Sometimes it was the smallest, silliest mistakes in the world that led someone into the foul, relentless jaws of death. A tiny miscalculation in battle. A split-second loss of attention in the middle of a dangerous situation. Or just plain old lack of common sense.
If Strife could say one thing about his mistake, it was that it had been a very... Strife-y mistake. The strifiest of strify mistakes that had ever strifed:
He had, quite literally and figuratively, chosen to bully a dragon. Twice.
'The Destroyer' is what he had called himself, as he had torched the crown of Haven's tree, set it ablaze as the Council had once done to Earth's Tree of Life, as he had swept Elanya up into the air, carrying her over to the field of ash far beyond the tree and dropping her into the jaws of something that had sounded far too big to have originated on Earth. In the span of seconds it had taken Ulthane to join the fight and take her place, Yarin had been swarmed by the Destroyer's legions. Strife had watched him go under, a screaming mass of flailing limbs that were torn from his body one by one, until there were only shreds left of him.
Strife had taken the anger that had filled him over the deaths of two makers he had come to value as brothers in arms, if not even friends, and had channeled it straight into his Anarchy form. The hail of angry bullets he had unleashed had pattered off the dragon's skin like rain on a sturdy roof and so he had chosen against all logic to go in for a brawl. It hadn't even taken him two seconds to realize that War himself, in all his flaming Chaos glory could not have made a dent in the bastard's hide.
Whatever had given the Destroyer his power—maybe a Bloodmantle, maybe some other unknown artifact—it was beyond the powers the Council had granted Strife.
He should have given up at that point, and yet, when his magic wore off, shrinking him back to his normal size and giving him the chance to slip from the Destroyer's grasp, he had looked him dead in the eyes—well, singular EYE—instead and said: "Man, where were you the last fifty times your goons attacked us? The ugly mofo spa?"
Strife had dodged the blast of flame that had followed. And the angry swish of the tail. And the furious swiping of claws. And the truly disgusting, very definitely uncleaned teeth.
And then, the dragon had launched himself forward, spinning in a helix that was easily evaded... and unfolding his wings just in those few moments during Strife's dodge that his feet had not been touching the ground. They expanded with such force and velocity, it had knocked him right back into infernal death trap the maker tree had become.
It was a maneuver Strife had seen many times before. From angels. Never from demons. Never from Hell.
The implications of that were truly horrifying.
He had landed in the reflecting pool, breaking its rune-covered rim in the process, and if there had ever been a silver-lining to getting thrown through solid stone, "I messed up every last chance of using this magical gateway to follow Fury and the humans" was certainly it. The pool would have been useless to the Destroyer before. Now it was damaged beyond repair by anyone except its creator perhaps, and if the noise from outside was anything to go by, Ulthane was sooner looking to die here than aid the forces of Hell.
Judging by the heavy paw that landed on Strife's chest, slowly crushing his rib cage as the dragon loomed over him, the Destroyer was very, very much aware of this fact.
"You have lost, horseman," the dragon sneered as he brought his face close enough to heat up Strife's mask like a grill in summer. Something about it was painfully familiar. The face, not the heat. Was it the one scarred eye? "But you do not need to die, as the Council desires. Join me and I will grant you unimaginable power. Together we can reshape the very universe."
Internally, Strife cursed his mercurially forgetful brain. He had met way too many one-eyed bastards in his time.
Externally, Strife laughed. "Only if you drop the ridiculous title. My brothers and I were not even a day old when we chose the edgiest names in the world for ourselves. What's your excuse?"
The Destroyer roared in anger, as expected.
His jaws came for Strife's head, as expected.
Strife's left saber, Silence, and his right saber, Shade, all but melted as they struck the dragon's eye and gullet respectively, as very much not expected.
The jaws tore through and shredded his saber. Then his bracer. Then his arm. They came to rest around his head, teeth pushing into his skull and visor alike, removing what little barrier he had had from the fire burning in the Destroyer's throat. One of the fangs pierced his left eye and for the first time in a long, long time, Strife howled in pain as he was flung across the shattered remains of Haven, into even more fire. The tail hit him next, throwing him back into the center of the tree, where his scorched face was met by the floor and his back was met by the heel of a foot that carried several tons of dragon. The sound his spine made as it ran out of room to bend echoed through his skull like a scream in a gorge.
Strife's remaining good hand curled around Redemption. No proper nephilim ever died without a weapon in their hand, as Death used to say.
To his left, the ground parted as Mayhem weasled her way out of void—had enough of Haven's crown burned yet to make his grave be technically 'under the open sky'?—and charged at the Destroyer, dodging his angry snap by the width of her reins, before disappearing back into the ether. It was only a few seconds of distraction, but that was all it took for the elegantly carved bridge stone that had been flung at Strife to land underneath his chin. For a moment, his body felt light as a feather as the trinket worked its magic and whisked him away into the void.
His fall through space ended not in another flash of light, as it should have, but in a tangle of what felt like roots. Living, sentient, evil roots that did not agree with Ulthane on his destination. Strife growled as they wrestled the pistol from his grasp and pushed him back into the void.
Back to the Destroyer. Back to the fire. Lovely.
Strife tumbled, fell... and landed in water. It seared his broken body no less than the fire had, adding a thousand knives of ice to the grinder that had been the Destroyer's fire and blurring what little his right eye could still perceive of the world, as he sank deeper and deeper. And dear god he was tired. Perhaps the bottom of whatever fucking body of water he had landed in wasn't such a bad place to stop breathing.
Except the universe, of course, had other plans. It had always been a mercurial bitch to him and probably always would be. And right now the bitch had decided that what he really needed was someone to pull him back up and drag his broken body onto the shore.
On a scale of mild spice to stinger venom, the air was a wasp in his lungs. A swarm of wasps. Air, Strife decided as he coughed out what felt like a good tenth of the blood in his body, could go and get fucked.
Only when whoever dragged him along stopped, did the searing pain stop long enough to let him take in his surroundings.
There was grass under him. He could feel it where his armor had been damaged, tickling what little of his skin had not been burned yet. He could hear the sound of water, falling and running, but not splashing. A lake then. He had been inside a lake. He could hear birds, crows. Dust?
Of course not.
Strife wanted to shake his head, but every little movement felt like he was hammering roofing nails into his bones. Death wouldn't be here. And thank the fucking Creator for that, because Strife could just imagine what he would have to say about this disaster and he was not in a mood to hear it.
He could also hear the dying snarls of Hell's minions and the unmistakable, heavy thump of a hammer. He could smell blood and sweat and scorched meat. To be fair, at least two of those were probably his own.
And, fuck, but he felt cold. He had never felt cold before. He had made his damn home on a world with long, freezing winters, for crying out loud.
"Ul—" Strife coughed up more blood and would have shuddered at how weak his voice sounded, if his body had had any strength left for that. But in spite of what Death always liked to believe, he did actually have a brain. And a sense of priority and urgency.
It didn't get much more prioritizable and urgent than bleeding to death.
"Ulthane?" He hoped that was Ulthane's hammer he was hearing. "Ulthane..."
What if it wasn't? The thought sent an even colder chill through his already freezing flesh. What if he was going to die alone here in fuck-knew-where, a feast for the crows? Had he already been this cold two minutes ago?
There was another heavy thud and at last the snarling around him stopped. The Earth shook with heavy steps and a few moments later, a familiar shadow fell over him. Strife had never been so happy to see a face so ugly.
"I'm here lad. Save yer breath."
"Little too late for that. My guns..." He tried to reach for them, only to find that he could barely bend the fingers of his right hand and had lost all feeling in his left. When had he—?
Oh. Right. Dragon. Snap! Literally.
"Save. Yer. Breath!" Ulthane's brow knitted into a tight frown. "I can heal you—"
"Oh really..." The wretched sound that crawled from Strife's throat was shakier than a zombie escaping its grave. So much for laughing. "With what shards? Cause mine were in my left gauntlet."
Strife counted the seconds of silence that followed. Five. Ten. Twenty. He wanted to laugh, but dear uptight Heaven, everything in between his lungs and his lips was on fire.
"Ulthane, I need my guns."
"Can't see a sign of 'em," Ulthane said as he surveyed their surroundings. "Must have gotten lost in the damn portal. We were supposed to go to the Forgelands."
"We still on Earth?" It was a vague guess of course, given that neither his eyes nor his head worked well enough let him scan the environment for the ruins of human civilization, but it was the best one we had.
"Fuck." Strife winced. Perhaps the crows were going to be the least of his worries. He had seen what the Destroyer's army had been capable of. Undead humans. Undead angels. Undead demons.
And what was a nephilim if not half-angel, half-demon?
Think fast, Strife. Think fast. He wanted to scream. At this useless, broken body that refused to move anymore. At the arm and the eye he no longer had. At what he could only hope was blood and not brains leaking from the puncture wounds around his head. The noise that came out of his mouth instead was more of a desperate whine.
"No Redemption or Mercy for the wicked..."
And there was the mostly useless and to many people utterly infuriating habit of that brain of his to turn anything into a joke. How nice that at least one thing in his body still worked as usual. Ulthane, understandably, was not impressed. Or at least, Strife could only assume so. He could no longer hear or see clearly enough to make out Ulthane's reaction, but it hardly mattered.
"Promise... you'll burn me... They bri... bring me back—"
The darkness came swiftly. So swiftly even, half of him was sure he had only imagined it. The other half felt it had lasted an eternity, and that he had clawed his way back to the land of the living out of sheer spite. "I kill you. They bring... me back... I kill you. Burn me."
"My. Guns." He was too weak to shout, but Strife hoped his voice remained sharp enough to convey the necessary urgency, even as the rest of his world went fuzzy around the edges. Cool. Now he only needed to see a bright light and have his entire life flash before his eyes to complete the death experience hattrick.
At last, Ulthane conceded. As the maker disappeared from his field of vision, Strife took what pathetically little breath his lungs still agreed to hold.
"May'em... May'em..." Goddamn, when had the letter H become so difficult? Strife frowned as he tried to focus through the dull, drumming ache in his brain. Mayhem, come to me. Goddamn it, Mayhem, come.
He could hear her whinny, even if he could not see her spawn from the void. Somehow that thought made him irrationally angry. He had seen it a thousand times, so why did he feel robbed of the experience now?
He could also feel her nuzzling his remaining hand long before he could see her shadow, her armor hanging off of her in a sad, half-molten farce of its former glory. Her mane had been burn to the roots, but the mist around her hooves still shone purple. She was alive and in contrast to him, she was likely to stay that way too. That was all that mattered.
"Find... Fury..." Mayhem stomped and whined, like a child who did not want to be sent to bed yet. Strife groaned. He had no time for this. He could already feel the bond to her weaken as his mind shut down. "Don' argue wimme. Find... Fury... May'em. She needs you... more'an I. Find'er. Please."
And please, for the love of all that is good in this world, just do it now. He could no longer articulate it to her in as many words. Every time his brain tried to form the thought, the fragments of it slipped from his mind, like fish from a broken net that only kept on breaking and breaking and breaking. Do it now, before change my mind. Please, girl.
Mayhem stepped back and forth and shook her head. For a moment that felt like eternity, she glared at him as if to question his very existence, as if he had just asked her to stop being a horse and turn into a frog.
Then, she nuzzled his hand once more, turned, and disappeared back into the nothingness.
Strife sighed. He had never felt so relieved. And so alone.
"Horseman..." Was it only his imagination or his fading senses, or had Ulthane's voice grown softer too? "I found one of yer guns. Mercy."
No proper nephilim ever died without a weapon in their hand.
Well... Strife took the shallowest breath that had ever meant to be deep.
When had he ever been a good nepilim? When he had been born weak... delicate? When he had questioned Absalom and the Firstborn at every turn? When he had deserted his kin before Eden and gone to the Council? When he had slaughtered them? When he had helped save humanity rather than destroy them? When they had taught him compassion and kindness and humility?
Strife discarded the heavy adamantine that rested on his hand and closed his fist. Death would just have to live with the fact that Strife had been a disappointment from start to finish. Even in the hour of his demise.
" K eep... " Was that vague shadow to his right Ulthane? Were they still alone? Strife could only assume so. It was hard to tell. He could no longer feel his hand. Or the grass. The sound of water was almost gone.
And to think he had been planning to infiltrate the Council's dungeons and free War. Him! Alone! How ridiculous!
The Council... War...
" War... you e'er see War..."
"I'll give him yer gun and help him any way I can ," the shadow all but whispered. "I promise."
I promise. Strife clung to those words and the warmth and comfort they projected as the walls of reality dissolved around him and the last shadows faded.
The humans had been right once again.
"...ere really is... a light..."