Chapter Twenty-Two: Warsong
Jack was speechless. In school West had always been the strongest and the meanest. At fourteen he had been given a special award by the state for being more physically adept than others his age. In that same year he had been suspended from school for threats and acts of violence against faculty and peers.
It didn’t seem like much had changed over the years. He was still tall and muscular, and his eyes were still wild. West was the perfect bad boy in many ways. The only problem was that he was too bad.
West pointed and glared. “You are the vessel of Eros, that sewer of lust, are you not?”
Jack swallowed the lump of fear in his throat and choked out a response. “I’m not a vessel. I’m his master.”
“Slave to a human.” West sneered. “Eros is weak.”
“He’s not my only slave. Athena is mine as well.”
“I am unimpressed. They’re both whores.”
“You think you’re any better, because to me you just look like a bully with a big head.”
“I told you. I am violence. Nothing more, nothing less.” He scowled. “I will crush you and drag your corpse around to show all who would challenge me. I will make your family and followers watch as I hang you from the highest point and drain your blood.”
“Big talk,” Jack snapped, and he stuffed his hands in his pockets to hide their shaking. The look West had was a hunger of a different sorts. It was beyond lust. It was insatiable. “Let’s get down to business: a trial between champions. Winner takes all.”
West barked out a laugh. “You rely on formalities. I won’t. Athena and Eros love their games. I love only death.”
“No discussion! We do this as men!”
He moved so quickly that Jack hardly had time to react. His long legs seemed to throw him from point to point, granting him speed unnatural for any human. By the time he reached the other end of the court Jack had hardly managed to scuttle the short distance away to the swing set.
Jack had no plan of attack and was entirely outmatched. So he did the only things he could think of: run and hope something better came to him. He was barely able to clear the threshold of the swings when West arrived.
“Coward! Stand and fight!” West bent the steel frame of the swing set with his fist. “The chase only makes me hunger!”
Jack scurried up a plastic slide and ran down the other end of it. Rather than follow West simply grasped the slide itself and tore it away in a shower of ruptured bolts. Then he sauntered beneath the frame of it, following Jack in a menacing calm.
“Flight will get you nothing! Stand and face me. Your death will be swift!”
“Or I could run and live to see another day!”
West roared and gave a herculean leap. He flew through the air, sailing smoothly over Jack’s head and landing in the center of what was a merry-go-round. It shattered beneath his disproportionate weight and momentum. Dust shot up in a cloud around him.
Jack skidded to a stop and doubled over. He coughed while West turned a feral eye on him.
“You cannot escape!”
“I disagree.” Jack turned on heel and sprinted away. His time as a younger brother was serving him well, and gave him an endless reserve of energy and agility when running away from someone who was bigger and stronger than he was.
West was after him like a bullet and gained quickly. He was nearly in range of grabbing Jack when they made it to the jungle gym. Jack fell inside of the structure and quickly scratched a run on the bars. West made it there and reached forward, thinking only of murder, when he was repelled by an unstoppable force.
Jack sat inside of his new haven and wheezed. Outside, West stalked the area and glared. He struck at the bars with his bare fists but was unable to damage them. Looking between his fist and the jungle gym West snarled: “What trickery?”
“Athena,” Jack breathed as he straightened up. He smiled. “She gave me nine runes. I didn’t know if it would work, but I’m glad I tried it.”
“That witch!” West punched the bars again but left no mark. This time he brought blood to his knuckles but the wound was short lived. It sealed itself almost immediately. “What do you intend? Sit in there and wait to die of age? I will outlast. I always outlast.”
“Maybe you will,” Jack said while he planted himself stubbornly at the edge of the jungle gym’s interior. “But I don’t need to outlast you. All I need to do is stay here long enough to figure out a way to overcome you.”
“There isn’t enough time,” West said. He crossed his arms and took a rigid stance. The two then commenced staring at each other.
Jack was at a loss. While the wall rune bought him time, he still had no definitive way of defeating West and especially not at combat. Normal, human fighting was something unfamiliar to Jack. Having a god of war and bloodlust on the field left him entirely out of depth.
There were other runes though. Jack had two in particular that could serve him. First could make him invulnerable from what he understood. The second could make West his friend somehow. Jack didn’t want to rely on those though. He didn’t fully understand divine magic and misplaced faith in this situation could result in an early grave.
It turned out that waiting didn’t seem to suit West, who grew more agitated as time passed. His muscles strained and his scowled deepened. The set of his broad jaw was tighter and tighter, while his lips peeled back to reveal a fierce smile, like that of a baboon.
“What would your whores think of you hiding behind another’s strength? They call you god. The claim is false. You cannot fight. All you can do is lie back like a bitch. Let others have their way.”
“That sounds a whole lot better than stomping around like an angry child.”
“If you were a man I would tear you asunder. Offer your flesh to nature!”
“Yeah? I really doubt that, seeing as how you can’t figure out how jungle gyms work.” Jack stared him firmly in the eye.
To some animals making eye contact is a challenge. West was that sort of animal, though Jack didn’t realize it. He was busy trying to get a read on the man, trying to find his light somewhere in a blinding red star.
West snarled some expletive and renewed his attack. He struck the bars repeatedly with his mighty hands. Jack had expected that, like before, his attacks would be met by an unbendable wall of magic. He was wrong. The rune, like the bars it was bound to, bent beneath West’s supernatural strength.
Jack fell backward as his sanctuary gave. West reached in, between the bars, and grabbed the ethereal barrier that kept him out. With a great roar he tore it apart and ripped the steel straight from the ground in the process.
Jack shuffled back on his hands and feet. West stepped inside of this formerly hallowed ground. Deep gashes on his hands bleed profusely, leaving dark stains in the dirt. A hateful smile graced his cruel face.
“No clever words?”
Jack took a deep breath, maybe to clear his thoughts, maybe to steady himself. “Maybe…To be honest, I don’t even know what these words mean,” Jack muttered just before leaping up to meet West.
It was a short scuffle. West caught Jack by the ribs and threw him out onto a pile of gravel. Jack landed heavily, catching shallow scratches on his hands and forearms and some light bruising, but was otherwise unharmed. West, on the other hand, tried to turn to face him.
West stopped. He looked at his hands and legs and released a mighty howl.
“What did you do? Why have I stopped?”
Jack looked up in surprise which gave way to cautious optimism. “I used one of my runes on you, one which turns enemies into allies. From what I can tell it didn’t stop the god inside of you, but it did stop the body. For now, at least…”
“This will not hold!”
“It doesn’t have to,” Jack said before standing and sprinting over to West’s side. “I just need it to last long enough to sort this entire mess out.”
“Shut up already,” Jack said before slapping his hand over West’s mouth. He grabbed the back of West’s head with his free hand and angled it to where he could look into West’s eyes. Then, peering past them and into West’s light, he went to quick work.
West’s mind was a sea of bloody red, and Jack was sifting through it to find at thread of humanity. If memory served though, West was always cruel. Bullying and brawling came as naturally to him as breathing. Trying to take that away from him would be nearly impossible. Violence was his greatest vice and would appeal much more than any form of lustful servitude.
Still, Jack knew that success would not be found in battle. Not for him, anyway. If he had to fight, Jack preferred to do it in the mind and with emotions. That was his greatest strength and it also seemed to be his only option.
The world faded away around him. Jack delved deep into the pulsating ocean of red light. It was storming, with bright arcs of lightning leaping all through it. He felt the rune slipping, giving way beneath the god’s unparalleled might.
He went deeper, reaching out with his mental fingers and groping for any sign of humanity. West was somewhere in there. He had to be, but he was so lost to the battle haze that his light now seemed imperceptible.
Then Jack saw a shimmer. It was in his peripheral and seemed to disappear when he looked straight on. Jack closed his eyes and reached out with his mind. He found it, that last remaining thread, and he held it for dear life.
Jack’s head pounded while the rest of him simply throbbed. At first he could hardly move, but slowly and with effort he managed to sit up and open his eyes. His vision was momentarily blurred. When it cleared all he could see was an expanse of burning red flames pulsating like the sea.
He stood and dusted himself off. The earth beneath his feet was a reddish-brown, like how he would’ve imagined mars. Jutting from this bloody crust were large, stone pillars and angular buildings. They were submerged in flame and partly obscured from his vision. All of it was broken, shattered by some past battle.
Thunderous clapping filled the air. Jack turned and looked up to a viewing box where three thrones sat. Upon these thrones were the gods. Eros and Athena were bound to their thrones by golden chains. Between them sat a beastly man, with a long, red beard and wild hair. His eyes were sunken and feral, while his nose looked bent and broken. He was built much like the stone surrounding Jack: large and angular, and he wore chipped red armor and had an axe resting against his throne. Dried blood graced its blade.
“You had more fight than expected,” the god shouted while standing. He stopped clapping and looked down at Jack. “First I had thought you prey. Now I see a predator. You’re cunning, and I commend that. Still, it is pointless.” He gave a wretched smile which showed his jagged teeth. “Now you must fight, no glamour, no magic. Only ferocity. Only violence. Most brutal wins!”
With that the god turned and stalked over to his throne, where he scooped up his axe and held it in his lap. Athena leaned in toward him and whispered, “You could at least give the boy a weapon, make this competition equal.”
“No competition is equal. Weapons change nothing. Murder will.”
Eros, who was slouched in his chair indignantly, scoffed. “Ape can’t hold the sun, warsong.”
The god in the center laughed, and it sounded very much like a dirge. “We shall see.”
Jack looked around. On all sides he was surrounded by dust, ruins, and flames. What wasn’t lit up by the enormous bonfires was in the darkest of shadows. At first Jack considered staying in the light, fearing that West would be waiting in the darkness. Then he thought the opposite. In a fair fight he was nothing, but in the shadows he was a competitor.
Jack sprinted into the safety of what appeared to have once been a house. Enormous cracks ran along the frame and wall. The top of it was blazing, and the interior had no floor. Red dust kicked up when he stepped inside.
He kneeled by a fractured window and caught his breath. With a place to hide he started collecting his thoughts. His head was ringing. His body was sluggish. He was in competition with West. Those were his top three concerns, and the first two caused problems with the most vital last one.
Jack peeked out the door frame to his side but saw nothing. He rested against the wall and closed his eyes. Taking deep breathes, he tried to relax and clear his mind. Entering a person’s light in this manner was always disorienting, but West’s mind was different. It was violent and in pain.
As his breath steadied he tried to listen. All he could hear was the sound of his beating hard and the crackling of fire overhead. If West were nearby Jack would be none the wiser.
No sooner than he thought that did he hear a hateful chuckle. “Found you,” West said through the window. Jack didn’t have time to react before West reached in both arms, grabbed him by the shoulders, and yanked him through the fractured glass. He hurled Jack a good two feet and then stood there, staring as Jack rolled to a stop.
Jack coughed and struggled for move. His face was hot and stinging. Blood ran down from shallow cuts along his right shoulder and cheek. When he landed something crunched, and he was sure that his ribs had fractured if not worse.
He staggered upward and stumbled away from West.
“You’re not feeling so lucky now, are you?” West stalked toward.
“You…You know he’s crazy, right?”
West howled with laughter. “Yeah, but I’m a little crazy too, so it’s all good. I’m going to grab your head and slam it against the stones of his coliseum till it bursts like a water balloon.”
Jack lost balance and fell backward. He shuffled away with his hands. “You don’t want to kill me.”
“I always want to kill. I simply wasn’t brave enough before. I was too much of a coward, too weak, but with him inside of me I’m enough. I’m strong. I’m a man.” West’s nostrils flared. “Don’t worry, we’ll put the others to good use.”
West stomped over with his fists balled. He was clearly ready to end the entire thing, but Jack wasn’t. When he was in range Jack took a handful of red earth and chucked it into West’s face. Then he ran as fast and far as his legs allowed.
“Damn it! Quit acting like a god damn child!”
From their place above the gods watched in amusement. Even the god of bloodlust found himself chuckling at this turn of events.
“He has cunning, I admit. Could be a true killer,” he said in a sing-song manner.
“That’s still not his greatest asset,” Athena said. “He is strong willed and resolved.”
“You surprise me. Eros loved humans. Found beauty in them. You didn’t. You saw tools. Like us. What changed you?”
“Him?” The god regarded Jack with disbelief. “Seems ordinary.”
Athena grinned knowingly. “Just watch,” she said.
West wiped the dust from his eyes and spit some from his mouth. Then he looked around in a rage. “Come out, you little coward. Come out and face me! This isn’t a game of hide and seek, it’s a battle to the death!”
Coughing and wheezing, Jack came to a stop some thirty feet away. He was hiding behind an enormous pillar and using it to support his weight. His legs felt sedentary. His lungs burned. He still didn’t feel safe.
“I know you’re around here somewhere,” West shouted. He was drawing closer, as if knowing by instinct where his prey was.
Jack pressed up flat against the pillar. His heart was in his throat, and possibly because his stomach was twisting itself up into a pretzel. Everything seemed hopeless. Everything he built, everyone he met, all of it was going to be burned away.
“When I find you, I’m going to rip your fucking spine out and hang you with it.” West snorted a laugh.
Jack knelt down and sat in the dirt. He was heavy, too heavy to move. His hands rested at his sides and alighted on something. It was jagged and slender. Jack palmed it curiously.
“Then I’ll go to your home. Murder your family.” He paused, as if in consideration. “Maybe I’ll fuck your sister first. Choke her out while I stick it to her.”
Jack stepped out from behind the pillar. Half of his face was bloody red from the wounds the glass left. He looked furious and his hands balled up. “You’ve made the biggest mistake of your life.”
“No, actually, I believe that you just did.”
“Fine show,” the war god sang. “Now he is a man! Facing death with dignity. Damn pity.”
West approached more quickly this time, closing the distance in only a few strides. He angled his knee up and caught Jack firmly in the gut.
Jack fell backward and landed in the ground heavily. He kept his fists tight.
West mounted Jack and started pummeling his face. There was blood and cracking, and there was a lot of it. West released a delighted wail. “Yes! This is what it’s all about! Dominance! Power! Strength! Fucking blood!” His speech fell into incoherent shouts of victory.
Jack jerked upward with his whole body. It was a quick, precise movement that pinned his right hand into West’s throat. Everything stopped. West’s body was tense, frozen in place. The war god, who was convinced of Jack’s failure, suddenly faulted. Athena, on the other hand, adopted a radiant smile. Eros didn’t move at all.
“How doth it go again? That which comes to close to the sun shall burn and plummet back down to the earth?”
Jack pulled back and stabbed forward again. Red ribbons of blood shot from a small but deep puncture on West’s neck. Jack repeated this movement until everything was covered blood.
When West’s body went limp and fell backward his body was pale. He held his wounds and struggled for breath, for life. A slender stone shard was wedge in neck where Jack had left it.
Jack stood. His face was misshapen, beaten into an unfamiliar, broken form He watched West die, and then he looked to the gods.
“Unbelievable,” the war god said in disbelief.
“I told you not to count him out,” said Athena.
“You were right.” The war god stood and laughed. “That is killing spirit! I thought …that flesh sack had it. I was wrong. You! You. Boy. My new host!”
“No! That is not how this works! I defeated your champion, I overcame your trial. I am in charge here, not you!”
“You overcome a man. You entertained me. Nothing more.”
“But I thought…”
“You nothing. Defiance is no option. Disobedience is no choice. You are mine!”
The entire field went up in flame as red as an apple. Within it Jack burned. He felt rage overcome him and a lust for violence. Jack would have thought it would be unfamiliar, but it wasn’t. It reminded him of the hazy pink lust that would consume him from time to time. It obscured his senses, confused his thoughts.
He gritted his teeth and flexed his body. It was pointless to fight it. War, like love, was a natural reaction. It was human and the parallels between the two were endless. Jack was familiar with penetration and domination. He was familiar with the wanton violence of sex. Murder, he decided, was a simple shift in perspective.
Soft flesh was in his hands. He squeezed it tightly, with this thumbs pressed just right. Something scratched at his arms and shoulders. Something pushed at his chest. He held tighter, firm in his resolve to kill.
Mary coughed and swung at him. “M-Master…J-Ja…” She couldn’t breathe anymore. Her eyes were bulging and wet. His mouth ajar ever so slightly, and then she went limp in his hands. Jack wanted to laugh, to celebrate her sacrifice to the gods.
He thought of all the bodies he could mutilate and all the things he could destroy. With three gods now in his control Jack could bring death to the world. He could start a holy war and kill his way across the country and then across continents.
The fire was inside of him now, inside of his veins. He had clear vision, a clear future, and it brought him rapture. Then he remembered something even more important. He remembered a soft smile, blue eyes, and a promise that he made