by Allison Thai
“God creates out of nothing. Wonderful, you say. Yes, to be sure, but what he does is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners.” ~Søren Kierkegaard
The tethers binding his soul were warm yet firm, pulling him up from the bowels of Hell. Impossible. Nothing could escape the downward pull of a fiery eternity, just as nothing in the physical world could defy the power of gravity. Still, somehow, he felt lighter than he ever had before, buoyed by a force that took him past the fire and muck filled with screaming, cursing sinners. Shadows of the damned wallowed in never-ending rounds of punishment, dealt out according to their vices. To be freed from such torment made him gasp in relief. What could he have done to gain this sweet release? Was he being saved?
Suddenly he found himself on water, standing on it, as the ocean heaved and bucked all around him. A storm brewed overhead, gathering, rumbling, and tumbling in swells of dark clouds. A beam of sunlight peeked through. He shuddered from the warmth, frightened at first, then quickly found it pleasant on his skin. He looked down, caught sight of his reflection, and gasped.
A horse stared back, one with a withered build, bones jutting out to form odd tents and hills of skin here and there, with off-white hair to match an off-white coat.
“Where am I? What am I?”
“You are Death, one of the Four Horsemen.” A little lamb, riding down the beam of light, had hailed him.
Though the reply was no more than a whisper, hardly heard amid the waves, the one called Death felt his knees buckle and heart race. The lamb exuded a blinding white halo, stronger than even the sun, and Death had to lower his eyes and muzzle lest he go blind. His voice dipped low with awe. “The Lamb of God.”
The animal he had been, the name he once bore—he could not remember, but nothing in his past life mattered now. Death looked around. “You say four. Where are the other three?”
“They will join you soon.”
True to the Lamb’s word, more horses burst through the ocean’s surface—one in red, one in black, and one in white. Blinking, gasping, and stumbling on the waves, they along with Death formed the quartet the Lamb had expected.
The Lamb of God addressed them in order of appearance, giving each a cordial nod. “War, Famine, and Pestilence, welcome.”
These horses too ducked their heads, more out of fear than rudeness, and quailed at the face of overwhelming power.
The one called War, blood-red and rippling in muscles, was the first to muster a response. “You called us, Lord?”
The water bore a reflection distilling some of the Lamb’s light, and from this Death took notice of the Lamb’s somber face.
“The Last Judgment is at hand. I have broken the four seals, as it was foretold, and hereby bestow upon you the task of destroying the world.”
Death exchanged looks with the other horses, and they mirrored his disbelief.
“Why us?” Famine asked. “Why appoint souls of the damned? Why not trust your own angels to do it?”
“You have been in Hell for some time,” the Lamb replied, “and because of that, memory does not serve you well. In your past lives you have made names for yourselves from the deaths and suffering of others. This world remembers you as warlords and monsters. You had been punished accordingly.” The Lamb’s voice did not ring with accusation, like a judge sentencing criminals, but was soft and sad, more like a father pining for his prodigal sons. “I chose you four out of many because you have the experience. Now I’ve raised you to be agents of calamity once more, this time in my name.”
The Lamb of God lifted an arm, summoning an array of tools from the water. “Take these before you go. War, you will bear a sword to sow the seeds of violence and discord. Pestilence, spread disease far and wide with the bow and arrow. Famine, with the weighing scale you shall run the world’s food thin. And Death, use this scythe to reap the harvest of souls.”
Death closed his hooves over the staff of the scythe, and its weight made veins stand out on his skin. He felt honored to earn the privilege of this task, grim as it may be. Anything was better than going back to Hell. He bowed even lower, till his muzzle almost brushed the water. “By your grace you brought us out of eternal flame. For that we shall carry out your will.”
Despite including the rest in his declaration, reactions among the other Horsemen varied. From the corner of his eye Death saw Famine rendered still with reluctance, Pestilence struggling to comprehend, and War squinting against the light.
“What will we get in return for completing this task?” Famine asked.
Death cringed at this bold inquiry, but the Lamb of God’s reflection rippled as he shook with gentle laughter.
“Hungry for more now as you were in your past life—I should have expected as much, Famine. I will say this: you are in no position to make any bargains. But I do everything for a reason. Just do your duty, Horsemen.” With that the Lamb departed from them, his coat of white wool one with the light.
Death nodded at his newfound equine brethren. “After you.”
The Four Horsemen shot off, surging with power that bore them before the wind, over land and sea, through the four corners of the world. Entire nations buckled under the tide of the Apocalypse. Even before the Four Horsemen were called, world leaders had their teeth bared and hackles raised at one another, unable to reach any kind of agreement or settle for peace. The air crackled with tension. All War had to do was strike a match with his sword. For all his bulk and redness, War cavorted across continents unseen, jabbing his blade here and sweeping it there to ignite the flames in people’s hearts. Animosity among species spiked. Even the meek and gentle, those less inclined to start fights, flew at each other like rabid beasts. War, always holding his sword aloft, saw to it that no alliances were formed. Not even among those of the same species. Camaraderie be damned — it was everyone for him or herself.
Famine played a part in fostering these schisms. Rivers ran dry, meat spoiled, and greens withered under his influence. What was scarce became sacred. People groveled and scrabbled for these necessities, and quickly resorted to looting and killing just to fill their bellies and live to see another day. Famine soon found himself in good company, surrounded by gaunt, stick-thin victims whose meat and fat wasted away from lack of nutrients. Famine viciously dismantled the Interspecies Protection From Consumption Act, as carnivores were driven to break the law by sinking their teeth into herbivores — fellow citizens, sometimes their own friends. The number of bodies climbed, but no one thought to keep track. The weak became meat, snatched up and swallowed down to feed the strong.
Such disregard for morals and sanitation gave way to disease courtesy of Pestilence. The Horseman slung his arrows far and wide, each riddled with every kind of poison and plague to send people by the hundreds and thousands to their graves. For a horse weighed down in boils, hair broiling with flies, and limbs weakened with rot, as arguably the slowest Horseman of the four, he did not have to run very fast or far at all. His joints, knobbly and frail as they were, could still bend the bow and that was enough. His arrows did much of the terrible work. They worked best on herds and packs, striking through many victims at once. Coughs and moans from the sick thickened the air. Contagion spread like fire, with no way to be extinguished except for the utter annihilation of those it consumed.
The Lamb of God had chosen well to bring them back as horses, for no other animal was more hardy and swift of foot to carry out the Apocalypse. Wherever War, Famine, and Pestilence went, Death was never too far behind, almost always on their tails. What else could follow such calamity but the end of one’s life? The harvest of souls was plentiful, ever growing. Death thought he would have found this somewhat enjoyable, if his past life held any indication. Instead, the sheer magnitude of souls to collect overwhelmed him. If he had an earthly body that breathed and bled, the work would have easily killed him. He had already died once, so no need to fear a second death.
Fear — the Fifth Horseman, Death liked to call it — proved even swifter and more terrible than his comrades as it drove hordes of people to take their own lives. Mass suicide became a common sight for Death, the most common source for his harvest of souls. Death watched how disaster and doom brought out the worst in people, with many cursing the end times and even more still resigned to forfeiting their lives in order to forego the slow agony of disease, starvation, and bloodshed.
Many met their deaths with despair. Only a few faced theirs with dignity. One such fellow was a young rabbit named Viktor, one of many brothers and sisters constituting a poor warren in Russia.
Death took great interest in this little rabbit, constantly looming over him, for Viktor teetered on the edge of life and death with his weak heart. Viktor was the smallest and weakest of his siblings, a classic case of the runt of the litter. Often short of breath, he was red-faced under his thin fur as the borscht his family was so fond of eating. He could hardly venture out of his home, and his family sheltered him for good reason — he’d be torn apart in a blink of an eye. Death drifted closer and closer; never before had he been so intrigued by the life of any mortal. For all his frailty and bleak future, Viktor held onto life stronger than even the fiercest lion or tiger. Out loud and in his heart, he gave thanks for every breath he took, every moment he could spend with his parents and siblings, who fretted over him and saw to it that he always had his needs met. He gave thanks for the food he was given, grown and salvaged though carrots would never be as crisp and fresh as before. He was grateful for the blankets and toys his siblings gave up to keep him comfortable and entertained. Death could not help admiring this young rabbit, who seemed to live in defiance of the depravity around him.
One night, alone in his bedroom, Viktor craned his head up to meet Death’s eyes.
That took the Horseman aback. “You can see me?”
“I’ve always known you were watching.” The rabbit did not scream or bolt out of his room. Instead he climbed onto his bed and wiggled into the blankets, like he would for any uneventful night. This amused and baffled Death.
“Do you know who I am?”
Viktor frowned, studying Death from head to toe. “You don’t look like a guardian angel. You don’t have wings.”
“You’re right. My name is Death.”
“Hello, Death,” he said, as if making a new friend. “I’m Viktor. Call me Vitya, if you want.”
“Are you afraid?”
Viktor shook his head. “I know you’ll come for me. I’ve known since I was very little, when I realized I could never run as fast or jump as high as my brothers and sisters. Everyone will find you at the end of the road sooner or later. I don’t have long, but I’d like to be with my family for a bit more, please.”
Death nodded, impressed with Viktor’s courage and touched by a politeness that he had never before received in all his time as a Horseman. Most people feared him and hated him. He, like time, never stopped for anyone, but somehow he could not find it in his heart to go against the rabbit’s wish. After all, Viktor’s soul was not for the taking just yet. For someone terminally ill and on the verge of death, Viktor still had some life in him.
“I’ll leave you alone, then,” Death said, “and come back for you when you’re ready.”
“You’re welcome to come back before that,” Viktor replied, “just to relax, if that’s possible. You look tired and lonely. I don’t think the rest of my family can see you, and for most of the day they’re out foraging, anyway. I’d like a friend to keep me company.”
Death tipped his muzzle at him. “I appreciate the offer.” And he took it whenever he could, for his duty proved very taxing and draining, indeed. After rounds of collecting souls and witnessing all manners of terrible deaths, the Horseman liked to visit Viktor and take his mind off the strain, if even for a moment. They spent most of their time together over open storybooks, fairy tales with happy endings, or silly stories that would make Death whinny and snort and break free of the somber frown that seemed to have set in his muzzle permanently.
“I love to read,” Viktor said. “It’s my escape. It takes me to faraway places and lets me be the hero I’ve always dreamed of being.”
“You’re already a hero.”
“How? I don’t swing a sword.” Viktor tilted back to behold the scythe that loomed over him. “And I’m very sure that thing would crush me if I tried to lift it.”
Death let out a rueful chuckle, hefting the weapon for a moment. “You don’t need anything like this to be a hero.” He rested a big, worn hoof over Viktor’s head, dwarfing it. “I mean that you are strong and brave in ways you can’t imagine. Believe me, I’ve killed — er, met many, many people around the world, and no one’s quite like you.”
The rabbit’s ears stood rigid and fluttered a little. His cheeks flushed, making his face even redder, and bunched up below his eyes in a wide smile. “You may not look it, but you’re very nice.”
Time was not so kind. Viktor grew more sick and frail with each passing day. He was confined to the bed and could not even risk a venture to other burrows in the warren.
Death knelt over the little rabbit’s bedside. “It’s almost time,” he murmured.
Viktor closed his eyes. “I understand.”
After supper, he asked for the attention of the entire family. Of course they were all ears, wide-eyed and curious, wondering what he had to say. Death also listened in, invisible to the rest, wondering how they would take the news.
“Everyone…” Viktor paused. His nose twitched and eyes blinked rapidly as he struggled to collect himself. With great effort he sucked in a deep breath, and went on, “Please don’t be upset, but I think now is a good time for me to say good-bye.” Stunned silence all around met him.
Finally, his father asked, “What do you mean?”
“Vitya, don’t say that,” his mother cried. She reached out to take his paw into hers. “We’re doing everything we can to care for you—”
“I know, and thank you.” Tears welled in Viktor’s eyes. “I feel I can never thank you enough. But you’ve seen the world around us, outside our warren. Even the world’s coming to an end. I am going to die, and I know you’re just trying to protect me, but you will have to let me go.” Viktor offered them a wide smile. “Don’t worry. I will see you all on the other side someday.” He bid his family good night, for the last time. He gave each sibling a long, earnest hug, while they restrained the urge to pile up on him all at once. Finally he was enveloped in arms and tears by his parents.
The lights went out. Viktor’s body went still and slack, his voice no more than a whisper. “I’m ready, Death. Take me away.”
His passing was a painless, peaceful one — the only one Death carried out alone. He had insisted on acting without the aid of his fellow Horsemen. With a pull of Death’s scythe Viktor’s soul slipped free, and without a weak earthly body to bind him, he sprinted out of the warren and floated well above the Muscovite landscape. Death followed him up, and Viktor turned to him with wide, searching eyes.
“Are you coming with me, Death?”
The Horseman gestured to the desolation below them. “I’m afraid not. I still have work to do down here.”
“Will we see each other again?”
Death had to be honest. “I can’t promise anything, but I hope so.”
“I hope so, too.” Viktor waved a little white paw. “Good-bye, for now.”
Death watched the rabbit’s soul drift — up, up, up — along a stairway to Heaven the Horseman could not see.
Parting ways with Viktor weighed down his heart. At the same time Death rejoiced that the young rabbit could leave this crumbling world after a proper farewell to his family and end up in a better place. If anyone deserved that, it was Viktor.
Death tore his eyes from the sky, a glimpse of Heaven, and turned back to search for more worthy souls to send into God’s kingdom. Unfortunately, the Apocalypse produced few instances of enlightenment and mental fortitude. Death grew weary of his work again, wondering if there would be an end to it all. In the constant accompaniment and teamwork with his fellow Horsemen, Death took it as a reprieve to strike up conversations with them.
“What is God’s plan for us after this?” Death had to raise his voice, on account of howls and screams from the mobs of starving, disease-ridden people fighting over scraps. Such an event called for a group effort, the presence of the other three Horsemen.
“You mean what’s after the Last Judgment?” War folded his arms over his huge chest. “A foolish question, Death.”
Famine’s dark eyes glittered. “On my way here I caught a glimpse of Heaven, maybe even Empyrean. I’ve never wanted anything so badly before.”
Pestilence’s ears, riddled with holes, perked. “You’ve actually seen it?”
War’s muzzle stretched from a frown. “We’re damned, anyway. God’s sending us back to Hell after we do our part.”
“Why would he do that if we are following his orders?” Death asked. “Surely he will reward us.” He paused to scoop up souls who had lost their bodies to bloodshed.
“What reward? After what we’ve done?” War snorted. “God said so himself: we’d been punished accordingly. Hell is final.”
Death shook his head. “Christ went down and came back up for the third day. He broke open the bolts binding the gates of Hell. Bolts that even Satan could not pry out. Even now the gates are left open.”
War waved a hoof in dismissal. “The Harrowing of Hell. It happened, yes, but everyone down there just takes it as hope, a chance, for a way out. Well, false hope and fat chance. Christ descended into Hell only for the righteous, anyway. We are sinners. There’s no freedom for the likes of us.” He reached down to thrust his blade into the hearts of those too tired to fight, making them spring back to their feet and rejoin the mob.
Death knew better than to fuel War’s ire, but he felt inclined to disagree. God had already done the impossible: bring up the damned from Hell. Not up to Heaven, of course (a ridiculous stretch), but onto the physical plane. That was a miracle in itself. God made use of even sinners to do his good work. Deep in Death’s unbeating heart, he felt that God would not toss them away like trash. At the same time he felt he did not deserve redemption.
“The Lamb is too detached for my taste,” War went on. “Maybe he’s making us do his dirty work. He wouldn’t soil his wool for this. And he’s hiding things from us. He gave me this sword but not my memories. I’d very much like to know who I was and what I did.”
Famine cracked a grin — a rare act, considering their line of work. “Well, I’m quite sure that even at your prime, you hadn’t started up this many wars.” Then he craned his narrow muzzle back as he pondered, as if weighing the scales in his head. “I must have wanted a lot of things in my past life. Even if I remembered them all, they don’t matter anymore.”
Death followed Famine’s gaze upward, searching for an inkling of light amidst the storm. “If God isn’t telling us everything, I believe it’s better that way. I don’t want to know what I’ve done to earn a place in Hell. I think God made us Horsemen to give us a second chance.” His grip tightened over the scythe. “Forget the past. Trust in God to lead us to a better future.”
War doubled over guffawing. “You should hear yourself. Have you gone mad?”
Pestilence did not respond with scorn as War did. Sunken eyes peeked through a matted forelock, making him look like a lost child. “Do you really think there’s hope?”
“Yes. Hope for the harbingers.” Death wanted his comrades to believe that, too.
“Whatever put that idea in your head?” Famine asked. “That little rabbit, am I right?”
Death conceded with a smile.
War chuckled. “You must have taken a real liking to him. You wouldn’t let the three of us get anywhere close to that warren.”
“I do not like giving children terrible ends,” Death admitted. He remembered the fairy tales Viktor would read to him. “I like happy endings.”
“I doubt it will end well for us.” Pestilence heaved a sigh, the huge boils sagging with his shoulders.
“That’s fear talking,” Death said. “You have to believe with all your might that God will forgive you. Forgive us.” He did not believe he deserved such a thing, but yearned for it all the same. He began to take inspiration in how Viktor led his short life on Earth, making it a habit to thank every moment he spent out of Hell, even if he stood far from Heaven. Fear of going back down there fueled his gratitude. He encouraged his comrades to do the same. As they gathered together and shared stories, Death found that War, Famine, and Pestilence had found their own Viktors in the midst of strife and suffering.
“I have found peacemakers,” War told them. “My sword can’t cut them.”
“I met givers,” Famine said, “who gave all they had when they could have helped themselves.”
“I might have produced the finest physicians the world has ever seen,” Pestilence said.
These stories pleased Death greatly. This cemented his belief that he and his fellow Horsemen were doing good work, after all. There was something to be learned here.
Finally, after what seemed like ages, the Last Judgment drew to an end. Every soul was sent up, or down, and accounted for. The Four Horsemen joined forces, combining their strength, to deliver the blow that would send the world into oblivion. Death lifted his scythe, adding to the steeple formed by War’s sword, Famine’s weighing scale, and Pestilence’s bow. They swung down together, and remnants of a sinful, imperfect world gave way before their very eyes. A huge wave of light blinded them. Death expected the downward tug, the return of his soul to Hell, now that his work here was done.
He felt no such thing. He dared to blink his eyes open, and the other Horsemen followed suit, their stances tense and unsure. What Death saw next took his breath away. Before him stood the Lamb of God, heading a multitude of angels and souls, innumerable beyond measure and compare. Death’s legs buckled and he sank to his knees.
The Lamb smiled. “Please rise. You are in good company.”
Death obeyed, exchanging wide-eyed confusion with his comrades. He certainly did not remember Hell looking like this.
“You have done as I have asked, and you did well. My tests are never easy, and I must commend you for passing the one I imposed on you. For that you will be rewarded.”
Pestilence’s mouth hung open, then worked like a fish out of water, and finally he shut it and lowered his head out of embarrassment over looking ridiculous before the Lord of all creation.
Famine managed to spring out the question. “This…this is Heaven? We made it?”
The Lamb nodded. “I’m afraid I must save a proper warm welcome for another time.” He turned his muzzle downward, and amid the light a spot of darkness remained, where an ugly serpent writhed and hissed below the heavenly host. “There is still the Enemy to vanquish once and for all. Only in his defeat can we rejoice in the founding of New Jerusalem.”
“We will help,” War said. With his ears tucked back and head bowed, he looked sorry to have doubted and spoken against God at all. Clearly he sought to make up for it.
Famine, Death, and Pestilence nodded in agreement.
“Thank you,” the Lamb replied. “Now, I can’t have you go into battle unprepared.” With a sweep of his arm, he sent up a great wind that peeled away every blight on the Horsemen’s bodies, granting them pure white coats and builds that brimmed with health and vigor. Then with another wave of his arm, he substituted their Apocalyptic instruments for blades forged in the brightest holy steel. Death embraced this new identity with open arms, thrilling in the divine power that coursed through him.
Then something else hit him — something white and soft. Death drew back and gasped. “Viktor!”
The rabbit, who had tackled the former Horseman with a fierce hug, pulled away and grinned. “I knew you’d come.”
Death drew him back for another hug. “I didn’t think I would, but here I am.”
The Lamb of God gave them a warm smile. “It seems I have given you two the happy ending you’ve wanted.”
“I would not have it any other way, Lord.” Hell seemed nothing more than a bad memory now. Death felt he could burst, overjoyed to know that he was given another chance, that his hope and faith bore fruit. Fruit he had shared with his fellow Horsemen.
Viktor clasped his friend’s hoof with both paws. “Come on, let’s go slay a dragon together.”
* * *
Originally published in ROAR, Volume 8
About the Author
Allison Thai is a specialist in pediatric anesthesia. When she isn’t taking care of kids during surgeries, she eats up books and video games, always hungry for the next good one. Her critter-centric fiction has been published in Podcastle, Anathema, Zooscape, and ROAR, and was featured on Tor and Locus recommended lists.