Bella understood many things about herself. Her powers. Her limits. Her nature. She was War. She was the embodiment of conflict, of strife, of uncertain combat. She was the incarnation of the survival instinct. She was one of the most powerful beings in the world. And she was far outmatched by the enraged Sister in front of her.
Betty crouched at one corner of the platform, her tail puffed out, her eyes wide, watching. Gene knelt in the center of the platform, her broad shoulders tensed, a vein throbbing in her forehead. There was rage in her eyes, and anguish, and fear for her beloved sister, who was in dire straits. And her hand was wrapped around Nash’s neck.
Bella’s heart beat once, very hard, as she saw him. The guilt and the shame bubbled in her guts. She had not been there for him. She had left him alone, while he had been in this city. She’d had her reasons for doing so, but she’d never stopped being aware of the fact that he was suffering, that he was alone, that he was calling out for her. She’d watched him grow more and more desperate, screaming for her to respond with every action he took. And she’d ignored him. She’d let him fall deeper into his despair. Because she couldn’t help him.
The Horsemen were subtle. They were clever. They were circumspect. They had to be, because despite all of their power, despite their supremacy over humanity, the sisters could annihilate them if faced openly. When the Horsemen won, it was because they were smarter. Because they outsmarted the Sisters. When Death and her children had captured Ariel, it had been after being mercilessly beaten by the wind spirit. And Ariel was the gentlest, and most nonviolent of the sisters.
Bella did not have a plan for this encounter. Her plans had been meant to end with her death at Nash’s hands, a year ago. She’d never planned to live through it. She was outside of her element now, and had been for a year. She had been going on instinct and trying to rebuild, but it was difficult to shift the gears of her thinking. Where before she had been completing schemes and plans that had spread across centuries, millenia, now she was adrift. She did not have anyone to support her. The Horsemen would kill her if they learned what she had done. The Sisters would never trust her.
“My sister,” growled Gene. “Your fault.”
“I sent her there because I thought it would help. I did not know she would get herself involved in the situation there. I did not think…” Bella sighed. “Can you imagine, for a moment, that the truth is that I am not an omnicompetent chess master, but that instead, I am simply trying to do the best in a game I no longer understand? She wanted revenge. She wanted to make things right. She wanted to take away a threat. I gave her the means to do so, and she got captured in the process. Do you really believe that I planned all of this, set her up to destroy herself?”
“Your style,” said Gene.
Bella kept her expression level, even. She didn’t show the rage. “Then there is nothing I could do to convince you. Any misfortune, you are determined to lay at my feet. Any goodness, simply another layer of my plan.” She took a deep breath, keeping the heat away. “This is why I turned against humanity. Because they had decided what I was, and every action I took was simply further evidence that they were right.”
“Then tell me,” said Gene. “My sister. Jack. Where they are.”
Bella paused for a moment.
She could feel Jack. She could lead Gene to him. She could allow Gene to kill him, to try to free Ariel. Death would intervene. The other Horsemen would do the same. They would know what she had done, and try to kill her. Ariel would likely die in the struggle, and Gene and the other Sisters would go mad with grief. They would ruin the world, and no force could stop them. She could see it all unfolding. Was it the path things would take? Or was it simply her preconceptions, trying to persuade her? She realized, that if she still had the same priorities that she used to, then she would seize the opportunity. It would be the perfect way to destroy things. The instinct that was inside of her, the eye for weak points, it told her that she could use this to destroy everything.
“I can’t tell you. You will do something we will all regret.”
“My sister,” growled Gene, her voice low.
“Nash can save her,” Bella said, trying to keep her voice from shaking. “It’s not the first time that he’s done it.”
Gene let out a howl of incoherent rage, lifted Nash into the air an inch or two, and slammed his head against the pillar of stone. Bella tried to keep the wince from showing on her face as Gene stood up, Nash dangling from her fingers as she lifted him into the air.
She could see his eyes on her. His arms hung by his sides, but he moved. He could’ve fought back, maybe. He wasn’t.
She took a slow breath. “Look at what you are doing, Gene. You believed in him. You trusted him. All four of you trusted him.”
“And look where it got us,” growled Gene. “He’s your thing, now. We gave him everything, and he betrayed us. He betrays us every time he forgives one of you.” Her fingers tightened, and Nash’s teeth gritted together. “Tell me. Or I kill him. You know I would.”
Bella watched slowly, as she met Nash’s eyes. He looked at her. One of his eyes was turning red, a blood vessel burst from the pressure. He smiled weakly, and mouthed two words. ‘It’s okay.’
She had to believe. She had to have the same faith that he did in people. She had to trust him, and to trust Gene. She had to do what he was telling her, and put it out of her own hands. If she acted now, in front of Betty, and in front of Ji-a, she would give it all away. She would betray herself, and get herself killed by the other Horsemen. They would destroy her. She couldn’t allow herself to be killed. She was War, and survival, and this was not her fight.
Nash had to face this alone.
“I do not believe you will kill him. But even if you do…” Bella sighed, and shrugged her shoulders. “You know what I am, Gene. I am survival. Every man betrays me in the end. If this is how Nash dies, at the hands of someone who loves him, then so be it. I will not weep any tears for him. He will be just another disappointment, another failure.” She turned her back. “Do as you will.”
There was a strangled noise, and a very final crunch.
Bella’s machete sliced through the air where Gene’s arm had been a moment before. The hand pulled back just in time, releasing Nash to fall limply to the floor. Blood ran down his lips, as Gene stepped back. The sea around rumbled as more spikes of earth emerged from it, breaking off and shattering as they did, the tip of a mountain now protruding from the sea through the platform, creating a small, muddy island. One of the broken stalagmites had produced the crunch. Gene met her eyes, as Nash lay on the ground, struggling for breath, grasping weakly. An angry handprint was visible on his throat, his arms limply by his sides. Gene squared her shoulders. “I’ll break you, War. Make you show me my sister. Then I’ll free her. You leave, I’ll kill him. For all you’ve done.”
Bella twirled the machete once in her hand. “You’re too stubborn by half, Earth.”
Betty darted forward. Her hands wrapped around Nash’s shoulders, and pulled him back. Bella was glad for that. It meant she could focus on the fight, and Betty could make sure that Nash didn’t die.
In that single moment, watching Nash crumple to the floor, she’d lost control. Despite what he believed, she thought he could have a happy ending. That when this was all over, and the Horsemen were gone, that he could be happy. It could never be with her, for a thousand reasons. He could forgive her for ways she had hurt him, the ways she had betrayed him, but he’d never love her. He’d never return that desperate, pounding need in the pit of her stomach. So she’d moved away from him, so someone else could fill the hole where his soul had been before she tore that away.
But the Sisters had left too. Everyone had left. And he’d been alone. She’d seen the way it made him more frantic, the way he’d thrown himself into the violence, and she began to fear that she had tainted him for good, turned him into a monster like all of the others. She was responsible, and that drove her further away. It was her fault, she knew, that he was in the situation that he was in now. She’d justified it for so long by saying that she was simply giving him a chance, that she’d let him survive or fail on his own.
But she couldn’t. She couldn’t leave it all up to chance, or to fate. He was fighting to give her a happy ending. She owed him more than that.
And if she were honest with herself, if she really opened up about the reasons she had, she was angry. Enraged. Gene had betrayed him. Given him power, and then hurt him. Bella was War. She was vile, and evil. She was supposed to hurt people, to make them suffer. Gene was supposed to be better. She was supposed to represent hope, love, and faith, the good things in humanity. She was not supposed to hurt the man who had sacrificed everything in order to save her and her sisters. She was not War.
A red haze fell over War’s world.
Gene charged at her. War recognized it instantly as a variant on Judo. Gene’s talents were in her strength, her momentum, her force. She was slow compared to the others, but she had immense power. If she got her hands on War, it would all be over. If she tried to escape, she would leave Nash to die under Gene’s boot. The woman was just emotionally unstable to make good on her threat. Gene shook the wooden platform as she charged forward, hands up, reckless.
War adopted a fencing style. More, perhaps, than any of the other Horsemen, she had mastered the martial arts. She was the martial arts. She could not match Gene for pure physical power, so she would simply have to be more skilled. She shuffled back quickly, matching Gene’s advance, drawing her in, towards the edge. Then, as the elemental force surged forward, she slipped to the side, her blade slashing across Gene’s side.
The big woman launched off of the wooden platform, her momentum too great to be arrested. She struck the ground hard enough for the entire island to shake violently, making the wooden platform creak and sway alarmingly. There was a sharp crack like a gunshot, and the platform split in half. Betty and Nash rolled in one direction, away from Gene. War fell in the other. The machete came free of her hands.
She hit the ground feet first. On impact, she twisted to the side, striking with the side of her calf, the side of her thighs, the side of her hips, and her back, rolling down, the parajumping fall executed flawlessly. Then she lifted her hips, hard, pulling them into the air, almost pulling herself into a circle, and kicked out, slapping the ground as she did. She rose to her feet in the kip up almost instantly, and her eyes darted around for the machete.
Gene came barreling through the nearest rock wall, fists flailing. A boxing combination, her hands were up, swinging two blows at War’s face. War bobbed to either side, her head weaving around the blows, letting them slip off of her cheek. Then Gene swung a haymaker like the one that had felled Nash. Jiu jitsu informed War’s next move, as she struck the hand with both palms. Her own strength was not nearly sufficient to deflect Gene’s blow, but instead, she pushed herself off the strike, spinning away her heel clipping Gene’s chin as she flew.
War landed hard, wincing. It was like striking a mountain. War was dedicated to dividing, to fatal blows. In humans, in most living things, survival depended on order, on a fragile balance. If you cut a heart in half, it would kill the human. Pierce any organ, and death would follow. Shatter a part of the infrastructure, and a systemic collapse would fill the rest.
The Sisters were different. Uncomplicated, massive. You couldn’t cut a flame in half. The wind, the earth, the sea, these things flowed, impossible to divide against themselves. That was part of what made them so powerful. They weren’t just the power that humanity gave them. They had power to spare. How the hell did you stop a charging mountain?
You made it more like a human. You gave it weak spots.
“You could have helped. Where were you, Gene, when your sister was in pain? When she was being lured into a trap, what were you doing that was so damned important?” War stood up, her eyes flicking quickly from side to side. There, on the other side of Gene. The machete. She licked her lips. “Was it jealousy? Was it the memory of what happened to the man you love? Did you want her to be captured? Were you hoping, in your heart of hearts, that she would suffer for tempting him away from you?”
Gene’s anger disappeared instantly. Her expression was stony. She snapped her finger, and pointed it at War, thumb held up like the hammer of a gun. Then she turned, and picked up the machete.
War held her hands up as Gene approached her, heart pounding. She could not win the fight without the blade. All of the Horsemen together would not be able to loosen Gene’s grip from the handle under normal circumstances. She would need something special.
Aikido, when it was first developed, was meant as a sword-wielding art. That part of it had been neglected in recent years, but it was still at its heart. The blows Aikido were meant to deflected represented blades. It was the rare human who became practiced at these forms. To truly train them required the practitioner to put their life on the line. To master it meant they had to be very lucky and very skilled.
Gene swung another tremendous haymaker. War rolled with the blow, swinging her entire body to the side, turning an impact that could have torn her head off into a backflip. She came to her feet again, and Gene’s fist rose like a mountain range. War threw herself backwards with the blow, once again transforming it from an instant knockout and near-certain death to a merely painful, debilitating strike. She landed on her feet, just as Gene brought the blade down. The dappled pattern of the steel shone like the spots of a leopard.
Wars hands came up. They wrapped around Gene’s, and twisted as the sword descended. She ducked low, and the big woman’s momentum worked against her. For a moment, Gene broke contact with the ground. War pulled the sword free, and leapt back. Gene came to her feet.
War stood, staring, for several seconds, at the edge of the blade, where crimson dripped down. She looked up. The slightest nick was visible across Gene’s shin, a small trickle of blood slowly descending. Little more than a papercut, really.
“You are bleeding, Earth.”
Gene’s eyes narrowed.
“You could retreat, right now. Leave. Like you always did before. Give up. You always give up. Maybe that’s why the humans drift away from you.” Gene stood up straight, her hands drawing into the judo stance again. War smiled, her iron teeth gleaming. “Good. I’m sick of your fucking hypocrisy. You’ve known all along what you could do to save humanity. But you were so afraid of the costs. Never willing to sacrifice.”
Gene lunged forward, hands outstretched. War swiped through the air, and Gene ducked. The edge of the blade gleamed, and a pillar of earth several dozen feet tall fell, sliced cleanly with a diagonal cut. Gene gritted her teeth.
“All of that power, and nowhere to use it. Everything can be cut, Gene.” She swiped again, and Gene ducked, backing up. There was a distant feminine scream, and War didn’t care as she kept moving, chasing the spirit of Earth. Her heart was pounding. Her head was burning. Sweat dripped down her skin, and the rage inside of her was so bitter it felt like she was being torn apart from the inside, her mind reeling and racing. How foolish she’d been. How sad. How pathetic. To let something as simple as a little hope change her. She could see now how weak humanity was. Nash had forgiven everyone. The girl Ji-a, though it condemned Ariel. Gene, though she was going to kill him pointlessly.
He’d forgiven War. The idiot.
She brought the blade down in a brutal blow. Gene threw herself to the side. The island rocked, and began to shake. The water gushed up suddenly through the line that had appeared in the ground, rushing up ferociously. A crumbling sound louder than an avalanche filled the air as half the island slid away, rushing into the water, a brief and violent whirlpool filling the air with the spray of salt. “What next, Earth?! Will you bring Water, here, or Fire?!” She twirled the blade. “To hell with a different way. To hell with redemption. To hell with you!”
She brought the blade down, and Gene brought her hand up, her eyes closing. Tears ran down her cheeks.
The sword stopped, quivering, in mid air, resting against Gene’s palm. A tiny droplet of very red blood ran down from between her thumb and forefinger. War lifted her eyes, and turned towards Nash. He stood, shock in his eyes. She shook her head slowly. It didn’t matter. He would have realized eventually that she was a monster. “It is not Bella, Nash. It was never Bella. That was a lie I told a child. You need to let go of the lies eventually.” She pressed the blade forward, and Gene hissed, as it pushed her hand back, leaving the edge against her throat.
“Bella. Please. Don’t hurt her.”
War gritted her teeth. “Stop calling me that.”
“I am conflict, Nash! I am strife! I am the blade that you do not expect, and I will never be anything else! Pearl was right! I am the dragon, not the damsel! I am not here to be saved, I am here to be destroyed! You can see the way that they treat me, the way that they look at me! The way they fear me! The way they fear you by association!” She looked down at Gene again. “She was willing to kill you because she thought you had betrayed her.”
“Her sister’s in terrible danger, Bella. She’s afraid. It’s okay.”
“If you die, you are gone, forever, Nash!” War looked up at him, her eyes ferocious. “Do you not even care?!”
“Of course I do.” He smiled. “I knew you wouldn’t let that happen.”
“You cannot rely on me.”
“No. I can. I know people will betray me. I know that they’ll do terrible things to me. But I believe in them. I believe in you. A lot of people will lose faith in you, or never have it in the first place, but I trust you, Bella. I believe in you”
She was silent for a few seconds, as her arm went limp, the machete hanging between her fingers. Then she turned her head towards Gene. “What a foolish mistake. I suppose I need to teach you one more lesson.”
She turned towards Gene, lifted the blade, and brought it down. She heard the sound of shoes striking wet stone, and felt the hand on her shoulder. She spun, bringing the blade around. Nash had finally done it. He had finally lost his faith in her. She was proud of him, as she tried to stab him through the gut. He was faster than her, his hand intercepting her wrist, stopping the blade from reaching his skin. He squeezed it, twisted it, almost gently, and the blade was turned away from both of them, dangling from her fingers. She looked up, and met his warm hazel eyes, as he held her, one hand around her wrist, one on her shoulder, poised to break her.
“I love you,” he said.
And he kissed her.
It was not one of the great kisses in the world. Neither of them were experienced with it. It was clumsy, both of them recovering from blows that would have killed lesser beings. They were standing on a salt-crusted outcropping of stone, surrounded by angry seas, and blood dripped down both their lips. It was a desperate thing. Sudden. She didn’t know how to react. If they had been anyone else, it might have been disappointing. But the kiss was warm, and sweet, and she could feel the beat of his heart, and for a moment, she didn’t have to hold herself up against the weight of all the years and all the disappointments.
The blade slowly fell from Bella fingers, and the despair drained out of her world.
I blinked my eyes, and breathed in. It was strange. Like the moment when you first wake up fresh in the morning after being sleep deprived for days, or like taking a hot shower after weeks of marching and sweating, or like being horribly ill and then realizing that you’re healthy. So many little pains and nicks that I had taken for granted, so many things that hurt, were gone. I slowly lifted my fingers to my lips. They tingled slightly. I looked up, and realized that my heart was pounding.
I was still War. I was still fury and fire and blood and betrayal. But I was Bella, too. For the moment, I was something more than just War.
Betty was standing on the top of a nearby ridge. I could see a shallow cut in her arm, her eyes wide. Ji-a was over one shoulder. She was staring at the two of us, her eyes wide. Then a shit-eating grin spread across her lip, and I groaned softly, my arms dangling behind me, as I closed my eyes. I was still being dipped by Nash. I shook my head. “I can’t believe she saw that.”
“I’m sorry,” Nash said, though he didn’t let go of me. His arms were strong. It felt unbelievably nice to, for the first time in thousands of years, allow someone else to support me for a little bit. To feel weak, if only for just a moment. I would have to be strong, very soon, stronger than I’d ever been. There was no way that the Horsemen could miss what had happened. I didn’t think I could even meet one of them without it being clear, now. I had made a terrible mistake.
And I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t panicked about the future. I knew there was someone who cared about me. And I cared about him. And that little moment seemed to fill me with something. It was like the berserk rages of the past, but everything was so clear. The pain was at arm’s length. “Thank you,” I said softly. I couldn’t make it sound warm. Couldn’t make it sound genuine. Even as I was now, it sounded cold and harsh. But Nash smiled, and stood up straight, setting me back on my feet.
There was a slight crumbling, as Gene stood. She turned, and Nash gently set me back on my feet, taking a step towards her. “Gene, it’s-”
“I know,” she said. She shook her head.
“We’ll save her.”
“Know that, too.”
Then she was gone. Nash’s hand fell to his side, as he stared after her, and I felt something that I had not ever really been able to understand before. To see those eyes watching someone else and wishing they’d stay. It stung, but more than that, it felt good. It was the kind of pain you could only feel when you cared about someone. I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt that. Then he turned towards me. “You saved me.”
“Yes, Nash.” I looked over at Ji-a. “It was a mistake.”
“I’m glad you did.”
“So am I.” I looked down at my feet, and breathed in. “We need to move. Prester John has the children, but I do not know where. He has them… hidden. Conquest and Famine are well-committed here. He is moving forward with his plans. He’s-” I lifted my eyes, and flushed. Nash was staring at me. “What?” I asked, stiffening slightly, my arms crossed.
“It’s just… Is it okay? Saying all of this?”
“Damned for a penny, damned for a pound, Nash. I would love to help you satisfy hormonal desires, but we need to move quickly, to make the maximum impact. Domingo Santigo still goes unnoticed as Ghede Linto. He will continue to cause trouble among the Loa, and I fear that he may encourage them into attacking Tezcatlipoca’s Bloody Crescent. Markov Lorickson has been summoned.” I looked up at Nash, and frowned softly. “It may not have been the best decision to allow him to keep his powers.”
His hand went up to his chest, and squeezed something. The metal rod containing the key to Paradise, and the soul of Lorickson’s daughter. He was still carrying it on him after everything that had happened. “I understand. Betty, we should go-”
“What, seriously?” Betty frowned at the two of us, her hands on her hips. “All of that, Bella, and you’re still not going to say it? After he fucking kissed you, and stopped you from murdering one of the Sisters, you’re not going to tell him?”
I looked down. “There… is time for that lat-”
Looking down meant I didn’t see the blow coming. Betty was not as strong as Gene, but she knew how to hit. Her open palm slapped me across the face, and nearly sent me sprawling to the ground. I stood up straight, anger flaring, only to see the soft look on her face. “You waited thousands of years the first time. I don’t want to hear that ‘it can wait’ bullshit. It never ends well. I know.” She turned, and winked at Nash. “I’m going to go find where the boat got to, and see if I can’t get it working. You two…” She waved a hand lightly. “Do what you need to do.”
Then she was off, carrying Ji-a, and leaving me alone with Nash.
“I’m glad you’re here,” said Nash, and he smiled. “It may be a little selfish, but… In the worst times of my life, you were always there. When I hit rock bottom, you were there.”
I looked away. “That was because I was the one who brought you there, Nash. I don’t understand it. I can accept that you are a kind enough, generous enough person to forgive those who betray you. Even someone like me. But all the things I took from you, all the harm I did to you. Can’t you see how frightening it is for me, if after all of that, you love me? Is it because I hurt you? If I stopped hurting you, does that mean…” I couldn’t finish the words, and let them die. I wasn’t good at emoting. At vulnerability. It did not suit me.
“Yeah. I hated you for that, for a long time. But that’s not the reason I love you.” He took a deep breath, and shook his head. “Reasons matter. The same thing, done for two different reasons, has the same result, but why it’s done matters. You hurt me because it made me strong. It made me special. You didn’t hurt me because you wanted me to suffer. You did it because it would make me strong”
I looked down at my feet. “I did it a little because I wanted you to suffer. You angered me. Trying to be so good. Can you imagine what it was like to have a child lecture me like that?” I sighed, and rested my hand on my face. “Nash… It was an accident. I decided to do it to you on a whim. I never expected this. I never thought you would succeed.” I lifted my head, and smiled weakly. “It’s a little bit overwhelming.”
Nash grinned. “Well, I tell you what. If you really regret hurting me…” He leaned closer, and I was abruptly aware of the difference in height. I’d never been aware of that before. Height, size, muscle, those things had never mattered before. And yet, it was… interesting. “If you really want to make it up to me, after all this is over, I’m sure I can think of a way to punish you. If you want.” He smiled brightly, and spun on his heel.
“The other Horsemen will come for me,” I said.
“Let them.” His fist tightened, and there was an uncharacteristic heat in it. “I won’t let them touch you.” Then he kept walking, and waved for me to follow along.
“Nash. Don’t you want to hear me say it, too?”
He turned towards me, and was quiet for a moment. Then he shrugged. “Does it matter? I care about you. I’d die for you, though I’d prefer to survive for you. You don’t have to return those feelings. There isn’t a lot I can offer. No money, no happy life, no peace.”
“I’m War, Nash. What would I want with peace? But why would you want me? I’ve given you all the power that I safely can. From here-”
“Because being around you makes me feel like I can do anything, Bella.” He smiled. “Come on.”
I nodded. “Nash? I love you too.”
And he couldn’t hide the smile that spread across his face, as a great knot of fear and tension and uncertainty unwound, all at once.
There was so much to do, still. So many threats, so many foes, and I didn’t know them all, a terrifying state of affairs for someone as used to knowledge as I was.
But Betty was right. I wouldn’t let him face them alone anymore.