I stood before the great sequoia. I tilted my head back, one hand on the back of my head to keep it from falling off. The great tree towered, nearly three hundred feet tall, more like the pillars holding up heaven than a living creature.
In the distant past, there had been trees that had dwarfed this one. They had gone extinct eons ago, but their stumps remained, a reminder of all that the world had lost. I had seen one of the stumps, ages ago, before they had ossified and petrified, becoming great mesas.
This tree was a pale imitation of them. But it was still beautiful. It reminded me of all that I had seen in my life. I took a slow, deep breath as I took out a gas can, and a match. I began to slowly circle the tree, pouring the gas along the roots. I smiled to myself as I emptied the jerrycan. I had to refill it twice from my motorcycle’s tank before I finished inundating the base of the tree.
In a time before history, I was on the verge of death. I lay at the edge of the circle of mushrooms, my heart thundering. Blood stained the ground beneath me, and the world was dark at the edges. My own heart was killing me slowly, pumping my blood onto the soil, emptying me out. I had come here after the battle, hoping to be taken by the Fair Folk, but they had not come. I rolled slowly onto my back, a mass of bloody mud covering my stomach and chest, hiding the wounds for the moment, and stared up at the sky.
The infinite stars spread across the sky. I had heard a madman once claim that each was like the Sun, and each was surrounded by its own Earth. An infinite variety, more than could ever be explored, given forever. Freedom from what people expected of you. Worlds with more food than could ever be eaten, more water than could ever be drunk, a variety that stretched beyond imagination.
I raised a hand towards it, and wished I could see it all.
There was a flash, and I heard a soft gasp. A woman ran into my view, crouching over me. She had brilliant red hair, and bright green eyes. Much like mine. Her features were far finer than mine, however, lacking the acne scars, the wounds from fights, the broken nose, all of the things that drove men away. She was naked, and I ached with the perfection of her. She rested a hand on my shoulder.
“Promethea,” said a man’s voice. He stepped into view. Lean, wearing a loincloth, his skin was dark as clay, and hard as iron, his salt and pepper brow wrinkled. “She’s dead already. Look at that wound. No chance she’ll survive it.” He crouched down beside her, resting a hand on his shoulder. “We’ve got to get out of here. When the Gods find out we’re back… Well, Hades has a thing about those who cheat him.” He looked up. “Ixion, Tantalus, look for some food.”
“Food,” said one of the men, thin as a rail, his ribs protruding. “Gods. Food of the living. Can you even imagine?” He smiled.
“I can do something about this,” whispered the red-haired woman. She peered down at me, her head tilted. “The gifts… I can give them, now. I can save her.” She was quiet for a moment. “She doesn’t have a soul. Just like him. What kind of world is this, Sisyphus, where humans can be so bereft?”
“A harsh one,” said the one named Sisyphus, though not unkindly. “One where you cannot afford to give power away. The Gods will seek to put you back in chains.”
“If there is one thing I can do, it is share power.” The red-haired woman rested her hand on my forehead. “I can feel the passion in you. The desire. The beauty.” She leaned forward, and kissed me softly on the forehead.
The fire surged through me, renewing me. Sending wild sparks dancing through my bones, filling me to the brim, until I pulled myself to my feet, breathing hard. I stared down at my stomach, the wounds gone, annealed in the fury and the power of the being before me. “Why?” I asked, softly.
“Because you were in pain, and in need.” She smiled softly, and rested a hand on my shoulder. She was warm to the touch. “The power to feel those without souls. To find them, and offer them the succor that they need.” She smiled warmly at me, and I felt a kindness from her that I had never felt from any living being before. “Go forth, and be wonderful.”
It just goes to show that one can have power without having good judgement. Oh, I was good for a time. I helped people. Perhaps for a thousand years, I found those without a soul, and gave them something worth living for. But it was just the same dramas, the same small minds, over, and over again. I had nearly died for others, and living for others was no more pleasant. But what was fun was watching it burn. Watching the way people destroyed themselves. It was so much easier than building them up. That was the funny thing about it all, that it was so simple to destroy human beings. A single word, a single careless action, and they ruined themselves. What took years of hard work, building people up, making them strong, all fell apart in a matter of seconds in the face of the world. A loved one dying, a cause failing, a belief proving false. People were so fragile.
I smiled as I took out a lighter, and a cigarette. I placed the cigarette between my lips, and lit it, inhaling long and slow, feeling the smoke pour down my throat, and out of the seam where my head had been cut off.
That happened after the power. A soulless man’s jealous demon lover cut my head off when I tried to help him. I did not die, but he did when the demon asked him to prove his love. That wasn’t what made me give up on my crusade. A single dramatic moment is not enough to change someone’s personality entirely. No, it was the relentless dull small-mindedness that did it. A mountain can withstand a sledgehammer blow, but a trickling stream can carve it open like a roast hog over the course of years, and slash out its heart.
“Hello, you two,” I said. The two of them had approached on foot, leaving the motorcycle behind, hoping to catch me by surprise. But I could feel the emptiness in them, the hollow places. I had grown to loathe that emptiness in people. All of the beauty in this world, and they couldn’t get over it. All of the freedom, and they couldn’t see beyond their own petty little beliefs. They were caught up in it.
“I’m going to kill you,” said Detective Harris, his voice very even, and calm.
“Well, hello to you too, Blake.” I turned around, and faced the two of them, smiling. “You think you’ve got what it takes? I can feel the gold in that bullet. One good shot, and you’ve got to make it count.” I sighed softly. “But you never had the guts, did you? After what happened to Mary… God. How can a man let that happen to his own sister.”
His hand moved like a blur. Damn, but he was fast. But he was human. My finger was outstretched towards him, and I smiled. “Blake Harris.”
He dropped without a sound, like a puppet with the strings cut.
The girl stared at him. “Blake?”
“Come on, Blake,” I said, smiling at the detective. He had his gun on me. I rested my hand on the back of the blonde girl’s head. She was breathing hard, her eyes closed, tears running down her cheeks. “She wanted to be a part of my gang. She submitted herself to the initiation. She’s just scared, now. She’s got what it takes.” I winked cheerfully. “I can tell.”
“Get your hands off of my sister,” he growled.
“There’s no take-backs in this game, Blake. You know what happens when someone tries to back out? They show that they don’t deserve life. They want to go back to where it’s safe, but that’s the thing, it’s never safe.” I sighed softly. “You know, though, she can still survive. How much do you love your little sister, Blake? After the way she embarrassed your family, after that drug charge? How much do you really want to see her live?” I ran my fingers through the girl’s hair.
“I’ll kill you. You twisted bitch, I’ll shoot you dead.”
“Already dead, piggy.” I smiled warmly at the rage on his face. “So, I’ll make you a deal. If you really, truly love your little sister, if you want her alive so badly it burns, if you forgive her for everything she’s done, she’ll survive this.” I smiled. “If you don’t…”
He fired the gun twice. Both bullets struck me in the chest. I sighed, rolling my eyes.
“Guess that’s answer enough about how confident you are. Mary Harris.”
The girl dropped to the ground without a sound. Blake stared, his eyes hollow, his mouth open. I watched his soul die, the connections to the world all severed. He was probably going to kill himself within a few days. I chuckled softly.
I approached the girl. She was on her knees, staring down at Blake, her hands on his shoulders. I took a deep breath through the cigarette, and its tip flared cherry-red, burning brightly. “Man. Rough week for you, huh, kid? Just getting let down by everyone.” I puffed the cigarette. She didn’t respond. “You there, kid?”
“You promised,” she whispered softly.
“Yeah, people break their promises a lot. It’s easy to promise.” I grabbed her by the shoulder, and hefted her up, dragging her. She didn’t resist, stumbling along as I threw her against the gasoline-soaked tree’s base, taking the cigarette out of my mouth, tumbling it between my fingers like a conjurer, sparks bouncing in the air. She slumped back against the tree, and stared at me. “You’re not nearly as scary as I thought you’d be. Guess the black bitch was bullshitting.”
Her eyes shifted, and she stared at something behind me.
I spun, and barely avoided the branch. Blake’s blow was clumsy, but it could’ve knocked my head off of my shoulders. “What in the fuck?!”
“Bitch. Crazy fucking bitch! Get away from her!”
He swung again at me, and I stepped back, point at him. “Blake Harris!”
He shuddered, and fell to one knee, but pushed himself back to his feet. “Kill you! Gonna kill you! Not going to let you hurt her!”
He swung, and I backhanded the stick out of his hand, pointing at him with my free hand. “Blake Harris!”
“Stop saying my fucking name!” His hand blurred, as he drew the gun from the jacket. God, he was fast. So damned fast.
Not fast enough, though, obviously. I took the gun from him, and turned it, pressing the barrel against his forehead. “Blake Harris.”
The gunshot echoed through the air, and he fell to the ground in a spray of blood.
“Come back from that, you son of a bitch,” I said, shaking my head. That had shaken me. “Sorry about that, kid. Let’s get back-“
The uppercut took me on the jaw. If my head had been attached to my body, it still would’ve been torn free. I felt my arms windmilling as my head raised, higher and higher into the air, tumbling as it rose. It turned a lazy circle in the air as I reached the crown of the tree, the cigarette still caught on my lip, tobacco spilling into my mouth where the blow had jammed my jaws together hard enough to cut through the paper tube. I was dimly aware of the blows landing on my body, sledgehammer blows that were breaking bones and tearing joints.
Why was it that when I killed him once, she collapsed, but when I killed him twice, she got all motivated?
I sighed as I left Harris’ home. The bastard was tenacious. He was going to try something sooner or later, and from his reactions, it was going to be soon. What a pain in the ass. People got so hung up on things like who I’d murdered and what they’d lost, not realizing that it’d end their lives. They’d be better off just forgetting their grudges. I climbed onto the motorcycle, and took a deep breath, steadying my nerves.
“Well, hello, Brianna.”
Nobody knew that name. It had been dead for millennia. I had killed a fair number of everyone who’d ever known it; Time had killed the rest. I turned, and my head nearly fell off my shoulders.
The Horseman War smiled at me.
“You can’t do anything to me,” I whispered. “There are rules. The Horsemen and the Sisters. Never the twain shall meet. I’m not accepting any gift you have to offer.”
“God, that trick works so much better when you’re using it on someone who plays fair, like the sisters. I don’t need to give you a gift to fuck with you. But, I’m trying to be nicer.” She smiled, and those infamous iron teeth shone in the dawn. “You have one chance. Or else I let the hounds of War off the leash, Brianna. Do what you were meant to. Pearl didn’t kill you for all those years because she wanted to believe that you would do what you were supposed to. If you don’t…” She smiled. “I will kill you. I’m trying to kick the habit, but this is a very important exception.”
“Fuck you,” I hissed. “I’m nobody’s dog.”
“You’re right,” said War. “People like dogs. You get one chance.” She shrugged nonchalantly. “That was it.”
“War!” I shouted, pointing at her. She tilted her head, and smiled. I felt my heart sink.
“Did you think for a moment that would work?” She took out a machete, and smiled. “Nobody can deny you have stones a mile wide, Brianna. But you know, that just makes it easier to kick you where it hurts, for me.”
“My men are loyal.”
“They’re my men,” she purred softly. “They always have been. See you soon, Brianna.”
She swept the machete through the air, right at throat level. I stood very still, my shoulders rocking, as she slowly sheathed the machete, a smile on her face. It took me a subjective eternity, after she disappeared, to dare to move.
I had to run.
My head struck the ground, hard, a few feet from the tree. I saw my body, and tried to move, taking a swing with the chain at the slender Indian girl. She caught it on her wrist, and spun me in a tight arc, grabbing hold of my wrist and shoulder, hurling me into the tree with every ounce of strength in her body. It turned out that was quite a lot, as my body slumped down to the ground across my head, like the world’s weirdest crown. I tried moving my toes.
My spine was broken. It’d heal, eventually, but for now, my body was paralyzed from the neck down. How’s that for dramatic irony?
“Well, shit,” I said. I smiled. “So, you killed my men, huh? Shot them dead?”
“Harris did,” said the girl, her head lowered.
“Not thoroughly enough,” I chuckled.
She spun. Mustang stood there, one eye missing, an eye patch over it. MacClain stood next to him, his arms crossed, posing like a fashion model. I wasn’t even sure he could do anything BUT pose like a fashion model, to be perfectly honest. I grinned.
“Hey, boys. Help me out here.”
“No,” said Mustang, very softly.
Well. Today had just been chock-full of unpleasant surprises.
“You’re alive?” said the girl, her expression surprised, staring at the two of them. “But- I saw you shot-“
“I give gifts of survival.”
War was standing there, her arms crossed. Her red hair haloed her face as she looked down at me. “Mustang survived, awoke later, made his way out, came here. MacClain… well, he has travelled between countless lands of the dead. Little surprise that he managed to leave them again.” She looked down at me, her expression cold, imperious, utterly firm. “I warned you.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Fuck you, too.” I spat the cigarette into the gasoline, and the lines of blue fire raced out, licking across the ground, racing up the tree trunk, and then died as though smothered, simply disappearing, leaving the bark barely singed.
“Brianna.” Promethea said, her arms crossed, her red hair flickering, her green eyes glittering. “I’d like to know why.”
“Because I got tired,” I said, my eyes narrowed. “Fine. Kill me. Take your power back. Someone else can have it.”
War patted her dress theatrically, frowning as she ran her hands down her arms, across her sides. “Hmmm. Hmmm… Damn. No gold. I seem to have left that in my other dress.” She smiled. “No way to kill you, Brianna.”
“Don’t you dare. Don’t you fucking dare.” I tried to move one of my body’s arms, and War’s machete flickered out, dancing beneath my neck.
A sudden terrible numbness filled my body, and I watched as the arm slowly fell to the ground, motionless. Promethea sighed softly, and War frowned at her. “Come on. You know what she’s like.” She turned her head back towards me. “You have to earn your freedom, Brianna. You have to be a good girl. It’s probation. If you do what you were meant to do, you get your body back. You’ll get to go tearing up the highways again. I’m never, ever going to let you hurt another person, but you’ll have your precious freedom, as long as you’re good.”
“Did you plan this?” the girl asked. My eyes flickered to her. She was crouched next to Blake, resting a hand on his cheek, her expression hollow, hurt. War crossed her arms, and to my utter shock, she looked genuinely recalcitrant.
“I accepted that it was a possibility. I accepted that he might die because of the actions I took, and he would die without a soul.”
“You bitch,” growled the girl.
“Yes, Fatima.” War waved a hand. “How did Brianna sense the lack of a soul?”
Promethea looked aside at her, a frown on her face. “There are many possibilities. The spiritual pain, the loneliness that marks a life without a soul-”
“Or, perhaps there is something there. Something that we can’t sense.”
“That would be a very nice thing,” said Promethea, softly. “But that’s not the way that the soul works. When someone dies without a soul…” Her eyes went down to the man, her expression hollow. “You know that.”
“I know that, yes. I know that man’s gone. I know Fatima’s brother is gone. I know MacClain’s lover is gone. I know Mustang’s people are gone. But I cannot accept that.”
“Close your eyes, Fatima,” said War, her voice soft. “Remember the way he held you. Remember the smell of his hair. Remember the sight of the sky. I am sorry that you lost him. People lose their loved ones all the time. They are tormented by it, by what they have lost. He’s not special.”
“You bitch,” growled Fatima, taking a step towards War. The red-haired Horseman held up a hand.
“They’re all special.”
“It’s a fucking delusion,” I said, growling softly. “That smell isn’t real. It’s your fucking imagination. I’ve seen lots of soulless people die. There was… nothing.”
The five of them turned to slowly stare at me. I looked away, puffing out my cheeks.
“Brianna,” said Promethea, softly, her eyes widening slightly.
“Well,” murmured War. “It’s amazing what a fresh perspective can do for our power.”
Fatima approached me, and crouched down, her eyes narrowed. She grabbed my hair, and lifted me into the air. “You’ve seen something.”
“You had certainly better hope not,” purred War, a smile on her lips. “Otherwise, you will never be reunited with your body. Come now, a little hope is good for the soul.” She turned, and took a couple of steps.
“Wait,” said Promethea. “How long were you planning this?”
“The past week or so,” said War, and she smiled. “It was a bit of a whim. Just… wanted to help you a little bit.”
“Hah.” Promethea smiled softly. “Interesting. Thank you.” She looked over at Fatima, and her eyes lowered. “I’m sorry, Fatima. I’m so sorry for everything that Brianna did to you. I’m sorry that I let this happen.”
Fatima looked down at my head, and carefully slid her arms around me, cradling my head against her stomach. She looked up again. “It’s alright. He didn’t want to die. He really wanted to stay alive, for me. He was willing to keep living, for me. And maybe I’ve got a little hope that I can find him again, now.” She bit her lip. “I wish it didn’t have to be this hard.”
Mustang stepped forward, and rested a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it.
Then the four of us were alone, the Sister and the Horseman gone.
“Fuck,” I muttered. “What a load of bullshit.” MacClain crouched down, and hefted my body. “Hey! Don’t grope my tits, you pervert! Wait until I can actually feel them!” I growled as MacClain strapped my body onto the back of his motorcycle. Mustang took his, and Fatima climbed onto mine, setting my head on the rack, facing backwards. “Hey! The view here is terrible!”
“You could use a little hindsight,” she said, and I rolled my eyes.
The four bikers sat in the restaurant. Fatima sat in the booth next to Mustang. McClain sat across from her, Brianna’s body leaning against him, the head haphazardly perched on the neck, trying to keep her from falling over. The waitress frowned. “Is your friend okay?”
“She’s just tired,” said MacClain, smiling warmly. “You’re quite beautiful. Don’t suppose I could get your number, could I? A face like that belongs on magazine covers, not serving coffee.”
Fatima watched the waitress blush and nod, and leaned back in her chair, resting a hand on top of her head to keep it in place. She sighed softly.
Two days. Two days she’d known him. In that time, he’d made her feel almost at home again. He’d taken care of her. He’d fought for her. He’d refused to die, for her.
“You know what will happen if you pursue this insane quest, don’t you?” asked Brianna, her eyes narrowed. “Even if the impossible happens, and you find him, the two of you will drift apart. Time fucks everything up. You could just… go. Find another guy who would mean as much to you. It’d be a hell of a lot easier, and less likely to break your heart. Come on.”
“You don’t quite get it, do you?” asked Fatima, frowning. “That’s a damn shame.” She sighed softly, and leaned back in her chair. “It’s not just about him. It’s about all the people who die like that. All the people who didn’t get to come back. All the people you killed. My brother, his sister…” She took out the wallet, staring at it silently, at the picture of the young woman who had been related to Blake. “This is a chance to do something bigger.”
“Those chances come along all the time. And here’s a secret: They’re worthless every single time.”
Fatima smiled. “Shame you don’t get a choice in the matter.” She looked up, at Mustang, and at MacClain. “You two, though- You don’t need to come with me. Not if you don’t want to.”
“I’ve put this off for a long time,” said MacClain, and he smiled. “A little hope is good for the soul.”
“And I think it’s something I owe the world,” said Mustang. He smiled. “Besides, it’s not as though I have something better to do. And perhaps it is not only men without souls who go to this place.”
Fatima looked back down at the wallet, and slowly closed it, slipping it into her pocket. She had only the thinnest ideas of where to start. She had no idea how long this would take. She was doing it, if she was honest with herself, for a man she’d known for barely any time at all.
She smiled to herself, and leaned back in the booth, kicking her feet up, and into one of Brianna’s knees. The Dullahan squawked as her head fell forward into the plate of eggs in front of her, and glowered at Fatima as MacClain placed her head back on her head, stained with eggs. It was petty, but the best things in life often were.
“So, what should the club be named?” Fatima asked.
“Well, we were The Lost and the Damned,” said Mustang.
“You’re not changing that,” growled Brianna.
“Hmmm. What about The Four Horsemen?” asked Fatima, grinning at Brianna.
“No! That’s fucking ridiculous.”
“I like it,” said MacClain.
“Me too,” said Mustang.
“This isn’t a fucking democracy, you pricks!”
“You’re right,” said Fatima. “The Four Horsemen it is.”
And as Brianna cursed and spat, Fatima looked out the window.
She didn’t know what she’d do if she succeeded in finding Harris. She didn’t know what they could even be to one another. She didn’t know what time would bring if they even found each other again.
But she was fairly sure they deserved the chance to find out.