“Hmmm.” Nash nodded down towards the slums. “I’d prefer not to have to fight my way through the entire Bloody Crescent.”
“How are you at sneaking and remaining subtle? You managed to duck my notice despite being my driver for several days. You’ve been here for, what, months, with no one figuring out that you’re the boogeyman of gods? Surely you can sneak your way into the Aztec camp.”
He shook his head. “I’m good at staying unnoticed when people aren’t looking for me. I can fade into the background. I just announced my presence and challenged every god in the city. They’re not going to ignore me, now.”
Bastet eyed him slowly, her arms crossed, her tail flicking, her expression unreadable. “Yeah. You made a lot of fuss there. You’re counting on it to cause uncertainty, aren’t you? Maybe it won’t stop anyone for long, but if they’re not sure what you’re capable of, it buys you a little time.”
“Maybe. It was all I could think of. Prester John was doing… something, to the gods there. He had those angels of his calming everyone in the room. He wanted them to accept his word without question. I’d say that sounds suspicious, but it’s not the worst idea at the moment. A bit more calm and rationality is what we needed. I just didn’t want it to be an opening that the king could exploit if he is the one who’s behind all of this.”
Bastet frowned at Nash. “Do you think he could? He lost a daughter. Would he really sacrifice her?”
“I don’t know. But I saw a young woman betray her childhood friends because she was afraid of them leaving her.” His hand went up to his cheek. He thought of his own mother. He thought of the fear. The madness. “Parents generally try to do what’s best for their children. But they don’t always have a sane definition of what’s best.” He sighed, and shook his head. “For now, the Aztecs are the most weakened group, and the outsiders. They’re the ones we should target. They’re going to get desperate first, and probably send out a raiding party. That word. Vemana? It means sacrifice. The Aztecs use it to refer to any god, hero, or monster, not of the Loa, Christianity, or the Aztecs. It’s a… warning, I suppose.”
“So, simple enough. We go among the Vemana. We let ourselves get overwhelmed and captured?” Bastet sighed. “That’s going to be so bad for my image.”
“Not you. You’re good at hiding. You can go unnoticed better than I can, I’m betting. So, I let myself be captured, you follow after. We let ourselves be taken to the Aztec camp, and from there, we try to corner one of the gods. Intimidate them or force them into talking.”
“Makes sense.” Bastet smiled.
“And Bastet?” Nash took a deep breath. “When you betray me, I’ll forgive you.”
She gave him a blank look. “Who says I’m going to betray you?”
He smiled. “It’s just the way my life goes. People betray me. For the best of reasons. So who am I to complain? I’m sure you’ve smelled it on me. The taint. I’m barely even a human, anymore.”
She was quiet for a couple of seconds, and then met his eyes, her gaze firm and steady. “You smell like someone who’s been hurt badly. Wounded, maybe even dying. I can smell that kind of pain on someone, and you have more of it than anyone I’ve ever met before who was still walking around. But you’re still a human being. You’re still one of the people I’m sworn to protect. What happened to you?”
“I’m… not sure how much I can really talk about it.” He looked up and down the street. There weren’t many people out, but he didn’t know who might be listening. He’d done harm to Bella’s cover, her plausible deniability, already. More could be fatal.
“Nash, I’ve been in this game for a long time. I know the Horsemen. War has fooled a lot of human beings. Made fools of a lot of heroic men, convincing them that they’re doing what’s right, all while sending them down the path to ruin.” He gave her a sharp look. Bastet was smiling. “So what are the Horsemen more likely to believe? That one man has finally changed her, turned her from her suicidal path and given her hope, or that he’s just another deluded fool?”
He was quiet for a moment, and then he laughed. Then he started the story, from the very beginning. All the way through the end, as they walked down towards the slums.
“She always did have a self-destructive streak,” murmured Bastet. “And it’s Betty, by the way.” She smiled. “People think that gods don’t change, that we’re eternal. But we’re changing all the time, really. Sometimes it’s the pressure of millions of people’s minds changing. More often, it’s just a single one. You just have to accept that it’s happening, or have no choice but to accept it.” She frowned. “So. Cassandra threw you into Hades to be locked into Tartarus. Pearl convinced her to do it. Bella drove you away from everyone and made you think you were mad. And all of the Sisters have stopped appearing to you since you left Zion.”
“And nothing from Bella since I arrived here.” They were in the slums proper now. “They all had a good reason. Cassandra genuinely believed I was a servant of War, and she was right. Pearl needed me to free her. Bella needed to distance me from people so I could bear the weight of the power I took on. And they left because I was supposed to give it up. They cared about me, and I betrayed them, so I could keep fighting.”
Betty frowned at him. “If you say so. And Bella…?”
“Bella doesn’t need someone to love her, or hold her. She needs someone to save her.”
“Yeah, I don’t believe that for a second. She’s suicidal, Nash. Have you ever been suicidal?”
He stared down at his hands. He remembered the feeling of the gun barrel pressed against his mouth. He remembered the despair. The horror. Seeing his career going down the drain, losing his nerve. Becoming worthless. It had beckoned, the idea of oblivion. It never would again. “Once.”
“I’ve seen humans lost in despair. Without hope. It’s worse with gods. What Bella does is what was done to her. In all of that time, she’s never had someone who didn’t turn on her. Who didn’t start to hate her. She explained the full measure of what she did to you, and you didn’t turn away. Can you imagine what that’d be worth to someone who’s had nothing, for so long?”
He thought of Ariel’s meals. Of Gene’s steady dependable mechanic work. Of Heather’s kind touches and simple care. He thought of Pearl, and her faith in him. His heart ached. “Then why isn’t she around?” He asked, and hated himself for the plaintive hint in the words. He’d chosen this. He’d chosen to be alone. He deserved it.
“Because if you hurt someone, even if they forgive you, it tears at you. Rips you apart inside. I can see that in you, clear as day. Is it so odd to you that they would feel the same thing?”
He was quiet for a few seconds. Then he sighed. “It’s a nice thought. But it doesn’t matter. I know where my path leads, and there’s no warm romance story at the end of it. I shouldn’t even be around you. I might get myself killed.”
“Mmm. Too much power for a mortal to hold.” Nash frowned at her. She smiled. “Yeah. I know about that. Do you know how many humans I’ve seen who have tried to hold the power of gods? Power changes you, and that’s not just a trite cliche when it comes to monsters and gods. Trying to hold onto too much power… If you’re lucky, it just subsumes you, consumes you utterly, making you a tiny voice inside the head of the god. If you’re not, it destroys you, burns you from the inside out. Mortals can’t win a clash with the gods. If your goals are not in harmony with that power inside you, pft.” She snapped her fingers. “Gone.”
“Yeah.” He thought of the post cards back in his small apartment. The smiling faces of the people he fought for. It let him regain some control. “I know that. That’s why I shouldn’t be around you. Or anyone else, for that matter.”
“You know, I met a man, not so long ago. He’d seen the same things I had, though not as many. People destroying themselves, trying to hold onto the power of a god. He tried it anyway. And it consumed him. And then, he overpowered it. He was special. The world’s got more and more special people in it. Maybe you’re one of them?”
“Are you messing with me?” He asked, and he couldn’t keep the flash of hot anger out of his voice. “Is that your suggestion? Maybe it’ll all be okay, just give it a try? If I try, and I fail, and I die, the consequences are that all of that work, all of that suffering I’ve put them through, are for nothing! I waste everything that the Sisters and Bella gave me, and for what?!” He gritted his teeth. “Happiness? Peace? They’re not worth it! I’m not-” He shook his head, and turned away from her, his breath coming hard and fast. The calm settled over him again, as he let Pearl’s power flow forward, squashing the rush of anger and passion. “I’m not special.”
Betty shook her head. “Well, whether you are, or not, I am special. I’m not going to make your soul grow back, no matter how chummy I get. I’m not a human. I’m a Cat.” She grinned. “The First, and the Best.”
He looked at her for a long few moments. “Why are you trusting me? You know what I do.”
“Damn right I do. You terrify the powerful, you humiliate the self-righteous, you protect the weak, you have forsaken the company of your own kind. You cannot be among humans, because it will destroy you.” She stepped closer. “You’re a lot like me. And here’s one thing I learned. When you cannot be among your own kind, you find a new place. The Sisters, the Horsemen, the Gods, we are not human. You don’t have to be so alone.” She looked off into the distance. “I’m alone right now. And it doesn’t make me stronger.”
“That’s right.” He looked down at her ankle. “You’re still hurt. Most of the gods I’ve met were tough enough that a gun wouldn’t do squat to them.”
“If I were with my human, it’d be child’s play to fix it. He’s special, though he doesn’t understand it.” She sighed. “I miss him terribly. So I’m going to give you a piece of advice: Be selfish sometimes. We earn our keep by suffering and saving the world, we are entitled to a bit of happiness. The world will not give it to us unless we demand it.”
“Why do you care?” He asked, frowning at her.
“Because this is the first time anyone has stepped up and been able to help me like you have. I’ve been fighting for millenia to protect humanity. It’s not an easy job alone.”
“Is that why you weren’t at Zion? When I learned about you… It was strange, that you wouldn’t be there when the Horsemen were striking.”
She looked troubled at this. “Honestly… There are a lot of reasons. I didn’t know about it, which was a part of the problem, but I still could have found out if I had wanted to stay in touch. Part of that was frustration with the gods. I had been dealing with catastrophe for so long here, perhaps I wanted to leave it to them, see how they liked it. And…” She shook her head. “Maybe I wanted the Cities to fall. Maybe I still want them to fall. I don’t think that they were the right thing to do. But then, I always was too close to humanity.”
Nash slowly nodded his head. “I can sympathize with that. When I couldn’t preserve Zion, I had to wonder if that wasn’t the right thing to do. If destroying the cities, in the right way, wasn’t the best we could hope for.” He was quiet for a moment, and then smiled. “I always hated those stories where the hero finds a world of magic and wonder, but the right thing to do is lock it away, because people can’t deal with change. Where he winds up divided from the people he cares about, because one is ‘real’.”
“And yet, you walked away from the city and from happiness there.” He gave her a look. “Right. The hero thing. Anyone ever tell you that you’ve got kind of a complex about that?”
“People tell you something enough times, maybe you start to believe them.” He shrugged, and smiled.
Bastet looked up. “Oh. Shit! I need to get something.” She met his eyes. “Will you be alright if I’m gone for a few minutes?”
He looked around the slum streets, and quirked an eyebrow. “I’m sure things will go wrong. They always do, to be honest. But I’ll be fine.”
She gave him a curious look, and disappeared through the crowds while he took a seat at an outdoor cafe. Four months in this city, and he’d never actually stopped at one of the restaurants. He’d wanted to avoid unnecessary attention and exposure, and keep from making any more connections than he had to. The truth of the matter was, he didn’t know how all of this worked. He’d never met anyone who did. What he’d heard about the soulless was that they almost all self-destructed in short order. Without connections to others, a human’s grip on the world was slippery. They lost themselves. Killed themselves, with or without the help of others.
He hadn’t. He didn’t think it was because he was special, heroic. He simply was aware, constantly, and painfully, of how much he owed the world. Guilt and regret had kept him together. There was something very sick about that, but it was the thing that made sense to him. If he died, he would let everyone down. And he couldn’t stand to do that.
Being able to see the people he cared about. He’d never made a connection with another human, not really. The only people who had ever cared about him had been monsters, gods, forces of nature. And the temptation that Betty had offered, the idea that maybe he could be with them, burned inside like he’d swallowed a red-hot coal. He wanted it to be true. He wanted to be able to see the people he cared about. He wanted to have hope, even for a little while, that this might end happily.
“What the hell happened to you, G-man?”
Nash nearly snapped the table in half as he sat up, eyes darting for her. Ariel’s voice. Instead, they settled on the dark skinned woman holding the small pad of paper. She was pretty, younger than him by at least a few years, her dark hair hanging in lazy tangled dreadlocks around her head, brown and warm. She reminded him a little bit of Heather. “Sir?” She asked, and didn’t sound at all like Ariel. He slowly sank into his seat.
“Sorry. Hearing things.”
“Yeah. Well, loneliness can make you do crazy things, can’t it?” He looked up again, and his nostrils flared. The scent of perfume and sex and sweet cake and sticky liquors filled the air. There was a distant sound of singing, a woman belting out a high and soulful aria. His jaw clenched.
“Erzulie Freda Dahomey.”
“Well, well! You know my name.” She took a seat across from him, flopping down into the chair in a way which was graceless, and irresistible. Her skin was scarred in a way that it had not been before, and her chest was noticeably fuller. She smiled at him, imperfection making its own kind of perfection on her features. “You’ve been reading up about me? I’m flattered.”
“Know your enemy.”
“Oh, come now, Nash. Don’t be cold. We both know that an enemy is just a friend you haven’t beaten into the ground yet. Charming young man like you just has to throw someone through a wall, and they get all chummy. Gods respect strength, after all. And strength is what you’ve got, isn’t it?”
His lip twitched. He breathed in through his nose, and out through his mouth. “What’s your point?”
“You are needed.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“Not that way. You dedicate yourself to the big tasks. But the people you love need you, too. And don’t try to pretend to not love them. I see your heart.” She smiled, and held up her hand, three golden rings shining on her ring finger. She touched them, starting with the one closest to the tip, and moving down towards the knuckle. “Damballa, Agwe, Ogoun. I know a little something about being greedy. The trick is, you have to be able to avoid neglecting any of them. You’ve been neglecting all of them. You need a little help with your love life.”
“Isn’t there a better time?” He asked, leaning his head into his hand, feeling rather weary. The singing continued, filling the air with its soft sound. He could almost make out the words.
“No,” she snarled, her expression suddenly fierce. “That’s what people think, that there will be a better time. That’s how they let things fester. That is how things get bad. You didn’t learn that? A woman runs so that a man will pursue. Well, sometimes she does it because she wants out, but trust me when I say that is not what the women in your life are doing.” She leaned forwards. “You asked for this. You got into a relationship with five women, greedy bastard.”
“It’s not like that,” he said, his voice rough. “They did it to make me strong. I’m supposed to be a champion. There’s a difference.” He felt so weary, suddenly, the enormity of everything he’d done pressing down on him.
She leaned back, toying with the third ring on her finger. “Yeah. Sometimes, what a woman needs is someone who can protect her. Why do you think they made you?”
“They don’t need me,” he slurred. “Not really.” He looked down at his hands. His head kept falling forward. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Well, two reasons.” She leaned back. “First, Air is in grave peril. She has been captured. What you’ve been fearing is true. If you do not act, her power will be stripped from her, entirely. She will die, as everything that animates her is stolen. She is trapped in torment, and the only thing keeping her from taking her own life is the ironclad belief that you will save her. So I’m sorry about all of this.”
Adrenaline spiked through him, but it was only enough to lift his head for a moment. The aria seemed very close now. It was what he had not had time to think about. The name that Jill had said. Someone had captured the wind.
Someone had captured Ariel.
The flare of anger was suppressed under the sweet woman’s voice, with no help from Pearl at all.
“And the other reason?”
“I owed someone a favor.”
A feral expression spread across his lips. A bare-toothed grin so wide it hurt, more violence than joy. “I’m going to save Ariel.”
“Oh, I know. Sorry about the betrayal. But you know how it is.”
His head hit the table softly, as the singing grew louder. His vision faded.
Red veins stretched above the black sky above him. Vast obsidian crystal bones jutted from the ground. His heart pounded. He spun. Ariel stood there, wearing her tube top, smiling softly, sadly at him. She looked wan, as though she’d lost blood. He remembered this. Tartarus. He didn’t want to remember it, but he did. He tried to call on Pearl’s power, but as always in his dreams, there was no response. He couldn’t stop the pain in his chest as he saw her, the agony of missing her, the loneliness it brought out in him.
She had been taken by someone. The thought was almost impossible. He’d only ever seen one of the Sisters bound, in this place, under the weight of Adamant. And it had taken pantheons to put her there. He stared into her eyes, the first of the Sisters to greet him, the first to entrust her power in him, the first he’d disappointed. And his heart ached. He had to save her. Not simply for guilt, not simply out of a sense of owing her, but because she deserved to be free, and happy.
“Just promise me one thing, Nash. I didn’t give you this power to sacrifice yourself. Come back, alright?”
She vanished slowly, a kiss lingering on his cheek.
His eyes snapped open. He didn’t sit up immediately. He scanned the area without lifting his head. Only a scant few minutes had passed. He felt a pair of heavy iron manacles around his wrists. They were sizable, large enough to drag his wrists down onto his back, binding his arms behind him. The smell of jerk spices filled the air. Several dozen people lay on the ground, and on their tables. Meals left uneaten. Erzulie’s chwal, the young waitress, lay across the table from him, her arms chained as well, her figure and face returned to normal. A woman passed between the tables, tall, narrow, and dressed in a white veil. She had stopped singing, and Nash could think properly again.
She knelt down next to another man. She opened her mouth, and sharp teeth flashed. “Come now, precious. One little missing sacrifice won’t be enough to anger the gods. Just a taste. Been so long.” She slowly began to lick at his neck, as though she was giving him a hickey. The skin turned red and flushed where her tongue passed over it.
Nash’s arms went taut behind him. He stood up very carefully, holding the chain taut to prevent any noise. His arms strained against it, but he didn’t tap Gene’s power to shatter it. He waited until he was right behind her.
There’s a limit to the amount that one can bend one’s shoulders. Some people were more flexible than other. Nash had always been capable of flexing more than most. Not quite double-jointed, but certainly pliable. His arms shifted in their joints as he lifted them, twisting his wrists in the manacles, keeping them as taut as possible. It hurt quite a bit, but that wasn’t a real issue. The first hint the woman had of his presence was when the manacle fell across her face, and bit into her throat, yanking off her feet. He pulled his hands back, heaving her against his body. She raked out, lashing at him, but very few things with a head could deal with strangulation. When she began to go limp, he gave her a fraction of an inch, just enough to gasp in a small breath. “Hello.”
The monstrous woman froze. She let out a little hiss, and didn’t move again.
“I’m guessing you know about me. You were the one who made a deal with Erzulie? Thought sleep would defeat me?” He leaned in closer. “Today is your lucky day, because I woke up before you killed that man. I’m going to make you a truly amazing deal. Do you want to hear it?” She nodded, vigorously. “You’re going to take me into the camp of the Aztecs. There, you’re going to show me where these sacrifices are going to be performed. If you betray me… Well, I’ll be in a violent mood. I won’t kill you. But,” He pulled his arms back hard, and she made a choking noise. “I will take out some of my frustrations on you. Do you understand?”
She nodded again, and he released her. “But-” she began, her voice raspy, not solely from the strangulation, “the others-”
“Are staying here,” he murmured. “Don’t get greedy, now.”
The woman nodded a third time, swallowing hard. She opened her mouth, and seemed to think better of it.
“What’s your name?” he asked, softly.
“Hipec. I am the Matlazihua.” He frowned, and racked his memory for that name. There was not a lot of extant writing about the monsters of the Aztec. It was vaguely familiar. He shook his head. Any surprises for him, he’d just have to deal with them as they come.
“Tell me, Hipec. Did you have children, here?” She looked away, her silence stony. “Who do you believe took them?”
“The Loa,” she growled, her voice low. “They are interlopers. They believe in sacrifice. Not like the soft Christians. They started this. They are responsible.”
“Yes, well,” he said, “You’ll forgive me if I don’t just take your word for that. Let’s go.”
She made good time, dragging him along by a length of iron cable that wound through the chain. The two of them moved through the slums at a pace that might best be described as ‘frenetic’, Hipec’s eyes darting from side to side, watching in obvious tension for any sign of the Loa. As they approached the road to the Bloody Crescent, more people appeared from out of the sprawling slum. A low, wolf-like creature with blue fur and a tail ending in a hand led a sizable number of people. There were others, too. Dozens of them. Maybe hundreds of Vemana, who had been bound together into long lines. Chains hung from their manacled wrists, their faces downcast and gray.
“Well, you caught him!” Said one of the others. A strange, frog-like creature that Nash did not recognize. Bulbous yellow eyes goggled at him. “Not as tough as he looked, eh? Tezcatlipoca’ll be pleased with you.”
“Ye-” Hipec began, her voice high and squeaky. She coughed, clearing her throat. “Yes. I certainly hope he will be.”
Nash rattled the chains, and Hipec froze. The froggish man chuckled. “Good luck. Those chains are forged by our gods. They’re as strong as the adamant of the Greeks. You’ll return your heart to the one who gave it to you, human, and Huitzilopochtli will grow strong on your blood. Right, Hipec?”
“I certainly hope so,” she said, her expression drawn very tight.
“Oh, come on. Don’t let him spook you. He’s a fucking human. Not even a hero.” The frog man approached, and lashed out with a slimy fist. It struck Nash’s stomach hard, and Nash bent over with it, letting the strike carry through him without resisting, crumpling around the blow. Pearl’s power kept him from retaliating, though it would have been so easy. Practically automatic. He simply stood back up, and met the frog’s eyes without expression. The frog’s knuckles popped. “Want some more, eh?”
“Ceuyatl!” said Hipec, her voice high and frightened. “He- Remember! He is Tezcatlipoca’s. The god would not want him… unduly damaged.”
“Hrn.” The frog snorted, and shook his head, turning away from Nash. “Probably true.”
Hipec gave Nash a single, frightened glance, and he met it without emotion or expression. This seemed to disturb her even further, as she started running towards the front of the line of raiders and sacrifices.
As they approached, the sun sank rapidly down towards the horizon, and the stars appeared, bright and shining in the sky, accompanied by the waning full moon. There was the distant sound of drums and hymns, chanting and low, ominous and yet inviting. He watched as the Vemana grew nervous, frightened, skittish, like cattle approaching a blood-soaked slaughteryard. He didn’t feel that. He felt confident. Excited. His heart pounding. His arms spread slightly, and the chains creaked between his hands. He wanted to find that frog, and strangle it.
He ignored the desire. He didn’t even need Pearl’s gift to ignore it. The pounding beat was calling for things he had sworn off. But he watched as the other slaves grew more terrified, and yet less able to break and run than ever. They were led towards the great stepped pyramid like lambs to the slaughter.
It towered over the slums. It was an odd thing, reminiscent of Chichen Itza’s El Castillo, but his racing mind reminded him that El Castillo had been a Mayan ruin. He wondered if gods became confused, or if they ripped each other off. Regardless, it rose dizzyingly into the sky, its tip warped by perspective. Standing at the apex, clear as day, were three divinities. Xipe Totec, Huitzilopochtli, and Tezcatlipoca. They stood, looming, arms crossed in positions of judgment as the march of sacrifices grew closer to them.
Nash couldn’t keep the feral grin off of his face any longer.