’m not into knives, female or male, let’s put it that way. Fuck, I don’t know what it is.” She stared down at the knife. “My mother died when I was a kid. My father never remarried. He told me that he’d had the one great love of his life, and that was enough for him. He thought he’d see her again, when he died. That she’s waiting for him. He spent nearly two decades alone, tearing himself apart inside because he’d been in true love, and he never wanted to betray that. Can you imagine anything more terrible, more lonely, than falling in love and then losing them?”
I nodded slowly. “My sister went through the same thing. Heather. The spirit of water. She fell in love with a man, and he died.”
“Jesus,” murmured Dane. “When was this?”
“Before there were calendars.” I sighed. “That’s kind of the way it is for immortals, you know? You either don’t get attached, or you get too attached.”
“No fountain of immortality, then? No chance for us humans to live forever?”
“Oh, hell no. There are lots of ways. Hell, even making a pact with one of us should make you immortal.”
“Seriously?” Her eyes widened.
“Yeah. But the thing of it is, the kind of people we fall in love with, they’re not content to live safely. Some people we empower on behalf of others, because they’ve been vouched for, because the power is paid for, or for any of another dozen reasons. But the ones we choose to ennoble ourselves, they’re never the ones who have the temperament to live forever. They… Well, they fight for our sakes. That’s why I stopped giving my power. Because humans who we choose, who we give power to, they never have a happy ending. They never live happily ever after. They die in battle. Maybe that’s even why I didn’t want to give you my blessing, Dane. You deserve something better.” I leaned back against the wall next to her, resting a shoulder comfortably against hers. “Humans leave us. Heather, Gene, Pearl, they all held on to that first love. I moved on.”
“But you didn’t, really, did you?” asked Jack Knife, her voice very small, as she appeared, sitting on the other side of Dane. “You remembered every one of them. You remember their faces, their names, all of their little quirks. The way they smiled, the way they laughed, the way they smelled. Don’t you? It all stays with you.”
I frowned. “How the hell do you know about those things?”
“Because it’s the same with me. I remember everyone I’ve killed, but especially the people who wielded me. The ones who trusted me. The ones I betrayed. I remember everything I’ve done wrong in my life in stark relief, and until now, I’d never thought I’d done anything wrong at all. I’m a bad knife.” Her eyes dropped. “I deserve to be brok-”
The rising whistle of the kettle rose in the air, cutting off the words. Li Fang Fen approached, four teacups in hand. How the hell she’d gotten them down here was a mystery for the ages. Dane’s eyes flicked over to the tonfa, and then to Jack. “I’ve been hearing my father. Telling me things, encouraging me, talking to me. Except- not quite.” She took a deep breath. “Jack, have you been imitating my father’s voice?”
“No. No, I, I wouldn’t do that.” Jack looked down at her knees. “Well. I might’ve. But I didn’t. I…” She shook her head. Dane swallowed.
“Ariel, is there-”
“It’s broken. Torn in half. Imagine if you were torn in half like that. The vitality that fills you would spill out in a matter of seconds. I don’t think it’s the tonfa.”
“Hah.” Dane smiled, as she took a cup of the steaming green tea, and sipped it. “Well, thank god for that, then. Best news I’ve heard all day.”
Li Fang Fen and I exchanged a look. “Are you alright, Dane?”
“Nearly half a dozen supernatural serial killers are planning god knows what. We’ve got a traumatized knife, a wind goddess with her hands tied, a battered Chi Vampire, and me, to find them, fight them, and stop them. And we have nowhere to start, no backup, and no fucking chance. I’d have to be crazy to do this.” Her teeth shone. “But I’m hearing things, so we’re not done yet.”
“You’re wrong on two points, Dane. First, we have somewhere to start. Ryan Harovitch pointed me towards the apartment of one of the killers. We can capture them, and stop them.”
Dane raised an eyebrow. “That’s something. What’s the other point.”
I stood, and tilted my head to either side, cracks and pops filling the air. “My hands are no longer tied.”
I swept my hands apart, and the wind whirled around us. In a moment, we stood in the hallway of the apartment building. I lined up my foot with the door to 6B, and slammed my heel into the door handle. The door swung open, and a score of frightened pigeons flew out and around us, mottled feathers falling behind them as they fled from the sudden intrusion with a chorus of panicked flapping. Li Fang Fen frowned. “I’m not sure whether that is deeply encouraging, or utterly terrifying.”
“Can’t it be both?” I said lightly, stepping through the door.
Pigeons coated every level surface. They cooed and hooted, nesting on the small bed, pecking at the contents of the shelves. Somehow, one of them had opened up the refrigerator, and was even now scrabbling at the cap of a bottle of beer. It looked up at me. “Hey, Wind, little help?”
“Did that pigeon just talk?” asked Li Fang Fen, an eyebrow raised as she stepped past me, and deeper into the apartment.
“Does that pigeon have a Brooklyn accent?” asked Dane, still standing in the door frame.
“Yes.” I crouched down. “It seems we are too late to catch them in the act.” I took the beer, and snapped the cap off with one thumb, pouring it into a small dish for the pigeons to gather around. “We need a lead on them. Wherever they have gone, I can’t feel it. That could make it any one of the…” I sighed. “50,000 buildings. If they’re still in Manhattan.”
“I suspect that we can narrow that down,” murmured Li from the next room, staring up at the wall. “They seem to have something in mind.”
The three of us stood in front of the wall. The pigeons had given it a wide berth. A massive corkboard sat on the wall, covered in countless papers. A map of New York City and its surrounding area. A flyer from Shark Belly’s for the Longfish Sandwich. Printouts showing dozens of spreadsheet tabs, each with a different franchise restaurant at the top. The moon chart. The chemical contents of the human body. A series of dossiers containing information about each of the killers who had been in town. A printout of better than a hundred names, and markers on the map showing where they lived. The vast majority were gathered around the Lower East Side.
“Christ. That’s a lot of fucking information, isn’t it?” Li Fang Fen crossed her arms, frowning up at the display. “Let me see… That’s… Ah…” She clucked her tongue. “They seem to be looking for a way to spread a pathogen. I have no idea whether it’s airborne, or-”
“That poison in Madison Square Garden. That was transmitted through food, wasn’t it? Could be the reason for the restaurants. Or… They might have been able to make it into a waterborne variant. But what the hell are they infecting people with?”
“Heroism,” I murmured. The other two turned towards me.
“That doesn’t sound like the worst plague I’ve ever heard of,” said Dane, frowning.
“Heroism…” I took a deep breath, “is not ‘doing good.'”
“Wait. You said that your hands were no longer tied,” said Li Fang Fen. “Is it because of this?”
“Yes.” I nodded slowly. “There are a few ways that heroes can be made. When a great number of humans focus on one of their number, tell stories, create deeds, it can make a hero. When one of us, or one of the Horsemen bestows our power on a human, we can make them into a hero. It’s not a matter of moral fortitude- Heroes are capable of extremes of good and evil just like anyone else. Perhaps even more than most. The thing is, they have the force of inevitability.”
“That sounds… vague,” Dane said.
“It is difficult to describe. Think of how that man managed to smuggle a weapon through the MTA terminal, in midtown Manhattan. Think of how the other man managed to escape a police car. Think of how these killers managed to elude us constantly, and when they get into confrontations, so often it seems to work out in their favor. That is the nature of heroes. They are aided by the world. They find friends, they avoid enemies they cannot defeat, they are guided. Oftentimes, it comes with some… goal. Some greater purpose. Something they feel a compulsion to do. When they act in accordance with that goal, they are better, stronger, faster. When they fight it, the world finds ways to trip them up. Your life becomes…” I shuddered. “Constrained.”
“Okay. But… You said that both sides create them all the time, so-”
“So someone is mass-producing heroes.” I narrowed my eyes. “Someone who should not be able to act.”
“Do you know who they are?” asked Li Fang Fen.
“I do. I can’t say who they are.” I couldn’t even think it. He might be listening. “Suffice it to say, they’ve decided to play their hand, and they’re going to suffer for it. They were counting on my not noticing, they hoped that they could hide all of this, distract us, I imagine. But I’m going to make this right. Break every one of them, scatter the Horsemen’s toys. They’re clever, and tricky, and sharp.” I squeezed the counter, and it creaked and splintered beneath my fingers. “So sharp they’ll cut themselves.”
“But we still need to find where they are. And you can’t manage that,” said Dane, frowning.
I shook my head. “I can’t. And we don’t have much time. The full moon is tonight. We need to find them in the space of a few hours.”
“Hell of a lot of pressure. What happens if we don’t?” asked Dane.
“This thing… Jackfruit’s power is a form of poisoning. He can instill things into substances. Good things, bad things. My guess is he’s working with whoever is behind this plague, as a way of spreading it further. You can see, almost all of the cases of people being turned into serial killers by this are clustered around this apartment. Whoever did this wasn’t going very far. They couldn’t do anything on a large scale.” I took a deep breath. “If they succeed at this, then they’re going to spread a plague. Everyone afflicted is going to turn into a hero. With a bone-deep desire to kill everyone around them.”
The three of us looked at the map again. “Two million people in Manhattan, alone. That’d be bad,” said Li Fang Fen.
“It would be violence. Chaos. Limited, but it would shake things. The city might die.”
“The last time something big happened like this, the world was at stake,” said Dane, frowning. “The course of the future. This seems small potatoes, relatively speaking.”
“That’s the way the Horsemen work, sometimes. They scatter chaos through the world, like seed. Everywhere that it can take root. They managed to destroy one of the five cities holding this world apart from the world of myths and gods. They’re taking advantage of the chaos now, in smaller actions, like Nergal, and this.” I took a deep breath, steadying my nerves, and continued. “This is their strategy. We have to stop them every time. Each time they succeed, they weaken us. They make us lesser.” I stared up at the board. “Fuck. We might already be too late.”
“No, we’re not,” said Dane, standing up straight, staring up at the board. “There are only so many ways they could distribute this. We’re sure it’s not airborne. If it were foodborne, it wouldn’t hit enough people. It would only catch a small fraction of the population. They’ve got to be using the water systems, and there’s a limited number of places where that’s accessible. We just need a hint of them, one giveaway clue at where they might be, and we’ll be able to catch them.” One of her fists tightened around the broken tonfa, the other around Jack Knife. “We can stop them.”
“How?” asked Li Fang Fen, frowning. “This is contact information for dozens of people. Practically an army. Even if we could find them, we’re not in a position to fight that many people tonight. Not unless…” She turned her eyes towards me, and then looked down.
“I can stop them all,” I said, stiffening my back. I knew I could. It would be violent, and terrible. People would lose their lives. I’d break them, I’d kill them all.
Rabbit brown. That’s what that jackass had called me. A coward, unable to act when it really mattered, paralyzed by fear and desire. I’d show him. I’d show every goddamn one of them that I wasn’t that simple, wasn’t that easy-
“No,” said Dane.
“No? You think I can’t? I can-”
“When the Church of the Survivor went nuclear, tried to summon Nergal, I tried to stop them. Me and my team killed a lot of them. Dozens. Men who had been given the plague, who had come close to dying, and were desperately trying to survive. We murdered husbands, fathers, sons, because we thought it was the right thing to do, and it didn’t accomplish a thing. That always stuck with me. Those men who died, they didn’t need to die. We saw a lot more die when the police got there.” She shook her head. “That’s when the neighborhood watch stopped seeming like it meant anything. You’re strong, Ariel. I know you are. But could you stand it if any of them died?”
“Yes,” I said, but there was no strength in my voice.
When it came right down to it, I was a coward. I didn’t want to kill anyone. I didn’t want anyone to die. I wanted this all to end happily, and the only person I knew of who could guarantee that, I’d cut ties with because he’d wanted the same thing. I lowered my head. I wanted to be the wind, wild and free, flitting and being happy, living a life without pain, without regrets. I didn’t want to be a killer, the arbiter of some merciless justice. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t what I wanted to be. I felt the tears running down my cheeks.
“I don’t want to kill them either,” said Li Fang Fen, her voice soft. “Can we stop them without killing them?”
“Disable them. Keep them out of the moon,” I said. “But there are going to be nearly a hundred of them. Armed with who knows what. Heroes. The odds are…”
“We’ve seen the worst that we are. Jackass exposed that. Tore off the bandage, and let us see how bad we could be inside,” said Dane softly. “Li, the worst he could say of you is that you didn’t immediately confess an offer made to you. I believe in you. You are a person who believes in doing the right thing. You made that decision once before, didn’t you?” Fang Fen nodded. “If you could go back and do it all over again, would you do it any differently? Even knowing where it’s gotten you, even knowing what it means?”
Li Fang Fen was silent for a moment. “If I was to go back, and do it all over again…? I’d make the same mistake. It was too sweet not to make.” She smiled softly, and shrugged. “I’ll fight. Even if it means letting those two go, I would prefer to remain cursed, to remain honorless, than to force you into that confrontation.” She placed a hand on my shoulder, and I felt a pitiful little gratitude stir in my heart.
The truth was, I was frightened by Jack and Jill. I was terrified of them. I raged and I screamed and I tried to show my anger, my confidence, all to hold it away. I’d been alive for so long, I had existed for so long, that the thought of ending was terrifying. Some part of me knew that those two could kill me, that if I gave them the chance they would kill me. Maybe it was the coward in me. Maybe I was just a rabbit on the inside, for all my power.
I turned and sank down slowly, falling down into a crouch, my hands over my face. Tears dripped down my cheeks. “I don’t want to be so weak. I want to be able to help people. I want to be able to make a difference. I want to stop leaving other people to fight my battles,” I whispered, the sobs coming out in choking little noises. “I’m supposed to be stronger than this. I’m supposed to be the guardian of this world, I’m supposed to be the one who’s protecting humans, I can’t afford to be weak-”
“We’re all weak, sometimes,” murmured a voice. Raspy, not used in a very long time. I looked up, my eyes widening, as Li Fang Fen and Dane spun. Standing there, in overalls, tanned skin and dark hair and green eyes, looking completely at ease, was Gene. Her expression was as cold and stiff as ever. She bent forward, slowly, and took my hand, pulling me up, into a gentle embrace, her strong arms around me, pulling my face against her shoulder. She smelled of clay, and there was a bit of dirt on her overalls, but I hugged her tight. “Crybaby.”
It was the first time I’d heard her talk in a very long time. She turned towards Dane. Dane frowned at me. “Friend of yours?”
“Gene. Ge. Earth,” I whispered softly. “My sister.”
“Oh. Pleasure to meet you, Gene. Really loving the whole ‘place to stand’ thing.”
Gene snapped her fingers, and flashed Dane a thumbs-up. Then, she pointed at the tonfa.
“Uh?” Dane frowned. “Wait-” Gene took the two shattered halves from Dane’s waist, and Dane growled, taking a step forward, fists tightening. “Hey! Those are mine, they-”
Gene inhaled once, sharply, her fists squeezed tight around the tonfa. There was a flash of light. When it faded, the tonfa was gone. Standing in front of Dane was a young man, nearly six inches taller than her. Dirty blonde hair, stark blue eyes, he looked rather as though he could be her brother. She stared at him, her mouth dropped. “Shit. Pardon my french.” He ruffled his hair, frowning, looking down at himself, poking his stomach. “Man, I feel like a new man. Hah!” He grinned over at Gene, and slapped her on the shoulder. “Thanks. I felt like half the man I used to be.”
“Dad?” asked Dane, her voice shaking slightly. The man frowned.
“No. Sorry, Dane. Sorrier than you could imagine, I really am. Not your dad. Just a stick.” He brushed his fingers through his hair. “Despite the jokes. Just… Trying to emulate him. And you.”
“You were broken in half,” I said, frowning. “Shattered. That should be…”
“Unendurable? Yeah, tell me about it.” he grinned wide. “But I couldn’t leave Dane all alone, could I?”
His arms went around her, and she stiffened as he squeezed her. After a moment, her shoulders began to lower. Gene turned towards me.
“Thank you,” I said softly. “I’m sorry for what I did.”
She waved a hand airily, and smiled. She gave me a last kiss on the forehead, and then turned away.
Jack slowly frowned at Dane and the tonfa. “You guys are hugging way too close. That is really weird, you know that?”
“Oh, please, little miss ‘Hit Me Mistress'” said the young man, grinning broadly. “You’re just disturbed by seeing a positive relationship between a tool and its owner, and are jealous of how close Dane and I are.”
Li Fang Fen smiled. “Well, Dane, look at that? There is someone out there for you. And they say every girl wants to marry a man like her father…”
“Jesus Christ, Li,” said Dane, pushing the young man away and taking a couple of steps backwards. “I’m trying very hard not to think of it that way right now, okay?”
“Why? Are you having weird fleshy thoughts?” asked Jack, a frown on her face.
“Oh, god. I really thought this day couldn’t get any worse,” Dane said, but she was smiling as she said it, rubbing her face, a little moisture visible on her fingers. Then she threw her arms around the young man, squeezing him so hard he grunted. “I thought you were broken. I thought I was going fucking insane. Oh god, I thought I’d lost the last thing I had to remind me of my father-”
“Hey.” He smiled, and rested a hand on her head, looking a little bit embarrassed himself. “I was just… taking a break. Y’know?” He grinned cheerfully, and oofed as Dane slugged him in the stomach in the friendliest way possible. “So. We’ve got killers to track, right?”
“I can do that,” said Li Fang Fen. “I’m the only one of us who might still be welcome back at the station. I can get what information I can. Try to find out where they are. The rest of you…”
“Enjoy life,” said Dane. “Enjoy life, because we’re about to take on an impossible task, and we might all die, and there’s no better reason to enjoy life, except if we win.” She nodded, and let go of the tonfa. “Uh…” She frowned up at the tonfa. “What should I call you? Alex would be about a thousand times too weird, so…”
“Hmmm. Ah, hell. Just call me ‘Tonfa’. It’s what I’m used to, you know?” he smiled cheerfully.
I nodded. “I’ll get you guys. I need to…” I shook my head, and smiled. “You’re right. I should enjoy life a little bit.”
I vanished in the wind, and in a few moments, was high in the sky, fluttering on the breeze. Freer than any bird, I flew through the air, and forgot about all of my responsibilities, if only for a few sweet hours. I couldn’t truly believe that I would be freed from this confrontation, I couldn’t believe that everything was alright. But at least for a little while, I could pretend. That would just have to be enough.
I promised myself that when this was done, I would see Nash.