It was, I thought, a truly beautiful evening. The sun stood on the horizon, still casting down enough golden light for us to see. The campground was empty of people, nobody interested in camping here at the moment. Rutted tracks were visible in the ground, where people had driven up to the campsite. Dark patches where people had put up their tents. Evidence that this had been a popular place, once. Now, it was empty and quiet.
I sat at the wooden picnic table, studying through the groceries. Marshmallows, graham crackers, and several bars of chocolate. Cassandra had insisted on it. I looked up, to see her crouched down by the large pile of discarded wood we had gathered through the course of the last hour, the Half-Faced Man watching, still bemused as ever.
He was a strange one. I hadn’t encountered him before, and looking back, through time, I realized I had never paid much attention to him. I didn’t know what he had done, where he had been. He was not spectacularly powerful- I could feel that easily enough- but he was… strange. Strangeness had a power all its own. And his comments about me had been strange.
He’d recognized me. There were those who knew, broadly, what I was, who could identify me when I appeared to them, even among the lesser supernatural beings of the world. But the look in his eye had been that of a man seeing someone he had met, and wronged. I considered telling him that it was alright, that I didn’t hold a grudge against him.
But I wasn’t sure I should.
“Fucker,” growled Cassandra, as she lit another match.
“Would you like some help?” I asked, gently.
“I can’t do anything else, but I’m at least capable of this.” The match flickered out as she held it to the paper. “Supposedly. Bastard matches!”
Cassandra. She was somewhat less strange, and at the same time, more so. The gift of prophecy was difficult to deal with. Most of all for the one who possessed it. To see the future, to have foreknowledge, was a terrible burden. The more accurate one’s visions became, the more they became bound by them. It carried a merciless responsibility.
This was not the only problem. Prophecy, for reasons I could not begin to explain, was seldom paired with other great powers. The Horsemen, myself included, were capable of impressive feats of planning and preparation- But that was because of the timescale we worked on. We had been striving for the end of humanity for thousands of years, and that kind of experience gives a very clear view of what people are likely to do. It does not, however, grant foreknowledge. It doesn’t lead you to the unknown unknowns, as Cassandra had put it. That was why Silas had managed to surprise me.
Prophecy was different. It predicted the things you didn’t see coming, that you couldn’t see coming. Cassandra’s power gave her the ability to predict things that I couldn’t possibly plan for. It also stole her power. She had knowledge, but could not act on it.
“There!” said Cassandra, grinning as the fire finally caught. She blew, and soon, the paper caught the small sticks aflame. One of the larger logs caught, and the fire started heating up. “Now, we’ve got to wait a bit until the fire dies down a little before we start toasting marshmallows,” she said, as flickering flames raced across the old wood. I watched it silently, feeling myself enthralled by the image. The way it spread. Fire was always fascinating to me. She had always been the most dangerous, the most violent of the Sisters. And she was the one who they had embraced. I’d envied her for that, from time to time. She was beloved, even as she was feared.
But then, the sacrifices she’d made for them. Could I stand to make a sacrifice like that? Could I go through it without becoming bitter and hateful again?
“Alright,” said Cassandra, sitting down by the fire. She sat on the grass, legs crossed. “My name is Cassandra Hirosata. I am the Heroine Cassandra, even if she wasn’t very heroic. I am here because I want to protect Silas Nash. To keep him from meeting the fate I foresaw for him.” She looked over at me. “To keep him from having to fight forever, forgotten.”
“What is this?” I asked, curious.
“A pact,” said Cassandra. “An agreement, between the three of us. Our cards, our motivations, on the table. I screwed Nash over, when he trusted me. He was the first person who ever really trusted me unconditionally, to keep him safe. And he forgave me for that. I’m…” She breathed out. “I want to deserve to be forgiven. I believe, I really truly believe, that the world can survive this, but I can’t see how to avoid that fate for him.”
I slowly nodded. I’d heard the prophecy before. I didn’t know if it was the truth, but that was the nature of prophecy. I could understand that. “My name is Bella. I am the Horseman of War, seeking to join the Sisters in the protection of mankind so that they can flourish. And I am here because I want to aid Nash, to see him achieve his goals.” I looked across the fire at Cassandra, apologetically. “We may wind up at cross purposes. I want him to succeed, and I don’t trust myself enough to put my desires over his. But… If we can save him…” I shivered slightly. “To be locked in darkness, forgotten… He doesn’t deserve that. If we can win, and find a way to save him…”
I’d go into the darkness for him. I just wondered if it was because I genuinely believed he would follow me, and bring me out of it again. I had almost sacrificed myself twice. I don’t know if I could ever do it a third time.
“A pact,” said the Half-Faced Man, his expression tight, lips drawn into a thin line, a hand resting on the mask. “That is a great thing to ask of me.”
“We could use your help. This is your world, too,” said Cassandra. “If humanity dies…”
“Hah.” The Half-Faced Man chuckled. “Let me follow in the reverse order.” He took a deep breath. “My goal is… To keep the things that have happened before from happening again. To protect this fragile, lovely world from the countless threats that wish to devour it, and plunge everything into darkness. To make up for those I have failed in the past.”
I frowned at him. “You speak of events that I think I would have known about.”
“That secret is one I can’t share. It’s…” He went quiet for a moment. “If I told my secrets to you, I fear they would inspire despair. There is a reason I can’t see the path forward. As long as you don’t know what I know… Maybe you can find it, where I can’t.” He breathed in, and out. “Second, my title. I am the Half-Faced Man, the one who hides his eyes, who blinds himself so that he does not see what he doesn’t want to.”
“I really don’t know that myth,” said Cassandra, frowning.
“You would not. I am the only one who knows it any more.” He paused for a moment. “In fact, allow that to be my tribute tonight.”
“Tribute?” I asked.
“That is why we are here, isn’t it? Why we’ve come to this place. Why there are three of us.” The Half Faced Man raised a hand, indicating me, and then Cassandra. “The number three is of an arcane power. Indivisible, accountable. Two and three are both numbers of balance; Two through cooperation, three through opposition. We are, at our hearts, conflicted against one another, but nonetheless unified. There are many great trinities; Maiden, Mother, and Crone.” He smiled. “Unfortunately, that one will not fit, as I am not fit for any of those roles. Perhaps Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer- But all three of us are destroyers, aren’t we? Even if we would like to pretend we are preservers. No.” He pointed towards himself. “Past.” He pointed towards me. “Present.” Then he pointed to Cassandra. “Future. In more ways than one.”
“I brought you here to tell stories,” said Cassandra, softly. “And I did it this way, because they’re going to be scary. The truth is always scary. And where I come from, you gather around a campfire and toast s’mores to tell scary stories. Speaking of which, War, the fire’s gotten nice and even. Bring those over.” She lifted her stick, found somewhere in the woods while we were gathering wood, and slid one of the slender white puffs of sugar and gelatin onto the tip. I considered it for a moment, and picked up another of the sticks, doing the same. The Half-Faced Man, though reluctant, finally followed suit, taking the last of the sticks. He cursed as his marshmallow immediately ignited, and dripped off the stick and into the fire.
“You have to find where the coals are glowing,” I said, watching the fire. The wood had been stacked together, and at least a log or two had been reduced to glowing embers. I spotted a place in the side of the stack where it had crumbled away, revealing the glowing heat within. I slipped the marshmallow forward, smiling with satisfaction as I allowed it to toast slowly, the skin crisping and turning brown.
“You kidding?” said Cassandra, thrusting the stick forward. The marshmallow ignited, and she watched it with satisfaction. “The only way to truly toast a marshmallow is to watch it become a beacon for justice. You sacrifice a little on the outside, sure, but that’s part of the fun. And it’s way quicker.” Seemingly satisfied, she blew out the flames, grinning at me. “Hand me the graham crackers, would you? Alright, Half-Faced Man, you’re first.”
As he took another marshmallow, and followed my lead, the Half-Faced Man nodded. “Then I will share a myth I have carried by myself for a long time. I don’t imagine it will give me power; Perhaps if it was shared far and wide… But who knows, even, if people would care about it?” He chuckled. “The tale of the Half-Faced Man.”
There was a man, who was born well. Of high and noble birth, the man grew up fair and became incredibly handsome. Quick of wit, healthy and robust, the man was blessed in all things. And as so happens, this blessing became a curse. For in that land there lived a wicked queen. She oppressed the people, and worked them hard, for she had conquered the land, and claimed that they had done her wrong long ago. The queen claimed her oppression, her cruelty, were the consequence of the people’s actions. She claimed that her hand was the only thing that preserved this land, that gave its people the strength they needed to protect themselves from invaders. The people thought this silly, for they had never been conquered, save by the queen.
Nonetheless, the queen met the man when he was young, just preparing to take the trials to prove himself an adult. She found herself enamored with him, her cold and bitter heart finding itself strangely warmed once more. The young man had been born to every advantage, but he was also kind, gentle, generous, and warm. She determined that she had to have him.
When the man passed the trials, the queen presented herself to him. She offered him a choice; He could be her consort, or he could refuse her, and be destroyed. Amused, he refused her. The young man had always been free to follow his own heart, and he had no interest in changing that path. He chose instead to apprentice himself to a lightweaver, to bless the land in a different way.
The queen was enraged beyond reason. Her heart turned twice as bitter, three times as cold, and she swore the young man would pay. Nonetheless, she realized that she could not harm him directly. She still yearned for him, wanted him desperately, wanted him to love her. So she grew harsher with the people. Her taxes became ever more burdensome, her rule far more tyrannical. She made the people suffer, and announced that it was the young man’s fault, that he had brought this upon them.
The young man was threatened, but none dared to harm him, though all around him loathed him now for the pain he had brought. The queen’s attention was on him, and the fear of retribution kept him safe, if utterly isolated.
At last, in desperation, he consented to be her consort. He asked the queen whether she thought it fair, that he should suffer for her actions. She told him, in turn, that it was the only option she had. He knew her pain, now, knew how it felt to be alone and loathed by the people for the reasonable and blameless actions he had taken. The young man was not cheered by this, and the marriage was cold, and loveless.
The queen tried everything to warm the man’s heart to her. Gifts, serenades, pledges and acts of love, none of them moved him, and he remained like stone to her. She was driven to despair and distraction. Finally, in a desperate need, she asked the young man what she could do that would warm his heart. He asked of her a single thing: To forgive the people.
It was not easy. It was not simple. She failed many times, giving in to her anger. But slowly, and by degrees, she found it within herself to forgive the people. She lowered the taxes, lessened the harshness of her rule, and became a good and kind queen. She came to the man, her heart thawed, the coldness gone from it, and thanked him, and asked him whether he loved her.
He stabbed a knife through her heart, and as the blood flooded the ground, he told her that if she had changed once, she might change again, and that he had never forgiven her. He had only wanted her heart soft enough to cut. She died in his arms.
The countries around the man’s homeland, seeing their formidable and terrible queen dead, and the people soft and happy, pounced. The rich mines and fertile valleys of the country were plundered, and the people destroyed- all save the man who had broken the queen’s heart.
Seeing his land devastated, his people enslaved and slaughtered, the young man felt despair, as deep as it could be. He fled from the land, covering his eyes with a mask to hide the sights of what he had caused.
“That’s… a painful story,” I said, frowning. “A very sad one.”
“It is a controversial one. Some believed that it was a lesson about conviction- That changing one’s ways was far more dangerous than staying the course. Others believe it was about pragmatism, that it is dangerous to open one’s heart to those who you have hurt.”
“On reflection,” said the Half-Faced Man, “I would like to believe it is about forgiveness. That if the man had been able to forgive the Queen for what she had done, a new atrocity could have been avoided.”
“Jeez,” said Cassandra, frowning. Then she looked at me. “How about you, Bella?”
I raised an eyebrow. “You’re going to call me by that name?”
“Out loud. You’re still War to me. But I can at least respect what you’re trying to do.”
I nodded slowly, considering that. The Half-Faced Man’s statement had struck me. The idea that I couldn’t change my name. That I would become mortal. The thought was unsettling, but I didn’t know how to deal with it, exactly. None of the Sisters, none of the Horsemen, no God that I knew of, had ever given up their power, their mission. None of them had given up their name. Many had had those things stripped from them, but power was addictive like little else. I wondered what it meant. “My story, then. The story of Chaos.” I paused for a moment. “I do not know if this is true. I do not believe it is. It is… too fanciful. I don’t remember anything about it, and all of the Sisters have refused to confirm it. It is a story not often told.”
There were not always four Horsemen, it was said. Death, War, Famine, Conquest, they were considered fundamental. They were the heart of human malevolence. As long as there had been humans, the Horsemen had been among them.
But who had created humans?
There was no God. No all-knowing creator. None that had ever stepped forward to take the blame, at any rate. As far as most were concerned, life had been an accident. A random assortment of molecules that had collided at the right moment. Chance, and fortune.
For, you see, there were Four Sisters, and one Brother. The Four Sisters kept the world in order. They made the sun rotate in the sky, they kept the tides moving, they made the earth move and turn over. They created a perfect, unshifting garden.
But they would have no purpose, if there was not Chaos.
The Sisters hated their Brother, and at the same time, they loved him. He was the one who gave them purpose, after all; If the world did not change, they would have nothing to do. And they loved the gifts that he gave them, mixing them, forcing them to interact, when by their natures, they would have simply locked things into stasis. Their relationship was complicated.
At last, Chaos finished his greatest creation. The careful pruning and guiding over a course of aeons led to the rise of a group of apes, who could think. Each of them, in their hearts, was a being of Chaos. They had the capacity to mix and break the Sisters, and they vexed and fascinated them at the same time. They called themselves humans- “Those who are like us.” And that tells you much of what you need to know about them.
The humans created Gods. And the Gods became jealous. The Gods loathed Chaos, and rose up against him in a great war. The Sisters stood aside, and watched. The humans supported the Gods against Chaos, for he was like them, and they hated him for that, which is everything else you need to know about them.
Chaos fought, but reluctantly. It was within his power to destroy everything, to shatter his Sisters, and scatter his creations; But he could not stand to do so. To watch them hurt. So instead, he faked his own death. He created four daughters of his own, to vex and trouble mankind, to turn them constantly against each other, and to give them the conflict they had sought so eagerly. Whether this was a blessing or curse, who can say? He vanished from the sight of his Sisters, leaving them to mourn him. And then, he disappeared.
But Chaos always lurks. The Horsemen are merely his children. He waits for the time when they succeed, when the world collapses, when his Sisters dies.
Then, he shall begin again.
“It’s… a strange myth. Hopeful and ominous in equal measures. I never really knew what to make of it,” I said, softly.
“Chaos,” said Cassandra, her eyes widening. “That’s our-“
“No,” I said, firmly. “I know the name of our true enemy. It is not Chaos. Whatever Chaos is, wherever it is, he is unlikely to play a part.”
“I don’t know about that,” said the Half-Faced Man, very softly, his expression drawn.
“What?” I said, feeling a moment of genuine perplexment. “Are you-“
“No. I am most certainly not Chaos, though I am flattered that the thought even crossed your mind. But…” The Half-Faced Man tented his fingers. “I suspect that he wouldn’t help us. There is only one human being he seems to care for, and if I am honest…” He took a deep breath, and let it out. “I dare not speak his name. He is more dangerous than you, War. He seems to be waiting for someone to provoke him. He has the air of a man wandering the streets, looking for a fight. I think that it would be best if we do not pursue him any longer.”
“I understand.” I sighed. “If there is anything I can do to aid you-“
“It is a small thing.” He smiled wanly. “A trial, in my home. A dear friend is… very angry at herself, about many things. I fear your involvement might be dangerous, though. He is always around, and if he senses one of the Horseman paying close attention to his city, he may reveal himself.”
“You really believe he is more powerful than me?” I said, both a little insulted, and a little impressed.
“I do not know what he is capable of. He frightens me, deeply. He reminds me of an old legend of my own. At any rate, I think it would be best if our collusion… collaboration…”
“Cooperation,” said Cassandra.
“Sure. If that is kept secret. I rely a great deal on seeming frightening, omniscient, but ultimately harmless. Confirming it either way would be… unfortunate, for me.” He paused for a moment. “What about your tribute, Cassandra? What do you have to tell us of the future?”
“A dream,” said Cassandra. “And a hope. I had this one… a few weeks ago. It’s what convinced me to look for you. Have either of you ever heard of The Last Hero?”
“The Terry Pratchett novel?” asked The Half-Faced Man, an eyebrow raised. “A good one. Very sad-“
“No. A myth, I mean. A prophecy. Have you ever heard anything related to The Last Hero?”
“No,” I said, as the Half-Faced Man shook his head.
“Then it might be just me. Maybe it’s nothing but a dream. But here’s how it goes. The Last Hero has already been born…”
The Last Hero has already been born.
The world finds itself in a time of crisis. Threatened, as it has never been before. A catastrophe of unthinkable scale. An absolute disaster. And as always, in this time, a hero must rise to face the danger. Not all can be heroes; Only a few can, in fact, bear the burden and the weight of the expectation of others, and be given the power to change fate. In this time, the greatest and most powerful of those heroes has been born.
There was a time when Hope was not just a word, when it was not just a synonym for dreams, foolishness, waiting for someone else to act. There was a time when Hope was a force, as great as any other, a physical fact of life. When a person could grasp hold of Hope, and hold back despair and failure and all else. When it became a shining line, leading one to their goal. In those days, Hope was the greatest weapon of a Hero.
Hope has been gone for a long time. But Hope is returning.
Into this time comes one who will face the darkest beast, the forces of destruction that wish nothing more than to see all that is become nothing. They will face terrible trials, be scorned, be betrayed by those who are closest to them, time and time again. They will be looked upon as a pariah, as one who is as nothing. When the time is right, when the world depends on them, they will stand, and fight.
They are the Last Hero, because Heroes are a response to crises. They will be the Last, because their success will mean the preservation of their world, forever. Their success will mean the darkness’ final defeat, the victory that has been sought for so long, the joy and the beauty of life without pain.
Or they will fail, and they will be the Last Hero, because there will be no more to rise.
“Interesting,” said The Half-Faced Man, his brow furrowed. “A victory. I didn’t… honestly think that such a thing was possible. Even if we succeeded, beyond our wildest dreams…” He went quiet.
“So there is a chance?” I said, softly.
“Yes,” said Cassandra. “That’s what we have to go for.” She took a deep breath. “I’m going to have to see Nash again. In time. Please, don’t tell him. I’m… I need to figure out what I’m even going to do.” She shivered, and then stood up, like she bore the weight of the world.
“I’ll help,” I said.
“You’re still War-“
“I don’t care if you forgive me,” I said, softly, resting a hand on Cassandra’s shoulder, as the Half-Faced Man poured a bucket of water across the embers, putting out the fire and sending a cloud of steam into the air. “It’s okay if you never forgive me. I’m not doing this to be forgiven by you. I worry about that, but it’s not what truly matters.” I gently squeezed her shoulder. “I’m doing this because you deserve to be helped. I believe in you.”
This, quite to my surprise, was either the exact wrong, or the exact right thing to say. Cassandra’s façade cracked briefly, and her eyes glistened. She grabbed me, and hugged me tight around the waist, her face pushing against my shoulder, where her tears dripped down. I patted her softly, doing all that I could in the unfamiliar situation to be supportive.
“Thanks, Bella,” she said, after several seconds. “Then… Let’s go.”
“One more thing,” said the Half-Faced Man, holding up a hand. “An important thing. The last thing.”
“Oh?” I asked, curious.
“Ben Sur Allat.” He smiled. “It has been a very long name since I shared my name with anyone. Use it well.” He looked down towards the fire. “When shall we three meet again? In thunder, in lightning, or in rain?”
“In trouble, I imagine,” I said, and smiled. I returned Cassandra to her parents, her home, and returned to Nash, who was still at Carhenge.
“Everything go well?” he asked, as I appeared.
“Yes. Thank you. I feel…” I considered for a moment, and smiled. “Hope.”