We set out again late in the afternoon, though still some hours ahead of dark, and ride at a leisurely pace. Dust circles high in the cloudless sky, occasionally pursuing the flocks of winged lizards, no larger than my cape, but they know the air of this world better than he and scurry out of his reach. Death asks about the distant landmarks—a snow-capped mountain range gleaming in the east, the columns of smoke rising from the volcanic grounds in the south—and I answer as best as I can, though I sense it is politeness rather than curiosity. There is precious little to point out along our way, apart from the impressive footprints of a species of a giant lizard, each as large as a horse. Someday, I shall track one down, slay it, and mount its head on the wall of Strife’s crystalline abode. It wouldn’t fit in my yurt.
“Is that your home?” Death asks when its distant dome rises above the mild hills and valleys of the steppe, outlined sharply against the horizon.
He clicks his tongue, prodding Despair to pick up the pace, and Ruin follows, eager as ever. A few minutes of canter bring us close enough to see the pole, the banner, the strings of colorful scraps tied to the ropes.
My pulse quickens.
“Is that Mayhem?”
In place of an answer, I spur Ruin into a gallop. What a fool I was to let Death talk me into coming here! Where else would Strife look for me? I should’ve thought of it sooner. I should’ve told Death the truth when I had the chance. What are we to do now? Pretend and lie like cowards?
Half a mile to go, and Despair keeps up effortlessly, and I see the flap open, and sunlight in our back reflected off freshly shined armor—
“Fly, Ruin,” I whisper, rising in the stirrups and flattening myself against his neck. The wind rips the hood off my head and whips my face. Taking it as a challenge, Despair charges after us, but the small advantage I gained by surprise is enough to land me at Strife’s feet a few moments before Death is within earshot.
And then I waste them, standing frozen and at a loss for words as Strife’s eyes dart from me to Death and back. At last, he utters, “I don’t care,” and flings himself at me, just as Death dismounts to witness it.
I only hesitate a second before I wrap him in my arms, his face smooth and cool against my cheek, his bare hands buried in my hair. “Andras,” I whisper in his ear.
“Israfil,” he whispers back. “I dreamed you fell. The horsie went black and turned to ice. I thought I lost you. God!”
My eyes sting and my heart aches. I take breath to unburden it, but Death speaks before I can.
“I should’ve known.” He laughs bitterly, a sound that grates like claws scratching tree-bark. Echoing the sentiment, Dust bats his wings just over our heads and lands on the dome of the yurt, squawking.
“Silence!” Death hisses.
I set Strife down and wipe his cheek with my filthy hand. Our eyes lock and I nod in answer to his unspoken question.
“I should’ve told you,” I say, turning sideways so I can see them both. More needs to be said, but as often as I thought about this while riding with Death, I still lack the words for it.
Despite his warning, Dust cries again, then hops away when Death takes a step towards him, clutching the handle of his scythe.
“What’s it to you, anyway?” Strife addresses him, ignoring the bird. “It’s a private matter. Between the two of us. Or it was.” He gives me an apologetic glance.
Death says nothing a long time, but murder shines from the sockets of his mask as he looks at Strife. Will this be a reprise of their fallout? I steel myself for stepping between them.
“Fury doesn’t know?”
“No,” I answer.
“God, no,” Strife says at the same time.
The tension lets up a little. I take a breath and realize my wound aches again. Damn it.
“That make it better?” Strife asks him.
“Brother—” I start, unsure what I’ll say, but sure it’s better if I speak instead of Strife.
“There are only four of us left,” Death says. “Everything one—or two—of us do, affects others.”
Strife laughs. “Oh, you mean like going MIA for five hundred years without even some poorly thought-out excuse? How do you suppose that affected us, huh? You’ve no idea the kind of shit we had to go through after the forging of the Seals because you didn’t even bother to ask. Did you ever stop to think about it? Think about ‘us’ prior to this heartwarming reunion?”
“I have thought of nothing other,” Death says, in a deep, dangerous rasp. It’s a warning, but Strife seems deaf to it, intent on airing all the grievances he’s been nursing since our last meeting.
“Dreaming up all the ways we’d screw things up, I bet, without your parental guidance.” He snickers. “But you didn’t see this coming, did ya? Gotta say, I’m proud.”
“Brother—” I try again, addressing him this time, wishing him to end the taunts. But neither of them pays me any heed.
“How long has this—” Death gestures at Strife and me like pointing out an especially rotten carrion to be disposed of first— “been going on?”
“None of your damn business,” Strife says.
“Since Eden,” I say at the same time. Strife shoots me an annoyed glance and I shrug. Now that Death is in on it, what would be the point of not giving him all the answers? The more he knows, the less he will dwell on it. I don’t want him to dwell on it.
Unsettled by the argument, or perhaps sensing the distress of his master, Dust flutters his wings and lets out a series of ear-piercing caws once more. Death points a finger at him. “One more word,” he growls, “and it’ll be your last.”
“Well,” Strife says, “since we’re spilling all the beans… remember the Lucent Redoubt strat?”
Death turns and squints at him. “Impossible.”
“Which part? That it could happen in the first place? That it could last this long? Or, that you never noticed a thing?”
Squaring one arm on his hip, then the other, Death shakes his head. “Yes.”
I make my lips curl in support of his humor. But my relief is premature.
“What can I say.” Strife spreads his arms and mimes a bow. “I’m just that good.”
We, brother, I think with familiar irritation. We’re that good.
But Death laughs. “Good? You’re the best. The finest specimen to have crawled out of Lilith’s viper pit.”
“That’s just precious, coming from you.”
“I loathe to think what you have done to sway him.”
Strife’s eyebrows go up. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” But as Death silently insists, they flatten low above his eyes in an expression of utter disbelief. “You mean like… magic?”
I wish I could laugh, but I’m too tense. It’s a bait. It must be. I don’t believe for a moment Death would seriously accuse Strife of… what, exactly? Using magics to seduce me? For what gain? It’s ridiculous.
But it works. I can tell by the sudden tension in Strife’s posture and a wounded tremor in his voice, thinly veiled by exasperated laughter. “Wow. Just wow. Sorry to burst your bubble, bro, but there was nothing of the sort involved. A minor miracle, perhaps, but no magic. And for the record, that’s a sick thing to suggest, even for something out of that paranoid, shriveled-up brain of yours.”
“Strife,” I try, but he doesn’t spare me even a sideways glance.
Death lets out a malevolent chuckle. “And you. Look at you. So blinded by his charms you can’t even conceive of—”
“Enough!” Taunt or truth, I cannot let him carry on. The words I couldn’t find before spill through my clenched teeth. “I have long suffered you to question my ability, my wit, and my judgment, and I never begrudged you for it. But I will not suffer you to question my heart!”
“It’s not your heart I question, damn you!”
“Right,” Strife drawls, and even through the fog of anger, I sense disaster looming in his smug tone. “’Cause I’m totally the one who’d send him to his death as a fucking decoy.”
Death steps back, staggered, as if hit. “What?”
“You know,” Strife goes on in nearly a whisper: a hiss of the viper. “Being a lowlife serpent from the pit actually comes with considerable perks. Such as having friends in low places. Panoptos was only too happy to let me spectate the uh… interrogation… of your wayward maker. And she had interesting things to say about a certain jar plucked from the hands of a dead Horseman.”
In the strained silence, my wound aches and I clutch at my chest.
“I’m sorry,” Strife tells me, softening his voice. “I know it sucks to learn about it this way, but I would’ve told you anyhow. You deserve to know.”
That last was meant for Death. With the corner of my eye, I see him turn his back on us, his head hanging low.
“I already knew,” I try to say, but my voice fails, and my words are carried off by the wind.
Strife, at least, is close enough to hear anyway. “Oh?”
Death’s head lifts by a degree.
“Not initially. But it was easy enough to piece it together once it was all over.” I swallow, feeling cold sweat wash upon my forehead. Whether it is from corruption spreading in the wound again, or from the terror of the memory, I cannot say, but I must speak on, for Death’s sake. Our current argument aside, I will not have him blame himself for this too. “It was a sound strategy. One I could not have carried out with conviction, had I known my jar was fake. You did the right thing, brother.”
“Right?” Strife glares at me, but his anger will not break my resolve. I believe every word of what I said, and he knows it well enough, even if he doesn’t believe it himself. Seeing I won’t budge, he shakes his head, massages his forehead, then finally turns his back on me too.
“Tell me, War,” Death utters in a haggard voice. “If it was so right… would you have done it in my place?”
My throat tightens. It is the mirror image of the question I challenged him with earlier today. A lifetime ago.
“For fuck’s sake,” Strife mutters. “Give him a break.”
For once, I am grateful for his rude intervention.
Dust, who has managed to remain silent so far, takes to the air with a sorrowful call and lands on Death’s shoulder.
“In case it wasn’t glaringly obvious,” Strife goes on, “I wouldn’t do it.”
I gaze at his back. “Even if the world was at stake, brother?”
“But it wasn’t, was it?” He spins around. “It was a pair of deluded misfits after an unusable arsenal. Sure, they managed to do some damage, and they might’ve done quite a bit more before we nailed them—but we would’ve nailed them. Like, c’mon. Especially if, you know, we worked together. How’s that for a ‘sound strategy’, huh? And let’s not even go into the nitty gritty of, dunno, taking me to a gunfight instead of rushing a sniper with your fucking fists!”
In the electrified silence, I see Death’s hands coil into white-knuckled fists around the handles of his scythes. Dust takes off again, to resettle on top of the central pole, and cocks his head this way and that, as if to measure the situation from a new angle. I wish I could find another angle to view it from too. One that might reveal a path to reconciliation. But there’s no denying Strife’s arguments, even if he must deliver them in the most abrasive manner possible. If he had been with us in the realm of the Ravaiim, he might’ve been able to take Hadrimon down from afar. Or he might’ve taken one of his cursed bullets himself. I shudder.
“But ok,” he says, deflating. “Ok. Say the world was at stake. What has the world ever done to deserve saving, huh? At the cost of his life?” He points at me, addressing Death’s back. “Fuck the world.”
“You don’t mean that,” I mutter.
“I sure do.”
“Then you’re not fit to call yourself a Horseman,” Death says.
“Fuck you too.”
“Brothers,” I sigh, too tired to raise my voice. “I beg of you. Let us make peace.”
Strife snorts but, thankfully, does not speak on.
Death only shakes his head. The silence piles layer upon layer of grief on me as we stand there, close enough to touch, but too far to reach one another across a chasm that did not exist mere hours ago. I knew this would not be easy. But I didn’t expect it to be quite so hard.
At last, he heaves a long sigh, then chuckles mirthlessly. “So, you knew.” He turns around and looks at me. “How did you know?”
I shrug. “Your story made no sense.”
“Give War some credit, man,” Strife says. “He’s smarter than he looks.”
I stare at him, incredulous, yet at the same time, I’m more thankful than he will ever know that the venom is gone from his voice. “Was that supposed to be a compliment?”
“Beats saying that you look smarter than you are, which is what I usually get.”
I smile at him, and he smiles briefly in return. But Death still stands apart, leaning on his hips as if too exhausted to hold himself upright, with his face angled down.
Stepping closer, I put a hand on his shoulder. An awkward move, weighty, with none of the lighthearted confidence of our play-fighting earlier. Yet still easier than trying to unravel this with words alone. He tenses up, holding his breath, then wills himself to relax. “You said it yourself, brother,” I tell him. “We emerged triumphant, and that’s all that matters in the end. Let this trouble you no more.”
“What troubles me… is that I let you think you failed.”
I squeeze his shoulder. This is as close to an apology that I can expect on his part, and as close to forgiveness that he can expect on mine. After a moment, he pats my hand in the way of acceptance, and I exhale, relieved.
“If we’re to be honest,” Strife says, “you do that to all of us, all the time.”
“If we’re to be honest,” Death echoes, peering into him, “if I’m to believe both your motives and your means were pure, then look me in the eye and tell me… do you love him?”
My breath hitches. The question is fair. It is not another taunt and I see no reason to stand in the way of an answer. But reason cannot contend with the heat rising in my throat, my cheeks, my brand. “Brother—”
“Be silent!” Death hisses. “I asked him, not you.”
“Strife, you don’t have to—”
“It’s fine. I don’t mind.”
I cannot bear it. I turn my back on them and step away, clenching the gauntlet and gritting my teeth. The beating of my heart, so loud I am sure they will hear it, does little to counter the excruciating silence.
“Well?” Death says. “What will it be?”
I close my eyes.
“Yes,” Strife says at last, softly. “I love him.”
Warmth flows through me, from my aching chest to my burning eyes, a tide of affection I vow to confess as soon as we have a moment alone.
Strife exhales with a loud puff, as if diving out of water, then laughs. “Unlike some of us, he is easy to love.”
“He is,” Death replies.
It feels like my heart might burst. I don’t know what to do with these emotions. Crush them both in an embrace? It is what I wish to do, but as in too many other matters that don’t involve violence, my wishes exceed my courage.
“There,” Strife says. “You have my word. Happy now?”
“Are you finished?” I croak.
Strife laughs. “Yes, you big oaf. You can turn around now. The scary part is over.”
“The one thing he cannot face,” Death mutters. “Why am I not surprised.”
I turn, but I dare not look at them. Strife pats my shoulder, and Death clears his throat.
“Well, then. What Fate has put together… in her excessively mysterious ways… Death will not attempt to part.” He shakes his head, as if he still cannot believe it. “But you will heed my words now, as your brother, and as your elder. You were wise to keep this a secret. Fury has no patience for either of you. Best save this… revelation… for a time when she is in a better mood. The Council, however, must never know. They would object, and might even punish you; but more importantly, they could use it against you. Be wary of their spies. And don’t put too much faith in your… friends in low places.”
“C’mon,” Strife says. “You know better than to lecture me about secrecy. We’ve managed well enough so far, haven’t we?”
Death nods hesitantly. “I have a task for you, brother. He—” he tilts his head at me— “has a wound that might reopen. And he cannot be trusted to behave as an adult about it. Keep your eyes peeled for signs of fatigue and dizziness. And your nose, for the stench of decay. Find me if it gets infected again.”
I open my mouth to protest, but he gives me a look that shuts my jaw with a click.
“I hear ya,” Strife says.
“And another thing. I did ask, in fact. And apart from Fury’s reservations, I heard nothing but praise from everyone concerned.”
Strife and I both stare at Death, uncomprehending, till his ears move back in annoyance. “About your performance as leader,” he says. “And what you all have accomplished in my absence.”
Surprise and gratitude spill over Strife’s unguarded features like sunrise cresting wooded hills. “Oh.” He clears his throat, fighting to regain his composure. “Thanks, I guess.”
Death grunts, with the slightest hint of a nod. “I’ll take my leave now. You needn’t come,” he adds, seeing me start. “I can deliver the report to the Council well enough on my own. Thanks to that slimy shadow, Panoptos, there can be little they don’t know already.” He pats my back. “Rest. You deserved it.”
I swallow, unaccountably sad. “A word, before you depart?”
“Yeah, I’ll uh…” Strife clears his throat again, still a bit dazed. “I’ll wait inside.”