|Divinity IV: End of the World on Hold
Author: Guede Mazaka
The first thing Ed noticed when he drove into Culiacan was how empty everything was. No people were out, no stray dogs were prowling…not even the wind was up.
The second thing he noticed was that things were exploding. Actually, he thought it was a storm rolling in at first and reached for the umbrella wedged in the front passenger foot-space, but then he saw orange-yellow fire crest over a line of buildings. He slammed on the brakes. Then he remembered about steering the car and maybe not jumping the curb; he missed a street café’s tables by a hair.
“Jesus Christ, try not to be a dumbass and get killed,” Ed muttered to himself. He got out of the car just as another one went. The road jumped at him and he jumped back only to land off-balance. His elbow got whacked by the car door as it swung shut and he barely grabbed onto a railing before another shudder rippled the earth out from under him. “Christ.”
It was like being in a war video-game—one of the ones where there were evil aliens or whatever crawling everywhere and the bullets always ran out just as the game threw an alien right in the face. Even the shaky frame-of-vision was right.
“Except yeah, not a fucking video-game. Paul wouldn’t get caught dead in one of those.” And because it wasn’t fake, Ed double-checked his gun and his spare clips before he headed out. Sheer stubbornness had made him hang onto his black leather coat this far, but it looked like he had a while to hike and though it was only morning, sweat was already running down Ed’s neck.
With one eye on the explosions, Ed ducked into the backseat of the car and carefully folded his coat. Then he cursed and refolded it because he’d inadvertently folded it corpse-style: spread flat on its back except for its arms, which were crossed over the front. Fuck that. He had season tickets to the Red Sox and he wasn’t wasting that much fucking money.
Ed knew that he sounded really stupid and jittery, even when he was just thinking it all and not even saying it aloud. He also knew better than to think too hard on it, or to think about how he couldn’t help running his fingers down the coat one last time. It’d been the first thing he had ever bought after getting his detective’s badge. Money had been a chancy idea all through his life, and even though the BPD didn’t pay its detectives much, it paid them enough and it paid them regularly so for the first time in his life, Ed had been able to relax. Cut loose. Play the big shit.
Right up till Paul had cut him down to size. Bastard. And had reminded Ed about what had gotten him the boost to detective—which hadn’t been money.
“Hell.” Before he could chicken out, Ed got his damn hands off his coat and slammed the doors. They were locked, but fuck, he’d picked the lock and he had only had half-faded memories of a…uh…misspent youth to go on. In Mexico, lockpicking was probably a fucking street art.
If anyone was around to practice it anymore. Ed shoved his gun into its holster and clipped the spare clips to his belt, but he felt like Rambo all dressed up with no jungle in which to rumble. Nobody was around.
He walked—jogged when the explosions would allow it—and after ten minutes he was starting to come up with lots of debris, but still no people or parts of people. It was uncomfortably like one of Paul’s favorite metaphors that talked about rats leaving sinking ships. And he hadn’t even come across an epicenter yet.
Then he did. For a second, Ed had to just stop and stare because it was so goddamned like that church. That was, it was like how that church hadn’t been anymore, except for an eerily even layer of wreckage. Only this hadn’t been a church, he was thinking. No pieces of statues and not enough shards of colored glass. Maybe a hotel or a restaurant since it had been pretty decent-sized.
The earth rocked again with another explosion; this one was close enough for its roar to leave Ed’s ears ringing for several seconds later, and he even saw some little specks pattering out of the sky over on the next street. Now he was wishing he’d brought his coat since he needed something to hold over his head…he spotted what looked like the remains of a bedsheet. Fuck knew when it’d last been washed, but it wasn’t like he had time to be picky. He snatched it up and, hooding himself beneath it, began to head for the latest blast.
* * *
Sands’ cell was ringing.
He crouched on a ledge thirty feet above the ground, panting hard and holding his bleeding hand to his chest. El had been right behind him when the last building had blown up and in the chaos that had followed, Sands hadn’t had time to see where the snarky fret-fucker had landed. But wherever that was, it wasn’t where Sands could see him and goddamn his jangly ways, but El was blocking him again.
Well, that or he’d been put out of play. Fuck.
Somewhere below on the road, Smecker was acting like a one-man demolition team. The man had serious issues with the MacManuses, had developed a split personality instead of remembering his godhood like the rest of them, and if he calmed down enough to remember about it, he’d trigger the apocalypse. And Sands’ cell phone was fucking beeping at him.
The stone beneath Sands flexed and he made a desperate leap seconds before that building went the way of mass-destruction. He couldn’t exactly tell where the other fucking buildings were short of setting a little bit afire and homing in on that, but of course doing that gave away his position. Anyway, he hadn’t had time thanks to his fucking distraction and so he was thanking fucking—well, not God now—he was just really, really happy that his fingers scraped a handhold and he didn’t end up impaling himself on anything. Sands scrabbled up the rest of the way and dropped beneath the ledge. Then he dug out the fucking phone and answered while he desperately tried to sense if Smecker had found him again. “Go eat a pussy and shit kittens, you ill-timed fuckmook.”
*It’s not in my horoscope,* Vera dryly said. Cunt of a Norn that she was, but then that wasn’t surprising, considering that her name roughly translated to ‘Necessity.’ *What did you mean when you said that Smecker wouldn’t initiate Ragnarok?*
“I mean—” Sands traced a rune in the dust, then scuttled across the roof “—that he fucking wasn’t going to do it. Not the way you want him to. He’ll do a half-assed job and nothing’s gonna come back, you stupid, stupid bitchy piece of cosmic shit.”
He stuck a hand over the edge of the roof and sagged in relief when he felt another roof abutting right against it. Lower by about four feet, but he could drop down onto it without making too much noise. Goddamn it, he needed his fucking eyes. Or at least a seeing-eye mariachi—bastard owed him.
Cunt owed him too, come to think of it. Vera was snarling. *Unlike you, Woden always understood his responsibilities.*
“Like fuck. I was supposed to be the fly in the soup—he’s supposed to be the goddamned wise one—well, he’s got fucking dissociative disorder right now.” Sands caught a whiff of ozone and threw himself behind some blocky air vent just in time. He smacked his elbows and one knee, but he missed getting skewered with the debris from a blast aimed right where his illusion had made it look like he’d been. “Does that fucking sound like Ragnarok to you? No, it doesn’t. It sounds like one guy getting really fucking pissed off at the manipulative world.”
*What—what’s going on?*
Fuck. His cane. He’d left it back--fuck fuckitty fuck fuck. And he’d spent so much time customizing it into a perfect bludgeon and a blade-sheath, too…after the whole mess blew over, he was making El buy him a new one. “He doesn’t remember! He’s Smecker and he’s Woden. He doesn’t fit together—it’s not seamless and his mind’s going to pieces. He’s—”
It was quiet. Too quiet.
Sands instinctively rolled left just as something very hot crashed into the spot where he’d been. Pain scraped over his back and he shed his jacket seconds before it would’ve melted into his skin. As it was, he was going to have one hell of a burn for the next couple of days. “And by the way,” he shouted as he ran, “Woden doesn’t goddamn remember himself how to do it! He needs Munin to—you know why he’s trying to kill me right now? Not because I double-crossed him, not because I got fucking Balder killed again, not because of my—I don’t even have kids this time round. He’s trying—”
He took a leap and there was nothing beneath him. Seconds before he would’ve been a splat on the pavement, Sands threw out a spell and softened the landing, but that cost him time. That also cost him his illusions. Crackling light replaced the blackness surrounding him, its hungry tendrils reaching out for him.
“Well, he was trying to kill me because he thought I was his stupid pet raven,” Sands told Vera. If he was going to get wiped out, he was at least going to get the last word. Jabbering on a cell phone made sure that he wouldn’t die a heroic death. “Now he’s trying to kill me because he found out I’m not. I’m pretty sure this isn’t how it’s supposed to go.”
*No! No, it’s not. What the hell did you do—*
“What the hell did I do? What the hell did you do to get him like this?”
But before Sands could get an answer, the light flashed inwards from all directions. He met it with everything he had, but Woden was Woden for a reason. Sands’ defenses collapsed quick as water turning to steam when lava hit it; he threw out his arms from old habit, as if it were like something as mundane as a falling building, and the cell phone torched in his hand. Flame started to hurt him instead of help him—
--and suddenly it split apart. An arm that Sands could see yanked him out, and then kept yanking him at a dead run.
El smelled like a smokehouse and the sound of his footsteps was slightly wrong, so he was injured. Too bad it wasn’t in the mouth. “Do you always stop to make a phone call when someone’s trying to kill you?”
“Well, if you’d fucking remembered that I’m blind—owfucksee? Exactly what I mean.” The pile of…whatever…damn near kneecapped Sands and he fell hard against El. So the macho bastard swung him up and over a shoulder before he could even point out that Smecker wasn’t exactly going after them anymore. “Put me the fuck down before I kick out your—thank you, you big, strong chunk of manmeat, you.”
“I think I’m supposed to kill you this time.” There was a little too much speculation in El’s voice. Fuck knew how it was squeezing in, considering they were both completely blown by their efforts in the past hour. El sounded like he was barely managing to stand.
As for Sands, he wasn’t a hero so he didn’t need to come up with excuses about flopping in the middle of the street. He barely felt the cuts of the rubble strewn all over the place; anyway, it’d all heal. “Shut up. He’s going for your fucking friends and those damned twins. Where’d they go?”
“I thought when the world ends, all Americans want to do is have sex one last time,” El archly said. He dragged Sands to his feet, then took off again with that annoying assumption that Sands would automatically tag along.
If El hadn’t been taking the safety off what sounded like a very, very big gun, Sands probably would’ve kicked the feet out from under him. As it was, only the fact that Sands needed to pay attention to El’s footsteps in order to figure out where not to go kept Sands from crisping the cockteasing skullfucker. “The world is not going to end, and if you keep this up, I’m going to nut you instead of climbing onto your cock—wait. You’re distracting me—you—why are you distracting me? It wouldn’t be because—fuck! El! Your friends are so stupid—”
“Where else could they go?” El fired back. All the amusement had dropped from his tone.
Sands snarled and hit out at the other man, but El had a point. The really annoying thing about the end of the world was that even if it wasn’t going to happen, putting it on ‘indefinite stall’ had to happen at the same place where pushing the start button went on.
He grabbed El’s jacket, hung grimly on, and ran faster.
* * *
Ed had been doing a run-stop-run routine for the best part of an hour and he hadn’t gotten any closer to whatever or whoever was causing all the damage. Lack of breath made him stop and lean against a wall across from the still-smoking ruins of a restaurant.
“This isn’t working,” he muttered, grabbing at his knees. His breath was wheezing in and out of his nose, and his legs told him they only had one more run left in them before he passed out.
No shit, Sherlock, said Smecker’s voice in his head. All Ed was doing was blindly running around behind people. What he needed to do was outthink them and then get to the next place before they did. So…Paul was involved. Paul appeared to be having mental issues because of the Saints. The Saints were Irish Catholic.
He hit himself on the forehead. Then he got off the wall and headed for the biggest bell-tower he could see.
* * *
“A church,” Lorenzo said, staring up at the painted ceiling beams. He didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or ask Fideo for the flamethrow.
//A cathedral dedicated to St. Michael, saint of battle. Field of the final fight for the soul. Close enough to Vigrond.// It was probably pointless, but Fideo took as much care in putting the last stitch in Lorenzo’s shoulder as he would have at any other time. Funny how he could be curiously near sober whenever he wanted to, hopelessly drunk any other time, and genuinely so in both conditions.
Lorenzo had always meant to figure out how his friend had done that, but now there wasn’t time. Sands and El were coming up on one side of the church and they felt like bright bonfires. Smecker was coming up on the other side, and he felt like a tornado that was sucking at Lorenzo’s will, trying to make him bend to the old pattern. He could see the same tug straining at Fideo, and for that stress to show on the other man’s face, it had to be as bad as Lorenzo thought it was.
Murphy and Connor had dropped to their knees before the altar the moment they’d all arrived, but now Connor suddenly stood up, swearing. His brother looked horrified, but Connor went on to yank the crucifix he wore over his head and almost throw it at the wall before he caught himself. Instead he glared at it with tears starting in his eyes. “If this is all true, then isn’t it all a lie? What did Da die for, then? If Smecker can end the world, then what does that say about God?”
“But it’s not Smecker, it’s—it’s—” Murphy looked wildly at Lorenzo.
“Wodan,” Lorenzo supplied.
Connor shrugged. “So? So it still means that God failed, that we failed. Do you think the end of the world could come if things could be fixed? If there was still a hope? And if there isn’t, if this has all started because things are too fucking shite and someone’s pressed the rewind button, then that means all the killing was for nothing. All we did was for nothing.”
“That’s not true. This isn’t supposed to happen.” Murphy rose and grabbed his brother by the shoulders. He looked panicky and unsteady, as if he had no idea what he was doing, but he set his jaw in a way that said he was going to do it anyway.
Probably, Lorenzo thought, because if he didn’t, then he was just going to lose it. Goddamn birds…
Smecker needed Murphy to remember how to start Ragnarok. Wait—so if he couldn’t get to Murphy, then…Ragnarok couldn’t happen?
“You heard them—this is a mistake. A mistake. Somebody messed up—Smecker isn’t supposed to be doing this. It’s—We’re—remember what Da said about fortitude?” The ground shook and Murphy jumped so his grip on his brother dropped to one hand. He was pale, and his voice was wavering more by the second. “It’s got to be. Connor, he—”
And Connor got a point that Lorenzo completely missed, for he suddenly wrapped up his brother like he was the wrapping on the most precious gift in the world. “I’m not letting anybody do anything to you. But think, Murph. If we’re all—somebody else—then who was Da?”
“Mimir,” Fideo said. He straightened up from Lorenzo and perched on the end of the pew, waiting for Lorenzo to sit up.
Connor shot a look at Fideo that danced on the fine edge of grateful and furious, then turned back to his brother. He didn’t pay the slightest bit of attention to Lorenzo. “And Da…remember his last words. He knew this was going to happen. He thought it was going to.”
For once, Fideo actually seemed sorry for what he was saying. “It’s not a mistake. Mistakes can’t be changed.”
“But—” Murphy started, eyes wide and begging.
So damned wide that they must have glimpsed something, for his attention diverted and he caught Lorenzo drawing the gun. His first reaction was to toss his brother to the floor, which didn’t matter since Murphy was the one Lorenzo had been aiming for in the first place. But Connor was quick too, and Fideo was—Fideo jumped Lorenzo at the same moment that Connor, halfway to falling on the floor, kicked Murphy sideways. The bullet just missed Murphy’s ear and passed over Connor’s shoulder, drawing a spray of blood from thin air. For a moment, the outline of a wing flickered. Then it solidified.
Then he was on the ground hissing and Lorenzo had been slammed back against the pew by Fideo’s weight. The gun slipped from his hand and pain tore from his wounded shoulder through his body.
He took it out on Fideo, kicking and biting at the other man. //Goddamn it, I’m trying to stop it! If he’s dead, then that American won’t remember and it can’t happen!//
//It might not work that way—Lor—lie still, I just stitched up your--//
//You fucking drunken bastard! You always think you know so much, you always did, but what do you really know? The bottom of a goddamn bottle! El told me to look after you so I did, he trusted me to be the thinking one and so I am!// Lorenzo twisted around and got a knee under Fideo, but the other man writhed aside before Lorenzo could kick him off. He grabbed Lorenzo’s wrists and pushed them down.
Doing that got Fideo out of the way of Lorenzo’s line of sight so he could see Murphy rolling up, gun-first.
Then he saw Connor tackling his own brother while blood still spurted from the wing crumpled over his shoulder.
* * *
“Connor—he just tried to kill you!” his brother cried, struggling to get out from under him.
And he’d nearly killed Murphy himself by losing faith. The blood loss from—hell, just the awkwardness of having a big wing flapping from his shoulder—was making Connor lightheaded, but he got Murph pinned down. “I know, and this is how it started. Murph. This. Getting it wrong, thinking you’ve got to get somebody for something that wasn’t their fault. Smecker’s—I don’t know for sure what’s wrong, but he thinks we killed all those people. He wants to kill us for it.”
Once upon a time, Connor’s laugh hadn’t sounded so hollow. The turn he’d taken when those Russians had stormed into Doc’s bar had made him bitter and Murphy frightened as no one should be instead of lighting them both with righteousness. But at least it’d showed him how to see, finally.
“It’s just like what we would do, if we were him,” he told Murphy. The denial was strong in Murphy’s eyes, but so was the truth.
The truth still won out, Connor was relieved to see.
Over in the corner, Lorenzo and Fideo had stopped fighting and were listening. Lorenzo still looked like he was thinking about killing Murphy, so Connor gave him a look that let him know Connor wasn’t going to forget that, either. Then he went back to trying to explain it all to his brother. “It’s like…it’s having a choice, yeah? When we were doing it by ourselves, it was by ourselves. Then we were listening to Da because we thought we had to.”
“Because he was our Da,” Murphy said as if explaining to a small child.
Connor was going to smack Murph one for that later, when there was time. When his head didn’t feel so heavy and his vision wasn’t quite so blurry. “Yeah, but he wasn’t God. No man is God—no man should be. And this…this happening that we’ve gotten into, it’s making men into gods. It’s…it’s fucking bullshit, is what it is. I don’t believe in it whatever everybody says. Maybe it’s supposed to happen, but it can’t. People decide for themselves what happens later; it isn’t told to them that it’ll be this way.”
“Because otherwise we don’t work. Because we’re the consequences that come when somebody sins, and that doesn’t work if somebody else decides that that guy’ll commit a crime. Then it isn’t that guy’s fault. It’s the fault of the guy who decided that that guy would…fuck it, you know what I mean.” Murphy stared open-mouthed at Connor as he put it together. There was something in his face, something light and innocent, that Connor hadn’t seen in months.
Faith, maybe. Because even if they hadn’t asked questions, they’d still been having troubles with Da’s way of doing things even before someone had framed them for a series of murders.
“So if I kill you—” Lorenzo was speaking to Murphy “—then I’m just helping to make it happen. Because it’s not really your fault that that gringo’s confused.” For a moment, it looked like he was going to start fighting again, but then he slumped and hit his head against the bench. “Okay. Fine. Not gonna kill him, now get off me, Fideo.”
“Better fucking not,” Connor growled. But something was funny with his voice—he sounded too soft and weak.
His elbow abruptly cracked against the floor because his arms were slipping off. And his stupid wing, which he couldn’t wait to get rid of, hurt a lot when it knocked up against the altar steps. He lost a feather; he dizzily watched the long black stripe float lazily in the air while somebody called for him, shook him. Murphy. Right, Murphy. And someone needed to tell Smecker he was—
--“Wrong?” Smecker said from the doorway.
Connor remembered what was going on and made a last-minute grab at consciousness, but it was too late. He went into his faint kicking and screaming for Murphy. And praying.
* * *
El could feel the anger and fear building in Lorenzo and Fideo and he knew Smecker was approaching them far, far too fast. But the Norn had driven into Culiacan, and from what Sands had been babbling at him, he knew that Verdandi—it was funny how they all ended up in professions related to the law—had had something to do with fracturing Smecker in the first place. In her might lie the key to stopping him. Moreover, she had her own plans and it was obvious that hers did not coincide with El’s.
Smecker. Vera Dandi. With the time that El had left, he could only reach one. Either he went for Smecker and left the Norn to act unmolested, or he trusted in his friends to delay Smecker again and intercepted her.
“Lorenzo took a bullet, and Fideo’s a drunk,” Sands helpfully reminded him. “It’s you, so obviously the stupid blind-faith choice is the way to go.”
This time, El got hold of Sands’ wrist before he took off running. Of course, the other man found other complaints to shout; where he got the air for it, El had no idea. But El found it oddly reassuring, so he didn’t stop Sands.
Dandi saw him coming and met him with her arms crossed, leaning against her car. “You can’t fight fate.”
“Can’t I?” El slowed down and let go of Sands, who kept on complaining but who was circling Dandi without El even having to ask. He curled his fingers so the tip of his gun touched his fingertips. “What did you do to Smecker?”
She shrugged carelessly enough, but the muscles of her face were tense and her eyes twitched as if she were dying to look over El’s shoulder to where Smecker was. Shock lingered in her eyes, and El would have taken a bet with Sands that that was due to her realization of how much she’d miscalculated. “I arranged for him to believe that his idols were only tinfoil. He had faith in this world and he needed to lose it.”
“Well, he’s not stupid or oblivious. If he could still have faith, then that sort of says we don’t need an apocalypse yet, doesn’t it?” Sands reached out and laid a hand on the back of Dandi’s car so casually that even El almost forgot Sands did it for a guide, and not just as an expression of familiar contempt. “Jesus Christ, sugarbutt. If you’re that suicidal, couldn’t you just have arranged a private meeting? You don’t have to take the whole world with you.”
“I’m not suicidal. I’m only doing what needs to be done. We all exist. That enough is evidence that Ragnarok has been called for once again. And you—you’d best stop fighting it, or else any blame for its going wrong will be on your head.” Just as El was easing to her blind side, Dandi whipped around to glare at him. In that position she had Sands to her back.
Which was a mistake. She would have been looking for magic, or for some divine intervention, but it wasn’t the same as the last time. For one, not everyone was here. And for two, those that were had not come back the same.
No matter what he said, when it came to the last chance Sands was defiantly mortal. El could see the other’s man’s temper snap through his body; it propelled Sands over the car like a slingslot and he had his hands around Dandi’s throat before she could even register surprise at such a mundane method of attack.
She was, however, a Norn. Power instantly flared around them and came down with crushing force. El threw out his own workings, but the pressure she put on them pushed him down onto his knees. He sucked in a breath while he could, and it felt like he was drinking sulfur.
“Don’t…be…ridi…culous,” Dandi gasped. “You…you can’t…possibly think…you can…get rid of me.”
The muscle in her arm tensed. For a fraction of a second, she let herself weaken; Sands’ exclaimed curse showed that he wasn’t falling for it, but he couldn’t recover quickly enough to meet her sudden push. He went back and slammed against the car, throwing up his arms to block the slashes of power she was clawing towards him.
El stopped fighting her with magic and simply used himself. In the second he had between the cessation of his spells and the smashing of her power into him, he lunged and caught her by the hair. Her nails raked over Sands, but he twisted in a last effort to snatch her shoulder.
Then the world collapsed inwards to a point. El was forced down one way, Sands the other, and since neither of them would let go of Dandi, she snapped tight as a drum between them. Her scream echoed through time and space, fragmenting El’s memories so he was suddenly flattened in Mexican dust and leveled beneath a snowdrift eons old at the same time. His understanding of what he was doing slipped and thus so did his will. His fingers started to slip.
“El—Thor—you pussy-wristed little fuck. If your grip’s anything like your dick, then no wonder your wife came crying to me.”
Rage from both eras surged through El. His hand clamped tight and his roar took him back up to one knee before he even realized the tremendous strain against which he’d fought, and the snap that followed was so slight in comparison that he nearly missed it.
But then everything expanded, relaxed so fast that he reeled backwards and hit his head on the ground. In retrospect, he probably needed that to shake everything back into place. He also needed the moment it took for the black spots to disappear from his vision to catch his breath.
Then he sat up. Across the way, Sands was clinging to what was left of Dandi’s car for support; it and everything else in a hundred-foot radius had been distorted and crazed into a nightmarish landscape. Between them…between them Verdandi was a mess of blood and flesh, her head nearly ripped from her spine. El looked quickly away as he pulled himself onto unsteady feet.
“If she’d been right, then she would’ve just been unraveling,” Sands rasped. He teetered on his feet. “I can’t even see her now. When her neck broke, all the light went out.”
“We’re mortal. That’s how it works.” El got his hand under Sands’ elbow and began pulling them towards the cathedral.
Sands slumped heavily against El and nearly sent them both toppling over. He swayed the other way, head weaving as if he were trying to listen to something. “Yeah, and that’s supposed to be a benefit. Hey, you’re not going to puke on me, are you? Gonna get soft because she was a girl?”
“I’ve killed women before,” El said. He pulled them to a stop.
Just in time, for the waves of fear, rage and hatred that crashed over them were overwhelming and constant. They both staggered beneath them, though Sands seemed to bear it better.
“You realize we’re not going to make it in time for that show.” A laugh that was slightly more sardonic than desperate straggled out of Sands’ mouth. “Just so you know, El—I was kind of hoping I’d get stuck with you this time. Heimdall is so fucking straight-arrow it’s not even funny.”
“You mean you were hoping you’d get to kill me.” El managed one more step before he went down to his knees again, and this time he knew he couldn’t stand himself up again. His lungs were burning like acid gas was eating away at them and his bones had all turned to rubber. The weight of his gun pinned his arm to the ground.
There was a gash on Sands’ forehead, and more raw flesh peeked out of a large rip in the side of his clothing that was just over his ribs. If El stared at it too long, it seemed to pulse, as if the laceration went so deep that the lungs were visible. Another memory, El thought.
Sands shrugged. “Well, eventually. I was planning on making you suffer several decades of daily hell first.” A cough hacked out of him and he flopped over so his hair fanned out in the dirt. It made him look oddly young. “Okay, so this is when we’d fuck. Only you have such fucking bad timing.”
At least if the world was going to end, El could have one last laugh at the other man. And one last surprise—he hadn’t thought Sands was capable of a gesture such as that, of the mercy of which it smacked. Changes…he’d wanted to see the rest of them. He still wanted to; part of him doggedly refused to give in.
He knew it was pointless, but he mouthed the words of prayer anyway. Who knew what one god was to another god, but faith was faith no matter what its source was.
* * *
Ed turned around and there it was. He blinked twice just to make sure since he’d been circling and circling that damned bell-tower without ever seeming to get any closer to it. But no, he’d somehow stumbled onto the cathedral while thinking—actually, while seeing it over on his other side. It was almost like somebody had been willing him to miss it.
Well, things had been so weird lately that he wouldn’t be too surprised if that were true. Fuck knew that Vera alone was probably gunning for him. He wondered as he walked up the steps what the hell she’d been trying to do with Paul, after all. She might’ve been lying about not ever personally meeting him, and Paul could inspire a lot of people into homicidal thoughts without trying hard, but still. Something like this was way, way too complicated; most people would’ve just bought a gun and snapped off a shot at him while he was on a bender.
He could figure it out later. Right now…Ed frowned and shoved at the door again. It swung in about an inch before stopping, as if it was being blocked by something. When he banged his shoulder against it, he heard several muffled voices, one of which he thought he recognized. “MacManus? Is that—is that one of you?”
“Shite—Greenly?” Murphy, maybe. He sounded on the verge of hysterical collapse. “Get out! Get out! He’s—Smecker’s—”
The door slammed back so fast that Ed’s fingertip got crushed or nicked or whatever. At any rate, it was incredibly painful, it left him bleeding, and it most definitely meant he was staying around. He did a quick scan and spotted what looked like a blown-out window above the door. Nothing like a ladder or steps, though there was a hell of a lot of carving.
Ed had gotten two feet up before he’d even finished sighing. Some saint tried to eat his knee and he had a feeling he’d “accidentally” knocked out a tooth or two in retaliation. But fuck, he was Protestant. If the twins found out, he’d—holy shit. What was going on in there?
* * *
The church was a wreck, the benches flung topsy-turvy to the sides so as to form a kind of arena and the windows now only framing tattered remnants of their former glass tapestries. At least one of the ceiling beams was severely damaged, causing the roof to emit ominous groans, and debris blocked all the doors.
Lorenzo had pulled some stitches during the first—disastrous—exchange of blows and now he was dripping all over Connor’s unconscious form, his face growing whiter by the second. He couldn’t even hold a gun anymore, but was reduced to crouching back with a snarl. //Fideo, move.//
//No.// Stupid little puppy had picked up several tricks since last time, but he still made the mistake of thinking that drunk always equaled stupidity. Sometimes it equaled painful intelligence that just needed to be drowned out most of the time, if things were going to get along without straining people’s powers of denial too much.
Besides, Fideo hadn’t actually had a drink in the past seven or eight hours; it’d all gone to steady the twins, or to wash the clots from Lorenzo’s shoulder. He probably was more sober now than he’d been in the last five years.
Across the large space, Smecker was slowly pacing along the back of the cathedral. He emanated a kind of cold, cruel amusement, which was understandable. They had never really had a chance, given who they’d been and who he was.
“We’re fucked, aren’t we?” Murphy whispered. He shielded Connor’s head with his body as if trying to protect the other man from seeing, though Connor was still unconscious. Occasionally wings would flicker into view behind him.
//Losing his fucking nerve. Move over and I can buy enough time to get to that window//, Lorenzo suggested. A trickle of blood, brilliant scarlet against his ashen skin, had started from his mouth.
Fideo quashed the sudden desperate, fierce urge to pin the other man down and lick him clean, bathe his wounds. It wouldn’t do any good at this point, and not just because Lorenzo’s idea would probably get them killed even faster than if they just stayed put. It’d been a long, long time since Fideo had merited just having the company of the other man, let alone the ability to order him around.
He kind of hoped that, after everything was over, he’d find out that Lorenzo hadn’t only been staying because of what El wanted or because of the old tie between him and Fideo, but he was prepared for the other possibility. //No.//
//Why not?// Frustration and fear made Lorenzo revert to the petulant tone of his very young days.
A pinprick of pain stabbed at Fideo and then vanished to leave him feeling oddly looser, as if someone had just relaxed some of the many tangled threads that connected soul and soul and that wove strange coincidences. He grinned, but apparently Lorenzo had missed it for the other man just looked at him as if he were crazy.
He probably was. They all were, trying to turn their backs on what they’d been as if it were like changing clothes. //Lorenzo? I never thought you were an idiot. You just acted like one a lot.//
What it was, really, was turning his own skin inside-out, ripping muscles apart and reknitting them by force. Pulling nerves willy-nilly into new webs while they screamed and screamed, while even the comparatively mild pain of thousands of new hairs tearing free of his skin was excruciating nearly to the point of collapse.
Fideo staggered from his knees to four paws. He was half-expecting Smecker to make a fresh attempt while he was partially down, but nothing came from that corner except a thickening of amusement. Being drunk usually made saying ‘fuck it’ to an irresistible force a piece of cake, but it figured that Fideo would be nearly sober when he had to say it for the one time it truly counted. You couldn’t get more irresistible than fate.
“Jaysus.” Murphy started to drag Connor back, then stopped once he saw Fideo’s eyes. Then he reversed himself and held his ground. Even when Lorenzo, completely missing the point, mistook things for another pissing contest and forced his own change.
His scream as the transfiguration stressed his injured shoulder echoed through the cathedral, shaking the already precarious rafters. The effort dropped him straight to the ground as soon as he’d finished, and he lay there panting with tongue lolling and eyes dazed.
Fideo momentarily wished he’d remembered to cross himself first, but it was a small thing that should be forgiven. Instead he made a slight bow in the direction of the altar. Then he bent down to gently sniff Lorenzo and lick along the other wolf’s jaw.
“You actually think you’re going to stop me?” Smecker finally stopped savoring and walked into the aisle. His voice was strong, but his body was clearly failing on him: his skin was the color of piss and hung loose on his bones, and he moved as if he were put together with steel bars and rusty joints.
No, Fideo didn’t. But if Smecker was going to win, it would be at a dear cost.
“I will make thee wash thy altars in blood, and sacrifice thy own flesh before I see thee victorious. And this is supposed to make me change my mind?” A little chunk of wood lay just where it’d trip Smecker if he stepped on it. He vaporized it and kept on going.
“I guess that’d be a little meaningless if the world’s about to end, wouldn’t it?” Murphy was doing Fideo a massive favor and holding back Lorenzo.
As Smecker approached, he swung wide. So did Fideo in an effort to keep a clear shot at a lunge, but the amount of power swirling around the man was daunting, and there wasn’t enough alcohol in Fideo’s system for him to forget about the odds.
“You wouldn’t know anything about meaning,” Smecker snarled at Murphy, and for a moment his voice changed—his entire manner changed. It was a flashback to the moment in the hotel when someone had ripped through Woden like the personality of a god was merely paper, but it wasn’t long enough. Looked like Smecker had had time to build ways around that, but nevertheless, it was a thought.
Fideo shot a glance at Murphy, but Murphy was concentrating on Smecker so intensely that he didn’t even seem to notice his hand had slipped from his brother’s shoulder. Hopefully that meant Murphy had seen the possibility as well, and knew how to take it.
Murphy opened his mouth again, but before he could say anything, Smecker threw up a hand. Without thinking, Fideo cannonaded into Murphy and knocked him out of the way. Then it burned--
* * *
Geri howled and leaped before the ashes of Freki had even settled on the ground. It was a simple matter to remove him from the picture as well. After all, they had been made by him and he could unmake them as he pleased.
The only one left stared slack-jawed at the quickness of retribution. There was a joke in that, but it tugged too hard at the kind of thought to which he could not succumb, lest he lose control again. Instead he dusted his hands off and squatted so he was level with Munin. “Do you understand how useless resistance is now?”
“I understand that you’re not Smecker,” Munin shakily said. He drew his brother’s head and shoulders further into his lap as if seeking comfort from that. “You…you don’t really think, do you? You’re just going along with what somebody’s told you. He could be a nasty bastard sometimes, but he never just settled for somebody’s word. He went out and did his own checking.”
Rage swelled in him at such insolence, and he was preparing to simply carve the knowledge he needed from Munin’s mind when a voice suddenly interrupted.
“MacManus? Is that—is that one of you?”
Munin screamed an answer, but his reply wasn’t intelligible in the least for a fire-storm was suddenly trying to rip—who—where—
Paul staggered back against a pew and stared wildly about. A fucking cathedral? What was he…and it was falling on top of him. A big piece of the roof smashed down just left of him, and something else broke over his back so he nearly collapsed. He instinctively threw out his arms like that was going to stop it—
--except it did. It did and he was back on the forefront, but he was in bits and angry about it. Nothing was going as it was supposed to. “Why isn’t anyone cooperating?”
“Because you’re wrong?” Munin looked from him to Huginn, weighing something in his mind. Then he abruptly ripped himself away and scrambled for a gun lying nearby.
It was obvious what he was planning, but when attempted stop what the fuck--
“Paul? Jesus Christ, what the hell—”
The man wasn’t part of this. He was clearly nothing but mortal and had no links to the time before, yet the disruption he caused was great enough to affect the very strongest of gods.
Gods? What fucking gods? There wasn’t even a God, so how could there be—
* * *
“This is total bullshit,” Murphy was shakily saying, and Ed had to agree with him.
The cathedral looked…okay from the outside, but inside it was heaving and jiggling like the wood and stone had turned into gelatin. Bits kept breaking off the ceiling so that Ed was terrified of getting impaled on top of everything else; a hunk of stone smashed into his arm and left it numb for several seconds. Then the feeling started to return and fuck, but if it wasn’t broken he didn’t want to know how bad it was.
Cradling his arm, he let one tremor slide him up against a railing that looked like it’d hold. “Paul?”
It was just like a bad horror sci-fi film, right down to the earthquakes and the guy who looked like an alien had borrowed his skin without being too concerned about returning it. Paul’s clothes were completely shredded, and what was left had probably been on him since he crossed the border. One of his eyes seemed permanently stuck at extra-wide while the other alternately seethed with a literal red rage or squinted at Ed with a lost look straight from an amnesia victim.
His left eye snapped wide. “You have no right to be here.”
“Like fuck I don’t.” Ed didn’t know whether he was supposed to be freaking out or trying to sucker-punch the bastard, so he just played it by ear. “What the hell—you just whack me on the head and go running off to be fucking Clint Eastwood? It doesn’t work like that, you fucking bastard. What is it you’re always saying—you have to pay the dues, man.”
Whatever twisted up Paul’s face was absolutely terrifying, the fodder of a lifetime of nightmares. But when it smoothed out again, he actually looked…well, closer to himself, as long as Ed was comparing to Paul in the aftermath of a real bender. “Greenly, you dumbass. That goes for both sides of the fence.”
“What? Oh, you’re still going on about those murders and them micks?” And Ed didn’t give a fuck about what Murphy thought about all of this. At this point, he wasn’t real sure whether he came down on their side or not, considering what they’d done to everyone they’d ever met. “Goddamn it, you didn’t even stay around to see for sure if it was them—”
“It wasn’t! I swear on Da’s grave it wasn’t us!” Murphy had a bloody pistol stuck beneath his chin, and above it his eyes were just shy of crazed. His other hand was knotted in his brother—so Connor was out, whether that was dead or unconscious—hard enough to turn his knuckles white.
When Murphy spoke, Paul whipped around to face him. And something about how Paul did that made Ed’s belly go cold and Ed wish that Murphy had shut up. Because it fucking well wasn’t Paul answering. “It hardly matters.”
“Take another step towards me and I’m dead. I’m dead and you’re fucking stuck, aren’t you?” Blowing ash obscured Murphy for a moment, and it was probably that that gave Ed the momentary impression that Murphy had wings and a beak. But sight wasn’t required to hear the click of the safety come off.
“You would assume so—” said the thing with Paul’s face.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. This far into a shitty country, a career tossed away, and now Ed was supposed to sit and let them have their cryptic little conversations. Fuck, no.
He let go of the rail and went skittering across the church. When Ed was almost there, Paul spun to see him and some weird electrical discharge popped up at the same second to scorch Ed’s leg and arm. But it couldn’t stop his momentum…and in the last second, something held Paul back as well. He pretty much let Ed slam him into the bench-side.
“Of course it fucking matters! It matters because your entire life’s built around making sure the smart guys still bite it when they fuck around, because you care about all that justice shit even when it’s biting you in the ass. Because you can’t ever, ever be fucking wrong, can you?” In the morning, Ed’s throat was going to hurt like a bitch. But once he’d gotten started, it would’ve been impossible to stop even if he’d wanted to. It was…cathartic, or whatever. It was a last-ditch desperate-as-fuck attempt to finally make Paul listen to him.
It felt fucking good to do, was what it was. Almost a year of putting up with this shit and never getting a chance to let it all out.
“But you are and you know it and you can’t even be a fucking man about it! You think I’m just some dumb fuck that’s a good scapegoat, that’s maybe a good fuck, but you’re even wrong about that! Nobody goes to their fucking Friday-night-lay when they just need a bathroom to puke in!”
Paul raised a hand to yank at Ed’s broken arm, and that damned well hurt, but Ed was used to that coming from Paul. He cursed and shook the bastard some more. Ignored the world falling to pieces around them because fuck that, the world could do it as long as it gave him a couple more seconds to wrap up. He didn’t give a shit about the world at large, really—nobody could unless they wanted to go mad. What he cared about was what kept him sane, and if everybody did the same, then there wasn’t a problem.
“Well, wrong there. I came to this godforsaken country, I put up with the bad food, I put up with yet another Fed, and what do I get? What do I get? Not even a ‘get out of here before you fuck it up’—no, I’m just irrelevant. Fucking irrelevancy doesn’t track you down in the middle of a ghost town. Fucking irrelevancy doesn’t break your groove right when you’re about to be a stupid fucking moron and kill just because you think you’re supposed to. Fucking irrelevancy—”
The church heaved, breaking them apart. Ed slammed his hurt arm on something as he went done and the pain was so bad it ripped the breath from him. He fell numbly to one knee and listened to himself breathe because he couldn’t really feel it. His vision was full of black spots that wouldn’t go away, and when they finally did, it was to see Paul backing Murphy up against the altar. Murphy still had that gun beneath his chin, but the way he was shaking, he was going to drop it before he ever got a shot off.
“This has to be done,” Paul was muttering over and over.
“Like hell.” Still dizzy, Ed didn’t feel anything when Paul whirled on him, when the man pulled his own gun from somewhere and aimed it straight at Ed. Paul’s hand was shaking nearly as bad as Murphy’s was, but after so many years of monthly detox-strength hangovers, he was probably used to compensating for it.
The gun rose a little. “Shut up.”
“Or what, you’ll shoot me? You know something? That might actually not be as bad as you ignoring me.” Ed tipped onto his knees and one hand, then used the pew beside him as a support to sit up. “Fuck it. Go ahead. Play God. It’s what you always wanted to do, you miserable fuck. Play God and get us all killed because you think it’s right, but you better not mind the fact that I’ll be laughing at your idiot bullshit for eternity. Because you’re wrong and I’ll get the fucking last word for once.”
Funniest thing. Everything went silent; Ed had been screaming against a background of snaps and crashes and howling, but now that was all gone. If he tried hard enough, he thought he could even hear Paul’s heartbeat.
He started to look up, and that was when he actually, literally, swear-by-God-it’s true saw the world rip apart. It just shuddered into pieces and shriveled like bark in a hot fire, and its rips came racing towards him before he could even blink and beyond it was black--
“Greenly, you son of a bitch,” it was saying.
Then Ed passed out.
* * *
El collapsed on his back and stared at the sky, which had never seemed so blue. “It worked.”
“Yeah. You even got your friends resurrected.” Sands crawled onto El and cocked his head. “Think it’s gonna be awhile before they let that one go, though. I can hear Lorenzo’s bitching from here. Oh, never mind—that’s him and Fideo having celebratory sex.”
“You get used to it,” El said without thinking. Then he did think about it.
Eventually, Sands moved so he was straddling El with both his legs and his arms. He was just reaching for the top button of El’s shirt when El grabbed his wrist. “Okay, you definitely have to cut down on that. I may have just lost my pyro abilities, but I can hurt you in many other ways.”
“What are you doing?” El ran his hand over the other man’s back, feeling for injuries. Most of them had healed, and when he ran a fingertip around one of the long cuts that hadn’t, he could feel the new skin knitting over it. Apparently they hadn’t lost everything.
Sands shivered at his touch, then moved his hips over El’s crotch in a way that could get his skull smashed in or his brains fucked out—no in-between. “El, the world just not-ended. You still owe me a shitload since we survived.”
“And after that?” It wasn’t really much of a surprise to find that Sands was a biter. But he tasted good, and in a bizarre way, his so-called hurting was familiar in a way that made it something besides painful.
El rolled the other man before Sands could answer and ripped down Sands’ jeans. He licked a long hot streak up Sands’ thigh, letting Sands pull out as many hairs from his head as he wanted without actually getting any nearer to Sands’ cock.
Sands sighed. “Okay, just this one time—fuck the planning. Fuck me.”
Which El was perfectly happy to do.
* * *
Connor woke up in what looked and smelled like a hospital. There were tubes in his arms and one really fucking itched; he reached to pull at it and got his hand slapped.
“Leave that,” Murphy said. Then he jerked around and really looked at Connor.
A second later, the door was locked and Murphy was carefully woven between all the tubes so he could snug up against Connor’s side. His face was pressed into Connor’s neck and there was wetness running between them, but Connor didn’t call him on it. Instead he let his hand settle on Murphy’s hair and just breathed.
He had to ask, later. “So?”
“Culiacan got ripped up by a storm—the government evacuated people ahead of time, so lots of property damage but not many deaths. Da died while we were still trying to get to Boston; we tossed him in the Mississippi and ran for Mexico. Smecker just brought in a serial killer named Vera Dandi—you turn on the TV and you’ll hear all about it.” Murphy’s shoulders quivered in a harsh laugh. “He’s on vacation now—mental strain. And he told us not to call him again unless he calls us first. Don’t know if that’ll ever happen.”
“Just as well. I’m thinking we need a holiday ourselves—too long doing it Da’s way. Now we got to figure out how to do it our way.” Connor held his brother a little tighter. “And I’d be wanting to know what the fuck really happened at the end, and not just what Smecker made happen instead.”
“Aye.” His brother kissed him softly beneath his jaw, then nuzzled down for a well-deserved rest. “Aye, we can do that.”
* * *
Paul spent a lot of time staring at his hands. Once he’d noticed that Ed had noticed, he got a bit less obvious about it, but he still did it. That in itself wasn’t so bad, but then Ed started waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of a running faucet: Paul scrubbing furiously at his hands.
The first couple times he let it pass, given how touchy Paul was in general about being forced into vacation. But after he found bloodstains crusting a ring around the sink drain, Ed said to hell with listening to the staff psychologist.
It wasn’t long till the next time. Paul had only accepted Ed hanging around to help “monitor” his health if Ed brought home copies of casefiles. So Ed did, and Paul took them and locked himself in with them and only came out to shit, eat or shower. When he fell asleep, Ed had to pick the lock and carry him off to bed, and that could happen at pretty much any time.
This time it was in the middle of a football game so Ed almost missed the telltale splash of the water. When he finally did notice, he was in such a hurry to get up that he almost forgot to not turn off the TV. Thankfully, Paul didn’t notice a thing up until Ed was leaning in the doorway. “Lady MacBeth you’re fucking not. You keep scrubbing like that, you’ll have nothing but bones left.”
Paul didn’t look up, but his shoulders twitched and he stopped rubbing his hands. “You impress me, Greenly. I didn’t realize you even knew Romeo wasn’t an Asian kung-fu master.”
“Hey, I liked MacBeth. Lots of killing people and the girl who played the Lady was hot. And unless you’re seeing shit, this isn’t the fucking precinct. You could call me Ed.” Ed pulled a towel from the bar and waved it at Paul till the other man took it. Of course, he snarled at the same time, but any kind of reaction from him was a good sign. “You ever gonna tell me what happened?”
“You ever going to appreciate Hispanic cuisine?” And quick on the heels of that flippant nonsense came a wince back into the kind of dry, harsh seriousness that usually meant Paul was going to get wasted. But the other man didn’t make any moves towards the whiskey Ed knew was tucked behind the Massachusetts Legal Codes. Instead he stared at something dark and twisted that lay behind the mirror. “If you were God, what would you do?”
After a moment, Ed realized that was it. No punchline to make it into something that made sense. “Isn’t that a bumper sticker?”
“Stop stalling and answer the damn question,” Paul snarled, slowly turning. Then he dropped his eyes and tried to slip past Ed.
Ed stuck out his arm. “Do about what? About—about the world and shit? I—hell, why would I want to be God? He’s got so much shit to do, and I can barely manage keeping you from going off the deep end. Let ‘im do his thing, and I’ll do mine, and I figure it’ll all work out somehow.”
“Will it now,” Paul muttered. He paused for a moment, then pushed at Ed’s arm—in the direction of the kitchen, which hadn’t seen him in a literal month.
“Hey, you okay?” Ed called after him.
Paul shrugged. “I’m not all that reassured about the progress of humanity, but it’s hard to see what could be a better world.” He went another pace, then looked over his shoulder. “Decaf, two sugars.”
“I—you—you know, you’re technically not allowed to order me around. So I could choose to ignore you.” Their staring match lasted less than ten seconds. And even then Ed had to will himself not to grin stupidly. He’d remember how annoying Paul was in a couple days, but right now he was ridiculously happy to see some familiar quirks from the other man. “Fine, you wrinkled old fuck. Swear to God, I could save the world and you’d still—”
When Ed turned around, slack-jawed, Paul was staring off again. “Thanks,” Paul quietly said, and then he went back into his office.
Well, fuck. And no apocalypse yet. Maybe there was hope.