The door to the bedroom opened, and Horace looked up. The boy’s expression was worried. “Are you okay? I told them not to hurt you, but they wouldn’t listen to me, they were scared, they-”
“They’re not a problem anymore,” I said, softly. My eyes flicked over to Iris as she knelt down in front of the boy, her arms going around his shoulders. She squeezed him tightly, dressed still in my tattered jacket, the tears running down her cheeks. Her arms shook slightly as she held him, as though worried she’d break him. “Did you awaken anything else, boy?”
“I…” He frowned. “I did that?”
“It’s not your fault,” murmured Iris. “It’s okay. We just need to get away from here before anything else wakes up.” She smiled, stroking his hair. “I promised you I was real.” I was silent as Horace clung to his mother. I felt paralyzed. Thinking back to what had happened in my life. Everything that had drawn me to this point. An old man. No wife, no love, no children. I could change all of that, now. I could be with Iris. I could be with Horace. I could take care of him like my own son. Nurture him, help him grow to be a hero.
“I told you she was alive, uncle,” said the boy, smiling brightly at me. Not arrogant. Not mocking. No sign that he was anything but a normal, kind-hearted boy. Just desperately glad that his mother wasn’t dead.
“There’s a community of supernatural creatures in Binghamton. They might know more about this. We need to make it down to town. There are rumors I can remember. Hints that there’s a place for us. A hidden city, somewhere not far from here. If we can find it… Can you imagine it, Horace? A world full of gods and monsters.” Iris smiled softly. “A place we can be.” She looked up and met my eyes. “All of us.”
“Monsters?” asked Horace, frowning.
“I don’t think they’re that bad. And if they are, we can handle them.” Iris laughed softly. “You’re a special boy, Horace. You’re going to do amazing things in this world. Protect those who need protection. You’re going to be a hero. My special little boy.”
I met her eyes, my expression hollow. “That’s not your mother, Horace.”
Horace’s brow crinkled. Iris didn’t react at first. “But-”
“That is a monster. A Kumiho. A creature that killed your mother, ate her heart, and took her shape.”
Iris turned her head to look at me. The betrayal in her eyes would never, ever stop hurting me. The shock. The growing anger, the understanding.
“Don’t do this,” growled Iris. “You-”
The effect was more visible than I would have expected. Iris convulsed once, bending over, hands on her stomach. Her nails lengthened, her teeth sharpening, as Horace stepped back from her, fear in his eyes. I watched, my expression cold as ice, my heart hammering against my chest. It hurt. More than anything I had ever done, it was agony, doing something unforgivable. But I didn’t let any of that show on my face. “Horace, it was your fault. You cared too much about the thing. You called the monster. It’s your fault your mother died.”
“I…” The tears filled his eyes. “I didn’t. I didn’t mean-”
“You did. You didn’t mean to, but that doesn’t matter. That’s what happens when you care about things like that, Horace. You killed your mother. You nearly killed me because of the things you brought into the world. Your actions have consequences, Horace. And that’s not your mother.”
“But-” I could see the confusion in his eyes. The betrayal. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. But it was the only thing I could think of. It was easy to lie to him. There was no reasonable way to say that what had happened was his fault. But he didn’t realize that. He was a young boy who cared about everyone around him, who trusted those around him. That was why I had to do it.
“Monster!” screamed his mother.
Iris was strong. Stronger than I was. Faster than I was. And trained. She could stop me from taking Horace from her. With all the fury of a mother protecting her child, she would be nearly unbeatable. But she was still recovering from being devoured by a monster. She was being held together by his belief, his love for her, his certainty that she was still his mother. Without that, her body twisted. Becoming more bestial. She let out a scream of rage, and lunged for me. It was only natural. I had said something unforgivable. Something I deserved to die for.
But I fought monsters for a reason. I threw myself backwards, and rolled with the blow. The two of us rolled down the stairs together, tumbling end over end. She still had the swords sheathed in the jacket, and I barely avoided landing on one with all of my weight. Wood or not, elixir or not, that would’ve taken me out of the fight. I was still lucky, it seemed, for a given value of that word. I threw myself to my feet, and struck out hard, my foot slamming into her shoulder. She rolled with the blow herself, and darted for the front door, sprinting out into the woods. Into the darkness. Regrouping. Trying to get me to follow. The acts of a predator. Trying to go to where she had the advantage, in the night.
I walked down the short set of stairs to the lawn, tugging the wrists of the gloves. My heart was empty. It felt as though it had stopped beating, a cold feeling spreading through me. As though I had died when the knife had gone through my stomach, and my mind was only just catching up. I had to find her. If I left her to lurk, she would regroup, and make another attack on me. I had to finish this while the elixir was still raging inside of me.
The moonless night was dark as pitch. No lights reached through the dying leaves, the few stars entirely failing to illuminate my path. But the elixir gave my night vision the boost I needed. I was as inhuman as Iris, now. The two of us on an even playing field of monstrosity. But I had been doing this all of my life.
“Why, Randall?” she asked, her voice low, growling. “I thought you believed in me. I knew you believed in me!”
“I still do,” I said softly. “I lied to the boy. I know you, Iris.”
“Why would you say those things?” she asked, her voice empty. Haunted. I wondered if she was feeling the same thing I was. The emptiness. The hollowness that my decision had caused. The pain. In her case, because the thing holding her together was draining away. I’d killed a mother’s love for her child.
But I’d never been a good man.
“Because I did all of this, I fought, I sacrificed, so he’d never have to.”
“So is that it?” she asked, her voice a hiss. Poisonous, angry. Betrayal could do that to a person. especially betrayal on this scale. “Jealousy? You’re afraid he’s going to overshadow you? The boy is special!”
“OLIVER WAS SPECIAL!” I screamed, my voice harsh, torn, echoing through the woods. “It didn’t save him! It didn’t protect him from what was out there, Iris! Oliver died because he was a goddamned hero! Oliver died choking in the mud, and I couldn’t save him, either! But I can save Horace from that fucked up world! He doesn’t have to be special! He doesn’t have to be a hero, or an archmage, or a god! I won’t let him walk down the same path we did, Iris! If I’m worth anything in this fucking world, I can save him from that!”
She appeared out of the darkness. There was not a whisper of movement, only the slightest glimmer of her eyes as she swept down. The wooden katana came down hard, and I caught it on both fists, the pouches of lead dust stiffening under the blow, bracing my knuckles. Behind me, I heard a tree creak, then fall, cut in half by the force of the blow that Iris had leveled at me. She was fighting for keeps. She wanted to kill me. But not as badly as I wanted to live.
Her eyes sparkled in the darkness, so close to me. “You can’t stop him from being special. You can’t change what he is. You can help him, Randall. Please. It’s not too late.”
I swept my arms apart, forcing the katana back, and lifted my hands into a fighting stance again. Iris retreated into the darkness once more, and I kept moving. Pursuing her. Letting her draw me deeper into the forest. The slender birch trees surrounded me. White bark striped with black, they rustled in a soft wind blowing up the side of the hill as I continued to pursue her. “If he stops connecting, if he stops getting close to people, it’ll be good enough. It’ll make him safe.”
“It’ll kill him,” her voice murmured through the air. “You can’t make him safe that way. He has to embrace what he is.”
“That’s how Oliver died, Iris.”
“Oliver died saving the world.”
“That was a lie, too. All Oliver saved was me.”
There was a silence in the forest, the wind blowing again. Dying leaves rained down from above, falling with a bone-dry rattle, washing across the ground. I took a deep breath, and kept walking up the hill. Kept pursuing her. Kept driving her away from Horace. Further from the only person keeping her whole.
“You’re going to force me to kill you?” she asked, her voice drifting strangely through the trees, seeming far away and right behind me at the same time. My shoulders stiffened.
“Neither of us has to die. You can live through this. You’ll just… forget.” I shook my head. “I have done many terrible things in my life for the sake of the people I love, Iris.”
“Do you fucking love anyone?” she asked. “I don’t think you could do something like this to someone you love. Do you know what it’s like, Randall? To feel your humanity, your memories, slipping away?”
I thought I might. It certainly felt that way in my heart just now. “I suppose I’m hurting you because I love you, Iris. Love can be an awful thing, that way. Do you think that Horace could ever have a decent life, growing up around monsters, around gods? I’ve met a few of them. They’re not good neighbors, Iris. His place is around humans.”
“He’ll find out. You can’t keep him away from the world forever. Even if he forgets what happened tonight, he’ll find out eventually. It’s his fate. I just want him to be prepared for that.”
“He’s a human. Fate is for gods. I know you want what’s best for him. So do I.” I smiled, and it was an empty thing. I marched through the darkness. Her voice was becoming weak, raspy. “The real horror of life, Iris. Everyone wants what’s best. But nobody can agree what is best.”
She swept out of the darkness again. The wooden katana struck down on one fist, while the wakizashi came in from the side, trying to disembowel me. I caught that, too, palm wrapped tightly around it. Blood trickled down my wrist where the wooden edge had sliced through the heavy leather, and into the meat of the palm. The two of us remained frozen in tableau for a moment. Her arms shook, trying to force me back, to break my stance. My legs shuddered under the force of it, and I stared into her eyes. She returned the look, and I could see the fear in her eyes. “I don’t want to forget, Randall. I don’t want to stop being a person. Please.”
“Maybe you’re right. Maybe he will embrace this. Maybe I can’t stop him from throwing his life away the way his father and I did. I never married, I never had a normal life, I never got to be a real person, because I was busy trying to be a hero, Iris. Is that the life you want for him?”
“It’s not what I want,” she murmured. “It’s what he’s going to be. You can’t protect him from himself, Randall. He’s got too much of his father in him.”
“Heh.” I smiled softly, and for the first time since I had thrown my heart away, there was something almost genuine in it. “A Star Wars quote? Now, of all times?”
“If I have to go, might as well go out on a classic.” She was silent for a moment, and the pressure of the swords gradually eased. “Are you going to tell him any of this?”
“Probably not,” I murmured. “He’ll never know what happened, if I do my job right.”
She nodded slowly. “We could have been happy, Randall. You could’ve been happy. You could’ve had me.”
“I gave up on that a long time ago, Iris.”
She let the swords drop to her side and stepped forward, out of the shadows, illuminated faintly by starlight. The woman I loved. Her eyes were wholly inhuman now, staring sharply at me. Her nails were sharp and clawed, the nine tails swaying behind her. She stood in the jacket that I had given to her, the wooden blades hanging from her hands. She approached me, and the blades dropped to the ground, landing among the fallen leaves. I let her sink into my arms, embracing her gently. “Why did things have to end up like this?”
I didn’t have an answer for her. I just held onto her, tight. Clinging to her as the humanity drained away. Remembering the warmth. I’d never loved another woman before her. I’d never love another woman after her. But I’d already buried her. It would take a greater man than I to stop the world from its infatuation with tragedies.
Eventually, she left. No longer shaped like a human, the fox leapt away from me, gave me one last look, and darted into the woods. I stared down at my own hands. Then I let out a scream into the night, all of my rage and disappointment and weakness pouring out into the night as I beat at the ground, striking it, trying to let out the anger. I went still, bent forward, feeling the tears running down my cheeks, landing on the soil.
“This could have gone a different way,” said the crow. “You insisted that this was the ending you desired. I warned you. I tried to show you the way to your happy ending.”
I looked up, my eyes dull. The crow landed, and changed, becoming a woman. She had rich red hair, pale skin, bright green eyes, and smoke rose from her nostrils in twin lines. “This is how it had to be,” I said. “He’s not going to be a champion, or a hero, or an archmage, or a god.”
“Do you think that’ll make him safe?” she asked, her voice soft. “You’ve been in this game for a long time, Randall. You know, better than most, that normal people are the ones who suffer most. He’s going to watch the people he loves die. He’s going to be helpless to save them, because of this. Do you think that’s a better fate?”
“It’s what his father wanted. It’s what I want,” I said, and stood up. I began gathering small rocks from the ground, collecting them into place, creating a small mound. Not much, but something that would serve as a memorial. The woman knelt down and began to help me, collecting stones and stacking them next to me. When it was large enough, I pulled off my shirt, and tore it into strips, binding the wakizashi to the katana. I placed the makeshift cross in the cairn of stones, and lifted up my jacket, putting it around my shoulders.
“What do you really want, Randall?” the woman asked.
“Power. To be strong enough to protect Horace. To be strong enough that I could have protected Iris. To be strong enough that no one else has to do this.” I was silent for a moment. “There were stories, you know, among the Order of Set. That there were four Sisters. That they gave power, to those who were worthy-”
“You are not worthy, Randall Creed,” she said, and her voice showed a level of rage that was barely restrained, and the night became uncomfortably hot for a moment. “You have never been less worthy in your life, and you will never have the power of I, or one of my sisters.”
“Good,” I said softly. “I always thought it was a foolish idea. You can’t accept power as a gift from someone else. You can’t change the world with someone else’s strength pushing you along. You have to be strong all by yourself.” I shook my head. “If you wanted a different ending to this story, perhaps you should have done something.”
“I wanted to. God, I would’ve done anything to be able to do so. But I am counterbalanced. This was in your hands, Randall. It wasn’t fate that it had to happen this way, it wasn’t gods or monsters that decreed it be so. It was your actions, the choices of a lifetime. Everything that happened today was your fault. And that is going to torment you until the day you die. You are not a god. You did not have to walk the path to this tragic fate.”
“Then why did you come? Why watch? Why even bother, if you weren’t going to change things?”
She was quiet for a moment, turning her head away. When she finally spoke, it was soft, agonized. “Because you are never going to get a chance to tell the boy about this moment. And someone had to be here, to see you do this, to see the choices you made. The small decencies you showed. You are an awful man, Randall Creed, but you’re still a human, and I did not want you to bear the burden of what has happened here alone. I watched you make a cairn for someone you love, and spare someone who you could have slain. There may even be the day that I tell your story.”
Then she was gone.
“We are not gods,” I murmured softly. The old motto of the Order of Set. The old reminder. I stared for a moment where the woman had been.
They said Set had red hair, and white skin. That he was an outsider.
I wondered for a long moment about that. Then I stood up, and walked slowly back down towards the house where I had left Horace. Already plotting out how I would do this. I returned to the house, and found him standing in the doorway, clutching a metal flashlight nearly two feet long. He stared at me, his eyes wide.
“I’m sorry, son,” I said, as I climbed the stairs. “I wish as much as anyone that she’d been real. But the world is full of monsters that will trick you that way. Get to sleep. We’re leaving in the morning.”
The boy nodded quickly, nervously, as he scurried up the stairs to his bedroom. I would have to keep him from connecting to anything. Keep him from growing close, to animals, or objects. Move him from school to school. Perhaps as he grew older, the problem would go away. More likely, it would keep vexing me until the day I died, and he was left to deal with it alone.
I had to get down to town. It would take at least an hour’s walk. I would rent a car from the local dealership, and go on my way. I stepped to the front door, and pushed it open. Then I froze.
The Thunderbird sat in the driveway. Whole. Undamaged. The Ship of Theseus, whole once more. I stared at it for several long seconds, hands clenched into fists. Waiting for it to attack me. Waiting for it to roar into life, or change into something, to assault me. I watched it until I was certain it was going to do nothing of the kind, and slowly relaxed. I approached it, and rested my hand on the car’s chassis.
Not a hero, a champion, an archmage, or a god.
The world was entropic. Things fell apart. It took more effort to fix something than to destroy it. That was the fundamental nature of existence. Things fell apart. The mistakes that you made could never be unmade. The broken car couldn’t be made whole again, not without essentially replacing it. A shattered sword couldn’t be healed. Life was special because it could make itself whole again, but even life became scarred. I looked down at my hands, the scars hidden by the gloves. I could still remember where every one of them was. I felt them, as the elixir wore off.
The boy had given life to things which had none. He had given his mother a second chance. Made the elixir strong again. Maybe he’d be able to fix the mess that I had made of everything. It didn’t seem likely, considering the sheer depth of my fuckups. But we always hoped that children would be able to do better than we had. That our accomplishments would be overshadowed them. Oliver had been a hero, I’d been a thug. Maybe Horace would be better than either of us. It wasn’t what I wanted from him, but it brought me some measure of solace to think that if I failed, he would still have a bright future for him.
I ran my fingers slowly over the machine. Its engine let out a low rumble, like a cat’s. I considered leaving it here, throwing a tarp over it, letting it go forgotten, rusting. I would never return to this place, I knew. It would be fitting. All the other things left here to decay. To die. But I couldn’t.
Maybe it was a little flicker of hope. A flicker that someday Iris would be saved, too. That someday everything would be alright.
I’d told Horace that I believed in reincarnation. That was still true. Iris had reincarnated. She had forgotten herself, too, which was the nature of reincarnation. But maybe she’d remember.
I thought briefly of Oliver, and his strange way of believing in the people around him. He’d died not long before Horace was born. It was enough to make me wonder whether- No, that was ridiculous. A man shouldn’t be reincarnated as his own son. It would be far too strange. And I’d prefer to think that Horace’s achievements were his own, not simply an echo of his father. He deserved that much.
I was going to hurt him badly. It was for his own good, but that was the line we always gave when we hurt people, and I didn’t know how much confidence I had that it was true. But I had sacrificed too much to this path to turn away from it now.
Horace came down the stairs perhaps an hour later, rubbing his eyes. I had cleaned things up. There was no sign, now- broken window aside- that anything happened the night before. He sat down at the breakfast table, and looked up at me, cautious, as though uncertain whether to say anything. “How did you sleep?” I asked.
“I had a nightmare,” he murmured. “I dreamt that…” He was quiet for a moment. “It was probably just a dream.”
“Yes,” I said. “It probably was.”
He looked up at me, as though he was planning to call me on my bullshit. I stared at him, my expression impassive, and his certainty folded like a house of cards. “Just a dream,” he murmured, looking down at the ground. “Um. I-”
“We should get going,” I said, my voice cold.
I didn’t know what might trigger Horace to connect like that. To be safe, I would have to keep him at arm’s length, to make sure he didn’t connect too closely to me, either. That wouldn’t be too hard. I knew what I was doing was a cruel fate. I was condemning the boy to loneliness, and it would cut him worse than most, because he cared about others. Really, and genuinely. I started the car without talking to him, and put it into gear. I let my eyes drift over the Iris Street sign as we drove past it, my expression still as I started down the driveway.
I never returned to the small town, or the house there. But as I watched the house in the rear view mirror, I swore that the lights flashed on for a moment and then off again, like a great beat stirring in its sleep, blinking and watching some prey escape from it that it decided not to pursue, more out of laziness than any inability to catch it. A shiver ran down my spine as the house passed out of view, and I made my way onto the highway, and back towards civilization. It would be difficult raising Horace. But I had no choice. My actions had taken everyone from him. I would never be able to make that up to him, but I would have to try.
A crow called in the blue sky as I pulled onto the road.
And did you regret it, Randall?
Have you ever known me to regret?
All the harm you did. And that world came for him, in the end. It consumed him. It’s kind of sad, isn’t it? Maybe you could’ve been happy, if you’d just made another decision.
And look what a man he became. He stood up to me. Took a punch from me. He made those animals stand up to me. Dying’s a small price to pay to see something like that.
Is it? Seems like a pretty high price to me.
That’s the difference between Gods and men.
Mmmm. It was a good story. You still shouldn’t have stolen my power like that, though. Even if you had a good reason.
Tough. Good night, Nergal.
Good night, Randall.