Written by Cooper D. Barham
“In case you were wondering, we’re never playing this again.”
Iscariot swept a thumbnail over one eyebrow, grinning like he knew the answer to the world’s only question, “Not very noble to quit just because you’re bad at the game.”
A challenged breath shot between clenched teeth as Arthur turned the head of his silencer. Round and round. Back and forth. “No, it’s just…” He shook his head, puffing air through his cheeks and then out. “Okay, okay. Say it one more time, Isk. I can get this.”
“Hard to kill, oft insulted, oft mortally inquired.” Iscariot took to his feet, finding balance against the moving train car. “Forged and fed through trails by fire.”
“Forged and fed through trails by fire?” Arthur parroted. “Discipline? Is the answer discipline?”
Florescent lights bled into one another, guiding the subterranean tunnel through its dark stretch. They cast a sort of odd hypnosis, and for a moment Iscariot was taken into himself, where memories of dark things waited–creatures that sought to kill, that sought to make suffering. Iscariot blinked and felt the earth pass beneath him, the creatures fading into background. He waited a beat, and crick-cracked his jaw, “I can see how you’d think that, but not exactly what I’m looking for.”
Bracing a support bar, Arthur stopped turning the silencer’s black barrel and lifted himself up. The train had begun its gradual slowing in preparation to stop. He combed fingers through smooth, sandburnt hair.
Iscariot looked to his partner and grinned, “Giving up?”
“No.” Arthur forced back a grin, though it was chiseled of sardonic stubbornness. “I’m gonna let the boys in back take a look at it.”
Their rolling metal cab drew to its ultimate stop, and the doors to an underground port whirred open. Both of the men stepped into a cold, fermenting air, laced with the aftermath of neglected garbage disposal, grime, and oil stains in places that made little sense. The ceiling, for instance.
“I don’t mean to clip your wings, but I doubt your subconscious is going to be of much help with this one. But by all means, sleep on it.” Iscariot slipped a small book of notes from his breast-pocket and studied the contents. He looked left and right, searching for an exit. There was a staircase to the East, which, as fortune would have it, was the very direction they needed to go.
“Oh, I will,” Arthur answered. Both of them strode towards the stairs with a confidence that their titles and experience carried, but nobody was around to notice the officers’ presence in the throat of the witching hour. Arthur didn’t even bother to hide his gun, something that still unnerved Isk from time to time.
Iscariot sniffed at the new night once they’d escaped the subway station. It smelled cold, the wind jolting his sinuses. The streets were painted in a skin of fresh rain and neon signs. One in particular struck the image of a pendulum, passing between three stills of green-blue light. It was one of Iscariot’s favorites, though that didn’t mean much. All was quiet mostly, though his job afflicted him with knowledge of the secrets and covert happenings in this part of the city. When you know about secrets, they tend to be surprisingly vocal, and on bad days, even sinister. Sinister like a virus. Sinister like Penance.
Iscariot thought it easy to hate this place. Gave you too much time and space for thinking.
“Tomorrow’s her birthday,” Arthur said off-hand, wiping splotches from his glasses before returning them to their proper place.
“It is,” Iscariot said. “I trust you’re still bringing the balloons?”
“What, you mean like every other year? How could I break tradition now?”
“That would be a shame.”
“Is the whole family gonna be there?”
“Good,” Arthur nodded absently as both of them rounded onto Jensen Avenue, a line-drive to St. Joseph’s House of Prayer, a small church long neglected. “Five is an important year. That’s half a decade.”
Iscariot snorted, “Unwavering deduction, friend.”
“Hey, don’t get snarky with the master of balloons. You have no idea the trouble I can ravage.”
Darkness crawled over the street, and Iscariot studied some damaged, overhead lights. Glass threads, meant for neon gas, were broken and remote flakes of plastic littered the ground where streetlamps were smashed in. On the lonely avenue, only one other soul existed: an isolated child, maybe eight or nine, now walking towards Iscariot and Arthur. Both of her hands were fed into the pockets of a denim jacket, and she kept the hood up enough that the already scarce light was altogether hidden from her face. Her gait was slow, lazy, and, Iscariot thought, somehow wrong.
“Save your ravaging, Arthur. You might need it in a little bit.” Iscariot carried himself with as much nonchalance as he could muster, while keeping a watchful eye on the girl. Who let a little whelp like her wander empty streets alone? In the dead of night? In one of the most notoriously criminal sections of the downtown ghetto?
Rhetorical questions, of course.
Iscariot noted the smooth gesture of Arthur hiding his weapon behind his back, though it hardly mattered. Iscariot politely dipped his head in stride, trying for eye contact when the proximity was convenient. She didn’t return the gesture, nor did she share the glance.
Resisting the urge to turn and watch her flee, both of the officers steeled themselves and pressed onwards. The church was only a few blocks down the road.
“Did you see the glint?” Arthur asked.
“Yeah. Metallic eyes. Penance is definitely involved. The jacket is likely to hide her wings, if she has any. Hard to tell how much the disease affects them at that age.” Iscariot chewed on nothing, brain sifting through synaptic trappings, looking for answers to half-questions.
Arthur stirred and pulled his revolver to his chest, pinching the silencer again and rolling it.“So you think she’s inflicted with a strain of Pride? I hadn’t thought she’d be hiding wings. If there are no wings, her Penance might be Greed.”
“Nah, the eyes weren’t feline enough for Greed. Then again, it might be some combination. Children don’t often have one dominating sin, at least as far as Penance is concerned.”
“She was a scout though, yes?”
Iscariot bobbed his head, the church unfolding before them, “Oh, without question.”
St. Joseph’s House of Prayer, when still occupied by common man, had an illusive sense of spirituality at best. Maybe it’d been something more substantial in its earlier years, before becoming the shambles Iscariot saw it as now. Unlikely, since one of Isk’s first assignments as chief officer was to put down the founder and head pastor, a soul infected with the Penance of Lust and Wrath. Lust’s trademark reptilian characteristics, combined with the beastial estimates of Wrath, resulted in something vaguely resemblant of Godzilla, though thankfully not as large. Goes to show that Penance does not care for piety, but is no stranger to irony.
The church itself was decrepit. Rickety shutters and paint splitting to reveal the fossil beneath made Iscariot wonder exactly how long it had been abandoned. Whatever. It didn’t matter. The point was that it now had residents, and they needed to go away.
“Ready?” Iscariot asked, trying the church door before Arthur had a chance to respond. It turned, but didn’t click.
“My gun literally hasn’t left my hand in the last twenty minutes, if that’s any indication.”
Iscariot shrugged, shooed his partner back a step, and drew his sidearm only a moment before promptly kicking the door down. The wood was ruinous and brittle. The break was easy.
A tremulous darkness guarded the inner sanctuary like its gatekeeper, frankly informing the officers that they were supremely unwelcome. Isk pulled up a flashlight, a weapon to tear down the dark. Cheap tapestries covered the windows, blocking all access to the night’s rare glow. Pews lined up in uniform straights, and stagnant dust ruled the air.
In lieu with their training, each of the officers broke into the armored blackness, pivoting around with guns level, watching each other’s flanks. Isk always moved first, with Arthur’s actions a compliment to his chief officer. They both knew well to scan the ceilings. Penance gave enough people the ability to fly and stick to walls that it was standard protocol to check nowadays. In addition, both officers remembered the shock value of their first exposure to a more mobile enemy. There’s something uniquely horrifying about an arachnid-humaniod throttling at you from above. Few are eager to repeat that mistake.
Iscariot’s jaw felt like steel, focused, waiting. He moved in further. “Listen, we know you’re here. I understand that you didn’t choose to be victims of Penance, but we still need you to leave. You’re dangerous, whether you like it or not, and–”
The lights blasted on, illuminating the whole of the sanctuary. One mortal shape sat perched upon the altar, indignant and stoic. He was tall, and dark in an unnatural way, his skin a stormy grey. Black fur roped about his legs up to his midriff, with a collar and crown of hair dark as the night. Leathery blades of black were tucked behind his shoulders, with great spaded ears for hearing. Beside him stood the passerby girl from earlier. Their eyes shared the same inhuman light.
Two more came out of hiding, each of them armored in their own symptoms of Penance. One was male, and unmistakably similar to a mole, with a velvety brown coat and inflated claws for digging. Sloth. The other was female, and probably retained the largest segment of her humanity, only sporting a few polypous growths across the back and face. This was good, as advanced stages of Gluttony were a sight to behold, in the most unsightly of ways.
“You understand?” The lead infected mimicked back with words hard and knotted, like brambles. “Please do not advertise your ignorance by speaking to us through thinly veiled contempt.”
Iscariot and Arthur shared a look, each of them focused on this main beast of Penance, the one who stole the altar and made it his throne. The one deeply afflicted by Pride. Isk pressed his lips into a line. “It’s not ignorance, and it’s not contempt either,” he said. “It’s aggressive pity.”
The Pride slowly twisted his head down, as if studying them.
“Oh,” Arthur perked up. “Is the answer to the riddle ‘contempt’?”
Isk grinned, “Not quite.”
It was hard to be mindful of the location for each of the infected. Iscariot carried on with the conversation, trusting Arthur to monitor both the Sloth and Glutton. They weren’t attacking, and that gave him an inch to breathe, and space to reinforce his bravado. If half the time he felt half as strong as he presented himself to his enemies, he might actually be worth some of his merits.
As it was, he could barely keep from shaking through skin and bone. “Who’s that?” Iscariot asked, nodding to the girl. She looked at the floor, washed over with some sort of realization, as if she were trained not to break eye contact, and cast her eyes back up. Isk breathed out, “Is she your daughter?”
The Pride blinked. It was the first time he had since the officers entered, Isk realized, and so it seemed a heavy and strangely ominous change. “Only by way of the same affliction, I’m afraid.”
He swept one hand in an open gesture, and the girl removed her jacket. Ruffling free from their cramped, denim prison, two wings stretched to the same span as if she’d spread-eagle. Following her demonstration, the leathery crescents behind the Pride burst open, further and further, until they nearly touched from one end of the room to the other. His eyes fell into a dark, scalding mask, one that Iscariot knew was practiced and forged for the sake of intimidation.
Admittedly, it worked very well.
“Go away,” the Pride said. His tone suggested no trace of further discussion.
“You prey on others,” Iscariot defended. “We have reports. Pictures. Of you. At least six accounts where you attacked–”
“But did not kill!” The Pride roared, and the church itself seemed as if afraid. “A mighty kind gesture, I think, considering our station above you in the evolutionary line. There was no good reason to spare each of those lives. At least my people consistently trust one another, with loyalties not subject to selfish musings. Can you say that for your kind? We were considerate; we were merciful.”
Iscariot shook his head. “I’d rather not discuss philosophy. I’m a father myself, so I ask out of my respect for you–”
An unexpected pulse of old pain passed through Isk’s heart, and he was forced to pause. He gathered himself, and hoped the halt added dramatic effect. “Please do not make me do something I’d rather not.”
A deep snarl came from the Sloth, who up to this point had been otherwise motionless in the light of the sanctuary. He’d been sitting in a crouch, leaning over himself as if to block the overhead glare from damaging his eyes, but now he stood half-straight, face-forward. A moment later, a roiling, click-clack left the Glutton’s throat, her fingers flexing with menace.
“You have a daughter?” The Pride asked, darkly curious. “And yet you’d steal mine away?”
“Like I said, I’d rather not–”
“But you would,” he dragged the last word out sharply, as if pulling it along a floor marred in webs of glass, “if you must.”
Isk settled into himself, desperately suppressing a desire to quake beneath the monster’s glare and accusation. But he was right. Iscariot would pull the trigger and curse the consequences. He’d lost the convenience to care about frail things like gentleness.
No, not frail. Not exactly. Gentleness he’d seen could be its own strength. But it was not his strength.
“I would,” Iscariot answered slowly, “if I must.”
The Pride nodded approvingly. “Deplorable you might be,” he said, “but at least you’ve the decency to be honest.”
Iscariot felt the others move before he heard them. It started with the Glutton, stumbling into a run, slamming into pews, and screaming.
Arthur answered immediately, the core of his mind as cold and mighty as concrete. He fired two shots into the charging Glutton. Contrary to commonplace belief, the silencer of a gun barely mutes anything, even with handguns. If you pull that trigger, especially indoors, you should expect enough noise to wake the house. Thunder is thunder.
As the Glutton plowed through each bolt of lead, Arthur was caught from behind by the Sloth, who’d lashed three angry swathes through his police jacket and vest. Kevlar was surprisingly thin when faced by claws like swords. Iscariot emptied multiple rounds into the Glutton, first immobilizing, and then eliminating. He made the kill as clean as possible, which wasn’t very successful, in spite of his efforts.
The Sloth would be a harder enemy. It had a thicker body, treacherous natural weapons, and–
A shadow encroached from above, casting Iscariot into a frightened state of otherness. The Pride had taken flight. Isk worked through the ringing in his ears, and pivoted on his heel to better face the new, more malicious threat. He could taste the beast’s bloodlust. He could taste its sin, its Penance.
Like a grand megabat, the Pride descended in force. Iscariot aimed and pulled the trigger, but something alerted the creature to Isk’s attack and a quicker-than-expected flick of both colossal wings changed the Pride’s trajectory. The bullet was a clean miss, and the Pride swept one hard palm into Iscariot’s core, throwing him head-over-heels across the chapel hall.
Iscariot barely had enough time to register that he’d even been hurt, before the beast of Penance landed beside him and yanked him off the ground by the slack of his shirt, leaving the officer facing toward the floor.
“You know,” the Pride said in a grinding way, like stone against stone, “I used to hate bats.”
A thought crushed Isk’s mind, penetrating through a spinning haze of pain. Pride Penance allowed for sensory detection beyond hominid capabilities. He dodged the bullet through a combination of optical capacities, as well as advanced echolocation granted by his spaded ears. Without thinking, without planning, Iscariot took advantage of his positioning and plugged a single bullet into the Pride’s upper thigh.
It howled something fierce and rapturous, a scream to drag down the heavens. But it did not release its hold on Iscariot. Knowing his gun to be low on ammunition, Isk tried to grab for one of the clips he kept at his waist. Pain like a searing dagger sliced into his elbow at the barest recommendation of movement. Somewhere in his earlier tumble, he must have struck it hard against something, and his body had given him the good grace not to inform him until now.
As fortune would have it, the Pride did drop him a moment later, when a beam of lead slammed into its shoulder. Iscariot landed hard, but bit down against his suffering and rolled aside. Arthur crouched further down the aisle, trace exhaustion and a film of sweat gathering over his face. The Sloth lay dead beside him, mole-paws trapped beneath its own stout body. Arthur lined up his sights with the Pride, effectively stealing its attention.
“Please stand down,” Arthur shouted.
Iscariot took advantage of the moment to reload, though it was difficult with his limited one-handedness. As he neared the end of the action, the Pride turned its black eyes upon him once more. It took two quick steps in his direction before Arthur released a few rounds, cutting off its advance.
Arthur’s flurry of gunfire was interrupted when the young girl, inflicted with her own lesser Penance of Pride, barreled into his legs, throwing them into a tumble.
Finishing the reload, Isk rolled to a knee, mindful of the parts of him which hurt the most. The girl was making soft grunts as she wrestled against Arthur. Iscariot balanced his sights on her.
“No!” the Pride bellowed, its wings flashing wide, its form impending, and then in a moment, somehow deceptive.
A fragile display of power to act as camouflage. An illusion for what Iscariot knew to be fear. A special kind of fear, one he understood very well. Pride was easy to understand, regardless of whether it resided in man or in Penance.
“No!” the Pride repeated. Its voice was anxious and shallow, as if everything had been a crude joke, suddenly taken too seriously. Like the wings were made of paper and the Penance nothing more than a man behind a mask, instead of the transformative disease that turned the sickness of the soul into a sickness of the body. “Please,” he pleaded. “You’re a father, too.”
Iscariot dipped his head, eyes darting between father and daughter with flickering attention, “You’re right. I am.” He pulled the trigger, and it hit. The girl bolted back, like a dog who’d been kicked. She scrambled along the floor, whining, examining her wing, and the tattered hole that fed through it.
“Sometimes we must do things against our own wishes.” Isk steeled himself in an uncomfortably familiar way, dissociating all motives from all actions, and again from all responsibilities. He needed to do his job, he needed to protect people against Penance.
And sometimes that meant becoming the monster, if he must.
The Pride roiled at its hurting kin. Dark eyes passed between Iscariot and the diseased daughter of Penance, conflicted at whether to attack the threat or rescue the victim.
This time, the hibernating traces of humanity seemed to win out, and instead of turning to violence, the great beast moved over to protect the creature it considered his daughter, sparing no remorse for the other fallen infected.
“Daddy,” the little girl said, her voice young and yet unaltered by the disease coursing through her body and spirit. “It hurts.”
Furious, guilty pain like a million drummers beat behind the cage of Iscariot’s chest. But, just as before, the calloused parts of him took command and banished his sympathies. Looking at the two Prides now, father comforting daughter in spite of his own wounds, sometimes Isk wished those parts of him didn’t exist. It was a terribly sad thing, and one that he’d struggled and failed to change.
Isk looked over at Arthur, who’d now found his feet and trained both his eye and barrel on the father Pride, ready to put an end to its story. “Arthur,” Iscariot said. “Hold.”
Iscariot’s partner cast a glance in his direction, “Why? We’re almost done.”
“We are already done.”
Arthur blinked, lowering the gun only an inch, “What?”
With caution and a steady stride, Iscariot approached the Prides, vaguely aware of how frighteningly quiet the sanctuary had grown.
“I’ve watched you shoot,” the Pride said, his throat wavering and deep. “So why did you miss? Why only the wing?” It stared hard at the daughter’s wound. “Why would you do that?”
“Because I’m a father, too,” Isk said matter-of-factly. “And tomorrow is my daughter’s birthday.”
Quiet turned to silence, which turned to oblivion. Finally, Iscariot turned away, gesturing Arthur to follow. With hesitation, he did.
“You could have killed her,” the Pride swallowed loud enough to echo, “Or me. But you didn’t.”
Iscariot reached the front door, still broken onto the floor, splinters riddling the hardwood beneath his feet. “Not this time,” he answered, hard as brick and stone. “Please. For your heart as well as mine, never let us have to meet again.”
Without further gesture or comment, Iscariot promptly left St. Joseph’s House of Prayer, having failed his assignment and proven himself professionally inconsistent in front of his partner. Since he thought it important, he made a note reminding himself to eventually care.
The following afternoon was surprisingly gentle and bright–a condition for which Iscariot was thankful. Anything else on his daughter’s birthday would be a shame. He leaned against the edge of a picnic table within a beautiful, oaken gazebo, admiring the freshly cut lawn and army of various flora which cropped around the cemetery, dancing and singing their colors. He was particularly fond of a certain white flower with a marvelously red inner bloom.
Over the next fifteen minutes, family and friends arrived. First his wife, Mara, with her parents, and then his old man. After that came his brothers and their children, then Mara’s sister. Lastly, he was joined by Arthur, who, true to his word and reputation, brought the balloons. A great many balloons, at that.
“Hey, uncle Isk!” One of Iscariot’s nephews ran into his arms.
Isk smiled and lifted the boy off the ground with a spin. “Good afternoon, bud. Thanks for coming.”
“I got a new toy last week,” his nephew said. “It’s a dinosaur. Want to see it?”
“Duh. Of course I do. Show me during lunch later, okay?”
“Okay,” the boy answered as Isk returned him to his own feet. Mara was there waiting for his finish. He smiled at her, too, though thinly. Her eyes were red in the pockets, but they smiled back as well. It was a good day, one that didn’t deserve to be dampened by small sorrows.
After welcoming the rest of the crowd, they all migrated along a winding road, up a bluff, deeper into the cemetery. They talked and laughed, and otherwise enjoyed each other’s company. When finally they arrived at a small tombstone near the top of the hill, the third from the end of its line, protected under the shadows of a proud elm, they stopped. They stopped, and they looked, and they were quiet.
“In memory of Hope,” it read against a slate of grey-white, “and all good things left to come.”
At last, it wasn’t Iscariot’s father who broke the stillness, or his wife, or even the children known for making a ruckus. It was Arthur, master of balloons. He nudged Iscariot on the shoulder and shook his head, “Hope? Really? Is that the answer to the riddle?” he paused in reflection. “Well played, friend. A little gaudy, but I like it.”
Iscariot felt a warm satisfaction ebb through his chest and couldn’t help but to grin. A moment later, Mara fell gently back into his chest. He wrapped both arms around her; guarding her, encouraging her. He sometimes forgot it’s what those arms did best.
“Well Isk?” his wife asked. “Would you like to say something? It’s probably best if you start.”
There were so many things to say. Too many. “Happy Birthday, Hope” and “I love you” and “I wish you were here” and “I’m sorry” and a litany of all other sentiments that would never be heard on this side of eternity.
“Yeah, I would.” Iscariot swallowed, something old, hurt, and human kindling under his stomach. “If I must.”