Read Breath Online

Authors: Jackie Morse Kessler

Tags: #Contemporary, #Suspense, #Action Adventure

Breath (9 page)

BOOK: Breath
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But the difference was that the voices in his head were real.

Gently, gently,
the Elder said.
If you are too heavy-handed, they’ll fight you.

I know.

Pestilence had come to recognize the voices of the previous White Riders, from the soft-spoken Slave, who had been a helot in Sparta, to the commanding tones of the King, ruler of the land of Phrygia. He knew the King best and liked him least. Pestilence’s favorite voice was that of the Elder, who had been the magic man of his tribe. The Elder had taken the Crown after the sky had fallen and the land had turned to ice.

He’d seen the end of the world, and it had begun on a sheet of white.

Pestilence shook that thought away. That was the King whispering to him, attempting to cloud his perception. The King didn’t like the cold.

Happily, he didn’t have to worry about the cold, not in this part of the world. As Pestilence continued to nudge the malaria into something less widespread, he ignored heat that otherwise would have left him drowning in sweat. That was just one of the side effects he had as the White Rider: temperature control. Other benefits of being a Horseman of the Apocalypse included uniforms, company cars, and picking up new skill sets—as long as you didn’t mind single colors, cars that were really flying horses, and wielding phenomenal power that sometimes had a mind of its own.

Focus,
the Elder scolded.

I’m focusing,
Pestilence sighed.

Now the village woman were debating whether the netting would be put to better use if it were sewn into fishing nets, much to the chagrin of the volunteer. Their words sparked a memory in Pestilence’s mind: he saw himself as a boy of ten, trapping fish in nets of flax, remembered the joy he’d taken as he’d pulled his catch ashore.

No. That hadn’t been him. That had been the Fisher, who’d taken the Crown after a plague had decimated his village.

Pestilence laughed softly. It was a pleasant memory, even if it wasn’t truly his own.

A murder of crows fell upon the acacia tree, and the birds jabbered and cawed as the White Rider fished for malaria. Just as the volunteer convinced the villagers to take the mosquito nets, the opening chords of “Mad About You” filled the air. The birds squawked disapproval, but none of the women reacted. Everything about the White Rider went unnoticed by them, or maybe they just weren’t Sting fans.

He gave his steed a final pat, then took his cell phone from his pocket and glanced at the number. Smiling, he took the call. “Hey.”

“Hey! What’re you doing?”

“Working.”

“I’ll keep it quick. Free for dinner?”

“Sure,” he said, glancing at his wrist, which was covered by a white glove and therefore a completely pointless gesture, but some habits were hard to break. “When?”

“An hour from now? You bring the pizza, I’ll take care of dessert?”

“Is that a euphemism?”

A smoky laugh, and then: “One way to find out.”

His smile transformed into an infectious grin that spread warmth through his body. “It’s a date.”

“You, me, and a deluxe pizza.” A happy sigh, punctuated with a giggle. “This is love!”

Still grinning, he murmured, “Is that what this is?”

“It is if you order the pizza with extra olives.”

“For you? I’d order extra anchovies. I wouldn’t eat them, but I’d order them.”

“What a guy. See you in an hour. Love you.”

“Love you too,” he said warmly, then put his phone back in his pocket.

“In sickness and in health,” said an amused voice from behind him. “Which, in your case, pretty much covers all the bases.”

The white horse lowered its head and backed away, blowing nervous puffs of air.

Pestilence frowned over his shoulder. “You’re scaring my steed.”

Death was leaning against the acacia’s trunk, wearing the form of a dead rock legend in green and white pajamas. His mop of dirty blond hair shrouded his face, casting his eyes in a sky of empty night. He nodded at the white horse.

“My sincerest apologies, noble steed,” Death said in perfect Horse, which Pestilence understood. Pestilence understood all languages. Another side effect of being a Horseman of the Apocalypse. You haven’t lived until you’ve been cursed out by a pigeon while speeding over the Hudson River on a flying horse.

The white steed shivered, but it accepted Death’s apology. It was a nervous horse, not a stupid one.

The village women suddenly dispersed, as if they were fleeing to escape a squall. The volunteer hastily packed her things and drove away from the clearing like there was no tomorrow.

Two Riders of the Apocalypse stood beneath the shade of an acacia tree, with a trembling horse and a murder of crows bearing witness.

“I like your pajamas,” said Pestilence.

“They’re not mine. I just borrowed them. It’s all I can do. I borrow. I rummage.” He smiled. “I steal. I’m not a Rider. I’m a pirate.”

“Maybe you should trade your steed for a parrot.” Pestilence paused. “Say. Where’s your steed?”

“Not here.”

Pestilence’s mouth suddenly, inexplicably, went dry. “Why not?”

“I need a steed that leaves me to my own affairs, without the benefit of commentary.” Death’s voice, never warm, now was laced with frostbite. “Good help is so hard to find. But not as hard as finding true love. That’s what you think you have with her, don’t you? True love.”

Pestilence felt his stomach cramp and twist.

Stomach pain. Gastroenteritis,
said the Elder.
Lactose intolerance. Anxiety.

Fear.

“What happened to your steed?”

If Death heard the question, he ignored it. “You and your girl sound so cute on the phone. Love as conveyed through pizza. War would be sickened by the notion, but Famine, I’m sure, would be amused. Or maybe bitter. She’s not exactly stable when it comes to affairs of the heart. But she’d appreciate the food, even if she doesn’t tend to eat it herself.”

“I do love her,” Pestilence said quietly.

“Who, Famine? Well. You and the Black Rider do have quite the history . . .”

“Not Famine. Marianne. My girl, as you called her. The one who sounds so cute on the phone. I love her,” said Pestilence. “I have for a long, long time.”

“You have no idea what a long, long time truly is, William.”

Cold,
the King wailed.
So cold.

Pestilence stared at the Pale Rider, and he saw how Death’s eyes gleamed with winter frost even as sunlight spun his hair to summer gold. “Something’s wrong.”

Death’s shoulders bobbed from silent laughter. “Wrong? Everything is in balance. The Four go out unto the world, and all manner of living things bleed and sicken and starve and die. What could possibly be wrong?”

A lump formed in Pestilence’s throat.

A lump. Globus hystericus,
said the Elder.
Reactive adenitis. Mononucleosis. Cysts. Cancer.

“I hear it in your voice,” the White Rider said. “I see it on your face.”

“So perceptive, and yet so limited. A human failing, that. Limited perception.” Death motioned to the sky. “You see the sun and assume it rises and falls at the earth’s pleasure. You see the horizon and insist the world is flat. Then you get science as religion. Hallelujah! Suddenly there’s an entire solar system and gravitational pulls and orbits, and you think you’ve unlocked the secrets of the universe. You discover quantum physics and assume you understand your place in the scheme of creation. Such conceit.” Death chuckled, the sound like broken glass. “The philosophers would weep from such rampant arrogance, but they’re all dead and dying.”

“Please,” Pestilence said. “Tell me.”

“Dead and dying,” Death said again. “That’s because philosophy is a lost art. You people are so busy finding new answers, you’ve forgotten that you’ve stopped asking questions. You people used to have an embarrassment of questions. Now it’s all scripted reality television and a soundtrack.”

“Tell me,” Pestilence implored. “You’ve come to me before, when you needed my help. You’ve come to me now. Tell me what’s wrong.”

A pause, filled with tension and something more, something foreign. Something
other.

“And so he presumes to command one such as me. Oh, humanity. There’s nothing wrong, little Pestilence. Nothing at all.”

How did one call Death a liar? Pestilence held his tongue.

The Pale Rider stepped forward lazily. Where he’d leaned against the tree, bark flaked like dandruff. “But it’s kind of you to be concerned. For thee, White Rider. A gift.”

Something dark rushed forward, pressed against Pestilence and moved through him, past him. He gasped as he felt parasites disintegrate. Where there had been malaria, now there was nothing but potential disease.

“Go back to your girl, William,” said Death. “Your work here is done.”

The white horse sneezed in despair.

Pestilence stammered, “But—”

In his head, the King screamed.
A SHEET OF WHITE! THE END OF THE WORLD! THE PALE RIDER COMES!

The White Rider flinched. He squeezed his eyes closed and commanded the King to be silent. When he opened his eyes again, Death had disappeared.

A black rock fell from the tree, landing by Pestilence’s feet.

No, not a rock. A bird.

A dead crow, frozen solid.

Another bird fell, and then another. Soon all the crows were tumbling to the grass, all black ice and petrified meat.

Pestilence didn’t realize he’d fallen to his knees until his horse nudged his shoulder. The White Rider stared up at his steed, stunned, his gloved hands splayed by his sides.

“I don’t understand,” he whispered.

Go back,
the Elder said sadly.
Go back, and kiss your girl goodbye.

Xander

“And kiss that lead goodbye!” Ted whooped for joy, pumping his fist in the air.

On the sofa, Izzy muttered something physically improbable.

“It’s not even halftime,” Xander said. “Anything could happen.”

“Don’t remind me.”

Xander shrugged and cracked open another can of beer. He wasn’t hanging out at Izzy’s because he was an avid football fan (he tended to root for whoever was winning) or because she had the best surround-sound entertainment system known to mankind (her parents inhaled sports and insisted on the best-quality viewing experience possible); he just liked hanging with his friends. Granted, the beer was a bonus. Feigning interest, Xander settled back and kept watching the game, making sure to “ooh” and “ahhh” at the appropriate times. When the first half came to an end, Izzy’s team was down by ten.

“Don’t worry,” Ted said smugly. “I’m sure they’ll give away even more points before the game’s over.”

Izzy glared at him. “You’re such an ass.”

“Don’t be mad at me. Not my fault your boys suck.”

“Shut up.”

“Aw, someone needs a hug.”

Izzy muttered, “Touch me and die.” She stared murder at the television.

Ted grinned, stood up from the sofa, stretched. “Gotta see a man about a horse.”

“Really?” Izzy said, rolling her eyes. “You have to announce when you’re gonna take a piss? I swear, you’re worse than a girl.”

“And you’d know that how?”

“Swear to God, Edward, I’m gonna kick that scrawny ass of yours.”

“She totally could,” Xander said.

“Totally couldn’t. You’re a goalie, Isabella, not a center. You’re all hands.” Ted’s grin spread to shit-eating proportions. “Wanna get grabby with me?”

“Not even if you were the last man on earth.”

“Hey,” Xander said to Ted, “weren’t you gonna go pee?”

Izzy said, “And put the leftover pizza in the nuker, yeah?”

“What am I, your mother?”

“You’re the guy eating my pizza.”

“Says the gal drinking my beer.”

“Whose beer?” Xander asked, arching an eyebrow.

“So possessive!” Ted blew him a kiss, then swaggered out of the den.

“You’re right,” Xander said, chuckling. “He
is
an ass.”

“So,” Izzy said. “How’re you doing, anyway?”

“Buzzed.”

“Not what I mean.”

Xander frowned at her. “Not following.”

Izzy glanced in the direction Ted had gone. “Sort of stunned you’re actually talking to him.”

“Who—Ted?”

Izzy said nothing, but her look was cutting.

“What the hell? First Suzie’s all weird, now you’re acting weirder.” Xander set his beer can on the coffee table, a little harder than he’d planned. “What’s going on, Iz?”

Izzy was leaning forward, elbows on her knees, long ponytail draped over her shoulder, as she stared intently at Xander. “Last night. Marcie’s.” She paused. “Don’t you remember?”

Mouth dry, Xander shook his head.

“Nothing? About what happened with you and . . . ?”

Voice tight, Xander said, “Me and who?”

Izzy looked down at her feet, then back up at Xander. “So here’s the thing. I was in the house with everyone, so I didn’t catch the beginning. But when I heard the yelling, and I saw what was happening, I went out back, onto the deck. When I got there, I saw you and—”

Xander’s head, already fuzzy from the beer, suddenly began to pound. Wincing, he pressed a hand to his temple, but that didn’t stop the pressure. He screwed his eyes shut and tried to ride out the pain. Izzy was still talking, babbling on and on and
on,
but he couldn’t hear the words because there was a loud beep from the kitchen—the microwave, signaling that the pizza was ready—and now there was something else.

A voice.

“Come on, Zan,” the voice said. “Come on, open your eyes.”

He opened his eyes.

Ted, behind the wheel of the Death Car, was crowing about his team winning the game. “Man, you’d think Izzy would smarten up and root for my boys, but no, she’s got this thing for the underdog.” He sang the
Underdog
theme song in a piercing baritone.

Xander, disoriented, rubbed his head. “Stop. Just stop.”

“Such a critic.”

“Uh. So.” Xander blinked, looked at the houses streaking away as they passed by. “Game’s over.”

“Yeah, and has been for twenty minutes.” A pause. “Dude, you’ve been out of it all day. You feeling okay?”

BOOK: Breath
4.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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