Cassandra Hirosata frowned into the mirror. The expression was a good one. She was starting to learn her mother’s secret. The hard eyes, the expression that said she knew exactly what was wrong with someone’s soul, all of their darkest secrets. She didn’t need to actually know the secrets. They just had to believe she did.
The fact that she did know them just helped matters along.
Had it really only been two years? Two years since she’d finally learned the dark and terrible secret of her town that everyone had been hiding, two years since she’d learned dark and terrible secrets that nobody had realized, two years since she’d met a broken man.
Cassandra tried a smile, and glared at the bright metal braces. They were so damn undignified. She was, though people rarely took her word for it, the incarnation of Cassandra. She was the seer, the one blessed with foresight, and cursed with a lack of authority. What she foretold, people never believed. And who could blame them, when she was a sixteen year old girl with a mouth full of bright, shiny metal?
The part that bugged her was that her parents could afford one of those transparent acrylic sets. They’d both decided jointly that she looked far better, far more intimidating, with the metal in her mouth. She hated it. It made her look like the woman who’d hurt Nash.
Nash was a complicated place for her. He’d been like… Well, like a big brother, maybe. He was too flawed, too emotional, too violent to really be a surrogate father figure, and she liked her dad just fine. He’d always been a good father, there to calm the emotions that burned in her mother’s chest. Nash had been… terrifying, when he’d first arrived. She’d seen the destruction of the city in him, pain and suffering and an obvious servant of War.
She’d been right about every one of those things. He was War’s tool, through and through. He had come to destroy the city. He was a terrible, monstrous threat to everyone she knew. She’d seen the opportunity to get rid of him, to save everyone, to save the city, to save everyone she loved, and she’d taken it.
The thought made her feel sick to her stomach. She had learned more about the nature of Heroes. It wasn’t like a mantle placed on the shoulders, or a sword of command drawn from a stone, or even a job title. It was like a part in a play. The closer you followed the part, the more you were rewarded. Power, in whatever form was appropriate to that shape. When she acted like the doomed prophetess, she could see a path. She could see the future, in small ways. The shadows that told her what people truly were became clearer. When she was ignored, when she was forced to act alone, she felt stronger. But it could be like- Well, like acting. If a hero wasn’t careful, they lost themselves in the role.
Cassandra, in myth, had taken desperate action to save Troy, trying to hack open the Trojan Horse to expose what was inside. She’d been stopped. Cassandra Hirosata had been freed to act. She’d betrayed a man who’d fought for her, defended her, who had believed her, believed her when no one else did, who had given her trust and faith and everything she’d always wanted so badly it burned. She’d pushed him off a cliff, to be locked in Tartarus, tortured forever in whatever way the Gods thought was right.
He’d broken out. He’d come for her. And he’d forgiven her.
That’s what scared her. That’s what she hated. Because he was going to forgive the wrong person one day, and it was going to cost him dearly. The dumb jerk wasn’t cynical enough. He didn’t see. He’d forgiven her. He’d forgiven War.
She glared down at the water. Why did her mind keep going back to that? Why did she keep thinking about it?
She stood up straight, and was confronted in the mirror by a woman dressed in red. Flaming red hair hung around her shoulders, and eyes as green as envy flashed. And those bright, familiar iron teeth. She didn’t have a shadow. She was too big for such things.
“What are you doing here?!” Cassandra asked, turning, her heart pounding. Part of her expected to simply have a steel machete rammed into her throat. Not that War was ever that quick, or clean, or direct. The woman raised a hand.
“Cassandra. I’m sorry to interrupt you. But you’ve been in the bathroom for an hour, I was starting to worry you’d never come out.”
Cassandra blinked. That was a joke. Almost, if not quite, funny. The thing she feared, the nightmare, had cracked a joke. “I’m nervous. Today is a big day. What the hell are you doing here?”
“I need to know things.”
“Go ask a magic 8-ball. More people trust them.” Cassandra glared at the red-haired woman. “You think I’ve forgotten? About what you did to Zion? About what you did to my parents? I still wake up screaming at night, remembering Susan stabbing Sergeant Dio, seeing the way she lost it. I still remember what you did to Nash. Why do you think I could ever- possibly- imaginably- trust you?”
“Because I will help you.” War looked to one side. “You’ve been seeking a route into the Underworld. You wish to find a path to the power, to the answers, that you are seeking.”
Cassandra glared at her. “The omniscient thing doesn’t make me trust you more, you know.”
“Cassandra… I know that nothing I can say will make you trust me. Trust is built on a foundation of acts. I will help you. I ask you for the chance to begin that foundation. And, if you find my acts help, and my questions do not offend, you may be able to help me, in turn.”
“Why now?” Cassandra asked, eyes narrowed. “I heard about your becoming ‘good’. Dean wrote me about it. He told me that you showed him his mother. But you always have a reason. You always have some kind of game.”
“Yes. I did it for a reason. A very selfish reason. I wanted to be forgiven.”
It was hard not to empathize with that. Cassandra tried her best anyway, and glared her mother’s glare. War was stubbornly unimpressed. “I’ve got something to take care of, first. This’ll have to wait.”
“You have a prior engagement, more important than the fate of the world?” asked War, a tone of faint amusement in her voice. Notably lacking in scorn or mockery. That was just weird. She shouldn’t be able to change that much.
But then, Nash did that to people. Maybe it wasn’t so much that he changed people. Maybe he just beat them so hard that the facades cracked, and they started showing more of who they really were. A violent beating could do a lot to make someone rethink their path.
“Feeling ready, sweetie?” asked her dad, smiling, as Cassandra came down the stairs to the dining room table. He didn’t see War. She probably didn’t want to terrify them. Cassandra’s parents were wonderful people, and a lot more dangerous than they looked. They’d still get nervous if a Horseman was in the house.
“I’m prepared,” Cassandra said. Her parents still had trouble accepting the idea that she was Cassandra. The name had been chosen by her father, because he thought it sounded pretty, exotic, the sort of thing that would make her more popular. She wondered if any child was ever completely satisfied with the name their parents gave them. How could they be? “What’s for breakfast?”
“Fish!” He said cheerfully, proffering a bowl of rice and fish. In deference to her mother, he had used balsamic vinegar and olive oil making it. She knew it was weird, but it was her favorite meal. It always left her feeling like she could take on the world. “Are you sure about this?”
“Yeah. Might be a busy couple of years, I don’t have time to mess around with High School. Don’t worry, dad.” She smiled. “I know you worked hard to make sure I’d get to go to college. I’m not going to waste that.” She sat down to breakfast as her mother entered the room, expression stormy. She watched the shadows. Her mother’s, hard and amazonian. Her father’s, broad-chested, huge-bellied, red-skinned, horned. She’d started to learn to read their stances, their little hints, their tells. It wasn’t quite reading their minds, but people were unguarded with their souls.
She was fairly sure they were souls. Ordinary people had them, though they usually looked like nothing more than a shadow. There were others, the less ordinary things that were strange, but not nearly as strange as the inhabitants of Zion and the other cities. People whose shadows had fox ears, or cat’s eyes, or gaping wounds, or a faint cast to the skin. She was starting to understand that, too, after countless questions to Izanami and Sergeant Dio and anyone else who was still around, and who she could pester into information.
She missed Pearl. Pearl had been brilliant, and funny, and she had treated Cassandra with at least a little respect. Everyone else still had trouble believing her. It wasn’t their fault. It was in their nature. The same way she was compelled to tell the future, by her heroic nature, they were compelled not to believe her.
Everyone was playing their roles. That wasn’t a reason to be angry at them, necessarily.
She was aware of War’s presence, constantly, as she and her mother drove out of Zion. Like a distant noise you couldn’t quite identify. Like the chatter of conversation from the other side of a wall, loud enough to be audible, soft enough to be indistinct. It was a distraction she didn’t need.
“You’ve got your flash cards?”
“I’ve studied hard, mom. I’ll pass this test. It’s not that big a deal.”
“You’re quite young to be taking it.”
“It’s to prove I can graduate High School. It’ll save time, Mom.”
Her mother sighed, and glared out the windshield, but it wasn’t one of her harsher glares. She had secretly wanted her daughter to go out into the world, to adventure, to fight, to be a hero. It was what most of the parents in Zion secretly wanted. There was a reason so many people had left after Zion was destroyed. It had been a sanctuary, but to a lot of people, it had also been a cage. She just hoped they were behaving themselves out there.
She didn’t tell anyone about the nightmares. Those weren’t for anyone else. The lost and broken worlds she saw, trailing behind the Earth, the could-have-beens and there-but-for-the-grace-of-Gods. She knew how many times the world had avoided destruction at the hands of the Horsemen in the last two years. It was not a remotely comforting thing to know. After all, the Horsemen only had to get lucky once.
“The TASC,” said War, as she walked alongside Cassandra, into the large squat testing hall. She proferred her ID, holding up the plastic baggy with her supplies. “New York High School Graduation equivalency test. More important than the fate of the world. I can certainly see that.”
“It’s about knowledge,” Cassandra said. “Prophecy is useless if you can’t understand what you see in it. I can’t just foresee my way through problems. I need to have skills. The more I understand, the more I can do.”
“I can respect the desire for self-improvement. It’s quite beautiful, really. But the test? This part, itself? It’s meaningless. You may have to prove yourself, but to this organization?”
“It’s not about proving it to them. It’s about proving it to my family. They care about these stupid numbers, and this stupid test, and I love them a lot more than I hate doing silly things like this.” She sighed. “You wouldn’t understand that.”
“I don’t know. Nash has certain things he loves that I find… distasteful. But I swallow my pride, and other things.”
Cassandra tried not to choke on her own tongue.
“I never was much of a fan of Greek food, for example.”
Cassandra turned warily towards War. “Is that some kind of incredibly dirty euphemism?”
“What? You have an extremely dirty mind, Cassandra.” War’s expression didn’t give anything away.
“This is exactly why I don’t trust you.”
“Because I make off color jokes to lighten your mood before you take a stressful test?” War smiled. “You’re clearly more than capable, Cassandra. Good luck on the test.” Then she was gone, and left Cassandra to the test.
By and large, the test was not impossibly hard. It challenged her, but Cassandra was smart, and had worked very hard. She knew she would get a few answers wrong. She could feel it, each time she did so. She didn’t change the answer, partially because she was stubborn, partially because she didn’t want to become… dependent, on that side of herself. It was so easy to become guided by prophecy, to just allow yourself to fall into those habits. It was also incredibly dangerous. You’d become nothing but a puppet, if you did that, following the commands of someone you didn’t understand and whose motivations you couldn’t read. She made her mistakes honestly, and she’d own them.
Then she came to the last question on the last section. She studied it, chose her answer, reached down to fill in the bubble that would set her answer in stone. She felt a flash of wrongness. She frowned, and studied the question again. She was right, she knew. It was a fairly straightforward math question. She closed her eyes, and meditated on the feeling.
A mistake in the test key. Just a minor thing. One little wrong answer. A marring on her score. She could put down the truth, and have no one believe her. She could put down the wrong answer, warned by her prophecy. Either way, it’d be a step towards that path, wouldn’t it? She stared down at the question, and frustration boiled inside of her, suddenly hot and ferocious.
This wasn’t her fault. She had studied hard, she’d found the right answer, and some moron who hadn’t cared was going to fuck it up. It could be the difference between success or failure for someone. Not her, but someone out there, somewhere, was going to be screwed because of this. Her mind flashed, and she saw an image of a young man. Receiving the letter. Seeing that he’d failed. Seeing his dreams go up in smoke. Seeing what would happen to him as he lapsed into the acceptance that he’d never be smart enough, that he’d never be worthy.
She stood up, and walked forward to the proctor. She smiled, and placed the test down in front of the old woman. The woman checked the paper, and frowned up at her. “You haven’t filled out this last bubble. You sure you don’t want to work on it a little longer? There’s another 30 minutes.”
“No, thank you.” She smiled. “Have a nice day.”
She’d still pass it easily. But someone out there would fail because of this. That put a damper on things.
War stood outside of the room where Cassandra had taken the test, her arms crossed, her head tilted. “They got the answer wrong.”
“Yeah,” said Cassandra, and sighed. “There’s nothing anyone can do about those things. Only two things are infinite. The universe, and human stupidity. And we’re starting to suspect the first one has limits.”
“A very pithy quote,” said War, her head tilted. “I corrected it.”
“It’s not difficult. Not for me. Confusion, mistakes that lead to pain, bureaucracy gone amok, those are my weapons. You learned that all too painfully. This was easy to correct, just a few quick alterations to a test key in an office somewhere. And a little more pain vanishes from the world.”
“So why don’t you do it all the time? Why do things ever go wrong? Why-” She gritted her teeth. “Why do the Gods, the Sisters, the Horsemen, let bad things happen to good people?”
“Because it’s tiring,” said War, softly, gently. “Caring about people. Taking care of them. Fixing their mistakes. Loving them. You have to love someone to help them, to watch for them, to care for them. And that wears. Because of the times we fail, because of the times it’s not enough. Some are better at it than others. The Sisters, the Goddess of Protection, they’ve never stopped caring, though sometimes they’ve come close. But gods are only human, Cassandra.”
Cassandra held back a laugh. She wouldn’t give this woman the satisfaction. War grinned anyway.
“I know you still think of me as War,” she said, then. Cassandra stiffened slightly. “No, I can’t read your mind. But I’m good at reading your body language, and you shout it. You did it with Nash, and you do it with me. Do I still look like a monster?”
“I don’t know,” said Cassandra, softly. “You don’t look much different from the way you did. Maybe you can hide what you are.”
“Can anyone hide what they are from you?”
“I don’t know.”
Something in her tone seemed to persuade War. She nodded softly. “When do you want to go to the Underworld? And which one?”
“Tonight. After dinner. I need to see my parents off. And…” She was quiet for a moment. “Hell. The Inferno. The place Nash broke.”
“Really?” War frowned. “It’s empty now. Not much to see there, from what I’m given to understand.”
“Not much. But there’s something there. I feel it.”
“Well,” said War, and she smiled. “That’s fair enough. I will see you tonight.”
Cassandra walked outside. The sky was gray, even though it was nearly May. There was snow on the ground. It had been one of those winters. Her mother was waiting in the car, meaning she’d shown up nearly half an hour early just to wait for Cassandra. That made her heart feel warm. The two drove home together, and Cassandra didn’t think about what War had said. They went out to the TGIF in the next town over, which her mom insisted was trash, but which Cassandra and her dad loved, because they had such interesting and varied food. Her dad shared a bit of a margarita with her, and it was sour and bit at her tongue, but kind of fun nonetheless. They had a wonderful time.
She stepped out of the restaurant, her parents just behind her, her father’s strong hand resting on her shoulder. War stood there, along with a slim young man with blonde hair, and androgynous good looks. He was dressed in a pair of blue jeans and a white T-shirt, one shoulder rolled up to contain a pack of cigarettes. One of the cigarettes hung in his mouth, the tip lit.
Behind him was a blinding white shadow. Six broad white wings spread out from the figure’s back. A sword was held in one of the shadow’s hands. It was brighter, more sharp, clearer, than any other shadow she’d ever seen. Just for a moment, she hesitated. Then she steeled herself. She felt her father’s hand slip off of her shoulder as she stepped towards the two. For a moment, it felt as though he would keep holding onto her. He simply stared at the three of them as she joined the two terrifying forces.
“Angel,” said her father, suddenly, in his soft, gentle voice. His shadow was tensing and untensing its fists. “If she is harmed. I will not forgive you.”
For a moment, the bright white shadow tightened its fist around the sword. She saw the feminine man breathe in, and then out. “She’s under my protection, Oni. Harm cannot come to her.”
Her father watched, his shadows still tensing and untensing, as Michael continued. War looked aside at him. “Thank you for this,” she said.
“Yes,” said Michael, simply. “I will open the gateway for you. You may leave when you choose. Time will pass slowly; You will likely arrive back in this world within a mere few hours.” He reached out, and thunder cracked as he pressed a long, delicate index finger to War’s forehead. She was gone. Then he did the same to Cassandra.
She stood among gray plains. For a moment, she thought she was back in the Plains of Asphodel, and her heart began to pound. She could feel the prophetess inside of her, striving to get out, to be heard. Then she breathed in, and the air was still and free of scent. She wasn’t in Hades. The prophetess stirred, here, but she wasn’t so strong that she overwhelmed Cassandra. And Cassandra had gotten a hold of herself, mostly.
“That was Michael. The Archangel. Right?”
“Yes,” said War.
“He looked strong.”
“He is very strong.”
“I heard Nash kicked his ass. Why is he helping you? And me, for that matter?”
“That seems to happen strangely frequently with the people that Nash fights, doesn’t it?” War smiled. “He has quite a way with his fists.” She paused for a moment, and looked to the side. “Does it seem… suspicious, to you? That he is as persuasive as he is? Most people, beaten, would hold a grudge. With Nash, that doesn’t seem to happen.”
Cassandra thought of Nash, stumbling over gravel while a neurotoxin that should have turned his nerves to tatters coursed through his circulatory system. She thought of him standing back up after Izanami had struck him dead with a touch. She thought of him, opening the door to the tiny, cramped morgue slab where she’d been hiding, seeing him back from hell, his eyes staring at her. “I think he expects the best of people. That kind of person is hard to disappoint.” She sighed. “This is Hell? I thought there would be… someone, here.”
“Nash freed everyone,” said War, walking towards the shoreline. She held up a hand, and a boat appeared from out of the gloom. She helped Cassandra aboard, and began to paddle. “It was a violent affair for Hell. The walls of the prison were cracked. This would make a poor prison, now.”
“He opened up Hell,” Cassandra said, frowning. “Weren’t the people in here in here for a fairly good reason?”
“Michael thought so. Many people likely thought so. I imagine you and I might have agreed. Nash did not.” She paddled across the water. For some reason, they seemed to be moving very quickly. The far shore appeared almost as soon as they were out of sight of where they’d began, and a wall was visible perhaps a hundred feet past that. “You know him. He is forgiving to a fault.”
“He’s going to regret it,” Cassandra said, softly. “We both know it. He’s going to forgive the wrong person, and it’s going to hurt him.”
“Yes. That seems very likely. I suspect he already has, at least once. That’s the nature of forgiveness, Cassandra. If you make a habit of giving it out, you will have call to regret it. Whereas being merciless… Well, your regrets there depend entirely on your own heart.”
“You think he was right to free them?” Asked Cassandra, frowning. “How many people are going to be hurt by this?”
“Less than you might fear. Nash extracted powerful promises in exchange for their freedom. As long as he’s alive, I doubt any of them would act to draw down his wrath.” She paused for a moment. “Of course, like any peace built on the back of a single man, it is fragile.”
“He’s got to be less forgiving,” said Cassandra.
“You would prefer that he had not forgiven me. That he had taken my life,” said War, softly.
“Do you think it was fair? Do you think it was right for you to get away with what you did? All the people you hurt, and he just forgives you, and suddenly we’re supposed to trust you and forget everything you did?”
“No,” said War, her expression surprised. “Goodness. Cassandra, you thought you were supposed to forgive me? Never. I expect never to be forgiven by those I’ve hurt, by those I’ve done harm to.”
“Can forgive me on his behalf. No one else’s.”
“You keep trying to do good things.”
“Yes. I desire forgiveness. But I don’t expect forgiveness for my good deeds. They’re simply part of the penance.” Bella waved an arm around her. “Those Nash freed- more of them than you’d expect- are desperate for a chance to do good. They regret their crimes. They want to be good, though they may be bad at it, at least at first. They are like me. They desperately want to do good. Some of them because they hope it will forgive them. But most of them, because they never want to end up somewhere like here again.”
“You were never trapped here,” Cassandra said, frowning at War.
“I was trapped somewhere worse.” War tapped her own head softly, and smiled. “And you deserve to be forgiven, too, Cassandra.”
She looked sharply away. “You really shouldn’t do that.”
“Read you? Like you read others?”
“I shouldn’t do it either.”
“You weren’t at fault, Cassandra.”
“Yes I WAS!”
The words echoed across the empty plain. Cassandra had no idea how that could even work, the sound had nothing to bounce off of and return to them from. She shivered as the two of them walked through the empty, unguarded gate.
“I pushed him over. That was awful. But it’s not the worst thing I did. It’s not the thing that really makes me loathe myself. You saw all that, right?”
“You saw when we found Pearl. Promethea.”
War didn’t say anything.
“I told him to leave her there. I told him to abandon her, because she was going to be free anyway. I told him to trust to fate, that it would be better if she was left in the most horrible place, where she was put unfairly, unjustly. I told him to trust me. And he did. She did, too.”
“So what if he hadn’t saved her?” Cassandra said, her stomach feeling very cold. “What if he’d left her there? Hercules might never have come. That might never have been the way she was freed. She might have been trapped there, forever. She might still be trapped there.” She swallowed hard. “I was wrong. So wrong I can barely imagine it. I can be wrong. Even when I’m so certain. I don’t know everything. But I’m acting like I do.”
“Your actions, no matter how you feel about them, led to the best possible outcome. Nash freed to stop me. Promethea was freed, and by someone who healed her heart of the trauma and pain of her captivity. Three evil, vile men were granted a chance at redemption by your mistake. Sometimes, Cassandra, things work out. No one is in as much control of the situation as they believe they are.”
“There should be,” whispered Cassandra, softly. “Someone should be watching out. Making sure that these things don’t happen. Someone should be good enough, strong enough, to care.”
The two of them walked in silence for a while. War rested a hand on Cassandra’s shoulder, and she didn’t shrug it off. She was different. That was the scary thing. If she could change…
She tried to forget about her dreams. About a Sister gone bad. The dreams weren’t always accurate. Sometimes they saw things that almost certainly wouldn’t happen. Maybe that was all it had been.
“Could they trap you here, War?” She asked, finally.
“If I consented to it. That was how they bound Promethea. She was confined by her agreement, as much as by the chains of adamantine. Once she’d made that agreement, she could not go back on it. To do it to me, or one of the Horsemen, would require leverage that I doubt exists.” War paused for a moment. “But yes. Conceivably, any being could be trapped here. Almost.”
They were approaching the ice. Great steel chains rested on the ground, each one large enough to defy perspective, making Cassandra’s head ache. They surrounded what had once been a pit, and was now a vast latticework of cracked ice. Someone had begun battering the ice, blows that had cracked open huge, jagged rifts in the ice. It looked barely a hairsbreadth from being shattered entirely.
“What is Nash?” Cassandra asked, her voice soft. “Why can he do these things? Like, really, what’s his deal? Was one of his parents a god? It can’t just be that anyone could do this if they were given enough gifts. You would’ve pulled something like this long ago.”
“Nash is good at keeping it together,” said War, softly. “I don’t know what he is. You can never tell what humans will be, what they’ll do.” She paused a moment. “You were wondering how I could change so much. How I can make such a difference. The truth is, it’s not hard for us to change, really. It can be painfully easy. When we become truly attached to a human, it can… bend us. Immortals are all like that. We stay the same for so long, that when we connect with a human… They’re so brief, but so bright. The impact is devastating. It can change us, twist us out of shape, make us something unrecognizable. That’s part of why it’s hard to make Gods care. Because it’s scary.”
Cassandra shivered, and not entirely because of the cold and arctic winds.”That’s heavy.”
“It is. I wonder, sometimes, whether I am even the same being who existed for all those years. Perhaps she died, the moment that Nash forgave her, and I am simply her heir, the her that was born when everything she knew shattered. Humans change constantly, in small ways. But they live such a short time, they can fool themselves into thinking they’re the same person. Sometimes, I think that immortals…” She paused, and frowned. “What are we looking for, here?”
Cassandra crouched down, plucking a card from the ground. “I’m not sure. This, I think.” She studied it.
Nineveh Public Library, Nineveh, NY
Weekly reading session, Noon, Saturday
“What kind of half-assed calling card is this?” Cassandra asked.
“One that says a great deal.” War frowned at the card. “I don’t know who left this here. How very interesting.” She smiled at Cassandra. “Shall we investigate?”