Dawn had risen, but it was covered by the clouds and mist. Markov Lorickson narrowed his eyes as the plane approached Paradise at a dangerously low altitude. The encroaching storm had made the flight in risky, though the pilot had insisted the appropriate term was ‘suicidal’. It was divine intervention alone that was allowing them to avoid being plowed into the sea, wind shears and ferocious gales guided away by the six wings of the archangel before them. The pilot was more than a little bit tense, but with God as his co-pilot, Lorickson was not going to let him bitch and moan.
It had been several months since the appearance of the man who had thrown Lorickson’s life into turmoil. Silas Nash had broken into his home, destroyed his defenses, and humiliated Lorickson. He had bested Lorickson in hand to hand combat. He had taken the man’s daughter, and disappeared with her.
That wasn’t the part that truly grated on Markov. The part that stuck with him was the mercy. The man had beaten him, utterly, and had been prepared to take Markov’s power, something Markov hadn’t known was even possible. The power that had made him wealthy beyond the dreams of most men. The power that had put him in Forbes. The power that had made him the right-hand man of Prester John. The power that was meant to save his family. He rested his hand on the massive two-handed sword hanging from his back, and felt his son’s soul within, humming support. The chainmail around his shoulders held his wife. The two of them were more alert than they had been in years.
It’ll be okay, whispered Maria.
He still remembered the news of the car crash. He’d never forget it. The guilt. The shame. The agreement he’d made to preserve them. What he had sacrificed for it.
He’d not seen Famine since that terrible day. He did not want to see her again. She had given him hope, and there were few gifts more vile. Hope could make a man do the most awful things.
Markov was not a fool. He knew that he was not a good man. He knew that he had made the world worse for many people. He had justified it to himself in a thousand ways. ‘I’m doing it for my family.’ ‘It was my right, for none could stop me.’ ‘If God wished me to do elsewise, he would not make me so successful.’
Every one of those justifications had failed when a man had broken down the vault door and beaten Markov black and blue. He had been on the verge of losing them, of having everything taken away from him, and the man had spared him. He had been prepared to leave with nothing, to break his way into Paradise by brute force, simply because he would not steal Markov’s daughter from him. It would have been arrogance, had the man not clearly been capable of doing so. And Markov had given the man his daughter, because he couldn’t protect her.
To be at another’s mercy when they were evil was something that Markov could understand. He’d been that way all of his life. He had been at the mercy of evil men, and evil things, since before his wife and children had been put into a coma. To be at the mercy of a good man was a frightening thing, because it gave him hope. And hope could make a man do the most awful things. Especially now.
The plane splashed down on the rolling waves a few dozen yards from the dock, and slowly taxied in, rocking from side to side. Even here in the bay, the wind was growing fierce enough to be dangerous. He frowned as the plane came to a halt by the pier.
Markov ran a hand through his blonde hair as he stepped out into the gusting wind, taking a deep breath of the salt air. A figure waited on the dock, arms crossed behind his back. Markov narrowed his eyes as he stepped out of the plane. “Nyarlathotep.”
“In the crawling flesh,” said the dark-skinned man, smiling cheerfully. “How are you doing, Lorickson? You look like you’re in good shape. Have you been working out?”
“I haven’t been able to work up an appetite for a week.” He lowered his head. “Can’t believe I did that.”
“You know why it was necessary, don’t you? We had to make sure that the children’s souls were safe. That power of yours, it gives you quite an advantage in the world. Such an effective way to take a hostage.”
One week since he’d been called here last. The first time he’d visited Paradise since he’d explained the loss of the key to Prester John. The strange thing was that Prester John had seemed downright pleased by that. He’d not called in any of Markov’s debts, had not grown angry. Everything had seemed to fit perfectly into his plan. But that was the way Prester John behaved. He was a man of God, and as such, everything that happened was happening the way it should. That kind of certainty disturbed Markov. Almost as much as the fact that the god of creeping chaos, of curiosity and satisfaction, was apparently working for John.
One week since he’d torn the souls out of three children, and placed them into a handful of gemstones for safe keeping. Gemstones currently inside a suitcase handcuffed to Markov’s wrist. “So. You got hold of the Keystones?”
“Yes. It was difficult. We had to draw the parents out with their children. Thankfully, Nash was instrumental there. He was able to convince them that it was right for them to involve themselves in the conflict directly. He gave them hope that they could find their children.” The dark-skinned man laughed, a rolling, bone-chilling sound, as he turned and began to walk. “Of course, he nearly wound up ruining everything. There was a moment, there, where I thought he would beat Michael into the ground. That would’ve made a very embarrassing end to our conspiracy, being defeated by him before we even got going.”
Markov frowned. “You had him cornered, and you didn’t finish him off? Are you fucking insane?”
“It wasn’t the right time. Don’t worry. Hell will break his resolve. It always does.”
“You’ve met him, haven’t you? You know that spiel he gives, about there being no hope if you don’t beat him the first time? Famine wasn’t fucking kidding about that.”
“He is not the hero of some childish story, Markov. No amount of determination can overcome the nature of this world. Have a little faith in us, would you? His declarations are a lie. He can be beaten just like anyone else. He just claims otherwise to intimidate fools.”
Markov shook his head. He’d fought the man. His wounds still ached from it. “Fine. Let’s get into town, and get this over with.”
The city of Paradise seemed mostly empty as they approached. The slums looked like the scene of a war, buildings crumbled and streets torn. From time to time, Markov thought he could see people in the ruins, but they were always gone by the time he focused on them. He walked a bit more quickly, but Nyarlathotep smiled. “Don’t worry. Nothing here will hurt you. Michael is keeping an eye on us.”
That didn’t make him feel any better.
He frowned as they walked past the empty receptionist desk at the door inside John’s tower. “What happened to the guy who used to work here? Balding, white hair?”
“Conflict of interest,” said Nyarlathotep pleasantly. “He’s working on the janitorial staff after displaying a detestable lack of loyalty. We’d have fired him, but… Well, the only employees harder to terminate than tenured professors are saints.” Nyarlathotep grinned, and his teeth gleamed white.
The god of Crawling Chaos and the Thousand Masks was, to hear it told, an old Egyptian deity. Markov had run across the god a couple of times in his business dealings. He was fond of nested personas, of sowing chaos, and of making life difficult for everyone involved. He wasn’t, to Markov’s knowledge, an agent of any one of the Horsemen in particular, but tended to play in their corner out of simple contrarianism. The two stood silently in the elevator. Nyarlathotep was staring at him, and Markov was working very hard to avoid any eye contact. He did not feel safe.
He hadn’t visited the conference room for a long time. His eyes crossed over the motley crew who filled the room. Two of them were gods, and he recognized them. Tezcatlipoca and Baron Samedi sat on opposite sides of the table. They looked very weary, and very defeated. Baron Samedi lifted his head to stare at Markov. A cigar hung from his lips. “You know,” he said, slowly withdrawing the unlit stoagie, “Prester John tells me that Nash spared you. That boy let you live, and keep your powers. Cause if you didn’t, you’d lose your child.” He stared at Markov very hard, taking the cigar out of his mouth. “I have the power to decide who lives, and who dies. Who gets to enter the eternal party, and who has to stay in this world, and suffer on.” He pointed the cigar’s tip at Markov. “You’re never going to die. Everyone you love will grow old, disappear from your life, and go on to their just reward in the afterlife. But I’m never going to let you die.” He spat on the floor in front of Markov. “You made me choose between my child, and doing the right thing. And fuck you very much for that.”
Tezcatlipoca looked up, met Markov’s eyes very simply, and looked back down. There was no threat. There was no warning. There was no promise. Just that cold, hollow look. It was surprising to see the god as a woman, but it didn’t make those dead eyes any less terrible.
Then, there were the angels. Gabriel stood by the entrance to the room, the distant sound of trumpets surrounding them. Raphael sat at the table, with a glass of something strong-smelling, her hair hanging around her face. Markov had never seen an angel anything less than immaculate, and it was a rather disquieting experience. She looked as though she hadn’t been sleeping well, and her eyes were rimmed with red as she stared sightlessly forward. Michael stood in a corner, staring out over the city, his expression completely unreadable. He had a cigarette in his mouth, lit, the tip slowly flaring with each breath in, smoke surrounding him with each breath out.
Last were the two men. One was a big man, pacific islander, his skin tanned and darkened, a military jumpsuit on. He looked like he hadn’t been sleeping well either, and his fingers were tightened around the metal armrests of his chair. Markov could see the places where his fingers had dented the steel. The other man stood against the wall, his arms crossed, similarly agitated. A Greek man, he wore a bow over his shoulders, and an eyepatch over one eye.
“Finally here, Markov. Good to see you.”
Prester John smiled, the brilliant white suit making him shine brightly. He sat in the chair, and waved. “Take a seat?”
Markov sank down into one of the seats. His eyes flicked to the three limp forms on the table. “So. You got Nash?”
“He’s out of the way,” said Nyarlathotep. “We can move forward.”
“Yeah. I’m sure everything will be fine.” Markov leaned back in the chair. “What’s the plan.”
“Gentlemen. Ladies.” Prester John stood up. “The Horsemen. We all know them. We have all been harmed by them, one way or another. They are a part of humanity, bone deep. There is no changing human nature.” He grinned. “Or at least, so I thought. For so long. It turns out that I was wrong.”
He waved towards the table. The three young children lay there. Two boys, no doubt Tezcatlipoca and Baron Samedi’s children. And the girl.
She had been the same age as Markov’s daughter had been at the time of the accident, just on the cusp of adulthood. Her snow white hair hung around her face, her skin the color of milky coffee, between her father and her mother’s shades. Markov was one of the very few who had met the girl’s real mother. A small white diamond sat in his briefcase, carved into the shape of a heart. There were similar gems, a ruby for Tezcatlipoca’s child, an onyx for Baron Samedi’s. The vessels of their souls. He stared down at them as he lifted the briefcase, opened it, and withdrew the gemstones. They glittered with a soft, internal light.
“The Keystones are sources of vast power, much like a dam. They hold back the world of gods and legends from the world of men. The potential power generated by that separation is vast, but inherently unusable under most circumstances. War discovered a way. She used the souls of children to corrupt the keystones. The strife of young lovers betraying one another brought that source of power in line with her own power, her own symbols. The keystones were destroyed before they could be fully corrupted, preventing her incarnation, and distributing its power across the other keystones.” He waved his hands towards the three children. “Famine’s plan is the same here.”
“You said,” said Baron Samedi, his tone very level and his expression very still, “that we would be given our children back.”
“You will. Once you have cooperated. The ritual will be draining on them, but it will not kill them. Think of it as an impetus to see that all goes safely. I will bear the loss.” His eyes dropped to his daughter, and his lips drew into a line.
“That process… How much does it leave the soul intact?” asked Tezcatlipoca, her eyes still cold and dead as obsidian, fixed on Prester John.
“I must believe that the soul can endure,” said Prester John. “Faith is necessary.”
“So you feed Famine a poisoned pill,” said Markov, into the cold silence that filled the air after that last statement.
“Of sorts. If the method of the destruction is important, then…” He held out a hand towards his daughter. “The sacrifice of a child for the sake of a better world. To make Famine into an ally.”
“And Famine will just let you do that?” asked Markov, an eyebrow raised. “She is not a fool, Prester.”
“No. But she can be tempted. It is in her nature. First, the temptation to incarnate. She will not be able to resist it. Even knowing it is a trap. she will be tempted, and that is how we will seize her. She has been tempted by the need for champions before.” His eyes drifted to Nyarlathotep. “Isn’t that right?”
“She does have her fondness for those things which are rare. And what is rarer than a good man?”
Prester John nodded. “Should she remain inimical, Michael will bring her low, I will consume the keystone, and take the power.”
“You can’t hold the power of a god, let alone one of the Horsemen” said Tezcatlipoca. “No mortal can. It has been tried. The best that can happen is that you will both die. At worst, you will become Famine, and we will all be even more deeply fucked than we were before.”
“Not quite,” said the man with the eyepatch. “You remember the rise of Nergal, last year. Someone was able to consume his power, and take it for his own. He was murdered before he could explain how, but it is possible.” He grinned broadly, white teeth shining. “It is a strange aeon. Men conquering Gods. Cities falling. And who knows what else strange aeons may bring?”
“A great deal to gamble on, when you don’t even know if it’s possible,” said Markov. “What happens if you fail?”
“The Pugno Dei. A military weapon, an orbital drop with the force of a thermonuclear weapon, wiping me out, and the rest of this island. Our good friend Miller here will trigger it, when the time is right. It will trigger a final confrontation between the Horsemen and the Sisters. With two Horsemen incapacitated or converted, regardless of whether Jack succeeds at his task, the Sisters will finally be at an advantage. If they can seize it, humanity will suffer, greatly, but it will survive. There will be a new age. And a handful can survive to that new age. Ragnarok, but humanity will continue.”
“An extinction event,” said Markov. “With a handful of the chosen few surviving Gaia’s wrath.” He paused for a moment, and frowned. “Jack’s task?”
“I’m going to become Air,” said the man with the eyepatch. ” I captured Ariel. I will take her power, and join the Sisters.” Jack grinned. “They might not want my help. But I don’t think they’ll be in much of a position to refuse.”
“All of this destruction.” Markov leaned back. “You think the Horsemen are going to let you get away with it?”
“The Horsemen have spent thousands of years being certain of their ultimate victory. They have never wavered from it. They had the force of inevitability on their side, and that made them complacent, certain. They thought it unquestioned that they would win. Now, things are beginning to change for them. The Sisters are regaining their momentum. They are beginning to hope again. One way or another, this all will be settled within the next few years. Silas Nash brought hope back to the world.”
Michael let out a disgruntled nose. “You, of all people, King, should know to beware of false prophets. That man is not a savior. He is the Antichrist. You know what he believes, in his heart of hearts.”
Prester John simply shook his head. “It does not matter. Maybe he is a savior, maybe he will be a failure, maybe he is meant to bring us low. That is why I am forcing the point. Now, at this precise moment, when we finally have hope. In war, in business, in love, you must strike when the iron is hot. At this moment in time, we can save everyone. Begin God’s war. For the first time in existence, it seems like Evil may be overcome by Good in the final conflict. If we delay it for fear of death, then the Horsemen will boil us like frogs.”
Markov shook his head. “You’re mad.”
“God is on our side. I know this, Markov. The Horsemen are His servants. They have simply gone astray for a time. This is all part of His plan.” He smiled. “And if I am wrong, and even the Pugno Dei does not work to stop Famine, there is one last measure which I am confident in. Silas Nash is even now trapped in Hell with Bastet. If he is a savior, Hell could not hold him. He will escape.”
“Placing too much confidence in him,” said Michael, frowning. “You saw him. He could not keep a hold of me.”
“Yes,” said Prester John, and he shot Michael a hard look. “But you were the one who had to retreat from him.” He turned back towards the table, and Markov caught a moment of fire in Michael’s eye, his jaw drawing tight, tendons sticking out on his neck. It was gone in a flash, but Michael met Markov’s gaze, and held it until Markov looked away. The room felt like a pressure cooker.
“Samedi. Tezcatlipoca. The Keystones.”
Samedi took a slow, deep breath. Then he gently flipped his hat into his hand, and reached into it, going up to the shoulder. He withdrew a slender triangle, made of iron rods, connected at the corners. He set it on the table. Tezcatlipoca reached up to her chest, and her fingers sank in. She withdrew a similar triangle, this one made of brass, and set it atop the first, inverted, creating a six pointed star. Prester John looked up to Raphael. She nodded, and reached into her robes, withdrawing a slender ring, with six small spheres hanging from the inside. She placed it atop the star.
There was a moment’s brilliant white light. When it had faded, and Markov could see again, the keystone sat before them, a delicate brass and iron ring. Prester John looked up at Markov. “Move their souls.”
“First,” said Markov, his eyes narrowed. “You know what you swore to me. What you owe me.”
“Ah, yes.” Prester John smiled. “It turns out you are spoiled for choice. Jack, and Miller, both have possibilities.” He waved towards the man in the military jumpsuit. “The government appears to have made great strides in cybernetics, with the help of Miller. I’m sure that with his help, before everything collapses, you will have the time to commission them. If you are quick. But if you need something more immediate…” His eyes drifted to Jack.
Jack slowly reached up, and lifted the eyepatch. Glass glinted from his eye. He withdrew a small bottle from the socket, and placed it on the table. Markov stared down.
The Sister of Air stood within. She looked feverish, her head lowered, her expression tired. Her arms were crossed over her chest, and her clothes looked ragged. “What are you looking at?” she asked Markov, though she couldn’t work much force into the statement.
“The Sisters can make Tsukumogami. Enough power, and they make an object into a person. Your wife and son can have bodies again. They can be people again.” Prester John smiled. “Simple, isn’t it?”
“Come now, Ariel,” said Jack, very softly. “You don’t have to do it. But it’s a little more of your power that won’t be there for me to use against your precious Nash.”
The tiny blue and green-haired woman looked up at Jack, and then at Markov, tilting her head questioningly.
Markov’s mouth was dry. He had never really believed it would happen. He’d never been able to hope that Famine or Prester John would follow through on their promises. His hand shook. He nodded.
She let out a sigh, and for a moment, a soft breeze blew through the room. The weight lifted off his shoulders.
His wife and his son had their arms around him, squeezing him tightly. He closed his eyes. It was, for that single moment, worth it. Everything that he had done, everyone he had hurt, every promise he had broken, every principle he had betrayed.
“Faith, Love, and Hope,” said Nyarlathotep, cheerfully. “Everything is worth what people believe it is. And for faith, love, and hope, men would damn the world.” He laughed cheerfully, his eyes running across the room. “Every single one of you could stop this right here, right now, in this very room, if only you didn’t have faith, love, or hope.” He grinned. “All you have to do is let go of that happy ending, and you could save everyone so much grief. No wonder the Horsemen have been winning for so long.”
“Shut up,” said Markov. He stood up, and his wife stepped behind him. She was the same age as when she had been put into that coma. She looked the same, though there was a glint of steel in her eyes. His son was taller, his cheeks sharper, but still so familiar.
“Without faith, love, and hope, what is the point of anything,” said Prester John, smiling. “Of course they are precious. They keep us moving forward. And sometimes, they are rewarded. That is enough.”
“And my daughter? You got her back from Nash?” said Markov.
A silence filled the room. It started awkward, and quickly reached lethal. Markov’s next words came through clenched teeth.
“You locked my daughter into Hell?”
Markov and his family moved as one. They were already on top of the table, the massive zweihander brought overhead, the chainmail rattling on Markov’s shoulders. It tore through the ceiling and the glass window on its way down, slicing them cleanly, as it fell towards Prester John’s skull.
It met one of Michael’s upraised hands, stopped in its tracks. The impact rang through Markov’s body, and the sword rebounded, changing into his son halfway through the arc, landing in a heap. Michael’s counterstrike struck Markov in the heart, and sent his wife stumbling back. Markov fell to his knees, the ache robbing him of his breath and his strength.
“She will be safe there,” said Prester John. “We have given the inhabitants of Hell… Call it an incentive. The one of them to take your daughter from Nash will be freed from the underworld. There are great and terrible creatures there. And they do not have to beat Nash. Your daughter will be back in your hands before the ritual. I can swear that to you.” His eyes were fixed on Markov’s. “Now fulfill your end of the bargain.”
Markov lowered his head. “Why? Why do you need their souls in the keystones? War didn’t have to do the same.”
“Because this is meant to be a last defense. You showed us the limits of what Nash could do. He couldn’t break your son, or your wife. Even if he were capable, it is the kind of thing that will make him hold back. Every little bit counts.”
Markov stared down at his hands. He looked up at his wife and his son, recovering their feet. He’d kept the power so that he could save them some day. Nash had left him the power so that he could save them some day.
Jack leaned forward, and grinned. Then, he reached out. A gust of wind filled the air. Markov’s wife and son stiffened. Then, the sword and the chainmail lay on the ground. Ariel made a soft groan of protest. “Prester John’s wants to do this thing square. But this plan needs to move forward. Humanity depends on it. Can’t have you losing your nerve. We can give you your family, or we can take it away. If the sisters aren’t appropriately desperate, they’d probably kill me just out of vengeance.” He closed his hand, and smiled. “You’ll get them back when the ritual is completed.”
Despair washed over Markov. He touched a finger to each of the three gemstones. The souls were soft, easy things to move. It was difficult to work with those that were resistant, but these were children. He looked up and saw Tezcatlipoca and Baron Samedi, and the very hard expressions on their faces.
He could sabotage this now. Return the souls to their bodies. He could hobble this whole plan. Save who knows how many lives. Condemn his daughter to Hell, sacrifice his wife and son’s chance to be real.
Markov couldn’t stand hope. But he couldn’t live without it. So he pressed a finger to the Seal of Solomon, and drew the children’s souls into it. Then he stood up.
Ariel stirred in the bottle. “Every single one of you is going to get what’s coming to you. You more than anyone, Jack.” Then she went still, and closed her eyes, her head nodding forward.
An hour or so later, he, his wife, and his son sat in the small, empty cafeteria of the building. He was the only one who was human. He had never felt so utterly alone. The weight of his wife and his son lay heavy on his shoulders, as he closed his eyes.
Dad- began his son, and stopped.
He’d doomed humanity to the hands of a madman. He slowly leaned forward, and rested his face in his hands, brushing his hair back and away. He took a slow, deep breath in, and then let it out. He thought of Lili. Her smiling face. Her expression.
Of course, even if they had returned her, they would still have him over a barrel. What they had given, they could so easily take away. He was still trapped. And hope had burned him once again. He’d seen how close his wife and children were to being his again. But they never would be.
A woman sat across from him. She wore a red dress. Her skin was dark, and her eyes were green. She smiled with iron teeth. He felt a terrible wave of fear run through him.
“I thought that sparing you was the wrong thing to do.”
She leaned closer, and her smile grew wider.
“You’re going to prove me wrong.”
Then she took his hand, and the two of them were gone from the cafeteria. Her last words echoed in the air.
“It’s going to be alright.”