“Why do you seek to kill gods?”
The great plain of grass stood around them. It stretched off into the infinite, and though this place had neither curvature nor haze of distance, the end of the plains were not visible. Ji-a stood in the center of the plain, insofar as any section of an infinite plane could be more or less ‘center’. A tall, kindly man stood over her, a great katana hanging on his hip in a lacquered wooden sheath. His nose was crooked, and his facial hair was as noble as it could be. The wind slowly whipped through the air, as he watched her. He seemed genuinely interested to hear her answer. The problem was, she didn’t have one on hand. The eleven-year old girl just lunged with the knife. She knew the way she was supposed to use it, where she was supposed to thrust it. She could see the path so clearly. She just couldn’t walk it. She was too weak.
Susano-o spun easily around her strike, and slapped the side of the sheathed blade across her cheek, knocking her to the ground. “White-eyes, white-eyes, what have you gotten yourself into?”
Her teeth gritted. She hated that nick-name. She hated the boys who yelled it, the girls who whispered it, the white father who cursed her with it. But worse than everything else, with a passion that drove into her heart like a knife, she hated herself for being white-eyes. She hated waking up to see blue in the mirror, hated being different from everyone who was around her. She lunged screaming at Susano-o, trying to hold the steps in her head. Three steps forward, duck, slash open the wrist, stab the knife home in his thigh, open the arteries.
She took the three steps, and ducked, but not quite fast enough. The sheath smacked her wrist like she was a naughty child, and the knife dropped from her hand, tears filling her eyes as she gritted her teeth. “Revenge,” she hissed.
“Oooh, I see, I see.” Susano-o chuckled. “You killed that police officer, those soldiers, for the same reason, hmmm? Tricky to escape North Korea. Impressive for a girl like you. You must have had a terrible yearning to be free of that place.”
“My father used to tell me stories. That it was better outside. That there were wonderful things in the world outside of Joseon. Freedom. People who would care about me. He was a liar.” She gritted her teeth hard. “I want to kill those who betrayed me. I want to kill those who made me!” She grabbed the knife off the ground, and lunged at him again, stabbing clumsily. It missed. Her wrist still hurt. Her body was weak with hunger. She’d pushed herself night and day to get to Japan, to complete the ritual, to call Susano-o, to push through to his realm, to challenge him to this duel. She’d thought she was ready. She hadn’t known the difference between her and the gods.
“Ah. Now that’s something that I can empathize with. I had a wild youth myself, you know. Hurt people, didn’t consider the damage I was doing to them, let alone myself. Maybe you could go slay a dragon? That certainly worked for me.” He laughed charmingly, and then his expression turned very cold. He pulled the blade a few fractions of an inch from the sheath. She closed her eyes.
It was like a path, the view that she saw. The more difficult the prey, the longer and thinner the path. With the police man, it had been twelve steps, and about as thin as a sidewalk. With the soldiers, it had been eighty-six steps and thin as a gymnast’s pole.
She couldn’t see the end of the path against Susano-o anymore. She couldn’t tell whether that was because it was too long, or too thin. But she couldn’t beat him. She couldn’t kill him. Her traitor body was too tired, too weak, too mortal. She couldn’t fight him anymore.
She sank to her knees. The blade clicked back into the sheath. “Thatta girl. You’ve got a bright future ahead of you, young lady.” He grinned toothily as she stared up at him with angry eyes. “A lot of spirit. If you weren’t eleven years old, a tool of evil, and clearly insane, you’d remind me a lot of my wife. Now get the fuck out of my realm.”
She stood in Matsue once more, before the small makeshift shrine to Susano-o she had made. Her palms were raw. Her knife was gone. Her pride was shaken.
“Well, that didn’t go very well, did it?”
She spun, seizing a candlestick from the shrine, and threw it with lethal accuracy. There was a cough like a backfiring engine, and the candlestick fell to the ground, cracked in two. The smell of guns filled the air. An old, familiar smell, that brought back happy memories. The foreigner stood over her, a strange boxy gun held in one hand. He was perhaps ten years Ji-a’s elder, with curly red hair and smiling eyes, shining white teeth showing. “Nice throw. You know how to kill. Allow me to introduce myself.” He bowed his head. “I’m Jack.”
“J… Ji-a,” she said, in the clumsy English her father had taught her. It had been so long since she’d used it.
“Hmmm. Mind if I call you Jill?” Jack grinned cheerily. “Here’s the thing, Jill. You can’t simply waltz into the realm of a god, and challenge them to a fight. Nobody can do that, no hero, no legend. The only way to defeat a god is to take them out of their comfort zone, to force them against their nature, to trick them. If you try to beat Susano-o in a swordfighting contest, well, you’re going to look like a damn fool.”
“Who are you?” Ji-a asked, frowning. She didn’t much care for this arrogant man, or his lackadaisical treatment of her name, or the way that he had managed to stop her, or the way that she couldn’t see how she could kill him. The path was very short, and razor sharp. “What are you?”
“I’m…” He waved a hand. “Let’s say that we share the same mother, in a manner of speaking.”
“You don’t look Korean to me.”
“Not in that way. You saw her, didn’t you? The pale woman with the green hair.”
“죽음”, Ji-a whispered. The stalker. The one who had forced her to flee North Korea. The one who had taken her mother. “She is not my mother.”
“Oh, I know. She haunts you, too, doesn’t she?” Jack chuckled. “We’re not exactly on speaking terms, but she doesn’t want you to die fruitlessly. She knows how much you’re capable of. You could rock the heavens. You could…” He shrugged. “Well. The point is, you can’t do anything in this world alone. We’re humans. We need other people to depend on, to watch our backs. If we tried to take on all of our problems alone, we’d never make it. So. Why don’t you tell me what got you so angry at Susano-o?”
Ji-a lowered her eyes. “Four years ago. There was a typhoon. Rusa. It was deadly, swept around Japan, left it untouched. It struck South Korea, killed hundreds, and then moved to North Korea. Four people died. Four…” She shook her head. “One of them was my father. I knew. I knew it was their damned god. He protected his country, and he killed my worthless, good-for-nothing father…” The tears filled her eyes unexpectedly, and burned as they overflowed.
Jack slid his arms around her. She stiffened, and then pressed her face into his shoulder, bawling her eyes out. She had hated her father for so much, for giving her these damned eyes, for making her unable to ever simply fit safely into a crowd, for giving her life in a place like her home. For dying without ever fulfilling his promise. She cried until there were no more tears left, and sank down to the sidewalk. He lifted her up. “Come on. You look like you haven’t eaten well in a few weeks.” She threw her arms around his shoulders, and held onto him for dear life.
Ji-a gasped. Getting run through hurt rather more than she expected. The length of Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi spitted her, through the navel, and out through the back. She had taken the blow perfectly. It slid just below her stomach, barely nicking her intestines, just avoiding severing her spine and leaving her a cripple for the rest of her suddenly very short life. She fastened her fingers around the hilt of the blade. “This is a terrible way to die,” said Susano-o, smiling. Jack rose up from out of the grass, the fake blood streaming down his chin and chest.
“Yes, it is.”
The TEC-9 barked. Susano-o jerked, and dropped to the ground, gasping and choking. Ji-a did not know whether the god was truly as frail as anyone else, or if it was the gift Jack had been given to kill that which should be unkillable. The bullet entered Susano-o’s spine, and left him twitching on the ground. His leg twitched slightly, and went still, as he stared up at the vast storm-twisted skies above the endless plain of grass. “Oh. Huh. Well, I certainly didn’t expect this to be how I went out.”
Without Susano-o holding her up, Ji-a’s legs felt like jell-o. She could barely keep herself standing. Jack moved over to her side, and checked her, frowning. “You alright, Jill?”
“I am fine. Nothing vital is pierced.” A great deal of blood was dripping down her belly. Her head was woozy. She still managed to meet Susano-o eyes. “This is for-” Jack rested a hand very gently on her shoulder. She looked up at him, frowning.
“He’s wondering the same thing,” Jack stage-whispered, loud enough for Susano-o to hear. “He’s wondering what could drive a young woman to such ends, to allow herself to be stabbed through the gut, just to kill someone. He’s wondering why you went to such great lengths for the sake of killing him. It is the last question that remains to him, and the only thing he has left to look forward to in the world before he dies.”
“Well,” said Susano-o, grinning. “It’d only be sporting. Enjoy the sword, girl. Hope you don’t die. Good luck with your dragons. So why did you do it?”
Jack gently placed the TEC-9 in Ji-a’s hands. She leveled it at him, and closed her eyes. The path was a single step, now.
She pulled the trigger. It was a terrible way to die.
The gun dropped from her fingers, and she crumpled. The last thing she heard was Jack shouting her name. Then everything went black.
To her surprise, she woke up again, lying in a small clinic. There were no windows. An IV was dripping something unknown into her wrist, and the EKG next to her began to beep more furiously as her heart raced. The door opened, and Jack stepped in, his eyes wide. “You’re alright!”
“I…” She frowned down at herself. “I survived.”
“Of course you did!” He grinned, and took a seat next to her. “You’re a fighter!”
“I…” she stared down at herself. “I never thought I’d survive. I just wanted to see him dead. I was sure that I’d die too.” She stared down at her hands. “I never really thought about what I would do next. I assumed I’d die in the attempt.”
“Well, you have some options. You could settle into a happy life, try to find somewhere to belong, somewhere where you could be away from all of this. Might be the safest option, after you killed a god. Or…”
She reached out, and took his hand. “I want to stay with you,” she said, and then felt rather embarrassed. “I mean- I think you’re right. About the Gods, about all of this. I think that someone needs to stop them from interfering in people’s lives.” She gritted her teeth. “Someone needs to make it all fair. Otherwise… Otherwise, what the hell is the point?”
He chuckled softly. “Yeah…? Well, then. I think that we can manage that. You were lucky to survive. You nearly bled out before I could get you to this clinic, it was a miracle.”
She stared down at her own stomach, and rested a hand on the stitches. She wondered about that. There had been so many times when she’d survived in the face of impossible odds. How often could something like that be luck? When did it become suspicious?
Ji-a stood in the line, among many other young women, in the great marble hall, surrounded by pillars. None of them wore clothes.
In most situations, this would have made Ji-a tremendously uncomfortable. She was not proud of her body. She was small, and weak, and not even particularly feminine. There was a great deal for her to hate about herself, the strange mish-mash of features that made her neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring. Certainly, being exposed before the tall, statuesque Greek woman would have been cause enough for a psychotic break under most circumstances. Artemis was tall, perfect, her skin tanned thoroughly. She wore a simple white tunic, and made it look good in the effortless way of the divine.
But her eyes were not amorous, or even particularly critical. She studied each of them in turn. She stopped as she reached Ji-a, and tilted her head. “Do you mind?” she asked, a hand held out, not quite touching.
“I’m the one applying for the job,” Ji-a said.
“You are not an ornament, an animal, or a tool. You are a woman. You have a say in being touched.”
“If I said no, would you still hire me on?” Ji-a asked. Artemis frowned. “I am sorry. That was impertinent. Yes, you may.”
Artemis touched her stomach, where the scar was. She raised a hand to Ji-a’s chin, and tilted it from side to side, staring into her eyes. “You have been wounded by men. More than once. Even in being made.”
Ji-a shrugged. The goddess’ gentle statements were piercing. In front of dozens of others, she carelessly brought these things up as though she were being kind. As though exposing weakness was something that she should be thanked for. “Yes. Haven’t we all?”
“Ah-hah. Yes.” Artemis nodded slowly, and waved. “Sipriotes.”
A young woman stepped forward quickly, dressed in a tunic. She was Greek, but short and slim where Artemis was tall and imperious. She held another thin garment in her hands. “My lady?” The girl’s voice was surprisingly deep. Artemis gave the young woman a sharp look, and Sipriotes froze, before speaking again, voice soft and breathy this time. “My lady?”
“I believe that this one will make a fine new attendant. And stand up properly. You are a woman, remember?” She smiled towards Ji-a. “You know of the myths about me, I’m sure.” Ji-a nodded. “Many remember Aktaion. His stumbling upon me and not averting his gaze…” She sighed, and shook her head. “Shameful, the behavior of men. Sipriotes here made much the same mistake, but her quick thinking saved her. She bowed her head and begged for forgiveness, so I offered her a choice. She could die, or she could be made a woman.” Artemis laughed. “She made the right choice.”
Ji-a nodded as the two of them kept walking through the ivory halls. She turned to watch Sipriotes. The girl stood with dead eyes, her gaze lowered towards her own body. Ji-a knew that look. The hatred of oneself. The disgust with what you were. She’d seen that look in the mirror enough times. “I wonder, Artemis- If I may ask- Why do you hate men?”
There was a long, slow, deadly silence. Artemis turned towards her, her expression grave. Ji-a breathed slowly through her nose. The path here was very small, and very precipitous. Then Artemis nodded. “I understand why you might think I do. My history has not been gentle with them. The truth is, I do not hate men. They are what they are. They are lecherous beings, who cannot control themselves. While that is distasteful, it is not reason for hate. I do not hate the stag for running, or the wolf for preying upon its favorite meal, or the slug for oozing on the ground. They cannot help what they are. I preserve my hate for a very few things.” She turned her head. A statue of a young woman was slumped against the wall, hands raised. “Betrayal among them.” She sighed. “I am the goddess of childbirth. Men are a necessary, if unsavory part of life. But just because I do not hate them does not mean I have to like them. Sipriotes was a perfect example. Now, she has choice in the world.”
Ji-a nodded, and tried to keep the dark look off of her face. “Of course, lady. I don’t mean to be impertinent, but I think I know of a hunt that might please you. A man who’s killed a god…”
Jack intercepted the arrow with his hand, and his gun. It was still not enough to keep the notched head from sinking into his eye. He screamed like a wounded animal, his hand pinned to his face by the weapon. He tried to pull it out, and fell to his knees, retching. Ji-a lunged at Artemis, and she moved cat-quick, striking Ji-a across the chin. The Asian girl fell back. Her attendants stood behind her, clustered with mouths open, not daring to interfere. Sipriotes stood just behind her, a ceramic jug full of water held in both hands, meant to quench the hunters during their hunt. Her grip was white-knuckled.
“You think I did not know who you were, Jack, Jill? Seven years you’ve been cutting a bloody swath across this world, you thought I would not recognize such hunters?” She chuckled. “The failings of humanity. This is what always becomes of those who believe they are a greater hunter than I. I will kill your man, there, Jill. Put his bones as a trophy somewhere tasteful. But you? I think I can think of a worse fate for you. I do like to be creative with my curses.” She drew the bow, an arrow nocked and pointed towards Jack. “Why do you seek to kill gods?”
Ji-a rubbed her split lip. Slender fingers came away bloody. “Practice.”
“Well, shame you didn’t practice more. Any last words?”
Ji-a nodded slowly, and stood. Her eyes turned towards Sipriotes. “There’s always a way to break the curse.”
Artemis frowned. “Terrible last words-”
The water jug smashed into the side of her head with all of Sipriotes’ confessedly modest strength. The bowstring twanged, and an arrow sunk into Jack’s chest, as Artemis stumbled to the side, cursing. She was only distracted for the briefest of moments.
Ji-a sank the combat knife into the hilt, straight through the goddess’ perfect throat. The knife came out blood-red, and stabbed again, through the heart. Through the lungs. Liver. Kidney. Artemis fell back, choking and bloody, arms up. Ji-a fell with her, straddling her, bringing the knife down again, and again, and again. Again and again and again-
She turned, her eyes wide. Jack lay, coughing and bleeding, on the ground. She pulled herself off of the dying goddess, and stood over him, her hands over her mouth. She didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know how to remove the arrows, how to stop the blood from pouring down his chest. He smiled up at her, his remaining eye glazing as he groaned. “Well, shit. Looks like we might not be making it through this after all.”
And then, she was there.
The pale woman with the green hair.
“My foolish children.” She knelt next to Jack as Ji-a scrambled backwards, grabbing for the knife still sticking out of Artemis’ chest. She drew it, and turned towards Death, the blade drawn, her eyes narrowed.
“You can’t take him. I won’t let you take him. He’s mine, do you understand? He’s all I have in the world, and if you try to take him, I’ll kill you!”
“Daughter, what makes you think I would want my son dead?” She waved a hand, and Jack shuddered. Cold filled the air. “The two of you still have so much left to do.”
“You’re… You’re not allowed to interfere. Jack said that you can’t, that it’s not the way you work.”
“We’re not supposed to interfere. We’re not supposed to help. But we can cheat.” Death smiled. “He will be stable. He will need a clinic, but he will survive for a bit longer, at least.”
“He tries so hard to live up to your expectations, you know,” Ji-a said, her eyes narrowed.
She did not say ‘I’m going to kill you.’ But Death smiled and laughed anyway.
“I know that, too.”
And then, the pale woman with the green hair was gone. Jack lay on the ground. The attendants had all fled as Ji-a stabbed their goddess to death. Except one. A slender Greek boy in a tunic looked up at her, tears in his eyes. “Thank you.”
She looked down at Jack. “The powerful should not be allowed to kill, to torture, without someone to call them to account,” she said softly, repeating the words he’d told her. “Please help me.”
She and Sipriotes walked out of the woods, carefully carrying Jack the whole way.
“Do you ever feel like this may all not have a happy ending?” asked Jack, staring down at his hands with one eye. The eyepatch hung over the other eye. The bow and the sword hung from the wall, their trophies from the gods they’d brought low. The dark hair dye sat in his hair, hiding the bright red. Keeping him indistinct.
“We can do this, Jack,” Ji-a said softly, resting a hand on his shoulder. “I know it’s hard, but we have the strength we need to change the world. To make the gods pay for their injustices, to show them that they cannot simply use humans as playthings. We both know that they are coming back. Everyone can feel it, even if most don’t understand. But we won’t let the world fall back into their hands.”
“We’ve killed two gods. Both times, we nearly died. Your eyes are good, Jill. You can do things that no other human can. I can, too. But I don’t think that we’re going to make it. Your eyes see how to kill, but not how to see us through. I don’t think we’re going to survive this.” He reached up and took her hand. “I don’t know what I would do if I lost you. I don’t know if I could face them without you by my side.”
“Of course you couldn’t, you dumbass.” Ji-a smiled, and cuffed his shoulder gently. “You couldn’t kill a joke without my help.”
“Hah.” He smiled. “And if you didn’t have me, how would you ever manage to feed yourself? You can’t even reach the bottom shelf.” Ji-a laughed very softly.
Ever since Artemis had nearly killed him, he had been this way. Nervous. Fearful. She wondered, and it seemed as though he’d been the same way after Susano-o spitted her. They had laid low, targeting monsters, those supernatural creatures which they could find, while avoiding pursuit. Avoiding the wrath of the gods. Two pantheons already wanted them dead, and hunted them relentlessly, though they were hobbled by the barriers between worlds. It wasn’t entirely odd that Jack would be nervous with those kinds of odds against them, but they had won before. They knew that they could win. They had to.
“We know the path. New York City, we get the evidence, we chase Bastet, we find Ariel. Then…”
“I don’t know if we can do it, Jill,” he said softly. “I don’t think we’re strong enough. We’ve killed two gods, barely, and it nearly cost us our lives. She’s a force of nature. She has power that dwarfs that of Susano-o or Artemis. She’s one of the Sisters. What do we have?”
“Hope. Hope for a better world. You know why we’re doing this. She and her sisters are the ones who enable the Gods’ rule, who keep the status quo intact. They’re the ones who have made this world. They allowed one of their own to be trapped for fear of disturbing the status quo. We show them we don’t need them. We kill the Horsemen. Humanity is finally free from the tyranny of the gods and the demons. We can live our lives without fear. Without gods.” Ji-a pressed her forehead against his cheek, holding him tight. “You have to keep fighting, Jack. You have to believe me. We can win.”
He shivered, and then nodded. “Alright.” He rested his hand on her forehead, and smiled. “You’re the best partner in crime a guy could ask for, Jill.” She squeezed his hands, and smiled.
“There is something I can do for you,” said a soft voice. Both of them froze. Death walked in front of them, smiling. “You are going to New York City. There is a scheme beyond that. One that I fear is about to cause great havoc for us, because of careless action. I need the two of you to do something while you are there.”
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” growled Ji-a. “We don’t work for-” Jack squeezed her hand, and she stopped.
“No. You intend to kill me, my enemies, my companions, all of us. Our goals align perfectly. And I wish to help you.” She smiled. “You two are… special. You give me a bit of hope for humanity. That maybe, just maybe, all of this can be torn down to the roots. That I can win. You’ve made such magnificent use of my gifts, but they’re limited. They don’t have everything you need. I am only one aspect of this world, after all. And I think you are ready for the big leagues.”
The pumping station was cramped. Joshua sat in one corner, muttering words to himself as he ran the grater over his arm, collecting small, bloody shreds of flesh. Ji-a distracted herself by focusing on the power.
I want to kill Death.
The path stretched out in front of her, tens of thousands of steps. It would take her the better part of a year.
I want to kill Bastet, then Death.
The path shifted. Longer, now, and much different.
I want to kill Bastet, and win the Nobel Prize.
Nothing. Her paths still had to end in death.
I want to kill Bastet, then Ariel, then Death.
Nothing. Her path was still limited to two targets. She clucked her tongue. She could hold one overarching goal in her mind, shape the short-term plans around that. Killing the policewoman at the crime scene was possible, but it wouldn’t have worked well with her overall plans. This would. She had to trust in her power. She knew that it was a gift from an enemy, but it hadn’t steered her wrong yet. And now…
So often in the past, it had nearly come down to her life against someone else’s. She’d been fast, skilled, lucky enough to survive despite that. But her power hadn’t protected her once her goal was finished. She’d only ever been able to think one step ahead, and that had nearly been fatal too many times. Now… Now she could think two steps ahead.
I want to kill Bastet, then Death.
First step: Wait until the fighting died off upstairs.
Second step: Travel up with the Fetch-wizard and Jack. Her Jack.
Third-through-eighteenth steps: Bait the police officer into a confrontation. Disable her. More complicated than that, but that’s what it wound down to.
The next step was Ariel. It yawned forward. Thin as a hair, longer than she could see.
But she could see the steps beyond it. A smile spread across her lips. She could do this.
She looked up. Jack’s expression was still melancholy. He still couldn’t believe in himself. He couldn’t hope for something. But she could. She knew that they could do this. They would do what no one else in this world could do. Together. She stepped over to him, and squeezed him around the shoulders. He smiled up at her, the melancholy disappearing. “Nervous?” she asked.
“A bit.” He laughed. “Shouldn’t we be? We’re going to do something no one’s ever done before.”
“Do you have it?” she asked softly. He nodded, and flicked the eyepatch up. Glass gleamed within. “Good.”
Jill’s throat hurt. She choked and gasped for air. Ariel paced from side to side, smiling at them. Unassailable. Invincible. She’d landed those blows with contemptuous ease. That was what gods were like, after all. The only reason Jack and she weren’t already dead was because she was trying to avoid killing them. Going easy on them. It was a humiliating way to score a victory, by an enemy’s mercy, but she could still see that path. They could make it past this.
“Let’s get down to it, shall we?”
Ariel entered a swaying martial arts stance. Her arms blurred, and for just the briefest of moments, it appeared as though dozens of them, hundreds- a countless number- swept through the air. The entire building rocked. There was an apocalyptic noise as the roof of the building was sheared clean off, hurled several hundred feet out into the lake, and struck with a great splash. Chunks of concrete cracked to the ground, and the wind swept them far from the woman’s friends. The arrogant police officer, the walking corpse, the naive rookie, they watched, astonished, as the spirit of air showed a taste of her true power.
“I’m going to show you a trick I learned from a very dear friend. When you’re fighting someone, you can’t just beat them. That leaves some doubt. They think ‘If only’, ‘maybe’, ‘what if’. When you want to really break someone, you have to show them that they could never win at all. That no matter what, no matter how lucky they are, no matter how strong they became, no matter how many friends they brought, the battle would remain completely hopeless. I’m going to kill your hope, pawns of the Horsemen.” She raised both fists into the air, and the wind began to howl.
And the path flickered. For the first time in a long time, Jill felt unsure.