A Darksiders Story
The maker tree from Darksiders 3 was only one of many. Strife and Ulthane had been running a global rescue operation since the beginning of the Apocalypse, but Fury’s arrival attracted unwanted attention and signaled the beginning of the end. Bereft of hope and purpose, Strife pays Fury one last visit in the realm where the remnants of the human race are hidden, and makes her an offer she cannot refuse.
When she said we’d better take the long way around, I should’ve listened. I hadn’t been able to resist teasing her about getting soft around the edges, so she turned what would’ve been a pleasant little hike into a break-neck race up the cliffs.
Gotta give it to her. She knows the place far better than I do now, what with all the busywork of the makers. An island I hoped to find floating at a reasonable elevation and use as a shortcut had become part of a greater, coalescing landmass, complete with an abutment for a bridge that’ll cross the chasm. The white stone of its counterpart, many leagues away, gleams in the midday sun. There, Haven City hides behind freshly-built walls, a marvel of Creation combining maker magics and the ingenuity of human engineers into something of extraordinary scale and beauty. Yet frighteningly fragile, like everything else here.
I pause to stare for a few moments, wasting whatever advantage my climbing skills might’ve given me. Not that I care to win, but I care to maintain the impression that I’m my old, competitive self. Fury has enough on her plate without the burden of my desperation.
A drop of a mile or more beckons as I make the jump, just barely, and scramble up the cliffside. Unsurprisingly, I find her seated on a piece of broken masonry, tapping her foot like she’s been waiting for half an hour.
“Who’s grown soft around the edges again?” she mocks as I sit down beside her, working to catch my breath.
“I forgot that the… air is so… thin here.” Hot too. I take my mask off, but the warm breeze is of little help.
She throws her head back, laughing. “The humans thrive on it. They all arrive pale and bloodless, but give them a month, and they grow plump and flushed like maker children.”
“Yeah, about that.” I wave the mask back and forth between my knees, then finally let it drop on the ground. “There won’t be many more newcomers.”
Her cheer fades into a thoughtful silence. “Hardly unexpected,” she says at last. “As slow as the flow was to begin with, it has turned into a trickle in the past year. We celebrate each new arrival now, knowing it might be the last.”
“We burned the Tree in Rio about a week back,” I explain. “Shanghai is the only one left.”
She nods, but I can tell from her slightly vacant expression that she has no idea what or where those places are. Apparently, she’s developed some attachment to the humans under her protection, but the eons of their history and culture were nothing to her before the Apocalypse, and nothing she’ll miss now that it’s all gone.
I clench my teeth and swallow my resentment. It wasn’t her fault. She was set up, just like War, and walked into our operation with her eyes firmly shut. I know this. But there’s no denying that her arrival to New York Haven was the beginning of the end.
It was the last one we built, and for good reasons. We were aware of the risks. That damn lay line vortex where Abraxis started his construction site attracts demons, and worse, like shit attracts flies. But countless survivors must be hiding in the sprawling metropolis, we thought. To just leave them to their fates was never an option. At least, not for me. Ulthane thinks that would’ve been the lesser evil. He thinks that the other trees might’ve been spared if we hadn’t gotten bold. That the humans stranded in New York would’ve been a fair price to pay for many more we could’ve gathered in other parts of the world, had we been able to go on for another decade.
And much as I hate to admit it… he’s right. Doesn’t matter if we made the mistake going there at all, or by postponing it too long – which is still my take when I argue with him. In the end, we saved only a handful of New York humans, and to complete the irony, half of those were thanks to Fury, of all people. Far, far fewer than anywhere else.
And Rio… Rio was one of the first Havens, and one of the most productive. Ulthane cried while his garden burned. I could not. My life depends on keeping it all in. If I let out even a whiff of that churning darkness, it’ll detonate. They’ll hear the bang all the way up in Heaven and all the way down in Hell but only a smoking crater will be left behind as a monument.
Yeah. That’s how I intend to go.
A butterfly, or something like it, lands on Fury’s armored knee and I see her smile. She has gotten softer. A good thing, mind you. Just a bit… divorced from reality. I look around at the wild greenery sprouting from every little crack in the ancient rocks, flourishing on this world’s second breath, and yeah: it’s not hard to imagine that one could find happiness here. Partake in the rebirth. Forget the suffering on Earth and elsewhere, lie low and… leave it all behind?
If only I could. One of the men I used to be totally could. A rotten shit-stain, he was. A real piece of work. I remember him surprisingly well, given all the millennia that separate us, and all the trauma that connects us. If I tried, I could probably find the exact spot I picked to fire the first shots.
I zap back, disoriented. It’s been happening more and more often: these weird reveries into past too distant to have any right to pester me. Is it a sign of aging? Not of the body, but of the soul? The way Death has aged, imperceptibly, into the demented stranger he was when I last met him?
Which reminds me of what he said about the Well of Souls. I swallow. “Have there been any…?” I gesture awkwardly in front of my chest.
“Babies?” Fury shakes her head and the butterfly flutters away. “Plenty of pregnancies, but every single one was a stillbirth. Healthy, young women, and well-sheltered here, all things considered. It is… unsettling. I started advising against their attempts to procreate a few years ago. No point in letting their bodies waste.”
“Could there be a medical cause? Some poison, or illness that spread during the Apocalypse?”
“No. Neither their medicine-men nor the maker healers could discover any physical cause.”
“Hmpf,” I mutter. “Perhaps he hasn’t gone entirely mad after all.”
But what else was I supposed to think, after seeing Death stare into empty spaces, mumble to himself even when Dust was nowhere in sight, and occasionally dodge invisible foes? After hearing him laugh, or perhaps cry, while stomping out lairs of grubs? We’ve all been there, I told myself, watching him haunt the ruins of Earth like a ghost. Sometimes you’re just that bored. But then he found this cemetery and cleared every piece of angel, demon and undead filth from a one-mile radius around it, so he could be at peace while his creepy-ass ghouls dug a hole in the ground. Like for a coffin. He sat at the edge of that hole, staring in it, for a day and a night, as still as the headstones around him. I swear, if I didn’t interrupt him, he’d still be sitting there. Perhaps he’d eventually turn to stone.
“Speak up, or stay silent,” Fury says, giving me a start. “I don’t have time for guessing games.”
“Sorry. Something Death said just came back to me.”
Her eyes widen. “When did you see him?”
“Oh, a year or so ago. Just after we fled from New York.”
“He still lives, then.” Fury lets out a long sigh of relief. “Thank the Creator. Was he… Does he still serve the Council? Did you tell him of their betrayal?”
I open my mouth to reply and discover I’ve forgotten what we were talking about. Her reaction, the richness of emotion packed into that exhale, reminded me of my first visit here, when, suspecting nothing, she told me in the most casual manner imaginable, that War, in fact, isn’t dead. Or not anymore.
You’d think I’d sing and dance with joy. You’d think that, after a lifetime of ten fucking thousand years, one decade of crippling grief was nothing! You’d think I’d just shake it off, take a lungful of new hope and start planning the happy ever after.
Instead, I kept my cool, finished my business here, returned to Earth, dealt with a dozen emergencies that required my immediate attention – all on autopilot. It took every last atom of my strength to not fly to the Scorched Plains AT ONCE and die fighting for his freedom. And when it was all done and I finally found a moment of privacy, what I did was sob myself quietly to sleep. Because… I couldn’t leave.
“Well?” Fury says. “Speak!”
“Right.” I shake my head clear. “Death. He didn’t have a watcher installed, that’s about the only thing I can say for sure. I mean, you know him. It’s hard to tell what he’s thinking on a good day, and that was not a good day. I told him everything. About you and the Seven, about War and the Seals, about all the evidence I’d gathered in the past few centuries that the Council’s corruption is absolute. But I might as well have been talking to May for all the feedback he’d given me. He winced visibly when he heard about Rampage, but that was it. No reaction to the rest. I was tempted to declare that I’d been spying for Lilith this whole time, just to see if he was listening.” I sigh, exhausted by the retelling. “Shoulda known that nothing I could say would steer him from his course.”
“Well, that’s the thing. At first, I thought he’s out of his goddamn mind, and he wouldn’t explain shit, all aloof and—”
Fury slaps her knee, startling me. “Get to the point already!”
“Fine!” I stick my tongue at her. “Fine. He said that, somehow – there were like hundreds of words there that I couldn’t make sense of, so don’t ask me to be more specific – somehow, someone removed humans from the circulation through the Well of Souls.”
Her expression relaxes into mild astonishment as she takes it in. “That would explain the stillbirths. I should’ve thought of it.”
“Yeah. Sounds weirdly familiar, don’t it.”
“You think… the Council did this?”
I shrug. “Ain’t no one else left with that kind of power, now that the Hollow Lord is gone.”
Fury lowers her eyes and palms the skull-shaped talisman attached to her belt. Reacting to her touch, it lights up with a pale glow and emits a pulse of power that makes my heart skip a beat, like standing next to a building-size subwoofer during a sound-test.
“Death should have this,” she whispers. “He’d know what to do with it. It holds enough power to repel the Council’s magics – perhaps enough to break them too. That’s what he intends to do, is it not? Attempt to restore humanity?”
She looks at me with renewed annoyance. “You should’ve sent for me before meeting him.”
“You would’ve given him that thing, and the Hollows, and everything you’ve got—”
“I would not—”
“—and he’s not fit to use the power that you earned—”
“—and that you need to keep this place safe. ‘Cause unlocking the Well won’t do shit if they’re wiped out entirely in the meantime.”
Her rage ebbs away as abruptly as it swelled. “I would not have given him the Hollows,” she says despondently.
I lift an eyebrow.
“Oh, shut up.”
In truth, I had my own reasons to meet with Death in private. Or maybe they were all the same reasons, I don’t know. Because Fury woulda been no more able to say no to my proposal than to his, and I needed him to say yes first. But of course, he said no.
Well, what he really said was more like, “If you’re so eager to throw your life away, there are faster methods—” and then he tapped the handle of his scythe.
Anyway, it means back to plan A, and that means I won’t be asking for Fury’s help. With all three of us, the risk was reasonable. With just us two, it’s unacceptable. And she’s the one who can make a difference, should the City be discovered. I couldn’t shoot a single scale off that damn dragon’s hide. Might as well ply my talents elsewhere.
“Is this why you came, then?” Fury says, following the whole of five seconds of silence. “To tell me of Death’s quest now that I’m unable to land any aid?” She snorts. “You shouldn’t have bothered. Better return to Earth while there are still some humans left to save.”
Good old Fury. She hasn’t changed. Not deep inside, where it matters.
Not like I have.
“No.” Something like stage fright grips me. “I gotta show you something.” I slap my knees getting up, and walk a few steps into the clearing, gathering courage. “Here goes nothing.”
Mayhem bursts out of the Void a moment after I whistle and canters towards my outstretched hand. “Call her,” I whisper, patting her shoulder, and May snorts in reply.
“Must you do this?” Fury says from behind me, and the thickness of her voice breaks my heart. “Glad as I may be to see your steed in good health—”
The Void spills out into the world once again, not with a thunder, but with a whisper. Yet everything around us sinks into stunned silence as the filly steps out of the misty rift in a slow, cautious gait.
A breath I wasn’t aware I’d been holding comes out of my chest with a loud puff. She’s become kind of fickle since War went missing. Always liked him better. The last couple times I called her, she wouldn’t come. Yes, there are ways to insist. But I’m glad it won’t come to that. It would feel profoundly wrong to coerce her, especially on this occasion.
I mean… just look at her. We Horsemen know better than anyone in Creation just how incredibly tough our spectral steeds are, but their powers are an extension of ours. The filly… she’s like a mirage. A vision of grace and beauty that might disperse if you but angle your head a bit differently. The light barely touches her, falling on the sparse grass under her as if through water. Her hoofs leave no prints, and her wispy mane sways to no wind we can feel. When she snorts – a greeting? a question? – no sound reaches my ears. But she is substantial enough to push May’s neck with her head in affection, and to wet the palm of my glove with her nose.
“What?” Fury gasps. For a moment, I’ve forgotten all about her. I turn back to observe her reaction and can’t help grinning. It’s not often you get to see the fiercest of the Four Horsemen slack-jawed.
“What is this?” she breathes, taking a few steps closer to me, but never taking her eyes off the mother and her foal.
The foal, ha! I suppose I might never stop thinking about her as a baby. At a bit over two centuries, she’s not even a filly anymore, but it’s impossible to think of her as a mare, never mind that she’s almost as tall as May now and possibly heavier. It’s the ghostly look, I decide. She’s yet to be bro—
Bonded. Bonded, not broken. We don’t break horses in this household, War and I agreed.
“Explain,” Fury utters, and a good bit of her usual impatience has returned to her voice. “Now!”
“It’s uh… this is uh…” I feel my voice might tremble and I clear my throat. “This is our little girl,” I manage in the end.
Fury’s eyebrows go up as she finally looks at me. “Our girl?” She looks at the horses again and the realization makes her features go slack. “Heaven and beyond,” she whispers. “Mayhem… and Ruin?”
“Yup.” I take a deep breath. “She’s uh… yours now.”
“What?” She looks at me and there’s a moment of unguarded, shocked vulnerability in her eyes that’s painful and embarrassing to witness… but not nearly as embarrassing as seeing my own vulnerability reflected in her expression as it shifts from surprise to sympathy.
“Strife…” she mouths. She glances at the horses, then back at me. “Mayhem and Ruin… and you and War?”
My heart’s racing, but I try my best to sound all cool and unbothered. “You got it.”
She props one hand onto her hip and covers her mouth with the other, then laughs under it. “I knew it!”
“You did?” Ugh, the high pitch of my voice makes me wince. It’s not that shocking. Fury is a lot of things, but she’s not stupid.
“I knew you were up to something. All three of you. Hiding some silly man-boy thing that I’d despise, I thought.” She snorts, both her arms squared on her hips now. “Death was in on it, wasn’t he?”
“Yeah.” I think about letting slip that Death was the one who advised us to leave her in the dark, but I can just see how War would frown upon such cowardice. “I’m sorry. We should’ve—”
“No.” She shakes her head slowly, gazing at the horses, then takes a deep breath. “You were right to keep it a secret. I was not the ally I should’ve been. The friend I should’ve been.”
“That goes for all of us.”
“Not you and War, apparently.”
I swallow and stare down, crossing my arms over my chest to try and keep the sudden swell of feelings from breaking out. Been a while since I had those. Slightly panicked, I try to recall what I’m supposed to do with them.
She puts a hand on my shoulder. “He’s alright,” she says. “Nothing can break his spirit, you know that.”
“Wish I could say the same.” And there, the voice trembles. Eh, to hell with it.
She lifts my chin, fingers cold on my flushed skin, and forces me to meet the resolve in her stare. “This is no time to lose your wit, brother. The fight is not over yet.”
Easy for you to say, I think bitterly. She found a new purpose here, a new passion, something worth dying for and, more importantly, something worth living for. What remains for me? The last Haven on Earth that still stands? It won’t stand for much longer. My desperate plan to break War out of Council jail? The slim hope that I might track Death again and shake him back to reason? And who am I to save anyone, or remark on anyone’s mental fitness? I need someone to rescue me and nurse me back to sanity.
“Come on,” I say, nudging Fury forward. “Let me introduce you.”
“Afraid you can never get attached to a new mount?”
“Yes,” she breathes.
“And it wouldn’t be fair to her?”
“And there’s no way in Creation that anyone, be it horse or person, can ever replace Rampage.”
“Yes.” It’s a whisper. Her brows gather and I see the glimmer of barely held-back tears.
“You need a steed, though,” I go on in a softer voice. “And she—” I gesture at the filly “—she needs a rider. Horsemaster says she’ll never be accepted by his herd.”
“Yeah. I chickened out when May started to sweat, so we took her to him.” I grin, remembering. “You wouldn’t believe how pissed he was. But he took care of her anyway. And good thing too, because she needed a hand there, in the end, and for all we know about riding horses, we never knew shit about anything else related to horses, least of all foaling. He made us sit tight and watch the whole show, the sadistic bastard. I don’t think I was ever that scared or excited. And you should’ve seen War. His eyes were this big.” I mime full circles with my fingers and laugh in earnest.
When Horsemaster asked for assistance, War looked at me with this panicked, pleading expression, shaking his head and God, how I loved him at that moment! It was my job anyway. May calmed down when she felt my touch and pushed when I told her to. And then there was this… wet little creature, neither of the Void nor of the Realms, getting up on her thin, shaky legs, and fearlessly stepping into the world. And with the corner of my eye, I saw War wipe his face, but it was dark, and I was distracted, so I can’t be sure I didn’t make that up.
“She can stay with me a year,” Horsemaster said, “then you’re on your own. The herd won’t have her.”
War and I looked at one another and exchanged a single nod. “So be it,” the nod said. “We’re parents now.”
Fury can’t resist chuckling. “What’s her name?”
“She doesn’t have one.”
“A grown horse, and you have not named her?”
I shrug. “We couldn’t agree. War wanted to call her Conquest, but that’s no name for a girl. I wanted to call her Glory, but he said it’s too soft. Then he suggested Victory, but that’s too pretentious, and I suggested Riot, but that was too me, apparently. And then—”
“Yes, yes. I can see with perfect clarity how the two of you could argue the point for centuries.”
“Yup.” A blush creeps up my neck. “And in the meantime, we just called her… Filly.” We also called her “the little one” and “our little girl”, but I can’t bring myself to say it.
God, I need him back. I need his strength. He’d never let me sink back into this bottomless hole. He’d grab me by the shoulders and shake some sense into me. Like Fury, he’d remind me that we still have work to do.
But I’m tired. So, so tired. It feels like someone’s holding my head under water and I’ve no strength to struggle free.
I open my mouth to beg. Beg her to take the damn horse. War is out of reach and I… I might not live to see him again and… and someone needs to take care of our little girl.
But Fury speaks before I gather the air. “I will call her…” She inhales. “Vengeance.”
I smile and wow, my eyes are watering. “Fury and Vengeance. Not bad!”
She starts towards the horses. Both mother and daughter raise their heads at the movement. But after a few steps, Fury stops short, grabs Scorn, and tosses it, coiled, on the ground. Good call.
But now I feel like May and I are a bit of a mounted third wheel.
She whirls back. “Yes?”
“I gotta go back now. You uh… take good care of our little girl here, alright? And uh… thank you.”
“No.” She covers the distance between us in two swift strides and embraces me. “Thank you. For trusting me, after—”
“Oh, hush.” I wrap my arms around her slim frame and close my eyes. Her hair smells like rainfall. “It’s what we do, in our fucked-up little brotherhood of steel. Trust each other.”
She snorts. “Eventually.”
“You are certain War would approve of this?” she asks, stepping back. “You know we aren’t on the best of terms.”
“Let’s be real, now. You kept that wannabe conflict going all on your own. Holding grudges for millennia is your thing, not his.”
Her left eyebrow curls up. “So many words, but none that answer my question.”
It feels odd to laugh. “Yes, I’m sure. He would consider it an honor.”
“An honor?” She blinks. “Yes… that does sound like him. Only this time, the honor is all mine. You must tell him that, when you see him again, and give him my gratitude. I have wronged him, and I would beg his forgiveness. Will you embrace him for me, so that we may put the past behind us?”
“Ha. Embrace him yourself!”
The startled and mildly disgusted look she gives me is priceless.