“No?” asked Conquest, mockingly. “It’s not your decision. No one can protect her. Not the Sisters. Not the gods. Not you, Nash. She sold herself, a long time ago. This is calling in her debt, and you are not able to interfere. This is not a problem you can fight your way out of. You are magnificent, don’t get me wrong. You are brave, and strong, and I will be more than happy to comfort you. But even if you were to fight us today, tomorrow, the next day, we will take her from you the moment your guard is lowered. She will come with us willingly, now, simply to save you the pain of fighting, and failing against us. She will not fight us, because she is too weak to win, and because the conflict would cost you and those around you dearly. And then, she will be tortured. You don’t know the depths of pain that can be caused, Nash. You have dipped your toes in the pool of loss and suffering, and thought you knew what it was. But she’s going to hurt.”
Bella reached out, and rested a hand on Nash’s cheek. “I knew this would happen,” she said, her voice soft, comforting. “I made this decision willingly. It’s a sacrifice, alright? A chance to make the world a better place. They’re not going to make me their thing again.” She smiled. “It was wonderful knowing you, Nash. It was really the best thing that ever happened to me.”
I stared at Conquest, my nails digging into my side. I wanted to bite her. “This isn’t fucking fair. We won, you bunch of fucking cheaters, you’re just going to get a kick in at the end to be assholes?”
“Yes,” said Conquest, and she smiled sweetly. I threw a chunk of debris at her, and it passed right through her. “That’s rather the whole point. You managed another small stay of execution, and give up War in exchange. The grind of attrition. Life is like Chess. And if you allow yourself to grow attached to the pawns, the rooks, even your Queen, you risk losing. Love is poison to victory. War, in exchange for the lives of everyone here. A fair trade.”
“Her name is Bella,” said Nash, his eyes narrowed. “You think I’ll let this pass? You think that I’m going to just let her suffer? I promised a fucking happy ending.”
“Yeah. That was never in the cards, Nash, baby,” said Conquest, and she smiled, shining golden teeth almost glowing. “She got careless. She decided to show her hand. She betrayed us. Not really all THAT surprising.”
“You want this, Conquest?” asked Nash, his teeth gritted. I could see the vein pounding on his forehead, the anger coursing through him. “Do you really want to make it like this?”
“It’s not about what I want, Nash,” said Conquest, and her eyes were hollow and cold. “It is about what is inevitable. This was what she signed up for, long ago. It’s justice, such as it is.”
Bella gave Conquest a sharp look. “Quiet. I’m going to go willingly with you, you don’t need to twist the knife like this. Give me a couple fucking minutes.” She turned towards me, and smiled. “Betty, I’m sorry. But I did all of this because I knew it would end like this. I am making a choice for the first time in eons. I am not going to let myself be controlled by my fear of the consequences. You can change. I can change.” She waved a hand towards the three Horsemen. “They can change. That’s the whole point of this. It’s showing them that there’s something worth dying for.”
I didn’t answer. I just stared at Famine, my jaw tight. “Once, thrice, but never twice, right?” I asked, my eyes narrowed. “You fucking hypocrites. How many of you are even still interested in this? What the fuck could he be to make you keep pushing?”
“God,” said Conquest, very simply. “Or something indistinguishable from it. There’s no choices in this thing. All you can do is play the bad hand you’ve been dealt.”
“Nash,” said Bella, and she smiled. “I’m sorry. I wanted a few more happy memories together. I’m glad, though. You fought for me. You trusted me. You forgave me my betrayals.” She rested her hand on his cheek. “I hope you’ll find it in you to forgive me for this one, too, someday. But this is a sacrifice that I have to make.” She let her hand fall. “I have been an evil, vile thing for time immemorial. I have hurt countless people. Killed countless more. I am responsible for evil on a scale you can’t even imagine, Nash. I am not the damsel in distress. I am the dragon, and when I die, it will be a just death, no matter the circumstances. At least this way, I can make my last actions mean something better. You can understand that, can’t you?”
She pulled away, and he caught her hand. Her fingers slipped through his as she kept walking towards the Horsemen, leaving him standing there, very alone.
“That’s bullshit,” he said.
She turned sharply, frowning.
“Dying isn’t going to make anything better. It’s not going to bring back the people you killed or heal the ones you’ve hurt. It’s not going to make the world any brighter. Right now, when you’re finally ready to start doing something noble with your life! When you’re starting to do something good! It’s not going to make things right! It’ll just mean that everyone will remember you as nothing but War! Look in my eyes, and tell me, I fucking dare you to tell me, that you’re willing to die right now! That you wouldn’t accept anything, if it meant you got to survive.”
She stared at him for a moment, and then her eyes widened. “Nash. Don’t.”
The grin spread across his face, slowly, but surely. “Conquest. A trade.”
“We are here for her,” said Death, her voice soft, and sad. “You are a human. A mortal. You could never be worth as much as War.”
“You’ve seen me defy you, time and again. You’ve seen me stop you. You’ve seen me rip the power from your agents. I can take it from each and every one of them. I can threaten your plans on a level War never could. So. How about a trade?”
“You have the protection of the Sisters. Their blessing. You are surrounded by allies. Do you think that we cannot sense a trap?” asked Famine, her eyes narrowed in annoyance.
“I’ll stand alone. Accept no help from anyone. From the sisters. From Bella. From Betty. From any of the Damned or the inhabitants of Paradise. Just me, in exchange for Bella’s. A promise to release your hold on her. You leave her, and take me, instead.” He smiled. “It’s a bargain at twice the price.”
Conquest was staring, and her expression was hungry. I could recognize that look. Desire. The hunger to own, to control. A predator’s need. “Nash,” I said, warning in my tone.
“Please, Nash-” began Bella.
“Deal,” said Conquest. She held out her hand, and Nash shook it. She turned towards the others, and smiled, taking a step, and then another. When Nash didn’t follow, she turned towards him, and her eyes widened slightly, as she saw he was in a fighting stance. His legs spread, arms up, hands open, and loose. “What exactly do you think you’re doing?”
“You said she wouldn’t fight you, for fear of causing harm to those around her. I’m not like that. I said I wouldn’t accept any help from anyone, but I never do.” The smile spread across his face, cold and feral. “You’re a bit desperate, aren’t you, Conquest?”
“You said that you would come with us, willingly,” she said, her eyes narrowed.
“I said that you could take me,” he said, smiling.
“There are three of us, Nash.”
“And one of me. And I don’t have Ariel’s power.” He cracked his neck. “You put up a good act about the nihilism. Not caring whether you live or die. And it’s true, I might not be able to fight all three of you at once and win. But I can probably kill at least one of you before I go down.”
“You don’t kill,” said Conquest, her eyes narrowed.
“You don’t want to test that,” said Nash. He turned his head towards Death. “I beat your children, with all their strength. Do you think you’ll do better?” He turned his head towards Famine. “I’ve taken you once with help, and I get stronger alone.” He turned back towards Conquest. “Now. Which one of you thinks they can take me?”
The two horsemen stepped back slightly, and Conquest was left standing very alone, across from Nash, as the wind rustled. “You think you can win through pure intimidation, Nash? You’re bluffing.” Her eyes flicked up to his forehead, and then back down. “I can use this bargain. Get into your head. Make you my creature. Enslave you to my will. It would be brutal. It would break you as a person, and I would prefer you be mine willingly. But I will not let you get away. Bella has made a sacrifice, and there is no meaning to it, no change, no-” She stopped short, her eyes widening.
“Well, now you’re calling her Bella too,” said Nash, and he smiled. “If you want to, you can try. But I don’t care about meaning. I don’t care about sacrifice. I don’t care about any of that. I want to make sure Bella gets a chance to enjoy the world. A long, and happy life, with a chance to do as many good things as she can. Maybe it’s selfish of me to take away her chance to sacrifice herself, but…” He looked over his shoulder, and our eyes met for a moment. He smiled. “Well, hell with it. I deserve to be selfish this once.” He turned back towards her.
“You’ll regret this. One day, I’ll come for you, and make you suffer for it. You’ll rue the day you didn’t give her up,” said Conquest, her eyes narrowed, her teeth gritted.
“Are you still here?” I asked, tartly. “Come on. Get going. You got outmaneuvered. You fucked it up. Go home.”
There was a flicker, and the three Horsemen were gone. The oppressive atmosphere slowly lifted from the island, and I let out a shaking sigh of relief.
“That was a little too easy,” said Nash, frowning. “I can’t believe that worked.”
I shook my head. Conquest had made a misstep. She’d been overeager, and made a foolish bargain, and it had cost her dearly.
But people did stupid things when they were horny, and when they were in love.
Nash and I stood at the edge of the tower’s top, staring down across the island. The city was coming back to life. The tropical sunshine waned, and the rain fell, the torn remnants of the vicious storm bringing a shower that seemed to soothe the air. It put out the fires, cleansed the city of ash and debris, washing it away, towards the ocean. The rain was heavy, and unpleasant, and frankly I found it a bit melodramatic, but it was pleasant in its own depressing way, cleaning the air, creating a sense of rightness in the world. “I can’t stay,” I said, softly. “Horace needs me.”
“I understand,” said Nash. He turned towards the others. Miller sat on his haunches, staring up at the sky. Bella was sitting beside him, talking softly with him, and to his credit, he seemed to be considering her words. The king stood over his daughter, the girl sleeping solidly across his lap. He looked deeply pained. The five damned princes of Hell were looking uncertain as they slowly approached us. Nash gave them a soft nod, but held up a hand, taking out an iron rod. He approached Markov, who was sitting with sword across his lap, and chainmail over his shoulders, looking curiously knightly.
“Your daughter,” said Nash. And he set the rod in Markov’s hand. Markov stared down at it for a moment, and gave a weak smile.
“Thank you, Mister Nash,” he said, in that deep southern good ol’ boy voice, slowly weighing the rod in his hand. “I tasted a moment of victory, you know? I was almost there. Almost was able to save them. But it was ripped away from me.” He softly held his daughter’s soul in one hand, staring down at her with quiet eyes. “I am glad you did not experience the same.”
“I’ve got a favor to ask of you, Markov. A few people who I think need to get off this island, as soon as possible. Your transport’s still here, yeah?” Markov nodded. “Betty? How do you feel about a few passengers with you?”
“Sounds like a plan to me.” My eyes flickered over to Prester John, and back to Nash. The young man nodded, and turned to Bella.
“Bella. Can you get Jack, and Jill? Have them meet us at the jetty.”
“There’ll be a government plane here in less than an hour,” offered Miller, his head lowered slightly. “You did everything we could have asked for and more, Betty. We’re in your debt.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I’ve been away too long as it is. You can take me straight to upstate New York, right, Markov?”
He nodded. “It’s the least I could do for you.”
Prester John, for his part, looked up, uncertain. “Leave?”
“Yeah,” said Nash. “I don’t think it’d be a good idea for you to stay here. After what you’ve done, I don’t think people are going to be forgiving. Not the inhabitants of Paradise, not the US government. I think that it’d be a good idea for you to stay out of people’s eyes. Try to do good in a less…” He looked around, and frowned. “destructive way.”
“I would do it again,” said John, his voice hard. “If I were to be given the choice, knowing what I do now, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
“Betty and I put everything on the line to save you, your wife, and your child from your good intentions, King,” said Nash, and there was a level of venom in that word that I hadn’t heard from Nash before. “The very least you could do to thank us is learn from this, god damn it. I’m not going to take you away from your daughter. I’m not going to tell her what you did to her, what you were willing and prepared to do to her. That’s going to be a hard, painful talk that you’ll get to enjoy all on your own. I’m giving you a chance to leave this place, and start fresh.”
“You think someone else can do what I did?” asked Prester John, his eyes narrowed. “I balanced this place for hundreds of years, and you think you have the right to ask-”
Nash’s fist curled in the man’s immaculate tie, and he leaned forward. “I am not asking.” He let the king go, and the king seethed visibly. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael appeared, clad in a halo of light. He looked up at them, opened his mouth, and Michael placed a finger on his lips, in an obvious shushing gesture. Raphael stroked the king’s shoulder gently. “It might be best, your majesty, were you to take a much-needed rest. The burden of command has grown heavy on your shoulders. We followed you in your plan, and for the time being, we are finished following.” She smiled. “You asked us to do the unspeakable. Perhaps you should be satisfied with that, for now.”
Prester John lowered his head. “I was doing what I believed right. Everything ended up right.”
“Yes,” said Michael, and rubbed his jaw. “Perhaps we have all pressed our luck more than far enough on that. It will be alright, your majesty.”
The king went silent, and held his child, as I stepped up to him. He looked up, defiantly, and I patted him amicably on the head. “A change’ll be good for you, Prester.”
The walk along the road was quiet. Prester John, his daughter, Markov, Nash, and I, all walking together along the long road that had brought me here in the first place. “How about you, Nash? You going to leave with us? I thought you weren’t much for parties.”
“Fuck it,” said Nash. “Just one. I’ve had a hell of a year. I’m going to be around people for a little while. If it feels as though my soul is about to burn through my chest, I’ll make it an early night and be out of here. But I wanted to make sure that the people who have to leave immediately can, and do.” He smiled, and took out a small note, holding it out to me. “Here. Bella’s cell-phone number. If you ever need me, call this number, and I’ll be there as soon as possible. You’re not alone anymore, alright? We’re all in this together.” He cuffed me on the shoulder as I took the note, and I smiled.
That made what I had to say feel even worse in the base of my stomach. The knowledge of what I’d have to tell him. The betrayal. So I put it off a little longer.
“Where are you going from here?”
“Avalon, next. Not immediately. Need to figure out my approach. Figure out what the Horsemen’s plans are. Maybe just wander around making things safe for people, do the wandering do-gooder thing for a little bit. Be alone, get used to loneliness again.” He was quiet for a moment. “Make some good memories with Bella.”
“You won. She’s safe.”
“No. She got a stay of execution. It’s the same for the rest of us. None of us are safe quite yet.” He grinned. “But we will be.”
We reached the jetty. Jack and Jill waited for us, Jill’s arms around Jack, hugging him gently. Jack had a small jar in his hands, with something small, about grape-sized, floating inside. I stared at it. “You can’t be serious.”
“I tried to think of something that would show we were sorry,” said Jill, looking down at the jar. “You don’t think she’ll accept it? It’s not really in any shape to be replaced, but it could be a conversation-starter?”
“Ugh.” I leaned down, peering at the blue eye. “Speaking as someone who’s tried, there’s no right way to apologize for tearing out someone’s eye.” I looked up at the two of them, frowning. “You’re not going to try to murder me on the plane ride?”
“No,” said Jill. She looked up at Jack, and nudged him gently with her elbow. He shook his head. She looked back at me, nervous, her blue eyes uncertain. “You will likewise let use leave in peace?”
“I’m pretty tired of killing humans,” I said. “I think I can stand to watch you two get away. I’m just sorry I missed Nash kicking your ass around the island, Jack. Did you cry? I bet you cried.”
“Betty,” said Nash, patting my shoulder, and guiding me away.
“What? I just want to give him a little taste of his own medicine.” I let him guide me away from the others as I smiled. “What’s up.”
“He did cry.” Nash grinned. “And be safe. Okay? Take care of yourself. You’re about the best god I’ve ever met. And you’re not doing this alone.” He held out his hand, and I squeezed it. Then I took the plunge.
“Nash, I want you to promise me something.” I kept my eyes on the ground, not meeting his eyes.
“I want-” I took a deep breath. “I want you to promise me you’ll never tell Horace who you are. How you got as strong as you are. I don’t know if he could do it, and it may be selfish of me. To want him to not become like you. To have him depend on me like he does. But everything you’ve given up, everything you’ve suffered… Everything you’ve done.” I couldn’t meet his eyes, and I felt wretched just saying this. “If he met you, he would want to be like you. He wants to help people, and he would give up everything in a heartbeat if he thought that it would let him do the kinds of things you can do. If he thought it would protect me. Please, promise me you’ll never meet him.”
“Of course, Betty.” Nash’s voice was soft, and warm. His other hand settled on my head, and he began to scratch behind my ears. I purred softly, under my breath, my eyes closed, as I leaned into the comforting gesture. “I did all of this so that no one else would have to. You’re not betraying me by asking me that. But I’ve got something to ask you in return.”
“Yeah?” I asked.
“Yeah. Go throw the guy a bone. Bang him senseless or something. A little physical affection could do a lot of people some good. Throw caution to the wind.” He stared back at the tower. “It sounds like we don’t have a lot of time left in this world, and it’d be a goddamn shame to not have some fun.”
“What if he says no?”
“Betty, come on. Look at you.”
I smiled. “You make a good point. Alright, Nash. It’s a deal.” I held out a hand, and he clasped it, giving it a firm shake. Then, I climbed into the plane, and sighed softly, leaning against a soft chair. The quarters were a little bit close. Jack and Jill were tying on a pair of parachutes. I raised an eyebrow. “Well, hello, Mister and Mrs. D.B. Cooper.” They gave me a quizzical look, and I shook my head, smiling softly. “So, Markov. Where you going from now?”
“I don’t know. I had a chance to talk with that girl, Ariel, briefly. I asked her about my family. Whether she could fix them, the way Jack did… for a short time.” His eyes turned to Jack, and his expression turned, briefly, to something very ugly.
“I’m sorry,” said Jack, his eyes lowered. “I’d make an excuse for it, but there really isn’t one. It was just…” He shook his head. “Wrong. Cruel. Pointless. All of the above.” He leaned back against the wall. “I wanted to make sure you wouldn’t betray us. And I liked how it felt to be able to be cruel to someone, and see them unable to do something back. If there were anything I could do-”
Markov waved a hand. “Doesn’t matter. Evil paid unto evil. I made a damned foolish choice that cost others to help me and those close to me. So I asked Ariel, and she told me that she wasn’t going to give me a goddamn thing. But that there was a way to help the people I love, if I did the right thing.” He nodded his head at me. “So, I’m starting, right here, right now. You were in a terrible hurry to get back home.”
I slowly nodded. “Redemption’s a funny thing like that, isn’t it?” I looked across at Jack, and Jill. “How about you two? Want to get in on the redemption thing?”
“You would ever, ever trust us?” asked Jack, sardonic, his eyes dark. “We’ve been fated to a live of mediocrity. Of not meaning anything.”
“Yeah, but fate’s kind of bullshit. You sure? I bet you could do some actual good with me. Randall wasn’t wrong to want the power he took. He wasn’t wrong to try to become a god. The only stupid thing he did was refuse to give up a grudge.” I was quiet for a moment. “I don’t want to make the same mistake. If you ever do decide that you want to try it again-”
“For the moment,” said Jill, smiling softly, “I think that I would like some time where we are not fighting for our lives. But…” She was quiet for a moment. “There was a prophecy we were told about. That if we died, the world would end. We have survived. Both of us. Somehow.” She shook her head. “Perhaps we’ll meet again. But for now…” She peered out the window. “My father was from Tennessee. I want to see it.”
“Christ,” said Jack, shaking his head. “Tennessee. I would’ve taken Hell over that. At least Hell has some culture.” But he smiled a little bit. He stood up, and paused for a moment at the door, turning to look back at me. “I don’t deserve this.”
“None of us did.”
“I mean, I didn’t deserve a second chance. I fucked up a lot of things. I didn’t deserve to get my life back, even if it’ll be dull.”
“That’s what I meant, too.” I smiled. “People don’t get what they deserve. All they can do is try to be worthy of what they get. Bye, Jack.” The door opened, and closed, and Jack was gone, along with Jill, two dwindling dots. “Christ, I hope they know how to use a parachute, that’d be an awful- No, there they are.” I watched the two white patches glide down towards the distant land. Then I turned to look at the last loose end.
“You saw into her,” said Prester John. “Her feelings. Her true desires. Did she love me? Did she love our child?”
“No,” I said, quite bluntly, and didn’t feel remotely sorry as I saw Prester John flinch from the statement like a blow. “But she wanted to be capable of that. She was fooling you when she gave you the plan, but she was fooling the Horsemen, too. It’s the way they work, covering every possible direction. She made me into a hero, to protect the earth for her plans, to keep me busy, to leave her a possibility to give me her power, to maybe become a better Famine. She’s not really good, or evil. She acts against people, but she doesn’t necessarily want to be that way.”
“God. What a fool I am to be the descendant of a wise man.” He shook his head, his eyes closed.
“Faith, hope, and love are double-edged swords, Prester John. You got cut. But they’re still important.” I waved my hand towards his child. “You’re worried what she’ll say. What she’ll feel. How she’ll react. I’ve been a mother far more times than most. So, she’ll probably blame you. She’ll probably get angry and resentful throughout her teenage years, because that’s how teenagers act. She will move away for a time. As she becomes older and is forced to make her own hard decisions, and learns more about the world, she will want your companionship again, as a steady reminder of her childhood. She will most likely return, and if you have changed, if you have replaced some of your arrogance with openness and honesty, then she will forgive you, and you’ll be together again.” I waved a hand, smiling cheerfully. “How does that sound for a prophecy?”
He sat, with his hand on her head, and stroked the girl’s white hair slowly. “I’ve heard worse. Much, much worse.” He looked up, and raised an eyebrow. “I never thought of you as a goddess of prophecy.”
“I am a goddess of the mundane prophecies, which are the best ones. Prophecies like ‘If you continue to work to your fields, you will be rewarded with a harvest.’ ‘If you live honestly and openly, you will find a mate who suits you.’ Not the kind of prophecies most people want to hear; They prefer lottery numbers. But they’re the prophecies that make up civilization. That make up life. The simple things.” I stared out the window. “Like, if Markov and I go back to find Horace, he’ll be okay.”
“Is he in great danger?” asked Markov.
“When I left, we’d spent nearly a year trying to find some sign of these weird fish-people. They disappeared a while ago. I can’t imagine that things changed all that suddenly. Even so, I left someone with him; a snake demon. She should be able to keep him safe, though she’s a two-timing floozy.” I smiled. “As long as Li Xue Zi’s with him, he should be fine. And the snake’s so clingy, she’d never leave his side.” I leaned back in my chair, and yawned. “I can’t wait to see him. Wake me when we reach Binghamton, okay?”