Ji-a breathed shallowly through her nose as she and Jack hobbled through the door into their small apartment. Deep in the slums of Paradise, where no one would notice her. They were silent as they slipped through the doorframe together. Both of Jack’s arms hung limply, his shoulders dislocated. Ji-a limped, trying not to put weight on her left leg. Her right hand was held gingerly, trying not to let the broken bones twist and grind against each other. They couldn’t meet each other’s eyes. She was afraid of what she might see in Jack’s eyes. Humiliation. Shame. Rage. Defeat. The loss of hope.
They had fought together for ten long years against the gods. They’d faced great challenges. Each had nearly died at least twice, all in the service of their ultimate goal. She believed in Jack, more than she had ever believed in herself. He had saved her from a lifetime of mediocrity and pointlessness. He had shown her the true nature of Death. The two of them had agreed on their crusade. They would show the gods that they were not to be meddled with, that humanity did not need gods anymore. That they could crush the arrogant divinities beneath their feet.
They’d been badly hurt many times before. But they’d never been forced to retreat, not when they were together. Not like this.
The apartment was not a home. The two of them had never had a home, moving ever onwards to avoid their pursuit. It was like a hundred others they had stayed in. A handful of magazines were scattered, elegant women in clothes that Ji-a would never be able to afford spread through their glossy pages. Even ten years out of North Korea, she still found them strange and beautiful, and more than a little bit aggravating, as shown by the faces she had cut out. Jack’s small collection of classical literature and mythological tales sat across from them, his ‘evidence’. They didn’t carry many weapons around with them. Jack had his Tec-9, she used whatever she found. The sole exceptions were Kusanagi no Tsurugi, hanging from her belt, and Artemis’ nameless bow, strung across Jack’s back.
A third trophy sat on the table between the two sets of literature. A small glass bottle, with their captive inside. The air stirred very slightly as the tiny, inch-tall figure of Ariel, Sister of Air, looked up at them. Her lips spread out wide, into a broad smile. Green and blue hair was messy, flat, and lifeless from her captivity within the bottle, and from the power that they had drained out of her. They had ordered her to give her blessing to every agent of the Horsemen they could. Each of the Horsemen had been sent a tithe of a twentieth of her power, to use or distribute as they saw fit. They could not kill her without risking the loss of that power, but in the unbreakable adamant bottle, she was as good as dead to those around her. Unable to communicate, unable to leave, unable to do anything but obey them. And she was still smiling.
“You two had a rough night, huh?”
Jack nodded sharply to Ji-a. She set her left hand on his wrist, lifted her knee up against his side to brace him and pulled the way he had taught her. The joint stretched, slipped, and then popped back into place. Jack didn’t scream, but he did wobble alarmingly, his expression nauseous. She leaned against the wall, avoiding putting pressure on her leg. Her ankle felt sprained, and her knee had already nearly dislocated under the strain while they were walking up the stairs. She didn’t want that to happen again. So instead, she just leaned there, taking shallow breaths through her bruised ribs, and rested a hand on her throat. A ligature mark was there, and she could still feel where the length of silk had pressed against her windpipe. She shivered violently.
“So, did Bastet fight back harder than you two expected? Get the drop on you? Or maybe it was those G-men with her, huh?” Ariel chuckled. “Maybe one of the gods interfered? Huitzilopotchli or Ogoun, maybe? You guys sure seem shaken up. Was it Michael?”
“Shut up,” hissed Jack. Ariel gave him a victorious smirk, even as she went quiet. Bound by his words and her imprisonment in adamant “Ji-a. Are you okay?” He looked down at her ankle with obvious concern. She shrugged, and sat down next to him on the couch. He rested his fingers on her ankle, and she closed her eyes. The simple physical contact made her hurt less, the touch of his warm, rough fingers making it a little easier for her to deal with the pain. He gently prodded, and stroked her kneecap. “Sprained. Both of them. Going to need some ice. Going to need to stay off them for a little while. Maybe we can bilk one of the angels, or threaten a Loa, or… something. Get you healed”
“And then what?” asked Ji-a. Jack’s furious eyes snapped up to her, and softened when he saw the tears in her eyes. “Jack- What if it was all worthless?”
Death was abruptly sitting across from them. Her acid green hair hung around her shoulders, her pale skin contrasting with ruby red lips. She had not been there a moment ago, but now she leaned back in her chair, her eyes impassive, dark, as she watched the two of them. There was a long moment of silence. Then she reached out, and gently touched Jack’s shoulder. “Are you alright?”
Ji-a shivered. It never failed to disturb her, hearing the tender softness in Death’s voice. The compassion. The love. It would have been better if she spoke in harsh, guttural tones, or with the lead-heavy sound of slabs of granite and marble. Something appropriately sepulchral and terrible. Death sounded like what she had dreamed a mother would sound like. Tender, concerned, wishing to protect her children. Ji-a’s eyes went to her wrists. They were stinging from the fight, but they had been broken not long ago, and Death had fixed them in the sweep of her scythe. That scared the hell out of Ji-a, too.
Jack gave Death a hateful look. “What was he?”
Jack wanted Death dead. Ji-a didn’t know why. She didn’t ask him. He’d always had the best reasons for everything he did, and she trusted him. When the time came, she would take Death’s life, if it was what he wanted. And Death knew it. That’s what scared Ji-a.
“I couldn’t see what happened in there.” Death frowned, her lips curled. “Was it a hero? One of the gods?”
A soft clinking noise filled the air. The three of them looked down towards the adamant bottle. Ariel lay on her side in the bottle, slapping the side of it, an expression of utter mirth on her face as she slapped the bottle hard enough to make it ring. “What the hell is so funny?” asked Jack, his voice low and dangerous. Ariel sat up, smiling, and pointed towards her mouth. “Tell me, then. What do you find so funny?”
“You thought you were so big and bad. Got one over on old Air, trapped her in a bottle. Killed a couple of gods. All with your beloved Death catching you every time you fell. You thought you could take on the world, didn’t you?” She grinned. “I told you. Not a god, or a hero. How’s Silas doing?”
Ji-a’s eyes flickered down to the bullet lying on the ground, and the strange man in the silly white chauffeur’s uniform. He’d moved like Ariel, just for a moment. The kind of speed that the eye couldn’t follow, catching the bullet between thumb and forefinger. “What are you?” she asked, her eyes narrowed. He looked young, younger than Jack, perhaps a few years older than she was. Nothing special. But that was no guarantee.
“Jill,” said Jack, warningly. The man held up a hand, smiling apologetically.
“It’s alright. I’m not embarrassed to share. I’m a human. Used to be an FBI agent. Made the wrong deal, decided that I’d play the hand out. How about you two, hmm? Jack and Jill. I heard about you two back while I was with the FBI, before I tendered my resignation. You were a pair of real terrors. They say that you killed people.” He tilted his head, and met Ji-a’s eyes. “You look a little sad. I’m curious. What’s your happy ending?”
She thought for a moment. A small patch of farmland. The sword and the bow hung up over the mantle. The knowledge that they had done right. The soft footsteps of chil-
She shook her head sharply, and felt her eyes stinging. She rubbed at her face furiously, trying to brush the sweat out of them. She swore to herself it was sweat, fatigue from the fight against the freak cyborg and the cat goddess. She let out a breath, and it came ragged and harsh as she looked up. “Why the hell would you ask that?”
Silas Nash tilted his head to the side, and frowned. “Huh. You remind me a lot of someone I know.” He shook his head, and sighed. “I’m going to have to go easy on you tw-”
The sound of gunfire filled the air. Jack sprayed the entire 20 round clip at the young man in white. Silas swayed in a strange dancing movement, his whole body sinuously twisting through the air. Even as Jack tried to follow the movements with the line of fire, the gun ran dry, leaving Silas standing unharmed. “You’ve been in this game for ten years, Jack. I was in it for a whole day before I realized the gun thing doesn’t w-”
Another barrage of fire filled the air as Jack slapped a new clip in, and cut loose. This time, the young man’s hands blurred, sweeping through the air in open, strangely fluid movements. The gun ran dry again, and Silas dropped two handfuls of lead pellets to the ground, looking faintly amused by now. “Well, you’re persistent, I’ll give y-”
The next clip slammed home, and this time Silas didn’t avoid them at all. He set his legs in a fighting stance. Ji-a was suddenly, disturbingly reminded of a short she’d seen once. An old Superman short, from the Max Fleischer era. A single brave or foolish man unloading with a tommy gun while an invincible alien stared, contemptuous of the petty works of humanity. Innumerable small holes opened up on the pure white suit, but the bullets fell to the ground, flattened as though they’d struck something completely unyielding. That was wrong. They didn’t even ricochet. They simply flattened, and fell, robbed of their force.
Silas crossed his arms, his head tilted to the side. “How many goddamn clips did you bring? You’d better not be getting ready to throw that thing at me, next.”
“Jill,” said Jack. His voice was slightly shaky. “I think it’s a gift. He’s not bulletproof, he just makes it very hard to hurt him. Break his stance, get him open. I’ll put a bullet in him. Then we kill Bastet.”
“Huh. Is that your happy ending, Jack? What you want out of life?”
“I want you, and every other supernatural freak who thinks they’re invincible, to die.”
“I’m not invincible, Jack. You two can beat me. Hell, look at you. Tired, injured from a fight, low on ammunition, and with no superhuman powers but the ability to kill. You probably stand a better chance than most. But you can’t play around, Jack.” Nash’s hazel eyes flashed. Ji-a felt a sick, queasy little feeling in her stomach. “You can’t joke. You can’t try to taunt me. Do you know who I am? What I do?”
“I can’t say that I have. Some servant of War? She goes through them so quickly.” Ji-a cast an eye over towards the soldiers. The robot man had his head propped up on one of the others, watching, his eyes furious, burning with hatred, and something else.
Silas chuckled. “She does, doesn’t she? She’s been hard on me.” He shook his head, his hair falling ragged and messy around his face. “I haven’t seen her for months. She only shows up when I fight, you see? Because I did a terrible thing to her. Still not sure if she’ll ever forgive me, but what the hell. She deserves a happy ending. Even you do. But if the only way you can be happy is with people dead, you’re going to have to learn to live with disappointment.”
“Jill,” hissed Jack. “Now!”
Ji-a stepped forward, and reached towards her gift. The path. When she’d first gotten it, it had been a double-edged sword. It showed her the way to kill whoever she chose, every step she would need to take, and let her follow them. But it hadn’t protected her. If she died slaying her foe, her power hadn’t cared. That had been the main weakness. Then she’d met something, which had made her more powerful. It had given her the ability to follow a second path. The path to killing Death.
Her ability had failed her only once, for a few moments, when she had aroused the wrath of Ariel. Even then, they had been prepared, and had moved through to find the path again once it was possible to win once more. She’d trapped the spirit with the grass-cutting sword, and they had been victorious. They had plans in place to neutralize the other three Sisters as a threat. With the power of Ariel, they would be able to destroy the gods. She and Jack could retire-
The tears stung her eyes again, and she focused, shaking her head. She took two slow steps towards Nash, gently picking a knife up off of the ground. She squared against him, her eyes meeting his. There was an excitement there, an eagerness that was disquieting even to her, a hunger. It almost made her falter, until she remembered her power.
She reached for the path. Two steps forward, swing with the blade, clumsy, intended to draw him out, he would grab for her arm, reverse the blow, stab it into his elbow, disable him, he would be easy prey from there, taking a bullet through the eye from Jack. She breathed in sharply, and took two steps towards him. She swung with the blade, overplaying her clumsiness.
The emotion, the fierce joy and amusement, all of it drained out of Nash’s face. It was not fear, or despair, or sorrow in his expression. It was the disturbing tabula rasa of a human feeling nothing whatsoever, his face an indifferent mask. The path flickered. He ducked, his hand catching her right ankle. He pulled higher, and higher, and she found the world twirling around him. A fierce grin appeared on his face again, and the path flickered once more. She didn’t know what to do. Her head spun, and suddenly she was on her back, hitting the ground hard, the back of her head striking the stone. She let out a cry of pain.
The room froze. Ji-a was on her back, one foot raised in the air, held between the madman’s hands. Jack had the gun drawn, and it was shaking slightly. “Jill? Stop fooling around.”
“Jack-” She started.
“This is serious time, Jill. You’re scaring me.”
“Jack, I can’t see it!”
“Fate,” said Nash, contemplatively. “Stories, and fates. That’s what I kept running into. People who were so sure things had to go their own way. What was it I heard you shouting, Jack? That you’re the hero of the story? Fated to win, that kind of thing?” One of his hands rested on Jill’s ankle. The other held her toes. One of his heels was on top of her right hand’s wrist, pinning her down. He felt as heavy as the world. “I don’t know what that’s like. I’m no hero.”
“If you kill her,” began Jack, his voice shaking slightly. “There will be nothing-”
“I don’t kill people, Jack. I never have. I never will. That’s my thing. Do you know why?” He began to twist, and the ankle bent in his grasp, her knee pressing at an unpleasant angle against her skin, the pressure growing more intense. His expression was losing its serenity, his eyes wide, his teeth bared. “I don’t need to. I fought Echidna in her home and brought her to her scaly belly. I met the goddess Izanami in the heart of Yomi. She stopped my heart, and I still forced her to yield. I fought the three strongest inhabitants of Zion, all driven mad by War, gone berserk, and I stopped all three of them without taking their lives! I fought for War like no man ever has, and I do not need to kill anyone. I can hurt them so much worse.”
Jack fired three shots. The bullets fell from Nash, his one foot set firmly on the ground, his stance still unbreakable with one planted foot. “There is nothing worse than death!”
“I can take her power, Jack.”
The room dropped silent. Nash’s face returned to impassivity. Jack laughed. “That’s impossible.”
“It’s what I have done to dozens like you two. All I need is to have you at my mercy. To hurt you. To overpower you. And to let my feelings rage.” He looked down. “You tried to murder someone good, and decent. I’ve heard about what Bastet does for people. Did you think that nobody would stop you from taking her life? That nobody cared about the good she’s done?”
He wrenched, hard. Ji-a’s scream filled the air, high and ringing, like a bird’s cry. Nash stepped off of her, taking a step away. She scrambled to her feet, scrambling clumsily over towards Jack, holding her wrist, her eyes filling up with tears as she tried to keep the weight off her aching leg. “You can’t. You can’t take away power. You can’t,” repeated Jack, his one good eye wide.
“Of course I can. I can steal it, destroy it for good, consume it. Make it a part of me. And the only reason I don’t do it is because I fucking hate Death. I hate killing. I don’t want whatever your powers would give me. But if I have to, I will take them. So if you want to run, to declare yourself cowards, to admit that you cannot ever defeat me, then go now. Because the one I’m looking for still hasn’t shown herself to me, and I’m starting to think it’s because this isn’t a real fight, it’s just me, humiliating a pair of arrogant losers.”
“Arrogant l-” Jack gritted his teeth. “Do you know who we are?”
“Yes,” hissed Nash. “You’re frogs, sitting at the bottom of a well, thinking that the world is the small slice of sky you can see above you. You don’t know what I’ve done for this. I am going to save this island, and I will not allow a pair of murderers like you to run rampant on it. Nobody dies while I am here.” He turned away from them, frowning, looking into the dark shadows of the room. And Ji-a saw her. A red-haired woman, with dark skin, eyes like emeralds, and teeth like iron, walked behind him. She had a melancholy expression as she stayed out of his field of view. She pointed towards the doorway, and made an urgent flick of her hands. An exhortation to run.
Ji-a screamed, and reached behind her, drawing out the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, the grass-cutting blade. It had not been there a second before, but it was hers, and would respond when she reached for it, wherever it might sit. She lunged at Nash even as Jack drew the bow of Artemis. The arc of Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi sliced cleanly through the moonlight. Several times, it left clean cuts through his clothes. It never touched his skin. Her ankle ached painfully as she tried to follow after him, giving Jack enough room to draw and fire the bow. She lunged, and then pulled back as Nash committed to a step backwards. The twang of the bowstring filled the air, as the blazing arrow arced through the dark apartment towards Nash’s heart, while his stance was off.
His right hand flashed, coming across his chest. It grabbed the arrow by its burning haft, and spun it in a full circle. Jill saw the movement as though it were in slow motion, the man twirling on the ball of one foot. The arrow came around in a perfect arc, and then it was approaching her, the former FBI agent lunging towards her suddenly, reversing his course. The arrow’s tip grew larger and larger, approaching her eye.
It stopped, barely an inch from her lashes, shaking slowly in Nash’s hands. He took a deep breath, in and out, and shook his head. One of his hands was on her shoulder, keeping her from falling. He pulled the arrow away from her eye, as the anger faded from his eyes. The murderous wave of wrath that had nearly jammed the arrow through her eye and out the back of her skull. “Sorry about that. I’ve been having something of a rough time of it, lately. You know how it is. You can’t trust anyone, can you?” He looked up at Jack. “Well. Maybe you two can, right?”
His knee struck hers. There was an unpleasant click, as she fell to the ground, barely able to stand. His ankle came down, and smashed her wrist into the ground under his boot. It broke, snapping loudly. Jack howled in anger, and drew the bow again, and stopped short. Nash had lifted Ji-a into the air, his hand tight around her throat, his tie off, wrapped around her throat, holding her up. It was just tight enough to bite, her blood pounding in her ears, as Nash dragged her closer to Jack. “Why?” asked Jack, his voice low.
“To show you that you have no chance. You can’t kill me. You can’t even come close. And I can do much worse things than killing you. The gods fear you, as it is. They wouldn’t dare to do anything less than take your lives, out of fear that you might escape. Can you imagine how they would salivate if they found you were alive? The tortures they could visit on you? You know how eager they would be to have servants of the Horsemen to punish, after what you’ve done? I mean, I heard rumors you killed Artemis.” He laughed. “Imagine how the Greek Gods would treat you. I don’t have to.”
“Bastard,” Jack said, keeping the bow drawn.
“I was in Tartarus, once, you know. I went there to save a young man’s life. While we were trying to escape, a friend pushed me into the depths, where I would rot forever, because she thought I would betray her. She looked so much like Jill, here.”
“I’ll kill you,” hissed Jack. Nash clucked his tongue.
“That ship’s sailed, buddy.” He released the grip, very gently, letting Ji-a collapse slowly to the floor, without violence or undue harm. “I’m sorry if I’ve been unusually violent. It’s been a bad few months. You know how it can be.” He sighed, and stepped forward.
Ji-a pulled up the sword with her good hand, and reached out to the Wind, whispering a prayer to the spirit of the sword. Using it to reach into the man’s soul, to paralyze him. Nash stiffened, his eyes widening.
Jack released the bow. The arrow sizzled for Nash’s eye.
Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi’s hold on him snapped like a bowstring, and Ji-a screamed as the backlash sent a spark of electric pain up her shoulder, the blade writhing in her hand. Nash caught the arrow, and dropped it nonchalantly.
Jack threw the bow aside, too close for a proper shot, and swung a fist at Nash’s cheek. Nash moved, grabbing his wrist, pulling him forward, and tugged him through the air. Jack landed hard, right on his other shoulder, and with a terrible popping sound, the joint slipped out of place. Nash planted a foot in the center of his back, and stood up straight, pulling, hard. There was another pop
Jack and Ji-a were left on the ground, suffering. Jack kicked, writhed, pushing himself onto his back, and there was murder in his eyes.
“You think you’re special?” asked Jack, his voice low, sharp.
“No,” said Nash, and his expression was suddenly very weary, and very empty. “I’m maimed. You have a choice, now. I can take your powers and let you leave. Or you can stay here and wait for the gods to come for you, while you are weak. I’ll give you a couple minutes to think it over.” He turned away from Jack and Ji-a, his expression pensive. “Bella?” he said, very softly, looking around the room once again. Bastet sat up slightly straighter at that, her eyes wide as she stared at the man. She hadn’t run away during the fight. She’d been watching the whole thing.
And the red-haired woman behind Nash appeared again. She mouthed a word to Ji-a. Ji-a’s eyes widened.
“A-” Ji-a said, and coughed, her voice rasping from the choking. She coughed twice, and then said it again, louder. “Ariel!”
Nash spun, his eyes wide, and Ji-a flinched back as the winds rose around them. He lunged for her, and his fingers were brushing her throat when she disappeared from the apartment with Jack. The two of them appeared on the ground floor of the slum building of their apartment. A couple of newspapers slowly fell to the earth in the aftermath of the wind spirit’s summons. Jack lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling. Ji-a cradled her arm, holding her wrist gingerly, trying to keep the tears out of her eyes.
“We can beat him,” growled Jack. “We were taken by surprise. We were weakened, tired. We can take him the next time, if you help us-”
“I cannot,” said Death.
“Is this about your damn rules?” asked Jack, his teeth showing. “You’ve broken them so many times in the past, what difference-”
“I know the man you’re speaking of. War’s…” She shivered. “You know how I feel about the two of you. You know I love you, and trust you, even if you will try to kill me. I know why you want me dead, and I have accepted that.” Jack looked away. “I love you. You are my children. I want only the best for you. So I intervene to protect you. I find you allies, and prepare you, and shelter you, and heal you.”
Ji-a shivered. It hurt to be reminded of how much they owed to the one they were going to kill. It didn’t change her resolve, but it still hurt.
“War is my opposite. She finds strength in suffering. She inflicts it. This is her flayed man. She hurt him as badly as she could, with every cruel trick and merciless pain she could conceive, and it made him stronger. Please, my children, you escaped from him, I’m begging you to go. To leave this island, and find another place to grow strong.”
Jack stared. “You’re scared of him.”
Death’s lips tightened. “He was bitten by the Green Snake, which drives men mad and makes their bodies break apart. It didn’t kill him. He entered Tartarus, was condemned by its God, and rallied the damned to break free. He challenged the goddess Izanami in her court in the heart of Yomi, and threw off her touch of death. Twice, people have killed him and found he would not die. Twice, he has escaped from an underworld in defiance of its rulers. You know the rule of threes. Pity the poor fool who tries to kill him or condemn him a third time. I will not be that fool, and if you are, I fear there will be no power I can give you that could protect you.” She stood up, and shook her head.
“That’s not all, is it?” asked Ji-a, looking up. “죽음. What are you not telling us?”
Death was silent for a moment. “That man has given up so much for those he loves. Everything. You two have each other. He has no one, and when he dies, there will be nothing left of him.” She shook her head. “If you want to kill him, make him love again. Give him happiness. Convince him to take back his soul, and he’d be useless. You can’t beat him by opposing him.” Then she was gone.
“You two are fucked,” said Ariel, quite simply.
“Qui-” began Jack, and then he gritted his teeth. “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean you’re fucked. Nash is going to save me.”
“Is he, now. What makes you so sure?”
“Because he gave up everything for that. He’s stronger than you. He’s stronger than you could ever be. You might as well let me go now. It’d save you a whole hell of a lot of embarrassment.” She smiled up at the two of them. “You know what the best part is? He’s merciful. He forgives everyone. He saw what War did to him, and he forgave her. He fell in love with her. He forgave that girl who shoved him into Tartarus. He’ll probably even forgive you, if you ask for it.”
“Mercy is a fantasy of the weak,” said Jack, his eyes dark. “They wish for it, but the strong never need to show mercy.”
“You don’t get it, do you?” Ariel shook her head. “Well, I gave you fair warning. Just surrender, and this can stop here.”
Ji-a thought of the little house and the mantle, and took a sharp breath, trying to drive the thoughts out of her head. They hurt more than the beating had. The idea that it would ever end, that she could ever have peace, and a happy ending. She thought of the gold ring that had led the two of them to Bastet, that the strange pale Ghede had offered them as a tracking device, and shivered. Someone was playing them.
“I don’t need peace. I don’t need his happy endings. I don’t need forgiveness. I need power,” said Jack, his eyes narrowed. “And you will give it.”
Ariel narrowed her eyes. “You sure you can handle that?”
Jack lifted the glass bottle, and grinned. “I suppose I will simply have to, won’t I?” He leaned forward, and hissed a word into the bottle. And the wind began to twirl, and the clouds above began to darken.