In a small theatre, in Zurich, under the dark shadow of War and Conquest and Death and one other thing, they met.
It was a small country, which remained neutral solely because its value was less than the price of taking it. Famine admired that, as she did all such demonstrations of value and worth. The men who would conquer the world would pass a country like this by, so long as it remained too hard and unappealing a nut to be worth the trouble of cracking. Ideology, resource, grudge; None of these provided a compelling reason for the Germans to come down on the Swiss like a hammer. And so small people whispered their words of defiance at an enemy they could not face directly.
She found that deeply appealing, at her heart. She knew what it was, to be trapped. To be held under the boot of something greater, and more terrible, than herself. The terrible weight of an inevitable end. To know that by her nature alone, she was doomed, and that there was nothing that could save her. Though she was immortal, she was nevertheless doomed, as they were. The fact that humans were responsible for her grim fate did not change how she felt about them.
Humans gave her meaning. Though she was Famine, Hunger, that did not have to be simple lack. The universe, as a whole, was ambivalent to quantity and use. How much of a thing existed did not change its properties. If there were a single hydrogen atom in the endless expanse, it would be no different than having them packed end over end from one side of the universe to the other. What a thing could do was what a thing could do, no more, no less. The universe didn’t have a use for anything.
“Pity the land that breeds no hero.” In German, of course. All tongues were hers. She’d been there when each one was made.
Life, on the other hand, could conceptualize value in what things were. Food, for example, was more important than dirt. Mates were important. Useful things were important. Their own life was most important of all. It was value. A concept of what things were worthy. And life could suffer for lack. Life made hunger a reality.
“No, Andrea: Pity the land that needs a hero.”
Famine snorted softly, under her breath, and received a fierce glare from the man in the seat next to hers. The dark-skinned man was incongruous here, but dressed richly. She knew who he was, of course. She had been watching him with interest for the past thousand years, give or take, as he drew power to himself. He didn’t recognize her, but that was the entire point. He was here to secure his fortune. He was neutral, like the Swiss, and he made his fortune that way. Other people might despise Switzerland, or King John, for their mercantile nature, aiding those who would enslave them given half a chance. Famine thought better of them. King John had a great goal, a dream of humanity united, and the end justified the means for him. Such men could do great things. Especially with her help.
“You disagree, fraulein?” he asked in unaccented German in the gallery outside, the cold nip of the air rushing around them. “I thought it a brilliant insight.”
“It is a meaningless one,” she said, and smiled. “Every country finds itself in need of heroes.”
That was how they met. And it was how Prester John fell in love.
For humans were special. They could see the value in rarity, and use alike. They saw that a thing was held by no one else, and perceived its value from that. That was why they could create art, their unique expression of the world. That was why they could adore children, a thermodynamic miracle expressed in fractal beauty, an impossibly improbable event that became a person. It was why they valued gold, and monogamy, and loyalty, and courage, for those things were in terribly short supply.
And most importantly, the thing that elevated humanity above all else, was their belief in… Well, call it a champion. Hero was not the right word, for heroes were born to greatness, even to divinity, and champions gave no sign of their greatness until it was unveiled.
Humans invested themselves in the belief that, on those rare occasions, someone could stand up. No single human had the power to face even ten other men. They would lose that fight every time. But champions could face down the world. They were greater. Grander. Better. They could face the world, the warmongers, the cruel, fate itself. When humanity cried out for a champion, one would arise. Sometimes, a person could believe in that ideal so much, that they became one. It was costly, it created suffering for them, it tore out their heart and shredded their soul. And yet, champions were created.
It was not always so.
Famine cast aside the cloak that was Nyarlathotep, the dark god of satisfaction, and stared down at Bastet. The goddess lay dying on the ground. Another disappointment. Another gamble resulting in waste. She sat down by the body, and sighed, feeling the divine spark beginning to wane.
Bastet was too strong.
The first two cities had been built. Ur and Shangri-la. The gods were building a wall between the worlds, a way to protect themselves. The Sisters had aided them, offering their support. The Horsemen had done the same. It was all a great game. They were stalling.
The Sisters wanted time. They believed in humans. They believed that given time, the humans would evolve, would grow greater. They foresaw a future where humanity had spread throughout the stars, too diffuse, too varied, too strong to ever be destroyed by a single event. An eternal force that would last till the stars went dark- And perhaps even past that. They needed time for humanity to grow out of the cradle.
The Horsemen wanted time. They believed in humans. They believed that the greater and more complex an edifice, the more vulnerable it was. Humans would grow, their culture would grow, their power would grow, and they would reach a point where they could destroy themselves, utterly, in one fell swoop.
That was how it was. The Horsemen and the Sisters were twinned, so alike in so many ways, and different in all the ways that mattered most. But there was a snag in the plan, and it expressed itself elegantly in the goddess before Famine.
Bastet had gone without belief, without human contact, for too long. She had burned herself out. She was changing. ‘Dying’, though that was not the right word. It was the nature of a god that was starved. That was subject to Famine. They rotted, twisted, transformed under the impact of their loss. It made them something new. It made them something dangerous. Something that could spread. A new reality.
They were a third player in the conflict between the Horsemen and the Sisters. And while they were trivial by comparison, they were nonetheless dangerous, because their power could swell quickly. They were a threat to both the Horsemen and the Sisters, for they could force a third outcome. One where humanity, rather than dying, or living eternally in sunshine, would be corrupted. Where the Sisters and the Horsemen would be corrupted, as well.
Famine had been tasked with a solution by the Horsemen. Hunger was her nature, and so she would be the one responsible for stopping the lost gods from destroying their plan. To keep the things from worming their way up through the cracks in the wall, and making everything like themselves. She looked aside, to the pit, and its trapped portal to a lost god. Yam Hamawet lay within, held back only by the measures that Famine had placed in its way.
She had grown interested in Bastet, two thousand years ago, when they had first met. The goddess had been unusual, even then. A minor demon that had grown powerful, she had been a scourge to mankind until they had tamed her with meat and worship and love. She was stronger than she had any right to be. A minor demon, worshiped by a single village, she had been dangerous enough to mandate her becoming a part of the pantheon of the Nile.
Gods, almost as a rule, fed on belief. The thoughts of humans, the attention of humans, the worship of humans. The connections in their souls, that made them something. But it was a distant thing. It was weak fare, requiring great numbers. Most gods followed that path, and scrabbled for ever more followers, spreading themselves diffusely across many.
Bastet had found another way. She had focused herself, and had made herself a part of the lives of her believers. They had not just believed in her. They had loved her. If Famine had not had them killed, if she had not destroyed Bastet’s source of power, the goddess could have been a threat to Famine herself. There was her resilience to oaths, the way she never seemed to need to stick to her word, the immunity to the self-betrayal that was promise-breaking.
There were freaks, in this world. Those who were special, not because their parents were special, but because they were simply at the far end of one bellcurve or another. Another god may not have been able to take the power that Bastet found in the love of humans. Nonetheless, it was important. Bastet had failed this test, been too slow, too weak. But she was unique.
And unique meant precious.
Famine chose two aspects of herself to give to Bastet. Both were hungers. One was for the lost gods. A desire to seek them out. Hunger was what drove life. The hunger for energy, for reproduction, for safety, for satisfaction. It drove creatures to take risks in order to continue on, to keep scrabbling for one more precious moment. This hunger would drive her to consume the power of the lost gods, to sustain herself on it, to become a scourge to them. She would hunt down the lost gods, and keep them from disrupting the well-laid plans of the Horsemen. She would find the vermin. And she would exterminate them before they became a plague.
She could have stopped there, left Bastet a dark thing, twisted, hungry, a scourge that preyed on other scourges. It was what the other Horsemen would have expected of her. It is what they would have demanded of her. It was the right way to handle their problem. But she didn’t. For reasons of her own, she gave Bastet another hunger. The hunger for the presence of humans. Amplifying that native talent of hers, to give her the power to choose one human, to value quality over quantity. A single human who could give her more power than the worship of the entire world. It meant she would always need to work, to be close to a human, to remain what she was. Dark, frightening, ominous, but still something that humans loved.
Famine bent forward, and kissed Bastet’s forehead. Some primeval part of the goddess accepted the gifts, not knowing or caring about their origin. Then she carried Bastet down, as the river broke through the earth, flooding this place, killing the Ateroleum, and began to bubble down the Nile. Because just as Famine could take, she could give. She set the goddess down in the flow of the water, and let it carry the woman away, towards her destiny.
“A way to channel the belief of the masses,” murmured Famine. “It is brilliant.”
“It is hardly a new thing. Art has always been a font of beauty, a conduit to the divine.” Prester John waved his hand towards the murals. “Art inspires the human soul. It connects us across great distances. How unlikely would it be to use the same as a method for channeling belief? And through that, preserving others.”
The greatest human inventions and edifices had always been driven in war against Famine. In the natural world, creatures simply accepted the times of fast and starvation. It kept them in check. Humans never did. They fought continuously to make sure that there was always enough food. Refrigeration, preservation, expansion. They were virus-like in their resilience. And yet, they could manage to manufacture famine where none had existed before. It was just another of their contradictions that she found charming.
And this. Prester John’s great work. The culmination of the Fourth City. The murals had been arranged throughout the city, creating a dreamcatcher, channeling the faith of mankind. Gathering it. Providing, if not a feast, at least subsistence. He waved towards one of the murals. “Please. Feed yourself.”
She brushed a finger over the tiles. It was unfocused. Meaningless. It filled the gods’ bellies, but it would never make them strong. Detached, and impersonal. Leaving them dependent on humanity, without the power to force humanity to their bidding. It was the perfect solution. Turning the gods into domestic creatures.
Domestication interested Famine, too. The gentle tyranny of it, the way that animals were made better for a purpose. Most of them, they were turned fat, soft, slow, made into creatures of meat. But domestication was merely a refinement, a way of changing a species to suit its purpose better, and rewarding it by doing everything possible to breed it. Cattle and pitbulls were both created by the same method. In that way, Prester John was shaping the divinities. His City made them fat, lazy, and slow. His Hell made them lean, cruel, and harsh.
He wanted Famine, too. He did not know who she was, but she showed none of the cringing respect that so many others did. She did not need him, she did not depend on him, she did not love him. And that inflamed his passions. She would bait the hook. The Fifth city had been built a scant half-century ago, and the pieces were almost in place. End-game would begin soon. The end of everything. She would have a child with him, set her hooks into the city at its most basic level.
She didn’t need to have a children with him. She could have done it in any number of other ways. She was the essence of hunger. She could have manipulated him in any number of ways, corrupted him, made a ruin of him. She did not have to rely on faith, love, and hope to be goads to him. Were she asked about it, she would swear it was for the sake of irony, to hurt him, to make a fool of him. It was a persuasive argument, playing to the sadism of the Horsemen. It would be convincing. But it was not the whole truth.
Throughout the ages, she was forced to adjust Bastet, time and again. When she became too comfortable, Famine set cruel creatures against her, fed power to lost gods so that they would steal her humans from her. Cause her to experience loss, over, and over again. She watched as one lover after another was killed. It was shortly before she met Prester John at the Swiss theatre that she made a mistake. It had been routine enough, but she had misjudged how fond the cat had grown of the pale young human. When he died, it broke Bastet.
That, as far as she had been concerned, had been the end of the grand experiment. It did not matter, anyway. They had reached end-game. Bastet would self-destruct, tearing apart the monsters of the world, and dying herself. The side-plans that Famine had set would fail. It was a shame, but hardly unexpected. The cat had always been a long-shot. A contingency plan. A roll of the dice, costing Famine little, but with the potential for a different outcome.
Famine stared down at the child. She had enough of humanity in her that she could feel the fondness, the biological connection. Mothers were programmed to love their children, in K-strategy species like humans. Humans had few children, and so they were each terribly precious. The fewer children they had, the more they invested in them. White hair, brilliant and shining, so unlike Famine’s own. She trailed a finger through the fine hair on the child’s head, stroking her. The child began to wail.
And it did not change Famine. She was a Horseman. There was one thing, one single thing, that might conceivably change the nature of one of the Horsemen. It was the thing she had worked on for over two millennium, with Bastet. Death could change a being of her caliber. An end to what she was, and a replacement who was motivated to go against her entire nature. It was the only thing that could conceivably change her set of mind.
The child was another tool. Nothing more. She would raise the child until she was ready to be the death of Paradise. Prester John would be its executioner.
The news of the destruction of Zion troubled Famine. Not the fact that it was destroyed. That had been great news, the first victory. It was the nature of the destruction. War had failed at manifesting herself. She had been stopped, and by one of her own tools, no less. There was no good reason for her to have failed. There were two possibilities.
The first was that War had been outdone, out-planned, outfought, by one of her tools. This was not, strictly speaking, impossible. It was, however, terrifying. The Horsemen chose their pawns well. They were capable of manipulating them because they had known them since birth. The Horsemen were beings of infinitely vast intellect, and barely-limited omniscience. They could be wrong, but it was rare, and usually, contingency plans were prepared to ensure that there was always a victory. Zion’s destruction was a testament to that.
So the other possibility was that War had betrayed them, and had set the human up in order to preserve the wall, to defeat her. And that idea was shocking to Famine. All of the Horsemen hated humanity in one way or another. War had loathed them in the bone deep way of someone who had loved and been rejected, a merciless desire to destroy them, to make them suffer, the way they had made her suffer.
What could change someone that deeply? What could make them turn back?
It didn’t matter. Their course had been set, so long ago, that it no longer mattered.
They would end the world. They no longer had a choice after the bargain they had made.
Three very fateful things happened involving Bastet.
First, she found a new human. Not just any human. The boy was a freak, a source of power unlike any Famine had seen. The boy’s soul burned around him like a star. He could have been an archmagus. He could’ve been a messiah to a new and glorious religion. He could have been a conqueror of worlds. But because of a chance event in his childhood, a moment’s carelessness, a cruel word, all of that had been broken in him. He became simply a normal person, and potential was squandered. Until Bastet found him.
Second, Bastet allowed herself to be helped. She fought with others. She worked in a team. She was a loner by nature, always alone, and while she often complained, she never tried to change that fact. Now, with the words of a young man, his desperate pleas, she was allowing herself to be helped. Nergal could have been a wrench in the plans of Horseman and Sister alike, the dangers of his rising greater than Famine had expected, the plans more subtly laid than she’d ever thought. And instead of forcing Famine to step in, herself, to face the creature, they beat it.
But those two things paled in comparison to the third. A human devoured the power of a god, and he was not consumed. He consumed the god, instead, drawing the power for his own use.
This was, strictly speaking, impossible. It was like drinking the ocean. It was like eating the sun. It was like-
Well, it was like giving War hope.
Humans were changing. They were growing. It had been just like the Sisters and the Horsemen had hoped, but faster, greater, than they had ever expected.
Famine had her own ideas about what it was. In so much of human history, entropy had been the definition of existence. Things started out as good as they would ever be, and slowly broke down. It was the nature of the universe. It was the nature of age. It was determinate. Things weren’t as good as they used to be. Another aspect to it was seniority. The older something was, the more powerful it was. Gods, monsters, demons. To be the first, the last, the only, the oldest. These are what gave myths and legends their power.
And then humans had described a different way of thinking. Evolution. At its heart, evolution was simply a change to adapt to one’s environment. But humans envisioned it as a glorious path forward. Each day, a bit better than the one before. And perhaps, in a universe as hostile as the one they inhabited, it was true. Humans needed to be greater to endure. The weight of the world pressed down on them more with each generation, and that, in turn, made them strong.
So, three freaks. A man who could beat War at her game. A man who could bring gods back from the brink. And a man who could steal the power of the gods for his own. None of them had divine blood, so far as she could tell. They did not have the blood of kings. They were not heroes. The only thing that united them as that certain thing. The same thing that she had sowed the seeds of, so many years ago, in Bastet. The idea that they could stand against Fate.
“I need you to trust me,” Famine said, Michael’s flaming sword at her throat, Prester John staring at her.
“She is a liar, Prester John. Let me take her. I can lock her in Hell.”
“No, Michael,” said John. He looked at the door to their daughter’s room.
“Three words, John. Three words to persuade me why you should not execute me. Three words to buy me more time.”
He nodded once. She smiled.
“We can change.”
Michael’s sword stayed where it was, until Prester John’s hand rested on the angel’s, lowering the blade slowly. “Tell me more.”
5 minutes later
Prester John sat, his head in his hands. “You cannot ask this of me. You can’t. What would possess you?” He looked at the door. “Our daughter.”
“John. I am an inimical force. I cannot change that. This is for her.” Famine took a deep breath. ” If we do nothing, if we allow things to continue, I, or one of my sisters, will come to destroy this city anyway. I am offering you a chance, here. If we arrange things just properly. There is a chance, slim but present, that she will survive. That humanity will survive. Believe in me. Believe in Nash. Believe in God. But have faith.”
“You can’t ask this of me,” he said, staring down at his hands. “She’d never forgive me. She’d be right to never forgive me. To risk her, and to sacrifice you-” He shook his head. “Why can’t you change?”
“Because a very long time ago, I made a foolish agreement. I think that it will work. I think that I can change one of the Horsemen. I have been setting this in place for a very long time, and it can work. In a moment of righteous truth, my life taken by one who will supplant me, who has everything to live for, everything to fight for. One death to make the world better.” She rested a hand on his cheek. “Please.”
Death comes to us all. She watched, invisible to all save me, as I faced Nash, and Betty. At first, I worried that I would have to fake it, to give in too easily, and make them suspicious. It turned out, I had nothing to worry about.
It was shocking, to watch the two of them fighting together. Two champions empowered by the Horsemen. Nash fought with Heather’s gift, putting him in perfect sync with Bastet. Famine fought with everything she had. And she still lost. It was to her design, but there was still something galling in that. To watch them overpower her, two beings that should have been as nothing compared to her. That final blow, the shattered sergeant’s faith in Nash, in his country, enough to fell her. That had been beyond what she could have hoped for.
But it was Bella that shocked her the most. And, ultimately, who saved her.
Bella, the Horseman of War, of Strife, of Survival. Who put her life above all else. Who thrived in conflict and bloodshed. Who refused to be given names. Who hated humans. Who had given up love.
Bella, who had revealed herself as a traitor.
Bella, who had sacrificed herself, for the sake of the people of the city, and for Famine.
Bella, who had changed.
What did it mean, that War could change? What did it mean, that a Horseman could change, could become something else? The consequences for her would be terrible, and immediate. But she had done it anyway. She had not needed to die, though she would die for what she’d done.
Perhaps change had only ever required one to accept the consequences.
Famine stood on the vast and empty plain of ice, and frowned. She knew the other three, vaguely. Beings, ancient, and powerful. One of strife, one of tyranny, one of cessation. They knew each other for their shared loathing. They had all been harmed by humanity, in one way, or another. The walking apes had made them, given them shape, given them purpose, and then loathed them for it. Famine had been named, the state of lack, the natural state of all creatures, and been called evil. She, who made value. She, who gave meaning and worth to things. She, who gave humans the ability to strive, to distinguish themselves. She, who had only ever given them something to appreciate. There could be no plenty without her, no richness, no pleasure.
The sweetest meals were the ones she had seasoned. And they had the temerity to call her evil for that fact. To seek her destruction.
“Which of you called me?” she asked, looking among the three.
One squatted, low, bloody, her eyes green, her iron teeth shining, iron blade in one hand.”Not I,” said War, her voice a growl. “I would rather have nothing to do with you. Soft-hearted mealy-mouthed creatures.” She turned her head. “Were you responsible, Conquest?”
One had pale skin, and silver hair, hanging low over her eyes, her golden teeth shining brilliantly in the arctic sun. “Not I. None of you were willing to bow before me.” Conquest cast an eye aside to Death.
The green-haired woman crouched, skin unhealthy and yellowed, eyes deep in their sockets, looking almost skeletal as she squatted, the sickle dangling from one hand.
“It doesn’t matter. It will end eventually. Why worry? Why strive? They will end, eventually. Everything ends eventually.”
“But why wait?” asked a warm, rich, male voice.
The four Horsemen turned. He stood there, smiling, dressed in an elegant gray suit of a kind that would not exist for countless years still to come, a gray tie around his throat, gray hair immaculately arranged around his head, gray eyes shining. “Who are you?”
He told them his name. It could not be repeated. Not even in their heads. Not even in their memories. Not without attracting his attention. There were things that could not be said without a great price.
“What do you want from us?”
“I want to help you.” He raised a hand, and smiled. “I am the one who created this world. This universe. I have watched it grow from infancy. It is a poisoned world, an entropic one. Things fall apart. But it was not always so. I wish to end this universe, to make a better one. All the pain that you have felt, all of the loneliness, the isolation, it is because this universe was made wrong. And if you help me, then your pain can be ended. Things can be made right once more. All it will need is the end of everything. The death of every human. The extinction of mankind and their gods and monsters and demons. Without them to prop up this rotten edifice, to keep this stinking, filthy universe alive, then something better can be made.”
“Indeed. What do you offer us? And what do you demand?” asked Conquest.
“Simple. If you accept my offer, you will win. Nothing will be able to stop it. If you accept my offer, the extinction of humanity will be…”
He took a deep breath, and sighed with ecstasy. A shiver ran through each of the Horsemen standing on the arctic plain.
“And what do you demand?”
“Your dedication. When you step onto this path, there is no leaving it. When you have accepted my bargain, there is only one way this can end. If you should attempt to…” He smiled. “Well. We can discuss that when it happens, shall we?”
Maybe someone could forgive them, for the path they took. For the bargain they accepted. They did not know what they were accepting. They were old, but so young. So naive
They set themselves on that path. And there could be no changing, after that.
Bella had made the choice to change. She had stopped being what she was. She had not needed to die to do it. That had given Famine the faith to not die. In the hopes that, perhaps, she would be able to survive all of this. That had been Bella’s sacrifice, showing there was a different way.
And as Famine, and Death, and Conquest manifested on the rooftop, as Bastet finished the story, Bella nodded, her expression contented. Nash spun, and there was murder in his eyes.
“You must be a special kind of stupid,” he said. “The Sisters will be here any minute. They’re not going to let you harm the people here directly. You lost, get over it.”
“Ah, yes,” said Conquest, and smiled. “We’re not planning on hurting anyone. We’re here for our sister. Bella? It’s time to go?”
Bella gave a very sad smile. “Already? I was hoping I would get a little more time.”
“We all wanted something, Bella,” said Conquest, and sighed. “You were never the one I expected to fail. But it’s time to go.”
Bella took a step past Betty and Nash, towards the Horsemen. And Nash took her hand, his fingers tightening around hers, stopping her in her tracks.