Many things describe me and my sisters. I am Air, which can mean Wind, or Storms, or Breath, or Movement, or Freedom, or any of a countless number of other connections humans make between seemingly unrelated topics. They are prone to finding patterns in things. So I am a varied and complex being. But all of that can be boiled down to two things: The good, and the bad. My sisters are the same way. We are composed of the sweet, gentle aspects of the world. Air that nourishes lungs, breezes that cool temples, skies that offer freedom. I am full of so many good, and wonderful things. Love among them, I realized now.
But not all of me is kindness. Not all of me is gentle. That is half of what I am. It is the part of me that I like to show to humans. Even when I’m angry, even when I lash out, I am the anger of a breeze, running away from that which has brought my anger out. I try to turn away from humans, to leave them behind, to run. That is the side I so often show. Because I want people to like me, and because I don’t want to hurt people. Hurting people is so very, terribly easy.
I had been wondering for a time now, what love was. Whether I was simply being used, and mistaking it for love. Whether, as Jack Knife had said, I was just a tool that thought it was being treated specially, mistaking service for love. It had been hard. But whatever love was, I imagine it had to have something in common with what my friends here had done. Li Fang Fen and Dane had worked hard, fought, pushed themselves, bled, and been strong, all so that I could be allowed to be weak. That was love, if anything was, to sacrifice themselves to protect someone who was weak.
Half of me is kind, gentle, nurturing. The other half is destruction. It’s the side I hold back. The lightning that can tear through tree trunks and strike men dead. The storms that can fling a branch through solid concrete at two hundred miles an hour. The catastrophic cyclones that shatter nations. The terrible fury of the air. Omnipresent, gentle, soft, people so easily forget how deadly I can be. These two certainly had, the cocky little humans who believed that they could take lives without a care for the damage they caused.
The ceiling ripped free with a terrible noise and the merest effort of my will. It was thrown, skipping, across the lake, coming to a stop where it would not do harm to anyone. It would cost the city money, which would be annoying for people. But storm damage was something inevitable. I let the winds flow down around us, swaying through the room, letting my power arrive in full. These two had been given great strength from Death and had found still greater power elsewhere, but they were human. They had to send thoughts rushing down inefficient sodium-potassium channels, wait for muscles to creak into dull and rusty action. I was the wind.
Jill drew a knife, and before she could even lean forward to lunge at me, I was within her arms reach. Her eyes opened, and I landed six blows on her stomach with one fist. Her expression grew nauseous, her mouth opening wide, gagging, struggling, trying to keep hold of herself.
“I saw when you killed Susano-o, you know,” I said. Then I was gone, as Jack fired again, bullets passing through the air. I could feel the entire battlefield. Every inch of it, every combatant. Dane was struggling to push herself to her feet, while Tod tried to keep her from standing. “You were fairly impressive. Letting him think that Jack had been cut down, killed. He let his guard down when he thought both of you were dead. Good trick, good way to stop an overconfident Japanese god. But I can feel your breath from here. You can’t fool me with feigned weakness. I’m going to beat you to within an inch of your life.”
Jack fired another round at me, aiming it for my skull. In the time it took the bullet to pass five feet, I was standing in front of him. He stepped back instinctively, putting all of his weight on one leg as he did. My foot flickered out, and I slammed my heel into his knee. It cracked and reversed in the joint in exactly the way knees were not supposed to. Jack dropped screaming to the ground, his limbs drawing inward protectively, the gun clattering against the ground. He clutched his knee, tears running down his cheeks. I stepped over him.
“Wind!” Jill shouted. She had managed to keep moving despite the devastating blow to her vitals. She had a knife held against Dane’s throat, and another one against Tod’s, her arms tensed. “If you touch him again, I’ll-”
I delivered two stinging blows to her wrists. The human body is a series of complex pulleys and hinges, essentially. The determination of the mind, the strength of the muscles, they don’t matter if one of the tendons is struck firmly. Determination is no replacement for connective tissue, when you are human. She gasped, and tried to strike me with an elbow as the knives dropped uselessly to the ground. I caught her easily, and accelerated her movement, hurling her over my hip. She struck the concrete hard, bounced, and landed in a crumpled heap next to Jack.
“I also saw when you killed Artemis, though something blocked my vision after the end of it. She nearly had you, but her ally betrayed her, because she had done terrible wrongs to them in the past. She fell because they were servants, not friends.” I raised my eyes towards Dane and Li Fang Fen, who were staring. “Thank you. You did so much for me.” Tears filled my eyes, and I rubbed at my face, trying to brush away the traitorous tears. “I really don’t know how to thank you for what you did. I’m sorry you even had to do it in the first place, that I was so afraid of my own weakness that I let you be hurt so badly. I’m going to make it up to-”
Jack fired a round at my head. I caught it between thumb and forefinger. “-you.” I turned my head towards the two of them. “Are you still so feisty, Jack? You want more than this? Do you think you have a chance? Do you think that there’s any hope? Even if you could shoot me, do you think that it would kill me? I’m so much greater than that, Jack.”
“I-” he grunted, shifting his weight, wincing as he rested a hand on his knee. “I know I can’t kill you. Not like this. I know what can kill you, but it’s a bit tricky to arrange. But that gift, it shows me where I can make it hurt. I just need to land the right blow.” He squeezed the trigger.
My finger was in the trigger guard, keeping it from firing. I smiled. “You never will, Jack. You could try for the rest of your life, and never manage it. You will never succeed against me.”
Jill lunged for my throat with the knife she had been keeping in her boot. I caught her wrist and snapped it, forcing her down to the ground on her side with a single simple movement. She lay, whimpering, as Jack tried to swing a fist at me. I caught it easily on the sole of my foot, balanced effortlessly in the air, pinning the two. “The two of you really care about each other, don’t you? You might even love each other. What are you, lovers, siblings, father and daughter? Don’t tell me it’s all three.” I smiled softly. “Well. I hope you understand, what with making me watch you tear out my friend’s eye, that you have shown a marked lack of respect for the love I feel for those around me. So, let’s start by returning the favor, shall we?” I leaned down, my fingers moving up Jill’s arm, towards her eye. Her teeth bared as she tried to pull away, her expression terrified as my fingers dipped down, three of them spread towards the corners of the bright blue eye, so like Dane’s.
I turned, and frowned. Tod stood, his arms crossed, his expression serious. “What? You don’t want me to torture them? You don’t think they deserve this? You think that’s wrong?” I shook my head. “All of the pain they’ve inflicted on others, you don’t get to take them into custody. I’m going to lock them in Tartarus. Let them understand what MY SISTER suffered for them! Let them understand what she GAVE UP, to protect filthy!” I turned, and slammed a foot into Jack’s wrist, knocking the gun away as he tried to raise it. “Disloyal!” I kicked Jill in the jaw. “Scum-”
“Do not touch my children again.”
The howling wind died.
I whirled. Li Fang Fen was staring up in shock. Where Tod had been standing was a young woman, with skin as pale as milk, and hair a shade of acidic green. She wore a simple black hooded robe, the hood hanging bunched around her shoulders. A scythe dangled between her two hands. She met my eyes, and then spun, slashing the blade through Li Fang Fen and Dane. They gasped, and I prepared to lunge.
The two of them frowned, and stood up, clumsily, but nonetheless. Dane clutched Tonfa in one hand, Jack Knife in the other. Death nodded softly. “This is not a place for you anymore. Go. Deal with the petty concerns of humanity for the few remaining years you have left. Stop Jackfruit, or don’t. But I wouldn’t recommend you stay here.” She turned back towards me.
I nodded at the two. “You did more than I ever could have asked for me. Don’t worry.” My teeth shone in the full moon, as I cracked my knuckles. “Death’s just decided she wanted to save me some time.” The two of them stood up, and made for the stairway. I knew they didn’t have much left to do. They could handle what was left for them to do. “You know, it’s a funny thing, Death. You broke the rules. You knew what they were, why they were. This whole plague, you should have kept your champions far away from it. Just here, for a little while, I don’t have any of my usual limits. I could break you. I could kill you. It would be so, so easy.”
She narrowed her eyes. I lunged, and she sidestepped. My fist missed her by inches as it extended. Then I drew my fist back, and my elbow slammed into her ribs with the force of a hurricane, sending her sprawling along the ground, coming back to her feet by Jack and Jill. She swept the blade through them, and they stood, unsteadily, recovering. An interesting trick. I wasn’t sure exactly what she was doing to heal them. Killing the injury? It certainly seemed an unfair ability, to say the least. A savage smile spread across my lips, unbidden. It still wouldn’t save them.
“Walk away, Air.” Jack and Jill took in sharp breaths, turning their heads towards Death as she spoke, still calm. “This doesn’t have to go any further. We don’t need to let it come down to this today.”
“Why put off till tomorrow what you can do today?” I smiled.
“They are my children, Air. I will fight to protect them with everything I have.”
“Oh yeah?” I smiled cheerfully.
My knee sank into Death’s chest as I appeared between her and her scythe, so close we were almost kissing. My fists lashed out, cracking into Jack and Jill’s chins, sending the three in different directions. I landed lightly on the ground as the three of them crashed against the cracked walls of the maintenance building. “You’ve fucking forgot why the Horsemen made that deal, Death. You got cocky. You forgot that ultimately, you are nothing to me. You are Death. The wind cannot die. When this world is gone, when this universe is nothing but darkness, there will still be a flow. You can’t win this.”
Death pulled herself to her feet, breathing hard, her teeth shining white as she raised the scythe. She lunged at me with inhuman speed. She was still much too slow I dodged and weaved easily, swaying between the blows. She swiped it through the air, overextended as I stepped aside, and caught a swift jab in the nose. She stumbled back, clutching her face with one hand. “I will not-” She coughed, spat out a wad of black blood, and continued. “-let my children be harmed.”
“Is that so?” I asked, my voice deadly and still. “The mother bear thing. Humans are so fond of that. The proverbial strength of the mother defending her cubs.” I cracked my neck. “Do you remember, Death, when my sister gave fire to the humans? Do you remember what you told the gods, that the humans would become greater than them because of the gift they had been given? Do you remember when they demanded she accept punishment? I remember every moment of it so well. I remember you laughing!”
I lunged forward again. Death watched, waiting with obvious patience. When she thought I was too close, too committed, to break away, she swung upwards, trying to split me in half.
I slapped the scythe aside, and caught her in the chin with another earth-cracking blow. We were not mere flesh and blood, though we could seem that way. We were embodiments of human belief, and of fundamental facts of the universe. Death was a fluke of life, an entropic breakdown of a complex system. It was very important to humans. I was the concept of flow. I was more important. And she knew it.
She struck the far wall, and slumped to the ground. I sighed, and stretched. “God. I’ve had so much anger built up. Knowing that I can let it out in a healthy, meaningful way… It really helps, you know that?” I grinned. “I am going to shove your children in Tartarus. I’ll see them dangling from the trees in Yomi. I’ll bury them in the ice of Hel. And I’ll make you watch every moment of it, Death. You never showed the love of others, the children of others, any kindness or favoritism. What arrogance to think that you are entitled to any different.”
Jack and Jill moved fast. Not towards me, which was surprising. They stood in front of Death. Jack had a bow drawn, a sterling pearly white thing. A bolt of light was visible nocked on the bow, sparkling white light like the sun. Jill had drawn a blade, scaled surface writhing slightly as she held it. I smiled. “The trophies come out, do they? Stolen power, and hardly earned, at that.”
“You can’t win,” growled Jill. “We are together. We have each other. You are alone. No friends to support you.” Her eyes narrowed. “No champion to save you.”
I thought, for just a moment, of Nash. I closed my eyes, and I could feel his presence. The warmth. He was somewhere warm, and sunny. The smell of salt in the air, the heavy weight of determination in his bones. He was busy. I would ease his burden, if only a little bit. That was love. “You have such beautiful weapons, the three of you. Sword, scythe, bow. You go to such great lengths to fight me. And all I have are my fists.” I pounded my right fist into my left palm, and the wind rose again, into a screaming storm, the scant clouds above tearing and shredding as waves began to whip up on the lake.
I threw myself into their midst, between the three of them. They spread out slightly. Jack drew a burning arrow, and loosed it at me. It leapt for my heart with supernatural speed. I dove beneath Death, slipping between her legs, and she was forced to catch the bolt on her scythe before it impaled her. I stood back to back against her, and slammed my head backwards, my skull colliding with hers, sending her stumbling forward. I turned, and grinned. “Tod. Tot! I just got it. Really clever, Death. Almost as clever as War calling herself Bella. Oh, you must have been laughing at me!”
Death swept her scythe at me low, while Jill came from the other side with her sword, striking high. I threw myself into a cartwheel, effortlessly slipping between the blades, and landing easily on one foot. I snapped out two quick kicks with the other, catching both of them in the face. They were slowing down, growing weak, desperate, the beating eating away at their strength and their spirit alike. Jack fired another arrow, and I caught it between both hands, grinning. It burned, but not nearly as much as being helpless had. “You arrogant fucking bitch,” growled Jack.
“You’re like a dog chasing a car, Jack. So caught up in the thrill of the hunt you don’t consider what you’re going to do once you’ve caught it. What’s your end-game here? You know all I do for humans? You know all I do to preserve them? I have spent my conscious existence protecting your kind from threats you can hardly imagine, and this is the thanks that you give me?!”
“You, protecting people? I’ve seen everyone you let down,” he growled, as the arrow shattered between my fingers. Death lunged forward, the scythe flashing. Jack fired arrow after arrow, the two of them fighting with all they had, trying to keep me off balance. I could feel Jill, kneeling, her hands on her blade, her eyes closed, her lips moving. “You squander your power! Too afraid to use it to genuinely protect people, a slave to rules that protect you from feeling responsible for the consequences of your inaction!”
“Do I?” Jack was trying to distract me. That meant Jill was the threat. I swept my hands around, and grabbed the scythe blade from Death’s hands. With a single terrible wrench, I tore it from her fingers, spinning it in the air. “Well, let’s change that right now.” I lunged forward between the two, at Jill, and swept the scythe forward.
It stopped, hooked around her neck.
Her eyes slowly opened, and she was sweating. “Hurry, Jack. Hurry. She’s strong, I can’t hold her for long, Jack, she’s so fucking strong-”
I strained. Pushed. Threw everything I had into it, and I twitched a pinky. But I couldn’t move. They had me trapped. I couldn’t feel the wind around me. Death leaned heavily on the ground. Jack had a hand up to his bad eye, pushing the eye patch out of the way, pulling something glass out. He swung it at me.
I groaned. I was cold. I felt heavy as stone, my whole body aching softly. I looked up, and frowned. Jack stood over the tiny glass bottle which held me, a subjective giant. I slowly shook my head. “An adamant bottle. And the grass-cutting sword. Should have thought more about the legend of the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi. The sword that controls the wind. Clever. Clever. You really got me there.” I shook my head slowly. The anger wanted to well up inside of me, but it couldn’t. I lay on the glass surface, enervated, barely able to move. “You stole my freedom twice-over. The thing I cared most about. That’s one hell of a plan you had there.”
Jill lifted the bottle, and shook it, throwing me from wall to wall, battering me. “Arrogance is the downfall of gods. The belief that you are better than anything. That you cannot be brought down. My gift can always find the way to bring someone to their knees if you know how to ask the questions right. You just had the foolish temerity to make your capture the only way we could kill Bastet.” She gritted her teeth, and looked up at Death. “We did not ask for your help.”
“Your gift failed you. You know that you were doomed without me. Unprepared.” Death clucked her tongue, shaking her head. “This was close. Too close. The only reason any of us three survived was less because of our skill, and more because of…” She looked down at me. “Impetuosity.” She narrowed her eyes, and Jack snatched the glass.
“I think that now, you should understand what your situation is. You are trapped in this bottle. You are constrained, thoroughly, and utterly. Your power is ours, and we will give it out freely. Your gifts will be something I trade to those who want to help me destroy the gods. I imagine there will be countless takers. And I will use you as a hostage against your sisters.” He rolled the vial in his hand, and smiled as I was tossed helplessly. “Your freedom is gone, Wind. You cannot escape this bottle. Nothing can break adamant. You will never taste freedom again.”
I sat, the sick feeling spreading through my stomach. I couldn’t feel the wind. I couldn’t feel anything. I had once spread throughout an entire world. I had felt everything, and everyone. I had been surrounded by humanity, constantly aware of it. Now, my entire world spread no further than the shape of this bottle. “My sisters will know,” I said, my voice shaking a bit. “They’ll find out what you’ve done to me.”
“None to see what happened here,” purred Death, her smile wide. “The loss of Jackfruit’s plan is a shame. But they’ll never know what happened to you until it’s too late to do anything. Your escape is impossible, Air.”
I wondered, for a moment, whether War had planned this. Sent me to this city so that I’d land myself in this situation. It was her style. Every action taken always seemed to further their plans. It was like a black hole, growing so large and all-consuming, bending the fabric of space so that there was no direction you could find save towards the crushing, inevitable end. The tears began to trickle down my cheeks as the crushing helplessness of it all settled on me. I’d be used to hurt those I cared about. My recklessness, my rashness, it had all been exactly what the Horsemen had needed.
“Now, Ariel. Wind. We need to find Bastet, and you know where she is. You’ll tell us.”
I didn’t have a choice. In the open, free, I had every choice in the world. In this bottle, trapped inside the crystal, every possible path narrowed down, until there was only one thing I could do. Inevitable. “Yes.”
I closed my eyes. Remembering the world. I could see it, but not feel it. I could see where things were, but it wasn’t freedom. If anything, it made the sense of loneliness, powerlessness, helplessness, even more intense. I could see everything, and touch nothing. I closed my eyes. “She’s… in the Caribbean. She’s been sent there, to talk with the ruler of the Fourth City, Paradise. She is away from her human. She…” I swallowed. “She’s weak. Vulnerable.” My voice became scratchy, soft. “She can be killed.”
“Good,” said Jack. “Don’t be so sorry, Ariel. This is always how things were going to happen. The sooner you give in, and accept, the sooner you’ll be able to understand. No one will save you. No one will protect you. We’re going to win, Ariel. No happy ending for you.”
I sat against the glass wall, my arms crossed over my chest, my eyes tightly closed, as I looked through Paradise. The tension and the anger, all of them set against each other, ready for the least excuse to fall apart.
Then I caught a glimpse of hazel eyes and black hair.
“Jill, we’ll take a plane down to the Grand Caiman Islands, we should be able to be there before Bastet arrives, or just af- Why the hell are you laughing, Air?”
The three of them were turned towards me. Death’s face was cold as stone. Jill looked curious. Jack was just annoyed.
I hated to be weak. I hated to suffer, and be alone, and to be unable to make a difference. I wanted so badly to make things right, and I’d let that desire twist me. Now, I was helpless, and faced with a more terrible fate than I could imagine. I was trapped, just like my sister had been.
Exactly like my sister had been.
“You’re going to go to Paradise. You’re going to try to kill Bastet. You’re going to *try*.” I laughed again, the smile spreading across my lips. Tears were still falling down my cheeks. “And when you are there, you are going to meet a terrible force. Greater and more awful than I could ever be. You thought that this battle was hard fought, that you survived by the skin of your teeth? You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.”
“Oh?” asked Jill, her eyes narrowed. “Some god, hmmm? Some great hero?”
“No,” I said. “Neither one.”
“Whoever it is,” said Jill, “They can’t fight fate.”
I laughed again, as the three of them left the plant, Death and her ‘children’ going their separate ways. The glass was still claustrophobic. I was still alone, still serving horrible people and being used to hurt those I loved and cared about. I had failed. I had frozen, like a rabbit, and been captured. I was trapped in a prison, a hell, in unbreakable chains, just like Pearl. And she had been saved.
I had hope.