Carol of the Bells
In the time before history, I ruled. I, one of the oldest and greatest scourges of mankind. I was the starlight that took men’s minds, the night sky that devoured souls. Men had countless names for me, all forgotten, all lost. In that time, I was more than a God. I was a scourge, a nightmare. The civilization that made me worshipped me, slaughtered for me, in the desperate hope that I would leave them unscathed, that I would focus my anger, my hunger, elsewhere. They lit their cities day and night, fearing travel beneath a bare sky, trying to avoid me at all times. It was futile. Their very prayers to me drew me close to them, and I drank deep of their souls when every flame was extinguished under my will.
In this, I was my own undoing. When I had devoured them all, my name was buried, forgotten. What I was became forgotten, a terror that no longer had a cause. I was broken, and imprisoned, by my own hunger. I had taken too much, and so I fell below the powdered bones of the city that had been my birthplace, and waited. I barely even felt when the sea had rolled across me, its heavy weight lulling me into a deeper and deeper somnolence. I had remained in torpor, feeling the heavy weight of the sea.
I was born in that time when men were raw and few, and their terrors howled in the night. The gods of that time were deeper, more powerful, more terrible. I was the deepest, most powerful, and most terrible of them all. In the time since, gods grew fearful, and weak, and small. In the heart of hearts, where some spark of me still lingered, still burned, I smelled prey. I would walk among them. And then, the walls between the potential of me and reality cracked. The sea’s torpor ebbed away, as the world grew torn.
I had awoken in the heart of a city, built on the mud made from the bones of the city that I had torn down. The ocean raged all around me. I had fought a goddess, and she had trapped me in a jar. I let myself be trapped. Let myself be drawn into her home. There, where a source of power waited. One I could eat whole, one I could devour, one that would reignite my star. I waited as the goddess left. One of the few that still interacted with the world. One of a handful protecting the world.
They were so small, these protectors. So petty, so helpless. They were hammered, over and over again, by one disaster after another. How many times could they be thrown to the ground and still find the strength to stand back up? How many times could they be disappointed by the world and still resist?
Not once more. I would break them. I laughed, and stretched my power out as the woman left, ready to consume the three within the building, to eat their souls whole, to consume all of what they were, as I had so long before, and to start a feast-
The glass refused to break. I flexed against it, once, twice, and still nothing happened.
A brown-skinned hand wrapped around the jar, and held me up to a pair of brilliant brown eyes. I remembered her. Earth. She vanished from the apartment, and a moment later, stood in the midst of a vast and desolate plain. Grass rustled in gusts of wind that stretched so far that I could see the shape of the wind itself. She stood there, holding me in the air.
“You’re not allowed to interfere,” I said.
“Your kind do not interfere. For fear of what might happen. For fear of losing your power. For fear of hurting humans.”
She waved a hand around the barren, empty plain.
“Why, hmmm? Why interfere now? At this moment? Do you fear me so much?”
“Then why? What reason do you have to interfere?”
“It’s Christmas,” said Earth. Then she slowly unscrewed the jar, and pulled off the lid.
I fled the small prison, spreading. Opening up like a flower in the sun, spreading through the world- But even as I did, I felt her hem me in. That crushing terrestrial power, the sickening crunch of gravity, the stony embrace of sepulture. I was a celestial being, evolved past the crude form of a body. But I stood on that plain, gasping for air, feeling the crushing weight of mortality, of reality, of being. I was meant for more than this.
Earth squared her shoulders, widened her stance, her hands up, fingers spread. One of those ludicrous human stances, meant to fight one another. It was the most absurd of affectations. We were beings of force and will and power. Hers was the earthquake, the avalanche, the volcano. The fury of the world. “You must be kidding, Earth! You are limiting yourself! Worshipping humanity and the pitiful, small creature they make of you! Release yourself from their chains, and we can dance through eternity!”
She proceeded to break my elbow with a vicious grab and twist, the joint tearing in the arm as the flesh was pushed past endurance. I screamed quite a lot at the pain of that, and lashed out, raking at her with sharp nails. She didn’t seem to care.
She was relentless, as she beat me. She lifted me by my crippled arm, letting me dangle in the air as she struck me in the chest, across the cheek, in the gut. Subjecting me to all the pains, all the frailties of mortality. It was interesting. It had been so very long since I’d even remembered what it could be like to hurt like this. It stretched out, long into the night, beneath the crescent moon, the wind whipping across the endless plains.
Finally, I collapsed to the ground, twitching with pain. I felt the pressure cease, the fury, the gravity, and leapt away from the body, a blazing star. I leapt for the endless sky.
Her fist closed around me. I burned as brightly as I could, trying to force her to let go, to use her weakness, he humanity, against her. She stood, silent as a mountain, her fingers squeezed tightly around me. She raised her hand into the air, holding me between thumb and forefinger, and there was a strange expression on her face, peaceful and serene.
She brought her hand down as hard as she could, hurling me down into the ground. Force so great that the soil liquiefied, the stone turning hot and runny, down and down and down, the weight of her gravity pulling me down, the mantle closing around me, as I raced towards the burning core of the Earth. A cold and gentle skin, surrounding a heart of magma. I hated metaphors-
Gene looked up at the sky, and let out a howl that split the sky, arms spread out. Bestial, ferocious, challenging anyone foolish enough to stand against her to show themselves.
“You seem agitated, Earth.”
Gene turned slowly, fixing her warm brown eyes on the dark figure. Famine stood over the hole that had been made by the descending lost god. Naked, pale, her black hair hanging in long curls around her figure, nails sharp and black. Gene raised an eyebrow.
“What am I doing here? Oh, a geologist in Kansas detected an unexpected minor earthquake in the middle of the Great Plains.” Famine flashed Gene a smile. “You know, I’m always amused by the way your plans worked against you. Give humans tools, let them become stronger, surely they’ll do the right thing. But you just represent the tools. We represent the humans themselves. No matter where they go, we’ll always… be… there.”
Gene turned her head away.
“Oh, right. Not your plan. Fire’s passion. Water’s compassion. Air’s amusement. And you… Just being loyal to your sisters, as always. You were never much for the humans, were you? They dam Water, they catch Air, they corral Fire… But you? Well, they dig into your flesh, take what they want, and then leave the rest scattered. Penetrated. There’s a very particular word for what they do to you, isn’t it?”
“So, Earth. What would be the appropriate cost for tonight? That Lost God was a terrible disaster waiting to happen.”
“Oh, perhaps Bastet would have killed him. But the god might have had time to destroy that human. What should I do? Slay him? No, no, that would be a bit dangerous even for me. Maybe… Destroy something he loves?”
Gene shrugged again. Famine tilted her head, dark eyes scanning Gene.
“Don’t you care? I’m going to hurt one of your humans. Punish you for a moment’s catharsis. Remind you that there’s always a cost to anything good and kind that you do. You’re going to suffer because of what you did.”
Gene’s fist tightened, and Famine vanished. She reappeared twenty feet further away, and her brow wrinkled.
“What’s the- Are you crying?”
Gene shook her head furiously, the wan moonlight revealing glittering tracks running down her cheeks. Famine stared, her eyes wide.
“What on Earth? You- Oh.” She glowered. “This is about him, isn’t it.”
Gene turned her back sharply. Famine reappeared in front of her, only a few feet away, though still out of arm’s reach.
“This is pathetic, Earth. You beat him. You had good reason to. He left your sister in the hands of a monster. It was just one more betrayal by humans. Just another stick on the camel’s back. How much are you expected to bear from them, hmmm?” Famine smiled slyly. “You could always make them pay. We might vanish when humanity is gone, but you, your sisters, you would still be around. Perhaps changed, but you were around before humanity, and you’ll be around after them. What do you think?” She held out a hand to Gene. “War has betrayed the Horsemen. We are unbalanced. You could restore that balance. And you know how we hate direct conflict with your sisters…”
Gene stared at the hand for a long few seconds. Her hand rose, slowly, her tears glittering on her cheeks. Famine pulled her hand back just an instant before Gene’s fist clenched around where it had been, with enough force to pulp it.
“There’s no need for violence, I was just being polite.” Famine sighed. “He’s hurt you Sisters more than us, and he threw a slug of uranium through my leg. How much do you expect to take from him? What is your end game? You know what’s going to happen to him. Like every human you’ve ever put your hopes in, he’s going to fail you. If only by dying.”
Gene rolled her eyes.
“Yes,” Famine sighed. “You’re right. I just don’t understand.” She looked down at the hole. “So that’s what this was all about? Just a little gift to yourself, a chance for some violence? Not caring about the consequences, because you just needed to get out some aggression?”
Gene shrugged. Her face was very stiff.
“What will I take? I could demand quite a lot in exchange for this. But…” Famine smiled. “You remember the Christmas Truce, that one that happened a little while ago? After five months of violence, two sides deciding that they had had enough. That for a single day, they would set aside their hatred.” She chuckled. “Then the next year, fewer of them, as the high command told them not to treat the enemy soldiers as human beings. Then the year after that, none at all, as the sides remembered all of the comrades who were no longer by their sides because of the enemy.” She smirked. “A Christmas Truce. Precious because it never happened before, and because it never would again. Precious because it is so rare.” She flipped a little mock salute towards Gene. “Merry Christmas, Earth. Here’s to the comrades we’ll soon lose.”
Then she was gone, and Gene rubbed her cheeks, trying to banish the traitorous tears.
Nash woke, as he always did, with a start. I sat by the bed, and rested a hand on his forehead. He wrapped his fingers around my hand, squeezing it gently, holding it against his forehead. “Morning, Bella,” he murmured, sitting up straight.
“Merry Christmas, Nash.”
“Huh?” He frowned. “It’s Christmas?” He stood up, the white tank top and ragged jeans still on from last night. He walked over to the unused apartment’s closet, and grabbed the bar suspended within, beginning his morning exercise routine. He was a creature of habit during these times. Exercise, reading, practicing. Preparing himself for the next fight. I’d watched him go for a day or two without eating, until his body’s own desperation finally drove him out of his schedule to find food.
Life is a war. Simply to be alive is an unending war against Entropy, against Lack, against Violence, against Death. Every human lives in a perpetual state of War. Even should every human declare peace upon every other human, they still live in a universe that is innately inimical to them. Every human loses this war, sooner or later. Every human dies.
And yet they look upon the world, and see it as one that loves them. In a world filled with creatures that kill and feed upon them, filled with violent natural phenomena that destroy them and their creations, filled with phenomena that have little purpose save to make survival a challenge, they see a mother.
My eyes ran to Nash again, and back, into the past.
I stood outside the window. My past was an open book. I could return to any moment in it, as easily as if I were there. It was an aspect of the limited omniscience that made me War, the grand strategist, the great slayer. But I couldn’t change what I had done. I couldn’t be better. I would eventually, inevitably, pay for what I had done, for all the harm I had caused, with my death. Even immortals died eventually.
But Nash was buying me time. With that war he fought, with the blood he shed, he purchased chances for me. Chances to be better. To make right everything I had destroyed.
I watched the Christmas Tree. Nash’s mother had been poor. She was raising a child alone, without family or spouse. A war that would happen even if every government made peace with every other. She scraped and saved to take care of him. I watched as the boy opened his present.
A stuffed ladybug. Bright blue eyes, spotted red and black and white. The child- He couldn’t have been more than ten- smiled brightly at his mother. It was big enough that he could barely get both arms around it. She took it from his hands, and turned it to show him the small key on its side. She turned it, slowly winding it, and then released it.
An old German song played from it, written by a preacher whose organ had failed, and who sought to create beauty in absence of tools. A song of poverty, of lack, and the beauty that humans could find even in such a state. Every human lost their war, eventually, but they still fought with a fury that beggared the imagination. No matter how dark or how grim their world, they fought for it. That was my gift to them, the strength to soldier on through the unbearable. And how they had hated me for that gift. How they hated me for not simply letting them surrender. I smiled, even as I wished that I could change what I was about to do.
It was a small thing. Nash’s mother was mad. I could alter her perceptions. Madness, after all, was the name of the gift I’d given them.
She saw the ladybug’s eyes as green. Her own eyes widened, her soft green eyes that had given Nash his hazel. She looked up, and saw me standing in the window. I grinned wider, sharp iron teeth shining.
Nash didn’t cry as she took out the knife. He had grown used to his mother’s madness. He simply watched, his expression empty, as she dug the knife into the ladybug’s neck. She tore out the stuffing, letting it fall across the ground. She tore out the music box, and with a claw hammer, shattered it into gears and fragments. She carried the whole torn mess out, and Nash watched through the window as she poured the lighter fluid over it. Flames rose between the two of us as she stared at me.
“I won’t let you hurt him.”
“It was just a doll,” I said, sharp iron teeth flashing in the flames, the reflection like flickering rust. “You’re losing yourself.”
She shivered. I could see the uncertainty. She was not so mad that she didn’t know what was happening to her. She wasn’t so mad that she couldn’t feel the lunacy building inside of her. She wasn’t so mad that she wasn’t afraid of what she might do to her son. She fought her own private war. And I knew she would lose it. Then her face stiffened. Her resolve, so close to shattering, became hard as diamond once more. She crossed her arms. “He’s special. That’s why you’re after him. You’re afraid of him.”
“Oh, yes,” I said, my voice dark and amused.
“Some day, he’s going to get you, you hateful bitch. He’s going to make sure you never hurt anyone, ever again. He’s going to-” She bit off the words, gritting her teeth. “You monster. You’ll get exactly what you deserve.”
I laughed. Even then, I thought I had agreed with her. I’d wanted him to kill me. To let me finally stop fighting the war. But then, that would be too easy, wouldn’t it? She had the last laugh.
She returned to her home, and wrapped her arms around Nash, whose soul was already flayed bloody. He didn’t hug her back. He just stared. Until she began to sing. A soft little German carol, meant to remind even those who had nothing, who had seen everything stolen from them, that they still had the one gift that humans would fight for, forever.
If only I had been like the Grinch. If only my heart had grown three sizes that day. If only I had raced in the door, made everything right. I had that power. I could have cleared her mind, restored their family, given them both a happy ending. A Merry Christmas.
But then, if I had the capacity to see past my own selfish pain, none of this would have happened in the first place.
I shook my head, and looked up. “I’m sorry?”
“It’s Christmas. Let’s do something together.” He grinned brightly. “Last Christmas sucked. I spent it on the run from the law. Let’s… I don’t know, go see a movie, have a nice meal together.”
He hadn’t seen one of the people he cared about in months. He had been wandering across North America, visiting recreations of Stonehenge, and even I would be hard-pressed to say exactly what he was planning. He more often moved by instinct than anything. He’d taken to looking for trouble, getting into fights with whatever supernatural creatures he found hurting people. All of this because of me.
I smiled. “I have two presents for you. It will take a little bit to prepare. I will be back by the time you’ve finished your routine.”
“Alright.” He darted forward suddenly, and planted a quick kiss on my lips, his hands resting on my hips, pulling me forward with that curious, irresistible force that comes with real desire. I froze, as I always did, my heart pounding with excitement and fear and guilt all the other beautiful, irreplaceable things he awakened in me. When the kiss ended, the sigh escaped my lips, as embarrassing as ever. He winked. “Don’t be long.”
He knew everything I had done to him. I could see his soul, the bloody and ruined thing that I had made of him. The friends, the self-esteem, the future, the mother that I’d stolen from him, forever, as an act of spite for him daring to be optimistic about his future. And he could smile, and kiss me, and promise that everything would be alright.
Neither of us deserved what had happened to us. But I could try to earn what I had been given. And I could try to make up for what had happened to him. What I had done to him.
“Does he suspect anything?” asked Ariel, standing outside of the apartment building.
“Where the hell is this place, anyway?”
“Detroit. He looked up the most dangerous neighborhoods, and decided to come here.”
“My god, he’s like a living Dickens novel.” Ariel grinned. “You know he just does this to make people feel bad for him.”
“I think he does it because he wanted to help people. He likes, ah…” I coughed into my hand. “Baiting people.”
“He’s doing that ‘catching bullets’ trick, isn’t he.”
“He does.” I sighed. “You know how he can be.”
“Why do you think I’m here?” She smiled. “So, shall we?”
“Is everyone ready?”
“Yeah. This doesn’t break the rules, does it?”
“He’s not going to die if we don’t do this. We… That is, the Horsemen… They never were good at understanding gestures. Any sign of your Sisters?”
“No. They… Well. Family reunions are always awkward around the holidays. Gene’s still feeling guilty, Heather’s trying to distract herself with work, and Pearl… Well. You know how she is.”
“I do,” I said, softly. “Maybe next year.”
She nodded, and closed her eyes. And then they appeared in a swirl of wind that tossed the snow on the ground into the air, making it sparkle and dance. Harry Constantinou and Megara, Dean, Susan and Isabelle, Izanami, Doctor Smith, quite a few of the gods of Paradise. Not, I noted, with some concern, Cassandra Hirosata, though her parents were there. I needed to keep a closer eye on that girl.
“Is he up there?” asked Harry, an eyebrow raised. “I saw nicer neighborhoods in Sudan.” Megara elbowed him in the side. “What? There are some very lovely places in that country.”
“None of which you ever saw,” she murmured, smiling. “He will be… alright?”
“He’s not going to die from seeing people for a day, whatever he might think,” said Ariel, her hands on her hips. “Everyone brought a dish to pass?”
“I brought rum,” said Baron Samedi, smiling cheerfully, holding up a dark glass bottle. Ariel raised an eyebrow, and then grabbed it from his hand. She unscrewed the top, and held it upside down. Nothing fell out. “Well. I brought a rum bottle.”
Maman Brigitte sighed, and held out another bottle. “I brought extra.”
“Come on, woman, everyone knows the spice in your rum is chili peppers! No one wants that!”
“Sshhh,” I said, softly. “We wouldn’t want to give away the surprise.” I could see the distrust, and the uncertainty, in the faces of those around me. I had waged an unceasing war on humanity for longer than the written word had existed. It would take a very long time for anyone to forgive me, let alone trust me, if indeed they ever did. It didn’t matter, as I had Nash. I had all the time I needed to make things right, with his help. “Come on, everyone. You learned the song?”
“Is there a reason for this song?” asked Izanami, frowning down at the sheet music in one hand, a cigarette hanging out of the corner of her mouth.
“Yes,” I said, softly. “It’s about making things right.”
“I always liked this song,” said Archangel Michael, smiling softly.
When Nash stepped out of the closet and found us in the apartment, his fists up in a fighting stance, braced and ready for a fight with who-knows-what, we began the song. He stared, his arms dropping to his sides, his expression stunned. The song filled the air, and he smiled. What more was there to say about it? Everything was perfect.
We had a party. It was full of food and joy and laughter and shared stories and a god damned reminder to Nash that no matter what he thought, no matter what he hoped, no matter what he feared, he was not alone, he would not be forgotten, and people knew and appreciated what he was doing. We laughed and dance and sung until the sun set and the stars rose blazing in the sky, around a great coniferous tree that Harry had cut down just for the party.
After the party, after the merriment, after the joy, the apartment slowly emptied out, leaving just Nash and I. He looked over at me, and couldn’t help smiling. He looked a little bit less bloody. “Heck of a present.”
“I tried to find one of the ladybugs. It was… a cheap thing. A dollar store toy she found for you. Nothing on E-bay, nothing in any forgotten attics, no chance to get another one.” I sighed softly. “I really wanted to find it for you.”
“I always hated that song,” he said, grinning. “My mom always sang it to me on Christmas, and… God. I could always feel the desperation in her voice when she did. The desperate hope that I’d be the savior she thought I was, that she wasn’t just losing her mind. Like I don’t have enough people accusing me of a messiah complex.” He laughed, even as the tears ran down his cheeks. “Hearing it again, after all those years- And the way Izanami croaked out those lines, I can’t believe she was smoking during it.” He wiped at his eyes. “You know I forgive you, right? For all of it. Everything.”
“I know,” I said, softly. “I sometimes can’t believe it, I never think I deserve it, but yes. I do know it.” I rested my hands on top of his, my eyes down on my feet. “I hope I didn’t overstep-”
His hands came up, tilting my chin back, and he kissed me very hard. Hungry, passionate. Those with nothing to live for could cling to life with a ferocity that was terrifying, because that was how they kept going in the face of unbearable pain. “It was perfect.” He smiled. “But I didn’t hear you singing.”
I looked aside. “There’s little that is beautiful in the voice of War.”
“Yeah, but you’re not War,” he said, softly, gently. “You’re Bella.”
I smiled, and as he leaned against me, his head on my shoulder, his arms tight around me, I began to sing. I could feel a trickle of moisture run down my neck as he squeezed me for dear life.
Silent Night, Holy Night
All is calm, all is bright.