“In the flesh,” said Itzpapalotl. He smiled. Bare bones glittered and clattered in the moonlight, faint rouge dappling the cheeks, as the waves slowly lapped at the shore. Nash’s fists clenched and unclenched, watching the strange god stand. Itzpapalotl’s stance was lazy and relaxed, a hand on one cheek, hollow eyes staring at him. The long moment of tension held, but Itzpapalotl did not attack him again. Nash didn’t relax.
“Why are you here.”
“That’s your question?” Itzpapalotl canted wide, bone hips to one side. If the god had flesh, it would have been a very provocative stance. “Why do you think? I am here to vex you. I am a servant of the Horsemen. I have dedicated myself to destroying the Cities.” The god laughed. “Everything that I do, every action I take, is informed by this. I chose this willingly.”
“You know,” Nash said, his breathing slow and calm, “I get very sick of this bullshit.” He reached for Ariel’s power. The awareness of his surroundings. On the treacherous, wavy, shifting sand, it made his steps as smooth and certain as if he were on concrete. He lifted his hands. And Itzpapalotl dropped her arms to her side. The skeleton grinned, although it was always grinning. “What? Don’t want to fight anymore?”
“I know your weakness, Nash. I know what holds you back. You, like so many heroes, are reactive. You cannot act. You must wait for your foe to strike, and only then can you do something. The key to beating you is almost tragically easy. All I have to do is not fight.” The god drummed bony fingers on a forearm, producing a sound like a small xylophones. “You are a powerful creature, but you are full of weaknesses for one who’s watching.”
Nash tilted his head to the side. “You think so?” He smiled. “It’s true, I prefer Aikido. I prefer not to kill. I prefer to believe in people. I prefer to avoid conflicts where I can, through intimidation.” He shook his head. “I have nightmares, sometimes, about someone murdering everyone I love and care about. People could hurt me deeply.”
“But it wouldn’t stop me. You could hurt me, but I have been hurt terribly. You could kill everyone I love and care about, but eventually it would be just you and me. And I would catch up with you, sooner or later.”
“Like a golem, hmmm? The eternal avenger.” The god shook its head slowly. “It is true. That is the source of your power. Each of those abilities of yours, they’re hardly incredible, are they? Good gifts, but one alone would not make the difference. Without all of them, you would be weak. Almost as though the Sisters planned that. They could have entrusted you with more, just one of them. But because of their mistrust, they forced you to take on all of those burdens. ‘Jack of all trades, master of none-‘”
Itzpapalotl didn’t see the movement. With a breath of Ariel’s power, Nash leapt forward. Sand rose around one foot as his arms shot forward. He grabbed Itzpapalotl by the wrists, and twisted, pulling hard, yanking them both to one side. The skeletal figure lost its footing and spiraled briefly and violently through the air. It landed hard on its sternum in the sand, Nash’s foot on the spine, pulling the arms back. “Still better than a master of one,” Nash said. “The first thing I ever did when I was thrown into the world of supernatural was shatter a dozen walking skeletons. It was surprisingly easy. Now which of the horsemen do you work for?”
“What does it matter?” sing-songed Itzpapalotl. The god shifted, bones flying apart, tugging away. They hovered in mid air. Nash’s foot still remained on the spine, ribs struggling against it, sternum bouncing slightly, the two forearms still gripped tightly. Itzpapalotl floated in front of him, still arranged as though he had all of his bones, his hands hanging in mid-air. Long lines of blood drew through the air where the missing bones should be, seeming to keep them connected. “All Horsemen are the enemies of the Cities, of mankind. What do you suggest, that one of them might be an ally, rather than an enemy, to your stated cause?”
“Don’t be cute. We both know that doesn’t happen.”
“Yes, indeed. Why, it is tautological. The Horsemen are nihilism incarnate, the end of humanity. They want the species to die, don’t they? They couldn’t understand one of their own betraying them.” Itzpapalotl made a soft clicking noise, like a metronome. Nash decided it was a girlish giggle, if made by a skeleton. “Unless they, too, had traitorous thoughts. Unless they, too, were considering changing sides. That is the thing about this city. Nobody is who they seem. Vemana may be Loa. Women may be men. Heroes may be villains. And monsters may be people. Everyone here is a liar, and you can’t smell it because they believe their own lies. So what are you, Nash?”
Nash was quiet for a moment. Then he released the bones, letting them fly back to Itzpapalotl, watching as they sealed themselves back into place. “You know, I look up a lot of mythology, nowadays. Understanding my enemies, understanding my friends. It helps to know, even though a lot of it is vague. Tarot, for example. The symbols, the meanings, are seldom what they look like.”
“And which are you, Nash? The Tower, ruin and disaster for your enemies? The Star, guiding people towards a better world? Perhaps you are the Sun, the symbol of the end of the darkness, and the birth of new life? Or the Devil, offering temptation, and enslavement? You certainly inflict that torment on those who care for you.”
Nash’s jaw clenched for a moment. It took him a few seconds and the cool numbness of Pearl’s power to let him speak again. “I’m the Fool.”
“Not the World? Even after all you’ve done? You haven’t lost your innocence, or found your enlightenment?”
“My journey’s still stretched out a long way in front of me. Maybe someday I’ll get there, but it’s not going to be a peaceful ending where I wind up surrounded by friends and those who love me. But my point is that I am what I seem to be, and that is all. I walk forward.”
“And off a cliff?”
“The Coyote did it all the time. His mistake was looking down.” Nash smiled, and shrugged. “As long as I keep walking, and don’t take my eyes off the goal, who’s to say I can’t fly?”
“It must be hard,” murmured Itzpapalotl, very softly. “Being so strong all the time.”
“Not at all,” said Nash. “Being weak? That was horrible. Being strong is amazing. Having others depend on me makes me happy.”
“Then why do you have nightmares, Nash?”
He narrowed his eyes. “Because I have to choose between power, and companionship. I have to choose between being strong, and being weak. And the fact that I even consider the latter disgusts me.”
Itzpapalotl stared at him for a long moment, and shook her head. “Do you know, there is a… I do not know if I could call it a saying. A thought? A rumor? A myth. The Horsemen, you see. They, like anyone else, can fall in love. It is a tragic, destructive love, because of what they are. But they can desire to be close. Famine loves what she cannot have. Conquest loves a winner. Death loves everyone.” She shook her head sadly. “But War doesn’t love anyone, Nash. She is survival incarnate, and love is the willingness to die for someone.”
“If that were love,” Nash said, through clenched teeth, “I would rather she not love me. I don’t want anyone, ever, to die for my sake. That is the whole point.”
“Everyone dies, Nash. Even immortals. Like Wind, for example. She’s going to die tomorrow morning.”
Nash’s fists clenched, his eyes narrowed. “You really do want to test my patience, don’t you?”
“Always. But I am not lying. I am here on behalf of Death, and her children, who you so humiliated last night. They seek a rematch. They have Ariel. They will execute her if you do not meet them. You will find them, five miles south, floating at these coordinates.” She held out a phone, and gently tossed it to Nash. He looked down at it, and nodded, memorizing the coordinates. “I would hurry. Jack has been…” She sighed. “You frustrated him. Bested him. He’s not used to the idea of simply losing, being forced to retreat. Let alone to anything less than a god. You have made him take dire steps to become more powerful.”
“Yeah,” said Nash, slipping the phone into his pocket. “I’ll have to make sure not to let them get away, this time.”
“There is a prophecy, you know, by one of Conquest’s greatest successes. If those two die, then so will the world.”
“I don’t intend to kill them. I’m just going to beat them.”
“Is that wise?” asked Itzpapalotl, tilting his bony head to one side. “Consuming Death’s power like that? What might it do to you, hmmm? You are not on the best of terms with her.”
Nash shrugged. “I’ll figure out something. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
The god nodded, and turned away, walking towards the water.
“You’re being very straightforward. Even helpful. It’s a funny thing, you know. Many times, people who wish to do you harm are helpful so that you’ll trust them, so that you’ll allow them to get close to you. It makes it hard to tell whether you can trust anyone. Cynical people respond by not trusting anyone. That makes it hard for people to become good, because so often, they are mistrusted based on their history. Kind of a tragedy, isn’t it?”
“Yes. A problem without an answer,” said Itzpapalotl.
“No, there’s an answer. You just have to be strong enough to weather the betrayal.” He tapped the phone in his pocket. “I’ll go there. I’ll take your word on this. And if you betray me, I’ll forgive you.” He smiled. “You might have to get a few bones broken, though.”
“You know… You have been bloodthirsty, Nash. Violent. Brutal.” The god looked over his bony shoulder at Nash, water lapping around his feet. “It’s not a good look.”
“Why did you help me? Why are you acting out of character? Why are you driving things like you are?”
“I’m a mother too, Nash. I’m a monster, but humans are my children. I demand something be done to preserve them. If that means I must kill Huitzilopochtli and take his place as the sun, so be it. I have made dark bargains to be strong enough to do so. But that would be a terrible thing. I would much rather you win and give everyone a happy ending.” The god kept walking forward, and disappeared into the water.
He stood there for a long second, as the ocean lapped at the shore, his heart slowing to a normal beat.
“She disturbs me,” murmured a voice behind Nash. He spun, hands up, and met Huitzilopochtli’s eyes. The goddess stared out at the sea, expression pensive. “It’s hard to read her as an opponent, you know? Even this… The changes. She’s the true leader of the Tzitzimimeh, though she rarely opposes me. Usually she is content to let my sister fight her war against me with tacit approval, but without participating herself. That’s why I need the sacrifices. Without them, I do not know if I could defeat her. That is a new and disturbing experience for me.” She sighed softly.
“Everyone’s weak sometimes. You were a human once, weren’t you? Weren’t you ever weak then?”
“Gods no. I was a strong youth, and a stronger man. I fought everyone who would challenge me. I fought monsters, and then gods, and then they made me a god so that I would fight for them. I was born a genius, and I’ve only grown more powerful since then.” Huitzilopochtli set her hands on her hips, an action which was provocative, to say the least. “I always looked on others like stones on the road of my success. You are grateful for the stones, for you could not make the trip without them, but you don’t bend down and thank them, or apologize for stepping on them. They depend on you just as much to give them meaning.” Huitzilopochtli shook her head, long hair spinning around her.
The goddess was very attractive. Dark, frightening, savage, but in a way that appealed. Her hair smelled of woodsmoke and mesquite and sweet corn flour, enough to make Nash’s stomach rumble. He’d barely eaten, and it had been a long time. A long time since he’d had a good meal. A long time since he’d touched someone. He’d not had any meaningful encounters in his entire life. The closest he’d gotten had been gods, and monsters who wanted to get close enough to kill him, or use him. Everyone used him. It made him feel…
Nothing. He didn’t feel anything at all at the thought of being used. No anger, no heat, no wounded pride, no sadness at his fate. He didn’t feel a thing. That was Pearl’s gift. There were heroes who could keep moving with wounds that should have killed them. Pearl’s gift was the psychological equivalent. He didn’t speak to Huitzilopochtli.
“You are impertinent. It is a strange thing, you know? To have a human who defies me, and more, who can back it up. I never experienced that even when I was mortal. It fills my belly with fire. It makes me rage. That is why I am angry. You remind me of myself, Nash. Certain parts of myself, anyway.”
“I was never a genius,” said Nash. “I was the wrong person in the wrong place. I was never a good fighter, never paid much attention in school, never tried hard enough, because whenever I cared about something and tried hard, put everything I had into it, I failed.” He shook his head. “You’re a genius. I’m a failure. I just happened to be a failure who could be useful. The power I have is borrowed from the Sisters, from Bella, and it’s what changes things. I’m just… a vessel.”
Huitzilopochtli looked at him for a second. “Do you really believe that? Look at the way you grandstand. The way you show off to the crowds.” She stepped closer very suddenly, her chest brushing against him, her lips inches from his. “Do you know how it felt to watch you break those chains, to save those two worthless sacrifices? Do you know what you did to me by defying me that way?” Her voice smoldered. Her eyes smoldered. Nash’s libido smoldered.
He pulled on Pearl’s power, and to his rather significant shock, the power did not change his hunger. He wanted her. He wanted someone, anyone, but she was close, and terrible, and beautiful, and he wanted her in a way that made him feel ashamed and disgusted with himself. He pulled back several steps, breathing harder now. “What the hell is this?” he asked, his voice low, trying not to growl. Trying to keep under control. “What the hell are you doing to me?”
“Doing to you?” Huitzilopochtli asked, eyes narrowed. “What are you doing to me? Do you think this is a game, mortal? To try to attract the attention of a goddess? Defying me, mocking me, challenging my authority? Do you think that I would not break you? Do not let my body fool you, I am as great a warrior as I have ever been, and I will not be seduced.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” asked Nash. He kicked off the thong sandals, and waded into the water. The water ran up his legs, and it was just cold enough to help him calm down somewhat. He thought of Megara and Echidna. “Oh, fucking fantastic. Of course. Fucking hell.” He shook his head. “I’m not screwing anyone. I’m not going to fall for this shit. The whole seduction bullshit. I know what happens. I know what it does to you. I’m-”
“Oh, please,” growled Huitzilopochtli. She stepped forward, towards the water, and the way the loose clothes clung to her was very, very hard on Nash. “I can smell the hunger on you. The predatory desires. I know those feelings. I’ve indulged in them many times. The desire to dominate, to control. You want to control everyone around you, Nash. That’s why you throw yourselves away from those you love, isn’t it? The hunger you feel, it frightens you. It makes you worry you’ll hurt them. You’re so strong, and so arrogant, you think that you are protecting people from you, aren’t you? Is that why you stay away?” She lunged, and grabbed him.
He moved without thinking. Even with the water around his legs, his movements were flawless. He caught her hand, and spun, twisting her down, and slamming her into the water hard. One hand on her wrist, one on her chest, forcing her down into the water, her mouth open beneath the waves, her skin soft-
He pulled his hands back like he’d grabbed a hot stove, stepping back. He was panting like he was out of breath. That was impossible, because of the gift Ariel had given him. But no matter how much he gasped for air, it seemed like there wasn’t enough. Huitzilopochtli burst out of the water, throwing her hair back, and grinned. Being soaked head to toe was a good look for her, and Nash’s mind twisted like an eel as he tried to hold back that thought.
“Oh, how interesting,” murmured Huitzilopochtli. “There is nothing more human, more intimate, more soul-building than sex, is there? No wonder you shy away from it. It could destroy you, couldn’t it?” She chuckled softly, her eyes glittering. “If I wanted to kill you like that, it’d be easy, wouldn’t it? Burn your soul out through your eyes.” She licked her lips, and Nash shivered.
He didn’t know whether that was true. It would make sense, but it wasn’t the kind of thing he could risk. There wasn’t research on the properties of the human soul and its tendency to combust under stress. But he wasn’t going to risk it. He lifted his hands, slightly shakily. “Is that how you want to do this?”
“No, Nash. I don’t want you dead that way. It would be meaningless.” She shook her head slowly, and droplets of water flew from it, pattering against the water as she rested a hand on her chin, smiling. “I can feel what they feel for you, you know. I am War, and Fire, and I know their true desires. Would you like to know them? Whether it is lust, or loathing, that keeps them away from you?”
“That’s for them to say. It’s none of your goddamn business,” said Nash, stepping back and out of the water, trying to put some more distance between them. “But this isn’t strange to you? You were a man, not a week ago. You’re embracing femininity awfully well.” Huitzilopochtli shrugged, and smiled.
“It’s true. But it’s not as though it matters that much to me. I am as lethal as I ever was, as proud as I ever was, as feared as I ever was. You do not take me less seriously because of this supple form, do you?”
“I’ve gotten my ass kicked by too many women to do that,” Nash said.
“Then what does it matter? This is the form I shall be in, to fight with the fury of a mother whose children have been taken. And there is no harm in embracing that fate.” She winked. “It might even be fun.”
She was very close to him again, suddenly. “I don’t suppose a kiss would hurt?” she asked softly.
He pulled at Pearl’s power as hard as he could, trying to calm his racing heart. This meant that when she darted forward, her lips pressing to his, he wasn’t ready for it.
It was a good kiss. Nothing earth-shattering, but the tingle of the brief contact made his head spin, the scent of sweet corn on her lips as it broke. He licked his lips slowly, his hands up, ready for another assault, but Huitzilopochtli simply stood, her hands on her hips, studying him. “Well, what do you know? Your soul didn’t burst into flames. Maybe you aren’t doomed to be a eunuch.” She chuckled. “Still doomed, though.”
The world continued to spin. In fact, it was spinning faster. Nash’s eyes dropped to Huitzilopochtli’s lips. Red, and soft, and full, and glinting in the light. He looked up at her again, his arms becoming leaden. It was becoming very hard to stay awake, to keep his head up. “Not very honorable,” he mumbled, his words slurring. Then he grinned. “Way easier to deal with, though.”
Huitzilopochtli sneered at him. “Your braggadocio will not save you, Breaker of Cities. I see through you now. You are weak, and I will take your heart. To think that I ever thought for a moment that you were worthy of being my proxy. I do not like to betray trust, but I will if it means victory.”
“Don’t worry,” said Nash, as he fell to his knees, his smile spreading wider. “I’ll forgive you.”
Then his head hit the sand, and the world went dark.
“What makes you think I was ever in love with you?”
The green surroundings sped by. Pine trees. Huge ones. A road. A rental car. The smell of smoke. He stared straight ahead. “This is a dream,” he whispered. She went on as though he hadn’t said it.
“I was… very enamored with you, for a long time. But that was millenia ago.”
His knuckles tightened around the steering wheel. He’d saved her. He’d been glad he could. He’d been glad to be thrown into Tartarus, because it meant he could save her. He didn’t know if she was supposed to be rescued by Heracles, like the stories said, but he hadn’t been able to leave her in that torment for one minute longer. She had told him she would be alright, but he still couldn’t stand seeing anyone suffer. How much of this was his fault, how much of her suffering and loneliness? Every decision he made seemed to hurt someone.
“Nash.” Pearl’s voice grew lower, harsher. “Look at me.”
He turned his head towards her. Flames crackled and danced around her body, filling the car with terrible heat. She was naked, but her body was stick thin, emaciated, her red hair hanging in messy tangles, her eyes burning. “You’re not Pearl,” he said softly. “What is this?”
“I’m here for Pearl’s sake. You know the Loa Marinette?”
“The lady in chains,” he said, frowning. “The Anima Sola. The lonely soul.”
“That’s right. You’ve been studying hard.”
“Why are you here?”
“Because you need someone to be there for you.”
He looked back at the road as the hungry flames lapped at his skin. They were warm, but they never quite reached the level of pain. That was strange. “The whole point of me is that I don’t. I have the power, I have the mission, now, they don’t have to subject themselves to me anymore.”
“The point of giving you the power was not so you could do this. You’re pulling away from everyone. Growing dark and cold inside. Do you think that’s what the Sisters wanted for you? You know them. Since when have they ever used suicide weapons? The whole reason they’re losing this war is because they’re too compassionate. Because they love too easily.”
“It’s not their fault,” said Nash. “They chose wrong. I can still make the best out of things for them. They need someone who can do this.”
“No, they don’t.” Marinette growled. “That power was so you could walk the edge, not throw yourself off of it. Why do you think that Pearl’s power doesn’t banish your hunger, your thirst, your base desires? You need those things. The trick is being able to take just enough, and you are not taking nearly enough. The cat’s a good start. But you need more.”
“This is a dream,” Nash said, his eyes closed. “You’re telling me what I want to hear. That it’s alright to reach out. That I should let go. How am I supposed to trust you?”
The Loa was silent for a moment. “Your dreams are painful. Do you hurt right now?” He looked across at her, and she shook her head, frowning. “I’m going to give you three pieces of advice. If you follow them, this will all end up alright. Understand?” He nodded slowly.
“First. That weakness. Do you know why the gods use sex, intimacy, as a weapon? You should. You saw it enough times. Think of Zion, Nash. Think of what you saw happen there.”
He looked at the road as his feet moved. It had been months since he’d driven a car, but the reflexes were still there. He let his mind drift back to the memories, carefully, like he was prodding a sore tooth, waiting for it to begin to hurt. “There was… Megara, and Harry. Married. They were happy. They were violent, but happy. Megara had begun to act like a mother again. Izanami and her adopted daughter. Wendy and Nooky.” He narrowed his eyes. “It cuts both ways.”
“Sex is a funny thing, isn’t it? People try to divest it of its meaning, but it is ultimately a way for humans to bond, and to create. The pleasure is simply there to encourage it, but the point of it is that it brings people together. When done unwisely, it can destroy, but it is like any other thing. Gods, monsters, they use it to weaken humans, to damage their resolve, but that goes both ways. They cannot attack that way without leaving an opening. Bastet is an example to learn from there. She embraced it, and it has become a source of power. In those who refuse it, who struggle against it, it is a deadly weakness. In those who think of humanity as beneath them. And in those who are broken, lost, and suffering, it can heal them. It can change gods.”
“What are you telling me, here?” he asked, frowning.
“Not to rut Huitzilopochtli on the battlefield. While that might be good for her, I am sure that there are others who would be jealous. But you need to stop trying to dehumanize yourself. There will come a moment when you know you need to soothe a savage temper. And you will not be able to harm them. You will have to be gentle.”
He slowly nodded. Dreams. Just dreams. The desire he was feeling, bleeding through his subconscious. But it was still better than the pain of the nightmares. He experimentally tried to draw on Pearl’s power, and there was nothing there. Marinette gave him a harsh look. “What did I just tell you?”
“Sorry. What’s the second?”
“The violence.” She was quiet for a moment. “Nash. Why are you hurting people?”
“Because they hurt me,” he said, and was surprised by the heat in his voice. “Because I want to scare them, because I’m scared all the time. Because if I hurt them, then they won’t attack me again. They might leave me alone. I have to hurt them. Bella… The power she gave me doesn’t protect me. It just gives me a chance. I can’t hold back.”
“It gives you a chance, Nash. No matter what. Do you remember when you fought them, on top of the rooftop? Echidna, Heracles, Izanami? Exhausted. Outnumbered. Their minds filled with madness. But you still beat them. And Susan. The green snake girl. You did not break her bones, did you? You didn’t have to. You defeated her with forgiveness. You can afford to be gentle, Nash. You can afford to hurt no one at all. You’re the only one who can fight like that. That’s the gift that… Bella, gave you. You are frightening to everyone when you hurt people, Nash. But you don’t have to hurt them. You can protect your enemies while you protect yourself.”
His eyes flicked to his left, looking out of the window, not willing to meet the lonely soul’s eyes. “And what if I want to hurt them? What if I want to make them suffer for what they’ve done?”
“If you show mercy and forgiveness, Nash, you will see her again. I promise.”
His jaw stiffened. He wished he could take on Pearl’s power. The tear running down his cheek was shameful. But that was why he hated these dreams. “And the last piece of advice?” he asked, his voice feeling raw, scratchy.
“You hold onto your power so hard. It stings you. But you’re going to be given a choice. Between power, and the lives of those you care about. You know what they say about loving something?”
“Set it free,” he murmured softly.
“Yes, Nash. Trust me. At the right moment, give up power.”
“You could be trying to fool me. Even if you were here for Pearl, even if you’re not my imagination. The Sisters would want me to give up the power. They don’t want me to do this. But I have to.”
“It’s true. The Sisters will want you to give up the power. But wait, and see. You will know when the time is right. Remember what they say about loving something.”
He nodded. “How’s Pearl?” he asked, softly.
“It’s not your fault, Nash. Some people don’t get the happy ending they wanted. She doesn’t blame you.”
“Yeah.” He shook his head. “Thank you. Tell her… that I miss her. That I’d give… almost anything, to see her again.”
Marinette was quiet for a long few seconds. Then she nodded. “I will.”
Nash woke up, and the tears dripped down his cheeks. He almost reached for Pearl’s power, but then did not. He let them run down his cheeks.
He lay on a wooden platform. A chain around one arm, tied to the gantry above, looped through a wheel, and then back down to attach to that massive slab of black stone he had seen. In the east, he could see the growing dawn, the first rosy fingers seizing the night sky. He looked up at the temple, and its nine steps. He still didn’t know why they’d done that, but it didn’t matter now. He could see Xipe Totec, Huitzilopochtli, and Tezcatlipoca, the three goddesses standing over him in judgment, eyes fixed on him, arms crossed.
“Well?” said Nash. “I don’t have all day.”