Madam set a glass on the counter and filled it with expensive rye whiskey.
"It will be forty makka."
She had no idea where the 'soul' kept its money. He - because the shape was distinctly male even in its indistinctiveness - merely placed it on the counter. For that one moment, his hand seemed almost solid - but then it faded, even before he retracted it, leaving eight glittering five-makka stones on the counter. Madam tried not to show it, but even as she collected the money she eyed the odd customer. Seeming to sigh, the spirit grasped his glass very carefully, hesitated, and lifted it.
It's amazing how they learn, she thought as she watched the container rise. She could still see, dimly, the golden liquid sloshing about inside, through the glass and the hand holding it. The spirit handled it clumsily, but didn't spill a drop. He was proud of that, undoubtedly; a few weeks ago he could not even have touched it.
Madam's attention turned to something approaching fascination as she watched the soul's lips darken and solidify. They nipped carefully at the edge of the glass, as if they were too numb to feel it, but finally the glass tilted slightly. Within the indistinct blue shimmer that was her paying customer, there seemed to materialise something that might have been a tongue, then a throat, and then it faded again.
She had no idea how they did it. Trying to touch one of them was like passing one's hand through cold mist. But they could drink. She disposed of the money in a box under the counter as the soul took a second swig of the liquor.
But... It is supposed to be a time of miracles, is it not? But Madam wore only a single sprig of holly in her hair to commemorate the day. In spite of everything, it was hard to take such things seriously here - miracles? Open your eyes already; this is a ghost standing in front of you, drinking whiskey. It happens every day. Look further down. The man in the cape? He is a regular. His name is Loki. Does the name seem familiar? Yes, he really is that Loki. And the man he's drinking with?
...Madam narrowed her eyes. She knew what would happen. Loki and Thor seemed amiable enough, laughing and joking over enormous tankards of mead, but she knew. Sooner or later the topic of Thor's fishing would come up, or Loki would mention something about how he stole the Golden Apples that time and the resulting brawl would wreck half the bar before the Nihilo managed to subdue them. It would take a mirac-
She shook her head and automatically reached up to adjust the sprig of holly before it could fall from her hair. Ha.
The day vaguely irritated her. The bar was not as full as it could have been - as it should have been; it was not even as full as it usually was. There were the usual lost souls, true; she wondered if they ever left. Divine intervention was the only thing that could have removed Loki from his usual table - and since he was a god himself anyway, it would need to be spectacular intervention.
But apart from that...
Madam's eyes were drawn to the far corner. The area seemed shrouded in vagueness; she saw the four odd figures sitting there, but there was the nagging feeling that she would not be able to describe to anyone just what it was she saw...
She knew they were the cause. Even she felt uneasy in their presence and that did not happen often. She made it her business to know everybody in the area, but she had no idea who they were and that was something she liked even less. All she knew was that they scared the customers and still hadn't ordered refills.
And she really wished they would have left their horses outside...
"I still don't get why we're celebrating this."
The voice boomed like distant thunder, or cannon fire, and seemed to echo inside the blood-red armour. The red knight opened his visor momentarily and tossed back a glass off eggnog. Next to his chair stood a greatsword as red as his armour, but it went ignored by all around the table.
"Indeed." This voice was like a whisper, and it emanated from a skeletal figure clad in a simple white robe. A simple silver circlet seemed to rest precariously on his skull, and next to him, leaned against the table stood a white longbow, unstrung, and a quiver of arrows. The small cup of spiced wine standing before him was yet untouched. Had his features been able to convey it, the irritation would have been quite visible.
"Do we not come and go as we please?" the third asked, gesturing languidly with his own cup. His voice was human, or mostly so, but for a faint rustling that called to mind a dry wind blowing through ruins and barren fields. "Here as much as anywhere. Now as much as anytime. It is not forbidden." Like the second, this figure was skeletal and wore a simple robe, but his garb was black rather than white. A set of brass scales hung from the soft black rope that served as a belt.
"Because you did not ask," the white-clad one remarked.
"Does it matter? If it displeased 'him' we would not be here." The black-robed one set his cup on the table and refilled it from a heated pot. A strong scent of cloves and cinnamon wafted up from the wine.
"You do know who they're supposed to be celebrating? If the Master found out we are drinking to the Son of his enemy..." the red knight cautioned. "We would get demoted to imps - or worse!"
"You worry too much." The scale-bearer made a dismissive gesture. "Are we not 'his' lieutenants? See it as... a study. Knowledge of the enemy is essential. And... they say 'they' stole it in the first place. As the sages would have it, those two-"
The three conversationalists turned their heads as a great booming laughter echoed through the room. Loki was halfway out of his seat courtesy of a slap on the back from the grinning thunder-god. Grumbling, the trickster pulled himself upright again.
"-those two have a greater right to it."
"So what are we doing here again? I seem to remember it being someone's idea..." the white-robed one said, giving the fourth member of the group a scathing look.
"Yes, it was your idea," the knight agreed. "What is the purpose?"
The fourth member, who had been sitting quietly feeding peanuts to the Pale Horse, patted his steed on the flank with a bony hand and turned back to the table.
"There is no purpose."
This voice was not overly loud, but it somehow gave the impression of utter finality, like the last nail being hammered into a coffin, or the simple click of the Big Red Button. This figure was as skeletal as the others, and just like the third his garb was a simple black cowl, though unlike the third, worn with the hood pulled up, leaving only the skeletal face visible. Unlike the others, there was nothing else on his person or lying about his seat, save for a half-emptied cup of eggnog and an equally half-emptied cup of wine.
"Then why?" the knight insisted.
The last rider seemed to consider this. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
"Seemed like a good idea?"
"So there is no reason."
The knight sighed. Then he poured himself another cup of wine.
"Not everything that occurs needs a reason," the last one said and sipped some wine. "Besides. I rather like eggnog, and you just can't get it any other time of the year. Not proper eggnog."
"You are acting quite peculiar," the crowned one observed. "Do not get too attached to these..."
"Attached?" The last rider glared. "There is no need for concern."
"Perhaps," the white-garbed conceded.
"No, he is quite right," the third said. "Being a demon does not mean abandoning all semblance of humanity. This is rather... quaint."
"We cannot get too attached to it," the second repeated. "The world will end. It has been ordained..."
The four drank some more wine while they contemplated this.
"Do you think they will have eggnog in the new world?" the knight hazarded finally.
"Is that your chief concern?" the crowned asked.
"There are worse concerns," the last one said. He lifted his cup and took a sip. "I believe I shall miss it."
"We might be allowed to drop a few hints here and there?" the third suggested. "Our Lord is not entirely unreasonable."
They drank some more. The Pale Horse helped itself to the rest of the peanuts.
"Still... it is an odd day for us," the knight said finally. "Even if Mesia stole it..."
"There will be no saviour born this time. The time for saviours is long past. This time, it will be up to the denizens of this world to decide."
"So perhaps we could say that we aren't celebrating the birth of the enemy, but the 'advent' of the new world...? I mean, just in case it comes up," the knight said ponderously. "Could it work?"
"That sounds like an excuse to me," the third member scoffed.
"Is it not what this time has always been?" the fourth objected. "The coming of a new power. In the beginning midwinter, the last breath of darkness before the coming of brighter times. Then the 'sun' became a 'son'. But throughout time, humans have known the significance. Only the name has changed..."
"So it that acceptable then?" the red knight wondered.
The knight seemed to sag a little in relief.
"But seeing as we are all here, this is here and now is now..."
The last rider refilled his cup with wine and raised it. A few moments later, the other three followed suit. The cups clinked together above the centre of the table.
"Then it's to the new world," War said.
"Our world," Conquest stated.
"Yes, to victory," Famine agreed.
Death said nothing. But after the cups had been retracted and emptied, there seemed that there was a twinkle of blue light in his eye sockets.
"And who knows," he said finally, as he set his empty cup on the table, "This once it may actually turn out... 'merry'."
And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.
And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see.
And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.
And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see.
And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.
And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.
And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.
And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.