Mountain climbing is a lot easier when you’re a blood mage, Horus thought to himself. It meant he didn’t need any equipment, and didn’t have to leave behind any ropes other people could use to stumble on the cave in the Himalayas he’d picked out for his sick brother. Horus had taken to calling it blood sickness in public; it was sort of true. After Sanguinius had died, Daenus had gone mad and started using his blood magic to just…kill. Why still eluded Horus, even though he had sat by Daenus for decades and listened as his muttered in his sleep.
Kill them. Kill them all. They killed him. They killed them. Blood, death, skulls, kill, kill, kill…
It didn’t make sense. Daenus had lost his brothers, but so had Horus. They were his brothers too, after all. What made him snap so hard…? Horus wondered, then stood and dusted himself off. A few people had followed him from the village into the mountains, but he and Daenus had been living there for long enough that Horus could easily evade any pursuers. Even if they did manage to find their way to the mountain where their cave was, the way up was a sheer cliff, with what handholds that existed quickly proving themselves to be a filthy lie, as they were formed of razor-sharp rocks. Helpful for a blood mage; deadly for anyone else.
“Daenus?” he called; the canyon below echoed with his voice. It was why he was careful to speak Sumerian; no one else alive knew the language. “Daenus, I’m back.” No response; that was odd. There was always some noise when his brother heard him; at the very least, the noise of someone else’s footsteps on the stones as his brother wandered down to find him. Horus approached carefully, fearing that his brother wasn’t there at all. Perhaps he’d lost control again; maybe someone had startled him on the path below their cave, and he’d killed them…the smell of blood could easily send him over the edge into a full rampage.
But when he rounded the corner to their cave, Daenus was there. It seemed he’d come outside to enjoy the sunlight; he wasn’t moving, but he wasn’t bleeding either. Horus sighed with relief; at least he wouldn’t have to chase his brother down and pull him out of his slaughter mode. He put the food he’d gotten for them away on the natural shelves in the back of the cave, then looked back; his brother still hadn’t moved.
That was very odd. Horus walked over to him, gently put a hand on his shoulder. No response. “Daenus?” Still nothing. He shook him a little; there was no resistance whatsoever. Oh, this is bad. He sat next to his brother, turned his head so he could see his eyes; they were neither red—the sign of some ‘blood god’ Daenus had occasionally mentioned, usually in his sleep—nor his brother’s own natural gold.
They were grey. Lifeless, flat grey, like the stones around them. There was a chill on his brother’s skin wherever the sun hadn’t been hitting it directly; he must have been out here for hours already. Moreover, Daenus wasn’t reacting at all, even with Horus directly in front of him; he only stared forward into some middle distance between himself and Horus. His head fell forward onto Horus’s shoulder when Horus leaned him forward so he could be carried back inside; it stayed that way even after Horus wrapped him in the soft blanket he’d rescued from their house in New York. The one Horus had meant to give him after the world war that had claimed Sanguinius, before his brother lost his mind.
No reaction when Horus warmed the chicken he’d purchased in the village; no reaction when Horus sat next to Daenus with the spicy food. But he would eat, if fed; it was something, Horus supposed. He would drink, though the water had to come in a spoon. He finally made a noise when Horus sliced his hand with one of the sharper rocks and made him bleed; a fussing cry reminiscent of a child who didn’t understand how or why it had come to be hurt. Even this didn’t make him move; the hand stayed in Horus’s hand, palm up, fingers slightly curled. His blood flowed out of the cut sluggishly; when Horus checked, the pressure was dangerously low, with his heart beating only once every second. The wound wouldn’t heal, either; even when Horus deliberately awakened his brother’s magic to stupidly high activity, the blood coming out did everything except fix the wound.
No one was there to command it.
Panicking now, Horus sliced his own hand open and held his brother, pressing the injuries together. He dove into his brother’s body, trying to find some trace of familiarity within. It was night when his brother finally stirred, nestling deeper into his brother’s arms. Horus wept in relief. “I had a nightmare,” his brother whispered.
Gods, that explained everything…even though, usually when he had nightmares, Horus knew about it immediately. The mountains tended to ring with his screams. Horus would drop everything and go to him immediately, would wake him up, then hold him just like this until his brother stopped crying. He wasn’t crying now, though…just seemed like he was in shock. He was shivering uncontrollably; Horus ended up warming his blood with his own magic. “It’s okay, it’s okay, I’m here…” he was saying, automatically.
Eventually his brother calmed again and sank into a troubled sleep. Horus ended up sleeping with his brother in his arms. Just in case.
Daenus was gone when Horus woke, but it didn’t take long to find him. He’d slipped into a crevice in one side of the cave, the one he usually went to when Horus either wasn’t there or wasn’t awake, when his blood god was surging. Daenus was thin enough to slip all the way inside; Horus could just about reach his arm in.
He did that now; his brother looked up with blood red eyes, only a few specks of gold swimming in them. He was cradling his hand, the one Horus had hurt yesterday to try and bring him back. Horus had healed that, though…hadn’t he? “There were men,” Daenus said. His voice was weak, but clear; he was on the edge of slipping. “They were looking for you…I couldn’t let them find you, find us, didn’t want to kill them…” he started rocking, pointed towards the entrance with his unhurt hand.
Horus looked that way and froze. Men in army uniforms had camped right outside their cave, but didn’t seem to know it was there. There was a bright red line of blood all around the entrance; somehow his brother had managed a ward. “I’ll be right back, Daenus,” Horus kept his own voice to just above a whisper, then knelt to examine the ward.
There weren’t any signs like Horus might have drawn; nothing but a line. Raw need had defined what it should do, which seemed to be that only Daenus and Horus could see the cave itself—others would see only a sheer cliff blending into the mountain—and sound could not pass through it. Horus could not hear what the men outside were saying, and they clearly had heard nothing that had passed between Daenus and Horus. Now he was near enough, he looked at their uniforms; they were members of the Chinese army.
Strange, but Daenus was more important. Horus quickly came back to the crevice; his brother had squeezed his eyes shut and was rocking harder, whispering incessantly in a mix of Russian and Estruscan. “It’s okay, Daenus. You fixed it. They can’t hear us or find us.” Horus spoke calmly and clearly, but not loudly; there was no reason to strain the ward. “I have breakfast ready.” It would have to be cold bread, but there was nothing for it.
Daenus looked up, more than half lost to his blood god; he was only just clinging to consciousness, only just holding the blood god back. Maybe he should stay in the crevice…but then he was reaching for Horus’s hand, and Horus had to help him out. The army men didn’t turn around, didn’t see them or hear them, but when Daenus was out, he turned and saw they were still there.
Something failed in him. He went limp; the only thing keeping him upright was his hand in Horus’s. Horus quickly pulled him up so he could look in his brother’s eyes; they had gone grey and his brother was again wholly unresponsive. Horus swore in a dozen different languages, holding his brother close.
An hour later, and the army men were discussing something with a scout they had apparently sent further up the mountain. Daenus was still limp, so Horus quietly put him down and snuck over to alter (and reinforce) the ward; now Horus could hear what they were saying, so long as he was within a foot of the entrance, and it would take another blood mage to detect that anything strange was happening at all.
The villagers had assured them that Horus came down regularly, and lived in the mountains. He was keeping some sort of demon penned up there; they could hear it scream every now and then. They’d tracked him this far, so he had to be nearby—if only they knew just how near—but they hadn’t been able to find his trail.
Horus turned sharply; there had been a faint sound behind him, but it was only his brother limply falling onto his back from where Horus had left him on his side. His eyes were still greyed out, still lifeless; he still didn’t respond when Horus picked him up and cradled him like a child. No one was there to respond.
The army men were packing up to continue looking up slope; Horus decided to wait until they were completely gone before trying to wake his brother again. He was about to start trying when there was an almighty roar from the top of the mountain that startled both of them awake. Unfortunately, Daenus startled into a rage, attempting to dismember Horus with an answering shriek. Thankfully, Horus was well-prepared from long experience for exactly that reaction, and could fight him into submission fairly easily, though the mountains shook with a thunderous voice.
Who dares disturb me? The roar was deep, melodic, and very, very loud. I did not say your kind could ascend this mountain, mortals! BEGONE!
Horus saw a scattered few men sprinting down the mountain slope; Daenus attempted to charge past him, to get to them, but Horus managed to wrestle him down; he was too distracted to cut his access to blood magic, largely because a crimson serpentine dragon had stopped just outside the cave and was looking in.
Then it poked its nose in; Daenus registered only a foreign invader and attempted to surge past Horus once more to fight it. He only didn’t succeed because Horus finally managed to shut down his connection to his magic, and therefore to his god. For a moment, his eyes flickered gold. “Vestral…” he whispered, before he collapsed into unconsciousness.
The dragon observed him quietly for several long minutes; Horus stood between them, fully intending to defend his brother if it attacked. “Who is Vestral?” it eventually inquired. The cave shook with the power bound up within it.
Horus hesitated, but eventually answered. “Vestral…was our brother. He died about three thousand years ago, near the lost city of Petra.”
The dragon tilted its head slightly. “Why then does your brother believe I am he?”
“Because Vestral could take the form of a red dragon.”
The dragon seemed to fold into itself in answer; when it had finished, a monk in brilliant red robes—the same color as the dragon’s scales—stood where it had been. “Members of the Chinese army who seek to conquer all Tibet, and now two blood mages…one of whom seems to have lost himself to his power. Why should I not chase you away as well?” the monk inquired politely.
“My brother has lost himself, it is true, but our birthright was not the cause. The loss of another of our brothers was,” Horus watched the monk carefully; as with Vestral, the transformation to and from dragon took time, but he knew nothing about what else the monk could do.
“Would you explain? I have brought tea,” the monk settled down, producing a packet of dried tea leaves and cups. Horus hesitated once again, then nodded. First he made sure that Daenus was comfortable, then wrapped him in his blanket, then rather pointedly sat down between the dragon-monk and his brother. By that time, the monk had begun to boil water for them. Horus kept his silence while the water steamed. “You care for your brother very much,” the monk eventually observed.
“He is the only family I have left,” Horus answered. He had little intention of elaborating further. “…you know, most polite conversations do not involve truth tea.” He had finally placed the odd scent from the sachet the monk had been about to put in the kettle. The monk grinned happily.
“And you are very perceptive. Perhaps chamomile would be more to your liking?” he withdrew a second sachet and allowed Horus to examine it; satisfied that it contained no truth-telling herbs, Horus placed it in the kettle himself. “Then since we are being polite, we ought to exchange names…?”
“Horus.” He left off the name ‘Chakamar’ since it tended to make people nervous. Crawyen was technically a wanted criminal in most places he visited. “My brother’s name is Daenus.” Behind him, Daenus made a small noise and curled deeper into the blanket.
“And I am Tamdin. I am the master monk of the monastery at the top of this mountain. Do you know of us?”
“No. I just picked this cave because it was difficult to get to. Means people have a hard time getting in here, which means they can’t accidentally startle Daenus, which means he won’t enrage so often.” Horus sipped his tea; it was quite good.
“I see…how long has it been since he last ‘enraged’ as you put it?” There was worry and kindness in the master monk’s eyes.
“Before you roared? Six months. Before that it was seven. Time before that was four. He’s been getting a lot better since we’ve been up here, so.” Horus stared into his tea cup. Had they really been up here for almost a year and a half?
“When did all this start?”
“1918. Right as the Great War ended.” Horus sighed. “See, what happened was Sanguinius—another of our brothers—was fighting for Austria. Daenus was living in Britain at the time; he had polio and they had really good doctors there. Then they invented airplanes, and Daenus proved even a cripple could fly the things, so they let him ¬¬go to the front. This one day, the British dropped a load of mustard gas on the opposing trench as Daenus was flying over. Would’ve been fine, except Sanguinius was in the trench, and decided to use blood magic to save everyone else in the trench. He died, but they lived. Or, well…they would have done, except Daenus landed his plane to try and save Sanguinius.
“At that point, I’m not entirely sure what happened, but I do know that Sanguinius died, and Daenus killed everyone on the field. Then he started moving on to kill anyone and everyone that got even vaguely in his way. Probably would have kept doing that until the whole continent was dead except he found me and my men first.”
“And you were with which side?”
“America. We’d just joined the war on the British side, and I was thinking Daenus and I would figure out where Sanguinius was, make him ‘surrender’—” here Horus made fingerquotes, “—and then we’d all go to America and live out the rest of our lives in relative peace. Didn’t exactly work out…by the time Daenus reached us, he was attacking anything that moved. Most of the men who came with me lived because I told them to play dead…it took me an hour to wear him down enough that he made a mistake. I used that to shut down his connection to his blood magic, and he passed out…he’d been using it to keep himself alive and healthy while he was rampaging.” Horus took a deep breath and shifted his grip on his teacup.
“So I took him back to America to try and figure out what had happened and help him. He was completely out of his mind most of the way there, but when he did start to come back to himself, it wasn’t in a good way. He didn’t stop trying to kill everyone, just got smarter about it. Taught himself to use his magic through his eyes alone…” Horus shook his head alone. “I didn’t think he could do that, but desperate times, I guess. But we did finally get back to my house in the States, where I was able to keep him more or less under control.
“There were a…few incidents…couple people broke in once. They didn’t make it out.” Horus gritted his teeth in memory. He’d left for a weekend to go and see a play with his girlfriend at the time; he’d locked and warded the house against Daenus leaving, so everything should have been fine. The house had reeked of blood when Horus had made it back; the carpets had squished when he’d stepped on them, and he’d found Daenus crouched over one of the corpses, eating its heart. In the end, he’d had to tell the police commissioner the truth of the matter, and point out that if he wasn’t dealing with his maddened brother, they’d have to do it. The six invaders’ deaths were put down to self-defense. “But he was getting better by the time the second world war rolled around. Enough that I could occasionally leave him by himself, but…
“Thing is, he’d been struggling with something mentally for a while. Called it a blood god, but I wasn’t sure what to make of that…so I figured maybe if I could give him some other god to follow, but well…the one week I was gone for a consultation about nuclear weapons in D.C. was the week his blood god won that struggle. He killed about twelve thousand people in the space of three days, and would have killed more, except he found his way to me.” Horus would never forget the look on his brother’s face; there had been a set of viciousness in his features, and his eyes had been wholly red but for a single golden glint, and there was a deep horror at what he was doing in them. He’d begged his brother to help, and it had taken Horus a week to beat him into submission, and another month to wake back up as himself. By that point, Horus had had only two options: Daenus got a lobotomy, or Daenus left the country and didn’t come back.
Horus had chosen the second option. India had been the first country that came to his mind when they asked where Horus and Daenus had originally come from; thankfully Daenus hadn’t been upset at going, or at flying out. Horus had been really worried about the flying part, considering the plane part of the Incident…but Daenus had just huddled in his blanket the entire time, speaking only to Horus, and only when necessary. Once in India, he had effectively developed his current state: either he was himself and completely fine, or he was completely lost.
Horus had decided not to take any chances; India was much more densely populated than the States had been, and if Daenus had gone off away from Horus, the death toll could quickly reach into the millions. And so Horus did his best to avoid large groups of people, and had stuck to the deep jungle. Unfortunately, that had been where he ran across the worst groups of humanity: drug runners, armed rebels, human traffickers…in the end, Horus had started deliberately setting Daenus off if the people who found them didn’t take the hint. It of course meant that Horus had to fight him back down afterwards, but they did get enough of a reputation that they made it safely to the Himalayas. Even if it had taken almost two decades to make it.
“These days, I keep Daenus away from actual people as much as possible. I tell him about what’s going on in the world outside, but the fewer people he has contact with, the easier it is to keep him calm. I was planning to escort him down to the village next month, but…” he shrugged. Between the Chinese army and the dragon monk, Daenus wasn’t well enough to leave the cave and wouldn’t be for some time. However… “You seem like you know something.”
“I…have my suspicions…may I examine him?” Horus nodded, but hovered closely as Tamdin carefully examined his brother. Eyes, temperature, heart rate…Daenus shuddered and tried move away from Tamdin, and stopped only when Horus took one of his hands and held his gaze. It’s okay. He’s here to help.
Tamdin observed that interaction with interest, then sat back. “Judging by your story…it seems as though your brother is being influenced by a being we know quite a lot about. If you’d like, we’d be happy to take the both of you in and help him recover. By the looks of things, he does stand a chance. A far better chance than the people we usually encounter like this.”
“What sort of being?” Horus’s suspicion of the monk increased sharply.
“It’s better not to speak about it down here. The fewer people who know about this, the better…there are people who would make any deal to gain themselves a bit more power, as I’m sure you know.” Horus’s eyes narrowed. It sounded to him like there was a reason the monk knew about Daenus’s blood god, and that reason wasn’t a good one.
“…in that case, thank you for the offer, but…I would be more willing to stay down here for now, and seek food out from your temple instead of the village.” The Chinese army could very well still be down there, and they would be much more likely to attack Horus on the way back to the mountains. If that were to happen…
Tamdin nodded, however, and left them be. After he had left, Daenus was more or less fine for the rest of the day. He was just as keyed up as he usually was after a total loss of control, but nothing Horus couldn’t deal with. It was the morning after that got bad.
Ten minutes after finishing breakfast, he shut down. Horus tried everything to figure out what had triggered the sudden lack of response, but could not. He did everything in his power to bring Daenus back, but could not. Even sharing blood had precious little effect. Horus debated tracking down the temple to ask for help, but Daenus woke on his own before he made the decision. And as far as Daenus was concerned, he had merely shut his eyes for a moment. He hadn’t hurt anyone, had he?
Horus assured him that he had not. All was well, he hoped. And for the next two days he was, but in the middle of the night, while Horus slept, Daenus woke. He stepped outside, meaning only to stay out until he felt tired again. He sat still for several hours; what really was the point of all this? What was the point of staying in the mountains? What was the point of staying alive? He could just stay outside like this, feeling things like the wind on his face, and the sun when it rose.
He could not be stirred when Horus woke at sunrise as he always did. There wasn’t a point in resisting, but there wasn’t a point in getting up either. There wasn’t a point to Horus’s stories. There wasn’t a point to eating, or drinking, but there wasn’t a point in fighting. There wasn’t a point in action. He told Horus as much when he finally started to move again.
Horus embraced his brother, openly weeping. If that was the problem, then what was the point in inaction? In doing nothing? “There isn’t a point,” Daenus conceded, his voice having gone hoarse again. “But it’s easier…it’s easier…” he wavered, but the smell of fresh blood caught him before he slipped all the way.
“Please stay. For me. Please keep trying…it’ll get easier, I swear it will.” There was far too much desperation in Horus’s voice, and he could tell Daenus agreed to his request only to please him. And to his credit, for one week, he tried. But the more he tried, the closer to taking him the blood god came. He was just too good at hiding any problems with the blood god to do anything other than entirely let go when the blood god came so close to forcing him to attack Horus as he slept, to rip his body open, to eat his heart, to claim his skull…
I’m sorry, Horus. He let go. The blood god only had access to his body through his mind and soul. If he let go—if he stopped trying—then Horus was safe from him. The whole world was safe from him. When the blood god let him alone for a while, Daenus came back a little; he registered the blanket. The stone floor. Horus, in the corner. He was crying.
Daenus’s muscles would barely respond to him, but he still managed to shuffle over to his brother. “No…cry…” he managed. His voice was a harsh croak now, and his tongue was thick in his mouth. Now Horus looked up at him, without recognition in his grey eyes. Shouldn’t they have been red?
Who are you?
When Daenus turned around, meaning to leave—if Horus didn’t know him, he might as well throw himself from the cliff—but all his brothers stood there. All their eyes were grey and flat, like the stone. Who are you?
He should be terrified, right? This was meant to be scary. But he felt nothing; it didn’t matter, couldn’t matter. He collapsed down into himself, and Horus’s voice became clear. He was screaming at Daenus, trying to get him to do something, anything—
Daenus breathed. It hurt to fill his lungs. He tried to speak, but could only manage his brother’s name before he collapsed. He tried to hang on; he wasn’t sure how successful he was. Sunshine, nothing matters, everything matters, for Horus, for no one, for someone, time without meaning, things without importance, the blanket, his brother, a storm to block the sun, snow without ending, blood without ending, spilling forever, killing—no but yes?
Why am I here?
He was well enough to walk, if he leaned on his brother.
Where am I?
There was a gate. It stood tall and wooden on the top of the mountain.
The air was thin up here. There were people moving; they all looked the same, but for Horus.
Does it matter?
One of them called itself Tamdin.
Have you come to seek enlightenment?
It’s something to do.
Chores wove in and out of his awareness. Sweeping snow, making tea, chopping things for the stew. Horus dancing in and out of view, in and out of focus. He was adrift on an empty sea, or maybe he was walking next to someone to fetch water. Horus was there, in the distance. A star to orient himself to, the only one in the sky, but one that fell out of view as quickly as it appeared. Voices…
“It’s been months, Tamdin.”
“We must all be patient. Only he can help himself at this point.”
“You said you’ve seen people get to this point before. How much of a chance is there?”
“He has not fallen yet, so…better than even.”
A third voice. Was it the same conversation? Did that matter? “Normally those who have been so deeply overwhelmed by the chaos gods find it difficult to find connection with reality after losing contact with them. What tends to happen is they cease to find meaning in their lives, and in trying to find it, they come back around to the chaos gods.”
“The same one they broke from in the first place?”
“Not always…but one or more of them. Your brother might be one of the lucky ones, since your own connection with him is so strong. It might be enough to show him a way home.”
A sigh. Horus sighed. Daenus tried to speak to him, to reassure him, but what really was the point?
Spilling blood was a good point. No one could complain if it was his own, right…?
Horus cared. Horus always cared. Please don’t hurt yourself, Daenus. The blood god didn’t care like that. He put the knife down. His fingers shook; they’d frozen before, and Horus had fixed them.
Without the chaos god riding him, Daenus would not have survived your Great War either. Without the god of blood forcing him to keep going, Daenus would not have been able to get over the horror of what he had unleashed on that battlefield.
He saw the blood god’s realm. Just there. So easy to reach. It wouldn’t even take much effort to turn and walk to him; he would be a champion, a prince of blood and death. He would exist forever in the place where all was immaterial, and the material could only brush him. The immaterial was so much more, though, so much closer to the truth of the way things really were…
He would have lain down and killed himself with his own power. You know that, Horus, even if you don’t want to admit it. The rampage saved his life as much as you did, but now we all have to fight for his soul.
Horus was much further away. So was the material world. Everything there was dimmer, plainer. But there was a determined solidity to the place. There were others who cared about him—and he could care about, if he made himself. His brothers had all died there; they would not be coming back. The only one left was Horus, and one day he would die too.
You laid the groundwork for that. Honestly, we hardly even needed to help you. But the only one who can make this choice is Daenus. Chaos or order.
There was a blade on the ground before him. If he wanted chaos, he only needed to injure himself on it. A paper cut would do. If he wanted order, it was a long, long walk forward into the light.
But by all the gods that had ever existed, Daenus was going to try and make that walk. He kicked the knife towards the blood god and his skull throne and flipped him a rude gesture. Then he started forward, towards his brother, towards the realm of the dying. Towards the place where people cared about things beyond themselves.