The Fifth Horseman

Edited by Yanni Kuznia

Copyedited by Chelle Parker

October 2021

2694 words — Reading time: around 13 minutes

The final family converges at no particular crossroad, each enjoying the symphony of blissful, dead air that marks a job well done.

War allows himself a small smile as he strips his armor, piece by sweaty piece. Curtains of blood ripple to the ground, staining the dust red. “It has happened again, and rather well this time, I believe. Excellent work, sisters, as always.”

Famine grips her ratty leather gloves between her teeth and gnaws them away from her withered fingers, her eyes wide and lambent in the decaying sun. “Why were we called back? There are still bacteria to starve, still single-celled societies to know my hunger. I want them, I want them!” Her pale, thin belly growls with the ferocity of a beast leaping upon prey.

Death rolls her eyes at her sister, while Pestilence clicks her tongue and War looks away.

Famine hunkers down in her saddle, wrapping her lanky grey limbs around her hungry bones, shying away from her family’s judgment; middle child syndrome incarnate. “I just really want them. I’m starving.”

Pestilence sighs, fretting with the gold buttons twinkling against the darkness of her coat. Her hollow eye sockets seem to drift over the rubble around them with feigned disinterest, trying to remain composed in the face of her twin’s temper tantrum. “As much as it pains me to agree, Famine has a point. If you think there isn’t some miserable weed left on this planet that I can’t infect and watch wither into nothingness, you don’t know me at all.”

Death huffs and tucks a lock of silver hair behind her ear. She pats her mare fondly beneath her, as if to apologize for her siblings squabbling. They always get like this after a world has been decimated: petulant, impatient, but unwilling to move on. It’s always up to big sister to corral them back to the cosmos for their next family dinner. “If we’re gathered, it’s for good reason. She must be awake.”

Not one of the four hears her coming; no one ever does. World after world, she’s snuck up on them. Littlest sister knows how to hide best; that’s how she avoids all the worst chores.

She’s upon them like mist burning away in the sun, more real with every passing moment, sitting atop an ivory horse with no bridle, saddle, or rein. She wears white; clouds the color of bone churn in her eyes.

Each horseman salutes in their fashion: War cuts his palm and holds it to his chest. Famine’s neck snaps forward, eyes downcast, but just barely. Pestilence waves with the airy sloth of royalty. Death bows from the waist.

“Well met, sister. Is it time, already?”

Formality is formality; just because this world is dead doesn’t mean decorum has to go to the grave with it.

The fifth horseman nods to Death, her bald brow shining in the light of the red sun.

Famine’s charcoal tongue slides out from between her teeth, a wail escaping from her cancerous maw as Death takes away the candy bowl. “Well, I don’t care! Go away, little sister, away with you!” she says through bits of leather glove stuck in her sharp staccato teeth. “There are still things to eat! Stars to consume! Whole worlds to chew and rip and rend and gnaw and—!”

The fifth horseman puts a finger to her lips.

Famine’s back arches as she screams. Her spine snaps and she falls backward from her horse, dust and sand and night crawlers exploding outward from her thin, sagging belly.

Pestilence picks pieces of her twin’s ruinous stomach lining out of her eye socket; her shoulders slump forward and she chuckles. “You have my thanks, little sister. Some damn slice of quiet before I depart is a lovely gift indeed. It almost makes up for all the thousands of birthdays you’ve missed.”

The fifth horseman grins at her older sister’s irreverence and puts a finger to her lips. Pestilence’s porcelain skin crawls with tumors then, skittering underneath her flesh like gorged beetles. Paler than subterranean mushrooms, they split her skin, swallowing her bones, choking her throat, lungs, and brain. A moment later, she tumbles from her horse and is gone.

War dismounts from his charger and stands with his feet in the dust. He shies from his little sister’s cloudy gaze, blushing. When he speaks, he mutters, shuffling his feet like a young boy caught with a candle in his room on a night with no moon. He finally locks eyes with his little sister’s kind gaze; he does his best to smile. “You know I hate to die without my feet on the earth.” He looks at Death. “See you soon, sister?”

Death nods. “Sooner than we always think, brother. Sleep well.”

War looks back at the fifth horseman. But she already has her finger to her lips, and War is bleeding from a thousand shallow cuts. The wind drives through him, emptying him of his red, red love. Falling to his knees, he drowns the earth in his blood and is gone, leaving only a crimson shadow to show he was ever there.

The fifth horseman regards her oldest sister with fondness. Death gifts her a wry grin. “We both know so little of each other, don’t we, sister? If only you could ravage worlds with us, we’d have some time — a little time at least, to learn one another’s hearts. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

The fifth horseman smiles sadly, her eyebrows coming together, and her shoulders rising, just so.

Death nods. “Some other lifetime, then. Goodnight, sister.”

The fifth horseman puts a finger to her lips. Death vanishes, as do the remaining beasts of her siblings, leaving her alone atop a dead world.

From behind her, she pulls a glass jar, plain and empty and small.

She starts as she always does: with the easiest one. She unseals the jar and calls the wind to her. It comes scampering over the barren hills and through the dead mountains, rustling the crumbling earth, rushing into the glass, eager to please in a world gone mad. The whistling of its passing is swallowed by the jar.

The fifth horseman smiles; she closes her eyes and listens for the last whispers of life folded into the silence of a dead planet.

She listens for where she must go next.

In the center of a verdant jungle now bereft of life, dead leaves tangle themselves in snarls of limp brown vines. A lone grasshopper aching with age and thirst calls out still, his song echoing through the hollow jungle. If it is more distressed than serene, that doesn’t make it less beautiful, not to her. From the bottom of a no-longer-gushing waterfall, a single trickle of gasping water drips and slips among the stones, dribbling to the empty pool below in a mournful crying.

The fifth horseman brushes her beast down without a sound and surveys the pool, once a jewel set in this emerald crown, when it was wild and full of laughter. She unseals her jar and urges the leaves to cease their struggle; their skittering dies and the sound of their scratching goes into the jar.

She seeks him out, that old grasshopper. He doesn’t run from her, only stares in fragile awe, craning his neck, his antennae waving with lethargic affection. She places the jar in front of him and, without words, promises him that his song will never die. The grasshopper moves forward into the jar.

The thin tears of the once mighty waterfall tremble as she approaches. The sound of its crying makes the glass of the jar hum, it is so strong, so scared. The fifth horseman comforts the water of the once jungle, once country, once nation. She gives it a place to sleep, running her hands over the wet rock face, shushing its plaintive cries, until its mere drips and drabs echo no more within the glass jar.

Soon the jungle is silent, as leaf, grasshopper, and waterfall all sleep soundless, dreaming of their lives before and of their lives to come.

The city was once great, as all things once were and now are not.

War, she knew, always was too rough with his toys; he’d caused colossi of steel and iron and glass to fall from their great heights and embrace the earth with terrifying speed. Even now, they weep themselves apart, rotting; their plummet was ages past and their wails do not fade as they continue to break under time’s slow hammer.

She walks through this graveyard of empire and holds her jar before her, as though it were a candle lit for vigil.

The sound of rubble crashing to the ground whimpers and slinks into her jar. The hum of dying power lines and deep underground cables follows soon after. The sobbing of dirty glass splintering apart flows to her. High above, the lone call of a last wracking crow is swallowed up, too.

The dead city goes quiet in the wake of her passing; she rests a hand on the face of the youngest tower and holds its quaking, concrete form until it falls asleep.

This sea has long since dried; her older siblings are nothing if not thorough. The countless oceans were the only chance all four could play together equally in their destructive pursuits.

The fifth horseman feels a thorn of jealousy in her heart at this and wonders where it has come from: a thousand worlds and never this. She’s more fascinated than upset by the realization.

Still, she puts it aside. She’s good at putting things aside.

The fifth horseman walks downward through the caked, dried clay, her ears guiding her around the corpses and bones of sea monsters and men alike, her footprints leaving muddy ghosts in her wake.

Where it’s deepest, she finds a gargantuan, a beast of myriad limbs and eyes the size of worlds. Massive, baked raw by the red sun, she can hear that still, somehow, it breathes. A breath no bigger than a moth, but still: breath.

That it isn’t dead doesn’t speak to her siblings’ work, only the beast’s tenacity. The fifth horseman empathizes; when you grow to live a thousand and a thousand years, dying doesn’t come as naturally as it should.

She approaches. The beast is too weak to attack, to move, to do anything other than summon a whisper of strength to swivel a single watery eye to her and mew for mercy. It cries out like a kitten fallen from a great height, who cannot find its mother to nurse it back to health. It weeps like a thing abandoned.

But even here, at the end of its life, the end of its world, it will not die alone.

She places a hand on the beast’s head, strokes its boiled, blasted hide; to look away from its gaze would be the same as walking away.

The sea beast trembles under her tender touch and its breathing slows further, a promise breaking with every new moment of quiet. That huge single eye blinks once, buffeting her with air.

She opens her jar and catches its last breath within; there, it joins the wind of the world, the songs of the low, the sounds of civilization destroyed, the laughing and sobbing and unheard weeping of this dead world.

Even after the giant has passed, it is still some time before she leaves its side, there at the bottom of an empty sea.

There is a sound that the sun makes when it has gone red and swollen with madness. It is the frothy, snarling bark of a sick dog; the tragic howl of a parent cradling their dead child in the dark; the hitching wail of one who’s lost their mind and, even still, gropes in the starlight, hoping to find it.

She stands atop the dead world and listens to the sun’s sobbing; it tastes of fire and rage. All the clouds have melted away. There is no curtain; the bright, agonizing song assaults her, cuts her heart with its searing sorrow.

For the first time in millennia, across countless worlds, the fifth horseman experiences doubt. Is it possible she can’t lull this one to sleep? Though, to be honest, she’s always surprised she even can. How can one ever be expected to comfort a grieving parent?

She doesn’t try to shush it. She keeps her fingers far from her lips; one cannot empathize through insults. Instead, she spreads her arms wide, splaying and stretching her fingertips out into the empty and still air around her. She tilts her head up and closes her eyes against the harsh light of the red giant.

The fifth horseman holds herself completely open, and she embraces the heat, taking it into herself. She wraps her arms around the sun, tight, cradling her cheek in the nape of its nuclear neck, thinking, I know, I know, I’m sorry, I know, I’m so, so sorry.

The sun embraces her back with molten ferocity, screaming for its lost world. The fifth horseman does not break, cannot. She endures the screams as she has across countless worlds, asking forgiveness for the sins of her family. Isn’t that always the role of the youngest child?

She holds the sun and strokes its corona, whispers comfort into its fragile, magnetic core. The screams ebb; a tide of fresh sobbing comes rushing in. The fifth horseman takes it, stores it within her. Her heart is large enough to hold this world and every other.

The jar sits open at her feet. She wrings the sun’s fiery tears and solar screams from her bones, letting them drip into the space that remains. And only when the poor red giant stops, begins to cool and close its heavy-lidded eyes, does the fifth horseman put the lid back on top of the jar.

She pauses, holds a breath, and wipes away a tear the color and warmth of newborn stars before leaving.

It is at no particular place that she stops, no rhyme or reason to where she begins to dig. The jar will end up where it’s supposed to, no matter where it finds itself buried.

This is her favorite part, plunging her hand into the soil and turning it, shifting it, moving it this way and that, deeper and deeper until the dirt is wet and cool and dark, smelling of time itself.

When she is far down enough, she takes the jar and plants it within. She covers it, tucking in the corners of earth as a child is tucked into bed. She works with precision and care; there’s no rush. For her, she has all the time in this world.

She can hear dim echoes from within the jar, and it pleases her to know that in a few short millennia, when this slice of space has forgotten it was alive, the jar that is a seed will shatter in the core of the world. The cycle will begin again, in time.

But for now, it must end.

The fifth horseman, whose name is Silence, pats the newly turned soil with love and rolls onto her side. Her mare tosses her mane without a sound, but already the beast is turning to stone. The quiet of the dead planet echoes beneath Silence like a heartbeat. She stares at the wide swath of stars above her that stitch the obsidian sky like an array of jewels.

Silence tucks her head into the crook of her elbow and looks past the heavenly brightness above her and into the space beyond. She finds herself thinking of her brother, her three sisters, and where they go when she arrives and why they always leave her.

A thousand years of fleeting family reunions and still it’s not enough.

Silence closes her eyes in the final night of this world and dreams of seeing her family, and in that dream, they do not leave her.

In that dream, they stay.

Together, they enjoy the symphony of blissful, dead air that is the world coming to an end.

© 2021 Martin Cahill

About the author

Martin Cahill

Martin Cahill is a science fiction and fantasy writer living in NYC, and works as the marketing and publicity manager for Erewhon Books. He’s a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop of 2014 and a member of the NYC-based writing group Altered Fluid. You can find his fiction in Lightspeed Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, Shimmer Magazine, Fireside Magazine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. His short story “Godmeat” appeared in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019 anthology, and he is part of the writing team for Serial Box’s forthcoming Batman: The Blind Cut. Martin also writes, and has written, book reviews and essays for, Book Riot, Strange Horizons, and the Barnes and Noble Science Fiction & Fantasy Blog. You can find him online at @mcflycahill90.