Chapter 26: The Vice and Virtue of Mankind

Nash could hear the soft sobs fill the air. He looked around, and found that the only thing in any direction was an endless gray expanse. It stretched off into infinity in a way that was completely impossible to focus on, undifferentiated and mind-numbing. He turned until he could hear the sobbing coming from somewhere in front of him, and began to walk. It seemed to make a difference.

She was visible as a distant speck, at first. Then she resolved into a figure, blue and green hair hanging in messy, pallid strands across her face. She wore a Metallica T-shirt, and a pair of jeans. Hunched forward, looking painfully thin and weak, she had her face buried in her arms. Nash’s heart pounded as he saw her, and he began to run, the sound of his footsteps absorbed by the endless neutral gray,. He fell to his knees, and his arms went around Ariel.

She jerked a bit at the embrace, her eyes widening. Then they narrowed. “Oh, great. I’m already going insane. This is embarrassing, just a few days of solitary confinement, and…” Tears blossomed, and she wiped at them furiously with one hand, pulling away from him. “This is such a pathetic way to go. I can’t believe I fucked it all up.”

“Ariel, I’m not a hallucination.”

She looked up cautiously. “Prove it.”

“Do you want my damn ID or something? Give me the benefit of the doubt.” He smiled, and the corners of her lips twitched. Then she stared down.

“I guess it doesn’t matter whether you’re real or not. Any company’d be nice, now. And if anyone were going to be able to contact me in this fucking bottle, I guess it’d be you.” She crossed her arms tightly. “I fucked it all up, Nash. I- I tried to be strong, to help people, and all I did was end up making a mess of things!” Tears dripped down her cheeks, and she pressed a hand against her face. Her fingers clenched into a fist, yanking her hair. “Stupid, arrogant brat that I am. I can’t believe I thought I could ever make a difference, that I’d ever be anything but a fuckup-”

He wrapped his arms around her. She let out another sharp breath, but didn’t pull away this time. The two of them sat like that for a time, and eventually her face pressed against his shoulder, warm tears running down her cheeks, across the fabric of his shirt. “What happened, Ariel? Tell me the whole story.”

And she began to relate it. From the beginning, the death of one of the men she’d given her power to, the plague of heroes in New York, the revelation of the Horsemen’s plan to destroy the city, the trap set by Death, everything that had happened.

“I kept thinking- If you had been there, if we’d had you, everything would have been okay. You would’ve been able to handle it all so easily, Dane wouldn’t have lost her eye, I wouldn’t have fallen for such a stupid fucking ploy.” The tears ran down her cheeks. “I thought I could help you, take some of the weight off your shoulders, but I was a miserable failure. I didn’t accomplish a goddamn thing but to make the Horsemen stronger, Nash. I failed everyone. Especially…”

“If you hadn’t intervened, they would have killed those two you helped, wouldn’t they?” he asked, softly. She nodded. “The plan would’ve succeeded. New York City would be tearing itself apart, millions of people driven crazy and murdering innocents. Because you intervened, Jack and Jill left, and things turned out alright. Right?”

She nodded again. “But if I had been stronger-”

“You made a sacrifice,” he said softly, resting a hand on the top of her head, holding her cheek against his chest. “It cost you dearly, but you saved people. You knew you could lose your life, fighting those two, and you still did it. You confronted one of the Horsemen directly, and it was only because you spared their lives that you were captured.” He smiled softly.

“I kept thinking of you. How you would have felt to know I’d killed someone. I couldn’t stand the idea of disappointing you that way.” She looked down. “I wanted to be as good as you. But I couldn’t.”

“You did more than I could’ve, even if I’d been there. I don’t know if I could have saved the people you did, because you could be aware of them. I’m…” He smiled. “I always seem to arrive a bit too late, don’t I?” He softly ran his fingers through her hair, and she slid her arms gently around him, clinging to him as the tears kept dripping down her cheeks. “I don’t know if I’m going to make it in time. I’m scared I made the wrong decision, that I should have gone to save you immediately, and damn the consequences. I…” He swallowed. “I owe you my life, Ariel. A dozen times over. If it wasn’t for the gift you gave me-”

“You had to do it,” she whispered softly. “I know you, Nash. You’re desperate to help people, and you help the people who need it the most. You can’t help yourself. But I always have faith in you.” She looked up at him, and though her eyes were still moist, they were firm now, steady. “You’ll save me. I believe in you.” She bit her lip. “But, hypothetically… if you don’t… I want you to keep going. Okay? None of that ‘I failed to save someone, I can’t go on’ stuff. I don’t want you to lose faith over my dumb ass.”

“It’s not going to come to that.” He smiled. “But you know me. I’ll probably feel like shit, but I won’t stop going.” His eyes hardened. “But I’m not going to let you die, Ariel. I’m going to save you.”

She shook her head. “Jack’s stealing my power. He’s taking it slowly, and…” She gritted her teeth. “I thought he’d reach his limit, I thought he could only hold so much, but he keeps taking more, becoming more powerful. I’m nearly dry.” She shivered. “I can feel myself dying by degrees, all of my power going. It’s getting harder to hold myself together, to keep from just drifting away. From falling apart.” She looked up, and met his eyes. “He’s going to take it all, soon. He’ll be unstoppable. Pearl, Gene, Heather, they won’t be in a position to stop him. They’ll need him.” Her lip quirked. “Who knows. He might even be a better Air than I ever was.”

“I’m not going to let that happen,” said Nash, firmly. Ariel shivered in his arms again.

“It’s funny. I actually believe you. I remember when Pearl told me about the human who had saved her. The way she’d spoken about him, the look in her eyes. And I’d always wished we’d have a human like that. Someone who could stand up to the Horsemen. Someone who could help. Someone we could trust.” She smiled. “And instead I got you, and I was so mad about that, at first. You were such an embarrassment, I thought that you’d never be the man who could save Pearl. I remember teaching you to use my power, and I never imagined you’d be worth anything.”

“Yeah,” he said, and smiled. “And here I am, the most wanted man in Hell.”

She laughed, and there were tears running down her cheeks. “I knew that you’d never feel about me the way I wound up feeling about you, by the end. I hoped it’d be Pearl, at least, but you wound up falling in love with War.” She looked down. “Were we… not good enough?”

“It wasn’t about that.” He shook his head. “We both know how this is going to end. I’m going to fail, or die, or worse, succeed. You know what Cassandra said. I’ll be forgotten, by everyone. I suppose…” He shook his head. “That I wanted to limit the harm to you. War… she, I think, understands sacrifice. She might be able to forgive me for it. And I’m the only one who could forgive her for what she did to me. And if I’m honest… knowing she needed me was so important. You don’t need me, Ariel.”

“Doesn’t look that way from where I’m sitting.” She looked up. “You really think that’s all you are? A means to an end? Don’t you want to have your happy ending, Nash? God knows you’ve worked hard enough for it.”

“This is my happy ending, Ariel.” He smiled softly. “But that’s okay. You know? I can do something no one else can. That’s all I ever wanted. I don’t regret what I gave up to be able to do that.”

She nodded softly. “Nash?”

“Yeah?”

“Please save me.”

“I will.”

His eyes snapped open, and he sat bolt upright, breathing in the hot, dry air.

They hung in the sky, drifting over the distant ditches below. Back behind him, Nash could see the damned streaming down the sides of the path to the eighth circle, forming long chains of bodies that other damned climbed down. “It seems a bit unfair that the inhabitants of hell are so fucking good at teamwork,” he muttered.

“Nash! You’re awake!” Bastet sat just in front of him, and smiled brightly.

He still wasn’t sure how to take her actions. On the one hand, she had gone out of her way to show her faith and trust in him, had fought by his side, had told him she trusted him. On the other hand, that had never stopped people from betraying him in the moment before. What would she do if she were offered a chance to save her human? Would she give him up?

He hoped so. He could survive betrayal. He always had before. If it made the difference in saving her human, he’d prefer she took the opportunity.

“Are you okay, Nash?” There was concern evident in her expression. He took a moment to study himself. His arm ached where the Fury had slashed him, but he was no longer bleeding, and the pain was gradually fading away. He’d been hurt worse. His jaw was still sore from where Satan had caught him with that uppercut.

That brought something to mind. The heel, the appearance, the attitude of Belphegor, it had all come together. Nash had brushed up on his Greek myths since Zion, and though he still couldn’t place Eumaeus’ name, there was no questioning Belphegor’s nature. What was odd was why a Greek hero would be playing the part of a demon prince-

“Nash!” Bastet snapped her fingers sharply, and he started.

“Sorry.” He shook his head. “Thinking a lot.” He narrowed his eyes. They were approaching the well. Large walls surrounded the ninth circle of hell, as they had the others. Towering figures loomed over the walls, giants of impossible size. They rested arms lightly on the edges of the well, and their eyes were fixed on the approaching Geryon.

“they will not let us by,” said Satan, slender and- if Nash was honest with himself- downright pretty now that he had fallen out of his rage. That, too, reminded Nash of something. He wished he had his books handy, because it would have helped him to narrow down identities. “if we were to try flying into their midst, they would strike us down. it would be safer to travel by foot into the ninth circle. that way, we shall only have to deal with one foe.”

“God, that bitch,” growled Belphegor, with substantially more emotion than Nash had heard in some time.

“Anything that I should know about this mysterious figure?” Nash asked, an eyebrow raised.

“Don’t try to wrestle her. It never ends well,” said Beelzebub. “Huh. Is that a light?”

As Geryon descended towards the edge of the well, at the edge of the tenth ditch of Malebolge, there was indeed a light glittering. Nash covered his eyes, and hopped off as Geryon landed. The light lessened, until he could see the figure, angelic, hovering above the ground, six wings spread, two covering his face, two covering his feet, the last two stretched out to either side. “Well, Gabriel,” said Nash. “I’d love to say it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Silas Nash,” murmured Gabriel, softer than Nash had ever heard the trumpeter speak in months of hiding in Paradise. “We meet at last.”

“What do you want?” Nash asked, his voice harsh.

Gabriel bowed his head. “Not a fight, not a conflict. Nothing so harsh. I wish to offer you a chance. It is the way of angels, that we are there to offer redemption, even to those who may not deserve it. God loves all of his children.”

Nash looked over his shoulder, at the battered demon princes, at the damned streaming down the walls, at the tormented of the ditches. He turned his head back towards Gabriel.

“Those who find themselves in Hell are here because they have refused the chance for redemption, offered to each and every one of them. They cannot overcome their pride, the deadliest of all sins. I am offering you that redemption. To you, Nash. To you, Betty. To you, Lords of Hell.” His gaze fell on Eumaeus, and his eyes narrowed. “Even to you.”

“No,” said Nash. He was surprised when his voice was echoed seven times.

“Really?” Gabriel smiled very softly, very gently. “I can see the reason for you, Nash, Betty. You have always been prideful. But you, Beelzebub? You bent your knee to Nash. What if I were to guarantee you your freedom? All you must do is swear your allegiance to King Prester John, to fight in his armies.”

“Yeah,” said Beelzebub, “Fuck that.”

Gabriel’s eyes widened slightly. “You? Of all people, you refuse the chance to fight? To prove your mettle? To be very nearly free? What is the difference between one master and another?”

“Call it contrariness.” The fly’s eyes narrowed. “Or maybe call it the fact that I can still respect a man who wants me to stop hurting people over one who wants me to start.” Nash turned towards Beelzebub, and was entirely surprised to find a smile on the creature’s monstrous features. “What can I say? Everyone wants to be better, sometimes.”

“Such loyalty you inspire in those around you, Nash. For now,” said Gabriel. “But have you considered the consequences of releasing those imprisoned here? Every prisoner is here for good reason.”

“Somehow,” Nash said, fighting to keep his teeth from clenching, “I don’t entirely trust you, or Prester John, on what is good reason.”

“Nash…” Gabriel was quiet for a moment, and then frowned softly. “To hell with orders. You need to know. You have been kept in the dark. There is a war coming. A war in the heavens and on the Earth. A war that will destroy everything. Even now, gods in the other cities gird themselves for it.”

“A war against who?” Nash asked, frowning. “The Horsemen? That’s not news.”

“No,” murmured Gabriel. “Against humanity.”

Nash’s eyes widened. “Why the hell would they do that?”

“Because you can threaten them. Because humanity is growing stronger. They pushed themselves away from humans in the hopes that they would be safe, and now they are being brought back, and they are frightened. They are terrified, and when people are terrified they make terrible, foolish decisions. Shangri-la prepares for war, Avalon is paralyzed in indecision. This is the gambit, Nash. A war that will devastate both sides. And that would still not be as dark a fate as if the gods win.” Gabriel’s face was cold and hard now. “The place of humanity is to stand astride all of creation. You were made to be more, to be something beautiful, to do what we angels never could. That is what we are doing. We are firing the first shot in a war that is inevitable. That is why we enslave gods! Because they would enslave you! Spend the rest of eternity keeping you under their heel! You, of all people, should realize how desperately important this is!”

The sound of it rang through the air, bouncing off of the walls around them, Gabriel breathing hard, his fists tight. Nash was slightly shocked. He’d never seen one of the angels in such a state. Gabriel shook his head, and seemed to regain his bearing somewhat. “You have a choice before you, Nash. All must exist in service to those who are above them, and below. But that does not mean you have to be a slave. You know what service is. You gave up everything in service to a better world. You have tamed War. You have broken the pride of demon princes. You could do so much. Please.”

Nash was quiet for a moment. “I’m not here to hurt the gods. I’m not here to enslave them.”

“Come now, Nash. I see the anger in your eyes at injustices. The gods are, by their nature, unjust. They make others lesser through their simple existence.”

“I am not cutting the tall poppies,” said Nash, softly. “It’s true. There are many awful gods, those who have hurt others. There are some who don’t deserve redemption. But I didn’t ask to give a happy ending to the people I liked, or the people who deserved it. I did this to give a happy ending to everyone. And I will never, ever accept that this has to end in a war between men and gods.” He smiled. “I don’t believe gods are special. I don’t believe they are meant to be in control. I believe that they’re people. That they can love and hate and be fools and be kind like anyone else. I’m not going to join your fucking war, and I will be the greater foe to both sides if need be. I’m not letting anyone die.”

Gabriel shook his head. “Persuasive. But one man cannot stop a war, any more than a single tree can stop an avalanche. It can only weather it.”

“Watch me,” said Nash, and he shouldered his way past the angel. Gabriel stumbled aside, eyes widening.

There was a few moments where he walked in silence, before the others caught up with him. “You touched him,” murmured Belphegor.

“Yes,” said Nash, and they walked in silence towards the foot of the great well.

The giants above peered down, but appeared to be capable of little else as they approached the broad gate into the Ninth Circle. A chill and bitter wind howled up and out of the pit, blowing Nash’s hair back. And there, standing in the gap, was a petite figure.

“Oh, you had better be fucking kidding,” growled Betty. “You are stealing my fucking schtick?”

The young woman smiled. She was pale-skinned, and very pretty. Her long, gray hair was tied into a single braid, hanging down to her feet, resting relaxed. She wore a simple tunic. A pair of gray-furred cat ears rose from her head, peaked and wide. Her eyes were golden, slitted, a distinct contrast to Betty’s, and a bushy grey-furred cat tail swished behind her, languid and amused. “Well, they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” the woman purred.

“Leviathan,” murmured Eumaeus.

“And you, old man.” She licked her lips slowly. “It’s good to see you back where you belong.”

“I don’t intend to stay,” said Eumaeus, grinning. “I suppose there’s no way that we could persuade you.”

“No way at all,” drawled Leviathan, as she stepped forward, her hips swaying, as she looked among them. “Look at all of you. You princes of Hell, tamed.” She smiled. “But you always did have too much good in you. Too much hope, too much nobility. You wanted to be good so badly, didn’t you? That’s what got you locked here.” She turned sharply towards Nash. “You, then. You’re the only one here that I want. You’re the only one who doesn’t abase themselves before others.”

“Hey,” growled Betty.

“Oh, please. I can smell the desire on you. The human warmth. You’re helpless for lack of it. You’re the most pitiful of them all.” Leviathan turned back towards Nash. “A challenge. Not a fight, that’s much too obvious.” Her teeth showed. “A feat of strength. A competition.” She held up a hand. “How about arm-wrestling?”

“You’re fucking kidding me,” said Nash, an eyebrow raised. “What, is this going to be a double-elimination tournament or something? Do I get a new truck if I win?” Leviathan stared at him blankly, head canted slightly to the side. “Nevermind. So, if I beat you in an arm-wrestling competition, you’ll step aside?”

“More than that. I’ll let you bind me with your words. Be yours. In exchange, if you lose… You’ll be mine.” Her teeth shined, needle-sharp and gleaming. “The thought of having you bow to me… It’s intoxicating. And worth so much risk.”

“Nash,” said Eumaeus, warning in his tone. “This is a trick.”

Nash shook his head. “I’m not a hero, or a god, or a monster, Leviathan. My promises aren’t binding. They’re only as strong as I want them to be. And I’m going to tell you right now, even if you beat me, I’m going to keep fighting.”

Leviathan chuckled softly. “Oh, but wouldn’t it be worth it? To show them all that you can be beaten. That you can be overpowered.” Her eyes ran over the demon princes. “I wonder if they will still respect you.”

Nash shrugged. “If they decide they want to try their luck, they can.” Behind the bluff confidence, he was nervous. He knew that this was a challenge for dominance. Losing could mean the rest turning on him. It might be safer just to fight her. On the other hand, he was already in rough enough shape.

He’d have to cheat.

Leviathan kicked the ground with one heel. A pillar of earth erupted upwards, the land around them shaking violently, the earthquake rocking through the ground as the giants stumbled and grabbed at the edges of the well to keep their balance. It was the same black stone as the rest of hell, jagged on the edges, roughly hexagonal, but perfectly flat on the top, just at the right height for the two of them. She set her elbow on the pillar, and smiled, teeth shining. “You want to carry the world’s weight on your shoulders, don’t you? Time to see how heavy it is.”

He set his good arm on the table, elbow down, and his hand wrapped around hers. “On the count of three?”

“One,” she purred.

“Two,” he said.

They both pushed. Nash’s arm tensed, as he set himself into his stance. Sweat beaded on his forehead, his wrist shaking, the muscles standing out in stark relief against his skin, bulging in the sleeve of his suit. Leviathan raised her free hand to her mouth, and yawned, her arm steady as a rock as it exerted an almost unbearable force on him. His knuckles whitened, his breathing becoming harsher as the steady, unbearable pressure continued to push. “This is the weight of the world,” she murmured softly, smiling languidly. “The weight of all that is. No man can bear it all by himself, Nash. No man can stand up to me.” She leaned forward, and smiled. “I can see your friends already thinking of attacking me. Trying to overcome me. But they are hopeless. How long has it been, since you felt like this? Since you felt hopeless?”

“About a year,” grunted Nash, breathing in sharply. Trying to keep focused. Trying not to give into the temptation to tap the power Pearl had given him. To give into fury.

“I want you, Nash. In the worst way. To have you, to possess you. To see you be mine.” She leaned in close, and licked her lips. “I can already imagine the look on the faces of those you love. The betrayal. Knowing that their savior, the one who was supposed to protect them, was taken from them. Stolen fruit is sweetest.”

His hand dipped a fraction of an inch, and then another, as the pressure continued to mount. As she pushed him back, her position grew stronger, letting her bring more of gravity to bear, forcing him to fight against gravity as well as her.

“What drives you to try to do everything for others, Nash?” asked Leviathan, her eyes glittering. “What makes you strive the way you do? What has anyone else done for you that makes them so important? All they ever did was be weak. If those around you could be bothered to be as strong as you, to give up as much as you, then you wouldn’t have to do all of this alone.” His hand wavered. His knuckles were only a few inches away from the stone, now. “Don’t you hate them for it? Don’t you want to lose? To show them how they should have appreciated you for all you do?”

The downward movement halted, as Nash breathed in, his legs tensed, his shoulders squaring. Leviathan’s eyes narrowed, and he pushed her up, a fraction of an inch.

She leapt over the stone pillar, and landed on top of him. She was impossibly heavy. Heavier than the stone Huitzilopochtli had chained him to, heavier than Beelzebub’s staff. Her arm across his throat was like a fixed point of the universe, slowly deforming his trachea. His head pounded, the blood unable to reach it. He tried to push back, but the weight was unbearable. She was in the same kind of weight class Gene had been in.

Beelzebub’s staff went around the woman’s neck, hauled back by all six of the fly’s arms. Betty’s claws had sunk into one of her arms, blood dripping down her fingers. Asmodeus had seized hold of her tail. Satan’s eyes were wild, furious, entering the spasm of rage, his fingers wrapped in her braid. All four of them pulling together were barely even able to shift Leviathan, the cat-eared woman’s eyes wild as the pressure eased the slightest fraction. Nash’s feet shifted, pulling into a fetal position, heels planted against her stomach. He reached out for Pearl’s power, and pushed it just a fraction.

The others were sent stumbling back as Nash kicked Leviathan squarely in the stomach. The woman cried out as she was thrown through the air, landing on the stone pillar hard enough to shatter it. Fault lines spread through the ground, and the well cracked. A massive section of the wall fell apart, and tumbled into the ninth circle. Before she could recover, Nash was on top of her, a foot on her throat. The rage pounded in his veins.

It felt good, to be angry. It felt freeing, intense, more pleasurable than sex, more warming than the summer sun. He watched Leviathan’s face as she reddened, her mouth opening and closing as she grabbed at his ankle. With all of her strength, she couldn’t move him. It felt wonderful to have her under his foot, where she belonged.

“This is the weight of the world,” he said, his voice perfectly calm without even a hint of Pearl’s power suppressing his emotions, his eyes level with hers. “You think you know weight? That you know what it feels like to crush others? What have you sacrificed that you think you know pain, and suffering? Do you think, for a moment, that you could bear my weight?” His foot pressed a little harder, and her eyes began to roll up. Nobody around him spoke. He could feel their fear, their uncertainty. He let the pressure ease, and Leviathan gasped, face returning to normal. He didn’t remove his foot. “What do you want, Leviathan? What do you want more than anything else? What is your happy ending?”

“I don’t want it to end,” she hissed. “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to be killed. I don’t want the world to end. I want to just keep getting to be.”

He stepped off, and reached down. She looked distinctly unnerved as he pulled her to his feet, his arm aching under the weight. “That’s a good one. You’ve got it.”

“That was cruel,” murmured a soft voice. He looked up.

Raphael sat on one of the fallen stones, her head lowered, her expression melancholy. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m not a good man. I try to act like one, but I know that I’m not.”

“Yes. Prester John, Jack, Miller, Markov… They are all the same way,” said Raphael, her hands folded in her lap. “Darkness and light are mixed in the human soul. It is funny. Light is the source of shadows; You cannot have a shadow without a light casting it. The human soul almost seems to work in reverse. Loss, pain, guilt, shame, horror at one’s own actions, these are the dark things that make a human into a beacon of light. To have been hurt, to have wanted to hurt others, and to refuse to act. Heroes seem to have such fearsome hearts. The darkness casts a brilliant light.”

“I guess that it’s a question of whether you give in to the urges or not. That’s what this place is about, right?”

“Yes,” murmured Raphael. “Nash. I could give you a soul.”

“A lot of things could give me a soul. You notice I haven’t taken any of them up. I don’t want a soul. I don’t want to be weak.”

“Is your power that important to you? Is being strong so desperately necessary? Do you have to flay yourself in order to prove something? What are you trying to prove to the world, Nash? Why do you refuse to trust anyone else? What could be worth eternal life? An afterlife?”

Nash was quiet for a few seconds. He took a deep breath. “I know what I can and cannot do. I can’t create things. I can’t heal people. I can’t bring something new and beautiful into this world. I can’t even fucking dance. All of those things, the little things that are important, that make us human- I don’t have them. This is all I have.”

“You could learn them. You could be better, Nash. You could have a soul, a future, you could make people happy.”

“I can’t. I wanted to be someone great, when I was a kid. Someone who made people happy. I thought I’d cure disease, or inspire justice, or just make people happy. And it turns out, I can’t do any of that. The only thing I can do is break things. The only talent I have is destruction.” Nash’s voice turned hard. “But I am the best at it. I am the greatest fighter in this world. I have stood up to gods, and monsters, and I have won time and again. I can stand up to the Horsemen. I can stand up to you. All I can do is destroy, but I can do it for the sake of everyone else, and that is more than most people get the chance to do.”

“You could have a happy ending, Nash. Love, a place to live, people who care about you. This foolish pride, that you’re the only one who can bear this weight, it will destroy you.”

“You don’t fucking get it, do you?” He shook his head, and his blood boiled, the rage bubbling inside of him. He resisted the urge to push it down with Pearl’s power, letting it flow through him, and drip away in the cold wind, his breathing growing regular again. “It’s not that I’m the only one who can do this. The world is full of strong people. Better people than me. People who could use the gifts the Sisters and War have given better than I ever could. People who deserve trust, and faith. But I am nothing without this. If I gave it up, imagine the way those around me would look at me. The betrayal in their faces. The sadness at knowing I’d condemned someone better to this kind of life. This is all I can do. This is all I am good for, and all I’ll ever be good for. And that’s okay.”

“You’re not worthless,” said Betty, softly.

“No. Because I can fight. But Betty, for fucks sakes, I can’t even be human enough to help you heal. If someone has to do this, I’m glad it’s me. I was glad to hear Cassandra’s prophecy, because that’s all I want from the world. That is my happy ending. To be forgotten, to stop hurting the people I care about because I can’t be anything more than this, to stop causing them pain, and for them to finally be able to recover. I hurt the Sisters, I’ve hurt War, I’ve hurt everyone I’ve ever been around, and I’m sick of hurting people!”

He walked forward, past Raphael, towards the icy winds. “You deserve better than this,” said Raphael, softly. “Don’t you deserve better?”

Of course he didn’t.

“Someone has to do it,” Nash said. “I’ve got something I’m good at. It wasn’t the thing I wanted, it wasn’t the thing that would make me happy. But people are counting on me.”

Betty caught up with him soon. She walked beside him for a few seconds in silence before she spoke. “You know, a lot of humans have died because they cared about me.”

He nodded softly. “Does it ever make you sad?”

“Horribly. I wish I could protect them better. I wish I could make sure they never died, that they’d be safe forever. But my humans, they’re always so full of fire.” She was quiet for a moment. “But I would never want to forget them, Nash. It hurts to remember them, to know I’ll never see them again. But that hurt feels good, too. Because they made me who I am. You’re a good person, Nash. Because you see the ugliness inside of you, the ugliness that’s inside of all of you humans, and you step back from it.” She reached out and scratched behind his ears. “You’re a good human.”

The anger and the black rage broke inside of him, and he laughed. “That is the most patronizing thing that anyone has ever done to me. Thank you.”

“You’re not in this alone, Nash. You’re never in this alone. And you’re not going to end like that. I wouldn’t ever let it happen.” She looked back at the demon princes. “You’ve got more friends than you think.”

He was quiet for a few seconds. Then he smiled softly. “Thanks, Betty.” He looked over his shoulder, at Beelzebub, at the weary, limping Satan, at Asmodeus. Then he turned back towards the way he was walking, and stared down into the ice. “Oh, fuck.”

The ninth circle stretched before them. Massive, endless. Figures were buried in that ice, progressively deeper towards the center. A great gaping hole was visible in the center, where something massive had once been buried. Great chains hung empty across the ice. From the look of the ice, the edges ragged and worn, it had been vacated a long time ago.

“Where the hell is Lucifer?” murmured Eumaeus.

6 thoughts on “Chapter 26: The Vice and Virtue of Mankind

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