"And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider's name was Death,
And Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth,
To kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth."
Just a warning for severe blood and gore, as well as cannibalism and infanticide. I'm not light with my violence, people.
The day was almost over and dusk was fast-approaching, the sky just beginning to shine with brilliant shades of yellow and orange. The colors blurred together and reflected off of the stray tufts of clouds, making the sky oddly akin to a watercolor painting or perhaps a stained glass window. The sun dipped below the foliage of the trees, its rays still trying to make a last hurrah as they speared through the gaps in the leaves in an attempt to illuminate the world like it was supposed to.
Even though the time this town had left with the sun was limited, there was still a haze in the air, a sizzling heat that was still intense despite the approaching evening, and all of the animals had scurried off into their nests and burrows as if they could somehow evade the blistering air. There had been quite the dry spell recently, and many trees stood hollow and abandoned, their branches gnarled and their roots withered. Most of them boasted a ring of dead and rotting leaves scattered around their bases like some sort of sickly halo, and as a hot, dry wind blew through, empty nests within these trees' branches rocked back and forth like empty cradles.
Despite these conditions, however, there were still kids that were out and about. School had just ended, and all of the kids were eager to take advantage of their newfound time, eager enough that they were willing to brave the heat. There were even more of them out now than there were during daylight hours, because- though the air was still hot- it was much cooler than during the morning or midday, where the temperature was practically intolerable.
There were a few that were kicking around a soccer ball or throwing a baseball back and forth, but most of them were content to chat up a storm as they sat side-by-side on the curb, their bikes lying forgotten on their front lawns. They enjoyed their time with their friends, completely oblivious to the dangers that lurked nearby, and eventually almost all of them were called in for dinner.
As the number of kids outside began to dwindle, the commotion and lighthearted chatter of the town began to fade, replaced by a soft hush. Silhouettes of people stood out against the golden light that blazed through the windows of their houses, and the leaves rustled on what little plant life had managed to survive the heat wave. Occasionally, a dog barked in the distance, but other than that, the town had fallen to the reign of a comfortable quiet.
It was almost peaceful, really, but then came the telltale sound of hoof beats.
They were like the chimes of a clock striking twelve, and they held a sort of finality to them, a message that clearly stated: This is it.
However, instead of the steady, heartbeat-like clipping and clopping that usually signaled these horses coming into town, these hoof beats were like rolling thunder. Four sets of staccato triplets drilled at the ground, tearing it up like they were moving through water rather than dry land.
The street lights lining the road began to flicker.
There was a chorus of muffled cries as- one by one- the houses all fell dark, the blackness consuming the streets as bulbs blew and fuses burned out. It was like the domino effect, and people leapt from their cars as their vehicles' batteries went dead in the blink of an eye, so suddenly that they barely had any time to process it.
For a while, the peace returned, just as blissful as ever. People in their homes blamed it on a power line falling or the fuse box short circuiting, and those who were stranded in their cars thought of it to be a freaky malfunction that just so happened to affect everyone on the streets at that time. But then time passed, and with time comes panic.
When finding that there was nothing wrong with their wiring or their fuse boxes, people filtered out onto the sidewalk, rushing to their neighbors and inquiring about a fallen utility pole that didn't exist. The people in the cars tried, to no avail, to jump start their engines, and eventually gave up altogether, opting to abandon their cars and seek out answers as to why this was happening.
The townspeople's anxieties only heightened when the town hall announced that they had absolutely no clue as to what may have caused this all-encompassing power failure. The police were investigating, but they could do little without their cruisers or professional electricians.
All it took was one person saying, "Hey, there's no signal!" for people to begin to panic.
Everyone checked their phones to find their batteries either dead or dying, and the Internet was completely cut out, along with any signal whatsoever. Even the phones in the town hall failed to work, and as the fear set in, the peace was completely shattered and eclipsed by disquiet.
People began to stream onto the sidewalk and, when finding out that none of the cars were working, the streets as well. They yammered and fretted despite the police's best efforts to assure them that everything was going to be okay, but no one knew what was happening, and there was nothing more uncalmable than a bewildered and scared mob.
"I don't know what the problem is," an electrician announced to the uneasy masses. "There's nothing wrong, it just…happened."
That certainly sparked an uproar, and though their fear wasn't heightened enough for them to spring into their homes and pack their things, it definitely made them hug their children a little tighter.
Over the clamor of worried voices, the poor fools wouldn't've been able to hear their hunters coming, but the ones who could pick up the noise made it well clear that they didn't want to stick around. Dogs began to bark madly, clawing under doors and straining against leashes, and people began to cry out in fright as some of the canines leapt over their fences and began to streak down the sidewalk, while others crashed through windows in a desperate attempt to escape, their barking and howling turning into screeching that ripped through the babble of the ever-growing crowds.
"No, no!" a little girl cried as her dog's bright red leash was ripped from her hands, almost sending her sprawling. The Labrador turned back once, and only once, before it fled, following the others.
After the dogs came the cats, who escaped through open windows, which were only open in the first place because beforehand the cats had never even dreamed of leaving. Now they were terrified and in need of escape, and they tore down the street after the dogs, their fur fluffed up and their hackles raised as they fled side-by-side with one of their worst adversaries.
Fear began to permeate the air like a thick smoke, almost tangible as children bawled and people clutched their spouses.
Birds began to take to the sky in droves, the sky nearly blotted out as they called to one another. Mothers abandoned their chicks, leaving the babies behind chirping and squealing for food, and they all amassed into one big flock as they swept out of town like a giant feathery whirlwind.
"We're being bombed!" one woman cried, clutching her knees as tears streamed down her face. "It's World War III!"
"No, it's an earthquake!" another person lost in the crowd proclaimed. "Everyone get to safety!"
More and more speculations were made.
The more people began to obsess over what could be happening, the more wild the claims made, until eventually some were very much expecting an alien invasion.
"It's like the Twilight Zone!" a man boomed. "It has to be aliens!"
However, out of all the claims made, there were bound to be a few that would rise above the rest.
"GOD HAS COME TO EXACT HIS VENGEANCE UPON MAN!" the minister for the local Baptist church yelled, clambering up into the bed of an abandoned black pickup truck. He raised his Bible, and what little light the sun still gave off glinted off of his spectacles. His face contorted.
"REPENT FOR YOUR SINS AND HE SHALL HAVE MERCY ON YOU, LEST YOU BE CONDEMNED TO HELL TO BURN WITH THE DEVIL!"
Out of all of the theories, this one seemed to be the most widely accepted.
"How else could the power have gone out all at once, along with the car batteries?" people murmured and wondered. "What could make our household pets so fearful other than the almighty God Himself?"
One by one, the townsfolk began to get on their knees to pray. Some clasped their hands while others retrieved crucifixes, yamakas, Torahs, Qu'rans, Bibles, prayer mats, and rosaries from their homes. One could tell how religious a person was judging by the state of the religious items that they brought from their homes that day; some of them were smooth from having fingers run over them constantly, but most had been fished out of old junk drawers and had been covered in a layer of dust before they'd finally been discovered.
People began to join up with others from their parish, synagogue, or mosque.
And there, as the sound of hoof beats- which they were still oblivious to- drew nearer, people of all different religions began to pray in unison. Hebrew and Arabic and Latin and Greek were hushed murmurs against everyone's lips and priests and reverends and rabbis and imams all came together to pray in unison.
It's beautiful, at times, how fear can bring people together.
Nonbelievers or those who simply believed that everyone was overreacting clustered off to the side, hugging their children as they conversed in quick, sharp tones.
"This will all be over soon," they were saying.
"Everything is going to be fine."
All of them sounded like they were trying to convince themselves, and judging from the looks in their eyes, that was probably the case.
Off in the distance, the hoof beats became louder, the thunder of it now audible for those who were really listening. But people prefer to hear rather than listen; they want their answers right here, right now, and if they'd just stopped and taken a moment, some of them may have been able to survive. And so they continued with their silly little prayers to their silly little saints and to their silly little deity with his silly little angels.
If one had the incredible ability to extend their hearing, they would be able to pick up the sounds that came along with the hoof beats.
The labored breathing of the horses as their sides heaved and their hooves pawed at the sky.
The clinking of knives.
The huffs of the riders as their fingers curled into their steeds' manes and their bodies hit the horses' backs with every stride, any saddles or bridles noticeably missing.
The sound of horseshoes ringing out against the asphalt.
The horses snorting and calling to one another, their eyes blazing and their mouths frothing as they surged against the wind like wolves excited for the hunt.
"AND TO MY PEOPLE, I PROCLAIM," the Baptist minister bellowed to his people, who were bowed before him like trees whose trunks were bent by the wind. "FROM ISAIAH 35:4, 'SAY TO THOSE WITH FEARFUL HEARTS-'"
The horses whinnied, their eyes crazed with bloodlust as the town seemed to rush towards them.
"'…BE STRONG, DO NOT FEAR-'"
The eyes of the rider on the white horse were eclipsed by a milky film almost the same color of his steed's hide. His veins began to turn black.
"'…YOUR GOD WILL COME-'"
The rider on the red horse began to cry. His tears were bloody and left red tracks down his cheeks. A wicked grin split his face like a crack in a sidewalk.
"'…HE WILL COME WITH VENGEANCE-'"
The blond boy's eyes turned as black as ink, glinting like two shards of obsidian.
"'…WITH DIVINE RETRIBUTION-'"
The rider of the pale horse drew a hood over his head, cloaking his face in shadow.
"'…HE WILL COME TO SAVE YOU!"
Someone screamed and pointed, and the tension that had built up exploded like a volcano.
There was a roar, and suddenly four horses were bursting forth, frothing and screeching as they surged through the terrified and frenzied crowd.
Bodies began to hit the floor faster than anyone could ever count, and people let out wails of alarm and leapt for cover as the horses plowed forward, trampling those who were too slow or weak to evade.
"Mommy!" a little boy cried as one of the horses, as white as snow and infested with disease, reared up before him. The mother lunged forward, but the rider's hand shot out lightning-fast, clamping down onto the side of her face, and the green-eyed teen laughed as the woman collapsed, screaming and writhing before going silent. Her son was not far behind.
"It's the terrorists!" someone yelled as they caught a glimpse of the black handprint, and the white horse whirled, its rider's grin absolutely wolfish.
"Worse, than that, buddy," he cackled as he rode back into the fray.
It was slaughter in its purest form, and pretty soon blood was slathering the streets like a coat of fresh paint, strewn with the dead and dying. Police fired off round upon round, but none of the bullets ever seemed to hit, not to mention the fact that they risk shooting a civilian full of lead rather than their attackers.
"Smith, we have to do something!" a sergeant barked, turning to his comrade, who had lowered her gun and had inclined her head to the ground. "Smith?"
The sergeant screamed as the officer leapt at him, her eyes leaking bloody tears and her fingers contorted like they were claws. Their friends watched in horror as Smith tore the sergeant to shreds, ripping open his chest cavity and beginning to tear up his organs all while he was still alive and screaming.
A red horse thundered by, its rider lashing out with a baseball bat covered in wickedly sharp nails and shards of glass, and he cackled as he brought the weapon down in a deadly arc. With a sickening crunch, a woman's skull imploded, and her husband screamed as she crumbled to the ground, her head crushed like a melon beneath the red steed's hooves.
A little girl sat crouched next to her younger brother's corpse, her eyes wild and the lower part of her face slathered in blood as she scooped out flesh from his abdomen and ate it raw. Her parents were next to her, their wrists boasting black handprints and their eyes empty.
There was carnage everywhere, the whole world soaked in red.
A man shrieked, clutching his husband's hand before he was ripped away and was swarmed by a group of savages, who began to tear chunks from him before he was even dead, and one could see how he kicked and writhed beneath the mob for a while before he stopped moving altogether, his dying screams drowned out by those of others.
A teenaged boy wailed as a black horse charged at him, and the poor guy never stood a chance of escape as he slipped on the blood-slick ground and fell, letting out an agonized cry as the horse brought down its front hooves and smashed his spine in half.
The horse's rider had a manic gleam in his eyes and he reached out and caught a fleeing woman by the neck. As soon as his fingers touched her, her skin sucked in around her bones like someone had vacuumed all of the stuff out of her. The literal bag of skin and bones fell limply to the ground, and the rider let out a moan, putting a hand to his stomach.
"Finally, a meal. It's been so long…" his words were lost in the frenzy.
It was a massacre, and a gruesome one at that; however, on the sidelines, a less violent entity drifted from house to house.
"Here. Sleep," the black-haired boy murmured to the infant in the bassinet, whose mother was outside and in the process of fighting her husband to the bitter death using nothing but their teeth and fingernails. The slaughter outside had thrown the baby into a fit, and it was crying incredibly hard, its face red and its expression contorted. "Don't worry, little one. Death at the hands of the others will not be as forgiving."
He placed two fingers on the child's head, and the infant stopped crying for a few moments, staring at Nico with big, round eyes, before its heart eased to a halt and it slumped, dead. Nico took a few moments to close the child's eyes and pull a blanket over its head before he drifted from the house and back to his pale horse.
"I hear another child in the next house over."
And that's how he went.
House to house, crib to crib, he offered the infants and those that were protecting them a better way out.
"But why can't you just rescue us?" a woman sobbed, clutching her two-day-old daughter to her chest. "If you can't rescue me, can you at least rescue my child?"
"There are things you just…couldn't understand," Nico replied gently, his black robes rippling whenever he moved. "But I promise you'll be met with a beautiful afterlife."
"I-I'm an atheist."
"Don't worry about it," Nico suggested. "Would you rather fall at the hands of my comrades?"
The woman took a look outside, watching as the red horse trampled a six-year-old to death. After a long quiet, she shook her head.
"Would you want to live in a world that they have ravaged?"
Again, she shook her head, and she hugged her daughter tightly against her chest, tears dribbling down her face in an unceasing flow.
"Then I think you know which path you should follow."
"What do I have to do?" she whispered hoarsely, trembling so hard that Nico feared she would shake right out of her own skin.
"Just take my hand," he explained calmly, extending his palm towards her. His long, pale fingers laced with hers, and with the other hand he grasped her daughter's meaty fist. "This'll be quicker than you think."
When it was over, he tucked the two into the bed in the master bedroom, glad to know that they were in a place that was much better than here.
By the time the whole village was dead, the sun had risen once more.
It bore down mercilessly upon the earth that it usually nurtured, bringing forth unimaginable heat.
And as the horsemen drifted from town to town, the sun did nothing to help. It did not bring back the plants that suffered Famine's wrath, but rather made sure that they stayed dead by frying them in the intensity of its rays. It did not provide comfort to those trying to escape War's influence, but rather caused them to dehydrate and die. It did not soothe those infected with Pestilence's plague, but rather made sure they died hot and in agony on the blistering asphalt. It did not provide a cure to those who encountered Death, but rather made sure their bodies festered in the heat.
The sun is often associated with life and at times, God.
This sun, however, could not care less.
At first, there was silence.
It was like the heart of the world had stopped beating, because there was no background noise. No humming engines or rustling leaves or chirping birds or chugging machinery.
Buildings stood forgotten, their windows smeared with grime and weathered with age, and cars stood like mangled husks, crowded in the middle of the street as rust began to creep up their fenders and their bumpers. Skyscrapers leaned in like they were peering at something interesting on the ground that they wanted to get a closer look at, and doors hung open, the darkness that lay beyond them making the doorways look like gaping maws.
The sky was no longer blue; without the trees to root down the soil, dust and sand had taken to the sky and blotted out the beautiful color that was normally associated with it. Now, it was a mass of different colors of brown, all of them fighting for dominance. Unlike the sky from before, which had a wide range of emotions, this sky was always angry, always roiling and stewing. The earthen clouds churned with irritation, blocking the sun and plunging the ground into a terrible freeze despite the fact that it was practically midsummer.
What trees that were still left standing were all dead, their bark greyed and worn, pockmarked like it was old leather.
Though the ruins were large, they weren't the least impressive. It was rather sad, actually- a metropolis reduced to nothing but a city long forgotten. Stores lay vacant, apartments deserted, and public parks completely abandoned.
On one street, two stately lion statues guarded the entrance to a huge library. The library had long since imploded, collapsing and trapping its vast loads of knowledge among the rubble, and one of the lions was missing its head.
A huge park lay amongst the debris, but all of its grass had long since withered, its trees nearly disintegrating. There was a zoo here, too, but all of its animals were slumped in their enclosures, bits and pieces of their skeletons beginning to peek out from wrinkled, rotting skin.
And in the water, a large green hand that was holding a huge copper torch could be seen peeking out over the surging grey waves. It would be consumed by the tide eventually, though.
Now, it would be a sin to describe all this, and yet not describe the most interesting- or rather, disturbing- part:
They were less rotting- the flies that usually ate them away already long gone- and more weathering. Sand and dust and ash and all sorts of things had taken to the air, and- combined with the howling wind that never seemed to rest- had sandblasted and abraded most of their skin away. Grinning skulls leered from back alleys and under cars, some parts still hidden under skin, and it seemed that wherever anyone looked, there was death.
Now, at this stage, people probably wouldn't be able to recognize what exactly caused all of this to happen.
This was probably because this was one of the earliest cities affected. In fact, it fell into disrepair about a year and a half before all of the other cities did. The bodies had a head start when it came to rotting, considering the fact that all of the crows and the wild dogs used to pick at them, but now nature was taking it into her own hands to try and wear them away.
The only things here were the buildings, the cars, the dead trees, the bodies, and the silence.
Always the silence.
It remained this way for quite some time, but one day, everything changed.
One day, the silence was driven out by the sound of hoof beats.
For about two days, this clopping continued, moving across the island and eventually across the river, where they stopped in a place that had once been known as Brooklyn.
Only a few people really knew its name anymore. Most people had forgotten.
The source of the hoof beats, a pale tan horse, was pulled to a stop. It shook its coat, and for all that anyone knew it could've been white; its coat might've just been stained from all of the dust permeating the air.
The rider's feet didn't make a sound on the concrete when he dismounted, and for a while he just brushed himself off, his nose crinkling.
The horse snorted.
"Yes, this is the place, Arion. I know it is," the rider chided, his words rolling through the empty streets like a clap of thunder.
The unlikely duo meandered through the streets, and occasionally the rider would peer into decrepit houses or wriggle through slumping fences, on a search whose mission was unbeknownst to everyone except him and his equine companion. Wherever the young man in the cloak went, Arion followed close behind, his nostrils flaring as he scented for any nearby intruders. The rider's black shawl brushed against the ground wherever he walked, kicking up some of the dust and dirt that had managed to settle, and Arion sneezed, tossing his head indignantly as his ears rotated left and right.
Large apartments bled into neat little rows of houses, the grass in the front yard completely browned and their gardens ravaged. Many of them had collapsed or fallen into a state of heavy disrepair, so that's why it was a surprise when the rider in the shawl stopped in front of one particular house.
It had used to be white, with blue shutters and a well-manicured lawn, but it was faring just about as well as every other building. Its shingles were missing, its siding mangled, and it seemed to have fallen long ago.
The young man in the shawl walked up the sidewalk and up the steps to the near non-existent porch, and the more he approached the house, the more he looked like a mourner in that black cloak of his.
Arion loitered by the sidewalk, wary, as the young man removed his hood to reveal a rat's nest of black hair that was near shoulder-length.
"Hello, Mrs. Zhang," he murmured to the wreckage of the house, running his hand over the cracked and leaning remains of a column.
There was no reply, naturally, and despite this, the black-haired boy slowly lowered himself to the ground, sitting cross-legged in front of the ruins.
"You may know me. I'm Nico. I work with your grandson."
Still no reply, and yet the boy, Nico, continued on as if he'd been given acknowledgement, "I'm here to tell you not to judge your grandson too harshly. You don't know the full story. He's probably the purest out of all of us. Well, at least he used to be."
"World War III is going on in the East," Nico added offhandedly, almost like an afterthought as he drew loopy designs into the layer of dust on the ground in front of him. "As a woman who lost her daughter and son-in-law to war, I don't think that would please you all that much."
"The other three like their jobs. They've been corrupted by it, actually, but I- I haven't been," he sighed, running a hand through his hair and making it even more unkempt than it already was. "I'm feeling worse and worse as time goes on. I'm not sure if it's right."
There was nothing except for Arion shifting restlessly behind him, nosing at the decrepit grasses, which had grown wildly before finally succumbing to death. The horse, unsurprisingly, didn't find anything edible to entertain himself with.
"So I've been going around the country," Nico continued, his voice growing softer. "I've hit Jason's sister's house, and now I'm at yours." He worried at his lower lip, bowing his head as if in prayer, but that was far from the case, judging by the tears that pricked at his eyes. "I've come to tell their stories. So that people understand that they're not…they're not born and bred killers. They had lives, families."
He let out a bitter chuckle, rubbing at his face. "I know I had mine, at least."
A cold wind blew past, making Nico's shawl ripple like the waves of a black sea, but the young man was unaffected by the chill.
"Frank let it slip that you used to call him 'Fai.' Because 'Frank' wasn't Chinese enough," a pause, "From what he's told me, you sound like a great woman."
Arion whinnied, and Nico shot him a glare, his eyes narrowing, and the horse reluctantly quieted, tossing his head and lashing his tail.
"I suggest you grab a seat, or whatever, because Frank told me a lot about himself, so this is going to be a long one," Nico advised, lacing his fingers together. Tears were dripping down his cheeks. He took a breath and began from the beginning:
"You could say that Frank and Death had been scandalously, scandalously intimate during the past few months, and the teenaged boy would do little to argue with you…"
(A/N) OMG THAT'S THE END! PLEASE REVIEW YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT IT BC I LOVE YOU ALL AND WANT TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!
DISCLAIMER: I DO NOT OWN PJO AT ALL
Chapter title is from the song "Cancer", which was covered by TØP