Nash was at a party, and no one was trying to kill him.
Paradise was dead, and more alive than it had been in centuries.
The world was always changing. He could deal with that. The changes of the last day or so had been all for the better, after all. The world was a bit brighter than it had been when he had arrived at Paradise. Another City had been destroyed, but everyone had lived.
He wondered how many times he could pull off that trick before it failed, and the illusion was broken. The moment when everyone realized he was just a fraud, a fake hero, a loser who had gotten lucky time and again. In the absence of the adrenaline and the fight-or-flight, the boundless confidence that had driven him slowly drained away, leaving him feeling empty. Alone in a crowd. Giving away Lili had done something strange to him.
He still remembered when the voices of the Sisters had filled his head, when they had surrounded him, when they had walked alongside him in Zion. When they had guided him, protected him, and offered him their support. And now, he had given Ariel her power back, as she’d asked so long ago. He didn’t dare ask her to give it back. For one thing, he was afraid she would refuse. For another, he was afraid she would agree. She had been so weak, so painfully drained, that he didn’t know if she could live without that power. And the truth was, he could. He didn’t need it anymore.
But as he sat at the table, watching the happy families reunited, he missed it. He could feel his chest rise and fall, his breathing speeding occasionally as emotion caught in his chest at one tearful reunion or another. He was aware of the need to breathe in a way he hadn’t been for a year. The smell of the place, though full of delicious scents, was simple and prosaic in a way it hadn’t been with her gift. She’d given him the ability to taste truth, the speed of the wind, the awareness of the world, so many things which had been useful to him. She’d saved his life a dozen times over. She’d given deeply of herself for his sake. And he thought about love.
Bella sat beside him, and rested a hand on his, and the loneliness was a little less acute, and a little more, at the same time.
That was the worst part of it. The choice. The knowledge that to acknowledge someone’s love was to hurt someone else. And the worst part of it, the greed. The part of himself that he would absolutely never admit, the desire not to choose. It disgusted him. It was wrong. It was a product of his own warped childhood, his loneliness, the lack of connections, the painful nights he spent alone. That was why he didn’t confront them about the loneliness. It was why he held himself at arms length. Because he didn’t want to give them some false hope that he couldn’t ever really hold to. He’d hurt them all, someday, and the less he was connected to them, the less he’d hurt them.
That, and the fear that his soul would burn. That, confessedly, had a hand in things too.
He had been selfish just long enough to save Bella. He was staying here for just long enough to connect with people. But when he was done, he would need to be alone again. It was exhausting to be among others. It might be lethal.
“How are the murals?” he asked Bella, softly. She smiled, and pulled him up to his feet. She was more at ease in these crowds, more capable among people. She had a new lease on life, and it made him happy to see it. The two of them walked through the crowds together, her arm around his, and it held the depression, the self-hatred, at arms length for a while longer. It reminded him that someone cared about him. Someone believed in him. She didn’t know, yet, how broken he was. How much he’d disappoint her someday.
They stopped in front of a set of murals, and Nash admired them. These were not scenes of the bible. He recognized a few of them, though. One was the earth, sun rising behind it, across a white stone landscape. “Is that-?”
“The Apollo moon landing,” said Baron Samedi. “Good moon goddess imagery.” Coyolxauhqui stood behind Baron Samedi, the malevolent moon goddess’ expression sneering and fierce, Huitzilopochtli another step behind her sister, one hand on her spear-thrower. “Still a lot of belief in the world. It’s just a matter of grabbing it, you know? Figuring out the right way to gather people’s faith. Humans still need something to believe in, and we still need humans to believe in us.”
“It is funny, isn’t it,” said Tezcatlipoca, approaching from the other side. “You sacrifice yourself for the sake of human existence, but then, they are always asking ‘what have you done for me lately.'”
“Hey,” said Huitzilopochtli, a smile on her face, teeth bloody and red. “That’s why you always leave yourself a little miraculous work to do later. Remind them why they need you.” She slapped Coyolxauhqui on the shoulder, and the angry moon goddess snarled at him. “It’s not blood, but what the hell. Faith is faith.”
“Quite so. We live in an entropic universe,” said Tezcatlipoca, and sighed softly. “I know what the future will bring, and it is none of it good. But you make life uncertain, Silas. In crisis comes opportunity. For a better world.” She waved. “Please, follow me. I have something you want to see.”
The group walked through the ruined streets, the war-torn city still in pieces at the moment, but all the fires out. They approached a young boy who was placing small tiles on a wall. Tezcatlipoca bent forward, and planted a kiss on the boy’s forehead. The tiles were gray, white, and black, and it was half done. A man was visible in a pointillism style, sitting, his legs crossed, in a posture of absolute calm and resignation. His robes and bald head marked him as Buddhist. Flames rose around him, consuming him. Nash recognized the picture. Most people probably would. “This is how you feel, Tezcatlipoca?” he asked, softly.
“It represents me. That is enough,” said the goddess, her arms crossed, nodding at the mural. “Humans sacrifice themselves for conflict. That will never change. Not so long as you are humans. I suppose I shall have to content myself with being a carrion-eater.”
“That’s depressing,” said Nash. “But I’ll take it.” He gave her a soft smile. “Baby steps, right?”
“I suppose it is a step towards something else. We’ll see if that is better, or worse.”
“Hey, crows are carrion-eaters. It’s not a bad thing to be.” Nash reached up, and rested a finger on a tile lightly, then winced as it cracked. “Shit. Sorry.” The boy sighed, and reached up with a chisel, removing the cracked tile, and replacing it with a new one. “It is beautiful.”
“Ech, depressing,” said Baron Samedi. “Mine is much better. Very American.” He smiled at Nash. “Thank you. You were as good as Izanagi said you were. May your breath always stink of alcohol, may your accidents always be happy ones, and on the day you die, I hope I am there to escort you to the after-party.”
“Hah!” Nash smiled, and to his honest surprise, he felt better, a smile fighting its way across his lips. “That actually means a lot to me, Samedi. Thanks.” He looked up. “So, where are the Damned? I didn’t get a chance to thank them.”
“Going home, mostly. A lot of them have been gone from their family, their loved ones, for a very long time. We’ve been feeding them, preparing them for the trip home. They’d be glad to see you, ‘Lucifer’.” Samedi smirked. “Still can’t believe you messed with poor Michael like that.”
“Have you seen a woman in a veil? Probably a bit shy, vaguely snakey?”
“I haven’t.” Samedi frowned. “There’s still one person in Hell, I believe. They did not want to leave.”
Nash slowly nodded, his jaw tightening. “Another person to save someday. But that reminds me. Do you know where they are? Lucifer, Damballa, Quetzalcoatl?”
“No clue.” Samedi sighed. “I’m sure they’ll show up at some appropriately dramatic and annoying moment. It could drive a man to drink. Speaking of which.” He snapped his fingers, and his son arrived, sipping from a bottle of rum. The boy- who could not have been older than fourteen- passed the bottle to Samedi. The baron lifted it into the air, and a single solitary drop of rum landed on the god’s tongue. He gave the boy a dour look. “I should have left you in a coma, you little prick.” He tousled the boy’s hair, and smiled.
Nash felt a slight pull, just below his navel, like an ice pick jammed into his guts. The reuniting of families. Children. He looked aside at Bella, and then back towards the Baron, hoping no one had noticed. That was something that would never happen, that could never happen. His genes were bad enough, rife with madness. He wasn’t ever going to be a good father, he knew. Even if Bella- He shook his head, sharply. There wasn’t time for that.
He hid that thought deep down inside where it couldn’t do any harm. “Let’s go see them,” he said. “Wish them good luck.”
Bella and he left the gods to their uncertain future, walking down along the slope towards the beach, where the party continued. Sun Wukong had a large straw sunk into the ocean, and was visibly lowering the water level of the bay until he was slapped on the back by Mara, the Buddhist demon laughing with amusement as Sun Wukong gagged and coughed out a tuna much too large to have ever fit in his stomach, let alone the straw. Achilles and Odysseus sat at a table together, talking softly, trading words, while Cu Chulainn stared into the middle distance, fair features pensive. Ishtar was sat at a table, her head in her hands, her expression bereft. Nash approached her. “What’s the matter?”
“I fear that I may not be able to find the others of my pantheon. The gods of Mesopotamia have been… out of contact. For a very, very long time. Ur, the first city, has not responded to anyone’s missives in decades. I’m… not sure, really, where to go.” She folded her hands in her lap, her shoulders hunched. “I don’t want to become a monster again.” She looked up at him. “Do you have any ideas, Nash?”
He paused for a moment. It was strange to have people looking to him for life advice like that. “Well, if I were to offer a suggestion, I’d say wander. Can you travel outside of the cities?” She nodded. “So, see about founding a new religion. I’m sure you’ll be able to find more than enough people who are interested in something new and exciting like that, and you’re strong. You might be able to offer some protection people need.” He gave her a hard look. “But don’t threaten anymore zombie apocalypses.”
“But… what if people don’t give me what I want?” she said, her expression shocked.
“Then talk with them, or accept it, but no zombie apocalypses. Alright?” She huffed, but she seemed to take his point, leaning back in her chair, staring. “Try California. You’d probably be able to do well there. I bet you’d fit in perfectly in San Fernando Valley.”
She nodded guilelessly. “I’ll try that. Thank you, Nash.”
He nodded, and stood up. Sun Wukong approached him, and punched him in the shoulder. “You took all the fun, you grandstanding bastard,” said the handsome monkey king, grinning.
“Sorry about that. Next time don’t let yourself get put into a trance.”
“Oh, believe me, the next time, we’re going to have much more fun!” Sun Wukong chuckled. “We’ll be leaving soon. When you come to Shangri-La to destroy it or whatever the hell it is you do, invite me along, alright? We’re going to paint the town red.” He grinned. “Knowing those snotty bastards, they’ll be in need of a good destroying by that point.” He slapped Nash on the back, and turned back towards Mara, gesticulating wildly towards a tray piled high with barbecued meats. The rich scent of spice filled the air, sweet and mouth-watering, and Nash could hardly resist the allure. But he had someone else to talk to.
Achilles and Odysseus were sat together, talking softly. Odysseus smiled as he approached. “Welcome, Nash. Looking for news about Avalon?”
“I figured, if anyone would know about it…” Nash took a seat.
“It’s not good news. There are a few things worth knowing about it. Foremost is its neutrality.”
Nash raised an eyebrow. “That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“Yes, but unfortunately, it is a lazy kind of neutrality.” Odysseus sighed, and shook his head. “They have battened down the hatches, locked the doors to all save their own. They will not allow any outsiders within Avalon itself. And there is something else.” His face grew dark. “There is rumor of something returning.”
“Something?” Nash asked, frowning. “Like… what?”
“You have spoken with the gods of Zion and of Paradise. There are many proposed theories for what makes a god. Some say they always were, some say they were created from whole cloth by humans, others say that they were forces that were given personalities by humans. Not many answers. But sometimes… Sometimes, things come to this world. Forgotten things, lost things, or entirely new. These things are full of potential. They might be something wonderful, or terrible. It all depends on who gets their hands on it.” He shook his head. “This thing will arrive in the Winter Solstice of 2017, in the heart of the ice. It is an ill omen. And if the rumors are true, it will arrive in Avalon. Their neutrality will not protect them. The Sisters, the Horsemen, the Gods, and humanity. All of them are going to need to be involved. And the gods of Avalon will not shed their neutrality happily. Things could potentially turn very violent once the new thing arrives.”
“Unless we get ahead of it.” Nash nodded. “You can get back there? Keep an eye on things?” He was quiet for a moment. “Get me in?”
“Of course.” Odysseus smiled. “That’s my specialty, isn’t it? When you arrive, just ask for Eumaeus.” He winked.
“I should warn you,” said Achilles, his voice soft, his brow furrowed. “You have an enemy in Avalon. War’s love for you is… a complex thing. It does not always inspire the same in those who derive their power from her. Be careful.”
Nash smiled. “Aren’t I always?” He stood up, and took Odysseus’ hand, then Achilles, shaking them firmly. He looked around. “A shame about Jormungandr. I wanted to thank her.”
“Yes,” murmured Odysseus. “That was quite a sight. What can change the nature of a god, hmmm? Seems we’re all finding out.” He shook his head. “And thank goodness for that. Will you stay for a drink?”
“Not yet. I’ve got to talk to Miller.”
He found the sergeant major, sitting at a table, staring, slightly blank, a plate of food in front of him. “Hello, Nash,” said the man, sitting by the table, staring down at his food.
“How are you doing, Sergeant?”
“Going to have a lot to report when I get back.” Miller picked up a piece of beef, and stared at it for a moment. “I can eat. I don’t have to, but I can. But when you don’t get hungry, when you don’t have the gut bacteria to insist you consume… It loses a lot of its luster.”
“I’m sorry,” said Nash, softly.
“You kind of know how that goes, don’t you? Sacrificing something humans need in exchange for power. And not because you want the power so badly that nothing else matters, but because it’s either sacrifice or lose everything. At least a sacrifice is better than losing things.”
“Maybe,” Nash said.
“Anyway. That’s all beside the point. I wanted to ask you. Would you be willing to join the Esoteric Forces?”
I shook my head. “I don’t go in much for working for anyone.”
“Yeah. Yeah, after this… I could hardly blame you, could I?” He stared down at the food. “I had to ask. Just to make sure. Plane’s coming in soon- Apparently, there’s some demon on board who absolutely had to get down here as soon as possible to talk with Bas… Betty. That’s going to be embarrassing.”
Miller looked up, his eyes fevered. “You’ll beat him, right? Whatever that fucking thing. It can’t be God. Right?”
“I think that if he were omnipotent, he would not have needed the Horsemen.” Nash was quiet for another moment. Then he smiled. “I haven’t been beaten yet.”
Miller nodded, feeling a confidence that Nash did not. But Nash didn’t need to feel confident. He just had to win, in spite of everything. “You want some food?”
“No, no.” Nash smiled. Suddenly, his head ached. The pressure of everyone around him was a little too much to bear. He wasn’t sure whether that was simple exhaustion, or his soul about to burn. That certainly made life interesting.. “I’m feeling a little… overwhelmed. I think that I could take some time alone.”
“You’re a damn hero, you know. If I could give you a medal…”
“I’m really not,” Nash said, and smiled. “But I appreciate the thought.”
He stepped away from party, and walked away, into the darkness. He walked through the ruined city, and stared.
It was a sobering reminder of what he was. What he did. He was a creature of action, of violence. That was the whole problem, really. The thing that had been alluded to, the fear he held. When you needed violence, when you needed destruction, he was capable. Terribly capable. It was in the quiet moments that things fell apart. He walked towards the apartment.
The small satchel lay on the table, along with his books, and he frowned at that, settling his hand on the clasp. He opened it, and found the pictures that Jack had taken, the postcards of the people he cared about from Zion.
“I got them for you.”
He turned, and Ariel stood in the dark doorway, her eyes on his. “Ariel. Are you okay?”
“Yes, Nash, I’m the fucking spirit of Air. They did a number on me but I’m still the equal for any three of the Horsemen.” She crossed her arms, and grinned. “Two for two. How’s it feel?”
“Like shit.” He shrugged. “I’m sorry I took so long to save you. If I’d been quicker-”
“You were exactly on time. You took a huge risk to make sure I’d survive.” She smiled, leaning against the wall, her pose lightly coquettish, her head tilted to one side. “You saved me. Just like I knew you would. What’s the matter?”
He waved a hand. “It’s addictive. You know? That’s the thing about saving people. It feels good. And now, in the quiet… I’m craving another hit. There are people out there suffering, who need help, who I could be saving, right now. I want to be out there. Resting seems wrong…” He shook his head. “I’m worried. What if I can never give it up?”
“Yes,” said Ariel, dryly. “What if we should find ourselves with no more terror, no more strife, no more world-ending catastrophes? We would be at such loose ends. What a nightmare.”
“You know what I mean.”
“You gave up that power to save me, Nash. I don’t think you’re ever going to be the kind of person who would endanger others for a thrill. At worst, you’d be one of those guys who tells stories about the glory days, back when he didn’t have a gut. Probably to your weird red-headed kids.” She smiled. “You can’t rest yet. But I trust you. When the time comes, you’ll get your happy ending. Or so help me, I’ll force it down your throat.” She darted forward, and her arms went around his shoulders, and with a forceful kiss, she gave him the power of the wind. The scent of battlefield flowers filled the air.
“Well, well, I turn my back for five minutes and here you are attempting to steal Nash. You can’t help yourself, can you, Air?” asked Bella, amusement in her voice.
“Oh, please. Your little advice got me captured, and forced Nash to give up my power. You must have known, all along, that this was how things would end up. You planned all of this, didn’t you?”
“Yes, right down to the tongue you slipped him,” said Bella, dryly, but not without warmth. “Then you…?”
“Yeah. I’m pretty sure that you weren’t trying to deliberately fuck me over.” Ariel was quiet for a moment. “I’d be proud to call you my sister.”
“Thank you,” said Bella, and her voice was very quiet. “Do you think the others can be saved, too?”
“Fuck,” said Ariel. “Who knows?” She slugged Nash in the shoulder lightly. “I sure hope so, or he’ll be whining and moaning in our ears for the rest of eternity, won’t he?”
“God help me,” Nash muttered, and shook his head. “Loneliness might have been better than this. You two are going to be unbearable.”
“Really, Nash?” asked Ariel, smiling wryly.
“No.” He grinned cheerfully. Then his expression fell a little bit. “The others-”
“They need time. They don’t change quick. They’ve all got guilt complexes a mile wide, Nash. They’ll come back. They don’t have much choice.” She smiled. “Just give it some time, okay? And don’t you dare fucking leave us behind.” She met his eyes, her expression hard. “If you disappear, if you decide to sacrifice yourself for real like that, I’m never going to fucking forgive you.” She hugged him, and Nash didn’t fight it, appreciating the warmth of the embrace as it stretched out, and out, and out.
His mind drifted back, momentarily, to the memory of what Betty had said, about the thing that called itself a God, the Creator.
He knew a little bit about gnosticism. The idea of a god in two parts; Power, and wisdom, Demiurge, and Sophia. He didn’t know how much of this was truth, but it was something to take faith from. Whatever the creature was, it could not destroy humanity on its own. It had needed the help of agents. That meant it could be fought. There was hope.
There was always hope, even when there was nothing else. Especially when there was nothing else. Hope, faith, and love.
“Come on, Nash.” Ariel slapped his shoulder, and smiled. “There’s going to be a lot of important things to do, tomorrow. Tonight, I want to see you dance.”
“I can’t dance,” he said, shaking his head.
“Sure you can. It’s part of the gift I gave you.” She winked, and tapped the side of her nose. “You just have to believe in me.”
And they went out.
And they danced. He even danced well, and lost himself in the moment.
It’d all end someday. That was the nature of the universe.
But it wasn’t ending today.