When a cow has been a good cow- obedient, gentle, good to those around it, good to the humans it knows- one day, it will go to heaven. In heaven, the fields extend forever. There are no fences, because there are no wolves beyond. In heaven, there is always milk, there is always freedom, and there is no pain.
My mother was the kindest, gentlest being who I had ever known. These were the things she taught me. These were the things that she had been taught. She was, I suspect now, on the verge of becoming a demon herself. She’d only needed that extra touch of faith, of passion, to become a person. To escape her fate.
Perhaps there was a heaven for her, because of that. I would like to believe so.
I won’t bore you with my story. You know it. You are aware of it every time you eat meat. It lingers inside of you, like a bitter aftertaste. I hope it is bitter- If it is sweet, you disgust me all the more. Every time you eat meat, you know that a being had to die for it. More, you know that a being had to spend its life in bondage, in servitude, in order for you to experience that small moment of pleasure, of being on top of the food chain. I hope that it was worth it. My mother was a good cow who belonged to a kind human who took good care of his stock. Then he had experienced a financial setback.
My mother and I were to be slaughtered because one human, drunk on intoxicants, had struck another human while driving, and a third human had decided that the hospital did not need as much money as they demanded, and made my mother’s owner pay the difference.
She was slaughtered, chopped apart, because that is the nature of human civilization. It is a meat grinder. It is no one’s fault, people say. Just the nature of the world. And yet, everyone defends that status quo.
When I escaped, destroying the slaughterhouse, killing those men, I thought I would find a place where this did not happen. I thought I would search for a place where this did not happen. A safe haven. It was a search for a place where the world was not as the world is.
It went exactly as well as you might expect.
I discovered many things. The secret of sacrifice, of power, of godhood. The nature of demons, the nature of humans. And what I learned is that this world is not worth the effort. It is filled with those who would hold it up, keep it going, keep it alive. Like a corpse being kept alive with a respirator long after the brain has died, like a walking abomination. The only reason human civilization continues to spin is because of the countless lives that throw themselves into it. War and peace, rich and poor, sane and mad, all of them dedicate themselves to keeping it going. It is such a fragile thing, though.
The right god in the right place could send it all tumbling into oblivion. They already teeter on that brink every day. I thought all I had to do was push, give it all the right push, and it would tumble down like a poorly built house of cards.
My mind ran back to five years ago. I had met Daisy in South Africa. She had been a pet rabbit for a young Dutch boy who had been killed during the second Boers war. There was so much to unpack in that simple summing up of history. A hundred years old, she had gathered power enough to be dominant in her particular corner of the world. What Michael Gray would have called a Prince. With that power, she had been quite satisfied to simply sit and grow fat, turning humans against each other for her amusement, making them come to her. I met her, and it was there that I learned the nature of godhood.
“Of course. I remember when the gods still walked this Earth, though infrequently, and under assumed names. I met one, once. He was… incredible. Potent, virile, vital. He told me about the nature of becoming a god. It was becoming more difficult, even in those days. Three paths require… Well, more power than you are ever likely to acquire. Beat a god, eat a god, or have a god die, and their power moves on.”
“Sounds difficult,” I said, and smiled as I poured the vegetable stew into the bowl before her. Could plants become demons? Was even I a butcher, eating the living? And were they the only innocents, not needing to kill others? But even if they didn’t need to eat, they choked out those smaller than them, gathering light and casting shade. Everything that lived did so by killing something else that could have been.
“Quite so. Even more so now that the gods have withdrawn from the world. We spin on towards oblivion.” She laughed softly, smiling down at her bowl. “The last method was worship. But the thing is- I do not know. There have been no new gods in that way for… centuries. The humans don’t believe anymore. It as though a blanket of banality, of prosaic boredom, has settled over the race. They don’t believe anymore. They don’t have anything worth believing in, perhaps. Certainly, no demon has ascended to godhood for as long as I have been alive.” She paused a moment, and considered me. “You have potential, though. To be as strong as you are, at such a young age…”
I smiled at her.
The thought came back to me, bitter and harsh, as I stared at the man who had Daisy at his feet, his heel on her throat, her arm stretched out to full extension in a casual, almost contemptuous hold. “So. Are you a God? A Monster? A Hero? One of those vaunted inhabitants of the Cities, finally come forward to take a stand against me?”
“Wrong on all counts. What’s your name? Father Steer is kind of unwieldy.”
I was quiet for a moment. “I never had a name. Never any but the one I chose for myself. Just a serial number.”
“You’re a demon. You were a cow.” The man was quiet for a moment. “I’m sorry about that. That’s not a fate any sapient creature should undergo.”
“It is a fate that every sapient creature in your society undergoes. It is the fate of every human, every pet, every beast of burden, every meat animal. Dying to serve those higher than them in the hierarchy. And even those at the very top find themselves paying the price.”
“I guess you could look at it that way.” He looked down at Daisy. “You know… There was a time, not very long ago, when I would have been happy to shatter this woman’s arm. When I would’ve tormented her, just to hurt you for what you’ve done.” His fingers tightened, and I saw Daisy’s expression turned white. “You fucked with kids, man. You had this girl about to kill herself.”
I slowly swallowed. “She made her-“
A snap filled the air. Daisy’s eyes were wide. She was breathing hard through her nose, her arm shaking, a visible bulge near the mid-point of the fore-arm. “I’m sorry,” said the human. “But that was a bit too far.”
“I’ll kill you,” I said, my voice fevered, my head spinning. The only woman who had ever come close to being as kind, as gentle, as supportive as my mother was barely holding back tears, her teeth gritted as her arm twisted in the man’s grip. “Whatever you are, I’ll kill you.”
“No,” he said, and there was something melancholic in his voice. “You’re strong. I can feel it from here. For someone who’s been a god for a couple of minutes, you’re really strong. You could probably kill everyone in this room. But you don’t have any chance against me. You’re powerful, and completely unfamiliar with that power.” He released Daisy’s arm, letting her scramble away from him, breathing hard. “The only question is how badly I have to beat you before you realize that you’re helpless.”
“You are arrogant.”
“I have walked into two Cities, and destroyed them both. I have walked into three hells, and walked out of each of them against the wishes of their masters. I have faced each of the four Horsemen. You are a god. I have humbled more gods than I can count.” He sighed. “I wasn’t even here for you. I was travelling through, and things seemed weird. I arrived here yesterday afternoon. Me stopping you, it isn’t even a side-story for me. This is just a lark.”
“Really.” I swallowed, hard. Whatever he was, he hadn’t been affected by my words. I had been releasing my power in a steady, overpowering aura, trying to crush him, to break his morale. It should have been eating away at his self-confidence, his certainty of purpose, making him want to escape, to run away. He wasn’t showing any sign that he was even feeling it. “Why, then?”
“Your story. What was it?”
“I was a calf. I was to be slaughtered. I chose otherwise. I decided to turn the tables.”
“So you got a second chance. That’s a rare, and beautiful thing. And this is what you did with it.”
“When I break humanity, when I break their hold-“
“What do you think will happen? People are still going to eat meat. People are still going to be assholes. The best you can hope for is oblivion, destroying humanity. You’d be nothing but a cow, then. And maybe that’s enough for you.” He met my eyes, and there was something terribly savage in his expression. “But why shouldn’t I just kill you, instead? If it’s the same either way, what’s to keep me from breaking your neck, and delivering oblivion to you on a silver platter? You might even meet your mom.”
“How did you know about her?” I asked, my voice strangled.
“There’s nothing like losing your mother to make a man determined.” He smiled softly. “I know. That’s why I’m giving you a chance, here.”
The world turned red. I charged, the force of divinity behind my movements. I sped up, reaching nearly sixty miles an hour by the time I hit him, six and a half feet of pure rage.
The world briefly spun around me. I found myself on my back, my head spinning. I was not entirely sure how I had ended up here, and I was not in any pain. The human stood over me, his arms crossed. Had he moved them? Or had I simply fallen at his feet? “I’m not kidding when I say you can’t beat me.”
“Why?” I asked, and I felt the tears running down my cheeks. “All I’ve done, all I’ve fought for, the things I’ve done for this power, only for you-“
“Yeah. It’s not really fair, is it?” He sighed. “But it doesn’t have to be fair, because I’m fighting to protect everyone.”
“From what?!” I stumbled back to my feet, forcing myself to stand. Just facing him was terrifying. He could kill me, if he chose. He had me at his mercy. Like being back in the slaughter house, watching my mother led ahead of me, smelling the blood on the air. I stared at him, my teeth clenched. “What is worth saving in this world?! If I had not hurt those children, someone or something else would have! Our world is sick! Diseased!”
“No,” he said. “It’s not sick. It’s poisoned.”
“That…” I stared at him. The choice of words was deliberate.
“It’s easy for people to say that the way things are is the only way they could be. That it’s just the nature of the world. It’s not. You had a second chance. You could have spent it being better, making the world a better place, helping those around you, making the suffering a bit less. Instead, you decided to hurt children. Just like you were hurt.”
“It’s-“ I rubbed my face. “My mother-“
“You going to keep trying to excuse your behavior like that?” He stared at me, his expression pitying. “God. You’re lucky I’m the one who found you. I’m not going to kill you.”
“I don’t have to kill you. I can tear the godhood out of you. For all I know- It might take whatever makes you a demon, too. You might be just a cow again. I could take it all away from you. This isn’t me being kind, this is me threatening you.” He narrowed his eyes. “You had your first chance when you awoke in this slaughterhouse. That’s more than most humans are lucky enough to get. This is your last chance. Do you want to continue on this entropic self-destructive bullshit? Do you want to be another self-destructive chump who would rather throw away everything, become just a beast again? Or are you going to help people?”
“It’s too big,” I said, looking away, slowly sinking to the ground, kneeling. “I thought about it. But even if I were a god- I can’t help people by keeping this going. The only way I could do it was if I destroyed it. Just… knock it off course.”
“God. If Bastet were here, she’d have gutted you. And you might deserve that. But I don’t do that.” The man raised a hand, waving it towards the kids. “Imagine, just for a second, if you had helped them. If you had preserved them, made this place a little bit better.”
“It’s too big. The things that were happening to them- Even if I could make this place paradise, it would be a drop in the bucket.”
“Yeah.” The man held out his hand to me. “Nobody ever said you had to do it alone.”
I stared at his hand for a few moments. I’d watched that hand snap Daisy’s forearm like a dry branch. Even now, she was sitting in a corner, her expression terrified. I reached out slowly, nervously, and clasped my hand to his. He lifted me to my feet easily, and turned, walking towards the door. “Why did you do this?”
“Because I can’t be here to help these kids all the time. I can’t help that kid with his mom.” He waved towards Derry- Jonathon. “I can’t help that girl get her life back together, get her world back in order. I can’t make this city healthy again, can’t give its people hope.” He pushed open the door, and the last dregs of the evening’s sunlight poured into the dark and dusty confines. He took a deep breath, and sighed softly, smiling. “God, it smells amazing, doesn’t it? That air.” He grinned. “Makes you glad to be alive, doesn’t it?”
“That thing. The thing that made the world the way it is. Can it be beaten?”
“Damned if I know. It can be fought, though.” He stepped through the door.
“You’re just going to trust me?”
“Yes.” He grinned over his shoulder. “Because I’ll come back here one day, and decide whether you’ve been doing a good job. Life is a beautiful gift, and eventually, it gets taken back. “
“What’s your name?”
“I never had one,” I said, softly.
“Hmmm.” He turned back towards me. “You ever read the story of Ferdinand?” I frowned. “My mother used to read it to me. A great, powerful bull, whose only interest was in smelling flowers. He winds up taken to a bullfight, but he doesn’t respond to the provocations of the matador.”
“And so they kill him?”
“No. He’s sent back to his field.” He shrugged. “It’s as good a name as any.”
“I didn’t start this, you know,” I said, still a touch defensive. “I wasn’t the one who did wrong first.”
“No. And I know you have to defend yourself.” He smiled, and bent down, picking his hat and jacket up off the ground. “But I ended it. Remember that. Do better.”
Then he walked out the door, and into the night. I slowly sank down onto the floor.
The encounter was so strange. Running into something so far beyond anything I knew, anything I could understand. Being beaten so thoroughly, so humiliatingly, when I thought I was invincible.
“What do we do?” asked Daisy, softly, cradling her arm, wincing as she tried to hold it still. I tore off a strip of cloth from the robes I wore, and began to gently tie it around her arm, holding it in place until she was well.
“You go. Go home. Go… somewhere.” I sighed. “I have a reckoning to confront.”
The first were the three men, and their demons. I brought them out of their slumber with a word. “The three of you. Go home to your prince. Tell him that this place is under my dominion, and that I will not tolerate demons here without my permission. Take your lives, and be grateful for them.”
They left. The one in the center, the one named Michael, stopped in the door frame, framed in the starlight, and turned back towards me.
“I’ve been knocked out a lot. I caught some of that.” He looked back out the door. “That guy, he stopped you dead. You’re a god, yeah?”
“Yeah. More or less.”
“What was his name?”
“Silas.” I frowned. “You going to set him on your Prince?”
“No. No, there’s something a little scarier that he might be useful against.” Michael’s eyes were distant for a moment. Then he focused on me. “Do you think you can change?”
“I did once.”
Then it was just me, and the children I had hurt. Children. God. They had been innocent, in their own way. I’d taken that from all three of them, ripped away something that I could never restore. I could never make them whole again, just like I couldn’t make myself whole again. I opened my mouth, and closed it a few times in a row, trying to think of what I would say. How I could make my argument to them. What I was supposed to do. Whether they would forgive me for this, or ask that I die.
There was no time like the present. I took the knife from the floor of the office, and placed it in Derry’s hands. I stepped outside, one last time, to breathe in the air. The night sky was full of stars. And somewhere out there was the god who had let my mother die on the slaughterhouse floor, who had made this world into the cursed place it was. Who had poisoned it.
“There’s someone coming for you, fucker,” I said, softly. “And I’m only sorry I probably won’t get to see you pay for what you’ve done.”
Then I went back in to face my fate. The only thing I had left to offer the children was my life. One way, or another.