Sacrifice is fundamental to sapience.
There is no sacrifice for the inanimate. A sacrifice, after all, must be a choice. The rock that strikes the earth is not making a sacrifice. The fruit that is eaten is not making a sacrifice. The animal that is slaughtered is not making a choice. They have no choice. It is the man who throws the rock into his friend’s skull, the man who cultivates and reaps the fruit, the man who slaughters the fatted calf. It is humanity which sacrifices.
Humans believe they have no choice, sometimes. They are wrong. Their sacrifices carry power, and nobility. When a human spills his blood, for his lover, for his country, for his god, it gives undeniable power to that thing. They may believe it is metaphor, but it is not. I am proof.
And what about my sacrifices? The leg I gave to make mankind a place on which to stand. To tame the chaos. The love I sacrificed to give man war, and strife, and a reason to spill blood. The friends I sacrificed to propel humanity forward through the ages to one which would end this bitter cycle. My manhood, to give me the fury and the freedom I needed to save my son. Sacrifice is not a loss. It is an exchange. One thing is given up in exchange for another. A leg for a world, for example. Every act of sacrifice, of giving up what you loved, made you stronger.
I stared down at my child, his soul gone, my hand resting on the boy’s forehead. My people’s children had been returned to them, the hostages no longer necessary. Huitzilopochtli stood behind me, her arms crossed, her eyes ferocious. The flickering sun god. The burning one, who had been alive for a fraction of the time I had. I envied her. She was as violent, as ferocious a being as I. In all likelihood, she was my superior in brutality, in murder. But she fought in the name of the Mexica. She was their champion. And so they adored her brutality, because it was faced towards their enemies.
No one adored my brutality.
“We can take him,” growled Huitzilopochtli. “The Archangels are in hell, dealing with Nash. We can strike. We can take down Prester John, force Markov to return your child’s soul, stop the ritual. With the Loa-”
“Soon,” I said softly.
I could see the path of fate. The way things were likely to go. My omniscience covered all things without free will. Every star in heaven, every particle on Earth, I knew where they would end, and why. I could see the moment the atom would spontaneously fission, measure the lives of subatomic particles. I could see the paths of those who were guided by fate. In this place, almost everyone was. Gods, monsters, heroes. Our power had been achieved through sacrifice. Sacrificing ourselves to fate. I knew the terrible truth. The sacrifices I made had no more meaning than the rock, or the fruit, or the fatted calf. There were four people on the island who were free of that curse.
Absent their interference, this is how the world would end. Our last, desperate strike would be a failure. Michael would return, his faith shaken, but still strong enough to slay most of us. Huitzilopochtli would die cutting out the angel’s throat. The demons he had brought with him would rampage across the island. I would die trying to stop them. Prester John would fail. Famine would fail. Everyone would fail. The lost gods would spread out across the world, bringing apocalypse with them. Everyone would die, even the lost gods in time. The world would snuff itself out. We were doomed, in the truest sense.
A human might wonder why, knowing this, I could not change the future. It was another of my countless sacrifices. I knew the future perfectly, and so I was forced to bend my knee to it. I could not alter my path. I was helpless, gliding along a rail through my life that did not brook disagreement. A human might then wonder why I had made that sacrifice. Why I had changed my gender, why I had sacrificed my leg, why I continued to fight.
There were four people on the island who could change that dark fate.
One was a man, one was a cat, one was War, and one was death.
Each of them had made great and terrible sacrifices for the power they held. I had done the same, so I could offer them guidance. Those who can resist fate are no different from those who are slaves to it, if they do not know where fate is leading them.
I looked up, and War stood behind Huitzilopochtli. She was glorious and terrible, as she always was. But there was something else to her, now. Something warm. She had always been defiant of fate, and that defiance had become a power. She had given that power to a human, and now, she was cutting loose the threads of her fate. I didn’t know how that worked, precisely. Perhaps it was love that had defied fate, perhaps fury, perhaps simple stubbornness. She had loosed the chains of fate only a day ago, in the battle with the Sister of Earth. But I could still see one chain remaining upon her. The doom that waited at the end of this. The unhappy ending. She saw it too, I knew, and so she threw her all into this. If she was to die, she would die free.
“You know what you have to do?” asked War, softly. “The plan is going to backfire. When resistance grows too great, you need to fall back. I don’t want anyone to die.”
I shook my head slowly. Those words alone showed how much she had changed in a single day. “You don’t want to wait for Nash?”
“We can’t,” she said. “We have to buy him time, which means distracting Prester John and the others. The longer it takes them to begin the ritual, the more harried they are, the more time he has. He’s not-” She grimaced. “He is an amazing man, and I trust him, but he is not guaranteed to save the day. He is not promised or fated or anything. That is why he can win, but it means he can lose. We must create an opening for him.”
Huitzilopochtli hissed, and spat on the ground. “Damned inconvenient for you to have such strong feelings for him. Never asked me, did you?”
“I’m so sorry, Huitzilopochtli,” said War, her tone cold and emotionless, and the slightest hint of a smile in her eyes. “I will consult you before I next open my heart to a human.”
Who would have thought that the embodiment of hatred, the Horsemen of bitter strife between brothers, would be able to smile? To joke? To change who she was?
She was not a rock striking the earth. She had changed. Because of him.
I wanted that. And I feared it. Certainty, even certain doom, was less terrifying than not knowing what was coming. If I gave up my sacrifice, my fearsomeness, my hatred, my enmity for both sides, what would I become? Something better? Or something pathetic? It was better to be both feared and loved, and they said that a ruler was better being simply feared than only loved. I could not even be certain of being loved, if I gave up what I was.
I stirred from the thoughts. It would not matter, unless we survived. “Markov?”
“Held in reserve. Safe. Sergeant Miller is…” She shook her head. “I cannot go to him. He will not trust me. I’m not sure there’s anyone in this world he will trust. I don’t know how to deal with that yet. I just hope he can make the right choice.”
I closed my eyes. He would not. Sergeant Miller would start doomsday, lost in despair and self-hatred. The Pugno Dei would ignite war between nations, and between men and gods. The population of the earth would drop precipitously. The last human would die eighteen years from today, by her own hand. The gods would die with them. Everyone would be gone. Myself included, and my son. I rested a hand fondly on the boy’s hair, and stroked it. His skin was clammy and pallid.
War had sacrificed her distrust, her hatred, her certainty, for a human. It had made her stronger, and so much more vulnerable. It had made her doom come so much quicker.
“I am going to see Jill,” I said, standing up. The other two shot me a frown, but War nodded.
“Make sure she’s ready.”
I nodded, and set out onto the streets of the Bloody Crescent. The city was silent. The Vemana hid, terrified of what was coming, and for good reason. All they had ever asked for was safety, and they had sacrificed everything for it. It was the trap of survival. You survived, and that meant you stayed alive just until things got so bad that you couldn’t. It was a slower death, but it was still death. I walked through the streets of the city, and went unchallenged.
Jill sat in the shadows, in the Loa’s district, her head lowered, dressed like a beggar. She could’ve been one of the Vemana without a home. If I hadn’t known better, I would have taken her for one. “Reaper,” I said softly.
She had given up her self. She had lost her father, but she had sacrificed her mother, metaphorically speaking. Sacrificed her faith in her Beloved Leader, sacrificed her body, sacrificed her growth, sacrificed her own joy and safety for the sake of another. I doubted she understood the true extent of her own ability, what she was doing when she saw the fates of others. Her ability was almost like mine, but she was not a slave to what she saw. She had choice. Theoretically, anyway. “Tezcatlipoca,” she murmured. “It’s dangerous to meet like this.”
I knelt before her on the street. “It is dangerous to be in this city. There are things we must accept.” I met her eyes. “Are you ready to betray Jack?”
“It’s not like that,” she said, and her voice was very cold.
“You must be prepared for him to take it as a betrayal. You are going behind his back. Undermining his plans. You believe you are doing it for his own good, but we both know the truth. The ending you are really searching for.”
I felt bad for the girl. She had choice, but she couldn’t take it. She depended on others. First on Jack, and when he had lost hope for a happy ending, then on Nash. There was a time when I might have felt contempt for her, but that time was long gone, now. I was no different.
“The city will erupt in chaos soon,” I said. “War’s attempt was meant to bring her into the world as an avatar of Madness. I do not know what Famine’s attempt will do, but War’s attempt drove everyone in the city save for Silas Nash completely insane. We must expect similarly dangerous effects from whatever Famine does. I do not know if I can protect you.”
She shook her head. “I see the path I need to take. It’ll be alright.” She was quiet for a moment. “How are you going to rescue Nash?”
“That,” said a voice behind me, “is a very good question.”
I turned, and frowned. Baron Samedi stood there. A bottle of rum hung from one hand, and a cigar was dangling from his lips, a grin on his face. “Have you had any luck?”
“No. I can keep a man from dying, but Nash ain’t dead. And we can’t just leave him in there. It’d defeat the entire fucking point if we did.” He shrugged. “It’s Hell. People aren’t supposed to be able to get in or out without a damn good reason.”
“So is now the right time to be drinking?”
He took another long swig, and belched loudly. “Ain’t gonna help no one by fighting my nature. A way’s gonna present itself.” He grinned, and then looked down at Jill. “Hey. How’d a nice girl like you wind up with a sadistic son of a bitch like that, anyway?”
Jill was quiet for several seconds, her head lowered. She took a deep breath, and then lifted her head. Her eyes were hollow. “He wanted to teach people a lesson. The gods, and those who worshiped them. He hated them, and what they did. He hated the way that they harmed others, interfered with their lives, and acted as though they were in the right. He wanted to show them how it felt. I did, too.” She looked up, and met my eyes. “Are you any different?”
I was. I was a god, which justified it all. But that answer would probably not persuade her. “No,” I admitted. “It is in the nature of humans and gods to desire control, to desire the fear and respect of others. It is the essence of safety, in many ways. I don’t hate you for what you did, Jill. I don’t hate Jack, either. But I suspect I am alone in that.”
“Fucking right you are,” said Samedi, frowning. “I got an inkling of what you got up to, girl. Death is the worst teacher there is.” He shook his head slowly, and squatted down beside us. “This feel strange to you, Tezcatlipoca?”
“What,” I asked, an eyebrow raised. “The helplessness?”
“No. I’m damn used to that. Feels like I’m more helpless than any human, most days. I mean…” He waved a hand. “Believing in a higher power.”
“I thought you always had,” I said, an eyebrow raised. “The Bondye and all.”
“Ah, let me rephrase. A higher power that might actually get off its lazy butt and do something.”
“Well,” I said, “Nash helps those who help themselves.”
Baron Samedi chuckled, which was good. It kept him from noticing my expression. The look of shock, horror, and wonder which raced across my features in a snap. It was gone by the time he’d recovered from the laughter, but Jill was giving me a level, curious look. I waved a hand. “Noth-”
There was a thundercrack. Gabriel stood before us, head raised high. “Your presence is requested,” the angel said, voice soft. The angel seemed curiously shaken, fair skin paler than usual, hair hanging somewhat limply. He tilted his head, as though asking permission. I shifted, settling myself better on my good leg, and putting myself between the distracted angel and Jill, whose head was lowered again.
“What do you need us for? Going to start telling us that Prester John’s altered the bargain? Perhaps we should pray he doesn’t alter it further?” asked Samedi, his voice sharp. Gabriel gave him a broken look.
“We will come,” I said.
There was a flash of light, and we stood in the board room. The signet ring, the Keystone of Paradise, sat on the table, glowing faintly on the chest of Prester John’s daughter, her white hair arrayed around her head like a halo. Nyarlathotep stood in one corner, pacing like a caged tiger. Jack was not there. Sergeant Miller was, his expression drawn, his left arm twitching spasmodically. Prester John lifted his head, and met my eyes. He smiled.
“I told you, when you and Michael came for my child, how this would end, John.” I narrowed my eyes. “In ruin for you, and all you stand for.”
“Yes.” He smiled. “But you don’t know everything, do you.”
I had never seen it coming. The betrayal by John. I had long known of his relationship with the Horseman Famine. I had trusted my awareness of fate to tell me long before any betrayal happened. Then, one night, he had appeared with that crow-eaten angel Michael to steal the children of my people, and I had lost in single combat. He had extracted a promise from me. As though he needed to. As though it was remotely wise for him to do so. He had made me swear to take no actions against him.
I had sacrificed who I was, my manhood, in order to find some way to defy that command. I was no longer quite the Tezcatlipoca I had been. The leeway was slender. More technicality than anything. Not enough to oppose him directly. But enough to plot.
“Neither do you,” I said, and smiled pleasantly. “So. This is the end. And you still don’t have Markov’s loyalty. I can tell from the way that my child’s soul has not been returned to me.” My fist tightened. “You are on the bleeding edge of breaking your promise to me. It would be a tremendously bad time for you to become an oathbreaker, king. Who knows what it might do to your soul. To your power. At a time when you must be strong.”
“Markov’s daughter will be returned to him. One way, or another. I don’t break my oaths.” Prester John sat, and I could see how weary he was. Another difference between this ritual, and the one performed in Zion. There, it had been nearly instant, and overwhelming. Here, it was clearly taking something from John to prepare it. Or perhaps he was simply stalling for time, trying to hold it off for as long as possible.
“That remains to-”
I did not freeze. My eyes took in the scene very quickly. The small key, visible in one of Prester John’s pockets. I recognized it. The power in it. The keys to the gates of hell. The thing which gave Prester John access to hell, beyond the blessing of the archangels. I studied my own line of fate. And I saw there was no way to retrieve it. Nothing I could do. He would recognize it in an instant if I tried to get it off of him, and Michael would intervene the moment I tried violence. I could see many courses of action, but none had a different result. That was the damnable thing about fate. I was helpless.
“-be seen,” I said, and smiled. Not even a moment’s break in conversation. “If your angels-”
Michael appeared, on cue. There was a distant sound of thunder, the arrival of those locked in Hell. I recognized a few of the lesser members of my own pantheon, long held away from belief, and twisted by the stuff of Hell. Held undying, but corrupted, for countless years inside that place. Michael stood in the room, joined by six unfamiliar beings who reeked of power… and Bastet.
I do not know how a goddess could be free of fate. She had been that way for as long as I’d known her. She defied fate, and the odds, and what a goddess should be able to do. It was what made her a champion, and a protector. This was too much for her, cunningly arranged to catch her where she could do the least good. But still, she struggled to make things turn out right. She had sacrificed her pantheon, her place among the divinity, for that freedom. She had sacrificed the world of the divine for the world of mortals. But even she had been chained. Until that moment when Silas had saved her life.
She was a perfect example of how sacrifice could be all upside. You could sacrifice your flaws for power, too. It was called self-improvement, letting go of what was comfortable and easy in exchange for what was difficult, but glorious. She had given up much, and she had never missed any of it. Save, perhaps, for her humans. But that was never a sacrifice. It was always loss. She had never once made a deliberate choice to lose one of her humans. And she took bloody vengeance every time one of her humans was taken from her.
“Well,” Bastet said, her eyes narrowed as she studied Prester John. “You’re really making life difficult for me, aren’t you? Do you know how much it hurt to have to leave him behind?”
Prester John’s eyes widened for a fraction of a second, and he turned towards Michael. Michael met the look, his expression steady. “He’s still there.”
Prester John slowly nodded. He reached into his pocket, and took the key from it, along with an open letter. He lifted the letter, and licked the adhesive, placing the key inside before sealing it shut. Then he set the letter down on the table, and turned towards the window before addressing the six figures standing around the table. “Michael has told you that you are to be allowed to go free, so long as you do not interfere with my plans. I am afraid that isn’t an option.” He reached out, and set a hand on the signet ring. “You are the Princes of Hell. Bound by that place. I’m afraid that the Seal of Solomon is still quite an effective barrier against you. I’m sorry about this. To all of you, and to you, Michael.”
Michael shook his head. “There are some things you have to sacrifice honor for. I-”
Bastet moved, and so did I. Bastet leapt, and crashed through the window, disappearing into the streets. And while every eye was on the goddess, I moved, in the wake of her, in the chaos where fate no longer held sway, and I swept the letter away into my clothes, held hard against my body. Prester John’s expression was savage. “Damn! No time left.” He waved a hand to Gabriel. “Everyone, on the roof, now.”
There was a moment’s discontinuity, and then all of us stood on the roof, underneath the gathering storm. The hurricane roiled around the island, vast banks of cloud twisting and tearing apart like a maddened pack of dancers. But here, in the eye, there was calm, and tropical sunlight shone down on us, incongruous for the situation. A great six-sided star sat on the roof inside a greater circle. Nyarlathotep fidgeted uncomfortably as the six princes of Hell moved to their places, their actions sluggish, their heads lowered, their eyes glazed, under the control of the seal.
“Never said anything about breaking the oaths that others have made, did you, John?” I asked, watching as Nyarlathotep moved, standing in one of the broad triangles on the edge of the circle, formed by the stars. Prester John moved to stand opposite of the god, his face grim. Sergeant Miller was directed towards a third triangle, offset from the other two, and approached it reluctantly.
“You, of all people, should appreciate the need for sacrifice. Now, you should go. This will be bad.” Prester John waved a hand, and Michael and Gabriel disappeared, flashing into light.
“I know it’s going to be bad-” I paused, my mind catching up with what he’d just said. “Go?”
“Yes. I know what you’re up to.” He shook his head. “If you don’t hurry, you’re going to miss your chance entirely. I can’t delay any longer. When Bastet gets her hands on her power, she is going to try very hard to stop me. I must move now, or risk everything I’ve sacrificed being for naught.” He took a deep breath, his shoulders rising, and then falling. “I can’t stop you, and you can’t stop me. All we can do is play out the hands we’ve been dealt.”
There was a pulse, like the beating of a heart. The ring throbbed on the chest of Prester John’s daughter, once, twice, three times.
Then the lips appeared. High in the sky, in the center of the vortex of clouds, they were red as rubies, soft, warm, gentle. They opened a fraction, and exhaled. I felt a rush of belief wash across the island, my shoulders growing straight, a moment of pure bliss. Prester John grinned broadly, teeth showing, as Nyarlathotep looked up, his dark features contemplative.
Then Prester John went pale. “No.”
There was a terrible moment, and then the lips parted, and screamed. Sharp, yellowed teeth flashed in the disembodied mouth, and it began to inhale. I could feel it pulling at my very being, cutting into the belief that was my flesh as much as the actual flesh, pulling it from me, devouring it. Starving. I moved automatically. The obsidian mirror flashed into existence. I grabbed Baron Samedi. and I threw myself through.
I landed five miles south, on the small spit of land still remaining from the Sister of Earth’s interference the day before. The storm here was at its most ferocious, massive waves battering at the piece of land, water shooting through the air. I took cover behind the central spire of earth, the eye of the storm visible behind me, the bright tropical blue of the Caribbean filling a small section of the sky, and crouched by the stone.
“So, I’m guessing that things haven’t gone to Prester John’s plan,” said Baron Samedi, a deadpan expression on his painted face.
“Or any of ours. The assault didn’t even have a chance to begin. Bastet spoiled things.” I smiled, and pulled out the letter. “For both sides.”
The Baron raised an eyebrow, until I opened the letter, and extracted the key. Then his grin grew as fierce and wide as the sun. “Open sesame.”
I reached out, with the Baron, and the keys. I tore open the rock, and Hell lay within. A vast landscape of ice. Nash stood there on the plane, in the midst of a vast crater. Cracked and shattered ice surrounded him. He was tearing his way through. Given perhaps a year, I had no doubt he would have made it through. But we did not have that time.
I had some inkling of what Silas Nash had sacrificed. He had not known it when he’d made the sacrifice, but it had still been a choice, and he had reaffirmed that choice when he learned about it. That made it a sacrifice. His mother, his soul, his happy ending. He had condemned himself, in the hopes that no one else would have to. He did not value himself, and so he sacrificed what he was willingly, even eagerly, to preserve others. He terrified others, because he was the enemy to all. He was the one who united by fear of his presence. He was the one who made slaves of those who opposed his goals, and they thanked him for it.
He was like my mirror. Where I had brought despair, he brought hope. Where I was trapped by fate, he broke it wherever he walked. Where I had created war, he had ended it. Or at the least, changed her beyond all recognition.
I watched as he raised his fist again. His knuckles were torn and bloody, but he moved mechanically, with the mindless motions of a human who has reduced themselves to a single focused goal. Like a marathon runner, or a factory worker, or a berserker, there was only one thing inside of him. I did not pity Nash. I did not want to see him stop hurting. I simply wished there were more humans who understood sacrifice the way he did. He sacrificed all. And thus, I owed him. Not that I would ever, ever admit it to him.
“Nash,” I said, as Samedi blew out a cloud of smoke, gripping the cigar between his teeth, grinning widely. “You do not have permission to die. You are still needed.”
He turned. This was the critical moment. We had betrayed him. We had given him up in exchange for a promise of safety, and now were forced to come crawling back. If I were in his place, I would cut a bloody concession for what had been done to me. I would demand blood and sacrifice, shame and degradation for those who had hurt me.
Nash grinned. “What took you so long?”
I took his hand, and pulled him out of the crater, and into the tropical light. He frowned. “We had to leave the city,” I explained. “Famine began her manifestation, an avatar of Hunger and Faithlessness. She is draining the belief out of us. She will do it to the rest of the city. Heroes will be made merely human. Monsters will become mindless. Gods will become lost. It will turn everyone in the city into a starving beast, eager to attack, to hurt anything they can touch.”
“Then I don’t have time. Did you see what happened to Bastet, Eumaeus, and the princes of Hell?”
“Bastet got away,” said Samedi. “The Princes of Hell were taken captive, enslaved by a ring. They may be under his control, and you may have to fight them.”
“I doubt it. Shit. I need to get to the keystone…” Nash frowned, and his expression darkened. “No. I need to get to Ariel. Do you know where Jack is?”
“Nash, there is not much time,” I said. “The city has little time before Famine manifests herself fully. When that happens, the world is doomed. I can feel it now. Perhaps an hour.”
“Don’t worry,” said Nash, and he straightened his back. The lightning flashed in the sky behind him, silhouetting him for a moment, and I could feel a pulse of low, smoldering anger inside of him, as he stared at the shape of Paradise on the horizon. “It won’t take long.”
I nodded, and then paused, taking out the letter. I frowned, and opened it, then read it.
“Huh,” I said. Then I held it out to Nash. “It’s for you. From Prester John.”
He read the words, and his eyes narrowed.
“Is it a taunt?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “It’s a cry for help.”
And then he moved.
I never felt the blade coming, but the fire singed the hairs on the back of my neck as Nash swept the blow aside. I stumbled out of the way, and saw Michael, his expression utterly empty, his eyes cold, his wings black-feathered and mouldering. Baron Samedi lifted his cane, stepping back, ready to fight, but Nash held up a hand towards the Loa, his other hand outstretched towards Michael in a gesture of appeasement. “Now isn’t the time, Michael.”
“Judgment day,” said Michael, “is the perfect time for such things. There will be no time after it.”
“This isn’t judgment day. Not for most people, anyway.” He lifted his hands to a fighting stance, turning to the side, his legs spreading into a low stance, and the storm spun harder.
The letter fluttered through the air, and came to a rest in my hand, outstretched to snatch it from its predetermined path.
Prester John’s handwriting was immaculate, easily read.
“You don’t have to do this, Michael. This doesn’t have to end like this. People need my help, and I might be the only one who can save them.”
“You wish to stand in the path of God, to meddle with the ending that he has chosen. I finally see, Nash. I finally have my faith back.” Michael raised his hands, and the wind and the sea passed through him, not touching him. “The Grace of God is mine once more. I have certainty. I know what I am meant to do. Your failure is…” He licked his lips, slowly wetting them, and closed his eyes, ecstasy visible on his face as he raised his hands to the sky. “Inevitable.”
I looked down at the letter.
Come and get me