1934 – London, England
It was not in Famine’s nature to let his disbelief show but some situations don’t quite foster nonchalance. He stood there near the center of the room, halted in the middle of pouring their drinks and staring incredulously at his companion. There was little more he could do, really. None of this was quite making sense yet. It was either some insane notion or a poorly planned joke. He wasn’t sure which.
The man sitting before him simply gave a weary smile, leaning back in his chair and turning away to study the mantelpiece.
“Pestilence…” He carefully set both glass and bottle aside, frowning at his friend’s back. “You can’t be serious.”
But he could be and he was and Famine knew it in the mere instant that those pale, tired eyes glanced back. The grin that he was so used to had long since faded away. There was no boastful confidence left, not a single sign of arrogant flirtation. All that remained in that chair was a bag of bones, all life exhausted by such foreign concepts as fear and worry. Famine couldn’t bring himself to move under that gaze but shivered as Pestilence turned away once again.
“I’m tired, old friend.” The thin, white form hugged his coat close around himself as he stared, unfocused, at the fireplace grate and sighed. “Six years ago…well…I had a bit of a fright.”
Famine took a seat across from his guest, still frowning and confused. “A fright?”
“What sort of…fright?”
There was a slight frown in response as Pestilence picked nervously at the loosening bandages covering his hands. He was looking older now ever moment, or perhaps it had simply taken this long for Famine to realise that his companion had been looking older at their every meeting for the last so many years. Whatever the case, the changes were gradually becoming clearer the longer they sat there. The usually immaculate, white suit was ruffled and stained; the typically clear skin was beginning to feel the ravages usually only wreaked upon the mortals. He looked ill and worn, as if he were releasing his immortality to the mercies of his own creations, and Famine wondered, as he let himself take it all in, how thousands of years could end like this.
“There was a discovery,” Pestilence quietly said. “A man named Alexander Fleming found this…mould. Something in it allows it to inhibit the growth of bacteria.”
Famine felt his stomach turn.
“It was an accident – it wasn’t even what he was looking for – but I suppose… Well, that’s all it takes, isn’t it? One accidental discovery, a little mistake, and all your work is for nothing. Fleming hasn’t done much with it yet but it’s only a matter of time.”
“They won’t let you.” It didn’t sound either convincing or convinced. Famine’s voice was far too close to shaking. He couldn’t just let it happen, though, and he knew Pestilence hadn’t expected him to. There needed to be some argument, no matter how small, to prove to them both that this was the best, if not only, course of action. That was why it had been Famine who had received the unexpected visit – War would not have looked for reason and DEATH would not have argued at all.
“And why not?”
“It’s…it’s unheard of, Pestilence! One of the Four Horsemen? Leaving? Before the Apocalypse is even near?”
“Just because it’s unheard of doesn’t mean it can’t happen.”
“Four. There have to be four.”
“They could find a replacement.”
“That would be too much trouble.”
“Well, what if I provided the replacement for them?”
There was a long silence at that and then… “How long have you been planning this?”
Pestilence sighed, sliding down into his chair. “I’ve had it on my mind for a while now. Specifically…since France.”
“My god, Pest…” Famine sank into his seat as well. “That’s…one hundred years, give or take. What would make you think…?”
“I don’t start much on my own anymore, you know.” He was picking at the bandages again, not looking up. “You or War start something, sometimes I give a bit of help, but mostly I just follow and take advantage of whatever the two of you leave behind. If the mortals are discovering ways to defeat my creations, though…”
“They can’t defeat everything you throw at them.”
Pestilence laughed at that, expression gone bitter. “You’ve mistaken me for someone else, Famine. I am and have always been the one and only Horsemen that the mortals are, indeed, capable of defeating.” With a slight grunt, he shoved himself to his feet. “So long as they feel, there is War. So long as they eat, there is Famine. So long as they live, there is DEATH. But, as dear Fleming has proven, there may eventually come a day when no mortal shall ever be sick again.” He moved over to the table where the half-filled glass of brandy still sat and filled it the rest of the way. “There’s no point in denying it, you know. I am gradually becoming obsolete. I’ve admitted it to myself, now to you, and I’ve made up my mind to take the steps necessary in order to be sure that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse remain, indeed, four.” He took a drink. “I’ll call a meeting and present my replacement to the others as soon as I can track him down again.”
“But what if nothing ever comes of all of this?” Famine stood as well, determined to provide the best argument that he could manage. “You have no way of knowing that anyone is going to follow up with this Fleming’s discovery.”
Pestilence shook his head. “It may have been an accident but, if it happens once, it can happen twice or three times or however many times it takes to truly catch someone’s eye. Or perhaps someone will actually go looking for it this time. Who knows? I can’t take my chances.”
“But it’s not as if this single mould is some sort of cure-all.”
“No, but a truly effective disease takes hundreds, sometimes thousands of years to develop.” When he looked over again, pointing a finger to emphasise his words, it was obvious that his confidence was back though he would not be deterred from his decision. “We need someone more creative, someone who can come up with some new plan of attack at the drop of a hat. That’s not to say I won’t still be around, but times have changed. I’m not the man for this job anymore.”
They both stopped, staring at one another, and all Famine could do for a long moment was blink in response. “For…what?”
“For listening to this madness.” With a sigh, Pestilence looked down into his drink. “And for trying to talk me out of it. I know now that I really am making the right decision.”
There was another long silence before Famine shook his head and found himself staring into the empty fireplace as his companion had been doing not so long ago. He had tried. He had failed. There was nothing more to do. “I wish it didn’t have to be this way.”
“Wish I may, wish I might…”
The man in white gave a tired laugh, sipping idly at his brandy, and smiled. “It’s been a pleasure working with you, Famine. I hope time allows at least a friendship to remain.”
Yet another silence stretched on awkwardly between them. Famine fidgeted with his shirt sleeve, Pestilence tapped his glass against his lips, and both wondered which would speak again first. Eventually, however, there was little choice, as Pestilence glanced at the time and sighed.
“I should be on my way. I have an appointment of sorts in America and I have to begin my search for the new boy, which…leads me to one more request before I go.”
Collecting his nerve again, Famine glanced up. “What?”
Pestilence bit his lip, set the glass down and gave his friend one last pleading look. “Help me find him.”
1316 – England
“Help me find him!”
“He is gone, Anne.”
“He is not!”
“Yes. Now…come inside…please.”
Famine listened quietly, sitting unseen upon the fencerow. He had heard the same thing so many times now – parents missing children, children missing parents, spouses and siblings arguing over what was to be done. People were dying as they continued on with the same work they had done all of their lives because they were no longer healthy enough, no longer fit for it. Children were collapsing, dying in the arms of their mothers if they were not amongst those abandoned all together. Hundreds of Hansels and Gretels roamed – none quite lucky enough to escape the witch.
With a sigh, the Horseman pushed himself away from the fence and started his walk back to where he had left his horse behind. The beast looked no better than any of those waiting in barns or working the fields, nothing like what would be expected as the steed of a man who dressed so well and looked so sure. Weak and emaciated, the poor creature was very nearly dead already. Under the influence of its rider’s immortality, it would make it in to London, yes, but there was no doubting the fact that it would not last long after.
“You mortal beasts,” Famine muttered later, dismounting just within the city’s boundaries. “Pathetic.”
With one last almost affectionate pat, he left it there to die and made his way in along the streets he called home. It was a relatively calm night, quiet and still save for the occasional movement of the scattered beggars and vagabonds who knew better than to believe that they would survive much longer than a few days. No one bothered him as he went. Few even noticed his passing. He was no more to them than the brushing of the emptiness that they were all so used to.
“A daring business, this.”
Famine was surprised by the quiet words. They were not directed at him, of course – in fact, he doubted he had been meant to hear – but he was curious, all the same, and couldn’t help but look into the alley from which the voice had drifted. Standing there, just off of the main street was a respectable looking young man, hiding slightly beneath a dark cloak as he watched his temporary companion, of whom Famine could only see a pale hand, fill a small sack with lumps of shadow.
“Selling coal on these streets while still under the ban,” the man went on. “You run a great risk, you know.”
There was a soft laugh from the thin, huddled form beyond him as it handed off the full bag and leaned back against a wall. “All know food ’s scarce, sir.” The tramp’s voice was quiet, calm and vaguely masculine. “A li’l more money’s a li’l more chance’t m’stomach’s full once in a week.”
The cloaked man nodded with a small noise of understanding and glanced around once before leaving without another word. Famine watched him go before looking back to the alley, hoping for a glimpse of the other half of the little trade. He was surprised, however, to find that the coal seller was already disappearing in the other direction, a streak of white movement in the darkness.
Why he followed, Famine wasn’t sure. Perhaps it was simply out of curiosity. For all the beggar’s talk of needing food, he didn’t move as if he were starving. In fact, he didn’t move as if he were human. He disappeared around one corner after another, left the money from his sale for a sleeping orphan and didn’t stop until he came to the back door of a small pub. Famine hesitated only a moment before opening the door. And there, by the dying cook-fire, accompanied by a rather mangy looking dog, sat the white beggar.
Pale eyes glanced up at him as greasy strands of long, white hair fell across a face smeared liberally with dirt and coal. “You’ve been following me.”
It was a simple statement, clear and quiet and perfectly matter-of-fact, and somehow Famine wasn’t surprised to hear it.
The dog lifted its head to examine the intruder – one eye keen and scrutinizing, the other glazed and dead – and lowered it again upon deciding that there was no threat. It was a gaunt and skeletal hound, yet Famine could see that it had somehow managed to remain just shy of dying. More lean than emaciated, it honestly looked healthier than many of the humans he had seen in the past few years, and it was something about that thought that made him smile.
“I have been,” he answered quietly, more in order to have spoken than to actually respond to the other’s words.
The young man cocked his head to the side, expression somewhere between curious and amused. “Why?”
It was then that Famine felt the slightest hint of recognition tugging at his consciousness. There was something about those eyes, that face. Somehow he remembered having seen them before. And somehow he knew that the boy sitting in front of him was not confused by any of this. He knew who Famine was, he understood the odd sense of familiarity.
Famine only wished he could say the same for this young stranger.
“I saw you in the alley selling coal. You peaked my curiosity.”
The pale beggar’s laugh was like the falling of broken glass. “There are dozens of coal sellers wandering these streets at one time or another. There is nothing interesting in that.”
Famine watched the young man thoughtfully, the sudden shift to a more proper pattern of speech catching his attention. “But there is something quite interesting in you.”
There was another laugh and then a silence after that as the two studied one another. How long it lasted, Famine had no way to know. Whether he learned anything from it, he wasn’t sure either. But, beside its master, the dog snorted and twitched in its sleep. And, finally, the boy smiled to break the odd spell.
“I’m not meant to have guests here.”
“I should be on my way as it is.” Famine couldn’t help but return the slightest of smiles. “A name, though, if I might have one from you before I go, so that I know what to call you should we ever cross paths again.”
But the boy simply shook his head at that. “I have none to give.”
“Then what am I meant to call you?”
“Whatever you like.” Another laugh. “Now goodbye.”