In the first few hours of the morning light, as dawn touches a world that does not wake to it, hoofbeats echo against an already deafening silence.
“What has happened here?”
The world these men and their steeds have come to destroy has started the process without them.
In fact, it is nearly finished.
The streets are quiet, but not empty. They are packed with cars that do not move and trash that spills out from overturned bins and glides past stalled vehicles.
Front doors hang open but no one enters or exits the quaint homes. The trash receptacles that still stand spew smoldering smoke.
And then there are the bodies.
War glares at Plague but he shakes his head and shrugs, a gesture that says “Not I.”
“Then who did this?” asks Famine, hungry for answers.
From the silence once more comes the echo of hoof against pavement. They look to each other but their animals are still.
Through the fading darkness, a form approaches and the horses on which the four men ride rear back uncharacteristically.
The riders shiver despite themselves, but each pretends not to notice the trepidation of the others.
The smoke and early morning fog rolling around the figure part, like that sea from many lifetimes past, and the form becomes solid.
War moves forward, ready for a fight. “Who are you?”
“I am Fear.”
The Horsemen glance at each other. They were the bringers of fear, how had he appeared without them?
“I do not need you to thrive.” He answers the question they do not voice. “My parents are uncertainty and anger. I am born of doubt. To survive, I only need lies and those willing to spread them. I need distrust and sadness. I breed blame and blame fuels the fires that build my strength.”
Fear’s horse paces up and down the empty street in front of them, jittery, anxious, always glancing to his left and then his right. The empty houses make him nervous and he moves closer to the other horses, looking for comfort. They move away.
“Why come here at all?” asks War, unwilling to give up a victory.
“I was called here. Unlike you, I do not seek to destroy. I hide in the shadows, trying not to be noticed. I do not announce my presence but fester slowly. The more you fight me, the stronger I become.”
War looks uneasy at this prospect.
Plague glances down to a body at his feet—a body that seems to have perished on its way from a home to a vehicle, seeking escape but finding release. This was not a death the man on the white horse played a part in and he looks to the stranger, still not understanding the new horseman’s role in this destruction.
“I did not do this,” Plague insists.
“I did not need you. You might say they were sick with fear,” the gray horse pauses between the red and the pale and Fear also looks down at the body. Plague shakes his head and backs away, moving farther from his brothers and the stranger among them.
Fear motions to the desolate street behind him, littered with the remnants of a world that no longer exists, “This destruction did not start as a plague—sickness, yes. But not a plague.”
“But sickness alone will not do this,” insists the man on the white horse.
“No, but sickness coupled with ignorance and panic will.”
War tries to move toward the new rider but his horse will not get too close and as he speaks, the animal moves back. “This cannot be the state of the world and all its people,” but as Fear bows his head, War knows he is wrong and the fire within him begins to dim. “But I was not here to inspire great battles.”
Fear cocks his head. “I did not need you. They fought, but they fought their friends. They fought against the things meant to protect them. They fought against a new way of life, clinging desperately to their old ways.”
“But I was not here to steal their sustenance,” Famine tries to stand beside War, to protect his fellow soldier, but Fear stands between them.
“I was their sustenance,” Fear says. “When things looked grim, they fed on me. I sent them to hoard food and supplies. The well off stored more than they could use, taking it from those that truly needed it. When their stores became rotted, they stepped into the world and searched for more…spreading their sickness even as they tried to find ways to survive.”
Fear and his gray horse move through the street, surveying their work. The now obsolete horsemen try to lead their horses back together, to form a line of unity, but they can only look at each other above the head of Fear, wondering where they went wrong.
“Do you not understand?” prods Fear, “On my own, left unchecked, I created more destruction than you could ever dream…” He turns at the sound of footsteps approaching, “Yes, even you.”
The rider on the pale horse does not start at being addressed so overtly. His face remains passive, neutral.
He has watched this exchange quietly, waiting for the right moment to strike—as Death often does.
“But you,” whispers Fear, even he quiets when faced with death. “You I did need. You were the shadow that let me thrive. They embraced me because of you. And now,” Fear dismounts his animal, and bends at the waist toward the man on the pale horse, “I bow to you, oh Death. As always, you are the true victor. But I wonder…what is a victory without anyone to share it with?”
Without a word, Death lifts his gaze from the man before him and searches the street for his brothers, but they have fled. The four horsemen, who rode into this world together, now ripped apart by fear…just like the world they came to destroy.