Before the debacle at the air base with the administrative cock-up of the adoption of the antichrist1, there was an agreement that an apocalyptic horseperson was a Good Thing to Be. An unspoken agreement, perhaps, but an agreement nonetheless. It wasn't exactly a taxing job to begin with, and as humans went forth and multiplied (and multiplied and forgot to carry the seven and multiplied again), it only got easier. Mankind created a truly impressive amount of war, famine, death, pestilence and later pollution all by themselves with no need for external interference, thank you very much.
By the time of the apocalypse that wasn't, the horsepersons were more supervisors than anything else, just keeping things ticking over nicely. There was a general feeling that it was nice work if you could get it, keeping humanity on track for the destruction that they were steadily wreaking upon themselves.
In fact, things eventually got so quiet that the horsepersons' extended periods of leisure time began to coincide - which was nice, War felt. Being an apocalyptic person and the embodiment of one of the great scourges of humanity was all very well, but it meant that one's social circle was rather limited. The chance to get together occasionally and discuss progress towards the end of all things and who'd pinched the last vol-au-vent when no one else was looking2 was - well, enjoyable.
Of course, all that was before the end of all things had been cancelled, and there arose the unforeseen technical difficulties with which the horsepersons found themselves grappling. The trouble was, since the apocalypse had been called off, they'd all found themselves at something of a loose end. The most obvious course of action seemed to be simply to continue as they had been for the thousands of years before, but without something to work towards, it all seemed rather pointless.
"That's the trouble with this job," said Pollution gloomily, some weeks afterwards. The grass around his feet wilted, growing droopy and singularly unenthused-looking. "Very poor careers advice department."
"And no contingency plans," agreed War, listlessly testing the edge of her favourite broadsword with a fingertip. It was blunt.
SPEAK FOR YOURSELVES, said a deep and terrible voice that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once3. THERE WILL BE DEATH AS LONG AS THERE ARE MORTALS. IT IS THE WAY OF THINGS.
"I could become a real doctor," said Famine, because everyone knew that nothing got on Death's tits like being ignored completely. "You know, make it all official."
"Not much point in it," said Pollution.
They all contemplated that in vaguely forlorn silence for a long moment.
"No," agreed Famine eventually. "I suppose there's not."
1 Also known as the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness.
2 It was almost always Death, who also cheated shamelessly at Cluedo.
3 In addition to being a shocking cheat at board games, Death was also an adept ventriloquist. It was a useful skill for striking dread into the hearts of men.
The four horsepersons4 didn't see each other for some time after that.
"When shall we three meet again," intoned Famine. Rot began to bubble through the acorns on the oak tree he was leaning against. There were going to be some very hungry squirrels that winter.
FOUR, said Death.
THERE ARE FOUR OF US. DID YOU MISCOUNT?
"Oh, for-- I was quoting.
QUOTING? A brief pause. WHY?
"Macbeth, you bloody philistine, don't you read?"
DEATH HAS NO TIME FOR SUCH THINGS.
"Oh, don't start," groaned War. Great battles between and within the nations of man were one thing, irritating bickering between her fellow horsepersons was quite another.
"What's everyone been up to, then?" asked Pollution, steering the conversation in a safer direction. It was something they'd talked about a lot in the good old days when they'd still actually had jobs to do - the four of them would gather together and talk about the increasingly ghastly new horrors they'd inflicted on humanity.
"I destroyed a potato crop," said Famine, without enthusiasm. "And a supermarket. Hail Satan."
"Hail Satan," chorused the others dutifully.
"I blocked all the sewers in Manchester," said Pollution. "Again. Hail Satan."
"I planted some weapons of mass destruction," said War, "then gave the FBI the wrong coordinates. Hail Satan."
"Hail Satan," the others mumbled.
Silence fell. No one ever wanted to ask what Death had been doing. No one really needed to.
"It's just not the same," sighed War eventually, eliciting three half-hearted grunts of agreement. "What's the point? What are we doing this for if there's not going to be an apocalypse?"
No one had an answer, so silence reigned again for a while. It began to rain. The water hissed and fizzled away when it touched War's face, dripped sluggishly from Pollution's fingers with a new, oily sheen, and didn't seem to touch Famine at all.
"What else is there to do, though?" said Pollution, when several minutes had passed. "I mean, what else are we qualified for? This is the only thing we know how to do."
THIS IS WHAT WE WERE CREATED TO DO, rumbled Death. IT IS OUR SOLE PURPOSE.
But even he sounded less certain than he normally did.
"He's right, though," Famine pointed out. "You can't put apocalyptic horseperson on your CV. And we're good at it."
No one could argue with that. Perpetuating war, famine, death, pollution and ultimately death was what they did, and they were good at it because it was what they'd always done. That much never changed, at least.
"Business as usual, then, chaps," said War. Her brilliant red hair was plastered flat to her skull, as was Pollution's greasy, chalk-white mane and Famine's expensive salon cut5.
Suddenly, business as usual seemed a rather depressing thought.
4 There was also a tacit agreement that the "of the apocalypse" just sounded silly and pretentious now the apocalypse had been cancelled, and it had consequently been dropped.
5 Death not did have hair to speak of, as far as anyone knew, but there was a pervasive sullenness in the air not unlike that which emanates from wet cats.
"What do humans do?" said Pollution to no one in particular, watching as the dish of pork scratchings in front of him began to grow a layer of oily-looking mould.
They were in a pub this time, because it was raining again and it had taken War a whole week to get all the rust off her various concealed weapons last time. She'd already started two bar fights just by slowly unzipping her crimson leather motorcycle jacket and licking her lips before she tasted her drink. She wasn't feeling as pleased with herself as she would have done a month or two before, which was a shame. She liked a good bar brawl.
"What do you mean, what do they do?" Famine had already finished his thimble-sized cup of espresso and was drumming his fingers against the greasy table top. "They do lots of things. They build things, they kill each other, they reproduce--"
"And that," Famine agreed.
Pollution rolled his eyes. "No, you pedantic git, not like that. I mean - they don't have anything to work towards. They don't have a sole purpose. What do they do with their time?"
A rather stumped silence greeted this question. Somehow, mankind's leisure pursuits had never really seemed to matter before.
"I thought it was just more fighting and killing," said War.
"And eating, if they can afford it," Famine put in.
AND COMING UP WITH NEW WAYS TO DIE, added Death. THEY SEEM TO LIKE THAT.
"But there's got to be something," Pollution insisted. He took a sip of his pint, and when he put it back down it had acquired a thick layer of scum on the top.
"Never mind that," said War, "I think that barmaid's giving you the eye." She edged her chair a little closer to Pollution's and draped her arm ostentatiously over his shoulder. Two bar fights were good, but not as good as three.
"Oh, piss off," grumbled Pollution, ducking away. "I'm not getting in the middle of one of yours again. You broke my nose last time and it bloody hurt. And you can wipe that smirk off your face," he added to Famine, who was indeed smirking like it had just been made an Olympic sport.
"Sorry," Famine drawled, with a distinct lack of contrition, and assumed a frighteningly blank expression that made him look like a malnourished waxwork. "Is that better?"
"Well, let's face it, it's as good as your face is going to get without someone putting a bag over it. Anyway. Oh, for-- I've lost my sodding thread now. Okay. What I was saying was this." Pollution leant forward over the table, and the others leant in close to listen. "The mortals, right. They've got no purpose, most of them. So what do they do with all that time? I say we split up, do some digging, and..." he trailed off, waving his hands descriptively.
"Compare notes?" suggested Famine. He was probably already salivating over the thought of meticulously detailed notes, organised and cross-checked and filed to within an inch of their lives.
"Something like that," agreed Pollution. "Who's in?"
War drained the last of her drink and slammed the empty glass back down with a noise like a gunshot. Several men in the vicinity looked round and seemed to have trouble looking away again.
"I'm game," she said. "How hard can it be?"
When they next met, it was in the sparsely but elegantly furnished living room of the house Famine had bought with the fortune he'd made under the name of Dr. Sable. It had no kitchen, of course, and he'd replaced the fridge with a filing cabinet. He was rather proud of it.
"Nice place," remarked War, glancing around at the hall.
"Take your boots off," Famine said, looking down at War's heavy, mud-encrusted biker boots. "You too, Pollution, I'm not having you tracking toxic slime all over the carpet."
"Well, obviously not you, you don't have feet. Come in, come in."
They traipsed through to the living room, where a huge, expensive-looking television was showing a cookery program in millions of colours and loving high definition.
"You bastard," said Pollution, looking longingly at the close-up of a fat, golden chicken. "I'm starving now. And I bet you haven't got any food in."
War sighed, and handed him the plastic bag full of food she'd brought with her. She'd charmed a pack of unsuspecting men into fighting over the privilege of buying it for her on her way there. Pollution made a frankly sexual noise and ripped into a family-size bag of Maltesers.
"So," Famine said pointedly, shooting Pollution the kind of look that most people reserved for things like slugs and tax return forms. "What have we found out?"
YOU SHOULD START, FAMINE, said Death. IT LOOKS LIKE YOU HAVE MUCH TO TELL.
"Yeah," agreed Pollution through a mouthful of half-chewed biscuit and chocolate. "Look at him, he's all... oh, what's the word?"
"House-proud," War said decisively, looking around. "That's what it is. Go on, then, tell all. You've become addicted to interior design? Ooh, or has some poor fool made an honest man of you?"
She was grinning. It was a rather unnerving grin. It always seemed to have rather too many teeth in it.
"Don't be disgusting," said Famine primly. "I've been infiltrating their society. Studying their customs. And I've been doing a much better job of it than you lot, I might add."
BUT WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNT? pressed Death.
"They like their houses," continued Famine serenely, "because they make them feel safe."
There was a gratifyingly impressed silence.
"Who'd've thought," said Pollution, dropping the now empty packet of Maltesers on the expensive carpet and tearing the corner off a bag of salted peanuts. Famine shot him another dirty look.
THEY FEEL... SAFE? said Death dubiously.
"But what do they do?" War asked. "You know, once they've got their houses."
"Er," said Famine.
War reached over and stole a handful of peanuts out of the bag in Pollution's hand. "Go on," she said. "Enlighten us, o wise one."
HE DOES NOT KNOW, Death declared, somewhat unnecessarily.
"Thank you, Captain Obvious," muttered Pollution under his breath. That was the trouble with Death. Absolutely no sense of humour, no matter what mankind seemed to think.
"So we're back to square one, then," said War gloomily. She sighed, and grabbed a few more peanuts. "Back to the drawing board, men."
It was a damp, drizzly sort of day, but since it wasn't actually raining, the blasted heath had been reinstated as their meeting place.
The other horsepersons were staring at War's attempt to understand humanity.
"Are those..." started Pollution uncertainly.
"Fearsome and terrible hounds, yes," said War, giving them all a look that dared them to disagree. "They're called Azathoth and Nyarlathotep."
"Right, of course," said Famine quickly. "It's just. They're a bit, um."
"Compact," suggested Pollution.
"Inconspicuous," said Famine.
"Travel-sized?" hazarded Pollution.
SMALL, said Death.
"Well," said Famine. "Yes."
War groaned and sat down heavily on a nearby bench, cradling her head in her hands. One of the dogs jumped up to rest one paw on her knee, its eyes bright and its little pink tongue hanging out. War scratched absent-mindedly behind its ears.
"Piss off," said War. "They've got... powers. Psychic powers."
Down by her feet, the other dog started chasing its own tail.
"Powers," War said again with less conviction. "Look, they're lulling you into a false sense of security. They're a well-oiled engine of destruction."
The dog chasing its tail sat down and sneezed. The other horsepersons did their best to feel menaced.
"I don't know what happened," said War despairingly. "They were meant to be fearsome hounds."
"What happened?" asked Pollution, as one of the dogs sniffed curiously at his foot.
"I went to the bloody dogs' home, didn't I? These two wouldn't let me leave."
She sighed, and looked back down. They were, as Death had so rightly said, really very small, both small and stocky and of indeterminate colour. They were the kind of mongrels so far removed from any pure breed that most people would have hesitated before describing them as dogs.
"Anyway," War said. "Mortals keep them. And they take a lot of keeping, believe you me."
"Oh," said Pollution, suddenly looking more interested and less like he was trying not to laugh. "So they spend their time on the pets? Doing what, feeding them?"
"Well, that, yeah, but you've got to walk them, clean up after them, take them to the vet... you know, all that."
FOR WHAT PURPOSE? asked Death. He sounded puzzled. Death did not like being puzzled.
"To gain their trust?" suggested Famine. One of the dogs was looking up at him beseechingly, its tail wagging.
War considered this for a long moment. "Something like that, I guess, yeah," she said. "It's something to do, isn't it? And they're just... nice."
"Who are you," said Pollution, "and what have you done with the real War?"
War didn't get up, just administered one of her patented dead-leg punches to Pollution's thigh. "Shut up," she said. "They're just nice to have around, that's all. And I don't see you making any progress towards understanding mankind."
"Okay," said Pollution, grimacing and massaging the place where War had hit him. "Tell you what, I'll start doing something that humans do, report back to you lot, and then I can take the piss out of your ridiculous dogs as much as I like. Deal?"
THAT SEEMS FAIR, said Death, and Famine nodded in agreement. Pollution held out his hand for War to shake.
"Deal," she said, and gave him a Chinese burn anyway for good measure.
"Well?" said Pollution. "What do you think?"
"It's... oh, balls, it's actually not bad," said War grudgingly, studying the watercolour depicting a brown, sludgy river littered with empty crisp packets and beer cans.
"The dead fish are a nice touch," agreed Famine. "Very realistic."
"Miss Fitzgerald thought so too," said Pollution. "Held it up and everything. Told the rest of the class to look at my unflinching realism."
"Right little teacher's pet, aren't you?" said War, rather dourly.
I FIND IT VERY RESTFUL, said Death.
"Yeah? Cheers," said Pollution, then turned back to War. "See? Restful. And I get to say what I like about those glorified rats of yours."
War bristled. "They're not rats."
"They are, though. Rats with social pretensions, maybe, but basically rats."
"You're just jealous because they like me more than you," said War. Azathoth was sitting meekly by her feet on the carpet of Pollution's dingy, evil-smelling flat. Nyarlathotep looked up at Pollution and made a faint whuffing noise, wagging his tail hopefully.
"They're plotting your dismemberment right now," said War. She sounded distinctly half-hearted. "Anyway, how have you been enjoying the evening class? Feeling like you've infiltrated the human psyche yet?"
"Yes, actually," said Pollution archly. "They go to learn how to do something, they like thinking that they're getting better at it... oh, and they like seeing the same people every week. They're very big on that."
YOU HAVE MADE... FRIENDS? said Death.
"Well, not friends. They still don't trust me, I think my artistic talent makes them feel inadequate. I've been, you know, blending in. Gathering intel."
"By which you mean lurking in the back row and staring at them disturbingly," said Famine.
"Pretty much," agreed Pollution. "But it worked, didn't it?"
"Oh, yeah. You're a regular superspy," said War dryly, punching him in the shoulder. His eyes watered slightly.
"As much as I hate to interrupt," Famine drawled, "that's all well and good, but where are we on all this existentialist meaning-of-life rubbish?"
"Well, we're..." mumbled Pollution. "You know. Art is... you know what I mean? Art and... people. Er."
Nyarlathotep had been sick on the carpet. Somehow, that seemed a rather fitting summary of the situation.
The horsepersons' quest for purpose following their unexpected redundancy continued in much the same way over the next few months. Famine attended ballroom dancing classes and found that he had a real knack for the waltz. War was evicted by her landlord, moved in with Pollution instead and found a job in a bar6. Death, meanwhile, skulked ominously in the background and stated the obvious. It was what he was good at, after all.
Time passed, leaves fell, sparkly decorations multiplied like bacteria, and before anyone knew what had happened, the end of December was upon them. None of the horsepersons celebrated Christmas, of course - it was the principle of the thing, and Antichristmas had never really taken off despite Pollution's best efforts - but Famine had been nominated to throw a New Year's Eve piss-up. After all, there they stood at the end of a year none of them thought would ever come, on a day that should never have been. That, it was felt, merited at least some sense of occasion. At the very, very least, it presented a chance to get heroically rat-arsed, and to turn down such a good excuse seemed a shame.
War and Pollution arrived together, having left chaos in their wake on the underground.
"You're late," said Famine disapprovingly, as he opened the door and let them in.
"Let it never be said that you don't know how to get a party going," Pollution said, rolling his eyes and kicking off his boots.
"Anyway, it's not our fault," added War, thrusting the heavy, clinking carrier bag into Famine's hands. "Utter bedlam on the tube, you should have seen it at Mornington Crescent-- oh, actually, that was our fault, wasn't it? Never mind. Where's the boss, then?"
I AM HERE, said Death. I AM ALWAYS HERE. I NEVER LEFT.
"Yeah, yeah," War said. "Are you going to come in and get pissed with the rest of us or not?"
6 Where she had a good view of any fights in the offing, because old habits die hard.
(And, somehow, amidst the hangovers and the empty bottles the morning after, everyone seemed to have forgotten all about the meaning of life. It just didn't seem to matter anymore. They were better off without it anyway.)