Once upon a time
There was a woman who was very old, and very young.
This woman was very powerful, and ancient, but she had not been a person until humans appeared. She was an idea, as much as anything else. And because she was a powerful idea, and a primal one, humans thought constantly of her. She frightened them, and endangered them, but she also helped them. She was unpredictable, but she could be tamed. And so she grew close to humans, and loved them, and was loved in turn, because that was how humans responded to the things they feared.
There was another woman. She was also very powerful, and ancient, and had not been a person until humans appeared. But they hated her. She was pervasive in their lives, and she split families, destroyed knowledge, ended all things. They hated her, and feared her, and though she did something that was necessary, they never appreciated her. The woman grew cold, and angry, and decided that she would destroy humanity. But first, she would destroy the woman who was beloved.
The humans made gods out of the things that filled their world. These gods were powerful. Not as powerful as either of the women, but able to hurt humans. They feared the humans, though, because with every day that passed, humans grew stronger. They were not happy with that. They thought it was humanity’s place to worship them, to grant strength and love to them, and they were certain that if humans grew strong enough to match them, the humans would destroy them, for all that they had done. And they saw the power that the good woman gave the humans. The ability to hold back the elements, to make food safe. And they feared where it would lead. And the wicked woman prodded them.
There was a great trial, and an unfair one. The good woman’s sisters threatened a terrible catastrophe, and the end of the gods if they tried to imprison the good woman. In turn, the gods threatened a terrible plague, to visit ice and darkness and suffering on humanity, to threaten the sisters with the destruction of what gave them their minds. They would have ignored it and let humanity perish, for they held no particular love for humans. But the good woman wept for humanity, and begged mercy for them, from both sides, willingly submitting herself to the justice of the gods. And the wicked woman laughed as an unjust punishment was handed down to the good woman, a punishment for her love, and for those who loved her back. It was not right, it was not fair, and it was not just. It was simply the way things were.
The good woman was placed in the worst place there could be. A place of darkness, and hate, where those who had defied the gods were tortured. This was what the gods called justice, for they were proud and cruel. They had never experienced true weakness, and so they could never understand what they were doing. Like a child tearing the limbs off an insect, careless to the pain of a creature they could not, would not empathize with. The good woman was locked to a rock by chains that could never be broken, that would never let her go free, and a great eagle was sent, a symbol of the god who had demanded her pain. Every day it appeared, and ripped the woman’s liver out through her side, causing her pain that was excruciating.
But that pain was nothing compared to the true horror of the god’s punishment. For you see, the woman was locked away from those who she had cared about. She suffered for humanity, and in time, began to believe that they had forgotten her. She fell into despair, for she knew that no one would come to save her. Not her sisters. Not the humans who she had been imprisoned for. She was alone. There would be no hero to save her. No one cared. No one remembered.
Until one day, a man came to save her. He was a man who terrified the gods, who defied the wicked woman, who held the power of the good woman’s sisters. He sat with the woman while she suffered, and told her a story that reminded her that she was still loved. And then he broke the chains around her wrists, because he did not know they could not be broken, and because he did not care that she should never be allowed to go free, and he dared the gods to defy him. And they did not.
He was the first man the good woman had ever truly fallen in love with. The first man who could have been her equal. But he was not the first man that she had found comfort in.
Perhaps it was in the depths of madness. Perhaps it was forced on her. Perhaps it was a single moment of tenderness in hell, something beautiful and serene. But it made you. The union of a damned man and a good woman who did not deserve what happened to her. Someone truly special.
You are a hero, my child. You are the hero.
Jack slowly blinked his eyes as the story finished again, the tears running down his cheeks. His feet ached where the iron rod had been struck his soles, keeping him from getting out of the bed. His body ached all over from the beating he had been given, though there would be no bruises, no signs of what had been done to him. He lay in the small cot in the basement, the must in the air keeping him coughing, perpetually feeling barely able to breathe. He hated where he was, and so he empathized with the story. With the pain that the good woman, his mother, must have felt. He looked up at the woman standing over him, her pale green hair hanging over her eyes, her pale skin soft and gentle, her eyes empty. She rested her hand on his cheek, and his pain drifted away, for a time. “So I do have a mom?” he asked, softly.
She smiled and nodded. It was a rhetorical question, they both knew. She told him this story every night. She had for as long as he could remember. Through each of the foster homes, through each of the rings of hell where he was thrown. He always had her. She didn’t tell him her name, but she offered him hope. Hope that someday, all of this would end, and he would be happy.
The boy’s foster mother this time was a tyrant. Her husband and children were not the worst of people, but they were nonetheless complicit. They sat, and watched, and were grateful when she tortured Jack, and not them. They did not help him for fear of drawing her ire. He had once asked why she had taken him in if she had only wanted to hurt him. And she had told him something very important.
“I am doing something for you. I am keeping you alive. What makes you think that you have the right to complain? The gods made me the way they made me, and they made you the way they made you. It is their fault, or yours. Not mine.”
Jack had learned, at that moment, whose fault these things were. Humans did awful things, because they were broken, or alone, or afraid. He did not hate his foster mother anymore, though he did not love her, like her, or even want her to live. He simply understood that she was what she was. She had been made that way. And there was someone responsible.
“Are you going to take me to her?” he asked the green-haired woman.
“Not yet. Your mother is fighting a terrible war, my darling Jack.” She stroked his red hair, curling it gently around a finger, never harming him in the least. “She does not know you exist. If she did, if you were a burden on her, it could be fatal. Those who are her enemies could use you against her. They could lock her back in the prison. In the chains. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”
He shook his head, sharply.
“Good boy. When the time is right, I promise you, Jack. I will take you away from all of this. You will be safe. You just have to wait for the right time.”
The six-year old nodded, and closed his eyes.
A year passed.
Another year passed.
Five more years passed. Jack stared up at his foster mother, the knife in her hand sharp, her arm tensed. He held the small submachinegun, his blood boiling. He had stolen it from the father’s dresser, loaded it.
“You filthy, ungrateful child,” hissed his foster mother. She took a step towards him.
“This isn’t my fault. It’s not yours, either,” he said. Then he shot the woman stone dead, and ran through the door as his foster father screamed in horror. He carried the boxy little gun with him.
He came to a stop an hour later, collapsing onto the ground. His stomach was drawn with hunger, his arms scabbed over and bloody. He stared at them silently.
“Why did you kill her?”
He looked up sharply, drawing the gun. The pale woman stood over him. She had stopped appearing to him the week before. “Where were you?” he asked, his voice shaking, his arms weak.
“I was helping you. Why did you kill her?”
“Because she hurt me. Because she kept hurting me, and she wasn’t ever going to stop. She probably wasn’t going to deliberately kill me, but I couldn’t take it anymore, the pain, the cruelty, she deserved it, she DESERVED to die for what she’d done!”
She nodded softly. “Yes, she did. But why did you kill her? You could run away, instead.”
“Because even if-” He was quiet for a second. “Because even if I ran away,” he whispered, “she would keep hurting people. She wouldn’t stop hurting people just because I wasn’t around. The world is a better place without her.”
“Yes.” She smiled softly. “I am sorry for what I did to you. That I never took you away from this. But do you understand, now, why I did not?”
“Because…” He was quiet for a moment. “Because I’m not a victim. I’m a hero. Heroes don’t wait for someone else to save them from suffering. They don’t let someone else do the hard thing. They take responsibility.” He looked up at her, and he couldn’t help the tears that filled his eyes. “Did it have to hurt so much?”
“Yes. Sacrifice, suffering, pain. These are the things that turn a human into a hero. When you confront the horror of this world, and let it make you stronger. I am sorry for the pain it caused you, my dear child.” She bent forward, and embraced him tightly, squeezing him. “I am so sorry for all I have done. It had to be done, but that does not mean it was not horrible. And I am sorry, but the hardship is not done yet.”
He stared up at her. “Why are you doing all of this? Why did you come to me, why-”
“Because I was wicked, once. And I have regretted it ever since.”
He opened his mouth, and closed it. “You were the woman in the story. The one who condemned my mother.”
“Yes. I came to visit her, to mock her, to taunt her, and found her pregnant. In the midst of Tartarus, in mortal agony. She begged me to save the child from Zeus, trapped in delirium. I protected her until she could bear the child, and then took you. I do not know if she remembers you.”
“You deserve to die,” he said, his voice suddenly very cold. “That you’d do something like that to her. Because you were jealous? Because you wanted what she had? That’s horrible.”
“Yes, it is, child.” The wicked woman smiled softly, gently, and kissed him on the forehead. “You begin to understand.”
Jack rested his hands on the girl’s head. Ji-a. He called her Jill, not least because he could see how it both bothered her, and made her smile. She was about the same age he had been when he had left home, give or take a year or two. She was a kid, alone in the world, hurting. He’d watched her cry her eyes out over her dead father. He didn’t know who his father was, and probably never would. It wasn’t important. What was important was the quest.
It all came down to power. There was power in adversity, in comrades, in journeys, and in killing. He could see the power that flowed off Ji-a. Her gift dwarfed his, but she did not know how to use it. She was vulnerable. She had been beaten and humiliated by a god. In this moment, if her broken pride were not set carefully, she could wind up believing she was powerless. Jack had seen it happen to countless people. Learned helplessness in the face of an overwhelming force. It could turn a person into a puppet, taking away their determination, their will to be strong, their strength. Jill was on the verge of that. He couldn’t allow that to happen.
He cast his eye around the room as he formulated a plan. He saw the fractures in those who surrounded him, the weak spots. The places where a lead slug, expertly applied, would destroy someone. Not always by killing them, but often enough. He could do great things with that ability, but by itself, it was not enough. He had trained himself tirelessly since he had left home, and it still was not enough to stand up to the gods.
But with her, they could succeed. He looked down at her, and saw how fragile she was, how much she needed to be protected. If he was powerful enough, he could do it all himself. He could protect her from all of this. She wouldn’t have to fight. If only he were strong enough.
It was a sobering thought, as he watched her eat her food, scarfing it down carelessly, drinking huge gulps of the hot tea. She fell asleep against his side, and he carried her out of the restaurant, to somewhere where she could sleep properly.
And he grew a little more certain that he would kill Death. She was the one responsible for Ji-a’s pain, and the burden she would carry. She was the one who had chosen a child to give power to. And he would kill her for it, one day. He knew that it was a part of her plans, that she wanted him to kill her, for whatever reasons of her own. He would be more than happy to oblige her.
“What do you mean, she hasn’t been saved yet?”
“I mean that time flows strangely in Tartarus. It is a fixed point, and so it can be accessed from all points of time. The one who will save Promethea, your mother, has not yet saved her,” said Death. “It is the nature of things. It may be Gaea. It may be Heracles. It may be almost anyone, so long as they could break her free of the chains.”
“Adamant,” Jack said softly.
“The unbreakable substance. And like all absolutes humans write of, it has an exception.” She took out a small bottle. Jack frowned at it, and realized that he could not see any of the fracture points on it. It was reminiscent of quartz, or perhaps even a diamond, save for the slight hint of red in it. “When worked by a god, it forms a substance that cannot be changed ever again. This was forged by Hephaestus, infused with his divine will, and then made manifest. It is, to all save a few, unbreakable.”
“You want me to learn how to break it,” he whispered.
“If you can. I do not know if it is within the gift I gave you to do it. But…” She smiled. “Imagine the look on your mother’s face, if you were to find her in Tartarus, and free her.”
He stared down at the bottle, and nodded, sharply.
It was difficult to say when companionship and affection turned to love. At a certain point, Jill had gone from a child, to an adult. She was still a wounded creature, thin, her mix of Eastern and Western features giving her a certain awkwardness, her body always a bit too thin because she could not bring herself to eat much, but she was by his side constantly. They had both saved each other’s lives. They were in perfect synchronicity.
And he had watched her bleed out.
As he watched Ariel deliver a brutal blow to her throat, Jack burned with rage. His aunt moved carelessly, demolishing them, focusing her wrath on Jill over and over again, making her suffer, making her hurt. And he wanted to make things right. It broke his heart every time he watched her fighting, putting her life on the line because she had given herself over to his goals. Watching her bleed for him. Watching her bleed because he was too goddamn weak to protect her. Knowing that the only reason he could keep going was because she supported him, because she believed in him.
It was shameful. His weakness was what caused her to keep fighting, even as she was hurt horrifically by the careless Sister. And he hated it.
He watched as War’s pawn stepped on Ji-a’s arm. He watched her, helpless, fighting a man who she could not beat. Who he could not beat. They had fought gods. They had fought a Sister. And he had never felt so helpless. And so he swore to himself that he would not be weak anymore. He would do anything necessary in order to protect her from this. He knew about her secret dream. The happy ending she wanted, with him. He would never be able to have it. But he could make sure that she would have her happy ending with someone.
I understand your concerns. Your dreams. It is something I experienced many times, the envy for the power that the gods hold. The truth is, there have been countless great men over the centuries who have grasped for the power of the gods, and none of them have survived it. They were either consumed whole by the god, or subsumed by it, becoming unrecognizable in a matter of seconds, forgetting their name, forgetting who they were. It is a trap for the foolish and greedy.
But take heart. We are humans, my boy, and we overcome great things in this world. Through those around us, through artifice and craft, through cunning and understanding. We are weak, but we have potential. Potential is a lie, but when you tell a lie enough times, it can become the truth. I understand the suffering you have gone through. I have had my own pains, different, but of a kind. It made me the man I am today, for better, and for so much worse.
I’ll give you three pieces of advice. First, they can never be your friends, only your tools. They will use you, and the only way to stop them from using you up is to use them first. Second, just because they are powerful does not mean they are immune to consequence. They must be taught. And third, do not accept their gifts. Take them.
Jack slowly crumpled the letter between his fingers, frustration burning. He felt as though his lungs were too full. Each breath was shallow, forced, leaving him feeling as though he was going to rupture something. The power was too much. It was trying to erupt out of him.
“Give it up,” murmured Ariel, her head hanging low. “You gave it your best shot. You couldn’t take it. You can’t hold my power. No human can. Especially not one like you. Why don’t you just give it up? Nash will forgive you, moron that he is. He’s the kind of person who’d let it slide, if you swore never to hurt anyone again.”
Jack didn’t respond. He simply took another breath, breathing in a little more of Ariel’s power. Her arms hung a little looser at her sides, and she tilted over to lie on her side.
“What the hell drives a man like you? What, did your mother not love you enough? Lose your soulmate? Why do you hurt people the way you do? What the hell is wrong with you?”
He straightened his head. “How about we play a game.”
“It’s not the ‘see who can be quiet longest’ game, is it? I always lose that.”
“No. We will take turns asking questions. The first of us to refuse to answer loses, and the game ends.” He smiled at her. “Sound fair?”
“Fine. I guess you want to go first?”
“Not at all. Choose your question.”
She was quiet for a second. Then she tilted her head. “Why do you kill gods? You said you wanted to change their behavior, but they don’t remember anything from being killed. You’re just murdering them.”
“I am not trying to teach them a lesson. I am trying to make them into a lesson. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The gods kill, and because they are powerful, they are immune to the consequences. They deserve what happens to them. I am simply treating them as they treat us. My question, then. Why are you sure of Nash? What gives you all of this confidence in him?”
“You haven’t seen what he’s done. I’ve never seen him fail. I’ve never seen him unable to handle what came his way. Even when I saved him, I don’t think that he needed it.” She shook her head softly. “What makes you think that you can hold this power, Jack? No one else can. You’re going to look exactly like me in an hour, with the annoying caveat that I’m going to be fucking dead. Why bother with all of this? Hell, why even go this far? Isn’t Nash doing exactly what you want?”
“He doesn’t go far enough,” hissed Jack, his voice suddenly harsh and twisted with anger. “He forgives. You have seen the way he is. He will let the gods go because they cry and bat their eyes at him. He treats them like people.” He took a breath, and let it out, slowly, ragged. “And I believe I can do this because it is my heritage.” He saw the frown spread across her face. She didn’t recognize him with the hair dye.
He had often dreamed that his special heritage would give him some wondrous powers. That he would be powerful. He was the son of Promethea, the Sister of Fire. He was special. But he had never felt it. Did that power even pass on through simple genetic expression? Had it been a lie, all along? Had there been no truth to the idea that he was Promethea’s son, that he was special, that he was a hero by birth, by legacy?
No. He was special. He would stake his life on it. He already was, in fact. “When they took Promethea, your sister, into Tartarus, and locked her in unbreakable chains,” he asked, softly, resting a finger on the bottle. “Why didn’t you save her? You three were strong enough to storm Tartarus. To free her, to take her away from her torment. Why didn’t you care enough to do it?”
Ariel shook her head softly. “You think I didn’t care? I was tempted, every day, every hour, for millenia, to go there, to free her, to force the gods to release her, to scream at Gene to free her.” She ran a hand across her face, and Jack saw the smear of tears on her face. “But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go against her wishes. The gods would have exacted their vengeance on humanity, and she would never have forgiven us for the deaths” She looked up, her face hard. “Why do you enjoy hurting people?”
He was silent for a moment. “What do you mean?”
“I saw the way you killed Susano-o. You told Ji-a to leave him wondering why she had done what she did, so he would die without satisfaction. A small, petty cruelty, so casually done. You hurt the people around you. You are always hurting people. How can you consider yourself a hero when you bully and terrorize people?”
“As though it’s so different from what your Nash does to those who defy him? Cruelty and pain keep people from challenging you. They protect you. You assert your dominance with those things. You keep anyone from hurting you. You keep anyone from trying to harm those you love.” He looked down at her. “And on the subject of cruelty. Why was it that Death was the only one who ever realized that Promethea was pregnant? Why was she the only one there to protect Promethea’s child?”
“Her chi-” Ariel’s eyes widened, and Jack took a certain satisfaction in seeing the way her eyes shot up to his hair, and the red roots there, where he hadn’t dyed it. The way he’d hidden his nature for years, the way he’d kept anyone from even beginning to suspect his parentage. The way he’d protected himself.
“Hello, Auntie.” He breathed in, and in, and in, and she collapsed as he pulled the power into himself. He sighed softly, shaking his head at her unconscious, prone form inside the bottle. He never had figured out how to break it. But maybe now he would be able to. Not that it mattered. “This is the world we live in, Ariel. The hero never arrives to save you-”
The door swung open, and Silas Nash stood in the opening. His gaze focused on Ariel, and there was murder in his eyes. Jack exhaled, and released the power of one of the sisters. A hurricane swept out from his body, strong enough to destroy buildings, to cut men down where they stood. And Nash deflected it with his bare hands. A terrible cold feeling rose up in Jack’s chest as he stared at the circle of destruction, and the untouched man. How could one person be that strong? How could he keep making every effort that Jack threw at him look pathetic?
He didn’t show any of this on his face as he tossed the bottle to Nash. “It will do you no good, Nash. That’s Adamant. Nothing in this world can break it. Well, one-”
The adamant shattered like a dream, leaving Ariel unhurt. Nash didn’t see the shocked expression on Jack’s face. Instead, he bent over the girl, ignoring Jack, and gave up power for her. It was a foolish move, but it was just like the story that Jack had been told.
Jack drew his gun, and fired. A pellet of wind, compressed, a tornado in bullet shape, struck Nash’s chest. It should’ve torn the man apart, flung him to bloody shreds. He reacted as though he’d been hit with a medicine ball, grunting, rocking on his heels, but otherwise unharmed, his eyes firm. It was the last confirmation Jack needed.
He felt a little sick feeling in his stomach, as the realization caught up with him. He had never been the hero. He had been a fool, a catspaw used by Death, mocked and led down the wrong path. He had come to this place, and finally seen what true heroism was, what a great man was. And he was standing on the wrong side of the conflict.
“You’re a fool, Silas.”
“Yeah,” said the man who had saved Jack’s mother, who had been the only one to care enough to defy the gods. “I’m not a hero. I’m a fool. But I’m stronger than you.”
Silas Nash smiled, as the despair and the rage ignited inside of Jack. It was not fair. It was not right. This was not how it was supposed to happen. This was not what he had been promised, and it was not what he deserved. The outrage stirred and grew wilder in him, as he summoned up the storm. He blurred forward, using Ariel’s impossible speed, striking in the blink of an eye. A blow that should have been able to kill a god.
Nash moved sinuously. He wasn’t as fast as he had been before, but when he moved, it was like Jill. The blow slipped by his shoulder, and Nash moved, grabbing Jack, and slamming him down through the foundation hard enough to crater the ground around them. Jack saw, out of the corner of his eye, a flash of red and black and iron, as War seized Ariel, and then disappeared, pulling her away from the fight. Nash’s eyes were on him, and they were cold.
“Yield,” said Nash. “Give back Ariel’s power. And you and Jill can go. You can have your happy ending together. I’ll take care of the rest.”
Jack’s teeth gritted. “Where the fuck were you, twenty-five years ago, when I needed a fucking hero?”
“I was late,” said Nash. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I would’ve helped if I had been.” And he was genuine.
The rage and the unfairness of it all filled Jack. And the skies above erupted. The swirling hurricane lit, lightning crackling from cloud to cloud, and the storm ignited. Fire raged through the heavens, burning bright, flashing as the rage filling Jack poured out, all of the anger that had built up for so long finally finding its outlet. Jack let out a howl of wild laughter, and lifted to standing in one smooth movement. His fist struck Silas Nash’s chin in a rising upper cut, the force of the blow striking the man, and propelling him upwards, and upwards, higher and higher, the vast swirling suction of the storm pulling him up, and up. Jack stood, grinning madly.
Nash had given away the air, and had been pushed away from the earth. He had to be vulnerable.
Jack rose into the sky on burning wings.