The flaming sword flickered through the air. Nash raised his hands, and it was only instinct that saved him. He had moved to the side at the same time, and his hands passed through Michael’s without touching them. The archangel’s Grace was in full swing, and Nash couldn’t touch him.
That was frustrating.
Baron Samedi and Tezcatlipoca scattered, running for cover, as Nash spun and danced around the blows. The angel’s soft, pretty, androgynous features were twisted. Hate, despair, and joy warred in a strange pattern as the angel swung forward, striking again and again. His fighting style was utterly berserk, showing no sign of holding back or attempting to defend himself, every blow struck with full commitment.
In a fight, every blow had to be measured. Desperate, brutal strikes tended to be the last thing a person did before they were spitted by a more disciplined, calmer foe. In Aikido, a reckless attack was an invitation to be countered, thrown, and given a sharp and humiliating reminder of how much you still had to learn. All of this relied on the one simple assumption of all fights, which was that to attack someone, you had to leave yourself open to be attacked.
Michael didn’t have to worry about any of that. And whatever had been done to the angel, it had given him absolute faith, in himself, and in his path. Nash spun around another blow, and stood straight, not breathing hard, but his arms aching slightly. He’d been fighting for so goddamn long.
Then he smiled. “So, Michael. What was it that gave you your faith back? Found your brother? God spoke to you? Perhaps you realized that you’re doing the right thing?” Michael was immaterial. But he could still hear.
“I do not need any of those things,” said Michael, his eyes emptied of everything, his expression returning to a slack gaze. “I saw that there is no fighting what is coming. That there is no escaping what is coming. This world is going to be destroyed. You are going to die, Nash. You are fated to failure.” Michael swung, and Nash’s hand came up. The blow was stopped, Nash’s wrist catching Michael’s. It lasted for a fraction of a second before the blow continued forward, Michael’s flesh passing through Nash’s, but by that point Nash was out of the way, and grinning.
“Really? You don’t sound like you buy that bullshit. You’re Michael, the greatest fighter in the world. You’re telling me that you can’t take this on?”
Michael’s eyes narrowed. There was a flash of pride there. Just a moment of it, but enough to make Nash’s blood race. Then the angel’s expression slackened again. “Not even I.” He struck again with a blow that cleft rock and sea, leaving a deep gash in a colossal wave as it swept past the island, and leaving a rift in the stormy sky, revealing a moment of sunlight. It lasted for a fraction of a second before the clouds rushed back together, sealing the wound, but Nash was untouched. “What are you smiling at, Nash?”
“I’m going to win.”
“Is that so,” asked Michael, and there was a moment of heat in his voice. He swung, and as Nash moved to the side, Michael’s leg came in a sweep, trying to trip Nash while he was off balance. Nash moved with the sweep, letting it pull his legs out from under him, rolling and returning to his feet, grinning. “How are you sure?”
“Simple enough,” said Nash. He was forced to stop speaking for a moment as Michael brought the sword down in a series of overhead arcs, bobbing and weaving to either side, letting the sword pass through the air around him. He straightened, and grinned. “You don’t want this as badly as I do.”
Michael’s fist rose like the ascent of man, and Nash took an uppercut to the chin. He was already rolling back as it hit him, stars flashing in front of his eyes. He landed on his feet barely, ears ringing, and kept smiling. Michael was breathing hard, though he had barely expended any effort, his shoulders tensed. “You think I don’t want this?” His voice was rising, the wind growing more ferocious against them, forcing Michael to shout into the teeth of the gale.
“No! You could never want this as badly as I do! That is the weakness of villains, of the people who want to destroy the world!”
“I am not a villain!”
“Good men never try to end the world!” shouted Nash, and grabbed Michael’s wrists. The flaming sword twisted, and struck the ground. Cracks and fractures ran up along the length of the blade, spreading rapidly across its surface, until they reached the hilt. There was a loud crack, and the angel let go of the hilt, the shattered pieces falling to the ground. He pulled back, hands becoming immaterial and slipping through Nash’s grip. He took several steps back, breathing hard.
“And you think it matters? Whether you are good, or bad? Do you think that right makes might, Nash?” Michael’s face was drawn, his eyes hollow. “Preservation always falls to destruction. Those who try to create, those who try to keep things whole, they are doomed to fail. The universe is entropic. Decaying. Shattered. God made this universe wrong, he made it a poisonous, diseased thing, and this is putting it out of its MISERY!”
He punctuated the words with one ferocious blow. Nash went with his gut, and took the blow across the chin, the haymaker striking him firmly. At the same time, his fingertips struck Michael’s throat in a knife-edged blow, for that fraction of a moment when the Grace had been dropped to allow Michael to touch him. The blow had been a gamble. It might have been impossible to touch the angel against his will, period. But whether it was Nash’s faith or his power which made it possible didn’t matter. He grinned.
“Yes, Michael. You have been a protector. And maybe the things without life are doomed to fall apart. But we’re people, you and I. We do things for a reason. We have purpose. We have things worth dying for, and things worth living for.” He tightened his fist as Michael bent over, choking and gagging from the swift strike to his trachea. He hoped the angel could hear him. He’d feel like an ass if nobody heard this. “Those who wish to destroy the world can always put it off till another day. Gather their forces. Take another swing. They know there’s an escape.” He grinned savagely. “They hold back. Those who fight to save the world know they have no choice but to be invincible. They have to win every time. Anything else would be unacceptable.”
“This is reality, Nash,” growled Michael. “Not a story. Not a fable, or a parable. Those who must win so often lose. I have seen it happen countless times, throughout history. Good men who died in vain. Brave men whose sacrifices saved nothing. Pious men whose faith did not save them. This is a cursed world. Why don’t you give it up? Let it die. Let something else take its place. Take your place in heaven. Give up.”
The words rocked through the air, like a physical blow. Nash stumbled, his head swirling for a moment. He took a deep, heavy breath, trying to focus. There had been something in those words, some horrible command, something cold and merciless, meant to break faith, and break souls. Something deeper than Michael. It had slipped off of Nash like water off a duck’s back. He grinned. “I’ve got too much to give up now.”
“You have sacrificed everything for power, Nash,” Michael growled. “Do you find that power so precious you can’t give it up?”
“It’s not power for its own sake, Michael. Did you forget why we sought the power? It’s all for the people we love. When did you forget that?”
Michael was silent for a moment. “Angels aren’t allowed to love.”
“And does that seem like it was ever a wise decision?” Nash cracked his knuckles, and met Michael’s eyes. “I’ve got a question for you.”
“Will it make a difference?”
“Yes. Hell wasn’t full of the dead. It was full of those you’d captured. What happens to them, the gods, the monsters, the heroes? What becomes of them, when they die? Not the power, not the myth. The people.”
“They are like you, Nash. They have given up their souls for power. The divinity, the belief, it replaces what would be a soul. When they are killed, they are gone. Husks that walk. Like me.” Michael’s face was drawn. “Why does it matter?”
“Because you were going to kill them,” said Nash, his voice soft. The storm around them seemed to die down, the thunder and the lightning and the wind and the waves all growing quiet. “You were going to murder the people I loved and cared about and you were going to try to tell me that it was just, and that it was right. You and your friends told me I could give up and be safe and everyone I have ever cared about, every god, every monster, every hero, would have died because of it. You betrayed the people who trusted you, and you hurt them, and now you’ve given up and are just letting yourself be puppeted by fate, or God, or whatever it is that you’ve given yourself over to.”
Michael’s fist twitched, and there was a flash of anger in his eyes. “Don’t speak of things you don’t understand, mortal.”
“You think I don’t understand what it is to give up?” Nash asked, his voice soft. “I’ve been there. I’ve wanted to quit. I’ve seen no choice but to surrender. But there’s an important difference between us, Michael. I didn’t.”
Michael lunged at him, and Nash reached for Pearl’s power. He pulled, and felt the fury fall over him.
There were two kinds of fury. Nash knew them well. There was the fugue. The kind he’d experienced more than a few times. The mindless rage, pure animal instinct. He’d thought, for a time, that it had been the gift that Bella had given him. A mindless, elemental rage that would break and break until it burned him out. The sad truth had been that it had not been her who’d done that to him. The madness, the fury, that was all him. It was who he was, deep down inside. It was the ugliness inside of him. The mad, pained beast that lashed out at the world when it was threatened or insulted.
This was not that fury. This was not about what had been done to Nash. It wasn’t about his pain. It was about the people he loved. The people he cared about, and the harm that had been done to him. Bastet, fighting alone. Lili, hanging silently around his neck, meant to be returned to her father. Ariel, trapped and waiting for him to rescue her. All of those lost in the City, losing their minds and their souls to Famine’s hunger. All of the Damned who he had put in harm’s way. And Bella. He had promised her a happy ending. He had promised to save her. To save Ariel.
To save even Prester John from the mistakes he had made.
Everything was crystal clear around Nash. He swung, and the blow struck Michael’s cheek. There was shock on the angel’s face as he was driven back, only to come up short, Nash’s other hand around Michael’s wrist. He pulled Michael back, and twisted the wrist, feeling the arm twist, hearing bones shatter and tear under the torque. It was shockingly easy to do it to the angel, who seemed able to put up as little fight as Nash had when the Grace had worked. Nash stepped forward, and made quick and darting jabs, driving Michael backwards.
The black vanished from the wings, replaced with purest white, and Michael roared. A true, full-throated roar, reverberating over even the storm and the fury around them. He lunged forward, and grabbed Nash, fingers twining with his. A grappler’s maneuver, he began to pull to either side, trying to bring Nash’s arms out to either side, to pull him off balance. Nash set his feet, drawing on Gene’s strength, and it was the only thing that let him keep his feet, and avoid being ripped limb from limb. The angel’s arms were muscled like steel cables, every muscle and tendon standing out in stark relief from his skin as he strained against Nash, the two of them locked like that. The pain must have been intense with the angel’s broken arm, but he showed no signs of it. The tranquil fury drained away, leaving Nash’s arms feeling like lead, barely able to move, shaking and twitching as the unceasing pressure continued.
“You arrogant soul, Nash. I believe you now, that you are not God, or Lucifer, or the Messiah. You are just a man, and no man can fight God, nor Fate.”
“A man can’t beat God,” Nash growled, the exertion intense. “A man can’t be greater than God. That’s your whole point.”
“I’m not anyone’s better,” Nash growled. Michael roared, and moved his hand toward Nash’s right hip, dragging the hand with him through an inexorable motion. Both of them were straining to the utmost against one another, feet grinding into the stone for purchase, legs tensed. Michael reached a finger out towards Nash’s hip socket.
Nash forced his hand forward, and his fist slammed into Michael’s hip. There was a grisly sound, and the angel screamed, and collapsed, his hip dislocated, cursing and swearing, wings drawn protectively across his body. Nash stood up straight over him.
“Fucker,” growled Michael, his eyes closed in pain, writhing on the ground.
“Shouldn’t use the same trick twice,” said Nash. “I read Genesis, too.”
“Hah.” Michael’s rage seemed to disappear, and he began to laugh. He lay back on the ground, leg hanging at an odd angle, wings spreading out around him, a slow smile spreading over his face. “Fuck. That’s right. I did this before. Never expected it’d get turned back on me!” He laughed long, and hard, and loud, and somewhere along the way it became tears, his teeth gritted. “I didn’t want this! I didn’t want anyone to suffer! I didn’t believe God would ask this of us! I had faith, and I was used like the fucking fool that I am!”
Nash crouched down, and rested a hand on Michael’s shoulder. The angel squeezed it tight, tears running down his face, mixing with the rain and the sea spray. “We all make mistakes. It’s okay.” He smiled. “I’m here now. Everything’s going to be okay.”
The tears continued to fall, Michael’s hand covering his face, hiding the tears and the sobs. “I fucking failed them all.”
“Not yet, you haven’t.” Nash stood up straight. “What happened?”
“Famine. She got in my head. She made me…” Michael’s voice was empty, hollow. “She made me fall. She took the faith from me, the belief in me. She made me what I hated most.”
“And it didn’t last long, did it? Guess some people just can’t change who they are.” Nash smiled. “Come on. You’re Michael. You didn’t fall. You just tripped.”
The angel barked out a laugh, and his hand slipped down from his face. “I can’t help you, Nash. I can’t fight under that mouth. I can’t-”
“It’s okay. I don’t need you to. I’m going in there.” Nash frowned. “Shit. That’s a bit of a long swim in a hurricane.”
“Allow me to help,” said Tezcatlipoca, stepping out. She looked down towards Michael. “I must confess, your sense of fair play was admirable. I honestly expected you to use us, to inconvenience Nash, force him to harm himself.”
“No,” said Michael, his voice stiff. “Not out of any sense of fair-play. I’ve seen what you do, Nash. I’ve seen how you fight. The way disadvantage makes you stronger. I saw the Aztecs, the Loa, attempting to use that against you. I saw what it cost them.” He looked Nash in the eye. “Pity the poor bastard who tries to use love against a thing like you, Nash.”
Nash was quiet as Tezcatlipoca opened the obsidian mirror, the black glass cloudy and grim. He paused in front of it. “Do you know where Jack is?”
“He will be preparing. At his apartment. I will place you nearby.”
He nodded. “Do you know where Bella is?”
“I do not. I am sorry, Nash.”
He nodded again, and stepped forward into the mirror.
There was a long, cold sensation. Bone-deep, so cold he couldn’t breathe. It seemed to stretch out, his breath growing short, his head spinning.
Then he was unceremoniously dumped on his stomach into the street, perhaps twenty feet away from a young woman. She was staring up at a creature. The girl’s hair was dark, her skin faintly tanned, her cheeks covered with freckles. The creature was quadrupedal, a long tail with a hand at the end of it arched over its back. Nash recognized it, one of the Aztec monsters. Long nails grew from the hand, and they darted down at the girl’s throat. He pushed himself to his feet, even as he knew that he’d be too late.
An arrow struck the hand in the center of the palm, and pinned it to a wall. The creature shrieked, and spun, only for a sandal-clad foot to strike it in the face and knock it cold.
Eumaeus stood over the girl, resting a hand on her head. He turned, and smiled at Nash. “What the hell are you doing on the ground there, lad? There’s heroics to be done.”
“Odysseus,” Nash said, pulling himself to his feet. The old man smiled. “Why didn’t you tell me who you were?”
“I don’t go around giving my name to everyone I meet, lad.” He helped the girl up, and pulled the arrow out of the unconscious creature’s tail. “What the hell are you doing here? The town needs you to save it.” He pointed up, and Nash looked at the sky.
It was a beautiful day. The sunlight shone down, lighting up the city. It was beautiful, and terrible. And the mouth hung open.
Cracked red lips, and sharp, yellow teeth. It breathed in, and Eumaeus stumbled, shaking his head. Nash grabbed his shoulder. “Are you alright?”
“Oh, of course,” said Eumaeus, grinning. “Hell toughens you up. I and the other Damned have been helping people. Taking down those who are being driven mad by hunger, starved of belief, protecting the helpless. We’ve got this taken care of, Nash. We can protect them.” He ruffled the girl’s hair. “But you need to deal with the real threats.”
“Hell toughens you up?” Nash frowned. “What the hell does that mean?”
“I mean that we in Hell are used to this. The lack of belief, the cold pain of being turned into monsters. We have felt it for a long time, and you were able to pull us out of that. To make us heroes and gods again. For a little while, at least, that is enough.” He smiled. “You have your Aristeia to perform, Nash. Your excellence. You must save the day, and everyone in it.” Nash nodded, and turned. Then Odysseus’ hand settled on his shoulder, squeezing it again. “But that’s not enough, Nash. You can’t just save the day. It’s never enough for this world.”
“What else do I have to do?”
“You have to come back, Nash. Learn from my story. A hero has two duties that he must succeed at, without fail. First, he must save the world. And second, he must come back to those who love him when the world is safe. You are not a tragic hero, Nash.”
“I’m not a hero, Odysseus,” Nash said, very softly.
“Come now, Nash.” Odysseus grinned. “Do you still think anyone will buy that line? Come back. Make sure that everyone comes back.”
Nash nodded slowly. “Thank you.” He was quiet for a moment, and then he threw his arms around the old man’s shoulders, squeezing him tight. Odysseus slapped his back gently, and Nash felt the surge of strength, the warmth, the sureness in his own path, that came from someone believing in him. It wasn’t magic, it wasn’t power. It was just being human. It was growing a soul. If he took it too far, he would burn. But he couldn’t do this alone.
“I’m glad I met you, Nash. I’m glad you did what I couldn’t. I’m glad you could save the people I could not. So let me save the people you don’t have time to. You’re not in this alone.”
Nash nodded, and then turned, and sprinted. He ran through the streets. He caught sight of a giant, ten stories tall, keeping a handful of monsters pinned to the ground as they clawed at his hands. He saw Charon standing over a group of children, fending off a cinder-headed god with the flat of his oar, striking the creature back, rebuffing each approach it made. He saw sinners protecting people. They could have fled. They could have been free of this place, found their way off of the island. He knew they had a choice in what they did. That was why it was noble.
He ran through the streets, and came up short, stopping in front of the apartment.
It was, he realized, the precise epicenter of the storm. Sight alone couldn’t have told him that. It was the power, drawing in around him. He had long since grown used to the sensation of power, the vacuum of something drawing in strength. This was the first time it had caught him by surprise. It was like Ariel, the same hints of wind and distant scents. But where Ariel had smelled of freedom, of wonderful things, of fresh skies and summer days, this was the opposite. There was blood and fire and death on these winds. There was the end of the world.
He gritted his teeth, and slammed his heel into the door. It swung open, revealing the small apartment. Jack stood there.
The bearded, eyepatched man smiled. And in front of him sat the bottle. Ariel lay in it.
She did not move.
Nash’s jaw tensed, and the tendons stood out on his neck. Jack stood, and the winds rose. There was a sudden blast, and Nash brought his hands down and to one side, like he was deflecting the blade of a sword.
There was a single protracted moment of noise and fury. The wind died down after perhaps a minute. The buildings had been shattered, driven back, torn apart, the impossible wind pressure scouring the ground clean. A circular area a few hundred feet across had been destroyed. Jack stood on the foundation, Ariel’s bottle held in one hand. He smiled at Nash. “Impressive. Very impressive.”
Nash turned his head. In the mass of destruction and broken dust around them, a single slice had been carved out behind Nash. It spread in either direction in his shadow, a place that had been left untouched by the winds as they’d blown out in their terrible storm, leaving the buildings behind him intact. “Ariel never could bring herself to hurt me,” Nash said. “You know, she drew a knife on me when she was going to train me? Threatened me, swore she’d stab me. The worst she ever did was cut my tie off and leave my pants around my ankles.” His voice was level, and calm, and terrible. “You hurt someone I love, Jack.”
“She’s not dead,” said Jack. “Not yet. I’ve taken her power, every last drop of it. We gave away a lot, but she had so much to give. It was amazing.”
“I’m impressed, Jack. You can hold onto all of that power?” He smiled, a lip quirked. “I envy you, a bit. And I can understand why you would do all of this.”
“Do you think you can understand me?” Jack asked, his eyes narrowed. “Do you think you know what I’ve gone through? Do you think you understood the pain I have endured, the things I have seen? If you knew what I knew, you would want them all dead, too.”
“No,” said Nash. “I wouldn’t.”
“Oh, I see that act. You act like you’re so good. So merciful. But I’ve seen the sadism in you. I saw it when you-”
Nash held up a hand. “I’m not a good man. I know it. I enjoyed hurting Jill. I enjoyed hurting you. I enjoyed feeling justified in it. I enjoyed humiliating you. I’m sorry for that, Jack. I don’t know whether you deserved that or not. But I don’t want to be the kind of person who takes pleasure from hurting others.”
“Oh, you fucking coward,” hissed Jack. “Do you think you can erase it? What you felt? I’m going to enjoy humiliating you, the way you did me.”
“And I’m going to tell you,” said Nash. “What I’m going to do. I’m going to make you return that power to her. I’m going to make you give up everything. Your crusade. I’m going to stop you from ever hurting anyone like you have, ever again. And I won’t stoop to your methods. I won’t kill anyone, not even you.”
“They deserve it,” said Jack.
“That doesn’t matter,” said Nash. “People can deserve all kinds of things. They can do terrible, awful things. But if you hurt someone because they hurt you, that’s just revenge, not justice.”
“Oh?” asked Jack, and smirked. “What’s the difference, hmmm?”
“The possibility of redemption. Give me Ariel, Jack.”
Jack snorted, and tossed the small bottle at Nash. Nash caught it easily, and stared into it. The glass of the bottle shimmered strangely, and reminded him of crystal he had seen, a year ago, and in the dim mists of prehistory, in the halls of Tartarus. “It will do you no good, Nash. That’s Adamant. Nothing in this world can break it. Well, one-”
Nash pressed his thumbnail into the bottle. It cracked as easily as it had back then, and Gene’s gift let him split the bottle cleanly in half. Ariel was in his arms, suddenly. Full sized. Her soft, pale skin was pallid now, and her clothes were soaked with sweat. She lay limply in his arms. He felt the fury inside of him, the utter, tranquil anger.
“Well.” Jack swallowed, and shook his head. “It will do you no good. She’s good as dead already. She just refuses to accept it. She clung on. She told me how you promised you would save her. You failed.”
“Not yet,” said Nash. He stared at her face.
He still remembered the kiss. The warmth of it. The first kind touch he’d felt in years, maybe. Was it the first time he’d ever been kissed? Maybe. She hadn’t had to do it that way. He’d always known that. It had been because she had been attracted to him, had wanted him. Had loved him, maybe, in that simple and earthy way that people sometimes felt. She’d wanted him to be something more than he was, and it had been enough to make him that way. She’d wanted him to give up the power when he’d finished, so he could have his happy ending.
He kissed her on the lips, and let go of the power. It flowed into Ariel, and she gasped. It wasn’t much. It wouldn’t sustain her for long. But she opened her eyes, and those soft blue and green eyes shone up at him, her expression uncertain. “Nash?”
“I promised you.” He kissed her on the forehead, and set her down on the ground. She grabbed his hand.
“You need the power. You can’t- I won’t let you do it alone-” she began, and the tears ran down her cheeks.
He squeezed her hand, and smiled. “You’ve been protecting me all along. I’ll return the favor for a little while, now.” He stood up, and stepped past her, facing Jack.
For the first time in a year, he was aware of his breath. Every breath was labored, pained, short. He couldn’t seem to get enough oxygen. He didn’t feel the breath of Air around him, or the effortless speed she had granted him. Jack’s hand blurred, and the TEC-9 fired. Nash couldn’t avoid it. He hardened his stance, and the bullets slapped his chest, throwing him back several steps, the air pressure intense. But he didn’t step over Ariel.
“You,” said Jack, and then stopped, seeming uncertain of what to say. “I didn’t know it was you.”
“Nothing,” said Jack, shaking his head. “You sacrificed your power for her. That was a mistake. You think you can beat me without every advantage? Without everything you can? You’re a fool, Silas.”
“Yeah,” said Nash, and grinned, his teeth shining, as he clenched his fist. “I’m a fool. But I’m stronger than you.”
Jack let out a scream of rage, and threw himself at Nash. And Nash laughed.