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When she said we’d better take the long way around, I should’ve listened. Hadn’t been able to resist teasing her about getting soft around the edges and she turned what I had imagined as 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 has become part of a greater, coalescing landmass, with the beginnings of a bridge to cross the chasm. The white stone of its distant counterpart gleams in the setting sun from leagues away. 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 minutes, 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 maker 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.”
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 gulp. “There won’t be many more newcomers.”
Her cheer fades by degrees. “Hardly unexpected. 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 the slightly vacant look in her eyes 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 it’s all gone.
A butterfly, or something like it, lands on her 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, thriving 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. I remember him surprisingly well, given the rotten piece of shit he was. 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. 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.
“Births?” Fury shakes her head and the butterfly flutters away. Imported from Earth. Must be, like the plants and everything else. Even with all the efforts of the makers, it will be thousands of years before this place spawns life of its own again. “Plenty of pregnancies, but not one has come to term. I started advising against it a few years ago. No point in letting their bodies waste.”
“Hmpf,” I mutter. “Perhaps he hasn’t gone entirely mad after all.”
But what else was I supposed to think, after seeing him stare into empty spaces, mumble to himself even when Dust was nowhere in sight, and occasionally dodge invisible foes? Laugh, or perhaps cry, while stomping out lairs of grubs? Take garments from random corpses in the streets and try them on, appraising his reflection in the broken storefronts? We’ve all been there, I told myself, watching him haunt the ruins 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 in a one-mile radius around it, to 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. “I don’t have time to make you repeat every second word you say.”
“Sorry.” I choose not to explain. What good would it do to repeat Death’s ramblings? The important thing is, he said no to my proposal.
Well, what he really said was more like, “If you’re so eager to throw your life away, there are faster methods—” and he tapped the handle of his scythe. Asshole.
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 fucking scale off that dragon’s hide. Might as well ply my talents elsewhere.
“And if you have no other business here aside from sightseeing and idle chatter, better return to Earth while there are still some humans to save!”
I laugh. Good old Fury. She hasn’t changed. Not deep inside, where it matters.
Not like I have.
“Alright.” I slap my knees as I get up and walk a few steps into the clearing. “Here goes nothing.”
Mayhem bursts out of the Void a moment after I whistle and canters towards my outstretched hand. I know it’s a show Fury would rather not watch, but there’s no way around it.
“Call her,” I whisper, 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.
Fury gasps. “What?”
I pat May’s neck, allowing her to go and greet the newcomer. Then I turn back to observe Fury’s arrested gaze. I smile. It’s not often you get to witness 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 nope: 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.
Suddenly, my eyes are swimming.
“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 break and I clear my throat. “This is our little girl,” I manage in the end but yeah, it breaks. Eh. To hell with it.
Fury’s eyebrows go up as she finally looks at me. “Your 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 smile, though my lower lip is trembling. “She’s uh… yours now.”
She looks at me and there’s a moment of unguarded, shocked vulnerability in her eyes before she hastily replaces is with annoyance. Right. The mask. I take it off and let it clatter down on the ground, scratching my scalp absently while I gather the courage to look in her eyes, naked like this. When I finally manage it, I see my own vulnerability reflected in her sympathetic expression.
“Strife…” she mouths. She glances at the horses, then back at me. “Mayhem and Ruin… and you and War?”
“You got it.”
She covers her mouth with her armored hand, then laughs a little under it. “I knew it,” she mutters.
“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.
She tugs on her belt, straightening. “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. “Death was in on it, wasn’t he?”
“Yeah.” I briefly contemplate telling her that it had been Death who advised us against telling her, 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, bracing my hands on my hips to try and keep the flood of feelings from breaking out.
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.”
Now she lifts my chin, sharp, cold metal on my flushed skin, and forces me to meet the resolve in her stare. “This is no time to lose your wit. 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 much longer. My desperate plan to break War out of Council jail? The slim hope I might find Death again and shake him back to reason? And who am I to save anyone, or talk about mental health? 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, se 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 don’t know 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 jaw hung to his chest and his eyes were this big.” I mime full circles with my armored 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! And 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 since my own vision was blurred with tears, 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, imperceptible to anyone else. “So be it,” the nod said. “We’re parents now.”
Fury can’t resist chuckling. “What’s her name?”
“She doesn’t have one.”
Her eyes grow wide with shock. “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 Anarchy, but that was too me, apparently. And then—”
“Yes, yes. That’s a sufficient number of examples, thank you very much. I can see with perfect clarity how the two of you could argue the point for centuries.”
“Yeah.” I grin, feeling a blush creep 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 damn, my eyes are watering again. “Ven for short. Fits well with ‘Fury’ too. Not bad.”
She starts towards the horses and 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.
“I gotta go back now. You uh… take good care of our little girl here, alright? And uh… thank you.”
“No,” she breathes, then 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. 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 weren’t on the best of terms.”
“Let’s be real, now. You kept that wannabe conflict going all on your own. He never held a grudge against you. Grudges are your MO, not his.”
Her left eyebrow curls up. “So many words, but none that answer my question.”
I laugh. “Yes, I’m sure. He would consider it an honor.”
“Honor?” She blinks. “Yes… I suppose that does sound like him. Only this time, the honor is all mine. You must tell him, when you see him again. Give him my gratitude and send him my love. 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.