We are the four. We have always been the four. And we will always be the four. We are the cause of it all. We have always been the beginning of it all. And we will be the end of it all. I am the leader, for what little that is worth, as we all plan and we all carry it out in our own ways. Some may claim it was easier in times long ago, but the acts of suffering and murder are never so different as to be difficult. Not for us, at least, for we are the four.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
My footsteps made no sound at all as I descended the stairway as it spiraled downward into comfortable blackness. Most times, they were silent, otherwise they pounded like a thousand cannons bursting on a single target. However, today I was neither angry nor excited enough for that. Not yet.
Our horses stayed in what I liked to think of as an underground pasture, which was located at the base of the stairs both to allow distance between the stairs and where we four stayed, and to give us an extra defense; they were no ordinary horses. Today, the black and red chestnut met me at the base, the other two away in their pens perhaps. The red one was mine, and it greeted me as such, but the other showed its teeth a moment before recognition came its way. With the red in the lead, they came right to me, nuzzling against my chest, circling me closely which rattled my bag and the metal within. The red one tried sticking his nose in my pocket with a snort and a whinny. The horses grazed upon mosses and whatever else grew down here, but that of course was not their choice. I dug in my pocket, finding two small silver bullets that would suffice. After rolling them in my palm to warm them and squeezing them in my fist, I held my hand out flat to the horses with two short, stubby carrots thereon. The beasts gently took them, gobbling them down hungrily, especially the black which belonged to Hunger himself. They made excited, breathy noises as they ate and mine nuzzled me a thank you as I petted his mane.
I continued across the plan and down one corridor of a hundred into the main room. Clouds upon my shoulder exploded, echoing in the small but long space. I was never free of that sound, no matter how silent my footsteps were. When I entered, I set down the sleek, cold metal of my gun and sword and asked casually "How go things?" as I asked every day when I entered. I was met with two affirmative responses:
"Fantastic," and "Jusd fide," from Death and Hunger respectively.
Death, the skinny, shriveled one was tall with long strings of unkempt hair down his back. His complexion was a yellow-green to match his horse's coat. Or perhaps it was that his horse's coat matched his skin. Today he was dressed in black robes that slimmed him, making him resemble a mere skeleton with a cloth draped around. His lips turned up in a thin, frighteningly eerie smile. Then, suddenly, he burst into flames and fell to the ground. As the skin and cloth burned down to his bone giving off no smoke or scent, I turned my attention to the other man.
He was famine and plague all at once, and preferred the latter as a name during this time of year especially. Though when the white one was around, he was inclined to pick whichever wasn't popular. It was a balance, just like everything else to him. Plague was sitting, lounging rather, on the couch beneath a blanket. Though beads of sweat sat clear on his forehead and his face flushed red at the cheeks, he shivered with chill. He didn't even look over at the spontaneously flaming body, instead tending to a runny nose with a tissue that he then discarded in the direction of a large pile beside him. Even compared to the mass of scorched flesh a few feet away, the man looked terrible, miserable, and sickly.
I put my hand into my pocket, clenching a fist around another bullet, to withdraw a cold, wet washcloth. I pressed it to his forehead tenderly. He sighed, shivering at the sudden cold and something else coming upon him. A something else that we'd all been through a billion times before. His breath heaved and caught in his throat. I gripped the side of the couch and closed my eyes tightly, bracing myself for it. "HAHTCHAHHH! HATSHOOO! AHTCHISHHH!" One... two... three... four... five... I counted until it was safe, then opened one eye to see him straightening back up, dabbing the soaked tissue to his pink nose. His eyes were red from pupil to veins, and watered when he blinked them.
Death, standing and dusting himself off, seemed glad to have missed that particular set. "He's been sneezing like that all day he has," his voice was soft but striking, his eyes a glowing red looking less pained and more evil than Plague's.
I smiled. It was winter in the west above us, which usually meant a constant sniffle from Plague for months. It was loud, strong and harsh but certainly more enjoyable than the vomiting.
"Jusd a touch of a code," he insisted before blowing the reddened nose and pushing the cloth back in place on his forehead. "Though subwhat worse thad yesterday," he grinned with pride. Then he passed, his nostrils flaring wildly. "Guys, I'b... I'b... godda..." his voice raised from a low gruff up to almost a high squeak "...godda... ahhhh... AHHHH...godda..."
"Take cover!" Death joked, ducking down, covering his head with thin, long sticks of arms. I gripped the arm of the couch tightly, offered a tissue, and then put a hand up to my shoulder, blocking the explosions over my shoulder from anything.
"AHH... AHHH...AHH-CHUSHOOO! AHH-SHUSHHHH! HUHSHEOOO! HUHTCHEHH!" He sniffled strongly and gave his nose a full, honk of a blow. "Bloody hell, that was strodg."
"No kidding!" exclaimed Death, who stood and began reattaching his arm nonchalantly.
The whole room had shaken at bit, and it had been as though a gust of wind had blown through, a moist and deathly chilling wind. I patted him on the shoulder with a sigh. "All right?"
He looked up at me, nodding. "Dever better." He gathered up a few tissues and with a flash of light, they'd transformed into a silver goblet of juice which I knew to contain some alcohol mixed in. When he drank, he drank well. When he ate, he ate in immense proportions. He offered it to both of us first, and we both declined as usual. He drank it down in a single gulp, then waved his hands at the pile of tissues. The area burst with a flash of light and a large feast appeared in its place: the very best cuts of chicken and ham, the pig glazed with an apple stuck in his mouth; the freshest, ripest fruits and vegetables in baskets the size of chairs; soups in giant bowls the size of water basins; cheese wheels the size of car tires, glistening in stacks; loaves of bread so warm you could see the heat rising from them; and deserts galore from cakes to sorbets. He ate... and thus the world went without. And he was always hungry, especially when he had a cold.
While he dug in, I strode over to the far end of the room, where a large globe sat spinning slowly on its own, hovering in mid air. Areas around the world flashed in light red simultaneously as the puffs of smoke over my shoulder sounded with tiny booms. Many parts glowed black, more like individual dots than regions, but when all the dots were close together it was difficult to tell the difference. Parts glowed a yellow-greenish sort of color, going slowly from light to dark and back again. But not many, if any, were glowing white. I bit my lip to restrain my anger. "Where is he?"
Death, holding a hand to his temple as blood poured out onto the carpet and localized in a puddle at his feet, shrugged.
Plague responded, his mouth full of bread and cheese, and his neck and arms breaking out into a soft rash which set off the red in his cheeks, "He got addoyed by de sdeezig add storbed out." He snorted and swallowed his mouthful. "As if I cad helb it?" he looked generally pained at the prospect, as if he may lose his appetite.
"Of course you can't," I reassured him then held up a hand to block my face as Death exploded in a mess of blood and smoke, taking with him whatever bursts were happening on my shoulder. I wiped my hand off on my pants and went back to Plague, who was just now starting desert. I waited for him to finish his current bite, and then leapt onto him, knocking a dish to the floor; it shattered then promptly disappeared. I pulled out a knife, straddling the man at his waist, growling playfully as explosions began again over both my shoulders and above my head. I couldn't see the smoke, but I could feel it and smell it. An intoxicating, addictive, stimulating smell. I pulled out my knife and Plague stopped trying to resist me. I touched the tip of the knife to the tip of his nose then worked the cold metal blade against his nostrils delicately.
His frustrated expression fell to a smile and his eyes widened. All at once, he turned away from me, grabbing hold of me for security as his stomach rose and fell and he was urged to close his eyes. He strained to move beneath me, but he was going nowhere. "AHHHH... AHHH..." he wavered, taking in more and more breath until finally, "AHHSHHSHH! EHHCHOOO! HUHESHHH! HEHTSHOO! HEH-TCHAHH!" the force tossed him about, but he was secure under my weight. I on the other hand, was nearly overcome by the gust; luckily he had turned away as much as possible. When he'd finished, frazzled, he waved his hand and indeed of a banquet meal appeared a new tissue box. Taking one, he gave his nose a strong wet blow. I put my hand on his shoulder afterwards, smiling as the bursts on my shoulder grew stronger, louder. I could smell the gunpowder and I could smell the murder. Plague sniffled and pulled the blanket up over himself with a shiver. "That's a good man, there," I told him, getting up.
Plague grinned with pride. "Thadg you, War."
"If a few sneezes were all it took, we'd have ruled the world long before now!" came a gruff, surly voice as Civil Strife strode through the door. He was decked out in rather objectionable, untraditional clothing: tight leather pants, a white tank top, large gold hoop earrings in his left ear, matching the chipped gold crown he always wore as a decoration more than a statement. He had no statement to make that his honesty in speech could not address. His hair was tame, sitting parted on his head, but died white so that on a sweep from top to bottom it went from white to the jet black of tight calve-high boots. He was bold and quite melodramatic in nearly every movement.
"Who says we ever meant to rule the world C.S.?" I barked back, feeling somewhat defensive of my man, sick and helpless as he was.
Civil Strife's eyes burned red with pure anger. He charged at me as he spoke "Why else are we here if not to take them, become their gods, rule and bend them to our will?" coming nearer and nearer until his nose was to mine. He smelt of a foul stink and his demeanor was unpleasant to my nerves. At such a distance, I could only look at him, one eye at a time, but the temper behind was mirrored in both. "Enslave... torture... control..." he spat each word out, hot puffs of breath on my skin.
I felt myself boil with anger and my knife, already drawn out from my play with Plague, shot to his throat with a pinpoint cut at the underside of his chin. He grinned in reaction, showing no fear, only a set of stained, retched teeth badly in need of a brushing. It was a grin that made my mood turn from cruel back to playful and in reaction I leaned forward, not to cut him but to bite him-- on his nose. "We are here to have our fun until the seals are opened for good," I answered him.
He yelped and backed off, holding his nose with his hand, covered in a black glove with the fingers cut off. He laughed, sounding pleased but his eyes still burning with rage. Not appeased simply by attacking me, he turned on Plague next as Death was busy melting into a bubbling pool of liquid goo on the other side of the couch.
Plague was rubbing rather boyishly at his runny nose with his palm, looking up at Civil Strife with earned disgust. "What do you wadt?"
"'What do you wadt?'" he mocked in a sing-songy sort of voice as he walked towards the couch, waving his hands in dramatic gestures. "Can't you do anything other than sneeze and stuff that nasty face of yours? Can't you fight? Can't you act like a real man?"
Plague growled a stuffy growl. "I'b as buch ad evil id this world as you are!"
Civil Strife laughed. "Keep blowing your nose and maybe some day when you say that it I'll believe you!"
"Ooohhh!" he clenched a fist of tissues and it became a turkey drumstick; hard enough to hit with, but I think he was probably trying for an actual weapon. This just made Civil Strife laugh all the more. "I'll show you who's... who... whehhh..."
With a snort, "Who's what? Whatcha gonna do? Sneeze on me?" He threw his hands up in the air, shaking his arms. "Ooh, I'm so scared!"
His nose wrinkled and nostrils flared, and he closed his eyes, aiming right at Civil Strife. "AHH-EHHSHHHH! HEH-TCHOOO!" He fell forward at the force, weakly. "Ahhh... AHHHH... AHHHH... AHHH--" and it backed away. The drumstick turned back into tissues, and he snuffled into them while sitting back up. He coughed from congestion and closed his eyes, sitting back against the couch in frustration.
Taunting, "Aw, did the big bad sneezes get the best of you?"
"Shut ub," he snuffled, still rubbing at his nose. "I dod't feel well edough to fight you right dow." He winced and coughed again, putting a hand to head.
"'I dod't feel well edough to fight dow,'" he repeated snidely, putting his hand to his head as if to throw a faint.
"Hey, lay off the sick, C.S." said Death with a push toward his point.
Civil Strife turned to him and pushed right back. "He's always sick. If' it's not cold and flu season is malaria or TB or AIDS. It's so annoying!"
Be he didn't shut up. "Almost as annoying as you dying every five minutes!"
"Oh, is that the best you can find to insult me?" he asked, pushing again. "At least I do something around here."
"Don't talk about my responsibilities like that. I'm just getting started!" he pushed back.
Death took a swing at him with a fist, and Civil Strife ducked, punching him right in the gut. Death doubled over, and Civil Strife grabbed a hold of his neck, squeezing and pinching tightly-- choking. Yes, choking. Death was definitely not getting any air at all. And as he struggled, he was being lifted off the floor slowly, inch by inch, squirming and blue in the face.
Reaching behind me, a pulled a toy from my bag and without needing to aim, I shot straight in C.S.'s heart with an arrow. "When a brother tells you to shut up, you'd better bloody obey, man!" I commanded. Civil Strife yelled and released Death, who fell to the floor and immediately went to punch Civil again. With a sigh, I reloaded and shot again, an arrow right in his heart. Death gasped and fell dramatically to the ground, his pale skin growing paler for a moment. The explosions on each of my shoulders had all but stopped now, and I could feel little arrows like drafts sailing in perfect arcs over my head from one shoulder to another. Tiny screams and yells filled my ears above the twang of bows snapping. I kicked the lifeless body and pulled out the arrow, running my hand over the head and shaft to make sure it was well intact, and then stuffed it with the crossbow back into my pack. Meanwhile, Civil Strife had pulled his own arrow out and his wound was quickly healing itself up.
"Put a hole right through my shirt!" he exclaimed, tossing the arrow back to me, then poking a hand beneath the top and wiggling his finger through the hole.
"Perhaps it will encourage you to practice better taste in fashion?" I suggested, tucking this arrow away as well.
"Perhaps you'd do best to mind your own business?" he was starting to get up in my face again already, slipping his hand behind his back in what looked like a stretch but was really a reach for his own bow and arrows.
"What my men, what my brothers do is my business." I held up my fist in anger, and I knew that he knew what I had clenched in it.
He grinned again, lowering his hand slowly. "My bow cannot compete with that." He shrugged. "You win again."
"This isn't about winning," I replied, putting a bullet back into my pocket. I jumped at him, taking him in a playful headlock and pulling the crown off his head. "It's about having fun!"
He squirmed free and snatched it back, clamping it back on the white mat of hair with a laugh and a snort. "Fun doesn't rule the world."
"Ah," I looked over at the globe, patches of red, black, yellowish-green, and now white were glowing constantly all over. "But it does," I corrected him. "Our fun does rule the world, C.S."
He turned to gaze at the globe as well, beaming with pride as the blue and green was covered with our touches.
Death came up behind us, putting arms over both our shoulders in a deep sigh. "Ah, a masterpiece at work. Isn't she lovely?"
Civil Strife ducked and shook the man off. He may have taken pride in his work, but showing sentiment or affection was as far outside his ways as breaking into a round of 'Kumbayah'. I shudder just thinking about that.
Death suddenly backed away, a hand to his heart, his breathing short and strained. He doubled over, clutching his chest in pain.
"A heart attack, how creative. Never seen that one before," he said with noted sarcasm. Civil Strife said with a sigh, walking back over towards the couch, then collapsing into one of the large, matching armchairs. "And you all say I'm overdramatic?"
Snuffling into a tissue and drinking another cup of juice, Plague answered, "Yes. Because you are."
Civil Strife rolled his eyes. "Coming from a man who's trying to take over the world with sneezes?" Plague opened his mouth to reply, but Civil Strife quickly interjected, "Shut up."
Tasting his own medicine, and with me eyeing them both to behave themselves for a while, Plague decided it might be best to keep comments to himself. He relaxed on the couch with a large, never-ending bowl of buttered, salted popcorn. And with another few sneezes that he couldn't seem to help, even after C.S.'s last comment. "Ehhh... EHH-HESHHHH! AHHTUCHHH! AKTESHHOO!" Forgoing counting this time as most of the others had been short, I opened my eyes and relaxed prematurely. I was hit in the face by the next gust of winds. "AHH-EHTCHHH! EHHHCHOOO!" One... two... three... four... five... six... I gave him another extra second, and when I cautiously opened my eyes, I found that his sneezes were indeed through now. He blew his nose using one hand as he stuffed his mouth in between with the other.
Standing and brushing dirt from the ground off of himself, Death took a seat in the other armchair, his bones almost cracking as he did so. "So, we ride a bit tomorrow?"
I nodded, leaning back against the wall to take in a wide view of my three men together and peaceful for one moment or two in a millennium or bitter disputes. "We ride." I was smiling at the notion as well. To strike some terror into their hearts face to face... to explore the lands and make each man on it suffer... to really survey what life above was growing towards. Besides, the horses certainly needed some good exercise.
Plague, rubbing at his nose, smiled back, then reached for an overly greasy piece of pizza.
Civil Strife gave his grin again, and put his feet up on the couch armrest less than an inch from a lounging Plague's face.
Death smiled as well for a brief second before a rather large piano came out of nowhere and squashed him flat.