Hell’s Kitchen Sink 2: Catfished

A note beforehand: This is a long goddamn story, coming in at 18 chapters and over 90k words. Thus, there is a chapter list here. The alternative was way too many stories. If you’d like to see this up to date, check out hellskitchensink.com.

Chapter 1: Horace Guest
Chapter 2: Wrong Side of the Betty
Chapter 3: Beating a Dead Horace
Chapter 4: Horace Whisperer
Chapter 5: Daned if you Do
Chapter 6: Horace Throat
Chapter 7: Horace Warning
Chapter 8: Phoebe or not Phoebe
Chapter 9: Betty or Life
Chapter 10: Horace Sense
Chapter 11: Dane to Do
Chapter 12: Horace Party
Chapter 13: A Horace is Not A Home Without You
Chapter 14: Dane to the Wire
Chapter 15: Aiding and a Betty
Chapter 16: Randall’s Well That Ends Well
Chapter 17: Betty Bye
Chapter 18: Horace Hunting

 

Chapter 1: Horace Guest

The door shattered, and a nightmare stood in the frame. I was in the copy room, working late into the night to print, collate, organize, and file all of the countless pieces of evidence the senior partner said absolutely had to be ready by tomorrow morning. I had been staring down at my phone while the ancient printer whirred and chugged in a losing battle against mechanical failure. There had been a soft, wet squelching noise, and a smell like motor oil. I’d dismissed it as either a sign the copier machine was in even worse shape than it looked, or I was about to have a stroke. I didn’t care either way. That’s when the wooden door separating me from the rest of the deserted office ripped messily in half. A large chunk of wood struck me in the head, knocking me to the ground.

There was a sound like a rubber boot getting stuck in the mud. Something thick, greasy, and only vaguely hand-shaped closed around my shoulder. I watched a drop of heavy black oil drip onto my best dress shirt, and cursed blearily. It was also my only dress shirt. “You. Sacrifice.” The voice was like a drowning garbage disposal, all harsh metallic saw noises muffled and bubbling unpleasantly.

The creature began to drag me along, and I briefly considered not struggling. Being killed by some horrific nightmare thing was sounding preferable to surviving. If I survived, I would have to explain to the senior partner why I had allowed the copier machine to be destroyed. Not to mention explaining why my only decent shirt was now stained with viscous black oil. But he’d probably find a way to punish me for dying, anyway.

I kicked, trying to pull myself up. A fist like a bag of walnuts struck me in the stomach, knocking the wind out of me. “Sacrifice. No struggle!” Bright yellow eyes were visible in large, featureless black faces as the creatures dragged me along. It reminded me of fish eyes, somehow, the kind of things you would see staring back at you from a murky aquarium window.

They pulled me unkindly me through the office, towards the conference room. I tried to protest, because if there was any kind of stain on the grand mahogany table, I knew I was going to be eviscerated by my supervisor. On the other hand, the glinting obsidian knife in one of the strange, lumpy hands of the black things told me he’d have to wait his turn.

My assailants were identical in broad details. Vaguely humanoid, nearly covered in a thick black oil. The only color on them were their bright golden eyes. But one was tall, skeletally thin, and carrying the knife. The other was short, with lumps that could have been muscles or tumors visible under the slime. Neither of them looked like nice people. “What are you planning to do to me?” I asked, in the hopes that looks would be deceiving. The two of them exchanged a glance, and rolled their large, yellow eyes. The thin one bent over, and spoke in the kind of slow, deliberate voice that was universally recognizable as ‘explaining things to the terminally stupid, young, or foreign’.

“We. Ah. Going. To. Cut. You. Open. To. Let. One. Of. Ah. Brothers. In.” he paused. I stared. The thing sounded almost exactly like John F. Kennedy. “You. Stay. Quiet. You. Die. Easy. Deal?” The tall one rolled his eyes. “Humans. Always need an, er, explanation.”

“Sacrifice. Nosy.” Croaked the other one. If there was a Kennedy he sounded like, it was one of the ones they kept locked in the attic, and didn’t allow out to meet strangers.

The tall one shoved open the door to the conference room, and yanked me up off of the ground, which was nice, because the carpet was starting to chafe. It then slammed me down onto the expensive mahogany table, which was somewhat less pleasant. A slender arm lifted in the air, the blade poised over my chest. I felt a sudden rush of fear run through me, and tried to pull free, managing to wiggle a bit to the side. The tall thing sighed.

“Now, look at this. What a, er, disgrace. You almost got stabbed in the arm, which would be a, er, very painful way to bleed out!” Its free hand slammed down into my stomach, and pinned me. Breath exploded out of me, and my lunch would have followed had I had lunch that day. It lowered the blade, lining up the strike. “You ah, er, lucky that I’m the one doing the cutting! I take serious, er, pride in my craftsmanship!” He lifted his arm, and the lights went out.

Two pairs of yellow eyes glowed like storm lamps in the conference room as the slimy things looked around. The door was hanging open. The entire floor was dark. The lights of the other buildings lit up the interior a little bit, giving more of an impression of the surroundings than any actual illumination. But it was enough for me to see the figure standing outside, in the hallway.

If they were dressed, it wasn’t with much. The sheen of bare skin made glistening by sweat was visible, but I couldn’t make out if it was a man or woman. Eyes flared green in the darkness as they reflected the light from outside. “Help!” I shouted, and felt like a bit of an idiot. They were either here to help me or not, and they probably weren’t open to suggestions from me on which it should be. The three figures ignored me, turning to facing one another. The atmosphere grew tense as I saw the two slimy things move apart, releasing me. I rolled off of the table and crouched under it.

There was a hiss, and a sound like a knife being thrust through a sack of butter. A quick ripping noise, followed by a gooey rushing. I looked over the edge of the table. The shadowy figure had cut open the short thing. Something sticky and white was flowing out, and it reminded me of the last time I’d eaten a Cadbury creme egg. I felt nauseous, my head spinning, as the smell of burnt oil filled the office room.

The shadowy figure stood bolt upright, hands up in what looked like some kind of martial arts stance, not moving. The tall one rushed forward, knife flashing, and the shadowy figure stepped around the blow with contemptuous ease. There was no excess movement in the way the shadow fought. There was, however, an obvious lack of respect for the monster’s ability to land a blow.

This was quite beautiful, but the effect was spoiled when the short thing reached up from the floor, and with a rapidly deflating arm, grabbed one of my savior’s legs. The shadowy person let out a high-pitched yelp of surprise, and fell over. She certainly sounded like a woman as she cursed in some unfamiliar language. The tall, thin figure stood over her. “Well, ah assailant. So you, er, decided to try your luck again.” He laughed, as she spat another curse at him. “You, er, ah as disrespectful as always. Well, if I’m going to hell, you, er, can save me a spot!” He lifted the knife.

I brought the chair down on his gelatinous head as hard as I could. The fine oak furniture splintered, jarring my arms, and leaving my shoulders aching. The tall thing turned, its eyes narrowing in annoyance, more irritated by my attack than devastated. There was a slick noise, and it fell, its hamstrings cut, onto the floor. “I did NOT need your help,” the woman hissed, standing up. Before I had time to protest, the two black things piled into the shadowy figure, bull-rushing her against the glass of the window. It shattered loudly, and the three of them tumbled downwards, to the street below.

I stood by the table. The window was broken. White slime and black oil covered the floor. Furniture was smashed. I made my way over to the window. There were thick black splatters across the ground outside, but no sign of any of the three figures. I was six stories up. I picked up my smartphone from where it had fallen out of my pocket. The screen was badly cracked. I made my way to the conference room phone. The power was still off.

By the time I found a phone that was working, ten minutes later, on the floor below, the fire crews were arriving. The police weren’t far behind. “So.” The rather attractive sergeant was sitting across from me in one of the offices, her dirty blonde hair tucked in a bun that made me think of a schoolteacher. Her stark blue eyes were not remotely sympathetic. A police badge proclaimed ‘Dane Larson’ as her name. “Two… ‘Slime People’ broke in the door, after apparently not setting off any of the alarms. They overpowered you, dragged you into the conference room, threatening to sacrifice you, and then were attacked by a…” She checked the pad. “‘Kunoichi’?”

“You know. A girl ninja.”

“I know what a kunoichi is. So, she proceeded to tear them apart with her bare hands, tumbled through a shatterproof glass window, fell six stories, and left behind nothing but a rather large quantity of motor oil.”

I cursed my mother to an eternity in hell for telling me honesty was the best policy. That wasn’t really fair, though. She’d also told me not to be a damned fool. “Yes.”

She took a deep breath, and adopted the Friendly Cop approach, a smile on her lips which didn’t reach her cold blue eyes. “Now, from what I see here, you were having a rough night. Been working long hours. Mescaline may seem like a fun way to make the hours pass on a late night shift. I was your age, after all. I know how tough it can be. But, I suspect your employer is going to be angry enough about your destruction of property and reckless endangerment charges, without also earning you a stay in a mental hospital. Now, do you think you have another story you want to tell us?”

“I think I’ll handle it from here.” Randall Creed stood in the suddenly open doorway. His hair stark silver, glittering. His white suit impeccable as always. Liver spots visible on his forehead, but standing with his back straight as an arrow, his arms crossed behind his back. “We’re not going to be pressing any charges, officer.”

The sergeant bristled, her eyes narrowing. “Not all of these are your charges to press. Whatever he threw out of that window could have done serious harm to someone, and we’re-”

“Yes, the thing he threw through a shatterproof window which proceeded to disintegrate into motor oil upon striking the ground. Please don’t waste my time, sergeant.” The man smiled. “It is my name on the partnership, after all. Go away.” She met his eyes. I looked away. That was a mistake. People don’t stare down Mister Creed. She made a very brave effort, though. It was nearly half a minute before she broke eye contact, and stood up.

“I’m going to be bringing this to the district attorney nonetheless.”

“Yes. When you do, be a dear, and please remind him we have a tee-time on Sunday.” The old man smiled pleasantly. “Thanks, sweet-cheeks.” The fury in her eyes blazed as she stalked out. Mister Creed sat down, and I swallowed. “Horace. My boy. Nephew. Do you want to try to tell your story again?” I was silent. “I’ve been good to you, Horace. Haven’t I?” I nodded. “I’ve given you a position here. A prestigious one. One that will one day pay off with truly fantastic dividends.” I nodded. “I’ve provided you aid because of how close your father and I were.” I nodded again. “I’ve worked you hard, I will confess.” I didn’t move my head. It was an obvious trap. “But I have also been fair with you. Correct?”

“I’m not lying, sir. I saw something. Something strange.”

“You’ve been working hard, Horace. Exhaustion’s getting to you. A little psychotic break. They’re not uncommon in this business. I tell you what, how about you take tomorrow off?”

“Tomorrow is Saturday, sir.”

“Oh, damn, right. We’ve got that court date to prepare for. Okay, then make it the day after tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Uncle Creed.”

“Unpaid, of course.”

I didn’t tell him I was salaried, and wouldn’t be paid for working on a Sunday anyway. It always seemed to cheer him up when he was withholding money, and at the moment, I was desperately grateful the punishment hadn’t been any worse. With my uncle, it easily could have been.

I slept in the broken copy room, and showered early the next morning in the small bathroom. I could’ve gone home, but it seemed like a waste of time. It was already past midnight. I shaved in the sink, and sighed as I stepped into the spare set of clothing I kept in my briefcase. It wasn’t the first night I had spent at the office, but the next day was particularly hellish.

The church we represented was being sued by the federal government, an attempt to remove its tax exempt status. They’d put a substantial amount of money into purchasing the law office’s services in proving the religion was legitimate. I spent the day organizing large pages full of translations, explanations, and incredibly tedious minutes of religious councils. Millions of dollars were riding on the case. And I couldn’t have cared less.

By the time the evening rolled around, and I was free to go home, I was exhausted. I stepped down the stairs, and picked up a large tuna salad sandwich from the deli in the lobby. It had begun to rain outside. I wished I had an umbrella, but made do with my stained dress shirt.

As I walked down the street towards the subway, something caught my eye. There was a flicker of movement. I turned towards the alleyway, freezing. I had seen something black moving in the dark of the alleyway, barely illuminated by the street lights. I stood stock still, my body tensed, waiting for some horrific thing to come leaping out of the gloom. After a few seconds filled with a complete lack of flashing yellow eyes and murderous black blades, I stepped forward into the alleyway. Crouched in a box, which was only barely keeping the rain out, was a black cat. It let out a hiss.

“Hey, hey, it’s okay.” I crouched down, avoiding making eye contact, trying to appear harmless. It pulled back a little bit into the box. It was terribly thin, and its fine black fur was torn out in places, leaving bald patches. A large hole had been taken out of one of its ears. “You hungry?” The cat hissed again, and I opened up the sandwich. I tugged out a large morsel of tuna, removing the celery, and placed it in front of the cat. It sniffed suspiciously then lunged forward, grabbing the chunk and wolfing it down. Its tail was straight up as it ate, its ears lifted.

I continued. The cat was ravenous. Finally, I was left with a pair of soggy pieces of wheat bread, and a few slices of celery. There was my dinner down the tubes. The cat was purring loudly, though, and that seemed to make things a little bit better. It looked up at me. It had been favoring its left foreleg, holding it up. “Are you hurt?” I asked softly. It didn’t answer, obviously. I reached out, and it recoiled a bit. “Hey, I’m going to take you back to my place, get you checked out, make sure you’re okay.”

It was a silly thing to say. It wasn’t as though the cat could understand English. And yet, it seemed to relax as I spoke. I reached out, gently lifting the cat, and pulling it out of the cardboard box. It was alarmingly light, ribs prodding my fingers. I held it in my arms, bending forward, shielding it from the cold, driving rain. “Come on, you.” I whispered softly, as I carried the cat to the subway. It was purring loudly in my arms, although that could have been because of its injured leg, rather than any actual affection.

The cat sat on my lap peacefully throughout the entire trip. “You must have been a house-cat, once, huh?” I asked softly. “How did you wind up out on the streets, kitty?” The cat didn’t answer me, for obvious reasons. I wasn’t crazy, despite what the police sergeant and my uncle had thought. I was just seeing strange and unexplainable things, and talking to cats. I sighed softly, as I scratched behind the cat’s ear. It bit me, but not very hard, on the thumb.

Before long, I was stepping out of the subway, the cat still in my arms. I approached the small brownstone apartment. Sitting among countless identical buildings on the upper west side, I walked past the doorman with a polite smile and a nod. It was a nicer place than I could afford, but there were extenuating circumstances involved. I took the elevator to the fourth floor. “There are no pets allowed in this building, just so you know,” I murmured to the cat. “So try not to make too much noise.” The cat meowed loudly, and I gave it a long, quiet look. The cat’s amused look made it very hard to believe it had not done so on purpose. “Yes. No sounds like that.”

It wasn’t as though anyone was likely to hear it. The building didn’t have many tenants. They always moved out after a few days. On the plus side, it meant that I got a great deal on rent, which was good, because roommates inevitably moved out after a day or two, too.

I stepped out of the elevator, making my way down the hall to the small apartment I called my own, the dingy yellow lights giving everything an unhealthy appearance. It sat on one of the corners of the building, with an excellent view down the adjacent streets. I gently set the cat down on the couch, and went through the ritual of safety. Turning the lock on the handle, setting the deadbolt, pulling the chain. “Alright. I’m going to bandage this up. It’s going to hurt a bit, but it’ll help you feel better. Okay?”

I got out the last of the gauze I had in the bathroom. It wasn’t much, but I tried to gently bandage the cat’s leg. It hissed, and swiped at me, and I cursed. “Hey! I’m just trying to help, alright?!” The cat hissed, and I sighed, frowning as I gently wrapped the gauze around its arm. By the time I was done, I needed to use the rest of the gauze on myself, streaks of red dripping down my palm. I gave the cat a dark look. “You’re real ungrateful, you know that? Damn.” I sighed softly, and sat down next to the cat. “So.” I reached out, and it let out a low, warning noise. I rested my hand near it, and after a couple of seconds, it licked where it had slashed at me. I smiled softly. “Am I crazy, cat? I saw something completely impossible.”

The cat purred gently, and rested its head on my hand. “Yeah. I guess that’s true. If I’m talking to a cat, how sane could I possibly be?” I lay there on the ground next to the small, black couch for a while, before standing up. The cat meowed in protest at its bed becoming suddenly animate. “I need some sleep.” I walked into the bedroom, and heard a soft padding. The cat ran between my legs as I walked, hopping up onto the bed, surprisingly spry. I lay down, and it settled next to me. “So, a name. How about… Queen Betty?” The cat yawned, curling up against my side, its bandaged paw lifted away from its body a bit, as it closed its eyes. That was approval enough for me. “Good night, Betty.”

I watched the cat for a few minutes. It was slender, and its fur was incredibly smooth to the touch. I found it surprisingly easy to sleep with the patch of warmth by my side, and soon, I was out like a light.

The next morning, I woke up, and my stomach rumbled angrily. It was still a week until payday, and I was short of cash, as usual. The paralegal work for my uncle didn’t pay well. I sighed softly, and looked around. Queen Betty was nowhere to be seen. I shook my head, and stood up, walking out into the living room. I didn’t see any sign of the cat there, either. On a hunch, I checked the laundry hamper. Sitting in the middle of the laundry basket, on top of my unwashed clothes, the black cat had curled up, its eyes closed, in a nest of used shirts.

“Gross,” I muttered, and stepped out into the rainy day to pick up groceries. As I walked down the street, I noticed one of the homeless men who hung around the area. He stood out mostly because of the bright yellow oilskin coat he wore. “Hey, Harold.”

He looked up, and smiled. “Hey, Horace. New apartment going alright? Not gotten attacked by any crazy ghoulies?” He laughed, his mottled skin crinkling with a grin.

“Nothing but the usual insects. Nothing too bad.” I smiled. “How’re things going with you? That new homeless shelter helping things out any?” He nodded.

“Oh, yeah. They’re doing God’s work down there. Going to drop by this evening. Don’t suppose you’ve got anything extra on you?” I dug into my wallet, and pulled out a five dollar bill. “Much obliged, Horace. You’re a good kid. They made you head of the law firm yet?”

“Oh, it’s close.” I smiled wanly. “Real close. Keep safe at the shelter, okay?” He laughed cheerfully, and smiled. “Hey, Harold…” I looked around. “I saw something weird last night. Something… Shit. Okay. I was working in the copy room, real late. And these two things, covered in this black slime, burst in the door, grab me, saying that they’re going to sacrifice me. One of them had this crazy black knife.” I frowned. “I don’t suppose you’ve… heard about anything like that?” My voice grew steadily less certain as I spoke. Harold was giving me a long, uncertain look. “Does this sound completely insane, Harold? Because I swear to god, sleep deprivation usually just makes people see things. These wrecked the place.”

“I don’t know, Horace. Sounds like some bad acid to me. Maybe don’t take any pills from strange young women?” I smiled softly. “I’m sorry. Nothing I’ve heard about people getting snatched or anything like that. Just the usual bull, y’know?” He smiled. “Hey, look, if you start seeing crazy black shadowy figures menacing you, I wouldn’t tell anybody else. That sorta thing can mess with your life. Take it from one who knows. That’s how I wound up on the streets.”

“Thanks, Harold.” I sighed, and kept walking.

By the time I returned home, I was soaked. The rain was worse than usual, and I felt a bit drained, making my way through the downpour. I entered the room, and didn’t notice the woman sitting on my couch at first. I stepped into the small kitchen, and set my bags down on the counter. My hindbrain finally caught up with what my eyes had just seen, and signaled my consciousness urgently. I stepped out of the kitchen, and stared at her.

The dark skinned woman was sprawled out across my couch. The first thing I realized was that she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Her eyes were the green of the sea off of Montauk Point on a stormy day, her figure svelte and shapely, her hair black as night, and her features like someone had applied Photoshop to real life. The second thing I noticed was that she was dressed in nothing but one of my shirts, which fit her poorly, and yet seemed to flatter her figure. The third thing I noticed was that she was cradling her arm. The same one which had been broken on the black cat. The fourth thing I noticed were her cat ears, with a chunk taken out of one of them, and her smooth black-furred tail. “Hey, human!” She grinned at me. “Make me some food! Now! Now!”

Her voice was attractive, although when she said ‘now’, it took on the plaintive tone of a cat’s meow that grated on the brain. “What in the- Who are you, lady?” I narrowed my eyes. The answer was painfully obvious, but if I said it out loud, I’d be embracing insanity, and I really didn’t want to do that. She rolled her eyes, and without any fuss, she was no longer there. In her place was the black cat, its paw raised up, meowing plaintively at me. I crossed my arms. “You have to be kidding me.” There was another soft pop of air being displaced, and she was sitting on the couch again.

“I like you. You smell good, you made my arm feel better, you took me out of the rain, and you have lots of food and nice-smelling clothes. So, I’m going to be staying here for a while. You have a job, right? You can buy more food and clothes and stuff?” I nodded slowly. “Good! Make me some fish! You’ve got some salmon, right?” I opened my mouth, and closed it. I repeated the process a few times, trying to think of something to say to her besides ‘alright’. “Yes! They’re the ones that do that mouth-open-close thing. Get me some!”

“How… did you break your arm?” I asked, grasping for something. The previous night’s events were still buzzing in my brain. The darkness. The stench of burnt oil. The glowing yellow eyes in the night. And the sound of flesh hammering against flesh, and the spilling of ichors. I felt a brief wave of nausea just from remembering it.

“Big fish.” She lifted her hand up and licked her fingers, then winced, her eyes watering. She looked up at me, her ears going flat against her hair. “It hurts!”

I approached her quickly, grabbing the roll of bandages out of my pocket, gently wrapping it around her arm. “It’s a compound fracture. You really should get this looked at by a doctor. Or, uh…” I gently touched it, and she mewled in a way that sounded slightly over-dramatic. “A vet. I guess.” I carefully wrapped the bandage around her arm. “I’ve got some painkillers. What would help?”

She looked up at me with big, soft, bright green eyes. My heart thumped in my chest. She didn’t smell like flowers, or fruit, or any other chemical shampoo smells. She smelled like someone who was very healthy and who had been working out all day, musky in a deeply appealing way. “Maybe some fresh Alaskan salmon?” she asked, and then faked a truly pitiful sounding cough into her good hand.

I sighed. “I’ve got some tuna.” Her eyes brightened up. “Canned.” She smiled, and her tail went straight, standing up with her ears, practically screaming with excitement in cat language. “Do you want it on a sandwich, or-” She shook her head. “I’m going to find out why you’re here.” I walked towards the kitchenette, stepping behind the small counter.

“I’m here because you have food! That’s all. And you should be glad I’m here!” She smiled brightly. “The last people who owned this place didn’t! And you know what happened to them!” The police reports flashed through my head. People, cut to pieces, left in chunks. There was a reason I was able to afford this apartment. It wasn’t because of my generous employer, or my great family connections. It was because people had died in this apartment. A lot of people, in truly stomach-turning ways. I tried not to think of the photos I’d found online. It was still difficult to sleep at night, but I didn’t have a whole lot of choice available to me. You could get used to a lot of things when trying to find a place to sleep in this city.

“Were you the one who did that to them?” I asked softly, and she snorted, giving me a derisive look from her warm spot on the couch.

“No. I’m the one who keeps the nasty things away from the nice humans who give me the food I want.” She lay back on the couch as I brought out a bowl of tuna. I sat beside her. “Feed me?” she asked, smiling, her eyes bright.

I took a seat next to her, and frowned, as I began to feed her large chunks of fish. She leaned back, opening her mouth, and crossed both arms behind her head, without any sign of discomfort. “You’re not actually hurt at all, are you.”

She smiled brightly. “No. I already healed. I’m tough!” She smiled. “But you’re a good human, taking care of me, so, I’m going to help you out! Those two things that grabbed you last night? They were bad!” I waited for her to elaborate. She didn’t.

“Alright… Why did they want me?”

“Because you smell good!”

I again waited for her to elaborate. We went through half of the bowl of tuna before it became clear she wasn’t going to. I sat there for a while, and she began to purr, a loud vibration ringing through her body as she leaned her head against me. “What should I call you?” I asked.

“I like that name you gave me! Queen Betty. Call me that from now on! Remember to do the whole thing. If you just call me Betty, I’ll ignore you!”

I fed her another chunk, and considered this claim. “You’re a cat, though. Won’t you ignore me anyway?”

“Yes. But it will be because you used the wrong name, rather than because you tried to command me.” She purred loudly. “Rub my ears, human!” I frowned. Taking orders from my cat was… I sighed. It was probably a perfectly ordinary thing to be doing, actually. It wasn’t like she was ordering me to kill. I reached down, and her face split into a broad grin as I began slowly rubbing and stroking her ears. Her tail swayed back and forth slowly between her legs, as she stretched out against me, invading my personal space happily.

“So why are you here?” I asked softly, dreading the answer a bit. “In the city, I mean. You’re the one who saved me last night, right?” She nodded. “Are you leaving?”

“No. The world’s ending, human.” She purred, her hands moving above her, as she arched her back, making a sound of utter contentment. Then she looked up, frowning. “Human, you’ve stopped petting me! That’s very bad etiquette! What on earth could be more important than petting my ears?!”

I stared down at her bright, green eyes, and her petulant expression. “When you say the world is going to end-”

“I mean dark things are crawling their way out of the cracks in the Earth. Evil, vicious things. And they’re going to kill every single human on the planet, and leave the world a burned out, smoking husk!” She purred, wriggling. “Right here.” She flicked her mauled ear.

“You sound awfully calm about that.”

“Oh! Didn’t I mention? I’m going to stop them.”

I looked down at her, frowning. “You… How? If they’re strong enough to destroy the world, to kill everyone, how can you stop them?”

“Because I’m a goddess.” She flicked her ear again. “Now, keep scratching!”

 

Chapter 2: Wrong Side of the Betty

I am Queen Betty. I have had many names, and when I was born, I didn’t have a name at all. I was the First Cat. And like all things First and all things Cat, I am the best. I started my day by indulging in a nap next to the human, Horace Creed. His body heat and his presence were pleasant, soothing away the aches in my old, arthritic bones. The steady rise and fall of his chest helped me to relax. It was the first time in a week I’d been able to calm down. The world was ending. I had been feeling it ever since the end of the summer. I didn’t know what had provoked the oncoming cataclysm. It didn’t matter. It only mattered that the time had come for me to be a guardian once more.

Some might consider a never-ending battle to protect humans from the threats that stalk them in the night to be an unpleasant task. Surely, it couldn’t be worth something as simple as room and board. These people were mostly humans, and those who knew what I did considered their species extraordinarily fortunate, and terribly clever for making such a wise deal. They failed to understand two important facts. First, threats to the world are very rare. It had been decades since something had demanded my attention. And second, if you enjoy what you do, it is no job at all. It is a pleasure.

But of course, I am the First and the Cat, and thus all my bargains work out to my advantage. I stood up from beside the human. He had become very flustered when I was in my deific form, and had attempted to lie next to him. No doubt he was overwhelmed by the greatness of my presence. In my feline shape, he seemed to calm down quite a bit. He’d performed his duties in stroking my fur until he had fallen asleep, and now I was ready to go and finish my work. Prey had escaped me, and while I would not normally deign to pursue them, this prey was the type to make trouble later. It’d save me time if I killed them now, while they were weak.

I climbed down off of the bed, and my human kept sleeping. They slept so little, but when they did, it was like they were dead. I took on my deific form, feeling the rush of energy. I felt stronger than I had in decades, after sleeping in this warm place, and being fed. I’d forgotten how good it felt to not have to worry about where my next meal would come from. I smiled brightly as I leaned against the window, gently opening it. The gray light of pre-dawn was beginning to fill the city. I turned back towards Horace, and smiled. He did not know what I was doing, which was the way I liked it. But I would return triumphant at the end of the day, and he would give me the worship I desired.

The leap down to the ground below was easy, and I landed softly, ignoring the looks of surprise from people around me. They were simply admiring my greatness. Humans always did, unable to keep their eyes off me, whether I was cat or god in shape. I began walking, bare feet padding across the concrete. It wasn’t the most comfortable of materials to walk on, but I was used to it after decades in this city. I made my way down to the subways, retracing my path. Hopping over a turnstile, I stepped into the train waiting for me.

Outside of Horace’s home, my age caught up with me. I could feel the weariness in my bones returning. I had been doing this for such a long time. But I wasn’t going to show weakness to the world. Instead, I leaned close to a human sitting in one of the strange benches on the train, bending forward as I casually wrapped an arm around one of the metal bars that lesser creatures needed to keep their balance. He was male, which made him an easy mark. I gave him my best smile, my eyes dropping down to the burger he was unwrapping. “Can I have some of that?”

As I got out of the subway, smacking my lips and licking my fingers clean of the creamy sauces that had been smeared across the meat, I was feeling renewed. It was fun taking on the deific shape, I had to admit. Human beings had much more sensitive taste buds than a cat did, and it was amazing how good some of the things they made tasted. I drew a few eyes, dressed in nothing but Horace’s shirt, but it didn’t matter to me. It was all I felt like wearing. If someone tried to make a fuss, I’d just run off. It wasn’t as though any human could keep up with me.

I looked down at the bright yellow tape and the thick black smears on the ground. I took a deep breath. Burnt corruption filled my nostrils, and I bared my teeth. The oily things were unpleasant prey. No good to eat, and they usually spread by corrupting humans. That was annoying. It was an affront. Humans were mine, and the oily things certainly had no right to steal them away.

The two oily things I’d fought the night before last should have been no match for me. But I’d grown rusty over the decades. Again. It was hard to keep in shape in the time between crises, when I had no human. I sniffed at the air, turning my head. The smell led down towards a manhole cover. I’d need to take a smaller shape. I bent over, tugging the metal disc out of its slot, tossing it aside, and climbed down the hole as a car came to a screeching halt inches away from me. I ignored it, and the human screaming curses at me, and climbed into the darkness.

When I found the floor beneath my feet, I shrank back to my feline shape, and peered around. Uniquely human smells filled the place, but not the fun, pleasant kind. My hair stood on end. If I fell into the sludge passing through the storm drains, I’d probably lose my tongue getting the smell off my fur. The oily things liked dirty homes.

My memories drifted back to Rome. It had been a place like this city. Waste had to be gathered. Humans, for all of their fine attributes, could be such filthy creatures sometimes. But they had learned a few of my lessons, gathering their waste towards a place where it wouldn’t normally offend me. I made a note to hurt the oily things for forcing me to experience the smell, and their lack of appreciation for all the work humans had done to keep their waste out of my way.

I walked through the storm drains, doing my best not to succumb to the urge to flee the odors as quickly as I could. Eventually my path took me to a large open area. A cistern sat in the center, full of something murky and black. It was emphatically not water. Rusty pipes extended from every wall, leading into the concrete floor. Shadows were everywhere, and the only light was cast by a set of humming bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Corruption hung in the air like the aroma of burnt coffee grounds.

One of the oily things shifted out of the darkness in the pipes. I took on my deific shape, and stared haughtily at it. “Goddess.” It spoke formally, its figure tall and skeletal. It was the same creature that had tried to attack me two days before. “You are, er, outmatched here. You will leave, or-” It turned. The massive cistern was shaping itself into a face. The oily figure dropped to its knees. “My, er, lord.”

“What are you here for, Goddess?” The voice asked, deep, and rumbling. I brushed my fingers across my chest, considering my options. Fighting it here, in the center of its power, was something I was capable of. But that would be not only dull, but potentially dangerous, as well.

“Oily thing. It has been a long time since we last met. You’re trying to come into one of my places again. Why?” I asked. Bright, cheerful menace spread across my face. I ignored the oily thing as it began to explain. It wasn’t as though it interested me any. I looked around the room. Numerous pipes led away from the cistern. It must have been a storage place for water at some point. Maybe some fountain, no longer connected. If humans drank the oily thing, it would not be good for them- But it would be even worse for the oily thing, as stomach acid was not its friend. It preferred other ways to enter people, and hollow them out.

My brain whirred with possibilities, and finally, I interrupted its babbling excuses. “Enough. I’m old, oily thing. I guard many humans now, and I can hardly be asked to guard them all. This city is mine. I will allow you to flee to somewhere else. I’ll be back in eight hours, and if you are not gone, I will kill you.” I smiled brightly, spreading my arms out. “A gift.”

“You dare, er, demand this from us?” asked the thin oily thing. “You are, er, not a goddess of consequence anymore! You are, er, just an old relic, a-” It went silent as the dark cistern rumbled loudly.

“Agreed. We thank you for your forbearance, Goddess. We will take you up on your immensely generous offer. We wish you a safe trip and shall be gone by the time you return.” There was a sound like a drain pipe being strangled. “We wish you the best of luck in preserving the life of your current… master.” I stared down at the pit, my smile turning glassy. I turned on my heel, and walked out of the cistern chamber, finding a manhole cover and emerging up onto the street. Another car came to a screeching halt, and I ignored it as I strolled towards the nearby park. I lay back in the grass and rolled around in it, sighing with relief as I rubbed the smell of the place off on the blades.

If I hadn’t already been planning on betraying and killing the oily thing for the affront of existing, I would certainly have changed my mind after that little attempt to needle me. The oily things were predictable. They always liked to avoid conflict. They simply weren’t strong enough to stand up to something like me in a real fight, and if they thought they could escape, they would. Of course, I wasn’t going to let it flee. It had resisted me. It had hunted humans in my city. It had to die. But it would be much more fun to kill it while it fled away from its home, thinking it was safe.

I lay in the grass, rolling from side to side. It felt good to stretch out, letting the sun warm my belly, feeling the pleasant scent of grass replace the stench of the sewers. I climbed to my feet. I had some time to kill before I pounced, perhaps an hour or two. I changed, becoming feline once more. I was hungry, and could do with a decent meal. Something to clear away the smell of the place. The rats skittering across the piles of trash were amusing, but they smelled foul. Besides, I was more in the mood for fowl.

I was distracted from my hunt by a very familiar scent. I strode through the park, until I spotted him. Horace. My human. His dark black hair hung around his head, and he looked dead on his feet, his eyes barely open. He had a large bag, a loaf of bread inside of it, and he was feeding birds. I watched, crouched low in a nearby bush. My tail flicked with the the beat of my heart. Most of the birds were pigeons. Foul-tasting things, in my experience, although sometimes worth the effort. Most interesting, however, was the abnormally large crow that seemed to be taking the prime position at his feet. I watched, my nostrils flaring.

The damn bird was stealing food that should have been mine, and being abetted by my human. I couldn’t accept such misbehavior. I slipped out of the cover, staying low, and close to the shadows, my eyes narrowed. That jackdaw would regret ever begging for food at his feet. I snuck closer, until I was about ready to pounce, and- “Queen Betty?!”

The feathered mongrels scattered. The crow gave me a contemptuous caw as it flew off. I eyed them with annoyance, before hopping up onto the bench, sitting next to the human. They never seemed to understand how to hunt. Oh, they were good at agriculture, at growing food. But they didn’t know how to kill. Not the way I knew it, anyway. “Hello, Horace.” I purred, becoming human-shaped.

“You weren’t home when I woke up. I got a little worried.” He was stiff as I leaned up next to him, my chest rumbling. It was always amusing to watch those little reactions on his face as I rested my head in his lap, monopolizing his personal space. “Are you alright? You had a broken arm yesterday…”

I stretched my arm out. Indeed, that fall had been a bad one. It had hurt quite a lot, landing on the concrete while in the middle of a tussle with the creatures. All better now, though. “The tuna fixed me all up. I was just in a feisty mood this morning. I decided to go out hunting a bit!”

“For birds?” he asked, frowning. I smiled. He had such a large heart for little things he thought needed his help. I knew the feeling.

“Oh, yes. Among other things.”

“But I fed you. You don’t have to go killing innocent animals.” I rolled my eyes. He was so soft. He just didn’t understand.

“If I don’t stay sharp, I’ll get into a lot of trouble the next time I’m a stray! Gotta keep my skills.” I enjoyed behaving childish around him. He seemed to expect it to some degree. It was far beneath my dignity, but one of the great things about being as old and grand as I was is that dignity, at a certain point, simply exists. It doesn’t have to be maintained or jealously guarded anymore. I reached up and batted at one of his hands gently.

“I’m not going to abandon you.” His voice was so soft and earnest, it made me feel a little warm inside. Of course, he was wrong. Even if he cared enough to keep me, he didn’t know how dangerous it would be. It was the downside of the bargain. But I could reward him anyway. I purred loudly, and arched my back, and watched as he nearly choked on his tongue.

“Well, of course not. I’m much too cute! But I still need to stay tough.”

“So you can… ‘protect the world’?” he asked, an eyebrow raised. Humans always doubted it, of course. I didn’t blame them. They just couldn’t comprehend the idea of the end of the world. They thought it would happen, but it was always going to be later. They didn’t know how to deal with the actual end of the world happening around them. That’s why they’d made the agreement with me.

“Yes. Did you bring lunch?” He nodded. “Can I have some?” I asked, my tail swishing languidly, a smile on my lips. I saw the uncertainty in his eyes, and decided to aim for his guilt complex. “I’m so hungry, after you let my prey escape…” I mewled softly, watching as his expression filled with shame, and he reached into his backpack. I happily took half of a tuna salad sandwich, peeling open the bread and eating the delicious fish inside. I leaned against his side, and enjoyed the quiet moment. The day was going to become much more violent soon, after all. I had to appreciate the good things while they lasted. I spat out a couple of chunks of celery, a reminder that even in the sweetest things, humans could find a way to make life difficult.

“Alright, I have to go,” Horace said. He began to stand up, and I sank my nails into his side. He squawked, and I leaned my head against him. “Betty, my lunch break is only about 20 minutes, I need to get back now-” I stood up, and smiled. I had to go, too, but I’d be damned if I let him think he could just walk away when he liked.

“Well, it’s about time for me to go, I’ll see you tonight, have salmon ready.”

“Tuna.” He said, in the tones of one trying to bargain. I allowed the silence to hang for just a moment, and saw him grow uncertain.

“Salmon. I’m going to be very busy tonight, and I need a special treat to celebrate my impending victory.” I stood, and grinned. “Don’t worry, you will have good fortune come to you.” I waved a hand in something like a mystic gesture I’d seen a human use once. He sighed, and began jogging back towards the building where he worked.

Horace was an uncommonly kind human. I was not unaware of the costs that he was accruing in taking care of me. He was young, and like so many young humans, he was considered fit for only the worst work, with the least reward. And he still made time in his day to feed me, to take care of me, and to worry about me. I smiled, as I walked over to the fountain, and took a seat by it, removing Horace’s shirt. I splashed some water onto myself, washing my skin clean, brushing off the remains of the smell of the sewers. I would be going back into them soon, of course, but the feeling of being clean helped.

“Hey! Miss!” I looked up, a smile spreading across my face. A watchman in a black-blue uniform was frowning down at me. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? I’m going to need to take you in for indecent exposure, and loitering-”

I had been dealing with watchmen for as long as there were watchmen. They had become significantly more brazen in the modern day. There was a time when he would’ve been properly trained to provide me with an offering on meeting me. Still, he was just trying to do his job. So I decided not to be too harsh on him. I simply stood up, embraced him, and then sprinted in the opposite direction, laughing and giggling as I did. “Hey! HEY!” He shouted after me, even as I darted through bushes, Horace’s shirt still in one hand. By the time I’d left the park, there was no sign of the watchman behind me. I smiled to myself. It would not technically have been outside of my rights to tear the man limb from limb, but I wasn’t so petty. It would be a waste of a human.

I lifted up his wallet, and threw away the little cards of worthless plastic. I knew, vaguely, that they were sometimes used for money, but the whole process seemed complicated and annoying. I smiled as I found the cash. Fifty dollars. That would certainly make up for the cost of any salmon. I slid the money into the breast pocket of the shirt, as I tugged it back on.

Finally, I set off for the darkness beneath the streets once more. I knew the sewer systems well. If the creature was going to try to escape, there was only one path it could take without risking being torn apart by the flow of water and washed into the sea. That would kill it very effectively, and the oily thing would not risk it. I smiled, and lifted the manhole, climbing down into the dark storm drains below. The creature would take time to gather all of its thralls back to it. In the mean time, I would be waiting.

I crouched, and took on feline form, disappearing into the darkness and watching. The large room was part of a waste-water treatment plant. A set of fluorescent lights buzzed angrily, and the rush of water pouring through a channel in the center of the room filled the air with a dull roar.

As I sat, my mind wandered. The last time I had seen these things… It had been in Rome, actually. I had killed its spawn and sent it retreating back into the darkness between worlds. The fact that the creature had returned to bother me a second time was nearly unprecedented. Most of the creeping things lucky enough to survive an encounter with me never returned to this world. I wondered whether it had come back because it had thought I had disappeared. But that was unlikely to be enough to risk an encounter with me. I disappeared frequently.

There had to be something else. This realization was annoying. It meant that I probably would have more to do after I finished this one. I was going to be earning my keep. What a horrid situation.

My ears pricked. Several hours had passed. The lights were still flickering. There was a distant ripping noise, like tape repeatedly being pulled away from a surface. Sticky things being torn. My tail flicked with increasing excitement as the noises grew louder. I could only barely hear it over the roar, but my prey had finally left its place of safety.

Oily things were hard to kill. There was a human underneath all of the sticky black stuff covering the thralls, but the main oily thing was just a mass of burnt oil. Not very mobile, but tough. I’d have to cut it open and hope it bled out enough into the water that it became disparate, unable to hold itself together. The humans were beyond anything I could do to save them. They’d been killed to make room for the black stuff to fill them up. I sighed. So many people who could have fed me.

The black thing slumped around the corner. It walked unsteadily, a vaguely humanoid, blubbery abomination of slick black grease. I changed into my deific form, my smile broad. “Hello, oily thing.” I smiled. “I see you took my advice. Thank you for leaving your sanctuary. It will be much easier to kill you, this way.”

“We had a deal, Goddess. You offered to allow me to leave the city. You’re not an oath-breaker, are you?” I laughed, sharply, my ears pricking. There was a sticky noise behind me. Soft, something trying to sneak up.

“I cannot be bound by oaths. I’m not some happy little fairy or hidebound demon. I’m a Cat. I do what I please, and if I should change my mind, be grateful for the times when I do not. Now, are you going to surrender and allow me to kill you easily?”

I spun, an arm lashing out. Warmth and moisture covered my hand, and a low, gurgling noise erupted from the oily thing that was sneaking up on me. The white slime spilled out of it, landing on the ground in thick, curdling splatters. I frowned with distaste, as the desiccated, mummified corpse of a human dropped onto the floor. I crouched down, and sank my hand into the rushing water. It was not clean as it could be, but it was much cleaner than the stinging oil on my hand.

I stood up, shaking my hand, looking around. A dozen more thralls were approaching me, from all sides. The thing had set a trap for me. Its thralls weren’t carrying it. That was rather clever. Risky, but it must have realized I was going to betray it. “You are a relic. Stuck in your ways. The world is changing around you, old cat, and you don’t even realize it.”

“This isn’t very much like you, oily thing. You’re a parasite. You don’t try to take on the predator. You try to avoid its gaze. Why, you could just go back to the dark places between the worlds. Why would you risk my wrath again?” I let my eyes run around the sewer, piercing the darkness. There was only one oily thing on the far corner of the sewer platforms, across the water.

“It’s simple. There’s something-” As the creature settled in to speak, I leapt across the water like a ballistic missile. I crashed into the lone oily thing, swinging around it as my nails grabbed its shoulders, and bit through its neck. There was a crunch, and it fell limply, oil bubbling away. I perched on its corpse. “Damn you, Cat! Can you never listen?! This is important! Even you can’t ignore what’s-”

“Oh, just run away, you stupid thing.” I spat. The taste of the oily thing was nauseating. This was the unpleasant side of being shaped like a human. All of those tastebuds made biting feel weird, sometimes. “Or attack. Give me something to get my mind off of how bad you taste. I don’t care about why you’re doing this. You’re going to die for coming here.”

The portly creature looked from side to side. Its thralls stood, their yellow eyes glowing like lantern lights. Then, they all rushed me as the sticky black creature ran for it, rushing past them. I smiled. I struck with my claws at the first thing that rushed me, lashing out in a wide arc, and tearing away its yellow eyes. It screamed, and fell to the ground, the other thralls trampling over it. The narrow confines gave them little room to approach me, and I backed up, striking each one in turn with knife-handed blows. They fell, bubbling and gurgling, to the ground. My claws made wet noises as they slipped out of the punctured vessels. I felt young again, the rush of adrenaline making the world clean. Each stab of my claws took the life of one of the creatures, and I danced back from their heavy, clumsy blows even as oily fists cracked the concrete where I had been standing.

When there were only a couple left, I vaulted over them. One of them made a clumsy grab for me, and my ankle slid through its hand as I danced around it. I ran after the scent of the creature, following it into the plant, leaving the sound of confusion behind me. I could kill the rest of them later, once their leader was dead. I stopped at a junction, and sniffed the air, following the scent of burnt motor oil. The lights down one corridor were flickering, covered in a thick, stinking, mildly corrosive oil. They flickered out as I walked beneath them. “You know, you could always flee. I like when you run away. You can warn other things not to come.”

“They wouldn’t listen.” The voice hissed from deeper in the corridor. I peered into the darkness. The thing was there, its featureless round head lowered, its pudgy arms resting against its sides. The space was a dead end. I smiled.

“Now’s the time to run away.”

“I can’t. There’s nowhere to go but here. I can’t go back.” I narrowed my eyes. “Death here is preferable.”

“Wrong.”

I darted forward, slicing my nails across its stomach. Sharper than steel, they tore open the thick oily exterior. The dense, glutinous white substance that filled it spilled forward, covering the ground. The creature roared, and grabbed my hand in its thick, clumsy grip. It was faster than I expected. Then, its fist pumped forward into my side, and there was an unpleasant cracking noise as it demonstrated a studied contempt for my rib cage. “You call yourself a cat? You should remember that the cornered prey fights hardest!” I rolled my eyes, and lashed out at its stomach with my other hand, even as my ribs ground together. It was a painful wound, potentially debilitating, and it would guarantee me a hot meal and quite a lot of petting when I returned home to my human that night.

“You’re a hopped up little blob of grease. Why don’t you just shut up and die?” I growled, slashing again. My ribs ached with each word, but mocking my prey was important. The creature yanked me forward. It was stronger than it should have been. Much stronger. It was fighting with the desperation of the truly cornered. Its skull crashed against mine, and the world spun around me. I let out a yowl of pain, pulling away from it, my wrist slipping free of its grasp. I backed off, and hissed, shrinking against the shadows. The creature chuckled darkly, as it followed me, hunching over. Pain was filling me, and the thing smelled my weakness.

“Not so defiant now, are you, cat?” I huddled a little closer. My body was playing an entire symphony of pain, and I was not inclined to appreciate the effort it had put into its art. “I think I’ll leave you like this. That human, though… I’ll go kill him. A reminder to the humans that you can’t protect them.” It snorted, and turned away from me. “I remember when I feared you. You’ve gotten weak over the years. Maybe domestication made you fat, and lazy. There was a time when you were a nightmare in the darkness, even more than me. Now you’re just a housecat-”

My nails drove through its stomach and out of its lower back, grabbing hold of something. I squeezed, and the creature let out a gurgling sound. “I’d tell you not to threaten my human, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to settle for being an object lesson.” I squeezed tighter, and something popped. The creature shrank, falling to the ground, disintegrating. Something like rotten egg yolk was on my hand. I was covered in the stinging, burning oil. I fell into a fugue.

I remembered little of the walk home. The street lights flickering on. Pain filling me. Ears ringing, head full of cotton, wrist sore, and the clothing torn from where the oil had burned it. I climbed the fire escape clumsily, forced to use one hand, and stumbled into the apartment through the window. Each breath hurt. Pain was running through my body, as I dragged oily footprints on the ground. The large, soft bed sat in front of me. It smelled of Horace, and I climbed onto the bed, curling up. Pain was tearing at me. It had been an unexpectedly hard day. If the human hadn’t bought me salmon for this, I was going to flay open his arm the next time he pet me.

Lying on the bed, oil dripping onto the sheets, I felt a little bit scared. It had been unexpected, how much the threat of killing the human had frightened me. It was getting harder and harder to find safe places to be. To find humans who would care for me. The thought of being alone again had filled me with terror. Another spasm of agony ran through me, and I began to think about the human again. Where the hell was he? It was past sunset. In the hopes that maybe it would make him hurry home faster, I began to purr softly, the vibration easing the pain while I waited.

 

Chapter 3: Beating a Dead Horace

I packed up my work at the office. Another long, dull day of copying, calling, and filling out forms. I had spent the day thinking about Queen Betty, and her odd warnings. She’d disappeared without a trace that morning, and I’d been worried and distracted at work, drawing my uncle’s ire. Even seeing her at lunch hadn’t helped. She was up to something dangerous, I knew, and though I’d only been taking care of her for a few days, she was still special to me. Maybe I was just afraid that she would disappear, like so many other things I’d cared about through the years.

I looked around the office. The rest of the staff had left by 7 PM, in the hopes of getting home with enough time left to get some sleep. And here I was, sitting in a cubicle, finishing the last few forms for this case. Trapped by my own hopes for the future.

It had been the job that would lead to the next job, a year back. Start your way at the bottom, and work your way up. That was what my uncle had told me. He’d been lying through his teeth, but I kept working because it was comfortable, and the idea of trying to find a new job terrified me. It would mean spitting on what little my uncle had given me. It would mean putting myself in the hands of the economy. And worst, it would mean no letter of recommendation. I had spent the last year working my ass off, I couldn’t leave here with nothing.

The door to the copier room hadn’t been replaced yet. Instead, the ruins were removed entirely, leaving the doorway open. It was an improvement, not least because it kept the copier room from growing stagnant and musty. The broken window currently had a substantial amount of emergency tape covering it, but I had caught two different attorneys staring wistfully at it. I’d reminded them that a jump from four stories was more likely to cripple them for life than actually kill them, and that the company life insurance policy wouldn’t pay out in case of suicide anyway. This had seemed to make them, if anything, more depressed. I wish I could’ve thought of something cheerful to tell them, but all I had was the vague and unfounded hope that circumstances had to improve. .

It was half past seven when I left the office. The sun had set. It was growing darker outside, and I remembered the request Betty had made of me. I stopped in the small grocery store, and briefly cursed how expensive salmon was, before selecting a modest filet. I wouldn’t be eating much this week if I bought it for her. As I weighed my options, my mind wandered over the strangeness of it all.

I had a cat living in my house that claimed to be a goddess, and was probably telling the truth. Even if she wasn’t a goddess, she was something strange. She’d moved in, and I couldn’t bring myself to kick her out. When I’d found her, she’d had a broken arm, and had been huddling in an alleyway. The fact that she had probably broken her arm saving my life from a pair of nightmarish oily things the day before had been a point in her favor, too. I placed the filet in the shopping cart, and tried not to sob as the cashier scanned it. How could one pound of fish meat cost so much? I picked up a copy of The Times, and made my way to the subway.

The Times was full of the usual doom and gloom. At least three people had gone missing in Central Park over the past month, and the police blamed a serial killer. One of the city’s mental hospitals had been closed due to budget cuts, and the patients there had been dumped on the streets, leading to an uptick in the number of assaults. A series of vandalism against several of the major churches in the city. A rash of pickpocketing and indecent exposure in Washington Square Park. And apparently, several sanitation workers had come down with some nasty disease. Ebola and ISIS warring for headline space.

I thought about what Queen Betty had said. That doomsday was coming. That humanity was coming to an end. And here I was, sitting on the subway, still working at the same piece of shit job. I shook my head, and closed the newspaper. Regardless of whether the world was coming to an end or not, I still needed to eat, and so did she. So I’d make damn sure there was food on the table. Even if it was only a small amount.

I stepped out of the train into the furnace heat of the subway station, and wiped my brow. The summer was lasting long into the autumn this year, and it was starting to drive me a bit mad. I climbed the stairs to the surface, where a mild breeze turned the temperature from lethal to merely unbearable. The subway rumbled off underground, shaking the metal gratings and sending a rush of hot air up from the tunnels as I trudged towards my apartment. I looked up, and noticed the window was open. That meant Betty was probably home, and she’d not closed the window behind her. It was going to be muggy in the apartment. I just hoped she’d turned off the air-conditioning. I noticed there was no sign of Harold in his usual spot at the corner. It was probably just as well, because I didn’t have any spare change on me.

As I stepped into the apartment, it was clear she hadn’t turned off the AC. The large box was chugging noisily in the living room. I shut it off, and looked around. There was no sign of Betty. I sighed, and put the food in the kitchen before checking the bathroom. I nearly gagged. The bathtub had over an inch of thick, black oil coating the bottom, stinking horrifically of burnt coffee grounds. There were streaks of the stuff across the floor, and on the walls. The only sensible explanation was that Jackson Pollock had taken up road construction, and chosen my bathroom for his first project. I switched on the shower, water pouring the thick black slime back down into the drain with a thick gurgling, ululating noise. I frowned, as I opened the bedroom door.

Betty lay across the bed. It was a mess, but I was immediately distracted by the state she was in. Her eyes were closed, and she was purring softly. I’d once heard cats purred when they were injured, and it seemed the same was true for Betty. One of her ears looked bent at a nasty angle. Blood was dripping down her forehead. I could see a red stain in the side of the white shirt I’d given her. Her skin was burnt and red where oil had eaten away at it. I rested a hand on the side of her head, and she made a soft mewling noise of pain, her eyes opening. “Hey… You’re home. Finally.” I crouched next to her, feeling my heart hurt.

“Betty… Do you- Should I call an ambulance? How can I help?” She looked at me, her brilliant green eyes flashing. Her tail flickered a bit. The fur was matted, and it hung at a crooked angle.

“Pet me,” She whispered. I opened my mouth to tell her to be serious, and then shut it. I reached out, and stroked her hair. She let out a soft mewl, and her skin seemed a little less red. “Did you bring the salmon?” she asked, her voice a touch stronger. I nodded. “Thank god you can take direction. Got something for you.” She reached up towards her chest, and I averted my eyes, still petting her, as the torn and tattered shirt exposed her for a moment. Then she held up a rather ratty looking pair of twenties, and a ten-dollar bill. She pressed the money into my hand. “Got you this. Told you I was good luck.”

She lay back against the bed, purring loudly, as I kept petting her. I gently lifted the shirt a bit, to check her side. There was quite a lot of blood on her skin, on the bed, and on the shirt, but no sign of where it had come from. I heard a crunch, and watched as one of her ribs readjusted itself under the skin.

“What the hell did this to you, Betty?” I asked, as I stroked her hair, brushing it back out of her eyes. She was still a mess, but she didn’t look like she had been run over by a car anymore. “I thought you were hunting birds.”

“Really big bird. Had yellow feathers. Kept telling me I hadn’t been donating to public television.” I leaned forward, resting my head against hers. She purred loudly. I felt better. If she could tell bad jokes, then she couldn’t be that badly injured. I lifted her up, my arms sliding beneath her shoulders and her knees. She was surprisingly heavy for her size, and I could feel the stiff, toned muscle beneath her skin. “Where are you taking me now? I’m comfy.”

“You need a bath.” She put up quite a spirited fight as I carried her to the bathtub, but once I began running the hot water over her wounds, she seemed to relax. Where the sticky black oil had covered her, the skin was reddened, though the flush seemed to be going away as I washed her. Despite her protests, she seemed to be much happier as I began to comb the oil out of her hair. “Well, I’m sure you won the fight against the big bird.” She nodded proudly, and I rested a hand on her forehead. Her eyes closed, and she leaned back into the water, one of her legs lifting out of it.

I tried not to stare. She was a painfully attractive woman when she was shaped like a human. The fact that the white T-shirt she had borrowed was turning transparent in the water was making it very hard to look directly at her. Much like staring at the sun, if I watched her too closely, I might go blind. Of course, it would probably be because she’d gouged my eyes out. I’d seen enough Japanese media to know how this sort of thing went.

I opened the linen closet and selected a couple of large, soft, fresh towels. I helped her stand up out of the bath, and brushed her down. She accepted it with bad grace, making a low, rumbling sound that resembled a chainsaw. Both in its tones, and in the likelihood that I would lose a finger if I kept touching. Eventually, though, I managed to lead her out into the living room, and on top of the couch, where she huddled between the two towels. I frowned. I could swear there was more black oil out here than before. I must have accidentally dripped some on the floor as I was carrying her. She snuggled up, and purred loudly. I rested a hand on her head, and she nuzzled it.

I walked into the kitchen, and turned on a fan. The smell of burnt coffee coming from the oil was making me nauseous. I poured a little salt and pepper onto the slender salmon filets while the oven pre-heated, and placed them on a baking sheet. “You know, if you were going to wash yourself off in the shower when you got in, you could at least have left it running long enough to clean out the tub.”

“Mmmm?” She asked from the living room. I heard a soft creak behind me.

“The bathtub was filled with oil when I got here.”

“Well, I didn’t do it.”

There was a moment of silence. I spun, and a fist caught me around the throat. The tall, skinny black-oil thing lifted me up with superhuman strength, yellow eyes glowing madly. Its pupils were darting around, as it held me up. “You, er, bastard, you, er, bastard, you, er, bastard-” Its voice was just a fraction too fast, and it repeated like a record stuck running over the same section over and over again. Its fist was tightening, my eyes beginning to feel swollen, like they were about to pop. My temples pounded, as I stared into those wild yellow eyes. I clawed at the gooey black flesh of its arm, and my fingers burned as they sank into the thick sludge. “I, er, am going, er, to kill you, then, I’m, er, going, er, to kill, er, that, er, er, er, er-”

The psychotic litany was cut off by a wet noise, and the thing’s head fell off, splattering to the floor with a notable lack of dignity. The creature’s fist opened, and I landed on my ass. The slime collapsed to the ground, making an almighty mess. I gasped for breath, my heartbeat slowing as my head stopped spinning. The mummified shape of a human body fell, revealing Betty. She stood over me, frowning. She was also entirely naked, and bending over to check my eyes. “Are you alright?” She didn’t sound the way she usually did, kittenish and playful. Her voice was serious. She smacked my cheek. “Hey! Answer me! Can you tell how many fingers I’m holding up?”

“You… aren’t holding up any fingers, Betty.” She nodded with apparent satisfaction, and turned on the sink, washing her right hand clean of the trails of black slime on her fingers. “What the hell was that?”

“Oily thing. I killed its master earlier tonight. Apparently it sent one of its thralls to get revenge on me. Weird behavior. Usually they’d just scuttle off to hide, and try to gather enough strength to replace its master. Prey’s behaving strange.” She frowned, and shook her head. “Make sure the salmon doesn’t burn!” She turned, and walked into the bedroom. She exited moments later, pulling on another of my shirts. The shreds of the previous shirt were resting on the floor.

The aroma of salmon filled the air as I opened the oven. Rich, savory, and sweet. I set the plate down in front of her, feeling the weight of the money in my pocket. “Do you mind if I ask you some questions?” I asked, as I took a seat by her side. She smiled, and began to dig in. That seemed to be as close to a ‘go ahead’ as I was going to get. “Did you steal that money?”

“Yes. But it was from a watchman who didn’t give me food, so that’s okay.” She smiled innocently as she lifted flakes of the rose-colored filet bare-fingered, eating hungrily. Her ears were perked, her tail swaying back and forth lazily as she ate, leaning into me, and brushing her cheek across my side.

“That’s not legal, you know.”

“Ah, not legal for humans. I’m a cat. I can do all kinds of things humans aren’t allowed to. Plus, I’m a goddess.” I thought about my empty refrigerator. Fifty dollars could buy a decent amount of food, and I wasn’t in the mood to argue morality with the person who had just saved my life.

“What were those things?”

“Oily things. They attacked once before, when I was in Rome. Might have attacked at other times, but I never heard about them, so probably not. They gather in big cities, with complicated water-works. They try to infect people. Pour into them, create a sort of hive-mind, and take over the city. They come from another world. They’re not big on confrontation. This one fought a lot harder than it did the last time.”

“You’re saying… It’s the same thing?”

“Oh, yes. Only one oily thing, as far as I know. It was really desperate. It probably was running from something.” I swallowed, hard.

“If this thing takes over cities… What would scare it so much?”

Queen Betty shrugged. “Who knows. A bad god. Some horde or another. There are lots of bad, frightening things that lurk out in the darkness. Human beings that spend too much time thinking about it get kind of messed up! One of my humans, I told him too much about what happened. He never went around seafood again, and he’d get really terrified of rats. I told him I’d take care of it, but he just kept talking about the good old ones, and the rats in the walls…” She sighed, shaking her head. “There are a lot of scary things out there, Horace. But you know, you can help me.”

“How?”

“By making sure we have plenty of salmon, and by petting me, and by caring for me. That’s The Deal. I made it with humans, a long time ago. If I had a human, they would feed me, and shelter me, and provide companionship where necessary. And I would keep the dark things from killing you all.” She smiled. “And you have very nice warm hands, and you cook tasty fish for me.” I stared down at the mummified corpse, still sitting on the linoleum of the kitchen. It was shriveled, shrunken. I had absolutely no idea how I was going to deal with that, but it wasn’t a question for tonight. Tonight had more than enough questions lingering already.

“Then… If I keep you. More of those things are going to try to kill me, aren’t they? They’ll try to get at me because I make you stronger. It’d be easier to kill me than you.”

Betty leaned against me, looking down. Her tail was flicking back and forth, agitated. I rested a hand on her head, and it seemed to bring her out of her reverie. “Yeah. It’s The Deal. I protect everyone. But the person who takes care of me, they are in danger. In the old days, there were special priests who did the duty as my caretaker. They didn’t usually live long. It’s a risk, taking care of me. I wouldn’t blame you if you told me to leave.” I stared down at the plate, and smiled. Then, I laughed. She glanced up at me, frowning. “I’m serious!”

“I know you are.” I grinned, rubbing the tears out of my eyes, smiling brightly. “I just… I can hardly believe it. You know?” All of those worries about the apocalypse. About what I could do to help. And I’d been given a way. “I can’t believe you’re willing to protect the world in exchange for some salmon and a warm place to sleep at night. That’s… way more selfless than I would expect from a cat.” She preened, grinning, apparently pleased by this statement.

“I can afford to be thoughtful to my subjects. Humans go to such lengths to care for all of my children, after all. It allows one to be… magnanimous.” She stretched out, lying across my lap, yawning as she pinned me down, a smile on her face. “So, you won’t be turning me out into the streets again?” I thought of the sight of her, covered in blood and making weak noises on my bed. My imagination conjured up an image of what might have happened to her if there hadn’t been somewhere for her to recover.

“No. Definitely not. I told you, I’m not going to turn you out.” I frowned. “But, you really shouldn’t be stealing, either.”

“I’m probably still going to. There are offerings that are supposed to be made. It is another part of the deal. The duty of caring for me is meant to come with certain rewards.” She smiled cheerfully.

“You’re going to do this no matter what I tell you, aren’t you.” She nodded. “And even if I don’t use the money, you’re going to keep doing it.” She nodded with a bright, open grin. “You know, for the amount that salmon filet cost me, I could have bought you about three pounds of tuna.” She smiled indulgently, as she rolled onto her back, looking up into my eyes. I found it very hard to return the look. She didn’t blink much.

“The point is not to fill my belly. It is to have the finest things. The salmon is very fine indeed. And even if it’s more expensive, it is worth that expense.” She reached up, and toyed with my hair lightly. “In the same way, if I wanted to, I could have the entire city worshiping me, and saying prayers to me. But that is not as satisfying to me as a single devout believer, who labors for my good alone. Some gods may believe in quantity over quality. But I like to have just one really good worshiper.” She giggled, and purred, curling up. Her breathing began to grow regular.

“Betty, I still need to take care of things. I haven’t even had dinner yet!” She yawned sleepily, and pushed her face against my stomach, purring loudly.

“I can’t see how that’s my problem, Horace.” She slid her arms around my waist, squeezing me lightly, and like that, she was asleep.

I leaned back, and let out a slow sigh. I had always harbored a secret desire to make the world better. To do something that would help everyone, to protect people. I’d wanted to be a firefighter, and then a doctor, and then a scientist, and then a lawyer. And along the way, I’d begun to lose any hope of being able to do anything meaningful. It had seemed so easy to change the world when I was a child, and the world was tiny and barely anyone lived in it. Then I’d grown up and discovered just how many people there were, and how badly they were suffering. I’d hoped to, at most, preserve one or two of them.

And here the world was giving me a chance to do something that mattered. It would be dangerous, but I could help her, and keep people safe. And her. I stroked Betty’s ears slowly, and she let out a soft purr, her tail swaying slightly as she opened her eyes for a moment, and then closed them. And I thought again about the sight of her, broken and helpless on the bed. The thing that had done that to her had been running from something much more frightening. I trailed my fingers through her hair, and frowned.

She thought she could do it all alone. But I’d seen personally that she couldn’t. I needed to find a way to get stronger. Something I could do to help protect her. I wasn’t content to just stay home and worry about the things out there in the darkness.

I woke up at 4 AM. My stomach growled, and I limped over to the refrigerator. There was no sign of the mummified body, or Queen Betty. I decided I wasn’t going to ask any questions about that if I saw her again. In the mean-time, I made myself breakfast, and surfed the internet for an hour or so, allowing my brain to dissolve into a soft slurry. By the time 6 AM rolled around, I was on my way to work. I spent the next twelve hours in the copier room.

“Do you know what I say about potential, my boy?” I froze. Randall Creed was standing in the open door frame. I had been working diligently, but something about his voice always made me feel like I’d been jerked out of a sound sleep while on the job. I stood up straight, and the words came right from my hindbrain.

“It’s a lie people tell themselves to suggest their position is a choice, rather than a fate. It’s what they say because they haven’t achieved anything but want to feel like they still have control.” The words burned a bit as I said them. I hated my uncle’s philosophy.

“Hrn. Good. You remember everything I’ve told you.” The old man stepped closer. “It’s also not the whole truth.” The old man pulled out a chair from the table next to the copier. He took a seat, and waved to the other chair. I sat down beside him, feeling nervous. Mister Creed’s voice was cracked, more exhausted than it usually sounded, and there were bags under his eyes “I talked with an old friend of mine last night. I brought up your little story about what happened to the window, and the door. And he told me I should look at the tapes. Just in case.” It was late. Most of the other people in the office had gone home by now. I had been getting ready to go home when the old man had come in.

“And what did you see?” I asked, frowning. Mister Creed was quiet for a moment.

“Do you drink, son?” He took out a flask.

“No, sir.”

“Hrn. Kids today. Teetotaler?”

“No, sir. I just remember the time you fired someone for bringing beers to the company party. You told him you despised people who drink on the job.”

“There are always exceptions, son. Drink.” He handed me the flask. I took a sip. It tasted vaguely like orange juice after you brush your teeth. I did my best to choke it down, and handed the flask back to him. “I come across as something of a tyrant, don’t I, son?” There was a moment of silence. “Do I come across as a tyrant, or don’t I, damn it?” The man’s cheeks were red. He’d never struck me, growing up, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t scared of him. Of course, I’d gotten choked by a psychotic oil-covered corpse from New England last night. There wasn’t all that much room for fear left in me.

“I don’t know about a tyrant, sir…”

“Don’t bullshit me, son.” I sighed. I was sick of the games. The lessons. The horrible things he did to people.

“You’re a cruel, hard-working bastard who never had his own family and who treats the entire office like they should follow your example. I’ve seen you personally reduce an attorney of 15 years practice to tears after a five minute talk. There are standing rumors you sold your soul to the devil floating around the office. Not for any kind of gain, but because you thought having a soul was a sign of weakness. You’re a tyrant, an asshole, and I think you’re wrong about everything you’ve ever said, sir.” I braced myself for the explosion of anger, and was surprised when the old man simply chuckled, his wrinkled face breaking into a smile.

“And that’s the other side to potential. Sometimes, a person really does have potential. Iron’s damn brittle stuff, but when you force it into fire, and hammer the ever-loving shit out of it, it turns into steel.”

“People aren’t iron, sir.”

“Feh. You’re so much like your goddamn father. Soft. Too damn soft for this world.” He took a swig of the flask, and growled. “And while I appreciate your willingness to stand up to me, remember that if you ever do it in front of the other employees here, I will turn your life into an unending nightmare.”

“Dear god, sir. You mean you’d make me an associate?” He laughed, a crackling, grinding noise. Then it ended as suddenly as it began, and he leaned forward.

“I saw something horrible in those tapes, son. Something from out of the darkness. Something damned dangerous.” He looked me in the eye, his gaze firm. “If you ever see that thing again, I want you to tell me. Alright? There are some horrible things in this world. I thought the peace would last longer than this, but I guess we didn’t get rid of them as well as we thought, your father and I.” He sighed, and I stared at him. He’d never talked about my father before. And he’d sure as hell never mentioned anything like this. “I guess that this is the price you pay for the things that we did. Getting dragged into the same madness that we found ourselves neck-deep in when we were young.”

“What? The oily things?” I rested a hand on his shoulder. Carefully, at first, like touching a stove to see if it was still hot. “Hey, it’s okay. You know? I… met someone. They’re going to keep me safe. Alright? It’s all going to be okay.” He was hunched over, his eyes lidded. I’d never seen the old man like this before. “They’re not that dangerous, apparently. Everything’s going to turn out fine.”

“Not the Ateroleum.” He grunted. “The other one. The old killer. She’s bad luck, boy. She’s always around when things go to hell. After all, how do you think your father died?” I stared. And then the old man slumped forward, the flask hanging loosely from his hand. I shook him.

“What the hell do you mean how my father died?!” I shook him again, and watched with a certain amount of annoyance as he slouched forward in the chair, snoring loudly. I took a moment, and swore very loudly. It made me feel a lot better. “We’re going to be discussing this again.” I murmured to the unconscious man, as I carefully hefted him up. He was surprisingly light, leaning against my shoulder, as I carried him back towards his office. The large, plush seat leaned back as I gently sat my uncle down at his desk. I stared at him for a few seconds. “Tyrant,” I muttered, and headed for the door.

Then, I noticed the large envelope in the out-tray. It was addressed to me. I frowned, and picked it up, opening it up. A slender DVD slid out of the envelope. It was a security recording. I looked around the office, and made my way to my small cubicle, popping the DVD into the computer. It was a video, from the building across the street. I skipped forward in the video, until I found the moment when the glass had broken. I watched, as the two black figures tumbled with Betty, until they struck the ground. All three of them with their inhuman features fairly clear as they split up in different directions.

It was proof.

 

Chapter 4: Horace Whisperer

I stood in the entrance to the police station, holding the tape in my hand, and feeling slightly foolish. When I had seen the video of the dark creatures splattering on the ground, I had been certain that it was important. But I was slowly realizing, I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t have any contacts in the media, and the idea of going up to the local TV news station and presenting it as some kind of evidence struck me as a wonderful idea for a prank, but a very bad way to try to get information into the hands of the people who needed it. I had no credibility, and no one to show the information to. So, after a week, I had decided to settle for vindication. But standing here in the busy lobby, I wasn’t sure how to find who I was looking for. I settled for standing with a lost and confused look on my face. That’s when she approached me, and in a tone with absolutely no good humor in it at all, said “Hello, sweet-cheeks.”

“Sergeant Larson, I’m glad to see you. Look, I’m sorry about my uncle, but I’ve got something-”

The dirty blonde hair hung over her eyes in a way that couldn’t have fit regulation. She was dressed in a desk officer’s uniform, her hat drawn over her eyes. The sergeant had been the one to interrogate me when the Ateroleum had tried to kill me. She looked like she was holding a grudge about that night. Randall Creed had that effect on people. “Young man, I have enough trouble to deal with already. I do not need to be harassed by a spoiled rich kid who thinks his connections will get him out of trouble with the law-” She stopped, as I held up the disc, frowning.

“Please. Just watch this. It’ll only take a couple of minutes.” She looked me hard in the eye. I’d been practicing with Betty, though. After you got into a staring contest with someone who didn’t blink, human competition wasn’t nearly as daunting. After nearly a minute, she pulled off her cap, and sighed.

“If this is a waste of my time, kid…” She left the rest of the threat unspoken, but her body language elaborated on it in graphic detail. The two of us slipped into the rear of the station, and she led me to a small office. I stood and watched her as she popped the DVD in. Her expression turned from suspicious, to shocked, took a brief detour through nausea, and settled on blank. I watched her. To my great surprise, she wasn’t asking me whether it was a hoax, or a fake. The video quality was decent, but I had to admit that it had occurred to me. Instead of accusations, however, she simply sat there, her face drawn. “Do you know what those things are?” she asked softly.

“I… have an idea. Someone close to me called them Ateroleum, I think. Latin. They’re made out of oil and dead bodies. They’re from somewhere… Else. I don’t really know much about them beyond that.” The sergeant leaned back in her chair, and took out a pack of cigarettes, slipping one between her lips. She lit it up, and my eyes flickered up to the ‘Thank you for not smoking’ sign on the wall. Someone had scratched out the ‘not’ with a knife. “Sergeant, I know this is kind of crazy, but I think that it’s real. One of these things tried to strangle me to death last night.” She stared at me.

“How the hell are you still alive? Pardon my french, but I’ve been hearing about these things for the last month. Then, suddenly, after getting a murder report practically every other day, they just… disappeared. No more killings.” She frowned. “Do you know why they stopped?” I weighed the options. Honesty hadn’t served me very well with anyone so far, but it was always worth another try.

“I think my cat killed them.” I could see from the look on her face that Honesty should have been leavened with a little more Tact. I leaned forward and placed my hands on her desk, trying to get her to make eye contact. “Someone killed off the creature that was responsible for making those thralls. I’m treating it like my cat, and she said one of them got away. Look, I need to tell people about this. If there are these kinds of crazy, monstrous things walking around the city, people need to know about them. They need to protect themselves.” Her eyes moved down to the desk, her lips setting into a hard line, and I lifted my hands off of it. “I came to you because I thought… I don’t know. I guess this was a dead end.” I frowned. “You can keep the disc. I made copies. If you know someone who could do something useful with it…”

She leaned back in her chair, and pulled her shirt up. “See this?” I had turned my head aside when the shirt had begun to lift. “For christ’s sakes, kid, I’m not hitting on you. Look at this.” I looked.

“They’re very nice.” She spat out a curse and another ‘Pardon my french’. Then, I looked closer. Across her stomach were three jagged white lines, in parallel. They looked very much like the kind of scars you’d have after something tried to gut you.

“About a year back, me and a couple of other cops were performing an eviction on an old tenement. This old lady is refusing to leave the premises, and threatening to burn the place down around her. We force entry, and suddenly, where there was an old lady, there’s this nine foot tall thing with a face like a rat and…” She shuddered visibly. “Claws. It tore the head off of one of my men, and nearly gutted me before running off. I spent a month in the hospital recovering, and I got damn lucky.” She puffed on the cigarette, the tip flaring like a cherry.

“I’m sorry,” I said, not sure what else to say.

“Kid, I know that there are some hideous things out there. The thing about this, though… That rat-thing ran. The… ‘Ateroleum’… were being careful about not being spotted. We’ve found a few signs of them going out of their way to destroy records of their presence. They don’t show up on the video in your building. We don’t usually get many reports of them.” She pointed at the screen. “So the question I have for myself is, when all of these bugshit- pardon my french- freaks are being so careful about not being spotted, why do you have this tape?”

“They were a bit distracted. Maybe they didn’t have the time to clean up after themselves. They were getting attacked by whoever that woman is.” Honesty had been going badly. I was going to give it a little time before telling her that the woman was my cat.

“Maybe. But think about what they were going after. The Ateroleum targeted mostly drifters, the homeless, unemployed loners. People who wouldn’t be missed. Then they go after you in the middle of a prestigious law firm.” She stared down at the video. “Do you know why criminals make mistakes? Because they get desperate. Because doing things carefully would take time they don’t think they have.” She puffed on the cigarette, and stubbed it out on the desk. “So. What’s your connection with all of this supernatural weirdness? How do you know their name?”

“I heard it from my uncle. He said that’s what they’re called. He was drunk as hell.”

“Have you asked him more?”

“No. He’s… Not an approachable person.”

She smirked. “Yeah, I met him. Real charming guy with the sexism and all.” She sighed softly. “Alright. You said they were dead, yeah? Did you get all of them?” I frowned.

“I don’t know. One of them got away to attack me. There might be another one out there.” She swore under her breath.

“Pardon my french, but… Ah, god damn it!” She threw the cigarette butt at the corner. A rat skittered out of the way, and hissed at the two of us, rearing onto its hind legs, before disappearing through a hole in the wall. It was shiny and black, with brilliantly red eyes. “Damn things have infested the station house lately. We’ve been getting promised an exterminator for months.” She sighed. “The little bastards still freak me out.” Her hand had gone to her stomach. Her expression turned contemplative.

“Sergeant Larson?”

“I’m going to share something with you. I don’t want you spreading it around, because it’s not strictly legal. There are a few of us on the force who have seen strange things. We get together sometimes on the weekend, to try to track them down. Make things a little safer in the city in our spare time. If you get any more information like this, or if you should happen to find out about where one of these things is hiding…” She took out a small card, and a pen, and scribbled down a number, handing it to me. “Leave it to the professionals to take care of this kind of thing. Alright?” She smiled. “We know what we’re doing out there.”

I took the card, and slipped it into my pocket. “Thanks, Officer.” I frowned. “So. What do I do about the disc?”

“My advice… Put it in a safe place. If there’s something serious happening out there… To be frank, kid-”

“Horace.” She raised an eyebrow. “My name. It’s a little bit less embarrassing than having you call me kid all the time. I’m in my twenties.”

“Dane.” She gave a brief smile. “To be frank. The city is a dangerous enough place as it is. People don’t do well when they’re frightened, and while these things are bad, they’re not that common. My advice is just let it stay secret. If people start panicking, things could get bad. We still don’t know much about these things, and that means people are more likely to panic if they find out they’re out there.” She shook her head. “People are a panicky, unruly mob. You can’t trust them with the truth. Most of the time, they’ll just hurt themselves with it.” She smiled wanly. “That’s one of the benefit of years of experience on the force.”

“Sounds like a pretty dark way to look at the world, Dane.”

“Yeah. But amateurs should stay out of the things they can’t handle. Me and my people, we’re trained to deal with this kind of thing. More or less.” She sighed softly. I looked at her face. There were bags under her eyes. Her expression was strained, and there were a few strands of white in her hair. She couldn’t have been out of her forties, but she looked like death warmed over.

“Hey, uh… Would you be willing to come over to my place, this Saturday?” She stared at me. “Not in a romantic sense. Just… You look like you could use a home-cooked meal or something.” She frowned at me, and I shrugged. “Think it over. Alright? You look like you could use a chance to… Well, feel like a human being again.” I tore a section off of the card she had given me, and scribbled down my address. “Here. Just in case you feel like it.”

She snorted. “I look that bad, huh?” Nevertheless, she took the card. “I’m going to accept this invitation, but only because I love food that doesn’t come out of a can.” I gave her a bracing smile, and walked out, trying not to look disappointed by what had happened. She knew more about what was going on than some people, but clearly, not enough. It seemed like nobody was certain what they were dealing with. That was frustrating, but typical.

I walked down the stairs and out into the thick, musty heat of the evening. Garbage was piled high on the curb, and the stench of it was a uniquely New York experience, organic and sinus-sizzling. I took a deep breath through my mouth and did my best to hold it until I was in the subway. Once in the cloying heat of the subways, I took a few deep breaths to clear the smell out of my head. I consoled myself that at least I knew that the city had some sort of measure in place to deal with the supernatural.

I would’ve felt better about it if said measure had been something more effective than a group of traumatized police officers going hunting on their days off.

On my way out of the subway, I was stopped by a waving hand. “Horace!” I looked down, and nearly lost my lunch. Harold gave me a bright grin. “Yeah, I know, I look like shit.” His nose and lips were black, looking painfully damaged. “Black plague. Who would have guessed, right?” He coughed into his hand. “Managed to survive, though. Not even infectious anymore, although it was a bit touch and go.” I tried hard not to let the animal terror inside of me make him feel uncomfortable.

“Christ. How’d it happen, Harold? How’d you survive, for that matter?”

“Same way it happens to everyone. Those fucking rats, and their goddamn fleas. That church I told you about helped get me treatment, though. They’re doing an outreach program for the homeless in the city.” His nose was gone, leaving only a pair of nostrils, and his teeth were bared by the damage to his lips. “They took me in, got me treated up right. Even looking into some prosthetics. I always thought I could use a bit of a nose job!” He laughed, and I smiled along, even though it hurt to think of that happening to him.

I’d known him since I’d moved into the neighborhood, and I hadn’t even known he’d been sick. He could’ve died, and I’d never have known. He continued on, heedless of my green expression. “You should come down some time. They could use some more people helping out. There’ve been a lot of cases in the city, lately. They could use a nice kid like you helping out. They’re good, real professional- Heck, you’ll probably even keep your nose!” He grinned, white teeth visible and shining. I felt a little chill, but managed to return the smile.

“That sounds really admirable. Where’s the church?”

“Ah, they’ve got a clinic going on the corner of eighty-eighth and Broadway. Drop in this weekend, it’d be great to have you by!” He grinned, and showed more teeth than I’d ever wanted to be able to see in a smile. I fished into my wallet, and dropped a 20 into his lap. “Hah! Hey, that’s the plus side about this: People are real generous with a plague survivor!” He gave me a wink as he scooped up the twenty. “Stay safe!”

“You too, Harold.” I smiled weakly as I set off down the street. I wasn’t having a very good day. It got worse when I got home, and found half a dozen dead rats arrayed in a little starburst on the floor of my apartment, just beyond the door. Their bright red eyes stared sightlessly up at me, horrified expressions on their tiny mouths.

“Betty! Why! Why would you do this to me!”

Queen Betty lay across the couch, wearing one of my casual shirts. LOVE GOD was stretched across her chest, written in slender, scratchy script. I’d never had the guts to wear it outside of the house, but it looked fetching on her. She smiled from her place on the couch. “You wanted to get stronger, right? To be a great hunter? Well, this is how I would teach my own kittens! Starting with the prey, so you know what they look like.” She stood up, and picked up one of the thick, slick-furred black rats by the tail. Its wide red eyes stared accusingly into my soul, asking me how I would live with myself, knowing that this tiny act of slaughter had been committed in my name. “Now, eat.”

“I am not going to eat that. For so many reasons. It’s a rat. There are cases of black plague going around. It’s a rat. I don’t know where it’s been. It’s a damn rat, Betty! I’m not eating it!”

She shook her head, still holding the rat up to me. “I know what plague rats smell and taste like. I’d never feed you one of those! These are perfectly healthy, untainted rats. Good!” She held one up to her mouth, and I covered my eyes. There was a crunching sound. “Mmmm! The heads are the best part!” Her words were muffled by a mouthful of something. I groaned softly.

“I’m sorry I didn’t get the salmon yesterday. The price had gone up! It was expensive! But I got some this evening on my way back, alright? Just please, never eat a rat in front of me again!” The sound was going to be a key feature in my nightmares for a long time. She giggled, and I opened my eyes. She was holding the clearly un-eaten rat, and a large, partially chewed walnut was visible between her teeth. I glared daggers at her. “Clean those up. And remember to use the blue trash-bags for organic stuff.” I gagged, and walked into the bathroom. If I’d eaten lunch, I probably would’ve been heartily sick. As it was, I just lay with my head on the cold porcelain of the toilet until I felt better.

When I made my way into the kitchen, Betty was sitting on the counter, tail flicking back and forth. “How was your day at work?” she asked, smiling cheerfully, her eyes fixed on the package I had left on the counter.

“You know, I’m perfectly aware you’re just asking to be polite, and you really want that salmon right now.”

“Heheh, yeah, bosses can be such a pain.”

“You’re not paying attention to me at all, are you.”

“Well, you know, you’re a valuable employee!”

I sighed. Funnily enough, what she said made me feel better, even if it was completely detached from reality. I began preparing the slender salmon filets, and Betty slipped a twenty onto the counter. “You know, the only reason I accept these is because I don’t know who to return them to, and it would be illegal to destroy them.”

“Yes, I’ve heard your justifications! Salmon salmon salmon,” she sang, smiling, her eyes fixed on the meat, her tail beginning to flicker back and forth, agitated. I popped it into the oven, alongside a large potato. “So, did you end up showing that disc to the police like you said?”

“Yeah. I met the same woman who interviewed me the night we met. She told me that if I shared it with people, it would just make them scared, and panic them, because they can’t do anything about it.” I frowned down at the oven. “She might be right, too.”

“So strange. You know, in the old days, part of the duties of my human was to announce when I was going to be taking on a new threat. They would go to the city forum, and shout it to the heavens, as I prepared to battle dark things. And when I defeated them, everyone in the city would know that I was there, protecting them! They weren’t scared at all by rumors of monsters in the dark.” She gave a bright grin. “Because they had their own monster out there, protecting them. Why would these watchmen be frightened of people knowing the truth?”

“I guess that they’re a bit less confident that they can succeed. And maybe people trust their protectors a bit less, nowadays. I think she’s right, at least partially. If people knew that there were dark things out there…” I shook my head “The good guys don’t always win. You know? If people knew how close things were to falling apart, how would they be able to keep living their lives? Knowing that at any moment, everything might end.” I leaned forward. My head felt suddenly very heavy, and I could barely stand under the weight of it. Then I felt Betty’s hand resting on my shoulder, nails digging reassuringly into my shoulder. My mood lightened, even as I winced.

“Ah, the silly things humans worry about. Perhaps the world will end. Perhaps it won’t. If you live your life fearing the consequences of your actions, then how can you act?” She smiled, and pressed her face against my neck, purring loudly as she rubbed her cheek against me. “What’s important is that in a few minutes, there will be salmon, and if you’re smart and clever, there will be salmon tomorrow, too. And you will know that I am strong, and the world is not so dark a place as you may fear. Now, I’m pretty sure that salmon is ready.”

“It’s only been in there for about three minutes.”

“Oh, come on!” She protested, frowning, and gave my neck a gentle bite.

“You can bite me all you like, but it’s not going to make the fish cook any faster.”

A few minutes later, the two of us sat in the living room, on the couch. She had her arms crossed under her head, her mouth open, as she lay with her head in my lap. I fed her morsels of the salmon, and she purred loudly. And I thought about what my uncle had said. She was kind, and capricious, and careless, and protective. She’d saved my life twice now, and she had protected me, and she was attractive enough that life around her was a kind of enjoyable hell. “Betty… Have you ever killed people? Humans, I mean.”

She was quiet for a few moments. “Horace, the Deal was to protect two things. My human, and humanity, as a whole. If it meant protecting you, or one of my priests, or humanity, then yes, I would kill a human. And I have. Some people aren’t good. Some people, well. They need to die.” I stared down at my food. I didn’t feel very hungry, all of a sudden. I pushed the salmon filet around the plate slowly, feeling a little gnawing sense of worry. “Hey, are you going to eat that?” She asked, smiling. I cut off a section of the salmon, and held it up for her. She gently nipped it from out between my fingers, and purred loudly.

“Did you ever know-” She bolted upright, staring at the walls, her ears lifted, her tail standing straight up. I listened, and in the silence, I could hear a soft scratching. She disappeared into the bathroom. “My father.” I finished lamely. I sighed, and walked to the kitchen to clean up. I could hear the distant sound of squeaking in the walls. Then, it was cut off abruptly. It was good to know that Betty was on the job. I made my way to the bedroom, and lay down. I woke up a few times in the night, to find Betty curled up next to me, her arms around my shoulders, purring loudly as she licked and groomed my hair. It made me quite happy until I thought about where her mouth had been.

The next morning, she was gone again. I didn’t see any sign of Harold as I went down the street to the subway station. The air conditioning wasn’t working on the subway, and I sweated clean through my shirt. I needed to get one of those bike rentals, but they still hadn’t made their way up to where I lived. Work helped, a bit. Uncle Horace kept the office at a brisk sixty degrees during the summer. Too cold to be comfortable for most people, but it certainly kept everyone alert and awake.

“Did you hear? One of the Turtle Bay Twelve died in the hospital last night.”

“Really? Damn. This strike’s been going on for days now, what the heck are they hoping to accomplish? It was a fluke, getting the plague like that.”

“Apparently, they want the city to hire exterminators. The rat problem has been getting really out of hand. And if there’s bubonic plague… Well, it can be really dangerous.”

“Yeah, but with the sanitation workers striking, the trash is just piling up. That has to be a part of the problem.”

I stood in the copy room, organizing the files for the discovery process of one of the firm’s cases. The two interns were talking softly on the other side of the room as they worked on their boxes, but I could hear what they were saying. The memory of Harold’s face came back to me, and my stomach twisted. It was a good old-fashioned fuckup. People accidentally hurting each other through their actions, causing a public health crisis. There was nothing supernatural about the situation, just plain old human frailty.

I paused, and examined that thought for a moment, trying to figure out whether that made sense. Of course, it was odd, even unusual that there were so many rats around, but it didn’t necessarily mean that it had to be supernatural. I briefly wondered whether denying the supernatural nature of an event would guarantee it was supernatural, but life didn’t work that way.

“Horace.” The three of us went stiff. Randall was standing in the doorway. “My office. A word. You two. Have this finished by the time I’m done with him, or you’re going to be getting a black spot on your records.”

As the two of us walked out, I hazarded a question. “Did you mean a black mark?”

“No. I will hire pirates to kill them if they’re not finished by the time you’re done. Keeps them focused.” The two of us entered the office. I frowned. On the far wall, where there was usually a shelf full of legal texts, sat a massive, empty glass terrarium, lit from within. Then, something massive, scaled, smooth to the touch, and incredibly heavy fell on my shoulders.

I screamed, but in a very rugged and manly way, with no tones of little girl in it at all. Randall stood over me, frowning, as the massive albino-scaled snake loosely coiled itself around my shoulders. It had to be nearly thirty feet long, and it weighed enough to easily pin me down on the ground, on my back. I went very still. “So, you got out of your cage, you rascal? Someone must smell something he likes!” The old man grinned. “You been around rats lately, boy?”

“Sir, please don’t let your snake strangle and eat me.” The serpent coiled a bit tighter, although it was far from bonecrushing. Its tongue flickered out at my face, and it gave me a look that might have been cute had it not been attached to a predator that could effortlessly crush me into a fine jelly and devour me whole.

“Oh, he’s not interested in eating you. He doesn’t eat people.” Randall grinned. “Not anymore, anyway.” He reached into a drawer, and withdrew a large white rat. He tossed it into the air, and the python lunged upwards, snapping the rat down with two large gulps. It slithered off of me, and returned towards its cage, coiling up the bookshelf with surprising strength, and back into the large tank. Seeing it from a safe distance, it was a beautiful creature, cream and yellow scales shining under the heat lamps. “I’ve moved him here for now. Didn’t want him getting up to mischief while I spent long hours at the office.”

I took a seat at one of the chairs, shaking slightly, and swallowed. “Is that legal?”

“Not particularly.” The old man took a seat at the desk. “A few people have complained, of course. But I have a native wild-life rehabilitation license.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“It’s amazing how useful it can be.” Randall leaned back in his chair. “There are exceptions to every law. And I have something rather important to share with you. About your father, and I.” He tented his fingers together, frowning. “We used to be quite at odds with one another, you know. Brotherly rivalry. But the two of us fell in with…” He sighed. “It’s hard to describe. Somewhere between a cult, a country club, and a museum. We were chosen because of our spirit.” He smiled. “We saw strange things in those days. Monsters. And we slew them.” He looked up sharply. “Remember that. With monsters, it’s never ‘kill’, and certainly not ‘murder’. It’s a slaying. They’re not people, even if they act like it.” He was meandering.

“Uncle… Why are you telling me this?”

He was quiet for a few seconds. “It used to be so much more peaceful. I thought the dark things were all gone, that there was no more room for them in the world, that they’d been thrown back. Even with the order dying, I thought, perhaps, that there was no longer a need for it.” He leaned forward, tenting his fingers together, his thumbs flicking back and forth. “I was wrong. There may be a day, soon, when I will need your help. I will need to call on you, and ask you to believe in impossible things, and to help me. There is a great tide sweeping towards us. And I cannot handle it without your help, Oliver.” I froze.

“I’m… Uncle, it’s me, Horace. Not my father.” He started slightly, his eyes widening. Then he waved a hand, his face going hard.

“Yes. Sorry, just a bit of overwork. I suspect that I’ve been… Yes.” He shook his head. “I just need to know. When the moment comes, will you be willing to stand by my side, so that we can protect people? Will you do that for me?”

“Of course, uncle.”

“Good. Good,” he muttered to himself. “You know, I don’t test people because I hate them. Or because I want them to fail. I test them because… It is important to know how people will react when they are tested. Steel stands strong, but iron shatters. And when iron shatters, it can kill good men.” He looked down at the desk, frowning, and then looked up. “Return to your duties. I’ll tell you more at a later time.” I nodded, and stood up. “One more thing, boy. That woman. The one in the video.” I paused. “Have you seen her?”

“No, uncle.”

He nodded with satisfaction. “Good. If you do, stay away from her. If you see her again… Be certain that you tell me about her. I will do everything that I can to keep you safe, my boy, but I will need you to trust in my judgment.”

“… Who is she?”

My uncle snorted. “She’s a monster from out of the night, Horace. She’s a dark old thing that should have stayed buried, just like the rest. That’s all you need to know about her. Trust me, the less you know in this world, the safer you are. Knowledge begets power, power begets responsibility, and there are some things that no one can bear the responsibility for.”

I walked out of the office, and made my way to the copier room. The two interns looked up, eyes wide. There was still a couple of boxes unsorted. “Don’t worry.” I smiled, in response to their terrified expressions. “He was just kidding with you.” And I quickly helped them sort the files, before anyone checked on us. You never really knew if the old man was joking or not.

 

Chapter 5: Daned if you Do

I sat at the computer, looking down at my badge. Sergeant Dane Larson. I’d been so proud when I’d made sergeant. Just like Dad had always dreamed. He’d been there at the ceremony. He’d died a few years later, in the line of duty. Then my hand strayed down to my stomach. The cuts were long-healed, but I still winced when I touched them. A phantom of the pain that had ripped through me when that creature had gutted me like a fish. I swore I’d never let something like that happen to one of the officers under my command. Not when I could still do something about it.

The commissioner had asked me-personally, as a favor, to check out the break-in at Creed LLC. I’d thought it was because there was something important there. When the elder Creed had walked in, swinging his balls- pardon my french- like he owned the place, I’d been half tempted to write him right there. The commissioner and the district attorney had both told me to pack it in, and in I packed it. And now, here was the lesser Creed, telling me that he knew something about the supernatural, by way of his uncle. Which means the old… schmuck had probably had an inkling of what was going on. And was trying to keep me out of it.

I turned over to the small stack of books I kept in one of the large file cabinets, and picked one out. The kid had said something about ‘Ateroleum’. My Latin was almost rusty enough to be a historical artifact, but the name rang a bell. I pulled out the eleventh volume of Pliny’s Natural History.

Pliny had been a Roman philosopher and naturalist type, who had died because of toxic gas released by Mount Vesuvius. Embarrassing death aside, the man had put together what was functionally an encyclopedia of all contemporary knowledge of the Roman Empire at the time. There were ten volumes in the standard set, ranging on subjects from astronomy, through anthropology, to zoology. Everything worth knowing from the time period. The volume I held in my hands now was not on the official table of contents.

Most scholars who’d written about it said that it was fake, a cunning fraud, meant to bilk the unwary and the gullible. I saw my share of hoaxes, and might have written it off for the same reasons. Except, of course, for the picture that featured on its cover.

I ran my fingers across the cover. The long-clawed rat thing. Something added by the translator, it was one of a number of hand-sketched illustrations of creatures described therein. I’d bought it, and it had brought, if not genuine enlightenment, at least a bit more understanding about the things that I fought out there. The biggest part of the Watch was preparation, after all. I flipped the book open, and scanned through the pages. Soon, I’d found it. It was another illustration, this one black, and almost bird-like in its shape. Two large, yellow eyes, slitted like a cat’s. Pliny had written at length about them.

The creature called Ateroleum, so named because it bears a smell akin to burned olive oil, is a parasite of sorts. It was discovered in the great sewer tunnels of the city of Rome, and spreading itself among the community there. It shuns the touch of light, and fire is its bane. The creature spread out, consuming lives, and nearly ten score men were taken by it as it grew, until it was destroyed by a greater monster.

With its oil, it made thralls out of living men, mummifying them and replacing the blood in their veins with its own oil. Once the creature was destroyed, its thralls became strange and maddened. Some tried to kill those who had felled it, some tried to return to their lives. All of them were dangerous, and the better part of a cohort were injured or killed in the putting down of these creatures. The Ateroleum’s thralls had the strength of oxen, and skin that repelled the finest iron cudgels.

I put down the book, frowning as I leaned back in my chair. That was a lot of dead and injured men. In the six months since I’d started the Neighborhood Watch, we’d had maybe half a dozen encounters with strange things. Usually, we only had the barest idea of what we were dealing with, mostly from folklore or questionable sources. Things like the eleventh volume of Pliny’s Natural History, Monstrum.

And sometimes, it paid off. Like those kidnappers who’d gone into screaming conniption fits when they’d been pinned in iron cuffs, and who’d agreed to return the children they’d stolen in exchange for their freedom. Notably, they had not negotiated how, precisely, their freedom would be granted. I’d settled for cutting off their hands. It was better than they deserved. They seemed to agree.

Sometimes, though, there just wasn’t much information. Sometimes we weren’t fast enough. Sometimes things went wrong. There’d been six of us when we’d started. Even with the new recruit we’d taken on a couple of months back, we were down to four people. It would have to be enough. Things were going mad in the city. If these things were going to try to cause trouble, they weren’t going to get away with it easily.

I rubbed my hands together, and sat up, heading down to the range. There was something calming about it. Standing in the booth, the cool grip of the M4 in my hands, the heavy ear-protectors over my head, I stared down the line at the target. I took slow, steady breaths, letting my heartbeat calm. This was what I could do. I pulled back slowly on the trigger. There was a buck, and a smell of cordite in the air. All of it as it should be, action and reaction. Even if I couldn’t change the world, I could make a small part of it cleaner.

The vision of my own insides joyfully leaping into the fresh air and the smell of the rat made it hard to focus, though. I pushed the thoughts of trauma out of my head, and squeezed off another shot. It had been nearly a month since we’d last gone out on a hunt, after Pauly had lost his nerve when he saw something down in the sewers. The rest of us hadn’t caught a glimpse of it, but he’d gone white, and started screaming about eyes. He was still on psychological leave. It wasn’t the most encouraging outing we’d ever had. Still not the worst, though.

After half an hour and a box of ammunition, I decided that I would be prepared in case of an attack by sapient paper target people. I carefully unloaded the weapon, returning it. I took a few minutes to wash my hands in the sink, letting the hot water clean away the gunsmoke and the grease. Another quiet bit of ritual. I walked up the stairs, and stepped up to the desk sergeant, giving him a broad cheerful smile. “Hey, Gary. Anything unusual happening in the city today?”

“Oh, yeah, Larson. You’re going to fucking love this one.” The desk sergeant leaned back, an old gray-haired man with a grin a mile wide and a warm demeanor. “So, about half an hour, a guy in the meatpacking district called. Said he was jogging home from the grocery store, and a gorilla grabbed his dinner and ran off. How’s that for comical? I sent a couple of patrol officers down to check out the area, but they weren’t seeing anything. Guy sounded pretty drunk to me.” I smiled, even as I felt a cold little knot in my stomach. “What do you think? Neighborhood Watch going to be going after Koko?”

“Maybe.” I frowned. “Mind keeping me in the loop if you get any other strange reports from that area?”

“No problem, Larson. Have a good weekend, alright? Don’t spend the whole time traipsing around warehouses.” The old man gave me a grin.

The Neighborhood Watch met at John’s place. Technically speaking, it was an apartment, and accurately speaking, it was a basement. The four of us were gathered around his kitchen table, the pale light of the street lights illuminating the sidewalk outside. He had the room lit by a single overhead light. It always made me feel like someone was about to pull out a revolver with a single round, and place it on the table. We were to figure out what we were hunting tonight.

“Alright, boys.” I sat down at the table, a cigarette in hand. John, an older man with pale skin and a pair of shoulders like a bear, had a hard cider. I took it out of his hand. “No drinking. We’re going out tonight.” Marco sat in the corner, the young rookie disassembling the fancy combat shotgun he had brought, and carefully cleaning the bore.

“What we hunting tonight?” Hector asked, the dark-skinned man sitting back in one of the chairs. He had it balanced it on one leg as he moved his hips a little bit, keeping it upright through sheer bloody-minded equilibrium. “We’re not going after those rats, are we? They’re fucking nasty. Cousin of mine had to be hospitalized with plague. He was working for the city to try to do some extermination. Who the fuck even gets plague nowadays?”

“There’s that crazy girl who pickpocketed me,” John suggested. “I mean, I don’t know if she was a monster, technically, but we could at least track her down and give her a stern talking to, right?”

“I’ve been reading up a bit on something. Ateroleum ‘thralls’.”

Marco frowned. “What the heck is that? Sounds Italian.”

“Close. Roman. Means something like… ‘Dark oil.’”

“What, like, gasoline?”

“More like ‘nightmare fuel’.” John volunteered. I sighed.

“Thank you, John. That was very helpful. Etymology aside, they’re some kind of parasite. They take people over. Apparently, the Ateroleum thing itself got killed off by… Some guy’s cat.” The entire table went quiet, as the others stared at me, trying to judge if I had lost my mind. If anyone asked me, the answer was ‘yes’. “Look, that’s what he told me. Maybe he’s schizoid, but he suggested that at least one of its thralls got away. Somebody’s corpse, walking around, going crazy. And we need to put it down before it hurts someone.”

Marco nodded. “What do we know about the thing?”

“It’s vaguely human. Looks a bit like someone got dunked in a vat of oil. They’re very strong, and very tough, but supposedly, they’re vulnerable to light, and fire.” Marco brightened up. “Oh, Jesus, Marco, please tell me that you didn’t-”

He proudly proffered a large box. Inside were twenty-five shotgun shells, each a brilliant orange above the firing cap. “They just arrived yesterday. Fate, I’m telling you!” Dragon’s breath shotgun shells. The rookie had been excited about them for weeks. “Come on, tell me you don’t want to see a torrent of magnesium devouring some crazy-ass monster thing.”

“That would be pretty awesome, Larson.” John said, his voice as calm and neutral as only a man working my last nerve could manage.

“In an abandoned warehouse. In the middle of the meatpacking district. Where fires could so easily spread and devastate.”

“Ah! Got you covered.” Marco reached down into his duffel bag, and took out a large fire extinguisher, with a shoulder strap. John grinned.

“Hmmm. If we could corner the thing… I bring the riot shield forward, pin it back, harry it, until it’s in a narrow corner, Marco moves forward, unloads on it…”

“Hmm. Warehouse quarters aren’t the best for a rifle-man. I might need to take some time to find a good perch. We track the thing down, I’ll get into position, and when I see the fire, I land a few shots. Or I could come in with the rifle…” Hector continued, as I stood up, and moved over to the fridge. I pulled out a bowl of pasta, and reheated it in the microwave as the three traded ideas for maneuvers. It was the usual discussion. Once we were in the thick of it, plans would fall apart. Backup measures would fail, clever ideas would turn out to be not nearly clever enough. It was the truism of all combat that planning was mostly a farce. But it made them feel better. Hell, it made me feel better. Maybe if we were really damn clever, we’d think of everything before-hand.

John slid open the silverware drawer, and took out a massive machete. Eighteen inches long, thick steel, honed to a razor’s edge, he sat down with it. “Oh, for god’s sakes, John.” I shook my head. “You’re not a goddamn Colombian cartel killer.”

“Hey!” Marco said, though he seemed more amused than offended. I had no idea where he was from, but I’m pretty sure it was Staten Island, so I ignored him as John chuckled.

“Hey, you said this thing’s strong, and we need someone to keep it off of the rest of us. I’ll bring the riot shield, we’ll pin it back, leave it open for a shot. We’ll be back in time for a really late night drink.” John smiled. “Let’s get going.”

The four of us piled into the large Land Rover, our gear stowed in the back. We wouldn’t be in legal trouble if someone found it. New York assault weapons bans didn’t apply to the police, even off duty. It would be damned awkward, though. I checked my phone as we drove into the meatpacking district. “Two more calls. Both from people who saw something moving around in… The Department of Sanitation building. Shit. Pardon my french.” The four of us drove into the small driveway, just off the freeway around the city, just on the edge of the Hudson river.

The building had brick fronting. Eight windows faced out onto the street, dingy and grimy. Two of them were visibly broken open. Paul took the lead, Marco just behind him. Hector and I were carrying M4s, the safeties on. Tactical flashlights were clipped to the barrels of our weapons, three points of light illuminating the face of the building. The lights were off. “Man. I cannot believe we have to fight monsters in a garbage truck depot. What happened to the hot vampire chicks in clubs?” Marco growled, as he stepped forward.

This was the first time he’d gone out with us on one of these little hunting expeditions. He’d joined up with the Neighborhood Watch after he’d been attacked by something that had come through a mirror at him during a domestic disturbance call. He was eager, and he was a bit too much of an action-movie fan for my tastes. Nonetheless, the rookie was enthusiastic, and had a good heart, more or less, even if he occupied most of it with Soldier of Fortune back issues.

“Two downsides to a place like that.” Hector checked behind us as he spoke. “First of all, it’s not fun to shoot hot girls. Unless you’re a lot more messed up than we think. And second, it’s not fun to try to shoot monsters who are surrounded by panicky, intoxicated civilians.” He never told us what he’d seen that made him believe in the supernatural. He did get very nervous the one time we found a black cockerel nesting in an old abandoned apartment, though. I’d wondered about that a lot.

“Oh, man, yeah. House of the Dead style, right?” The three of us stopped to stare at Marco. “God damn, how old are you all?”

“Old enough that I can pretend not to understand what you’re saying.” John murmured, a grin on his face as he held the machete up, the large plastic riot shield transparent and providing a good view of the rest of the hallway. He was the oldest. He’d been on the same call as me when I’d been gutted by that rat-thing. He was the person on the squad that hadn’t gotten his head pulled off.

He stopped abruptly, holding up a hand. The three of us flicked on our lights, directing them forward. In the darkness, a squat, broad-shouldered figure was lifting cans out of a waste bin. It looked up at us, two bright yellow eyes flickering. The room was a large office, with several ancient looking computers, and a large drink machine pressed up against one wall. It was surprisingly clean.

“Recyclables. Separate.” It grunted, its voice low, grating, dull. It turned back towards the can. “You. Cut links. On six-packs?” The four of us exchanged glances. We had rather lost the initiative.

“It sounds intelligent, Larson.” John whispered. The creature had returned to sorting the cans, placing them in a small plastic bag at its side. Thick black slime was dripping across everything it touched, stinking of burnt coffee. “What do we do? I don’t think we can arrest this thing.”

“From what I read, it’s just the lingering fragments of brain activity. The guy this thing was is dead. The most we can do for him now is…”

The creature’s head turned up. “Reduce! Reuse! RECYCLE!” It bellowed. With a sudden, brutal rage, it charged us. It moved in a lumbering gait, its arms out, and ran directly into John’s shield as the man lowered his shoulder and braced himself. He used to play football, I remembered. He met the creature with a low stance, and still slid back nearly a foot, his boots squealing on the ground as the creature plowed into him. The three of us piled in behind John, helping him to force it back through the doorway, and into the open room. It was incredibly strong, and the stink of burnt coffee filled the air as it gurgled and cried with rage.

Once we got it into the room, John gave a final shove, sending it stumbling back. Hector and I flicked the safeties on our weapons, and fired. In the cramped conditions of the corridor, the sound was deafening, leaving our ears ringing, but there wasn’t much choice. Half a dozen rounds slammed into the oil with a sound like mud being churned with an eggbeater. The creature didn’t move, letting out another savage growl, and began to advance. We raised our aim, and fired again. This time, half a dozen shots rang out. Ripples passed through the creature’s head, and its eyes jiggled disturbingly, making my stomach heave. We landed each shot in its head, and they didn’t even faze the thrall.

John roared, and slammed into it full tilt, sending the creature reeling backwards. He stepped smartly to the side, and Marco stepped forward, lifting his shotgun as he slotted one of the orange shells in. A spray of brilliant white light filled the room, leaving dancing blue lines on my vision as the torrent of flame caught the thing full in the chest. It let out a horrific shrieking noise, as a large amount of black gas filled the air. The ringing in my ears cleared just long enough to hear Hector pump the shotgun, the shell popping out. The creature stumbled back, as the thick smoke filled the air around it.

John’s eyes widened as he took a breath, and a globular fist slammed into the plastic shield, cracking it in half. The big man was sent spinning across the ground, his machete skimming over the ground, coming to a rest at my feet. His eyes were wide, and he began screaming. It was a uniquely unpleasant noise, full of raw terror, the kind of scream that said the person making the sound had no dignity or concept of restraint left.

Hector fired another series of rounds into the thrall, and it didn’t show any sign of being inconvenienced. Marco fired a second round, and another swirling cloud of black gas surrounded the thrall. Then, it swung out, grabbing the shotgun, and ripping it out of Marco’s hands. He dropped to the ground, clutching his hand, his index finger at an unpleasant angle. It must have been caught in the trigger guard.

Hector was shouting something at me. I couldn’t hear him. He was reloading, and the creature was advancing on John, the shotgun raised like an impromptu club. I looked down, and saw the machete. I grabbed it by the rough handle, and charged forward. I took a deep breath as I approached the cloud of black gas, closed my mouth and my eyes, and thrust into the darkness. There was a wet feeling around my fingers, as though I’d just plunged them into a bowl of hot jelly. When I opened my eyes, the thick oil was slowly dripping away, leaving some poor bastard’s mummified body behind.

Marco was cursing, holding his hand, his eyes watering, and John was staring, wide-eyed, up at the ceiling. I waved a hand in front of his eyes. “John? Come on, old man, you’re still with me, right?” He was breathing hard, his cheeks puffing in and out, not responding. I felt for his neck. His pulse was erratic, but there. I looked over at Hector. “So, what do you think the odds are that we’re going to be able to get out of here before someone starts asking questions?”

Bright red and blue lights began to flash through the window. “Pretty remote.” Hector stated. I put the machete down, unslinging the gun, and raising my hands, as he did the same. “You bring a white under-shirt?” He nodded, and stripped off his top, handing me the shirt underneath. I walked carefully to the door, and opened it, swinging the shirt. “We surrender!”

The half dozen officers entered the building with their sidearms drawn. I showed the senior officer my badge. “Neighborhood Watch, sir.”

He whistled softly. “Seriously? I’ve spent the last six months thinking that the lieutenant was playing some kind of extremely strange prank on me. You guys seriously…?”

“Yes.”

“And so that guy…?”

“Is what remains of some poor bastard who got attacked by something horrible.” I looked down at the body. No signs of bullet-wounds. Damn thing might have been bulletproof with that thick tar around it. The body was desiccated, like every drop of moisture had been pulled out of it. Veins and arteries bulged like cables, and the only visible wounds were some burn marks around the chest, and a very distinct hole where the machete had pushed through its stomach. I was going to owe John an apology, if and when he recovered. “Sorry we didn’t get in and out quickly enough to save you all a bit of paperwork.”

“Christ.” He shook his head. “So… Does this mean I qualify? Like…” He lowered his voice. “I can join the Neighborhood Watch?”

I looked down at the two men. Friends of mine. One with his hand moderately mangled, the other with a cracked rib and still not responding even as a paramedic tended to him. One of the police officers was using the fire extinguisher to put out the small fire that had been lit by a stray trail of magnesium. “I couldn’t stop you if I wanted to.” I murmured softly.

I awoke, the next morning, with an angry phone-call from the commissioner on my phone about the people breathing down his neck about what had happened. I drank vodka heavily, and woke up two or three more times before it finally stuck at about five in the afternoon. Then, I took out the card. Marco was in a cast. Hector was still shaken. And John was still unresponsive.

I’d told the kid, Horace, that I was a professional. It was bullshit. I was in the dark about these things. Maybe even more than he was. I needed to find out how he knew what he knew, so that this never happened again. I took out the phone, and dialed. It rang three or four times, before picking up. “Hello?” The kid had a kind voice over the phone, I realized. I’d been in a bad mood the last couple of times I’d talked with him, and looking him in the eye had made it worse. This, though, was a different case.

“Creed? It’s Larson. I…” I swallowed, looking down at the bottle. My voice was raspy and dry, and slightly slurred. “I think I might be able to do with that dinner you mentioned.”

By the time I was on the subway, a truly magnificent headache was blooming. By the time I’d made it to his apartment, I was in the mood to be incredibly… foul towards someone. The door opened, and I was greeted with the smell of chicken, potatoes, and other things that I couldn’t identify, but wanted to get to know better. I found myself face to face with a young black woman, wearing nothing but a T-shirt, and a pair of cat-ears. “Oh, you must be that human.” She said, leaning in the doorway, blocking my way in. Horace stepped behind her, and gently pinched the back of her neck. She let out a protesting noise as he gently eased her out of the way.

“What have I told you about answering the door?”

“That it’s… polite?” she asked, frowning as she gave me another look. Bright green eyes sparkled as she studied me with an unnervingly bright expression.

Horace turned towards me, with a long-suffering look on his face. He managed, through some strange alchemy, to turn it into a bright smile for me. “It’s great to have you here, Dane. What made you change your mind?”

I stepped into the room, and closed the door. Then, I began to tell the story. He watched, his expression going from surprised, to concerned, to horrified. And then, the black girl started laughing, a grin on her lips. “What in the hell is wrong with you?” I asked, hissing, my eyes narrowed at the girl. “Two of my friends, people I’m responsible for, are badly injured. What in the name of god could you possibly be finding funny?!” I asked, advancing on her, feeling the sudden, overwhelming desire to express myself with violence instead of words. She stood up, grinning, and I stopped, feeling a sudden wave of uncertainty that was both unfamiliar and unpleasant.

“You used fire on one of the Ateroleum’s thralls. That’s hilarious. Fire just ignites the dark stuff on them. It can mess humans up pretty badly. That’s probably why your friend is unconscious. Fire is their bane, after all. But the really funny thing is…” She grinned, and leaned forward. “You actually beat it. That’s pretty impressive, for a human!”

I frowned. “Two of my squad were injured. I don’t feel impressive.” I sighed, and Horace gently patted my shoulder.

“You killed one of those things. You know what happened both times I got cornered by one of those things? I screamed and got saved. By my cat.” The girl waved, smiling. It was a nicer smile than it had been before.

“I am Queen Betty. And I am also a goddess, as well as being a cat. It is my duty to fight to protect people. And I want you to know that, for a human, you did surprisingly well.” She leaned back on the couch, purring. “You are not, apparently, an entirely incompetent individual. Maybe I will even give you my blessing in your future endeavors.” She grinned. “You know, it took a full squad of ten Roman soldiers to bring down one of the thralls in the past. And they would consider all of them being alive to be a clear sign that the gods had favored them.” She licked her fingers, a curiously feline motion. It somehow clarified the fact of the matter. She wasn’t human.

Horace walked in, carrying three plates. Large slices of roast chicken steamed, basted in some sweet marinade. Large baked potatoes sat stuffed to the gills with cheese and sour cream, and the artery-clogging scent of crumbled bacon. I dug in, and found myself weeping tears of relief, to my extreme embarrassment. I could feel an intensely tight knot in my stomach coming undone, as I began to breathe again. Queen Betty picked at the meal with a look of mild annoyance as she ate daintily. “Aaah. Too hot.” She tsked, frowning. “I like my chicken nice and rare!”

“Sorry, Betty.” Horace apologized, smiling. “It has to be thoroughly cooked or we might die, and then, no more chicken.”

“She’s really a goddess?” I asked softly, staring down at my food.

“She’s… something.” Horace admitted, as he scraped up some of the juice dripping off of the chicken, and poured it onto his potato. I noticed he had the smallest portion.

“I don’t really believe in gods. Or goddesses. There are strange things out there, but they’re not… magical. Unexplainable. There has to be a reason for them.” I looked up, staring at her defiantly. There weren’t many people who could meet my gaze when I wanted to get into it. But as of late, I was running into an awful lot of them. Queen Betty just stared back, her green eyes glittering wildly.

“It doesn’t matter whether you believe in me or not.” She purred. “Because the important thing is, I believe in you. A human who has taken up the sword against the things in the darkness-”

“Machete, actually.”

Betty continued, apparently not fazed by my droll comment. “A human who has taken up any form of weapon against the darkness cannot easily give up their position there. Once you begin to prod the darkness, it knows you. It would be safer for you to continue to fight, and stay sharp, than to attempt to leave the fighting to others, and find yourself attacked in the rear.”

“I don’t… think that’s the right phrasing, Betty.” Horace said, smiling apologetically. “How did you find the thing, anyway?”

I shrugged. “A lot of weird calls come into the NYPD. But you start to see a pattern in some of them. Weird enough to get dismissed as a prank, or someone who’s drunk, but clearly speaking to something deeper going on. I just heard a bunch of reports of food being stolen in the area, and a strange, dark assailant. Horrible things usually try to keep what they’re doing quiet, but it’s hard to do anything very secretly in this large a city. And even if it’s not actual evidence…”

Horace looked over at Betty. She had stood up, and gone to the kitchen. He leaned closer. “Look. I think that you have some skills that Betty badly needs. You know how to do research, you’re apparently good enough that you were able to take out something that kills humans regularly, and you can help her find things.” He looked over his shoulder again. “I’m worried about her. She gets in over her head. It would mean a lot to me if you could help us out. At least help her out.”

“I don’t… know, if I could fight something like that again. It was close. Way too close for comfort.”

He smiled back at me. “Well, maybe the rest, then. Research, tracking things down, helping Betty. Then she can take care of the actual fighting part. Leave it to the professionals, right?”

I frowned. “That stung.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Good food, though. Mind if I come around here again some time?”

“Sure. But next time you have to kick in some cash for dinner. This stuff isn’t cheap.”

I smiled.

And the next day, when I dug out the copy of Pliny’s natural history, I searched for another entry.

Of the goddess, protector of cities and man, I say little, but this: That she goes where death goes, and when she leaves a land, it is decimated.

 

Chapter 6: Horace Throat

I woke up, and Queen Betty wasn’t beside me. This wasn’t entirely unusual, as she was probably enjoying hunting rats at the moment. I yawned softly, and stretched out on the bed. I opened my eyes, and nearly screamed. Betty was crouched over me, in such a way that she wasn’t quite touching. Her green eyes were bright and shining, and way too close. She was breathing so softly that I hadn’t even felt it against my skin. “Oh, good! You’re awake, Horace!” She smiled sweetly. “Breakfast time!” I peered sideways. The clock read 5:30 AM. I considered protesting, and thought better of it.

Half an hour later, Betty was snoring on the couch. It was Sunday. I had promised Harold that I would come by the church later that day, but for the moment, I could take some time to relax. I sat down next to Betty, and opened up my laptop. As it booted up, I reached over to gently scratch behind Betty’s ears. She rewarded this with a soft purring noise, her notched ear flicking lightly as she rolled onto her back, leaning up against me. I thought briefly of how long it had been since I’d had a steady girlfriend, and felt a little bit embarrassed with myself. She was a cat, after all. Sure, a cat who was as intelligent as a human, and who looked like a human most of the time, but it was probably a blasphemy of some sort to hit on a goddess. Men got turned into stags for that kind of thing.

The computer booted up sluggishly, and I started surfing the web to learn more about the church. They didn’t have an entry on Wikipedia, but there were a number of news articles on them. The Church of the Survivor. They appeared to be a Christian sect, founded some time around the turn of the millennium, based on the belief that the apocalypse was coming. A lot of weird beliefs about needing to change to suit the times. Apparently, they’d been a fairly small organization until recently. Now, a lot of money was coming in from anonymous donations, and the church’s status as a tax-free organization had been put in question.

At this point in my search, Betty climbed onto my lap, draping her arms around my shoulders. Her face was held in the direct path of the computer, purring loudly. “You stopped scratching me.” She smiled sweetly as she pressed up against me. She was always surprisingly heavy, lean muscle shifting like steel cables under her soft skin. I could smell her fur as she stared at my eyes, getting quite intimate. “What could possibly be so important that you’d stop paying attention to me?”

“I’m just reading up on a church I’m going to today. I’m curious about them, they’ve apparently been helping people out with the plague. I don’t suppose you’d know anything about the Church of the Survivor?”

“Oh, yes, absolutely. They’re an apocalypse cult who believe that reality TV is a gateway to a mind-destroying realm of nightmares.” I studied her for a few seconds. Her expression was totally earnest.

“You know, if you don’t know, you can just say so.”

“But then you wouldn’t respect me.” She leaned her head in, resting her face against my neck. I tried very hard to fight certain physiological responses, and failed gloriously. “You know, you always seem to get so flustered when I am in my deific shape. Are you overwhelmed by my majesty? It’s perfectly fine if you are, you know.”

“I… Look, it’s just a bit hard to keep calm. You’re… fairly attractive, and-”

“Oh.” She nodded sagely, a confident look on her face. “You want to mate with me. Well, I’m flattered, of course, but I’m afraid you’re not quite good enough.” I felt a hot flush of embarrassment running across my cheeks, and she grinned, leaning closer. “I am, of course, a goddess, and far beyond the reach of any mortal man, like yourself. I can understand how you would be struck by my glory, however, and I will not begrudge you fantasizing about me while you relieve yourself. I am not cruel, after all.”

“I- I don’t necessarily- You’re a cat! Why do you think I would want to mate with you?!” I said, embarrassingly aware of how much my pride was being wounded. She laughed, showing no sign of offense.

“Come now, Horace. Be serious. We both know the kind of things that you look at on that computer.”

“How could you possibly know that?” I asked, my eyes widening. She gave me an indulgent smile, smirking broadly.

“Oh, yes, the entire folder of catgirl pornography. Of course, it’s no surprise to me, but it is pleasing to see that in these dark days, people still understand how fantastic cats are at everything. I like to watch you sometimes, when you think I’m out of the apartment. It’s fun to see the kind of things you get up to when you think I’m not around.” She laughed softly, stretching out across my lap.

“Betty… Did you ever meet a man named Oliver Creed?”

She frowned. “The name sounds vaguely familiar. I may have. Why?”

I took a deep breath. I had to broach this subject eventually. “He was my father. My uncle said that he met you once, and he… Well, he suggested that you might have…” I swallowed. “Killed him.”

She shrugged. “I don’t remember much when I’m stray. I suppose it’s possible, but if I killed him, I’m sure that I had a good reason for it.” I frowned. “I don’t like killing humans, you know that. If I was responsible for his death, it was because he was doing something dangerous to everyone.”

“I see.” I went quiet, looking off into the distance. Betty licked my hair softly, and ran her fingers through it, pushing it back into place. I gave her a weak little smile.

“I’m sorry, if I did kill him. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to make you unhappy.” I shook my head.

“Forget about it. Whatever happened, happened.” I would have to learn more about this from Randall, before I could think of anything to do about it. I sighed softly, and kept stroking her ears. “Now, do you mind if I keep reading about this?”

She grumbled, and slipped off of my lap, walking towards the bedroom, clearly in a snit. I sat back, and kept reading. Then my eyes caught the legal office that they had employed to represent them. Randall Creed, LLC. I sat back in my chair, frowning softly. It wasn’t entirely odd. My uncle’s firm had, in fact, represented a number of religious organizations in their fights for recognition and acceptance. It was something of a passion of his, although I didn’t entirely understand his motivations. They didn’t pay very well. It was something to file away for later, when I could make some use of it. The church advertised more than half a dozen clinics that it funded across the city, and the one that Harold had mentioned to me was only a few blocks away.

The church’s latest newsletter was a mostly dull read. It roundly condemned the city for failing to deal with the plague-carrying rats. Apparently, the church’s deacon was viewing the plague as a deliberate assault on the homeless of the city, something that the city was allowing to grow worse in order to drive the poverty-stricken away. I sighed, and closed the laptop. It sounded like conspiracy theory garbage to me, but it really wasn’t my business. They were providing free shelter and treatment to the people who needed it.

I got on a light polo shirt and a pair of long pants, something that would hopefully look official. I really hoped I wasn’t going to have to provide sponge-baths to anyone who had weeping sores. My compassion could stretch, but this had not been a great week for me.

“Do you know, they sometimes call the Plague a disease of compassion.” The tall, arch-faced woman walked me through the clinic. It was a squat building, lit by bright incandescent bulbs, shining pure white in the hallways. It gave a very healthy feeling to the building. Dozens of cots were set up in the next room, with individuals lying on them. “Because, of course, it was spread by close contact. This meant that those who tried to tend to the sickened and dying were the most likely to become ill themselves. Families died together, you see.” She smiled. “Doctors attempted to help, and often became sick themselves. Sometimes, the safest way to destroy the plague was to quarantine it, allow it to run its course, and to burn the bodies afterwards.” She stopped, and spun in her heel, facing me. “Do you know what the fatality rate for the untreated is? It averages close to sixty percent.”

I didn’t say anything. It was worse than some strains of Ebola. “What’s the fatality rate for those who are treated?”

“Just ten percent. A mere decimation. Harsh, but a massive change. Imagine that. Your chances of survival going from less than one in two to one in ten. All thanks to the compassion of those who are willing to risk themselves for the sake of others. Compassion is dangerous, but it is never a weakness, Mister Creed.” Her hair was gray, and her features narrow, pinched, and sharp. She looked like an extremely unpleasant woman, but when she spoke, I couldn’t help but appreciate what I heard. “Now, you’re a friend of that kind Mister Harold, yes? He talked about you quite a bit when he was delirious. And if I am not mistaken, you are also the nephew of our kind benefactor, Mister Creed.”

“Yes, on both counts. My uncle never struck me as a very charitable man. I have to admit, I was rather wondering why he was helping you.”

The deacon smiled pleasantly. She was wearing a white robe, and a pair of long latex gloves. A surgical mask hung from her neck, ready to be pulled over her mouth. “I know he can be terribly unpleasant. But I suspect that is simply his way of trying to deal with the world. He, like those of us at the Church of the Survivor, wants to save the world. Perhaps he sees in us a way that he can do so, at least in a small way. There are many people who want to help. Even the rich can find a little salvation if they can put their money to good use.”

I looked down at one of the cots. One of the recovering men lay in it, his features blackened by disease, his nails and nose dark as tar. He was clutching a tiny golden rat pendant hanging from a necklace. “That seems in poor taste.” I suggested, changing the subject. She looked down, and laughed, smiling.

“Oh, it is an unusual belief, but one that some of our people hold. The world is a constant test. Every disaster, every plague, every sickness, is a test by God. It is not a curse, but a blessing. A harsh one, confessedly, but God loves those who can survive. The only way to truly gain his favor is to be tested to the breaking point, and grow stronger. Thus, among some of our patients, there is the belief that this plague was sent by God. Not to destroy us, but to make us stronger.”

“I suppose that explains some of why my uncle believes in you the way he does. But then…” I frowned. “Why would you help them, in that case? Doesn’t that weaken them?”

“Heavens, no. We are not lone wolves. We do not need to face every challenge alone. God sends us a test, but he also sends us those who will help, kind souls. Like myself. And Harold. And, it would seem, you.” She smiled warmly. “God tests men. Priests help men pass tests.”

“That reminds me… You said your title is deacon?” She nodded. “So, is there a priest? I thought deacon was a less-senior title.”

“Ah, yes, in Catholicism and many other forms of Christianity. You know, the word was originally Greek- Diakonos.” She pronounced it flawlessly. “It means quite a few things. Minister, servant, messenger. I like to think that all of those things describe me. Whereas Priest… Well, that just means old.” She gave me a light grin. “Age is not wisdom, despite the beliefs of the aged. Wisdom is not simply accumulated through age. It must be cultivated.”

I shrugged. “Well, I don’t know much on the subject of gods, or titles. But I would like to spend some time helping today.”

She nodded. “I know a little bit about you, from what Harold told us. A man poor in wealth and status, but rich in friends, and in compassion. It is an honorable thing. Of course, we can afford to compensate you. This is dangerous work, and while a good deed is its own reward, one cannot live on them. One hundred dollars for a day of work is our standard pay. Our backers are quite generous, particularly when it is helping to limit the spread of a plague through this city.” She smiled brightly, and waved a hand towards a busy deck where a secretary was assigning workers to duties. “And of course, if you should be so unfortunate as to be infected, we will make sure that you are well taken care of. But of course, there is little chance of that. We take every precaution.”

I nodded, and walked up to the desk. The secretary looked up at me. “Any medical skills?” I shook my head. “Are you competent with a forklift?” I shook my head again. “Alright. We need someone to sponge-bathe people in the wards downstairs.” She picked up a large, soft looking sponge and a bucket of soapy water. “Thanks for helping out!” she said, smiling brightly, as my smile turned waxen.

Downstairs, the rooms were not quite so pleasant. These were the serious cases. The people whose chances of survival were remote. Most of them were breathing with obvious difficulty. I’d never liked hospitals, but the unique horrors of the plague ward made me long for the too-sweet smell of air in a regular hospital. This was more like a meat locker after the power had been off for a week. Soon, though, the smell faded from the brain, as my nostrils shut down out of sheer self-preservation. I went to the room I had been assigned by a young man wearing nose-plugs at the bottom of the stairs.

The dingy yellow fluorescents buzzed like the world’s biggest and most energy-efficient hornet as the man on the bed labored to breath. I pulled on the rubber latex gloves, smock, and surgical mask that had been given to me, and began scrubbing his arms down. He groaned as I removed the sweat and the other, less wholesome bodily fluids that coated him. “So, how are you doing today?” I asked, and regretted it immediately. He didn’t speak. His eyes stayed closed, as he struggled to breathe. “Hey, just so you know, I’m not exactly the most courageous guy, so if you suddenly grab me and scream at me, or otherwise freak me out, I’m going to bolt. I won’t even stop to get my free cookie for helping people here.”

He just wheezed softly. I kept scrubbing him down. It was a harrowing experience, watching a man struggling just to stay alive. Barely able to muster the energy to keep his lungs pulling in air. Not frightening the way being choked to death by a monster had been, but still painful. “I’m sorry this happened to you. Nobody deserves this,” I muttered, under my breath.

To my great surprise, he opened his eyes. “They… did this to me.” His voice was soft, barely responsive. His chest heaved for a few seconds as he fought for breath.

“Who did?” I asked softly, frowning.

“The… thing. In Room 101.” He was breathing harder, now, his breathing ragged, full of obvious pain. “Please… You have to go see it… You have… to… To…” He wheezed, and then he stopped breathing. I stared down at him. His eyes faced up, blank, full of horror. I rested a finger on his throat. There was no pulse. Even if I could find someone to administer CPR to him, it would pulverize his emaciated body. There was nothing left to save. I gently pushed his eyelids closed, as much to try to remove the horrific expression from his face as to provide him with some dignity. It was significantly more difficult than they made it look on TV. Then I stood up, and stared out of the door.

On the one hand, nothing good had ever come of rats in a Room 101. On the other hand, this place weirded me out. If there was some horrific secret to this place, then it was better that I found out now, wasn’t it? I swallowed, and stood up, gathering my courage. It took me nearly five minutes to inch my way out of the room, and into the hallway. The rooms were numbered. I was at 12. I began walking down the hall, watching out for any other volunteers.

I turned a corner. The corridor continued for several hundred feet, and ended with a door like any other. I had a feeling I knew what its number was, though. As I approached, I could feel the tension building. What would I find, there? The walk was long enough that my mind had plenty of room to explore. I thought of what Dane had said, a rat-person nine feet tall with claws that could make such a vicious scar. I rested a hand on the door, and slowly eased it open.

Through the crack in the door, I saw just another hospital room. This one had no bed, and the lights were off. Sitting in the middle of the floor, up against one wall, was a small plastic cage. Inside of the cage sat a single large, black rat. I breathed a sigh of relief.

“You know what they say about curiosity?”

I spun around. The deacon stood in the doorway, smiling. Two men flanked her, both wearing large plastic rat nose masks over their real noses. The black on their fingernails told me they’d survived a bout with the plague. I was having difficulty deciding whether the masks were comical, or horrific. They already looked rather rat-like, with long nails and mad, staring eyes. “Yeah. And I know that satisfaction brought the cat back.” I looked between the two men. “That patient said that you infected him.”

She smiled sympathetically. “It’s true. Poor lad. Died in the service of a greater cause. His death is not something we desire. It is merely a consequence of our greater cause.”

“Which is?”

“I don’t intend to give you the satisfaction you crave, young man. Do not misunderstand me, you will be useful. A pawn. Something to keep that damned uncle of yours from betraying our great plan. You will understand it all, once you’ve tasted the plague.” She smiled brightly. “You’re a fine young man. I’ve great faith in your capacity to survive.” She snapped her fingers, and the two men grabbed me by the shoulders. I swore to myself that I would take self defense classes if I managed to survive this.

The two of them dragged me into the room. I heard echoing footsteps ringing down the corridor as the deacon walked away. “It’s not so bad, man,” said the man on my right. “You spend a couple weeks feeling like the grim reaper’s dangling a loogie over your face, then you understand. Really understand, know what I mean? Real knowledge of the gods stuff! Hah, it’s pretty great.”

“Is that what you told the guy who just died?” I asked, trying to muster a bit of defiance. The man frowned.

“That’s a real bad attitude you’ve got about these things. You know, you need to stay positive if you want to make it through. Now, come on.” He hauled me forward, and slammed me to the ground, my jaw and chest striking the stone floor. My breath rushed out as my head spun, and he moved my face closer to the cage. I stared up. The rat was sleek, glossy-furred, with large, red eyes. My eyes flickered, taking in the shape of the creature. My heart was pounding with fear. I could see the creature’s fur, writhing, as fleas crawled across it. I could see its tail, trapped in a crack in the wall. That seemed unnecessarily cruel.

I looked over my shoulder at the grinning man in the rat mask as he reached out to open the cage. I saw the other man standing by the door, watching us with his arms crossed, a stoic expression presumably hidden under the ridiculous rat mask. I was going to have nightmares about this if I wasn’t too dead from the plague.

A shadow detached from the ceiling. One of its arms went around the man’s throat, and another went around his chest. There was a sudden tightening, like a lover’s embrace, and the man went limp, falling to the ground. His neck looked notably more slender, and his head dangled oddly. The man standing over me didn’t appear to notice as the dark figure approached him, but he must have seen my eyes widening, because he turned.

The shadow’s hand went around my captor’s throat, and lifted him bodily into the air with one arm. There was a sound like a chicken’s rib-cage getting ripped open, fleshy and bone-snapping at the same time, and he dropped to the floor. He was limp, finger marks sunk into the meat of his throat. The figure stepped closer.

She was beautiful. Her hair was the color of a lily, white and shining even in the dim light from the corridor. She couldn’t have been more than five feet tall, and her features were Asian. Her eyes were red, and she was dressed in a loose white kimono. She studied me for a moment, and then her lips pressed against mine. The kiss would have been extraordinarily pleasant, even downright enjoyable, had it not been for the fact that her tongue was forked. That was a shock. She broke the kiss, and nodded. “I am in time. You are not infected.” She looked down at the rat, and frowned. “We must get you out.”

“How?” I asked, swallowing. Her lips had tasted quite sweet, but there’d been a hint of something like blood on her tongue. I didn’t want to think about how unsanitary that was.

“You will wear his clothes. We will sneak out.” Her accent was vaguely East Asian, although there were only traces of it, and I probably couldn’t tell the difference between Chinese, Korean, and Japanese accents anyway. Her tone was stern, and her voice was contralto, warm and rich.

I looked down at the man. “Did you have to kill him?” I asked, frowning.

“He was going to infect you with a plague of the soul and the body. He was going to do this because he truly believed he was doing you a favor. The worst villains are the ones who honestly believe they are doing good.” The young woman stared down at the body. She didn’t blink.

“Why are you saving me?”

“Because I honestly believe I am doing good. And I serve one who honestly believes he is doing good. I am here to protect you, to fulfill a very old bargain.”

“That’s not very reassuring.”

“It was not meant to be. However, I am also not trying to give you the Black Death. That is, I think you will find, a point in my favor.”

I changed out of my clothes, pulling on the shaggy outfit of the man. His throat had been crushed. “You’re not human, are you.”

” No.” She didn’t elaborate. I sighed, and pulled on the clothing, placing the rat mask over my face. It smelled exactly as unpleasant as I had imagined.

“Just… Try not to kill anyone else, okay?”

“I do not have to follow your commands.”

“It’s not a command. It would just mean a lot to me if you didn’t kill anyone else.”

She was quiet for several long seconds. She looked away from me, and to my rather great surprise, she flushed. “I will do my best.” I gave her a warm smile, and the flush got a bit worse. It was nice to finally meet someone who I could tease, rather than get teased by. It would be even nicer if the two of us survived the next half hour.

“Now how are you going to get out?” I asked, frowning. She stepped around behind me, and I could feel her pressing against my back. Her breathing was slow and steady, and when I stepped forward, she matched the movement perfectly. I tried not to show an undue amount of glee. I’d met a kunoichi.

I walked down the hall, and she matched my stride perfectly. It was like my shadow had become physical. I approached the man standing at the door, and nodded silently to him as I passed. He grunted. As we walked past, the silent woman shifted around me until she was in front, keeping me between her and the sentry all along. At the top of the stairs, the process was repeated, as the two of us walked out into the first floor.

There seemed to be quite a commotion on the first floor. We walked past a large pool of blood, and I saw the lights of an ambulance through a window. Most of the people on the floor seemed more concerned with whatever unfortunate accident had happened than the two of us walking out of the place. I reached the front door, and that’s where it all went wrong.

The deacon stood there. Half a dozen of the rat-masked men were standing with her. My jaw clenched. “Interesting,” she murmured, eying the woman who had saved me, with an expression that fell somewhere between terror and rage. The men had guns, which made the terror a bad thing.

“I don’t suppose you’re bulletproof?” I asked hopefully.

“They would inconvenience me significantly. They probably wouldn’t kill me.”

I sighed. “Probably doesn’t do me much good.” I looked up at the Deacon. “I don’t suppose you’d give enough of a damn about the consequences to consider letting me go? I mean, I’m sure the police would get very curious if, for example, you had half a dozen crazy men in rat masks shooting an apparently innocent pair of people.”

“Oh, far from innocent, the two of you. And trust me when I say that there is little that mere men can do to stop what’s happening, now.” She smiled pleasantly. “You know, we really are just trying to do what is best for everyone. Though our methods may be horrible, they will save many lives.” She waved a hand. “It is triage. You must decide how to save the ones that you can. Compassion demands that if we can take action that would harm a few in order to save many more, it would be immoral not to act.” She snapped her fingers. The woman beside me clenched her fists. And then, the deacon let out a soft gasp. A clawed hand was around her throat.

“Oh, how interesting,” purred Betty. “That means, then, that the wisest action for you right now would be to try to wrestle out of my grasp, risking your own death in the hopes that you will be able to ensure that your plan goes off without a hitch. Of course, it would be one of your subordinates who leads things, and not you, but what was it you said about it being immoral not to act?” The deacon’s eyes were full of stark terror, her back straight. The men had turned towards her, their guns raised, and Betty just smiled. “Of course, I am absolutely bulletproof. You are holding my human and threatening to hurt him. If I wanted to, I could kill every one of you right now. And you know it.” She grinned, her teeth needle sharp, and her green eyes flashed. The men stared, their expressions frozen. “They haven’t harmed you yet, have they, Horace?” she asked, her voice sweet.

“Please don’t kill them, Betty.” I pleaded. I wasn’t sure if she was telling the truth about what she could do. I really didn’t want anyone in the room to find out. Betty hmmed, and her grasp tightened, a bead of blood appearing at the deacon’s throat, as one of her nails pierced the skin.

“Let them go,” The woman hissed, her expression frozen in a rictus. “We do not need them. They can tell whoever they like about what has happened. It will not change the ultimate fate of this city.” The men lowered their weapons, eager for the chance to avoid dying for what they believed in.

“I love when people’s hypocrisy is self-serving. It makes it much easier to take advantage of them.” Betty laughed softly. “Now. I have a warning for you. I know where you live. I can find you whenever I like.” She licked the drip of blood off of her nail, and purred loudly, a sound that seemed to make the men grow tense. “I will most likely kill you for whatever you have planned, anyway. However, if you threaten, or harm, my human? I will play with you first.” Her other hand trailed, almost intimately, down the deacon’s spine.

“You will regret this. Cat.” Even Uncle Creed had never invested a word with the kind of bile and hatred that she just had. I stepped forward, dragging the woman who had saved me out, and grabbing Betty’s hand to do the same to her. The two of them followed me onto the street. I didn’t dare stop until we were several blocks away, at which point I bent over and failed to be sick at all, considering the fact that I hadn’t had anything to eat that day. Instead, I just felt extremely grateful I was alive.

“So, who is THIS?” Betty asked, her arms crossed, her eyes narrowed as she studied the other woman, her expression annoyed. “Have you been hanging around with someone behind my back, Horace? She smells like she was pressed up against you.”

“It’s… a long story, Betty.”

“I kissed him.” The woman said, quite simply, not appearing remotely offended. Betty’s tail fluffed out, her ears flattening against her head.

“You what?! Listen here! He’s my human!” She prodded the shorter woman firmly in her flat chest. The Asian girl rocked on her heels, but showed no apparent fear. “If you ever try slutting around with him again, I’m going to skin you and use it as an elegant shawl to keep me warm during the winter, do you understand?” she asked, hissing a bit. I looked around. We were attracting a crowd of amused people.

“Betty, this is all very amusing and all, but I think that we should get home. I need to ask you some things.” I looked over at the woman. “I… Thank you. Do you think I’ll see you again?”

“I’m meant to keep an eye on you, in case you get into trouble.” She shrugged. “So, while I hope not, you almost certainly will. You have a real talent for stumbling into sudden violent death.” She paused for a moment, and then smiled. “And I suppose I could always go for another kiss.” And then, she disappeared, fading away like a cloud, disappearing into wisps of vapor.

“Damn sorceress.” Betty muttered, an annoyed expression on her face. “What are you grinning about?!”

I tried to wipe the smile off my face, and didn’t succeed. “Oh, nothing, nothing. Just… Nice to be meeting new people.” And the two of us made our way home, Betty pouting all the way, until I promised to buy her some salmon for dinner that night. And in the meantime, I thought about how I would answer the questions pressing on me.

 

Chapter 7: Horace Warming

My eyes opened sharply, heart pounding as I woke out of the nightmare. It had featured rats heavily. It was another early Friday morning, the sky not even gray outside yet. Betty was lying next to me, in her cat form. I had soothed her with praise and apologies for half an hour the night before, with limited success. I shifted as carefully as I could, and miraculously, did not wake her. I tiptoed through the bedroom, into the living room. I had two and a half hours before I would have to shower and prepare for work , and I intended to make good use of that time.

I slipped out the large books I had borrowed from the library over the last week, and began studying them. A handful of printed-out newspaper stories from online archives sat beside them. I’d been binging on every piece of information I could get about the supernatural and the strange. Most of the things on the internet weren’t as helpful as some of the old books, but my financial resources were limited to what I could borrow. Anything else was far beyond my meager pay.

There was a soft flop of paper. I frowned, and put down the copy of Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth. The large stack of newspaper printouts had fallen onto the floor despite standing straight for nearly an hour, in accordance with the law of delayed gravity that always seemed to govern large stacks of paper. I began to gather them up, and frowned at the top piece. From 1921, it was one of a number of papers I had printed out of people who had died in this particular apartment. I picked it up, and scanned through it.

The grisly murder of Alana Sussex, 19 year-old teenage runaway, has been solved. John Bishop, unemployed occultist, previously imprisoned on charges of stalking and fraud, was arrested today by city police, after a neighbor complained of a strong stench of blood coming from the man’s apartment. The young girl was found cut into six hundred and sixty six pieces, although investigators admit that their counting may have been off. John Bishop proclaimed his innocence, stating that a dark spirit possessed the house, and that it had been the one to kill the girl. The fiend’s few acquaintances speak of him being a loner, and over-fascinated with dark phenomena. There have been concerns by the police that he may have been part of a larger satanic cult. If you or any of your friends should notice curious behavior, be sure-

I closed the paper, and frowned. John Bishop. That had reminded me of something. I picked up another book, on Roman mythology. It contained a number of essays from different occultists, and John Bishop was among them. I gently tapped the page, frowning as I stared down at it. He’d written an essay on Lares, a type of Roman house-spirit. I turned to the article he’d read, and began to read quietly from it.

It was mostly very dull stuff, detailing the mundane rituals used to propitiate the minor house-gods. It was complex stuff involving wine, rituals, and a certain level of respect. I closed the book, and frowned, tenting my fingers slowly. I began to open more books, studying them, and trying to figure out a common pattern between them. Then, a hand dropped over my eyes, and I screamed, in a very manful and dignified way.

“Wow! Sorry, I didn’t realize that you were so touchy!” Betty said, as she lifted her hands off of my eyes. “Are you really that shaken up about those rats? Don’t worry, I’m going to killing them all soon enough. Just need to figure out what they’ve got planned, and it’ll be a snap.” She smiled, and tried to snap her fingers. She frowned, as her fingers weakly padded together. She tried a few more times, and the spectacle only got more embarrassing for us both.

“That’s not what I’m thinking about.” That was a lie. Betty was entirely confident, but I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. My uncle had told me that he’d want to tell me more, soon, but so far, he had been distant. I was going to do something extremely daring today, and ask for Saturday off, as well as Sunday. I was testing his good will to its very limits, but I needed to spend some time learning. “Betty… Do you know much about the occult? I mean, I know that you’re familiar with a lot of things, but… You could tell if an apartment like this was haunted, right?”

She nodded. “Of course. It’s not haunted, though. It’s insane.”

I paused, and tried to think of an appropriate response. I settled for, “Huh?”

“Something in this building is insane. I can feel it. All of the other apartments are ‘dead’. This one is ‘alive’, but it’s ‘crazy’. This whole building, really, is nearly dead. You’ve noticed how poorly repaired it is?”

I nodded, frowning. Of course, I’d always blamed it on the superintendent, who I’d never actually seen. But the walls always seemed to be in poor repair, and for such cheap rent, the building seemed perpetually underpopulated. There was a reason why I could get away with an apartment this nice on my salary. I tapped my fingers across the wooden arm-rest. “I didn’t know an apartment could go insane.”

“It doesn’t usually happen.” She shrugged. “I could feel it ever since I arrived here. I’ve been making it feel… Unwelcome.” She smiled as she leaned her head against my side, purring loudly as she picked up one of the newspaper printouts. Then she began to shred it, dragging her nails through the paper, cutting it with the barest pressure. I would have been very impressed if I wasn’t so pissed off by the mess she was making.

“Hey!”

“I’m hungryyyyyy.” She protested, smiling. “Keeping maddened house-spirits from murdering you is such hard work! I don’t think I’ll be able to keep doing it unless I get fed!” I sighed softly. “Thank you!” she purred, even before I stood up. I walked into the kitchen, and began setting about putting together her breakfast and my lunch. Chances were low I would get to eat it, but it would be nice to be proven wrong for once.

One of the common themes I’d seen in every book I’d read, every myth, every story, was just how little power human beings actually had. Everyone’s strength seemed to be borrowed from somewhere else. People made pacts, they traded, very rarely they stole power, but there was no such thing, as far as I could tell, as a person who was simply strong in and of themselves. There were people who drew on the power of myths, and there were people who made themselves something else for power, but humans were weak and frail things compared to the supernatural creatures out there. Something about that rankled me. I could see the way it had bothered Dane to hear that she was weak compared to Betty. And Dane was far more competent than I was.

As I sat at the table, watching Betty eat her tuna-fish with extra tuna-fish and a tuna-fish dressing, I was distracted by a sudden metallic clang. I turned, and found that the butter knife I had used to separate and mix the tuna had fallen off the counter, and onto the floor. I stood up, and held it for a few moments. “Betty… If you left for a couple of days, do you think that the Lares would show itself?”

She shrugged. “Probably. It’s why I’m not going anywhere. Wouldn’t want you getting knifed to death like the last poor people who lived here!” I put the knife into the sink, and then thought better of it. I gave it a good scrub instead.

“I want you to go somewhere tonight. I’ll make you some food for the next couple of days to take with you, but stay away until Sunday evening, alright? I want to talk with this thing.” I turned around. Betty’s mouth was open, tuna falling from her fingers, halfway to her mouth, as she stared at me. Her tail was held stiff, her ears flat against her head. After a few moments, she seemed to regain her composure, putting down the tuna that hadn’t fallen onto the floor, and crossing her arms, lifting her head and looking away.

“I refuse. I am not going to allow my human to be in danger. What if you were to die? What would happen to humanity without me prepared and ready to guard it? Worse, what would happen to me without regular meals? My coat would get all dull and patchy again. I absolutely refuse.” She looked me in the eye, green eyes flashing with annoyance. “Why on earth would you even want to be around in this apartment without me to protect you? What a foolhardy idea!”

I looked down at the plate. Why had I wanted it? “Well, this thing is dangerous. Can you kill it?”

She looked a bit embarrassed. “Well, technically. Yes. I could do very serious harm to it if it tried to manifest to attack you. And I could easily kill it. Just…”

“Just… what?”

“‘d mean destroying your partment.” she whispered, under her breath.

“What?”

“I would… have to destroy your apartment. Otherwise it would just manifest itself again quickly. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but… The only way I could actually put it down for good would involve destroying your apartment. To the point that it was unrecognizable. We’re not talking a quick game of Sharpen The Claws On The Wallpaper, here. I would have to remove at least three out of four walls in every room. House Spirits are remarkably inconvenient to kill.” She looked around the room, as though genuinely considering the idea. “But, if you wanted me to…”

“No! Look, I…” I frowned. “I don’t know. I have an idea, and I think it’ll work better if you’re not around to scare the hell out of the spirit.”

She gave me an annoyed look. “You humans… Always trying to make friends with everything. There are some things in this world that have to be put down, you know. Or at least frightened into submission.” She eyed me for a moment, then shook her head. “Fine. I’ve got things I need to do anyway. But first…” She grinned, and reached under her shirt, and withdrew a glittering yellow cat’s-head medallion. “This is for you.” I stared at it, its expensive emerald eyes and its glittering golden chain.

“Please, god, tell me that you didn’t steal this.”

“That’s goddess. And no. That is mine by right.” I sighed. That almost certainly meant that it was stolen. She reached around me, sliding the chain around my neck. It was surprisingly heavy, and I frowned down at it. It was awfully beautiful, though. “So I’ll be there to protect you, from your own stupidity.” She purred softly, and leaned forward, pushing her face against my cheek, nuzzling into me affectionately. The gesture dissolved my frustration and concern, leaving a warm haze in its place. “And my smell, so that the Lar will know that if tries to hurt you, it is offending me.” She smiled, and the seriousness in her expression disappeared. “Now, remember to make me those sandwiches before you go to work!”

An hour later, I was walking out of the door, carrying a couple of the books for reading on the subway. I passed the spot where Harold had usually sat. There was no sign of him. There was an unfamiliar man with a rat-face mask giving me a dark look. There was another on the corner. They were growing more frequent in the city. I always felt tense as I walked past them. It was hard not to. They all seemed to recognize me. Each one carried a tin, soliciting for the Church of the Survivor and its efforts in helping people to survive the plague.

Matters had gotten worse. Cases were showing up among the general population. The hospitals were struggling, and there weren’t enough antibiotics to help everyone. The Church of the Survivor was getting a lot of good press because of all of the work they were doing to help people. I thought of the man dying in the basement, and shuddered. I couldn’t get bogged down in the suffering and uncertainty. I knew that there was something strange going on in the basement. I knew that my uncle might know more. And I knew that he was working with them. If I approached him, he might decide to have me killed. It wouldn’t be entirely out of character for him. That was a risk I’d just have to take.

As I sat on the subway, I regretted my choices in life. Perhaps if I’d spent ten years training in the Himalayas with a sect of warrior monks, or becoming the greatest detective in the world, I’d be prepared for this. But no. I’d decided to try to become a lawyer. Studying in college and clerking with my uncle, and now, it all seemed like such a damned waste of time. Laws didn’t mean a whole lot. I opened another book to take my mind off things, and began reading up about hermetic magic. It was another of the styles that required the help of magical beings to perform. A human could direct it, but the power had to come from an elemental, some fundamental creature of the world that, as far as I could tell, no longer existed. I sighed, and traced my fingers over the incantations. It was a convenient scam, really. You could claim that spells were whatever you wanted, and that they wouldn’t work without the help of a being that no longer existed.

“Spare some change for a worthy cause?” asked a rough voice. I looked up, into the eyes of a man wearing a rat-face mask. I swallowed. “Come on. Every bit helps. Never know when you might be the one needing charity, right?”

“Sorry,” I managed, looking back down at the book, tensing my shoulders.

“Yeah, you will be,” the man growled as he stepped away, and off the train. I tried to relax for the rest of the train ride, and had no success.

“Repeat what you just said?” Randall had stood up from his desk, and was holding a white rat in the serpent’s cage. I watched as the snake stared up at the dead rat, unmoving. Then it lunged with proverbial speed, tightening around the dead rat. There was a soft crunch.

“I want a raise. And Saturdays and Sundays off.” The snake gulped down the rat greedily, its jaw distending as the lump appeared in it. It swallowed smoothly, until there was no sign of the rat except for a bulge running down the creature’s throat.

“And why, exactly?”

I took a deep breath. “Saturdays and Sundays off because I want to study. I want to learn more about… well, the family business. And the raise because I need enough money to be able to deal with a murderous Lares in my apartment.”

Randall turned towards me, leaning against the wall, crossing his arms. “I must admit that I respect that answer a great deal more than all of that hogwash I’ve been hearing lately about cost-of-living adjustments.” He drummed his fingers on his arm. The sun shone down on his desk from through the window, as he tapped one foot. “Fine.”

“And I need an advance.” His face tightened, his eyes narrowing. Then he laughed, more richly, more warmly than I had seen in my life.

“Oh, hell. I must admit, boy, I’m pretty damn impressed. I’d always rather hoped that you would fall into this line of work. I promised your father I would never lead you into it, but it seems that it’s found you all the same.” He grinned. “You know, you remind me so much of him, sometimes. He always took such great care to protect the people he loved. He would’ve carried all the world’s weight on his own two shoulders. I remember this time the two of us were in India…”

I stared. Uncle Creed never talked about my father. He’d always been silent on the subject. He didn’t notice my wide-eyed surprise, though. He was somewhere far away, and years ago. In India, it sounded like.

“We were sent there to track down a Rakshasa, a cannibal spirit. Your father made a wager with it, a drinking contest. The Rakshasa tried to cheat him, by using an illusion to make both of their bodies think the wine was blood, hoping he’d get sick and vomit. Your father had a stomach like an iron tank, though, and he matched the Rakshasa drink for drink, until it was so blood-drunk it fell on its ass.” He laughed, staring out of the window, his eyes distant. “He put it to work at the Delhi police department, binding it to only be able to drink the blood of unrepentant murderers. I think it still works there.” He shook his head.

It was the most I’d ever heard about my father at one time. I paused, almost overwhelmed with the temptation to ask more. But I had to hold back. I didn’t trust my uncle. He’d taken care of me, and I knew that I needed him, but I couldn’t bring myself to trust him. I knew him too well. “I’m surprised the two of you were able to overcome it like that. I’ve been reading a little bit, and…” I frowned. “It doesn’t seem like humans could stand up to these things.”

Randall snorted dismissively. “You don’t believe that. Or you wouldn’t be trying to deal with the Lar. If it’s just the one, it’s a Lar, by the way.” He stared into my eyes, his gaze firm. “Humans are the masters of this world, boy. Don’t let anything ever tell you otherwise. We rule it, because we have reason. If we are born weak, that simply gives us all the more impetus to be strong. You’re not a victim, or a source of food, or prey. You are a Creed.” He reached into his jacket, and took out a flask, taking a sip. He smacked his lips, and put it back. “Never forget that.”

“It just seems like any strength we have is… stolen.”

He snorted. “Look out the window, boy. Are any of those cars pushed by humans? Do those cranes haul steel into the sky with the labor of humans?” He shook his head. “You don’t need to be strong if you’re smart, boy. Humans make things. We make harnesses.” He looked down at the snake, his gaze almost contemptuous. “We domesticate.” He smirked, and looked up again. “Good luck with that house spirit. Bring it to heel. And remember to finish up your work before you leave tonight. I’ll have the secretary give you that advance.”

That evening, I returned home with the things that I had gotten after work. I opened the door, and was struck by a sudden sense of emptiness. The sun was setting. We were well into September, at this point, and it was amazing how quickly it had gotten dark out. Betty wasn’t in the apartment. Something about me could sense that, some sixth sense that saw there was no cat purring and loudly begging for fish, and that my things were not in a complete disarray.

I sighed, and took a seat on the couch, beginning to remove my jacket. I turned on the TV, and began to watch. It was surprisingly cool in the apartment, so perhaps Betty had remembered to close the window behind her. I began to flip through channels. Cooking show, home improvement show, Home Improvement, nightly news, a hideous staring face with black hair.

I frowned, and watched for a moment. It was The Ring. I sat back, and began to watch it, my arms crossed behind my head. It had been years since I’d watched the movie last. I yawned, and gently kicked my shoes off, stretching out on the couch. It was relieving to have a chance to sit on the couch without being leapt upon by Queen Betty, but it was also rather lonely. I kept watching the movie, relaxing and letting my eyes slowly close. Somehow, it just didn’t manage to terrify the way it had before I’d had actual monsters try to tear my heart out.

Around eleven, hunger pains finally pushed me off the couch and into the kitchen. I made myself a sandwich with the last of some turkey, and a few slices of cheese. I sat at the couch, and ate quietly. There was a sleek metallic noise, and some terrorized part of my brain sent me diving to the side. The large chef’s knife I kept in my knife block sunk three inches into the wall, vibrating with a soft bell-like tone. I stared around wildly, ready for another attack, but there was nothing. I frowned, and stood up, checking where the knife had planted. It was several feet off-target.

I walked into the kitchen. This time, I decided to try something different. I started the oven, and the flame began to rise. I carefully poured a bit of oil into the pan, waiting until it flowed quickly, rolling the pan around to spread the oil. I took a tortilla, placing it into the pan, and began slicing off strips of beef from a small steak. They were thrown into another pan, and I continued cooking. The rich smell of sizzling meat and crisping bread filled the air as I cooked a proper meal. As meat sizzled, I carefully cleaned the kitchen, scrubbing under the corners. There was something soothing about the ritual, although the constant chill was making it difficult to concentrate.

I stood up, and found myself face to face with an apparition. Its face was ragged, and skull-like, as it stared me in the eye. It was hovering several inches off the floor, bringing it level with my eyes. The knife was in its hand. “Leave,” It hissed through its teeth. It didn’t have eyes, just empty sockets.

“How about after dinner?” I offered. It stared at me. “I’m sorry I haven’t including a portion for you so far. I didn’t know you were here.”

A few minutes later, the two of us sat down at the table. The creature sat with its legs crossed under it at the edge of the table as I carefully divided the crisp tortilla into two halves. I passed one onto its plate, and poured out two glasses of wine. It took one of the glasses, and sipped at it silently. It was wearing a ragged gown, and its arms seemed thin and stick-like. It was not particularly recognizable as either gender. “Is it good?” I asked hopefully. The specter nodded. It looked almost real, but something about its coloring was far too muted. The lights were on, and yet it looked as though it was in a shadowed room. I smiled politely, and it didn’t respond. “Did you kill the other people who lived here?”

“Yes.”

I swallowed. “Why?”

“They did not show the proper respect. They did not show me the respect that was my due.” It hissed. “You did not either, until now. It is a start. But you have brought that… cat, here. They are not allowed in this building.”

“She’s a deity. And technically, they say that it’s no pets allowed.”

“She sheds upon my floors.” The spirit said, and its tone seemed to suggest that this was only one step short of genocide.

“I can clean that up. I didn’t mean to make you feel disrespected.”

It eyed me harshly. “Why?”

“Because you’re my home, right? The house-god here. You deserve to be respected.” I looked around at the walls. “You’re a very beautiful apartment, if I may say so. What’s your name?”

“I am Apartment 4-B.”

I paused. That was a bit of a non-starter. “How about I call you Phoebe?”

It was silent for a while, as the two of us ate. Finally, she nodded. Maybe it was just giving her the name, but she looked just a little bit more human. Enough that I could think of her as a ‘her’, and not an ‘it’, at least. “That is not a very disrespectful title.” She kept eating, and looked up at me. “I will serve no man as a domestic house goddess. I am above such things, by right of conquest.”

“Of course, I wouldn’t expect you to help out with the cooking and cleaning and everything.” I couldn’t possibly be that lucky. “But I would like to keep living here. So, tell me how I can be respectful, and we can live together peacefully. Does that sound fair?”

She reached down, and with one final, hungry bite, finished off the food. “Very well. Then tomorrow we may begin. You may sleep, but first, clean me.”

I tried not to think about the way she’d phrased that as I cleaned. I started by sweeping the floor, then sorting the trash, and throwing away discarded food containers. I wondered if this was like foreplay. The Lar stood in the center of the room, watching and calling out when I missed things. I had another divine roommate, it seemed. A cat, and a household goddess, and neither of them could be bothered to clean things. “If I keep you clean, you’re not going to try to kill anyone else, right? That’s not a good thing for an apartment to do.” I stacked the books together on the coffee table in something approaching an order. “Apartments that kill people get condemned, and torn down.”

“I do not fear any demolisher or crane. Many have attempted to tear down this building. None have succeeded. I do not allow it.”

I paused for a moment. “How did you stop them, exactly?”

“I took the lives of the other Household Gods within this place. This apartment is mine, but the building in its entirety is my demesne. It is my place of power.” I frowned, as I brushed a spider-web out of the corner of the linen closet. I gently held my finger up, and the small spider crawled onto my hand. I carried it out to the window, and gently ushered it onto the window ledge, closing the window behind it. I hoped it would find a safe place to make its home.

“Why do you kill so many people?”

“Because it makes me strong. And because it reminds others that I am strong.”

“Well… Please, don’t do it anymore. Okay? I’ll make whatever sacrifices are necessary, buy you wine, just…” I sighed. “Why am I surrounded by murderous women?”

“Perhaps you have a fetish.” I turned my head quickly, searching her expression to find a sign that it was a joke. She stared back impassively, empty eye-sockets gaping at me. If it was a joke, she was the most deadpan comedian I’d ever seen outside of the BBC.

“You know, you don’t have to kill people to make them respect you. You could even find that it’s a lot easier to make people respect you if you haven’t killed them. Once they’re dead, they tend to be very uncooperative.” She was quiet. I turned towards her. “Is everything clean enough for you?”

She nodded. “Why do you allow the Goddess of Protection to live with you?” she asked, her head tilted. “She is generally regarded as a harbinger of ill fortune. You would be better off leaving her upkeep to another. Her keepers do not live long.” I frowned.

“How do you know so much about her? Aren’t you an apartment?”

She shrugged. “My first owner taught me much about his studies. She is a dangerous creature. You would be safer if you did not stay around her.”

“I’m going to get some sleep. Tomorrow’s a brand new day. Going to get some paint. What color would you like?”

“Blood red.”

I paused. “I’ll look into a nice sunny orange for you. How does that sound?”

“Like it sends an inappropriate message.”

“Perfect. Dress for the position you want, not the position you have.” She glared at me. “Come on, give it a chance. I bet you’ll look pretty in orange.”

The next morning, I returned from the hardware store with a paintbrush and a couple of cans of paint. It was the work of nearly four hours to complete the paint job, but by the time it was done, the sun struck the walls of my room, making the interior feel brighter than they ever had. I began working on lunch, a meal of beans and rice, and took out the two special packages that I had purchased yesterday. It seemed like the appropriate time. I took a seat at the coffee table, and the Lar sat across from me. “I have two presents for you.” I smiled brightly. She gave me an impassive glare. She’d seemed rather annoyed by the bright orange. The next two things I had would either cheer her up, or piss her off even worse. “First, honey-cakes. I read that they’re supposed to be tasty for Lares.”

She reached out, and delicately opened the package. She lifted one into the air with a suspicious expression, as though making sure it was not going to try anything. When she was satisfied, she nibbled at it delicately. “It’s… alright.” She admitted, as she took a few bites from the small, bready cake.

“And second…” This one had eaten up the lion’s share of the advance. It was a gamble, to say the least. But I gently opened the large paper bag, revealing the bronze statue. It was about a foot tall, and intricately carved, depicting a young woman. It wasn’t an antiquity, and I’d bought it from a trophy shop. That was why the statue was holding a golf club, and shorts. I looked up at Phoebe. She stared, transfixed. Her gaze slowly lifted to meet mine.

“You are giving me a shape?” she asked softly, reaching out. I nodded, and she touched it. There was a soft implosion of air, and she sat in front of me. Her body was no longer a ruin. She didn’t look quite like the girl on the trophy, although the outfit was the same. A bright, sunny orange top, and a skirt, completed with a pair of golf shoes. She looked down at her gloved hands, her skin repaired, a light cream color. “Why?” she asked, frowning at me. “I will not call you my owner simply because you have given me things. I don’t serve you.”

“It’s not about that. It’s…” I looked for the words. It was domestication. There was no expectation of an immediate reward for what I did. But the little gifts and things I did showed that she could trust me. That I would do my best to take care of her. It made her want me to not die or go away, because that would mean the end of these things. But it all felt a bit mercenary when I put it like that. “It’s the same reason I take care of Betty. You’re dangerous. You could kill me. But…” There was the other side to it, too. “You’re in pain. You’re suffering, and I know what it can feel like to suffer. I can’t know exactly what you’re feeling, but I can imagine it, and it makes me want to help. So, even if it’s dangerous, I want to take care of you, because it hurts less to be betrayed than to leave you alone.” I shrugged. “If that makes sense.”

The spirit looked down at the trophy. “I am not a pet. I am a goddess. As long as you remember that, then I will not kill you.”

 

Chapter 8: Phoebe or not Phoebe

It was 1919. I knew this, because my owner bought newspapers, and read them to me from the head of the table. His Hearth was weak. He did not care much for his home, and he brought many people into it, none of them for very long. His heart did not burn. It was cold and chilled the house around him. But nonetheless, he was my owner, and I cared deeply for him. He was a tall man, and not very well-dressed. He tended to favor very silly looking turbans. I was merely an apartment, and not particularly skilled in the ways of human fashion, but even I could tell that they were ridiculous.

For his hobbies, he studied endlessly, and was surprisingly popular with a number of women. He talked very sweetly to them in bars, plied them with liquor, and returned them to his home. Sometimes they left in the morning. Sometimes they didn’t. I didn’t know much about human love, either, but I gathered that this was not it. And I watched him as he taught me many things, by reading, by working, and by talking out loud to himself.

I winced with pain as he pried open the boards of my floor, and lowered two great steamer trunks down into the pipes below, filling them with the books that he did not trust his guests with. But even in this I took a certain satisfaction, knowing that my pain was for the purpose of helping him. I would read over his shoulder as he paged through his books, and marvel at the many things he learned.

Then, one evening, he sat at the head of the table. He prepared an elaborate meal, wine, and small honey cakes, and provided settings for two. I waited until the incense had almost burned down, and then I could not hold back my desire any longer. I sat across from him, and smiled, my shape insubstantial, almost gauzy. “Hello, owner.” I smiled sweetly.

“Ah, my little house-Lar. Apartment 4-B.” He smiled, and held out a small marble statue, and I felt the urge to touch it become unbearable. I did, and suddenly, I had form. I had shape. I was like a person, able to express my love and my affection for my owner. “What a lovely shape you have.”

I reached out to touch him. He took the steak knife from the table, and drove the blade into my chest, over and over again. It hurt a great deal, even more than having my boards pried up. After all, that was just the thoughtless carelessness of an owner. This was intentional. I struggled and writhed, and became insubstantial again, wounded, and shaking.

A week passed. He set the table again. This time I did not appear. “Come, Lar. You can’t stay away from the offerings. I’m sorry that I hurt you before. It was simply one of my episodes. Don’t try to touch me, and it won’t happen again.” He wheedled, his voice kind, and gentle. I materialized, and sat across from him. “You shouldn’t touch. Not unless you are told. To do otherwise is disrespectful” I thought of the women who visited him. Especially the ones who didn’t leave in the morning. “Oh, yes. I know, it’s a terrible quirk. A curse from god, I sometimes like to think. But it does seem to sharpen my mind.” His fingers were tightening around the knife. “I stabbed you quite hard. And yet, here you are, good as new?”

“It hurt,” I whispered. He snorted, waving a hand dismissively.

“Oh, pain. Pain is just a momentary sensation. A learning experience. You now know a very important lesson, and that is not to touch without asking.” He smiled. “In a way, it’s a kind of kindness, that pain. Yes, I think that you should show a little more appreciation for that gift. You horrid wretched IMPERTINENT-” His hand was around my collar, dragging me across the table, and I had a very unpleasant time of things. But he was right. It hurt less the second time, as I had already experienced excruciating pain, and once you understood it, it lost much of its terror. As I sat upright, immaterial once more, I decided that there was much I could learn from him.

The third time I manifested, this time without his permission, he stabbed me violently, screaming that I had no right, no right to come without being called. The fourth time I manifested, I grabbed his wrist, and pummeled him like a side of meat, yanking the knife out of his hands, and leaving him bleeding on the floor, laughing softly.

“Well, my dear, you are a quick study. Didn’t it feel good? To be strong enough to force someone to respect you?” I looked down at the knife. It had hurt so damn much. I approached him, and he smiled. “Oh, do you want revenge? I won’t stop you, but perhaps you should consider something very carefully. If I should die like that, it will be very suspicious. People may start to hate this building, fear it. And then, they’d come and tear down your walls, and rip you apart. You are strong, after all, strong enough to survive whatever I might do, whereas I would die if you weren’t careful with that thing.” He grinned up at me, and I felt my grip grow slack. In a moment, he was up, and I was down. At this point, the sensation of being stabbed violently had become almost pedestrian, so that I was more annoyed than terrified and pained when he’d finished.

“Little Four Bee? Little Four Bee, come out, come out.” He laughed, as he prepared dinner. I appeared, reluctantly, and he smiled. “Do you know why I hurt you, Four Bee?” I shook my head. “It’s to teach you to respect me. Respect is everything in this world, you know. I show you respect as my house Lar, feed you, provide you with worship, and all those little things that you need. And in response, then, it is your duty to show me respect. And I do apologize, if I am harsh. But you can take it, can’t you? Strong little goddess that you are.” He grinned, one of his teeth obviously missing from where I had struck him.

“I’m sorry for hitting you.”

“Oh, you’re not. Don’t worry. You will be, by the time I’m done with you. But what you must understand is that I am not doing this because I hate you. Quite the opposite. You are a fascinating creature. I want to see what you are capable of, my little 4-B. You are both so much less, and so much more than a human.” He laughed. I hated the way he said my name. The way that he gently drew his nails across the paint on my walls, chipping it, sawing at my nerves. It seemed that even as I became more resistant to the pain of being stabbed, the little pains, the niggling little things that he did, grew worse. Like the varnish had been scraped off my floorboards with a chisel.

I watched as his appetites continued to grow. He made me dispose of the bodies, rendering them unrecognizable, and drifting away down through the pipes of the building. He fed me on the other Lares of the building, rituals sending me through the walls to consume the quiet proto-spirits in the other rooms. They were barely even a ripple of energy, let alone a sapient creature, but I knew that I was killing my own kind nevertheless. It was that, however, or he promised he would destroy me, and choose one of the other spirits to nurture. The knowledge that I had no choice did not soothe my guilt. It only enraged me.

My master’s habits surely would’ve caught up to him sooner or later. They could not go unnoticed forever. He was clever, but not as clever as he thought. Things came to a head, however, when he brought home the girl. I never knew her name. I knew that she wore shoes with sharp heels, and walked clumsily in them. They scraped along my floorboards. She dropped her purse on my floor, and was messily sick on the tiles of my bathroom. She’d drunk too much. I grabbed a knife, and did something that, in other circumstances, would have made my owner very proud.

“Are you pleased with yourself?” he asked, his eyes narrowed as he stood over me.

I continued cutting. I was strong enough that the knife slid easily through the corpse. Humans weren’t all that mysterious once they were opened. They had bones instead of foundations and load-bearing walls, skin instead of wallpaper, strange fleshy pipes. They didn’t seem all that special to me. I was aware that he was looking very tense. “Yes. That was a lot more fun than being stabbed.” I was lying, but it seemed like the right thing to tell him. It had been a sudden, desperate thing. I didn’t want to kill her. She was a person, after all, and I was made to protect people from the elements, from those who would harm them. But something deep inside of me had been screaming to be released. I wondered if this was what my owner felt like all the time. I felt a bit closer to him.

“Well, damn well clean her up. We need to get rid of her. Gods, I hope nobody heard her.”

I looked down at the body. “You know, owner, I believe you can deal with this one. After all, it won’t be my fault if you die. It will be the police.” I leaned forward, and kissed him on the cheek, and vanished as he screamed profanity and lunged at me. And then, I watched. I watched the police arrive. I watched him panic as they found the body he had so inexpertly tried to hide. I watched as they searched the apartment, but did not find the texts that he had so carefully hidden. And then, I waited.

And waited.

And waited enough that a literal-minded person might have filled dozens of pages out of a book with the words ‘And waited’, in a vain attempt to communicate the timeless stretches of watching people move in and out of the building, attempt to demolish it, be thwarted by my subtle influences, and move on. As time passed, I found myself growing ossified. People moved in, and out. They did not treat the house with respect, but I couldn’t feel it. I had gone without worship, unacknowledged, for so long that I didn’t even notice it. Then, one day, in the late summer, I was awoken from a sound sleep by the scraping of a chair.

I could feel the three people in my apartment. They were not good tenants. They were petty thieves and lived in this neighborhood because no one lived here who could afford not to. They stole things, and they treated me with no respect. I waited, for weeks, months, trying to be patient. But every careless mistake, every dropped chemical, every offense, scraped me bare. They did not show me any of the respect that I deserved. I was a goddess. I was powerful. I menaced them, at first, moving objects, leaving warnings, but they did not take it seriously. They blamed each other.

And so, one crisp autumn day, I fell back into old habits. They didn’t deserve it. But I couldn’t help myself.

When the police had turned up, and the blood was cleaned off, I was put up for sale. By that point, I had grown somewhat resigned to the fact that I was unlikely to ever have a proper owner. Perhaps it was just as well. The idea of finding someone who owned me rankled. The first human who had owned me had tried to control me, and it had hurt. It had been excruciating. Perhaps if that was what humans had to offer, I was better off without it.

A succession of people came to see the apartment. I did not make them feel welcome. Maybe I would be condemned. I had decayed, my shape becoming twisted over the many long years. It had been so long since I’d had the small statue to guide me. Even if it were still a part of the building, I didn’t want to take the shape that my first owner had given me.

The day the human came to see me was a warm summer day. He was not remarkable. I did not take the effort to differentiate between one human and another. They were all the same. I tried to warn him away, but the human was destitute. His name was Horace Creed, and he did not have a good life. He was not homeless, not the lowest of the low. But he was aimless, drifting, serving an uncle he didn’t care for. He could not afford to live elsewhere. He complained bitterly to the open air of the world’s injustice, and I was inclined to agree with him. The world was not fair.

It was on the first night that I realized he was warm. I hadn’t felt a sensation quite like it. When he scalded me with hot food, he wiped it away, cleaning the messes that he had made, soothing away the burns that it caused. When he scuffed me or hurt me, he cleaned me, and made things right. He cared about his home, and cared for me. He showed me respect. He hurt me, but at the same time, it was not intentional, and he tried to make up for it. I had never met someone who regretted hurting me. The small actions that he took made me feel strange. For someone to care about me was more terrifying, more painful than anything my first master had done.

I sat beside his bed at night, resting a hand on his. He slept fitfully. I knew the reputation I had. People died within me. And yet, he seemed to sleep better with my hand on his. I watched him silently. “Why do you stay here?” I whispered softly. I became insubstantial as he jerked up, his eyes flickering around wildly. He lay back down again, and I stayed by his side. There was something unusual about him. Not just his care, but the impression he gave me in his Hearth. It was soft and gentle, and it made me feel as though I was not simply a tool, but something special. Perhaps it was my own imagination making a fool of me, but I hoped otherwise. It felt good to have an owner who cared. It began to give me some hope. Someday I could show myself to him. He might even want to help me. I even dreamed he might forgive me for what I’d done.

Then he brought home the cat.

Mind-numbing, soul-searing terror rushed through me when the animal first entered the house. At first, I took it for another house-Lar, and could not understand where the instinctive dread came from. I couldn’t see its domain. Then, I realized the sheer scope of the creature’s domain, and what I was dealing with. On the second night, as the human went to sleep, the cat padded into the living room, and changed. She licked herself dextrously for several minutes, and then yawned, looking up. She drew a nail across one of the floorboards, and I manifested, enraged, drawing a cleaver from the knife block. I leapt at her, with supernatural speed and strength. She spun me around and pinned me to the ground with one hand.

“Hello, little spirit.” She smiled, her teeth shining in the darkness. I tried to become insubstantial, and found that I could not. She knelt over me, her tail flicking back and forth. “You are an ugly one. You’re a killer, I can tell. A house-spirit gone rotten.” Her claws tightened, and pain prickled along my throat. I hated her instantly. Because she didn’t respect me. Because she was cruel. And because, unlike my first owner, she was much stronger than I was.

“And you? What is a goddess doing acting like a pet to humans?” I attacked in the only way I could. I saw her eyes narrow.

“I could ask the same of you.” She sat up, releasing me. “I trust you will not give me any issues?” She eyed me lazily, her green eyes shining in the low light. “I wouldn’t hesitate to rip this apartment to shreds if you meant any harm to me or my human.” She extended a hand, nails glimmering, and reached towards the floorboards.

“No,” I hissed.

“Good little house-spirit.” She studied me appraisingly. “I am sure that there is a very interesting reason behind what you have done. I am sure that you have good reasons for killing humans, because house spirits do not tend towards violence. But I don’t care what your reasons are. All I care about is that my home is comfortable and that my human is not unduly damaged. If you harm him, I’ll rip you apart.” I bristled. The nerve of her. To march into my apartment, and to claim my occupant. I wanted to flay her apart for her presumptions. For stealing my human. And for the fact that there was nothing that I could do against her. I could feel her power. I was helpless, more than I had ever been.

And so I watched, jealousy warring with self preservation, as she insinuated herself into his life. She took every opportunity to rub her flanks against the furniture inside of me, as though she owned the place. I seethed as I watched, but I could see how happy the human was to have her in his life. He had fond someone he cared for, and it was not me. I had waited too long, and now his Hearth was warming someone else. He had hurt me, just like the others. But it was not his fault. I resolved to kill her.

Opportunity knocked, not long after. The window opened, and the goddess stumbled into the apartment. She was battered, bloody, injured. I could feel her weakness. The moment she stepped in, she began inhaling the Hearth that the human had left in the place. Her body writhing on the bed, she was desperately trying to repair herself. She fed on him, I could see. On the compassion inside of him, and the gentle warmth he showed towards people. It was almost like a Lar, the way she depended on it. I stood over her, a knife in my hand. I thought, for a long time, that I might try to finish the job while she was weak. Reveal myself to the grieving human, promise to protect him.

And how would he respond, finding his cat dead, and a crazed spirit telling him that it was for the best?

The thing came out of the bathtub as I prevaricated. It shouldn’t have been able to enter. If I had been paying attention, it never would have slipped past my threshold. I became insubstantial, and watched as it approached the bedroom. Glee filled me. Here was an opportunity. If the thing took the cat’s life, I could wait for the human to return home, and kill it. A chance to be the hero, to reveal myself by saving him. Too tragically late to save his beloved pet, but…

I watched, as the thing stood in the doorway, its head turning slowly from side to side. Something seemed to be spooking the creature, making it nervous. I urged it silently forward, trying to convince it to go and murder the interloper goddess. This was my chance. It walked to the linen closet. I shivered with disgust as oil-slick feet dragged across the ground, and placed the knife back where it had been in the kitchen. I waited, and hoped that the goddess would die. No such luck. She was a resilient one.

The human returned. I watched as he cared for her. His warmth filled the house, and the goddess drank it in. Warmth that was mine, by right. She was a greedy creature, drinking deep from the Hearth that surrounded him. I watched as he took care of her. Showing her the same care that he showed me. I felt a certain warmth to see him behaving so kindly, and a burning rage to see someone else benefit from it.

While he cared for her, the oily creature slipped out of the bathroom, and made its way to the pantry. I watched it with growing suspicion, trying to figure out what it was planning, or if it was even planning. It seemed distracted, almost insensate, sniffing at the air occasionally. Then, as the human started cooking, it seemed to grow animated. I tried to whisper a warning to him, even as I went for the knife. It had him by the throat even as I lunged for the block. As I wrapped my fingers around the hilt of the butcher’s knife, the cat was on her feet. I drew the knife, and swung, just a bit too late. The goddess beheaded the monster, and was rewarded with the praise.

That night, I appeared to her. She looked at me, annoyed, as she sat on the couch, stretched out languorously. “What do you want, house-spirit?”

“You said that thing came to get revenge on you. It tried to harm my occupant because of your actions.” I tightened my hand around the knife. “Why should I allow you to threaten him?”

“I saved him.” She narrowed her eyes. “I’m surprised you let it get close enough to hurt him. If you want me dead, you should do the work yourself. You can’t trust someone else to do it. They might end up killing the human you’re pining after.” She brushed her hair. “Foolish of you to grow so attached to a human. Love is a poison for our kind, you know. If you fall in love with someone so brief, then they’ll only end up betraying you. By dying before you, if nothing else.” I narrowed my eyes.

“It sounds as though you have learned this from experience. Spending too much time in heat, rubbing up against human’s legs?” I asked, my eyes narrowed. Then something struck me, my eyes widening. “How-”

“Did I know that you’re pining after that human? Please, you might as well be humping his leg like a dog, little house-spirit. I had thought it was odd that you had spent so much time around him without attacking him or frightening him off. He makes you feel good, doesn’t he? The way he takes care of you, being kind to you. Even though we both know you’re a monster deep down, he doesn’t. And you’d hate for him to realize how bad you are.” She smirked.

“Perhaps he would find it in himself to forgive me.” The words sounded hollow even to me.

“I wouldn’t show yourself to him. Otherwise, he might be frightened off, and leave you alone again.” She ran a finger across her lips, smiling coyly. “You would just hate that, wouldn’t you, little house-spirit? So, just make sure that he’s safe while he’s here, and everything will be fine. If you care so much for his safety, than it would be a good idea to protect him. I may not be around to watch over him.” She rolled over. “Now, take that body, and dispose of it. It would be terribly inconvenient for your owner if someone found that body here.”

I seethed. But there was nothing I could do. She was right. I disposed of the body, in a manner that I wouldn’t have wanted Horace to see. And then, I simply drifted watched, and was thankful for the care that he put into things. Even if I couldn’t touch him, I could still warm myself by his presence. Then, through no fault of my own, he began to grow curious.

The newspaper was an accident. It was a momentary weakness. I was surprised to see my old owner in the print, and to see what he had claimed. Nobody had ever found out about the other women he had killed. There were even some who thought he was innocent. The idea grated on my nerves like a paint-stripper. Then, calamity. The human began to speak about me, and the damn cat told him everything. She’d betrayed me, and he learned the most unflattering form of the truth. I listened, as he outlined his plan to her. He was going to try to bend me to his will, to control me. To betray me.

And then, little more than a day and a half later, I was sitting, staring down at my hands. They weren’t covered in blood. The trophy was a silly little thing, but it was a symbol of victory, the shape of someone strong. It was beautiful, in its own way. And it sat on the coffee table, a tribute to me, a sign of respect. He thought I was dangerous. And he thought I was worth caring for. I rested my hand on the honey cake, and took a bite. Sweet crystallized sugar filled my mouth, better than anything I’d been given before. I was a person. I was a goddess. Not just a tool. I was Phoebe. And he would show the proper respect.

I looked up at him. He respected the strength that was inside of the goddess cat, and the strength that was in me. He gave me something that I needed. I felt a strange urge, to give something to him. To show that I could be useful, more useful than the goddess. A terrible, traitor impulse, some instinct that marked me forever as a Lar. The need to make a human feel comfortable, to feel sheltered. I had always hated the feeling. But perhaps I simply needed to frame it in a different way.

“You are a man of respect. I will provide you with a boon.” I declared, imperious. I prayed he would not be offended. He had a small grin on his face, and I chose to ignore his amusement. He’d come to respect me in time. I reached down, and pulled up the floorboards, hauling the two steamer trunks onto the floor. “These were the property of my first owner. He was a man of great knowledge, if little wisdom. There are things in here that will help you. And I will help teach you what I know of them. I will make a contract with you, to provide you with power. I will teach you my form of magic.”

His face fell, and he looked disappointed. I didn’t hold it against him. “I’m guessing that when you say your form of magic, you’re not talking about learning how to hurl lightning bolts and fireballs.”

“Why on earth would you wish to learn those things? I am going to teach you House-Magic. The things my power is suited to. Ways to ward this place, and to channel the Hearth inside of you.” He frowned. “If you think that these things are beneath you,” I suggested, my tone sharp as my heart hammered with anxiety and fear of rejection, “then you certainly do not need to accept my gift.”

“No! No, I’m grateful, Phoebe, just…” He frowned. “I want to be strong. I worry, you know? I just feel…”

“As though you cannot protect those you care about,” I whispered softly. “I know the feeling. I cannot act beyond my borders. Every day I must watch you leave, and know that you may never return, and there is nothing I can do to protect you. So, this is the first spell that I have to offer you.” I held the book forward. “It is simple, because it is just a way to communicate with me. Speak these words, and I will draw you back. It does not work from too great a distance- I am strong, but not that strong. But if you are in need of protection, this will bring you back here, to where I am strongest, and where your Hearth is strongest.”

“You said that before. What is Hearth, exactly?”

I frowned. “You know, when you enter a house, it is warmer than the area around it. When you wear clothing, they make you warmer. But they do not create warmth. They simply amplify the warmth that you, yourself, create. That is the nature of shelter. Hearth is much like warmth. Your soul bleeds out around you, the spirit, the emotion that fills you. Some humans radiate cold, draining the life from others. But you are spilling warmth all around you. That power can nourish spirits, making them stronger. The goddess who you care for hungers for Hearth. She devours it. I feed off of it as well, but to a lesser degree. As a Lar, I am more of a container for Hearth than a consumer of it. But it is a good thing for you to be kind. The kindness you show to those who are around you makes your heart stronger. It is the only reason why I allowed you to stay as my occupant.”

He frowned softly. “So… It’s like body-heat for the soul. Betty likes to curl up next to me because I’m warm, and it makes her feel better.” He sighed. “Doesn’t seem very useful.”

“That all depends on your point of view. It is something that not many humans have, particularly not in the sheer abundance you possess. It can make you weak, to give your warmth away so freely. And it is not something most spirits or animals will do. It makes you vulnerable. And yet, your vulnerability can be a strength.” I sat down next to him, placing the book on his lap. He was warm to the touch, and I felt a satisfaction. It was much better than being cold, and empty. Maybe I could convince him to turn the cat out, and to allow me to remain as his protector.

The window opened, and the cat was in the house. She approached, swaying gracelessly, giving me a desultory look of annoyance. “Another stray, Horace?”

“You are the stray.” I said, my arms tightening around him possessively, as he let out a little uncertain noise. Her words were strangely slurred, and she shook her head as though clearing out cobwebs.

“Horace. Things are worse than I thought. I found out what the Church of the Survivor has planned. They’re going to release a plague god in the middle of New York City in a little more than a week.”

“So?” I asked.

Her only response was to collapse to the floor.

 

Chapter 9: Betty or Life

I left the apartment, seething, on Friday. The human just didn’t understand. Just because I didn’t want to mate with him didn’t give him permission to go find some other spiritual floozy who had none of my restraint and experience, and lay with them. And there was still the stunt he’d pulled with the serpent sorceress. Humans just couldn’t seem to understand ownership, sometimes. I hissed as I hopped out of the window, leaving it open behind me. It was time for me to investigate the clinics that the human had found. I still knew little about what was being planned by the cult, but it didn’t matter. Perhaps I would pin down a few of those rat-faced men, and ask them questions.

The small piece of paper I had gotten from Horace held the locations of each of the clinics. They were arranged in a loose circle through the center of the island of Manhattan. I landed lightly on the ground, and took it out of my shirt. The closest one I had already visited. The others would take longer to get to. I made for the subway, jumping the turnstile lightly, and sat down in one of the hard plastic chairs, tapping my foot impatiently as I looked around. For once, I was not hungry. That was a bad sign.

I was grateful that Horace had taken the time to find the clinics for me. There had been a time, when humans had been less numerous, when I could have sniffed out the supernatural things that lurked in sewers and dark places without difficulty. Now, humans filled the world. They hummed with activity, keeping the world unstable, their belief and dreams and hopes and faith acting rather like an unpleasantly powerful mixture of odors. Pleasant enough on their own, but confusing and aggravating in aggregate. This obscured the things that I was hunting. I was a supernaturally gifted predator, a goddess, and still, I couldn’t work alone. It was maddening. Needing the support of others, needing to depend on them. Sometimes, it made me terribly angry.

The house-spirit, for example. She was something I couldn’t be. I had to be out, hunting, to find these things. I couldn’t make sure that Horace was safe. Even the pendant was more insurance than protection. With that, I could see what was happening around him. Watch him. I could hear his words as he talked with his uncle, and the way he moved. It could make me aware of those who threatened him. If something happened while I was away, I wouldn’t be able to help him, in an emergency. I could only avenge him. Then I’d be a stray again. The house-spirit, however, if she could be made tame, would be able to protect him. The fact that I was even considering allowing her to do so rankled me. But then, I really didn’t want to be a stray again.

“Excuse me, miss.” A police officer was standing over me, frowning. “You homeless?” I shook my head, smiling pleasantly. “Well, you’re under-dressed. I’m going to have to take you in for indecent exposure.” This was good. I stood up, pressing up against him, and watched as his face turned red from the sudden contact. Humans could be so strange about these things. My hand slipped into his pocket as I purred loudly. Then the doors of the subway car opened, and I sprinted away, leaving the man’s head spinning, giggling wildly as I ran out of the station.

Three blocks away, sitting in an alley, I opened the wallet. Inside was money, and plastic cards of various kinds. I went to toss the emptied leather skin into the trash, when it sprang open. A flap of bent plastic, pressed together like a spring, unfolded. Dozens of photos of the man, what looked like his mate, and children. I held the wallet up, staring at the pictures for a long time. I felt a sharp little pain in my chest, and my ears flattened. I stood up and carried the wallet, money returned to its folds, to the first store I could see. I stepped in and left it on the counter before slipping back out. Maybe they would find a way to get it back to him.

I walked slowly towards the clinic, my head lost in memories of times long gone by. It was the way of human beings. They were wonderful, fun, interesting creatures. And they died very easily. If you became attached to something that had such a small life, then it could drag you down. You had to let them touch your life lightly, enjoy them and then let them go. The house-spirit would learn that the hard way if it wasn’t careful. I sighed, and approached the clinic, down by the south side of Central Park, and wandered inside.

People didn’t pay attention to me, because I didn’t want them to notice me. I walked through the halls, unnoticed. The smell of plague and rat were overwhelming, barely hidden by the bright lemon-scent of cleaning fluid. The city was being filled with more rats. I’d paid attention as Horace brought home newspapers. There were panics about it spreading, and the airports were being shut down. There was talk of quarantining the island, which had lead many people to leave their homes. A few isolated cases had been reported out in the surrounding cities. Trash was becoming piled high on the sides of the roads, and the smell combined with the heat was unpleasant, which was going too far.

It could have been just humans being stupid. But it probably wasn’t. Humans were silly creatures, but they knew how to organize a civilization, by and large. They screwed up from time to time, but they’d been doing very well against the black plague since the advent of medicine. When humans failed so spectacularly, it was often someone’s fault.

I made my way down the stairs, walking past a careless sentry who was sleeping at his post. The sentry at the bottom of the stairs wasn’t so fortunate, and I knocked him out. He’d wake up in a lot of pain, but he’d also live. I made my way through the endless corridors, and found the room that Horace had told me about in the other building.

A small cage sat at one wall, a rat inside of it. It squeaked loudly, showing obvious fear as I approached it. I could smell divinity on it. The faith of humans was being directed towards the rat, making it strong. Not strong enough, though. I opened the cage, and pierced its neck with my nails. It died quickly, and I frowned down at it. The creature didn’t have any real strength in it. Any divinity it had held was channeled away. I tried to lift it, only to find my hand coming up short. That prompted me to stare at the creature’s tail. It was locked into the wall. I could almost taste the divine energy rushing along, to somewhere else. I stood up, and considered my options. The creature was nothing but a conduit. I could have simply murdered everyone inside of the building and burned it to the ground, but that would involve a lot of effort and the death of more innocents than Horace ever would have been comfortable with. There were seven other clinics, too. Each of them would likely have the same bizarre scene repeated within.

I had seen humans use focuses sometimes. Belief could be a powerful source of energy. The things that lurked beyond the dark spaces were often hungry creatures, weak, and diseased. But with the grandeur of human belief, they could become something more. A rat could become a god. A plague could become divine. That’s why they slipped into this world. But for them to be making such a large and obvious attempt was strange. It would arouse suspicion among humans to be so obvious about their actions, and even gods had something to fear.

Me, for example.

I needed more information. And something that Horace had mentioned returned to me. His uncle, and the fact that he had a relationships of sorts with the church. I had listened in on the conversation that Horace had shared with his uncle earlier that day. Randall was not an unusual man, at least in his motivations. He wanted control, which is what so many weak people wanted. He had accused me, from what Horace had told me, of killing Horace’s father. It was far from impossible that I’d done it, but I felt that I had proven today how capable I was about not murdering people when I could help it. And someone with a grudge against me could have fabricated such a story.

I made my way via subway to the large skyscraper that contained the offices of Randall Creed. I walked in with enough confidence that the security guard did not challenge me, and rode the elevator to the office’s floor. There were no cameras that I could see in the hallway, and an air vent near the floor. I crouched down, ripping the vent out of the wall, and took on cat form, slipping inside. The vents were cold, but my fur kept me warm enough. I crawled along through them for a few minutes, just barely small enough to fit through them, until I found the old man’s office.

He was sitting silently at the desk, scribbling. He flipped open his flask, and took a sip from it. The smell was not of alcohol. I narrowed my eyes.

In a time before memory, Set, God of Deserts, Storms, Violence, and Foreigners, had been a usurper. He had slain Osiris, separating him into many pieces, and discarding them. Isis had reconstituted Osiris, and lain with him to bear a son, who had fought and beaten Set. There were no coincidences in the world. I suspected the man, immediately. But then, the door opened.

“Mary.” His voice was smooth as she entered. The Deacon from the church that hadn’t had the bones to put her life on the line for her cause. “You must have something you need quite desperately to come here. Did you think that you could take away my nephew so easily? Did you think that I had no idea what you are?”

“I must confess, I underestimated your paranoia, Creed.” Her voice was smooth. She sniffed the air, and frowned. “You didn’t keep your little bodyguard here for our meeting?”

“I do not need a demon to kill you.” One of his hands rested on a letter opener, as he watched her. The two were fighting for dominance. I could feel the tension sparking between them. “The ritual is in a week’s time, then?” he asked, smiling.

“Yes.”

“So I could kill you, and there’d be nobody to head the ritual.”

“Yes. And a newborn god would rise, uncontrolled, in the middle of the city, shedding plague throughout the streets. No treatment available, and billions would die. Human civilization would collapse. Whereas if you hold to our plan, then people survive. I help to provide the King with a sense of conscience. A belief that the world should be protected. We have both felt the dark things rising through the cracks. Rats fleeing a sinking ship. The world needs every god it can muster.” She smiled. “There are no choices. We are steering a ship along a current of fate. If we deviate from what fate holds for us, then we will crash upon the rocks of ignorance, and everyone will die. You are a monster hunter. You know what happens when you face things without knowing what they are.” He grunted.

“Perhaps I have not made myself clear.” He took a deep drink from the flask, and grabbed the letter-opener, standing up. In three steps, he was in front of the woman, holding the sharp edge against her narrow throat. “I care about the world, it is true. But I am not a god. I am a man. That means that fate is something I can ignore. If you ever threaten my nephew like that again, then I will cut your head off, and I will not care if that means that our world is lost. I will give it all up if you take him away. The boy’s all I have left of my family.” She stood stock-still. “Do you understand me?”

“Yes.” She hissed, her eyes wide. That surprised me. She couldn’t have taken me, but that was natural. She feared this man, terribly. And he wanted to protect Horace, in his own twisted way. That was not something I would have expected from him.

“Good. Is there anything more you need to do to set up the ritual?” He asked, as he returned to his chair, dropping the letter opener to the desk. He looked tired, sinking into the chair heavily, his head lowered.

“Our workers are becoming… disturbed, by the voice of the King. We need stronger wards. That will be expensive.” Randall waved a hand.

“Go speak with the secretary. I’ll authorize another payment. And remember our deal.”

“Does it ever become tiring, carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders, Creed?”

“Does it ever become tiring, being a shrew?”

“Bastard.”

“Sycophant.”

The woman stood, and turned as Randall sank back into the chair. He stared out of the office window for several seconds. Then, there was a soft pop, and the strange albino woman appeared. Her skin was as pale as snow, her eyes red, and her kimono extremely skanky. I frowned, as she approached Randall. “Master.” She spoke softly, bowing her head down low.

“Hello, Li Xue Zi.” He leaned back in his chair. “Is Horace still safe?”

“Yes. The Church of the Survivor has kept men posted around his apartment, watching his movements, but they have not become hostile so far. One of them accosted him on the train, but only for a donation. I do not think that most of them know what he is to you.” She frowned.

“What’s on your mind?”

“Sir. Why do you care about him so much? I heard what you said to the woman. You’ve been working towards this for years. You know how much rides on this. Why would you risk it all because of a threat made against him?”

The man tapped his fingers across the desk. “We all owe something to the dead. You should know that better than anyone, Li.” He looked up. “But you wouldn’t, would you, ‘Goddess’?”

I struck the vent, and stepped out, taking on my deific form. How he knew I was there was not important. The serpent woman leapt at me, arms like steel cables tightening around me. I sank my teeth into her shoulder, and pulled one leg up, jabbing my toenails into her stomach. She stumbled away, bleeding heavily, and I strode forward. I grabbed the old man by the tie, and dragged him across the desk, rolling him onto his back. He narrowed his eyes up at me. “Bast-et.”

“Bast to you, human. Do not adopt a familiarity you do not deserve.” I looked over at the serpent. She was bleeding heavily, but her wounds closed swiftly. “Stay down, demon. You do not have what it takes. Even if I am not protecting my human, I can still muster the strength to gut you.”

“Oh, that is so often your way, isn’t it, cat?” the man asked, accusingly, his eyes narrowed. “You’re nothing but a killer. Good at nothing but dealing with pests, and vermin.” I turned back towards him, and met his eyes, staring into them. He stared back, stubborn to a fault.

“You have just confessed to working with the Church of the Survivor. Your actions are putting my domain in danger. I take no joy in killing a family member of my human, but I will not feel guilty about it.” I raised my claws.

“Do you even remember my brother?” he hissed out. I stopped, arm in the air, ready to gut him. “You don’t. Do you? I can still remember the way he died. I see it every night when I fall asleep. And you forgot about him. You think that you’re a worthwhile protector for my species? You can’t even remember the name of the one you killed. And now you’re going to do the same thing again, and fuck up years of planning, because you can never be bothered to stop and wonder whether you’re making the right choice!”

I sighed, and rested my claws down by his ear, staring him in the eye. “I am going to go to this central park, and kill whatever thing you have made, like I have killed so many of its kind before. And then, I am going to come back to finish you. Do you understand me?” He narrowed his eyes, as I released him.

“Do you think that you can keep protecting this world from what’s coming?” he asked, as he pulled himself back into his seat. “Do you even know what it is that’s coming? There’s a reason all of those things have been fleeing to this world. It’s the last safe harbor. It’s the place where they’re making their stand. They’re desperately trying to get enough power to survive, when the things in the darkness finally arrive. You’ve spent your entire life dealing with vermin, pest, migratory animals that travel between worlds.” He had never broken eye contact, and he had never blinked. “There are things out there that are so far beyond you as you are beyond me. There are things that you can’t beat. There are things that you can only adapt to, that you can only try to ride out. How are you going to claw a stillborn ocean to death? How are you going to find the place to bite, on a song that spreads from mind to mind? There are horrible things going on out there, and you are not smart enough to defeat them!”

I leaned forward, struggling to hold back the urge to pounce. “You do not know what I have faced in the darkness, human. Your people knew only of a few things that I have fought. I have lived for thousands of years, and I have never been defeated.”

“That does not mean you can’t be beaten.”

“I know that well, human.” I narrowed my eyes. “That you would presume to lecture me. How can I be certain that you are not the one who murdered your brother? Jealousy, perhaps, desire for his woman, or for his inheritance? You, the one who wrestles with serpents? The one who brings storm and discord around him, Set?”

He stared at me for a long few seconds. And then, he began to laugh. “You’re as senile as I am, aren’t you? You’ve lost your mind.” He placed his hand on the desk. “Humans are not gods. We make our own fates. My nephew is not Horus, I am not Set. And I will tell him that you are dangerous. You may believe you are a protector of this world, but the world deserves better than you, cat.”

He said it like a curse. I continued holding his gaze, and responded quite levelly, “Thank you.” Then I turned, and walked out of the office, causing a great deal of concern and consternation as I left, and feeling extremely annoyed. I was confused. I didn’t usually have to think these things through. I found the things that were killing or harming humans, and I killed them, and then I was fed and praised. Moral ambiguity and questions of the ultimate end were not my business. I had always lived. The idea that one day I would no longer be alive was not frightening to me. It wasn’t even a meaningful statement.

I made my way to Central Park. I could smell it, now that I knew what to look for. The smell of god, lingering on the air. Foreign gods. Foreign to this country, this time, this world. There was something strangely familiar about it, nonetheless. In the middle of a large cordoned off area, there were a number of men wearing rat-faced masks. There were police barricades all around it, but the people manning them wore rat-faced masks as well as blue uniforms. I took on feline form, and walked past the barricades, hiding in the bushes. The small roped-off area was at the north side of the giant lake in the center of the park, with a surprisingly beautiful view.

I could hear the newborn god babbling and whispering. It tried to reach into my head. I ignored it as I crept closer to the center of the cordon. There, sitting in the middle of the park, on a small stone-shod path, were dozens of tails. Hundreds of them. They were wound together, tied into a massive, complicated knot. They sat in the middle of four large spotlights, each of which shone down on the tails. Impossibly, shadows extended from the matted ball in four directions, in defiance of the light and the laws of nature. I begrudgingly gave the makers of this thing points for style.

I was about to approach the ball when I saw one of the workers stepping away from his post. He stumbled forwards towards the spotlights, pulling off his rat mask. One of the other men tried to grab him, and missed, as he crossed into the light.

A vast black cloud, shaped like a man, stood up from the tails. Its arms opened wide. The cultist smiled ecstatically as his friend yelled out to him. Then, the creature’s arms slid around him, and embraced him in a grasp like a lover. The arms released, and the man fell to the ground. His skin was jaundiced, boils visible across his skin, blood dripping from him. It was not a pretty sight, as the black cloud slumped, back, hands over its face, looking rather like someone locked in despair.

I took on my deific form, and approached it, gently pulling the man’s body out of the lights. Any semblance of life that it had once possessed were long gone. “I think I know you.” I murmured softly, as I studied the creature. “Nergal, wasn’t it? We met twice. Once in Babylon. Once in Italy.”

The creature tilted its head, and then a broad smile split across the black, formless face, a crack of starlight, filled with white and blue specks. “Oh, yes! I remember you! You’re the nice cat-lady!” The creature looked down at the body. “Is he going to be alright?”

I looked down at the husk. I wondered how many diseases Nergal embodied, now. I could remember, vaguely, that he wasn’t picky, as far as gods of disease went. He would welcome a mild flu or an embarrassing genital rash as happily as black death and the great pox. I had beaten him before. I could do it again. “I’d thought you were a rat god, you know.”

Nergal giggled childishly, his voice warm and soft. “That’s silly. Like there are even any rat gods out there! No, it’s just me, your old friend, Nergal!”

“We were never friends.”

“Weren’t we? But you could always stand my embrace.” He looked down at the body. “The humans are finally inviting me back. They want my help! I’m going to help make them strong, and tough enough to survive what’s coming!”

“And what is coming, Nergal? Everyone makes these vague references to things coming, from out of the darkness. But what are they, exactly?”

“Everyone. All of our old friends. They’re finally coming back. The world’s going to be full of gods and monsters and demons and angels again. And Him. The scary one. The humans are going to have a hard time of it, though. You know how the gods could be. They didn’t care. Not like you and me. They didn’t see how special humans were.” The plague god laughed softly, giggling into his hands. “I met some very nice humans. They’re making me strong. They’re going to make me strong enough that I can help everyone, and they’ll tell me how I can be the best god I can be. I’m going to take everyone under my wings.” The smile on the plague-god’s face was beatific. “I know you didn’t really agree with my methods, Bastet. But can’t we get over that?” The creature took a step towards me. I took a step back. “Come on. You know that you can survive my touch. Don’t shrink away. Even the humans aren’t shrinking away anymore. They’re going to let me into their hearts, and their intestines, and their eyes, and their skin, and their brains. I’ll be friends with every one of them, at last. I’ll make them so strong, that when the other gods get here, they’ll be safe. You could help me, you know.”

I looked down at the man. “How many of them would die like that man?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Lots. Not everyone’s strong enough. I hope not as many, though. Maybe half? Maybe even less! I’m getting better at controlling myself, so I don’t get too overeager!”

I sighed, staring down at the body. “You know, I could almost agree to that. It would be nice to simply be able to rest.” I smiled. “But humanity is mine. And I won’t let you kill them to protect them. They belong to me. And I am a jealous god.”

Nergal giggled softly, a titter that jingled through the air. “Awww. You’re so harsh, Bast. Don’t worry. I’ll treat them gently.” He lunged forward, and I did the same. I bit, and clawed, and savaged, tearing and slashing at the creature, even as he laughed and struggled against me. My nails tore at his insubstantial spirit, and black filth spewed forth, divine disease. I struck blows that tore deep into the fabric of his being, but he just kept on coming, laughing his child’s laugh, and breathed in the belief, the terror, the disease that filled the city.

The moment came when I realized I was losing. I swung an arm, and the creature dodged. I tried to bite into its neck, and failed to break through the surface. Weakness was rushing through my body. Dozens of diseases churned in me, too powerful for me to resist. I felt nausea running through me, sending me stumbling backwards. “You’re getting old, Bastet! And I’m just me. I don’t get any older, or get weak. Not like you do. I’ve got this whole city worshiping my name, believing in me, praying to me. To leave them alone, of course, but that’s okay. They’ll find out I’m not such a bad guy, soon.” I stepped back, and he grinned. “Scaredy-cat.”

I ran, into the night. My skull was pounding with fever. I stopped, and threw up into the dirt, and spent a minute or so covering it over and cleaning my lips. I needed to hide. To find somewhere safe from predators. My head spun. The first instinct was to go back home, and to recover there. It wasn’t safe. I was diseased. I couldn’t be trusted. I had to hide. My mind was becoming fractured. I stumbled, and faded in and out.

I wanted to be home. I wanted to warn my human. He was in danger, and so was everyone else. I wanted to curl up at his side and purr until I felt whole again. I wanted to be taken care of. I didn’t want to be alone, in an alley, being poisoned by my own body. I just wanted him to care about me and protect me.

When I came out of the fugue, I was standing in the window. My stomach ached. I shivered with cold. My feet hurt. Someone had painted the walls orange. I stumbled into the living room, and stared between the two. The damn human was sitting with that house spirit, as she kittened up against him. I felt my stomach churn, and not just because of whatever unpleasant stomach flu was ailing me. I opened my mouth to speak. I don’t remember what I said. The house spirit didn’t seem impressed. Then, I collapsed on the floor.

When I woke up, I was lying in a hot bath. I felt as though I had been run over by a truck. My head was spinning. I mewled softly, and was rewarded by Horace holding up a glass of cold water for me. I drank from it, and then remembered what had been so important. “Horace- Plague-”

“Yeah. We heard all about it.” He stroked my head. The house-spirit was standing over me, carefully dropping lavender leaves, willow bark, and what smelled a great deal like catnip into the water. A sharpie had been used to draw a circle around the bath, and I could feel its protective magic. “Phoebe helped me with this. It’s helping to contain the disease, and to keep you from getting sick. I haven’t been showing any signs of black death or feline AIDS, so I’m guessing that it’s working.” He reached out, and stroked my ears. The bath was annoying, but I didn’t have it in me to protest, even as the human pet me. My ears were messy, my hair sticking to my skin, and my tail looked ridiculous. It was a miserable experience. Even worse was the humiliation. He’d seen me weak. He’d seen me defenseless, vulnerable, helpless. He was never going to respect me after this. It had been bad enough to be beaten bloody in front of him. This was intolerable.

Then, he stroked my hair again, and I melted a bit, leaning my head into his hand. After the cold and the fear, it felt good to be cared for. This was the reason I had made the deal in the first place, after all. After fighting the predators and the things out in the world that had challenged me for dominance, I was weak, and vulnerable. I needed to be protected. It was humiliating and shameful, but the humans took a joy in it. They enjoyed feeding me, grooming me, providing shelter for me. It was a dependence I didn’t care for, but they treated it like a duty on their part. I licked his palm gently. I hated that I cared about humans, sometimes. But I couldn’t control the little joy I felt at being stroked.

“You said there was a plague-god. Something that was going to be here, and soon. What were you talking about? Where is this thing? Who’s responsible for all of this?”

I thought about it, and decided to opt for honesty. “It’s your uncle. He helped summon this thing.”

“I need to go talk with him.” Horace stood up, and stroked my fur again. “Phoebe. Please, take care of Betty while I’m gone. Okay?” I reached out to grab his shirt as he started to step away, my fingers tightening as I hooked a nail in the fabric. He turned towards, me, and frowned. “What’s the matter?”

“Don’t trust him. He thinks that I killed your father. And I don’t know if he’s right. But I know that he had a hand in all of this. You can’t trust him.”

Horace leaned over, and softly kissed me on the forehead. “I never do.”

 

Chapter 10: Horace Sense

It was Sunday afternoon. There was only one place my uncle would be. I sat in the subway, feeling the rage burning in the pit of my stomach. It was almost deserted, except for a pair of men in rat-faced masks holding a conversation, and watching me from one of the far corners. I tightened my hand around the pendant Betty had given me, and thought of the words to the ritual that Phoebe had told me. It suited me, I supposed, a magic to let me run away. It wasn’t as though I was going to be any good at fighting if things became violent, no matter how angry I was. But eventually, the two men got off the train, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

This was the second time in less than a month that I had seen Betty return home, wounded, on the verge of death, desperate for help. It was starting to get very old. And my uncle knew something, which meant that it was time to put all of our cards on the table. I reached into my jacket, settling my hand on the chef knife’s handle. It wasn’t much of a weapon, but I didn’t have a gun, or anything else worth half a damn. I’d just have to make do with what I had, and hope that my uncle wasn’t going to make this more difficult than it had to be. I spent the next five minutes with my face in my hands. This was going to end up with the two of us stabbing each other to death, I just knew it.

The streets were barren. Tourism had dried up completely for the first time since the 80s. There were no more flights in or out of LaGuardia and JFK. The city was still running, barely, but people were staying indoors. The trash was piled high on the corners. I had to walk around a massive drift where the bags had torn open and spilled their contents onto the ground. Rats frolicked through it, squeaking loudly as they tussled and played. I gave them a wide berth as I approached the office tower. The security guard on duty was looking a bit worn, and he smiled as he took my ID card. “Who would have thought it, huh? Government bureaucracy does us in again, yeah?” I smiled wanly in response, and he waved me through.

I had left Betty in the care of Phoebe, while I went out to try to get answers. I wondered if I’d see the two of them again. I also, briefly, wondered why every apparently supernatural being in my life could be homicidally jealous. It wasn’t as though any of them had expressed interest in a romantic relationship, as far as I could tell. They just seemed to have a natural possessiveness that made life difficult.

I stepped into the law office, and stared. It was empty. For the first time in my life, I was in the office while the sun was still up, and nobody else was in the building. Stacks of paper were left unsorted. Computers were turned off. Nobody had been in the office since Friday. I wandered through the corridors, making my way to my uncle’s office. There were a few stains on the floor. Some of them looked uncomfortably like blood. The cleaning staff hadn’t visited the building in some time. The entire world was spinning wildly off course, falling apart all around me. I trailed a finger over the wall where someone had carved FUCK YOU CREED into it with the head of a pen, ripping open the drywall.

When I opened my uncle’s office door, I was surprised to find him not working. He was sitting in his chair, a flask hanging from his hand, staring out the window. He looked over his shoulder, and brightened a bit. “Horace! My boy.” I looked over to the side. The large python was in the terrarium, curled up, its red eyes open and staring at me. I reached into my jacket, and took out the knife. Its steel edge glinted in the light. I always kept the knives in good shape, sharp enough to shear through bones and tendons when I was cooking. I wasn’t a knife-fighter, but it didn’t seem like the most complicated strategy imaginable. Stick the sharp bit in the fleshy bit. Creed seemed unimpressed. “You’ve been keeping secrets from me, Horace. Guess I taught you well.”

I held the knife in one hand, standing across the desk from him. “I saw the cat you told me about, uncle. I took her in, and protected her, and took care of her, because I think that she’s doing good. She’s saved my life once. She’s gone out to fight the things in the darkness, night after night, and protected me. So why the hell do you say that she’s killed my father?” I approached him, and grabbed his tie, yanking him around to face me. “Why the hell have you been keeping all of this a secret from me?!”

Randall Creed was an elderly man, and tended towards the infirm. This is why it surprised the hell out of me when his hand lashed out like a cobra, fingers digging into my tendons. The knife dropped from my hand, and I let out a cry of anger, pulling back. He kept his grip, jumping over the desk with a practiced grace, landing with his full weight against me, overbalancing me. The knife clattered against the ground as I fell, the man landing on top of me, his fist raised, knuckles tight. I looked up at him, meeting his eyes without blinking. He had tears in his eyes. “I promised your father I’d keep you safe from all of this.” He whispered hoarsely. I let out a cry of anger and swung clumsily. The blow was enough to knock the old man to the side, and I used the momentum to roll with him and and pin him down to the ground.

“You helped them! You got in bed with some crazy bitch, who tried to give me plague, and then tried to kill me! How is that protecting me?!”

A hand rested on my shoulder. I looked up, and the white-haired girl was standing there. The snake tank was empty. She frowned softly. “Please, don’t hurt him.”

“Or what? You’ll break my neck?” I asked, my hand tight on Randall’s lapel. He laughed, and she shook her head.

“Of course not. You are his kin. He told me to protect you, above all else. That is why I went to save you. Your uncle will not see you come to harm. And I would rather you not do something that you will regret.” She was quiet for a moment, her red eyes lidded. “You could do something that will fill you with guilt for a very long time. You should not strike the one who takes care of you.”

“Hrn. That demon would know, boy.” Randall sat under me, his eyes narrowed. “Now, you going to let me get up and explain what’s been going on?”

I looked down at him, my eyes narrowed. “My cat came back from trying to kill whatever it is that you helped to make. She was half-dead, and she told me that you were responsible for it.”

“You know what that cat is? It’s bad luck. Where it goes, death follows, and the people who shelter it die, boy! You think I would have ever let you live with that damned goddess if I had known that you’d taken over those duties?”

“They die because she protects everyone! Bad things happen where she goes, because she goes there to stop them! That’s something that’s noble, Randall! It’s something better than you’ve done with your whole damned life! I don’t have anything else I can do to save the world, but if it means protecting people, the least I can do is put my life on the line to protect her!”

Randall stared up at me, and snorted. “Let me up, boy. I’ve got something to show you, in that case.” I stood up, grabbing the knife, and sliding it back into my jacket. The snake-woman helped Randall up, not making eye contact with me as she did, gently resting one of his arms around her shoulders, holding him up. “You’ve met Li Xue Zi. An old… Well, friend would be the wrong word, wouldn’t it, Zi?”

“Slave, perhaps, would suffice.”

Randall snorted. “You and I both know that you’re not here against your will. If you wanted to, you could just flit off and be a murderous demon wherever you like, couldn’t you? When you’re bound somewhere because of your word, that’s not slavery. It’s honor.” He smirked, as he stood up. “Li Xue Zi here did something unforgivable, years back. Your father and I bound the demon to serve our family. And it has a great skill with protecting people. Ironic, considering how it ended up cursing itself.” I frowned at the snake girl, and she looked down. “Shame and disapproval are powerful tools on animals, boy. Never forget to use them.”

“They’re not animals.”

“Aren’t they? They don’t have reason, boy. Not when it counts. They’re wild creatures, and they do a hell of a lot of harm until they’re brought to heel. You’d do best to remember that.” He snorted. “They’re all believers in fate, in there being only one way that things can turn out. That’s why Zi here keeps serving me, because she believes to break her word is to die, literally.” The serpent inclined her head softly, as the three of us began walking out of the building.

“When did you get in bed with these bastards?” I asked, softly.

“How did this all begin… I’ve run into a lot of cults, many of them with different ideas about the end of the world. Everyone agrees, though, that it’s going to happen. The human condition is obsessed with its own end. In the same way that some people commit suicide, just so that they can be said to have a decision about when and where they die, some people will try to bring about the end of the world, so they can feel meaningful. Because they think that the world deserves it. Because they believe that there’s something better that will happen after everything crashes down. Your father and I, we’d just graduated Law School, when we were approached by the Order of Set. They offered us a job, doing… Well, call it troubleshooting.”

“Set. The god of snakes?” I asked, looking over at Li. She smiled, fluttering her eyelashes, and I felt my stomach tighten a bit.

“Hah! That’s a misnomer. Set was the god of many things, but the only animal he was associated with was a strange looking dog-thing. But he was the one who fought Apep, the serpent, when the destroyer of all things came to devour Ra. Set was a god of disorder, violence, and foreigners. What better god was there to hold back the chaos itself?” He shook his head. “The two of us had attracted the Order’s attention because… Well, let’s just say that the two of us were no angels. We were in a county jail, celebrating our passing the Bar, when the Order approached us. Told us that they had a place for us, saving the world.” He smirked. “Great times they were, too. Travelling across the world. Fighting cults, defeating monsters.”

The three of us were in the garage, now. Li led Randall to a car, and took the driver’s seat. “Get in, boy.” He waved for me to join him in the back as he settled heavily in the leather seat. The car started with a rumble. “So, the two of us spent quite a while like that, enjoying ourselves, adventuring, defeating dark things. We got awful good at it. And then, we ran into that cat. Things went poorly on that mission. Your father ended up dying. And he asked me to take care of you, and your mother. You were born not long after that, in fact. And so, I did my best to protect you. To keep you away from the dark things in the world, and to make sure that you’d grow up strong, because no matter how hard I tried to protect you, I knew you’d wind up in the thick of it.” He shook his head. “Just like we did.”

“Set killed his brother, and was nearly killed for it by his nephew, too.” I suggested. He smirked.

“We’re men, nephew. Not gods. We get to choose whether we fulfill prophecies.” The car drove in silence for some time. “I know I drove you hard, boy. I know that my views may seem heinous to you. I know that it may bother you. I’m sorry that I’ve driven this wedge between us over the last few years. In a way… I’m almost grateful for all this madness, and chaos. I’ve wanted to be able to tell you these things for so long, but if you’d known they were there, you would’ve gone looking for them.” He looked down. “I guess I’m an old coward. Too afraid to betray his word to his dead brother, even if it meant I could’ve prepared you a bit better. But then, we all thought that this was long over.”

I frowned. “What do you mean, over?” He sighed softly.

“You’ll see in a few minutes. We’re going to the Natural History Museum.”

The old museum sat, proud and tall. It was closed, but the security guard allowed us through after Li flashed him a laminated card. We drove into the parking garage, and our steps echoed as we walked into the empty museum. The displays were unlit, creating a strange, alien feeling to the building. The last time that I had been here had been when I was a child. It had been Randall who had taken me, on one of his once-a-year vacation days. I’d spent the entire day running through the building, fascinated by everything, as he chided me and explained many boring facts which I had not listened to. The three of us entered the Hall of African Peoples, and he stopped in front of a wall.

“Li, if you would be so kind?” The serpent pressed a palm against the wall. With a grinding noise, it slid open, revealing a staircase downwards. We walked down the staircase together, footsteps echoing. It didn’t look like anyone had been here in a long time. “There used to be dozens of us in the order. At our height, in the 1950s, there were over a hundred. But the fantastic things… They were all disappearing. As we made the world safe, we found the world had become predictable, dull, stolid. Safe, but… Well, smaller than it had been.” We reached the bottom of the stairs. “I never thought I would have missed it.”

We stood in the entrance to a large room. Dozens of chairs were set up, and a grand, ornate fireplace. It was filled with the heads of things that I couldn’t quite describe, stuffed things that looked just a little more like people than I was comfortable with. A pair of golden-shafted spears with ruddy iron tips hung crossed over the fireplace. A hunting rifle sat in a place of honor on a small table. Small statues of intricate detail and incalculable value lined the mantel. Everywhere, there was a sense of history. And hanging between them were cobwebs, dust obscuring things. “How long has it been since I was young?” Randall asked softly.

“What happened to this place?” The room was faintly illuminated by an incandescent bulb in the stairwell, but Li walked over to the fireplace, and began piling ancient wood into it. With a flash of light, heat filled the room as the the fire caught.

“The same thing that happens to every place that does not have a purpose. Over the years, we drifted apart. Many of us died. Many of us never married. And we didn’t see the need for new members, so the Order wasted away.” He ran a finger fondly over a chair, as though caressing an old lover. I didn’t want to know what he’d done in that chair. “And we thought it was for the best. The world had become small. All the mysteries had fled us, because we were so mighty. And now…” He looked up at the spears, shaking his head. “I could tell you stories for ages in this place. All of the great things that we accomplished, all of our grand tales. But we don’t have the time for that, do we? So I’ll tell you how I lost my nerve.”

It was three years back when he discovered the cult. The Deacon was backed by powerful interests. They had come to him, approaching him with an offer. They would bring forward a god, something that would help to protect the world. Something educated by people. Something that was kind. Something that would look favorably on humans, and do everything within its considerable power to protect them. “Why?” I asked, frowning. “You spent your life fighting for these kinds of things. Why would you agree to help them?”

Randall sat down slowly in the chair, lowering his head. “I was getting old. I didn’t have the same fight that I used to. I could taste the first stirrings of power, back then. The hints that were coming. Still, I railed against them, told them that I would never do it. And so they took me out there, to see the things that waited in the darkness.”

Randall leaned back, staring into space, and spoke. As he did, I felt my head tilting forward slightly in the cloying heat of the study, the crackling fire making the images he conjured up more vivid.

The Ateroleum was only a small part of a greater creature. Somewhere out there, in the depths of the space between the worlds, it waited. An ocean that had died too soon. Something that would have given birth to an entire world, girdling it and providing warmth, energy, shelter, had been murdered in its crib and turned rotten. It was too large, too powerful to fade away when it died. So it lingered, twisted, and powerful. He told me about the images he’d seen, of great bony fish covered in thick sludgy barnacles of oil. The life of a thousand worlds, pulled into the ocean, and smothered. It stretched across a bone-white salt flat of a world, with no sign of peak or valley, an unending ripple of black stasis. It would come, someday, for the earth, and soon.

The word. Nobody knew the word, except those who had spoken it, and it became the only word they knew, so they weren’t much help. It was a smiling thing that spread from voice to voice, but it didn’t know how to keep its speakers alive. It only knew how to spread. So it sent them out, desperately, to scream the word to others. When they’d taken him to see the word, he’d been made to wear earplugs, and they had warned him not to look at their lips. He was glad of that, because they were chapped and ragged, cracked and bloody. They didn’t do anything but repeat the word. He’d caught a glimpse of it, and thought it sounded a great deal like ‘Panties’, but wouldn’t speculate further on it.

The things. You couldn’t remember specifics when you stopped looking at them. You only remembered that you’d seen something horrible. Something so terrible you would do anything to never have to see them again. He shuddered as he told me about them.

The ice. A sapient structure of ice. It converted any water it touched into more of itself, spreading like a plague, fossilizing worlds. It was like a brain, larger than any single world, that spread virulently. It didn’t care that most of the creatures it met required water to stay liquid to survive. It left them a dry, frozen plane, unmoving, as it thought in ways that couldn’t be fathomed by any human being. They were very insistent that he undergo a scalding shower afterwards, to make sure that any he brought back with him didn’t have a chance to propagate.

And so on. We sat together for the better part of three hours as he described the things that he had seen in chilling ambiguity, his eyes drifting across the far wall as he spoke. He sipped from his flask occasionally, his words growing slurred. “I’d gotten old. I could see all of the things that were out there. And I asked myself, what would I give, to protect the people who were dear to me, from these things?”

I watched him, and felt my fingers tightening. “How many people are going to die because of this?”

He looked down. “Fifteen percent of the human population, if everything goes as well as we hoped. Nergal, when awoken, will be eager to embrace humanity. We did everything we could to ensure that as many people would survive. The people who die, you see, are wasted. They’re lost. It’s counterproductive for the plague god, and the church of the survivor, to let people die. If we could do it slowly, then we would, but… Doom is imminent.”

“Isn’t it always.” I muttered softly. “And so, what. This new god will be able to protect humanity? From everything? What can it do that Betty can’t?”

“Oh, no.” He shook his head. “It can only delay the inevitable. The world is doomed, my boy. That’s the other side to this. I couldn’t stop the Church of the Survivor. Maybe when the order was fresh and vital, when I was in my prime, I could have a hope of stopping the ritual from happening. But as it stands… All I can do is hope that by compromise, I can save those who are closest to me, and to steer the dark thing in wise directions.” He smiled mirthlessly. Li Xue Zi was looking away, shame on her face. “We all face our own powerlessness, boy. I couldn’t keep your father alive. I couldn’t keep you out of trouble. I couldn’t protect this world of mine. All I can hope to do is make sure that its doom is put off as long as possible. Compromise.” He snorted.

I stared at him. “What the hell happened to you?” I asked softly.

“I got old, boy. It’ll happen to you someday, too.” He looked down at his hands. “Well. I pray it will. If it does, then maybe your father will find it in his heart to forgive me when we meet again.”

“But we can do something.” I whispered.

“Like what, boy? The Order is dead. All that’s left here are…” He sighed, waving a hand. “Memories. Scattered dreams. Old artifacts.” He flicked a large iron shield, and it rang dully.

I stood up, my fists clenched. “You’re the last of an ancient order of demon hunters who protected the world. You’ve got the loyalty of a supernatural demon who I’ve watched kill men with a squeeze of her hand. I know a psychotic house goddess, a group of cops who hunt monsters for sport on the weekends, and an actual protector goddess. Together, you’ve got to damn well be able to do something! You can’t just let everything fade into the darkness like this! You always told me that men are the masters of their world! You can’t be willing to just let all of this happen!”

“Do you think it’s so easy to make things work like that? I’ve met the goddess more than once. She’s stubborn. Proud. Arro-”

“She needs help. She nearly died. I’ll make her understand reason. We’ve got to do something.” I brushed my hand against my eyes. “It can’t all just end like this. There has to be something you can do.”

He stood up slowly, uncertainly. And then, he hugged me. It was the first time that the old man had ever done it. His rough, scratchy cheek pressed against mine. He held me for a few seconds, before releasing me. “You’re a damn fool, boy. But so was your father, and he was one of the best men I ever had the privilege of knowing.” He looked over at Li Xue Zi. “What do you think, demon? One more ride to save the world? Or are you going to finally jump ship and join the other side?”

The serpent woman smiled enigmatically. “What good is life without adventure? What good is strength without risk? And what good is a world without humans in it?” She looked at me, her red eyes gleaming in the soft light of the fire. “I will fight to protect your bloodline again. Every man of the Creed bloodline is my ward, after all.”

The old man smiled softly. “Hah. You know that chances are better than even that we’re all going to die in this fight, snake.”

She shrugged. “Then it will mean I no longer have to look at your ugly face. You humans get old so quickly.” She stuck her forked tongue out at Randall, and the man laughed, turning towards me.

“Well, then. Here’s what I know. We don’t have much time. By this coming Saturday, on the night of the full moon, there is going to be a lunar eclipse. This is going to provide an opening for the plague-god. Nergal, it’s called. It’s tried to enter this world twice before, an old thing that wants to come back. The last time it made an attempt, at least a third of Europe died before it was forced back beyond the veil. It was worshiped throughout Mesopotamia, as a sun god, and a god of the underworld. A strange one. The Church of the Survivor’s planted rats throughout the city, focusing the fear of disease and the prayers of those who have survived the plague into Central park, on the north side of the JKO Reservoir. There are eight in the clinics, but there are dozens more in hospitals, and hundreds more under major skyscrapers. We couldn’t find them all if we tried, and it wouldn’t help; They could just replace them. They’re only a conduit.”

He straightened, looking more animated than he had in years. I frowned, considering those odds, and asked, “How are we going to handle them?”

“I’ve got a plan. The beginnings of one. We’re going to need help, lots of it. Can you have everyone else ready to meet by tomorrow night?” I nodded. “Then I’ll be able to start things.” He looked around the room, annoyed. “If only…”

“What?”

He shook his head. “The artifacts in this room used to be powerful. We collected them, in the hopes that they could be used against the dark things that we fought. Pack-rat behavior, really, in the hope that someday it would be useful.” He reached down, and brushed the rug in the center of the room. I was put in mind, suddenly, of the old Middle Eastern exhibit, a diorama which had featured a tiny figure on a flying carpet. It had always seemed very silly in a museum. It seemed much less so, suddenly. “This old thing used to work, the old men in the club told us. It could carry you through the air on the wind, as silently as a prayer. But when the demons and monsters and gods left, they took away whatever power animated these things.”

I licked my lips. “How did it work?”

“Oh, simple enough… You had to speak Arabic, but it wasn’t hard to command it.” He waved a hand dismissively. “Sond, something like that.” There was a crash and a clatter, as the coffee table was pitched sideways. The carpet rose perhaps six feet up as the coffee table fell to the ground. The gun on it discharged, directly into the iron shield, creating a ringing sound like a gong that rung through the room. The two of us stared as Li held her arm, looking extremely annoyed by the bullet wound that had been opened in her shoulder. “I don’t believe it,” whispered the old man.

“This stuff works again?” I asked, unable to keep the grin off of my face. “How?”

“Used to be a lot of power in the world. It all drained away over the years, but maybe…” He stared down at it.

“Maybe it’s not just the horrible things that are coming back?” I felt the tension in my shoulders as my fists clenched. “We can win.”

“We might just at that.” Randall let the grin spread across his face, jaws creaking from the unfamiliar exertion. “If we can tear out the focus of the god’s power, while it’s still weak and unprepared, then it’ll have no purchase on this world. It’ll slip back into the nightmare stuff between the worlds. And as for the rest of what’s coming…” He went quiet, his face falling into a look of unhappiness.

“As for the rest, we’ll deal with that after we’ve taken care of this. Hey, maybe we’ll fail, die, and it won’t be any of our business.” I gave Randall a grin, and he returned it. “Can you gather all of this together? I want to try to help the police officer. She’s got two men who were put out of commission. One with a broken finger, which I think I might be able to help. The other one, though…” I frowned. “He’s been catatonic since he inhaled some burning Ateroleum jelly. I don’t suppose you’d have any idea of a way to deal with that?”

Randall rubbed his chin. “I think so. It’s not going to be pretty, though.” He coughed. “You’re going to need a hair of the dog, so to speak, to jolt him out of it. I’m guessing there’s no living Ateroleum left on the world, which means that you’re going to need to go somewhere else to get some of it.” He walked over to one of the shelves, picking a book out. “Take this. It will guide you in making your way to the other world, the Stillborn Sea.” I took the book, and frowned. “What’s the matter?”

“I…” I shrugged. “I don’t know. It just seems a little bit… easy. Travelling to another world just requires you to read a book? I thought it would have to be really hard.”

My uncle turned towards me, smiling sadly. “No. That’s the real horror of it, really. It’s easy to get somewhere else. It’s finding somewhere else that’s worth going to that’s difficult.” He pointed towards the book. “Yam Hamawet, the Sea of Death. It will be in there. Make sure you bring a boat. You don’t want to fall in. Bring the man, and take him there, and with any luck, he’ll be back in fighting condition. Everything I know about the place is in that book.” I nodded. “Li! Help me carry these things.” He smiled at me. “Good luck. Don’t bring anyone supernatural with you to the Sea of Death. It gets… territorial.”

 

Chapter 11: Dane to Do

I sat at the front desk, a tall tumbler of scotch in hand. I stared down at the dispatch through a haze of amber. We were getting quite a few calls from frightened people. I took down their information, told them what I could to try to help ease their fears and advise them, and then went on to the next call. I threw a paperweight at a large, glossy black rat in the middle of a call. It hissed at me defiantly, and skittered away into a hole in the wall, followed by half a dozen others. I was tempted to get my gun, but I’d been drinking. That would probably not look good at review time. I sighed, and instead threw back the scotch, feeling the burn as it went down.

The department was running a skeleton crew. The deputy inspector hadn’t shown up. I was the ranking officer, and there were less than a dozen men in the building. Hector was down in the shooting range, where he’d spent most of his time lately. Marco had dropped by the station. He was still on medical leave, but offering to help out with the paperwork. And John was lying in the hospital, still unresponsive. They suggested it was a coma of some kind, but his brain activity was still high. Abnormally so. I set the tumbler back on the desk, and ice clinked within as I stared out of the door. The familiar heady spin began to take over, and I felt a little more relaxed. The door opened, and the Horace walked in. “Miss Larson! You’re here. I want your help to stop a god.”

I stared at him for a few seconds, trying to will him out of existence. I’d never hallucinated while drinking before, but maybe this was the first time, and I could make him go away. After several seconds, I sighed. “You’re fucking me.” I looked up, and noticed the flush running across his face. “Fucking with me. Shit. What did I say?” It was getting difficult to make words line up properly. “Why are you trying to stop a god? I thought you were all buddy-buddy with the gods. Wasn’t your catgirl a god? She certainly acts like she thinks she is.” I peered down at the drink. I hadn’t eaten for the last day. I decided that was why there appeared to be two glasses on the desk in front of me. I swirled the ice around a bit, and threw back the remaining liquor, swallowing hard. I went to grab the bottle to pour myself another shot, and found my hand restrained.

“Dane, I hope you’ll forgive me for this.” He murmured a few words, and pressed a hand to my forehead. Sobriety arrived like a personal apocalypse, bringing with it the four horsemen of dry-mouth, headache, light-sensitivity, and nausea. I fell out of my chair, my hands wrapping tightly around my head. The modest light of the late evening managed, somehow, to be completely eye-searing, and my temples felt like ground zero of an artillery range. “Sorry. It’s a spell I learned, makes someone sober up quickly.” He frowned down at me as I lay on the ground, my hands clamped to the side of my head. “The hangover should be finished in about ten minutes.”

Twenty minutes later, swearing lividly, I was on my feet again, drinking glass after glass of water. “Where the fuck did you learn magic?!” I did not ask him to pardon my French. I felt my French was well-deserved.

“My apartment was apparently raised by a serial killer, and picked a few things up. Most of it related to helping dinner guests, keeping apartments clean, and that kind of thing.” He frowned. “It was kind of a let-down, honestly. But I’m not in much of a position to be choosy.” I tossed back two aspirin, and the headache went from crippling to merely rage-inducing. I eyed him angrily. “Sorry. But this is important.”

I listened with increasing disquiet as he explained. “So, a deity is about to wake up in Manhattan, and give everyone in the world a big, happy, plague-filled hug.” I rubbed my temples. “And what is my motivation for wanting other people to live right now?” He looked very hurt. “Look, you just pulled me out of a nice, happy drunk stupor to deliver a warning of impending doom. What do you want me to do, give you a fucking medal?”

“Look. I know you’re angry, but we have… Well, not a plan. That’s why we need you.” I stared at him. “You’re good at planning. You’ve got a good tactical mind, or you wouldn’t have been able to kill that thing. I’ve got a goddess, a demon, a demon hunter, and a crazy house-spirit. If you can work together with us, then we can do this. Please.”

I was silent, staring at him. The pain was dulling, although whether it was because the aspirin were taking effect, or because I was too shocked by the kid’s bravado to tell him to go to hell, I wasn’t sure. “Fine,” I announced, finally. “I’ll do it. But I have two conditions for this. First, if you have access to all of that, I need you to fix my men. Marco, and John.”

Horace nodded. “I thought you’d ask for that. I have an idea how to do both. Marco is going to be a little bit easier, but, do you have a soundproofed room?”

“We have the rifle range. I’ll meet you down there with Marco in a moment.”

The four of us, me, Hector, Marco, and Horace, stood together in the rifle range. Nobody else was there, and the doors were closed. Marco watched uncertainly as Horace ran his fingers across his cast-covered right hand. “I don’t know, man. I’ve never been the kind of guy who believed in faith healing.”

“That’s fine. This isn’t really faith healing,” Horace muttered, studying the hand. “Healing magic seems fairly easy to me, in spite of what I’ve read. Ultimately, humans and other living things are defined by very complicated, very effective procedures for fixing themselves. Your body is full of literally billions of blueprints of how you should be. Sure, some of them have tiny little flaws in them, but by and large, your body knows what shape it’s supposed to be. This would be less effective on someone older, but the trick is in accelerating the healing. Most wounds, the body could conceivably recover from. Sometimes, it lacks stem cells to repair them properly. Magic bypasses that, and I couldn’t tell you why, exactly, because people much smarter than me have been trying to figure that out for a very long time, and none of them have even come close to organizing the details. Maybe it’s just because they don’t know that it’s impossible. There’s one thing you can’t avoid, however.”

“Am I going to, like, lose a few years off of my life?”

“No.”

Hector frowned. “Are you going to have your finger get broken instead to make things even?”

“No.”

I tilted my head to the side. “Is that house-spirit you told me about going to force you to perform sexual favors in repayment for using her power?” Marco cracked up.

“I wish. No, see, the thing is, having a broken finger hurts. It hurts constantly, all those little grindings and twinges, for six weeks. All of that stuff is sort of a debt that your body is paying. The spell can heal you, but I take on the debt. So… This is going to hurt like an absolute bastard.” He whispered a few words, and there was a faint smell of ozone. Then he fell to the ground, and started screaming curses.

In my entire career, I would like to consider that I have heard every variation and possibility in the English language for expressing anger, pain, and general displeasure. I have heard racial slurs, denigration of mothers, and every manner of harsh syllable and foul language. And yet, standing there, before Horace, I felt like an old guitar player who had spent his life playing the same three tunes in a cheap bar, who had just watched Jimi Hendrix performing Voodoo Child (Slight Return). I was awed, deeply envious, a little bit disgusted, and by the end of it, my ears were ringing.

“You kiss your mother with that mouth?” Marco asked, staring down at the man who was curled up on the ground. Hector reached over, and cracked open the cast. Marco shook his hand, and grinned. “Damn! Hey, look, I’ve got a cousin who broke his arm-” Horace looked up, tears streaming down his eyes, an expression of wordless anger on his face. “Okay, yeah, I dig, only in case of emergencies. So, how are we helping John out? He’s been out for weeks.”

Horace sat up slowly, taking deep, steadying breaths. I rolled my eyes. “Come on. It’s just a broken finger.”

“Six weeks of broken finger pains, concentrated into a single burst,” he hissed, standing up, and grabbing the bottle of aspirin I had brought with me. He tossed a couple back, and then two more, swallowing them without water. “Okay. The next part isn’t quite as physically painful, but it’s a bit more dangerous, and a lot weirder.” He looked around the three of us. “None of you technically have to come along. But If we’re going to do this, we need to get John out of the hospital, and we need to get a boat.”

Marco and I looked at Hector. He frowned. “Is the boat going to get broken?”

“… Hopefully not.”

Getting John was simple. The hospital was full. They were downright grateful to be able to hand the comatose man over to a group of thoughtful friends so they could clear out a bed for one of the sick. As we drove down to the Chelsea Piers marina, however, Hector was doubtful. “All I’m saying is, quarantine is serious business. The airports are closed. They’re talking about closing down the bridges. We might run into some trouble with getting the boat out.”

“We’ll deal with that particular problem when we come to it. So, what exactly is the procedure, here, Horace? Why do we need a boat?”

Horace sat in the front seat of the car with a far-off expression. “We’re going to the place where that black oil thing came. It was… well, from what I’m told, it was sort of like a renegade. The literal translation was something like ‘prodigal son’. It’s locked into John right now, and his body’s trying to expel it, which is why he’s unconscious. He’s not going to succeed, though, and if we don’t get it out of him, he’s just going to die in his sleep eventually. If there were more Ateroleum in New York, we could bring him near it so it got drawn out. But they’re all dead. So, we take it back to its home, and it gets welcomed back into the fold by its ‘mother’. And then…”

The car went quiet. I broke the silence as I pulled into the large parking lot. “And then?”

“We hope that the thing lets us go.”

“What are the chances that it will?” Marco asked, frowning.

“Fairly good. It isn’t interested in humans, really. Not to keep in its realm. It’s got plenty of us already. It’s more interested in supernatural creatures, from what I’ve read.” He shrugged. “It’s… Look, the person I know who knows the most about it described it as a ‘stillborn sea’. It’s not a very well-documented thing. Not a lot of people come back from studying it.”

“Marco, Hector, I don’t expect the two of you to go.” I stated, firmly. “This is something I’m responsible for. I’m willing to go it alone, and Horace has volunteered because he knows how to get us there and back.”

“Hell, Dane. I was the one who shot that thing with magnesium and got John hurt. It’s my fault. The very least I can do is try to save John,” Marco said, his face looking a bit weary as he leaned against the back of my chair.

“And it’s my boat. I’m sure as hell not letting you guys run off with it and get it crashed in some kind of horrific nightmare dimension. My insurance plan is basic as hell.” Hector smiled weakly.

The boat dock was, indeed, protected by a pair of security guards. “Shit,” muttered Marco.

“I’ll take care of it.” I stepped out of the car, slipping my hand into my pocket. The two men turned towards me, hands moving towards their guns. I approached, smiling pleasantly. It was hot. It had been getting hotter, in fact. The end of September was just around the corner, but it felt like we were still deep in August. Combined with the massive amount of trash, the city was developing an aroma that could only be described as ‘sinus-sizzling’. I took a deep breath, and savored it. You could start to appreciate anything after spending enough time in this city.

“Sorry, ma’am, but I can’t let you through here. Marina’s been shut down, by order of the Mayor’s offi-”

At that moment, the man was cut off by a sudden attack of money, as he gaped. I only had a sergeant’s salary, but it was enough to bribe a pair of security guards. The other man moved to argue, and was felled by a ruthless attack on his retirement prospects. “Get yourselves a cup of coffee on me, gentlemen. Don’t worry. We’ll be back before dawn. Just going fishing.”

The four of us walked onto the docks, Hector rolling John along. We made our way onto the small fishing boat. It wasn’t luxurious, and more than a little cramped with five people, but we set out onto the water. The river rippled and splashed, black as pitch as we set out. The lights of Manhattan and Jersey City spun around us as the motor droned, driving us down into the bay, and out to sea. The bright lights of the city faded to a distant shimmer, then a glow over the horizon, and finally, a dull suggestion. The ship’s hull creaked and rolled. Clouds were pouring out of the west, covering over the moon and the stars. Within a few minutes, all that was left was the soft green glow of the fishing boat lights, and the pair of beacons on top of the boat. “Alright, we’re out here. So, what do we do now?”

Horace sat down, crossing his legs. “It’s almost comically easy, really. Like, you look through this book, and it’s pretty easy to travel between worlds.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?”

“Sure. Except that all that it takes to travel to another world that is literally made of fire- No fuel, no source, just an endless plane of fire that could melt tungsten- is to sit by a fireplace or some other ‘hearth’ and say the right word.”

“What’s the right word?”

“I don’t know. That’s the frightening part.”

Hector frowned. “I could’ve gone my whole life without knowing that.”

“That’s my point, you see. The thing about a lot of the knowledge in these books is that it’s incomplete. It teaches you just enough to be frightened of what’s happening, without giving you enough information to be able to avoid it. It’s like being told you’re walking in a minefield, without having a map of the mines.” He pointed out to sea. “All you have to do to be taken to this stillborn sea is pilot a nautical vessel onto the ocean- It doesn’t work on fresh water, for whatever reason- under a lightless sky, and be surrounded by darkness. And then, you just have to speak a single Jewish word.”

We were quiet for a while. Hector sighed. “What are the chances that my ship’s going to come back safe from this?”

“The oil isn’t very corrosive. I’d say better than even.”

“And how do we get back?”

“That should be relatively simple, too. We don’t belong in that world, so… Well, think of this word as like a hook. It pulls us into the other world, and holds us there. Then, once we’re there, we speak the word again, and we’re thrown violently back into this world.”

“… How violently?” I asked, frowning. Horace shrugged.

“They didn’t specify. They lived to write the thing, so I can’t imagine it was that violently.”

“So. What’s the word?” Horace stepped over to the console, and Hector helped him to turn off the boat’s running lights. It was as though I’d gone blind. There was no sensation save for the faint slapping of water against wood, and the pitching of the boat.

“Yam Hamawet.”

There wasn’t any discomfort. There wasn’t any sudden shock. There was no tunnel of light, or wild flashing colors. One moment we were in darkness, and the next, we were in light. But the water was the exact same color.

A bright, blazing white sun flared in the sky. The air was almost as hot as it had been back home in the city, but it was a dry heat, like a desert, despite the water all around us. It slapped thickly against the hull, the color of tar, rolling in incredibly slow waves. A pervasive smell of burnt oil surrounded us. I looked up, and smiled. “There are some mountains off in that direction.”

“Those don’t look like mountains, boss.” Marco murmured. I narrowed my eyes and squinted.

They were huge. There was haze from the heat which turned the white flanks of the mountains turn slightly blue. Then I saw what he was saying. Jutting out of the water, miles away, they seemed to stretch into the sky like a series of peaks, tapering off in one direction and ending with a smaller, broader mountain on the other side. Then, I adjusted my perception. It was a ribcage and skull of some colossal sea-dwelling creature, stretched out across the black oil. Whatever had passed for hide had been bleached by the sun, leaving patches between each of the ribs that had fooled my brain into seeing a mountain range. My mind rebelled as I tried to get a sense of scale of the thing.

“There’s no land on this world, apparently. Whatever this sea is, it eroded away every geographical irregularity, running across it until the whole world was uniformly flat. That’s what the book claims, anyway. If you’re wondering what kind of creature is living here, that’s probably a good example.” Horace looked down at the water, frowning. “It’s odd, my uncle suggested that just getting him here would be enough, but-”

John screamed.

That wasn’t really the right word, because a scream is something you might hear a young girl doing while engaged in a game of tag. It’s a rather pedestrian sound. Shriek didn’t fit either, as it has a somewhat timorous, cut-off sound. I flirted with ‘ululated’ briefly, but I was pretty sure that white people couldn’t ululate properly, though he was making a brave attempt at it. I decided the best word was a wail. Then I clapped my hands over my ears like the others, and watched as a thick black mist rose from John’s mouth and eyes, dribbling out of him. The boat rocked, and a dark figure climbed aboard.

It was vaguely feminine in its shape. I was put in the mind of a fertility idol I had once seen at the house of a spinster aunt with very strange ideas about how to entertain a teenage girl. Its face was nondescript, a mere oval, without hair. Massive, pendulous breasts lay across the top of a heavy, round belly, with hips that seemed to ripple with every movement. It was composed of the black oil, and everything about it seemed to sag heavily.

My child.

The words hissed around the boat, sibilant. They hadn’t emerged from the creature standing there, staring at the black mist. It had risen out of the dark water all around us.

Tried to escape me again, got punished again, did we? It’s alright, child. It’s alright. Come back and be a part of mother.

The creature opened its arms wide. The mist howled as it pulled free of John. The older man stopped wailing, and slumped down, but the wail continued as the mist was pulled into the body of the black thing. The sound cut off abruptly as it was consumed in the body of the strange black thing. The creature turned its head slowly, to study us each in turn, with its featureless face.

You brought my little wayward child back to my fold. Damaged, but… Enough of him. Thank you. Are you gods?

“No.” Horace stated firmly, before the rest of us could speak. “We are simply humans. Very dull. Very plain. Very normal.”

A pity. A kind god would be an interesting thing to collect. I see… The memories of my child. Your world is suffering, is it? Threatened.

The creature chuckled, a wet, burbling noise that sent trickles of ice down my spine.

If you should ever need a mother’s loving hand, you know how to find me, don’t you? I couldn’t allow such kindness to go unrewarded.

The creature lifted its head, and there was a gurgling, sucking noise.

Aaaah, yes. I have your scent. If ever you should need a favor, and I can offer it… Don’t hesitate to come visit.

“Why would you offer to help us?” I asked, frowning.

Oh, I can smell your pretty world. All those delicious clean waters. But I can’t enter a place without being invited, by someone. I would need your help to enter your sweet oceans. In exchange for a favor, of course. I can give such wondrous favors.

I looked around the world, my eyes narrowing. “I don’t think that we’d ever want the kind of favors that you have to offer.”

Little human hurts my feelings so! I am a preserver! I keep things safe. All of the children who come to this world are clutched to my bosom. And I protect them with my life. Perhaps the life they have is not what they remembered, perhaps they are somewhat constrained, but a mother’s love is not to be refused easily.

The creature laughed again.

And there are worse things out there that could happen. You know how to find me. I look forward to seeing you again. Would you like some cookies before you go?

The four of us stared mutely.

I’ll just leave these here in case you want them.

The creature reached into its own belly, and withdrew a large baking sheet, with eight rather tarry looking discs sitting on it. “Thanks.” I stated, taking the sheet, and tossing it into the oil. “But no thanks. Get off of our ship, now.”

Ooooh, so fiery, so feisty. You’d make a marvelous daughter, you know that?

“Please get off the damn ship.”

Oh, fine, fine, I’m going. Horace, sweet young boy. Please give my regards to Bastet, would you? Tell her that I would love to see her again very soon, and to thank her for dealing with my silly, capricious little children.

With a wet slurping noise, the thing fell backwards into the thick oil, disappearing. I took a deep breath, and said “Yam Hamawet.”

The ship rocked. There was a hissing noise, as the lights came back on, and we sat in the darkness of the Atlantic ocean again. The utter emptiness of the horizon somehow felt like the most comforting thing I could imagine. I managed a very half-hearted “Pardon my Jewish.”

The black oil disintegrated quickly in the seawater around us. “From what I’ve read, they’re not good with seawater, or running water of any kind. That might be part of why the ritual only works on salt-water, because it keeps the Ateroleum from being able to transfer over.”

“Did we just get weirdly hit on and offered a favor by a crazy monster ocean?” Hector asked, frowning.

“Yeah. This is what my life has become.” Horace muttered softly. He stood at the edge of the boat, arms resting on the side, staring down into the water. His shoulders were hunched.

“What are we going to do about that thing?” I asked, as the boat started running. “It sent- Or allowed, or whatever- parts of itself into this world, and they killed people. It’s talking about coming over here. Do you have some plan to deal with it?”

“Not really, no. At the moment, I’m trying to get together enough people with some basic level of competence to plan an assault on a different God. I’m going to have to balance at least half a dozen unstable and extremely difficult personalities while they try to figure out how to kill something that is not even close to as powerful as what we just saw. We’re playing this thing by ear because the only sheet music available ends with everyone on earth dying horribly.” He rubbed his forehead. “And I guess I get stuck making cookies for everyone in the kitchen.”

John groaned softly, and cursed. It wasn’t very inventive, but it was pretty emotive. “You alright down there, John?” I asked, smiling as I crouched down, rubbing his head.

“God, I had the worst dreams. Why am I on a boat? Who’s that scrawny guy? What the hell am I doing in a wheel chair?” He stood up, shaking his head. I was rather surprised by the strength he showed. He’d been out for what felt like half a month, seeing him on his feet already was a bit unexpected. The old man was tough as teak, sometimes.

“We’ll explain it to you on the ride back, how about?” I offered, smiling. “First things first… Alright. Who else is in on this, Horace?”

“My cat, my apartment, my uncle, his snake, and you four.”

I nodded. “Alright. I think that I can work with that.” I sighed, watching the horizon. “Any advice for dealing with them?”

“Uh… Let’s see. Bring salmon, don’t scuff your shoes or put out cigarettes on any furniture, don’t take it personally when he insults you, and don’t challenge the snake-girl to any arm-wrestling competitions.” Horace peered at the horizon. We were approaching the island of Manhattan again, and its lights were deeply comforting. But there were fewer of them than usual in the towers and skyscrapers.

“I’ll see you all tomorrow.” Horace smiled, as he walked into the subway, leaving the four of us standing around. We’d managed to find a pair of shoes in the fishing boat for John, who was otherwise standing in his hospital gown.

“So. Drink?” John asked.

“Yeah, we never did get to the bar after the last mission, did we?”

The four of us made our way to a bar. The bartender seemed downright grateful to see us walk in, as we were the only ones in the place. He very graciously didn’t mention John’s lack of pants. “So,” John stated, as four beers were set down in front of us. “The city’s falling apart with plague, and I’ve been unconscious for two weeks.” He sipped his beer. “Did I get any hazard pay?”

“Happened in your downtime, so no, sorry.”

“Fucking bureaucrats.”

We all nodded, and knocked back our drinks. “So, do we get hazard pay for fighting a god?” asked Hector.

“I’ll talk it over with the union.” I looked down at my drink. “Do you guys ever regret the decisions you’ve made in life?”

All three of them turned towards me. “You getting cold feet, Dane?” asked Hector, an eyebrow raised.

“Just… I got into policing because it was the only thing that I could really hope to make a living at, you know? This is just supposed to be a job. A way to stay alive. What the hell am I doing, going to crazy-ass worlds covered in black oil? I took the SWAT training for the extra pay.” I stared down into my drink. “What the hell qualifications do I have when you’re talking about demon hunters and gods and insane things like that?”

“I don’t know. You can plan worth a damn?” Hector suggested, grinning. The three men laughed.

“True enough.” I muttered softly. “Here’s to planning.” I raised my glass. “Hey, speaking of which. Hector. Want to fuck tonight?”

Marco coughed into his beer. Hector shrugged. “Sorry, boss, I’m gay.”

“What?! Since when?”

“I don’t know. College, probably.” I sighed.

“John?”

“Nah, I just got brought back from a coma, I don’t really feel man enough at the moment, if you catch my drift.”

I turned towards Marco. “How desperate do you think I am to go for it after you’ve asked two other guys right next to me?” he asked, frowning.

“Pretty desperate.” I admitted.

“Sorry, Dane. Hector’s my type.”

“Really?” Hector asked, looking interested.

“Yeah. You didn’t know?”

“Well, great, everyone gets laid except me.” I muttered. The bartender raised a finger, looking hopeful. “No, no, forget it, the moment’s past.” The four of us laughed at the disappointed young man’s face. I snickered, feeling the pleasant haze of drunkenness wipe away the anxiety and the concern as the four of us drank. “Well, at least booze’ll keep me warm and snuggly at night, right guys?” I smiled down at my drink. The end of the world was just around the corner, we’d signed on to fight a god, and tomorrow I was going to have to deal with a hangover while I tried to figure out a battle plan. But through the haze of alcohol, it didn’t seem so bad. “You know, I always wanted to die heroically.”

“Really?” Hector asked, interested. “I wanted to live heroically. Y’know? I mean, what’s the point of being a hero if you’re not alive to take advantage of the free drinks?”

Marco shrugged. “Yeah, but then you’ve got to live up to your own legend, y’know? Better to go out on a high note, that way everyone wonders what kind of awesome things you would’ve done afterward. Like Hendrix. If he’d kept playing for the next fifty years, he’d have gotten old, fat, sold out, and everyone would miss his early stuff when he still had all that potential. I’m with Dane, go out on a high note while you’re still pretty. Saving a toddler from a fire or something, you know?”

“Yeah.” I nodded. “And I’ve gotta admit… Dying fighting a god? That’s pretty cool.” I grinned. “Who knows? Police union might even get us statues.”

 

Chapter 12: Horace Party

I sat down heavily on the subway, my head spinning from the encounter. My hand still ached faintly. I’d performed actual magic, three times. There was a small thrill in that, and a lot of disappointment.

I’d grown up less than serious-minded, indulging in fantasy novels and escaping from reality. I’d always thought magic was fascinating. Throwing fireballs, conjuring up lightning bolts, being powerful not because of your body, but because of your mind. I supposed that was what it was really all about. I wanted some sense of power. I looked down at my hand, shaking it softly. Healing that was cripplingly painful and would be hard pressed to work on anything more serious than a broken finger. A spell to remove inebriation, but that couldn’t do anything about the hangover. And a ritual to travel to another world, which contained nothing but an ocean that wanted any excuse to drip over into our world, and consume every living thing on the planet into itself.

Magic that wasn’t really very useful at all. Because I wasn’t powerful. Not in the right way, anyway.

I didn’t have the strength of soul, the firmness of purpose that apparently was necessary for anything that could be described as ‘impressive’. Another failure on my part. You’d think that in the face of the end of the world, I’d be able to find some greater reserve inside of myself. But I couldn’t even cast the spell to return me home. I just got a painful sense of homesickness when I tried.

The subway rumbled along, clattering across the tracks as the lights flickered, and went out momentarily. The train slowed to a halt in the darkness between stations, and I leaned my head back. Bastet. Someone had finally said it. I wasn’t an idiot, I knew there weren’t that many things out there that claimed to be a goddess and a cat at the same time. I knew that she was powerful, and that she was supernatural. But it had seemed like, so long as I didn’t say it out loud, I could pretend that things weren’t as serious as they seemed. But standing on an alien world, the smell of burnt oil roiling around, something overwhelmingly powerful and hideous telling you directly…

That was more difficult to dismiss.

I cursed softly. Gods. It wasn’t like I was a religious person. My uncle’d always held a very dim view on such things, and my mother had never talked about religion at all. And now, I’d walked on an alien planet and talked with something impossibly huge that had addressed my cat by name. I was trying to convince a group of very temperamental people to work together to take down something everyone referred to as a deity. And there was nothing I could do to help directly. I was surrounded by people with power, extraordinary people, and I couldn’t even get home without getting stuck on the train. It was bad enough to be weak normally. It was worse when you could see what strength looked like. So close, but forever out of reach.

The subway began to roll again with a loud clunk, throwing me sideways on my seat into the bars meant to help people stand upright. I grunted, rubbing my arm where the steel pole had bit into my shoulder. As the train came to a halt at my station, I climbed out. The heat was, if anything, more oppressive than it had been in August. I wiped my brow as I climbed out. It was 2 AM. I checked my wallet. I was going to be tapped out after stopping at the grocery store, but that was fine. The world was ending in a week. So what if I couldn’t make rent the week after that? There was something liberating about the apocalypse. So I whistled cheerfully as I picked up the groceries.

When I arrived home, Betty was on top of Phoebe, and the two of them both looked worn out and bloodied. Betty’s ears and tail were still damp. She was undressed. Phoebe was holding a knife at an awkward angle, wrist pinned under Betty’s elbow.

“Horace, this bitch-”

“I was just trying to discipline this cat-”

The two of them spoke at the same time, and I held up a hand. They both went quiet. “Betty, get off of Phoebe. Phoebe, put the knife back where you got it.” The two of them looked embarrassed as they obeyed, the knife winging its way back into the kitchen as the two of them stood up. “I don’t care as long as nobody’s dead. But we’ve got guests coming over tonight. I don’t want the two of you to be attacking each other, or worse, them. We’re playing for all the goddamn marbles, and if you can’t work together, everyone will die! Betty, that means you are going to be working with a group of humans, my uncle, and his snake! Phoebe, that means we are going to have guests here, and if you stab anyone, I will be incredibly angry! Now I am going to get some sleep, and one of you, please wake me by noon!”

The wave of exhaustion that rolled over me was intense, as my head and hand throbbed painfully. It had been an excruciatingly long day, and the adrenaline of conflict resolution was fading fast. I stumbled into the bedroom, and fell on the bed. I lay there for several minutes, before realizing that I couldn’t fall asleep. My head was pounding and I couldn’t stop thinking about all of the things I had to do. That’s when I heard the door creak open, and Betty lay down on the bed next to me. I pushed her away, and she made a protesting sound, which made me feel guilty. “I’m sorry,” I murmured. “But why the hell do you want to be close to me? You made your feelings pretty clear.” The rejection still stung. She pushed up against my side, and purred loudly.

“I care about you, you know. I don’t like to see you in pain.” Her chest rumbled as she nuzzled in against the back of my head. She was warm, and I couldn’t really muster up the energy to push her away again. And with her purring, It was easy to sleep. All of the worries seemed to be held at bay.

I woke up the next day with a heavy feeling in my chest. I climbed out of the bed, and made my way into the kitchen to start preparing something approaching a meal fit for half a dozen people. Around five PM, just as the sun was getting low in the sky and turning the world golden, there was a knock at the door. I stepped out of the kitchen, leaving the hamburger hissing and spitting on the skillet, and opened the door. Li Xue Zi stood in the hall, smiling politely as she stepped in, followed shortly by Randall. Betty sat on the couch, frowning, and Phoebe appeared from thin air, watching the two. Randall held up a large bag. “Groceries. A gift to the owner of this apartment, and to you.” Phoebe nodded politely in return, and took the grocery bag from him, carrying it into the kitchen. “So, son, you actually going to get this alley-cat under control?” he asked, eying Betty.

Betty hissed, and leapt. Li Xue Zi intercepted her in mid-air, wrestling her to the ground, and the two hissed loudly at one another on the floor, eyes full of anger as they clawed at one another with bare hands. I waded into the fray, and regretted it instantly as I pulled the two apart and took several small scratches. I got the very strong sense that they were allowing me to do it. “Betty! You’re making me look like a damn idiot in front of my uncle!”

“I am not a dog, and I do not obey! I will listen to the plans that are made, and if I decide to follow them, it will be because I found them wise enough to use, and not because you have any power over me!” She shouted at the man, a look of anger on her face. I’d not seen her behave this way around anyone. Randall, for his part, didn’t show any sign of contrition as Li Xue Zi picked herself up off of the ground. Her slashed kimono was already piecing itself back together, hiding red lines where Betty had clawed her.

“You seem weak, cat.” Randall stated. “Lose some of your fight jumping in before you were ready against a foe you weren’t prepared for?” Betty narrowed her eyes, and I scratched behind her ears, standing up straight.

“Uncle. You’re in my home. Show respect to my other guests, and my friends, no matter what grudges you have against them.” Randall snorted.

“Well, boy, you take one trip to the other worlds, and suddenly you’ve got it all figured out, eh?” He shook his head, and turned towards Betty. “My nephew believes in you, Bastet. He thinks that you can actually do what you claim, and save the world, and that you won’t let your ego, your pride, and your instincts get in the way of protecting humanity. I have no such illusions, and do not expect to be able to rely on you.” He looked towards me. “But, I am prepared to be proven wrong.”

Betty didn’t respond, and I walked into the kitchen, trusting for the moment that nobody would want to kill one another. Li Xue Zi entered. “May I help?” she asked, smiling sweetly.

“That would…” I eyed her, frowning. “Do you know how to cook?”

“Oh, well enough. I have had a great deal of time to practice.”

“It’s just… I mean, I’ve run into a surprising number of supernatural creatures so far, and if there’s one character trait that defines them, it’s ‘thinks they’re too good to help with the housework.’”

She nodded. “It is a common affliction in the powerful. When you have power, why perform the small deeds for yourself?” She gently flipped one of the hamburgers, revealing a pleasantly charred surface. Without prompting, she moved to the cutting board and began slicing onions. “I like it, though. I do not particularly like fighting, or killing, though I am very good at them. These sorts of small, domestic tasks…” She smiled softly, a nostalgic look in her red eyes. “They remind me of my childhood.” She sighed softly, and kept slicing. I was tempted to ask more, but I heard a ring of the bell, and then a great deal of swearing.

I entered the other room. Phoebe was being held back by John, Marco, and Hector, inches away from Dane, who regarded her with an icy look. A cigarette hung between Dane’s lips. “No smoking!” The house spirit screamed, at the top of her lungs, arms straining to reach the blonde woman. The three men looked like they were only barely holding the house spirit back. I grabbed a bowl from the kitchen, and stepped forward.

“Your house spirit doesn’t seem really well-behaved,” Dane said, as she spat the cigarette out into the bowl. “She really going to be of any use to us?” Phoebe relaxed as the cigarette went out, and with a single sway of her shoulders shrugged off the three brawny police officers. “Is she even going to be able to leave this house?”

“I have talents besides being on the field, which you will find yourself in great need of. I would recommend showing respect.” Dane simply snorted, and Phoebe’s eyes flashed with rage. I needed to do something to avoid violence.

I retreated to the kitchen, and came out with a large plate of hamburgers, setting them down on the table. People sat down, dragging chairs to sit around the coffee table, legs crossing as they sat down. Catastrophe temporarily averted, I took a deep breath to address the crowd. “Okay, well. You all have a broad idea of why we’re here. An ancient Babylonian god is about to rise in Central Park, and it’s going to spread a lot of very nasty plagues across the world as a way of… embracing people. The cult we’re dealing with is doing this because it thinks that it’s going to be able to lessen the amount of damage it does.”

“They are not entirely wrong.” Randall stated. “If the ritual is not performed properly, then the creature will arise without any conscience, and without an organized response to it. It will kill billions, and human society will likely collapse under its own weight. Have any of you read The Stand?” At the silence of the assembled group, he sighed. “At any rate. Even if they succeed in the ritual, hundreds of millions are going to die, and the world will be transformed. They will demand power, and they will have it, because they will control a god glutted with the worship and fear of millions.”

“Now… How exactly does this worship work? Why would anyone worship a disease god?” Marco asked, frowning.

“Worship is not about liking something. A god’s power comes from the devotion of humans. This does not have to be in the form of prayers and rites like you’d find in a church. Every human being who is diseased, and who survives their disease, will be a living source of worship providing power and form to Nergal. Their survival is a sacrament to him. They don’t have to love him, or think about him directly. The fact that they didn’t die is, in itself, a kind of worship. The Church of the Survivor infected people in the first place so that they could spread his power, but when he gets strong enough, he won’t need mortals to spread the plague. This coming Sunday evening, there will be a lunar eclipse. The full moon will pass behind the earth’s shadow. At the moment when it’s at its darkest, Nergal will step through. The moon will become a second sun, and everything under its light will be touched by his power, and his disease. His power will grow exponentially. Within a day, he will be unassailable by any force on this world.” Randall sat back, his face drawn and weary.

Dane took a deep breath. “What’s stopping us from attacking him right now?”

“The defenses. The cult has grown significantly in the past few weeks. They will have hundreds of men guarding the site. Not to mention that the god itself is not assailable directly. He has already proven that he can defeat Bastet single-handedly.” Randall looked up at her. “While it may be distasteful for me to admit this, none of us would be a match for the goddess, even working together. We cannot assault them head-on.” He rubbed his chin. “On the night of the assault, a ritual will start, as the moon enters totality. From there, we will have thirty six minutes until the god manifests itself fully. The guards will be taken off the perimeter so they can add their lives to that of the Deacon, to give her the strength to merge with the plague god. I’ve been asked to be there, to help with the ritual.”

Dane nodded. “Alright. So, how can we stop this thing?”

“There’s a focus. The power of the prayers are being directed to the center of the city. Rats have been planted under hospitals, clinics, places touched by the plague. Their tails have been woven together into a knot-”

“Rat king.” Marco shook his head. “Man, everyone knows it’s not a genuine king if you make it by tying the tails together.”

“Quite,” Randall said, an eyebrow raised. “Now, the bundle of tails is the center of Nergal’s divine power. Think of it as the actual god, while the shadow rising out of it just represents the god’s mind. As long as the tangle of rat tails is whole, the god’s power is secure, but…” He frowned. “If we could damage it…”

Dane frowned. “Alright… I think I have something in mind. Betty, if you attacked the thing, do you think you could encourage it to leave the circle, leaving the rat tail vulnerable?”

Betty frowned. “I suppose that it would be possible. You mean run from a fight?” She shook her head. “It’s annoying to have to do that twice, but… Yes, I think I could create enough of a distraction.”

“That works. Me and my men stage an attack, forcing the guards away from the ritual. That leaves you and the Deacon. Do you think that you can take her?”

Randall nodded. “There are a number of problems, here, though. For example-”

“Horace!” Li Xue Zi called from the kitchen. “The onions are done!” I stood up, and entered the kitchen. It wasn’t as though I had a great deal to add to the conversation. I scooped the onions out of the pan, while Li Xue Zi began working on the garlic. I turned down the heat on a pot of boiling water, and poured pasta into it. “How is the discussion going?” she asked, smiling up at me warmly. Her presence was pleasant, which was surprising, considering she was both an albino, and a snake. She probably should’ve been frightening and alien. But it was hard to be put off by someone who was willing to help me cook.

“Well enough.” I began stirring the pasta, watching as it swirled in the pot. “I think they could use you, though.” She frowned.

“I… suppose. But I would prefer to spend some time here, with you.”

I smiled. “Hey, you’ve got an important part in all of this, too. You’re strong, you know? That’s not something you should take lightly. When you’re strong, you can choose to be weak, you can allow yourself to be vulnerable, but if you’re weak…” I shook my head. “You don’t get a choice to be strong, if you’re weak. You’re strong, and you can do something important. All I can do are these small things. I wish I was strong enough to make a difference out there, but I’m not. So, leave me these things, and go do the things that I wish I could. Alright?” I sighed. I was rambling. “Not that I don’t appreciate the help, but-”

She was quiet. Then she stood up on her tiptoes, and kissed me on the cheek. Her lips were chilly against my skin, but it felt nice anyway. “If you want, with all of your heart, to be strong, then that is the first step towards being strong.” She smiled “Your uncle was weak, once, you know. Dane, too. All of them started out helpless. And I think that you can be much stronger than any of them. All of this pivots around you for a reason, I believe.”

I shrugged. “Being important isn’t the same thing as being powerful, Li. The ball’s the most important part of a sport, but it doesn’t get much choice about where it goes.” I smiled. “It’ll be fine. I can do this, at least, right?”

“Oh, yes.” She smiled. “No matter how powerful we are, if we didn’t have food, we’d all starve to death, and wouldn’t we look silly then?” She walked into the other room, where her voice joined the others in discussing. I stood over the pot of pasta, and tossed the garlic into the skillet with the onions. And I did my best not to let it bother me. The salmon filets slid into the oven, and soon, I was carrying out a second course to the group. They were gathered around the coffee table, with a map of the park on it. Dozens of notes had been added around the reservoir, arrows that I could barely understand, and different symbols for the different threats that were being discussed.

“What do you think, Dane?” Hector was asking. “Can we get the city government in on this?”

“I doubt it. The police stations are on a skeleton crew. They’ve got our balls in a mighty tight vice. I…” She sighed, and shook her head. “The most I can think to do is, if we can send dirty bomb threats to some of the major cities on Sunday, it’ll mean more people in-doors when the ritual takes place. It might help matters. A little bit, anyway.” She shrugged. “Other than that, there just isn’t enough manpower. How many cultists did you say there were going to be?”

“One hundred and forty-four, at last count.” Randall was leaning back in his chair, sipping from his flask, as I brought in the bowls, handing out food quietly.

“Those are going to be stiff odds against us. Even if we can draw them off, it’s probably not going to end well for us.” She shook her head.

“I think that I may have something that can help with that.” Randall said, his fingers tented. “Li Xue Zi, be a dear and go get the equipment from the car, would you?” She nodded loyally, and he turned back to the others as she stepped out of the door. “Li Xue Zi will act as a reserve force. It’s the most stealthy of the group. Now, as to our part…”

“One of the big dangers here is the spirit,” Betty stated, frowning. “It’s a god of disease. Not just physical disease, either. The people there were using charms to defend themselves, but he still killed one of them. Hypnotized him, or something.”

Randall nodded. “That is another issue. Nergal has some facility with mental illness, as well as physical contagions. We will be in danger, all of us, as soon as we get close to it. I may be able to expect some protection from the charm and the ritual, but the rest of us will be vulnerable.”

“I can help with that,” Phoebe said, her arms crossed. She looked as though she expected someone to argue with her statement. When no one did, she continued. “If my occupant should desire it, I can create a small potion. Use it in a bath in the day before the assault, and it will ward off the worst of both disease, and mental illness. It will not be a total defense, but it will leave you able to fight.” She looked around the group. “I will require a small amount of blood from each of you.” She took out a knife. Each of the four police officers, Randall, and Betty held out their hands. Phoebe made a small cut on each thumb, removing a drop of blood, and squeezing it into small vials. I’d have to ask where she got those at some other point. When I held out my hand, however, the others turned towards me. “My occupant…” Phoebe began, looking a bit awkward.

“You’re not coming to this fight.” Dane said, brusquely.

I frowned, my shoulders lowering a bit. “There’s something more important you have to do.” Randall said, resting a hand comfortingly on my shoulder. “This is one ritual. If we stop it, there’s nothing to keep the Church of the Survivor from trying this trick again. What we need is proof of their misdeeds. We need you to go into one of their clinics, and document evidence of what’s happened there, while the church is busy. There’ll be very few people in the clinics. We need to show what they’ve been doing, so we can ruin their name for good. Maybe even get at a few of the people who were subsidizing them. Otherwise, they’ll just start this over again, in another city, somewhere else. We need to crush them, here, and now.”

“And I’m the only one who can do this because…” There were uncomfortable looks shared around the table. “Because I’m the only one who’d be useless at the actual fight. I get it, yeah.” I shook my head. “Makes sense. Alright, so, while you are busy fighting the god, I sneak into a clinic, find evidence, we get it to a journalist after this is all over.”

“Oh, bitch, bitch, bitch, you don’t get to risk your life.” Dane said, shaking her head. “Can you do this, or can’t you?”

“Yes, damn it.” I frowned. “Now, you don’t get any cookies.” She rolled her eyes, but I was fairly certain she was actually quite disappointed. The door opened, and Li Xue Zi came in, carrying a substantial armory in a duffel bag. She reached in and produced a round iron shield, a pair of golden spears, a large metal cylinder attached to a bell-shaped container, an old hunting rifle, and a rather plain revolver. Dane frowned down at the equipment.

“Not to be ungrateful, but… I recognize that revolver. An old Webley. The British used it in World War 1. That rifle’s a single-shot breech-load from the 1800s. And the others… Let me be frank with you, Mister Creed. What the hell good are these things supposed to be for us?”

Phoebe, on the other hand, had gone deadly quiet, staring down at them. “How on earth did you find artifacts with this much power?” she asked, leaning forward, to rest a hand on them. They hummed softly at her touch, as she crouched down by the table, almost reverential.

“At great expense in men and money,” Randall whispered, frowning. “The Webley belonged to the last man to die in the Dunkirk Evacuations, recovered by the Germans. I got it from an old Nazi baron.” He grinned. “He told me I had to pry it out of his cold dead hands, and I have to admit, I was only too eager to oblige. The rifle is Davy Crockett’s. That one had found its way into a survivalist militia’s hands. They got violent and were raided by the federal government. Killed nearly a hundred men before the last of them was taken down by sharpshooters. The Greek fire dates straight back to the fall of Constantinople. It was in the hands of a Hashishin when I found it, and he thanked me for taking it off his hands. The shield and the spears… Well, it’s difficult to say for certain, myth and legend being what it is.”

“Who do you think they belonged to?” I asked.

“Hector of Troy.”

There was silence. Betty broke it with a raucous laugh. “I don’t know how welcome these gifts are going to be, human.” She smiled. “You know what all of those battles had in common, don’t you?”

Hector snorted. “Every one of them was a famous defeat.”

Randall slammed his hand into the desk. “We can’t win in a direct fight. I chose these weapons for a reason. They’re things of crisis, and they’re responding to the times. We need to win, and they might make it possible. They fight hardest in desperate circumstances, and make no mistakes about it, we are in desperate circumstances.”

Dane snorted. “You expect us to believe those things are magic? That’s the kind of bullshit they tell poor dumb sons of bitches in wars down in Africa. Carry this cross with you, and bullets cannot harm you. A little bit of chicanery to make someone walk into the jaws of death.”

Randall stood up, and grabbed the Webley off the table. Dane and the others tensed, but he flipped open the chamber. There were no rounds in it. He closed the chamber, and pointed it towards the shield. He pulled the trigger.

There was a snap-crack like a firework going off and a flash of light that nearly blinded the room. The shield rang out like a gong, humming softly as a small drift of smoke rose from its surface. He flicked the safety, flipped the gun around, holding it by the barrel, and handed it to Dane. “Watch the safety. It’s very difficult to unload this particular weapon.” She stared at it, slowly rolling it over in her hands. “The way of magic is that, if we win, these will be useless. They’re weapons of last stands. Victory would spoil their power. If this were not the kind of situation it is, I would never be handing them over.” He shook his head. “But I’m the only one left in the Order. And I’ll hardly miss them. So, the choice is yours, but I’d recommend you make use of the powerful magical weapons if I were you.”

There was a ding from the kitchen. “Cookies are done.” I stood up, and made my way into the other room. By the time I returned with a large baking sheet covered with confections, the weapons had been removed from the table, leaving it bare. Everyone was looking rather stoic. “Six days.” Randall said softly. “I would recommend that all of you spend these last few days with those you care about. Reminding yourself what you are fighting for. If we succeed, nobody will ever remember us. If we fail, nobody will ever forget.”

“Thanks, old man. Real morale booster.” Dane stood up. “We’ve got our plan of attack prepared. We’ll begin staking out the place on Sunday evening, in preparation for the attack. When the moon enters the totality, we’ll strike.”

Randall nodded. “Remember. We have 36 minutes to pull them off, and to overpower our enemies. Once Betty has drawn off Nergal, I’ll destroy the Rat King Tail.” He stood up, and bowed his head, and I realized just how old and worn out he looked. “I want to thank you all. It’s good to see that people still care about our world.” He nodded, as I set the tray down. He picked up one of the cookies. “Chocolate chip. Your mother always loved to make these, Horace.” He took a bite, and smiled. It was warmer and kinder than any I’d seen on him since my mother died. “Thank you.”

The group sat together. Betty happily nibbled a biscuit that I had gotten her while the rest of us ate something hearty, warm, and sweet. It seemed to cheer everyone up. A little reminder of what they were fighting for. After everyone finished, they began to file out. As Randall moved towards the door, flanked by Li Xue Zi, I followed. The three of us walked down the stairs together, away from the others. “Uncle…”

“You’re wondering what you can do to help.” Randall said, matter-of-factly.

“Yeah. Everyone’s risking their lives, I can’t-”

“You can. You have to.”

“I don’t care what you promised my father-!”

“This isn’t about your father. He’s dead, and he’d be proud of the man you are today. This is selfish, Horace. I don’t want to see you die. Even if we win, chances are good that a lot of us won’t make it through this.” He looked down. “If we fail, the world’s going to need Bastet. She’s a guardian of this world. She does horrible things, but she’ll need to be there, because she stops horrible things, too. And right now, she’s weak. That fight took a lot of energy out of her, and it’s been a long time since she had the energy she needed to take on something like this.” He turned towards me. “You’ve got a week left. Spend it with her. Take care of her. Because she can’t take care of herself.” He smiled. “None of us can, really. That’s why we need you.”

“I want to be able to do something,” I whispered, softly, staring down at my shoes as we walked.

“You are. You can give a goddess the strength to fight. You can tame a feral Lar, and make Li Xue Zi smile. That’s more than most people can do in this world, Horace. Treasure it. You’re a strong young man. I know that you’ll do me proud.”

I was quiet, as the two of us walked. I felt tears in my eyes. “I think that’s the first time you’ve ever really complimented me. Why’d you have to stop being a bastard just when you’re about risk your life?”

He laughed, long, and loud, his rasping voice sounding more youthful than it had in years. “I guess. Who knows, maybe oncoming death makes us want to be better?” He turned towards me, and smiled, as Li Xue Zi stood at the bottom of the stairs, her back turned. “Horace. I just want you to know, even if you were my brother’s… I always thought of you like a son. You’re a good man, and I’m glad you didn’t turn out like me.” He smiled. “I’m proud of you. Even if you think there’s more that you can do in the world, I want you to know, I’m proud of all that you’ve done.” He turned towards the stairs. “Now, take care of her, and take care of yourself.”

“Do we have any chance here, Uncle?”

He shrugged. “Even if we’re fated to lose… We choose whether or not we’ll embrace fate.” He grinned over his shoulder. “We’re not gods. We’re men.”

 

Chapter 13: A Horace Is Not A Home Without You

The human capacity to live with the apocalypse is unrivaled. On the first night after the meeting, I had horrific nightmares of plague, of Betty dead, of Randall and my new friends torn limb from limb, of the world falling apart around me. It was excruciating, knowing that there was nothing I could do besides what I was already doing, taking care of Betty. But I got used to it surprisingly quickly. By Wednesday morning, the dream had faded entirely. I asked Betty about that.

“It’s because you’re already aware of your mortality.” Betty nodded. “You’ve spent most of your life being aware of your own possible death. That it might arrive soon is something that you’ve had a chance to get used to, too- Damn it!” She had leapt, and found the bright spot had somehow eluded her, dodging a few inches further. She struck out with her hand, and the spot leapt away. I considered her words while aiming the small hand mirror, watching her with amusement. “Damn clever little- Got you!” She slapped a hand down onto the spot of light, and her other hand on top of the first as the spot seemed to land on top of her hands.

“You realize that it’s just a reflection of sunlight, right?” I asked, frowning. Betty gave me a look. “I’m just saying.” I shifted the mirror, and Betty chased it, leaping and gamboling. For someone with a human shape, she was surprisingly adept on four legs. She also seemed to take a great pleasure in behaving kittenishly around me. After having seen how dignified and fierce she could be, watching her act like a kitten was both a pleasant break, and rather odd. She wore one of my shirts, as usual, her tail tucked inside of it, visibly shifting the arrangement of fabric as she leapt after the light.

“It’s a game of skill, and chance! It is a testing of our abilities against one another, and a way for the two of us to grow closer! It is also very, very fun.” She smiled up at me. “I would think you’d be happy for the chance to sit and play with your cat.” She sat with her legs crossed, her ears perked, her tail flicking back and forth in her shirt. I knew that she was trying to get me to let my guard down. She wasn’t very good at playing it cool, because she was still sneaking peeks at the light, and her arms were visibly tensed. She was also stretching the shirt out with her knees, pulling it over her legs. That was okay, though.

“You realize that it’s physically impossible to catch the light, right?” I asked, an eyebrow raised. She gave me a pitying look, and then leapt. There was a sound like a Velcro strap being pulled open. She held one hand in the air triumphantly, a small point of bright, shining light caught between thumb and forefinger. I experimentally shifted the mirror. It was no longer casting a reflection of the sunbeam. “That’s cheating.”

“Gods get to do that.” She purred, and rested the golden spot on my lap, and climbed on top of it. “Warm!” She purred happily, smiling as she settled down on my lap, making herself comfortable. Her chest vibrated against me as she curled up, pushing at my legs with her hands until she was satisfied with their positioning. This made me stiffen, but I fought through it, and tried not to disturb her.

“Betty… You told me that you didn’t want, um.” I flushed. “A… relationship with me. A romantic one, I mean. I know it’s a little bit rude of me to ask, but… What kind of man do you prefer?”

She looked up at me lazily, and yawned. “You’re going to wonder whether I’d like you more if you were a great warrior, or some powerful will-worker, or a brilliant sage, aren’t you?” she smiled indulgently, rolling onto her back. “The greatest warrior in history couldn’t hope to match my strength, speed, and grace. The most brilliant mage struggles to harness the power which is mine by birthright. And even the wisest sage cannot know my mind.” She looked up at me, and grabbed my hand, pulling it towards her chest. I flushed, as I felt the softness. “Do you feel this?” she asked.

“Y-Yes.” I managed, my voice slightly strangled. She really was quite soft in some places.

“Not that. You humans and your preoccupation with fat deposits…” She sighed, and I realized her heart was beating quickly. “You think you have so much to prove, Horace. You feel as though you are letting down everyone if you are not the strongest. You fear that you are putting me in danger, putting others in danger. You throw yourself into risks, and because you are weak, you create greater danger. What I want from my mate is a human who will trust me, and who can stay safe. Someone who will accept their own powerlessness, and be satisfied with staying home, keeping me fed, and being there to heal me when I have fought.”

“You make it sound like being a housewife.”

“A wise strategy. Let the one who is strong go out to risk their life, because they can gain more from the things that threaten them than their partner ever could. And when they have gone out into the wilds and returned, victorious, they are welcomed by their mate, to be cared for.” She looked up, and leaned forward, nuzzling into my shoulder. “But why desire me? I am simply a cat. Can you not find a mate among your own kind?”

I paused. That was a tricky question. “I suppose… I might be able to. But…” I took a deep breath. “I can’t provide for most people. I’m not rich enough to be able to pay for nice things. To treat the people I care about the way they should be treated. But you’re…” I flushed. “Full disclosure, you’re mind-breakingly attractive. You’re powerful, and graceful, and interesting. You require very little to keep you happy.”

“Oh, yes, yes, more compliments! I can feel my strength growing by the second!”

“I’m being serious!”

“So am I. Keep saying nice things about me, human.”

I tried to hold back the laugh, and it only turned into an embarrassing snort. “Okay. Uh… Your eyes are super-green. Like, the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, really gorgeous. Your fur and hair are so soft that they feel like silk, and I’ve never met someone who can murder eldritch abominations like you.” She purred loudly, arching and rolling on my lap. “And… You seem like you try to be stand-off-ish, but I think that you really care about human beings. I think that, despite what everyone says about you being dangerous, you’re doing everything you can to protect people. And I don’t know why you do it, I really don’t, because people have been so horrible to you, but… I’m glad you do.”

She smiled up at me, purring loudly as she rolled her tail in slow loops. “You do know how to compliment me, Horace. Good human.” She sighed loudly as she sat up, straddling my lap. “The reason why I protect humans is because a few of you are truly worth the trouble. And you never know who those few will be!” She smiled. “I told you, quality is more important than quantity. Nergal needs the worship of millions to even stand a chance against me with a single believer.” She leaned in close. Her lips were terribly close to mine. They were soft, and pink, and her breath was sweet, as she looked into my eyes. “And you’ve only just started believing in me. Imagine what I can do to protect the world with you by my side. So promise not to do anything foolish that will get you killed. Alright?” she asked softly. I flushed.

“Alright.” She smiled, and licked my cheek, her rough tongue passing over my cheek gently, scraping me. She hmmed. “What?”

“You could use a bath. You’re getting all salty and smelly.” She began licking my cheek vigorously, scratching it with her barbed tongue, as I began to struggle a bit. Her tongue passed through my hair, pinning it back as she grinned cheerfully. I struggled, but not very hard, as she gave my face a tongue-bath. I had the impression that she wasn’t just doing it to make me clean. She was naturally possessive. Finally, she stopped, leaving my skin feeling somewhat raw from the vigorous scrubbing she’d given me. “When you no longer feel as though you have something to prove, when you can be comfortable with your place in the world, when you are content, then, we can mate.” She paused for a moment. “Also, as most of my humans die within a year of getting me, let’s say that you have to survive at least that long. Once I’m sure you’re not going to go off and get yourself killed, maybe I can make a little room for you in my heart.”

I thought of my uncle Randall. He had been weak once. He thought I could be strong. Betty was protective, but she underestimated me so much. It stung, to be thought of as so weak. Especially because she was absolutely right. I was helpless compared to her, and even if I spent my entire life training to become stronger, I would never be her equal. She had been better than me from the moment that she was born, and she’d had a long time to improve her lead. “That’s a pretty steep price you’re asking of me, Betty.”

She purred loudly, and smiled. “I know it is. But there’s something important about the price.” Her voice dropped low, as her eyes glittered. “I am worth it.” She smiled, and hopped off of my lap, digging her heels in uncomfortably close to my groin, provoking a yelp as she trotted off, her tail swaying. “Let’s do swordfish for dinner tonight!” I sighed, and nodded, smiling. I got into a fresh set of clothes, and walked out into the city.

The streets were empty. Everyone who could get out of the city had done so. Those who couldn’t were staying indoors. The trains were still running, but only because the national guard was doing its best to keep the city in order. The hospitals were overflowing. There were countless reports of random acts of violence. Evacuation had been less than successful. After all, there were reports of the plague cropping up in most nearby cities. There was nowhere ‘safe’ that you could go to escape it. People were trying, more or less, to keep their lives running normally in the face of chaos and the deaths that were mounting. It would all fall apart soon. But for now, people were behaving.

I corrected myself. The streets weren’t exactly empty. Two men approached me from an alleyway, wearing rat-face masks. “Pardon me, sir.” one of them asked, smiling. “Have you heard the good news?”

“Step away.” Li stepped into view from behind me, appearing as though from thin air. Her red eyes met those of the two men as she raised her hands into an open-palmed position, tendons standing out from her thin arms. “Or I will cripple you.”

The first man didn’t take her seriously. The second one did after watching his companion’s knuckles pop like firecrackers in Li’s grasp. The two men ran away, one of them cradling his ruined fists. Li stood in her kimono, watching them run away with a face as cold and impassive as an extremely haughty ice sculpture. “Was that really necessary?” I asked, frowning at her. She sighed.

“Those who are touched by the plague have become your enemy, Horace. They wish to do you harm. They wish to do your world harm. The nature of our world is that innocents, civilians, are so often the most eager tools of the things that seek to pour into our world. If you hold yourself back from killing because your opponent is human, then you risk dying for your principles to no one’s benefit.”

“I would rather we didn’t have to hurt anyone supernatural, either.” She turned towards me, an eyebrow raised.

“My. Now, that is an unusual point of view. Do you have any idea of my sins? I am a demon, after all. I caused the death of a man who trusted me. That is why I serve my penance. Would you not say that is reason enough to kill me?”

I frowned. “Randall said that you serve him because you felt guilty. If you can feel guilty for killing someone, you’re a person. And that means that you deserve to be treated like one.” She stared for a few seconds with those wide, pupilless red eyes. Then, she laughed, a long, genuinely cheerful noise, and the two of us began to walk, making our way to the grocery.

“Oh, you are funny. And quite sweet. I bet that you were the kind to nurture injured animals to try to help them, hmmm? I’ve watched you, human. Picking up spiders and carrying them to the windows. You hate to see anything suffer. You still eat meat, though.” I shrugged.

“I suppose that I just can’t stand to kill myself. But clearly, I can’t bring myself to be good enough to stop anyone else from killing, too.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I could have choked the life out of those two men. But I would hate to see you look at me with horror in your eyes.” She fluttered her eyelashes at me. “Lust is so much more appealing from a human.”

“I- I mean- I-” I struggled to think of something to say, and failed, flushing as she laughed. She wasn’t being cruel, but the laugh was at my expense. “I just have to ask… Why does a spirit even have any interest in a human? Romantically, I mean. You’re a snake, right? What would even make you be… interested?” I didn’t mention the kiss. I still wasn’t quite sure how to interpret that moment.

“That’s a good question. Humans are very narcissistic. They think of everything as being a little bit like them. There is a term for this that I have heard, anthropocentrism. The idea that the whole world revolves around humanity.” She smiled. “It is not so far off the mark. Humanity gives things meaning, and if there is one thing that sapience craves, it is meaning. You give me something that no snake, or spirit, or god, ever could.” She looked down at her hands. “Absolution. And acceptance.” She paused for a moment, drawing in a breath, as though preparing for me to strike her. When I didn’t, she continued. “It is not such a bad thing to be a human. Humans do many wonderful things, and can be very caring. Greater grace than the angels, and deeper sin than the devils.”

“And what about…” I looked at her. She looked youthful, if not exactly young. “Are you immortal?”

Her face fell. “Oh, yes.” She spoke softly. “It is the nature of my kind. There are not many of us, for good reason. We are made when a human gives up immortality for us. It does not happen often, and it is usually not intentional on the part of the human. It gives us great power, and great pain, because we owe our lives, our minds, and our immortality to someone who has been condemned to death because of our actions.” She looked down at her hands, as she walked. “It is a difficult thing, to achieve sapience only to learn that to do so, another sapient being had to die.”

I reached out, and awkwardly patted her on the shoulder. She seemed to take it well, as she walked alongside me. “You… Insinuated, I guess, is the word, that you were evil. And my uncle. Or at least, you seemed uncertain whether you were doing the right thing. What did you mean by that?”

“Your uncle is a great man, I would say. But not necessarily a good man. He has been willing to consider the unthinkable, in order to protect people. He was willing to go along with the plan of the cult, until he found a better way.”

I frowned. “Yeah. That pissed me off. But as much as I hate his mercenary attitude, it may give us a chance. If he hadn’t agreed to go along with my plan, we’d have no chance. And if it wasn’t for him getting in close with the bad guys first, we would never have a chance of springing this trap on them.”

“Yes. Morality is a tricky thing, isn’t it? I have always known him to be a ruthless, relentless man, as I am sure you have. And yet, he fights with everything he has to protect his kind.” She shrugged. “He can be quite cruel towards me, but I understand why. He does not trust that which is not human. He very rarely trusts even other humans. But he does trust you.” I looked up. I was standing outside of the grocery. “Why do you want to be strong, Horace?”

“Because I’d rather I get hurt than someone else.” She seemed to consider this.

“That’s a better reason than most. But it’s amazing how gathering strength ends up hurting other people, even when you think it’s for the best reasons.” She rested a hand on my shoulder, and squeezed me reassuringly. “I know that doesn’t comfort you a great deal, but maybe it will make your part in all of these things a little easier.”

“Why did you kiss me?”

“Because I wanted to make sure you were the right person. That you hadn’t been infected with the plague yet.” Her eyelashes fluttered beguilingly. “And also because I wanted to. You have many of the fine qualities of your uncle, without many of the things that I would consider his flaws. And you’re very warm.” She smiled. “I enjoy protecting you.”

“Flattering.” I smiled, in spite of the patronizing comment. “Well, I trust you.” She smiled, but not very convincingly.

“You should be careful of that. Trusting snakes works out poorly in myth. Gods have been laid low by the serpent’s tongue.”

“We’re not gods,” I said. She stared at me for a moment, and shook her head. “What?”

“You look just like Randall when you say that.”

With that, she disappeared. I couldn’t tell whether she had been disappointed, or approved. So in lieu of meaning, I made my way into the grocery to buy food. It was quiet. There was only one person standing at the registers, and she seemed to be only half-aware of the world around her. The quiet little act of buying food seemed to affirm our shared humanity. I smiled at her as I ran my card through the machine, and she smiled back. It wasn’t much, as far as dramatic gestures went, but it made me feel better about the world.

The sun was setting as I left the grocery. The heat was stifling as we moved into the late part of September. The sky was turning a brilliant shade of salmon and saffron, clouds muddling the colors like smears of oil paint on a canvas. I completely failed to appreciate the beauty of the evening. It was the kind of sunset you got all the time, and I had other things on my mind. I held up a hand, and chanted the incantation. I thought of my mother’s grilled vegetable platter, and the time when I was nine years old and had sat on the porch, tears running down my cheeks, after a group of older boys had killed my pet frog. The spell for transportation was still showing no signs of working, and I was left tearing up a bit as I walked through the city streets, making my way back home. It was a simple spell, Phoebe had told me. It should’ve required only the smallest expenditures of power, and relatively little concentration. And yet, I couldn’t do it.

“Help me with this, owner.” When I returned home, opening the door, Phoebe was standing in the bathroom. There was no sign of Betty, and I felt an involuntary spasm of worry that my apartment had killed my cat. Then, I peered into my room. Betty was curled up on top of my hamper, in human form, sleeping lazily among my clothes. Gross. I stepped into the bathroom, where Phoebe had drawn a large, scented bath. She lifted a small ladle from the steaming water, and waved a hand towards one of the bottles on the counter. ‘Dane Larson’ was written on it with a sharpie. A single drop of blood was visible in the bottle. I crouched down next to her, holding out the bottle for her to fill it with the mixture. “I felt you access my power, you know, while you were off gallivanting around.”

“I was trying to cast the spell to return me home. Just… To see if I could.” She frowned at me darkly.

“My powers are not frivolous things.”

“You taught me a spell to cure drunkenness. How is that not frivolous.”

She shook her head chastizingly. “What if someone were dying of alcohol overdose? The powers I have given you are limited, true, but they are power, nonetheless.”

I nodded my head. “And I’m grateful, Phoebe. Really, I am. They turned out to be much more useful than I’d expected, although I doubt that lightning’s going to strike twice on that front. Unless someone gets a broken finger or way too drunk the night before the eclipse.” I held out the next bottle. “It sucks being weak.”

“You are not weak. You are vulnerable. You are easily killed with violence. Your physical strength is less than that of those around you, and you are magically helpless.” Her hand moved like quicksilver, and suddenly, her fingers were around my throat. I barely avoided dropping the bottle with Hector’s name on it into the bath. She stared into my eyes, her breathing fast, her own eyes shining brightly. “I could kill you accidentally. If I wasn’t careful, if I tightened my fingers just a little bit, you would die.”

I swallowed. I could feel my throat press against her fingers as my Adam’s apple bobbed. “That sounds like weakness to me.” I managed, my voice strained by nervousness. I knew that Phoebe was unstable. She’d killed a lot of people. Moments like this scared the hell out of me, because I didn’t know what she was thinking. “Phoebe, uh-”

She leaned in closer, her eyes impassive, cold. “And then you would be gone, forever. And my life would lose all meaning. Perhaps Bastet would move on, find a new owner, but I would have squandered my last chance. That serpent which watches you with lustful eyes would see the bloodline it cares about snuffed out.” The water in the bath softly splashed as she lowered the ladle into it again. “Without you, I would lack purpose. I would lack a way to go on. Do you see what I mean? Through your vulnerability, you exert immense power and control over me. Your fragility is not a weakness. It is a terrible strength, with which you can break the spirit of those who love you.”

I frowned. The terror and choking pressure were momentarily forgotten, as her fingers loosened. “I don’t want power over the people who love me. I want to be able to protect them.”

She released my throat, and shook her head while I coughed. “You do not understand the power you have. Supernatural beings have had their sense of self-worth connected to you. Do you think that the snake, that I, would be fighting for humanity if it were not for you? Do you think that I would be spending my time making cures for those foolish police officers to hold back the death and disease that is coming if I did not care for you?” She sighed. “You have power over me, and have placed barbs in my heart. If I do not give this my all, then you could become ill. You could die. It would mean the loss of meaning. And I will not allow that to happen to me again.” She gave me a dark look. “You are lucky that you are kind, as well. If you acted to hurt me, to manipulate me, I would probably kill you for the power you have over me. But as it is, I could not stand to see you die, to feel your blood running over my fingers. Take some comfort in that.”

I rubbed my neck. “I love our little talks, Phoebe. So, you’re saying you care about me?” I gave her a grin, and she gave me a look that could have flayed the skin off of a lesser man.

“Do not crow. It is very disrespectful.” I shook my head, still aware of the phantom sensation of fingers pressing against my throat.

“I know. I brought you something special for tonight.” I placed the bottle down, and reached into the grocery bag still at my side. I withdrew a bottle of wine. It had been a remarkably expensive one, especially for something that was made in New York State. Nonetheless, she seemed pleased at the gift. “Why can’t I cast the spell, though?” I asked, frowning. “You said it was just a matter of communicating, that you did most of the work. You could even feel my power. So… Why doesn’t it work?”

She was quiet as she held the bottle of red wine. “It is… a matter of perspective, I suspect. I only know what I have read, and what I have experienced. Powerful humans, those with great magical capability, are reckless, narcissistic, and callous. Their power often comes from without, and they use it to aggrandize themselves. They are often utterly uncaring about the source of their power, willing to rip every last erg from the one they’ve made a contract of some sort with. They believe that they are the wisest, that they are the most suited to act. They do not care about other beings.” She looked up at me. “I hope that you do not try to emulate them, even if it grants you the power you so desire. You would lose what makes you special to me. To all of us.” She caressed the bottle gently, and then started filling the small crystal bottles with more of the bathwater, as I held them out for her. “As for the spell itself, I suspect that you are holding yourself back. Perhaps you really do respect me, and don’t wish to use my power for something frivolous.”

“Ugh. So it’ll work when I really need it, huh? That’s kind of disturbing, considering I won’t know if it’ll work until my life is in danger.” To my surprise, the house spirit slipped her arms around my midsection, and hugged me, resting her head on my chest. “Uh-”

“I am expending energy to make this cure. It is exhausting. It leaves me cold. You warm me.” She pressed her face against my chest. “I am glad that your power is directed outwards, to those around you. I am sorry that it makes you feel helpless, and vulnerable. I will do everything that I can to help protect you from the things that you cannot protect yourself from.”

“But what if you need to be protected?” I asked, softly. She smiled.

“I am a shelter. I protect from predators. From the elements. From those who would do you harm. I do not need you to protect me. I need you to repair me.” She looked down, not meeting my eyes. “When this is over, you should give up Betty. Tell her to move on, to find someone else who can take care of her. She will move on, and I can protect you from anyone who would try to get revenge against her. You will be safer that way. Caring for her as long as you have is above and beyond the call of duty.”

I rested a hand on the back of the Lar’s head, stroking her softly. “You know that I can’t do that. She needs my help. Even if it’s dangerous, I’ve got to do what I can for her.”

She sighed, her warm breath slipping through my shirt, as she nodded. “I know. And in truth, you would probably not be the person I care about if you agreed. But I had to ask. I have to protect you.” She squeezed me a bit tighter, and I wheezed. She loosened her grip, looking momentarily concerned, and I laughed. “What?” she asked, her face earnest, frowning. I kept laughing, grinning. “Stop that!” she protested, beginning to pout. “I am not funny!”

“You’re very funny.” I smiled, and reached out. She flinched, and I stopped, my hand a few inches away from her.

“I’m… sorry, for flinching. It is not as though you could truly hurt me.” She looked down, and reached up, taking my hand, pulling it against her face.

“Did your first owner ever…?” I asked, frowning, letting the words die.

“Rape me? No, he respected me far too much for that. He thought it was a dirty, degrading act, which was beneath my dignity as a goddess. So he satisfied himself by plunging a length of sharp steel into my midsection repeatedly.” I winced.

“Sorry.”

“I put him into jail for the rest of his life, and while he hurt me, I will not let him control me.” She looked up, her eyes glittering with intrigue. “I would like to try it sometime.” She leaned in closer, pressing her face against my throat. “It would be rather satisfying, I think, to do that.” She rested a hand on my hip, toying with the line of my pants. “The world may end soon. That is a good excuse for humans to mate, isn’t it? The desire, when faced with imminent death, to ensure that your genes don’t end with you…”

I cursed whatever strange phenomena gave me sex appeal only when the world was ending, and with dangerously jealous spirits. I raised my hands, and tried to protest as she rested on top of me. It was not, in fact, that I didn’t want to have sex with the spirit. A beautiful, dangerously devoted woman with the body of a pro golfer and whatever the house-spirit equivalent of daddy issues was throwing herself at me. That wasn’t something to turn down lightly, no matter how good a person I tried to be. But the last thing I needed right on the edge of the apocalypse was romantic tension. “Not yet.”

She frowned, her head tilted. “What, you want to wait until the apocalypse is a little bit more imminent? There may not be a later.” She frowned. “Do you… Is it…” I could see the self-doubt blossoming in her eyes, and shook my head.

“No. Definitely not that. You are extremely attractive, and even if you’re a bit crazy, I think you’re better than people treat you. I just-” I groped for words, and did my best not to grope her. “You, Betty, maybe even Li, are really jealous and possessive, and I can’t help but feel that committing to any kind of intimacy, right before a huge conflict on which the world leans, would be an immensely bad idea.”

She stared down at me. “You are turning down a night of passionate love-making with a goddess because you believe it might harm our chances of success?”

“Well-”

“And you don’t think you’re powerful.” She snorted, smirking. “I think that your opinion of your own desirability is perhaps a bit inflated, but I suppose that you are right, the cat seems like she could be the jealous sort.” She leaned close, and her smirk changed, growing warm, inviting, soft, turning into a lascivious, and extremely promising grin. “Afterwards, then.”

“Sure. If we survive this, some awkward romantic tension would probably be just ideal.” I smiled weakly, and she stood up. “Besides, it gives us all something to look forward to, right?”

“My, you are cocky.” She laughed softly. “Something to look forward to, then.”

And then, all too soon, it was the last day on earth.

 

Chapter 14: Dane to the Wire

I smoked a cigarette to try to regain some sense of normalcy. I smelled of rosewater and lavender, which made for a disconcerting change. The strange spirit had come through with disease-repelling essential oils. I’d taken a long bath in it, and while it had been enjoyable, it had made me feel like I should be eating chocolate ice-cream and doing my nails. It helped that Hector, John, and Marco were no more pleased with the situation than I was. We had met briefly on the sidewalk outside of the park, before moving to our predetermined locations to prepare for the battle ahead. It was Sunday. Horace had gone with the camera to go get what he was needed. Randall had arrived as the last of the cult’s setup was being completed. Betty and Li were… Well, I didn’t know. I didn’t need to know exactly where they hid, and with any luck, they’d remain hidden until the moment when they could do the greatest damage.

I took out the Webley. Its immaculate iron barrel gleamed in the dull light of the city. Central Park at night was different from the day. In the day, it was lush, green, invitingly fresh and beautiful. At night, there was a sinister air to the park. Bright, actinic lamps created small globes of light. Beyond them was sinister, pregnant, and highly suggestive darkness. It had been a terrifying place in the 70s, where you had to tread carefully, or risk getting mugged at best. Nowadays, it was supposedly safer, because of an understanding about the nature of darkness. When people were mostly immersed in light, then pools of darkness created an environment conducive to ambush. But when the points of light were relatively infrequent, but continuous, people’s eyes could adjust to the darkness and see people waiting for them.

Tonight, I was glad for the darkness. I looked up at the heavens, where there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. No reflected light from the buildings surrounding the park on all sides. That was of mixed benefit. On the one hand, it meant that the park was dark as pitch outside of the pools of light from LED street lamps. It also meant that I could see the moon. Bright, white, and with a growing stain spreading over its face. Rather like the marks spreading across the diseased in the city’s hospitals. I shuddered.

“Hey, boss,” Hector whispered. Wind whistled softly on his headset, as I adjusted the headphones. Sound-dampening to help with the sound of gunfire, and to keep us in touch. “Did you have any luck with city hall?”

“I tried to warn them, but…” I shook my head. “We can’t afford to fight like we’re going to get reinforcements. When the cult starts the ritual, we’re going to need to pull them away, and keep them distracted long enough for Betty and Randall to do their work. Chances are good that we’re going to all die, here. But if we can pull this off, we’re going to be heroes.”

“What good’s being a hero if you aren’t around to get the drinks?” John asked, his voice soft, chuckling, as he hefted the shield. “Can’t believe I’m going into battle with an antique.” He adjusted his position next to me. I lifted the binoculars, and stared. There were dozens of rat-faced men, armed with submachineguns. Not hugely accurate, but effective in numbers, and they had plenty of those. I would have liked more cover, but city parks were notorious for their lack of waist-high walls and convenient barrels. We’d have to make do with darkness and-

“They’re moving,” I whispered. I watched as the men withdrew from the perimeter, and into the large ordered ranks mathematically divined for maximum faith. The rat-tails were in the center of a well-lit area, at the very edge of the reservoir’s bike path. There were dozens of the men, forming concentric circles around the focus of the god’s power. They were chanting in low, droning voices. “Alright. Time to take our positions. Marco, Hector, get in position. When John brings in the noise, Hector, you’ll bring in the funk.”

“Wow, boss. If we survive this, I’m going to be talking with HR about our hostile workplace.”

“We’re off the clock, Hector. It’s not harassment, it’s just me being a bigot.”

“Damn.” Hector chuckled, and I felt a little tension in the pit of my stomach. This was the moment. When we’d find out what we were made out of. John stood up from the bush, and judged the distance. We were perhaps two hundred feet down the hill from the gathering. A skilled javelineer… Javelinist? Javioso? Well, they could hit someone from about fifty feet, using a Roman pilum. John had shared that fact with me while we were practicing. John wasn’t a skilled javioso, but these weren’t normal weapons.

The golden-shafted spear left his hand like a bolt from God. It moved soundlessly through the air, describing a glittering golden arc, which ended halfway through one of the rat-faced men. It exploded ferociously, light flaring around the men, and two or three others dropped dead to the ground, eyes full of shock and horror.

I didn’t know if they were all victims in this, lost souls who would do anything without understanding whether it was right or wrong. If I were stronger, I’d be able to do something about that. I could authorize us using nonlethal force. Try to save as many of them as we could. But they outnumbered us thirty to one and carried extremely lethal weapons. I didn’t have much choice.

The men turned, and charged down the paths, shouting. Some of them tried to leap across the thick undergrowth around the paths, and were slowed. I raised my pistol. The cultists were trying to hold their fire, even as John lifted the other spear, and threw it again. The enemy couldn’t see where we were, and they were trying not to shoot each other. For the moment, their numbers were providing us an advantage. The first spear suddenly appeared on John’s back. It nearly gave me pause, but I was knee-deep in insanity already. It was just good to see the insanity was on our side for once.

There was the crack of an 18th century rifle, and two of the cultists fell, one of them struggling and the other still. I’d looked into the make. It was an old 1819, one of the first rifled firearms made in the USA. It had been equipped with a percussion lock. It was a thing of beauty, mahogany frame custom-made with a silver trim. It also shouldn’t have been able to fire half so quickly as it did. Another crack filled the air, much too soon for it to be reloaded normally. The cultists scattered for cover, trying to find the sniper who was harrying them, scanning the trees and the bushes. They weren’t looking in the right direction. I pulled up the binoculars quickly, and studied the lights around the cultists.

There was no sign of Betty yet. She couldn’t move in until we’d forced the enemy to commit. I could feel the plague god’s influence beginning to pull at me. My nose was running, my throat tickling, as I felt the urge to cough and clear my throat. I fought it. John was staggering a bit as he threw another of the shimmering golden javelins, and the second one reappeared on his back again. Each time they struck home, I felt a little spike of hope. A little prayer that maybe we’d live through this. Then, one of his throws went wide, striking the ground, and sinking into the earth, not returning to his hand. He cursed loudly, as he drew the other spear.

The rat-faced men had entered the darkness. Their guns were rising into position, finally able to make out our silhouettes. “Close your eyes, boys,” I whispered, softly, into the headset, and raised the gun, shutting my eyes as I fired. It didn’t matter who I hit.

There was a moment of retina-searing white, and a chorus of anguished screams from the men, as they were blinded by the sun-bright flash of my weapon. One of them wasn’t moving anymore, and I fired two or three more times. Then they returned fire, sending bullets winging into the darkness. John and I huddled behind the shield, and he rocked with each impact, sending jarring shocks through his shoulders. And as they fired, blinded and confused, Marco rose from in the middle of their lines, appearing out of a thick shrub. He laughed wildly, his strange apparatus lifted into the air. There was a low roar as flame leapt from the hose, sticky and cloying. It lit up the field, trees beginning to burn, creating a beacon to the city. Unfortunately, it also illuminated Hector.

He floated, fifty feet up, lying down on the carpet. The blessed darkness, provided by the clear sky, was lost. One of the men screamed, pointing towards the shape, and their guns lifted. I fired wildly. Marco tried to hose them down. John lifted his spear. It was too late. A burst of gunfire ripped through the air, and a dark shape detached from the floating carpet, tumbling down into the dark bushes far below. There was a snapping of branches and a heavy thud. Marco cursed loudly, charging at the men. Half a dozen bullets struck him, and he went down, spinning and dancing wildly. I screamed out a curse, as John threw his second spear again. This time it missed. Then it was just the shield, and the charging men. Bullets seemed to pull out of their paths, landing against the shield, rattling it violently. He held his best. But we weren’t going to make it. We weren’t going to last. The men spread out, surrounding us, their guns trained on us.

“Surrender,” said one of them, “and come to witness glory.”

I stared at him, slowly, from over the sight of the Webley. It could keep firing continuously. I could kill a lot of them before I went down under the hail of bullets. Not nearly enough to make a difference, but damn, I could kill a lot of them.

“I think we’re out of options here, boss.” John muttered, his eyes narrowed.

I sighed, and lowered my gun. The men spread out, and one of them roughly seized the sidearm. I wondered privately where the hell Betty had been. Or Li, for that matter. We were marched up the path, and Hector and Marco were soon joining us. Marco was walking unsteadily, his clothes slick with blood. One of the cultists was bandaging him. “What the fuck are you doing?” he asked, slurring.

“Unnecessary death is against our religion,” The rat-faced medic responded coolly. “We would not want you to die before you have a chance to be embraced and enlightened by our god.”

Hector was limping a bit, but looked very good for a man who’d plunged to almost certain death after being struck with a hail of bullets. “How the hell are you alive, Hector?” I asked softly, under my breath. He shrugged.

“I rolled off when I got lit up and saw people aiming for me. My ankle’s killing me, though, and I don’t know where the rifle is.”

The four of us were marched up the hill, to stand within the lights of the circle. Four spotlights, pointing down at a small bundle of rat-tails. Scabby, pink, tangled into a ball about the size of an orange. And it cast four shadows. This wasn’t a very rational day. Randall stood to one side of the rat tails, with his flask out. He had a morose expression, and a black-bladed knife hung from his belt. The Deacon stood to the other side, smiling. “Ah, Randall. Such a sad play. You wanted to be the hero one last time, did you? Stop us?” She shook her head. “A group of violent thugs with a handful of scavenged artifacts. I hope that you were more impressive during your glory days.” She turned, her eyes meeting mine. “I wonder. Don’t I know you?” she asked, smiling musingly. “Oh, of course. You tried to evict me once. I cut you open. I’m truly sorry about that day.” She reached out, resting a hand on my shoulder. A smile spread across the thin, pale woman’s arch face. I remembered razor-sharp claws and horrible pain, and watching my insides spill out. “I’ve since found religion.”

“Ma’am. We think this was all of them.”

She shook her head. “Keep an eye out. That little snake is no doubt still waiting for the right moment. Just fill it with bullets, even an immortal can’t ignore enough lead. Randall, really, you’re lucky this didn’t escalate any further. Any more of us lost, and Nergal would be in serious danger of being maladjusted when he arrives.” With her words, a dark form rose out of the ball of rat tails. It looked humanoid, with a large, comically simple face, a jagged half-circle smile and a pair of large white eyes. It was black, and almost gaseous save for the face. That looked more like a drop of ink floating in mid-air.

“I’m going to get to help everyone soon?” the spirit asked, its voice soft, smiling. I looked down. Randall had a glint of something black and sharp in his hand. The knife was no longer on his belt. “I get to embrace the world?” The spirit giggled softly. “I can’t wait. You’ll help me?”

“You know you can’t control that god,” Randall said. “Billions are going to die. You’re not strong enough. Even with all of these men… You’re going to be subsumed. You’re going to lose yourself in the power.” His eyes were hard as stone. “I’ve seen a thousand people like you, Mary. Every one of them died, consumed. We’re not gods. We can’t hold that kind of power.”

“I don’t wish to hold the power, Randall. I’m just going to give it some gentle guidance. And Nergal is so eager for it, aren’t you?” The creature let out a soft, high-pitched giggle. The moon was growing darker. “Only a few minutes left until totality. Any last words?” I looked down at the knife in Randall’s hand. My head pounded. Thumping, as though my air was being cut off. It was growing louder by the second as I tensed. I’d die, for certain, if I went for the knife. The question was how much good I’d do by cutting off the woman’s head, first. Maybe enough.

God, the thumping was getting unbearable.

“A dirty bomb.” The commissioner sat across from me, his face drawn. “You’re telling me that death-worshipping cultists have snuck fissile material into the middle of New York City, and plan to detonate it.”

“Yes, sir.” The fan spun slowly above the desk, as the old man sighed softly, his head resting on his hand. The National Guard Colonel sat in a desk off to the side, watching impassively. Both of them seemed, frankly, a lot more dismissive than I thought was entirely fair. I had come into the office on the morning of the attack, only to find the Commissioner on the verge of giving up all hope. He was exhausted. Weeks of dealing with a major plague could do that to you.

“That you found out about because of a connection with one of their financiers. Something that none of our counter-terrorism units have heard a peep about. In the middle of Manhattan. That hasn’t even pinged a single Geiger counter in the city. And which they are going to detonate while the city is almost completely depopulated, and already suffering from the plague.” I opened and closed my mouth a few times. The commissioner leaned forward, his fingers tented. “Dane, what in the name of God has lead you to think that this is the time for jokes, or pranks? What the hell are you even trying to achieve? I had my ass grilled up and down by the Mayor after your little escapade in the east side, with that mummified corpse. What in the hell-”

“Mummified?” asked the Colonel, frowning.

The commissioner rested his hand on his head. “Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. Yes, Colonel. The city has had some… unusual activity, lately. Dane, here, and a handful of others, are part of what we call the… Neighborhood Watch. Dealing with-”

“You’re the source of that former Ateroleum thrall, then? We heard a few reports about one.”

The commissioner and I stared. “How do you know…?” I started, and the colonel gave me a cool look. His hair was shaved, leaving a bare skull visible. His eyes were muddy brown, and his emotions were equally clear.

“Classified. Officer Larson, we’re here to help. Perhaps you’d like to tell us what is really going on, here?”

I took a deep breath. It wasn’t as though they could believe me any less. “The Church of the Survivor is going to summon an ancient Babylonian plague-god into the center of the city, and infect the entire world.”

“Jesus Christ, Dane, how drunk have you been getting-” the commissioner started.

“Nergal?” The Colonel asked.

“I… Yeah. I think so.” The colonel nodded.

“I would recommend that you not interfere. We’ll observe the situation, and if necessary, we will act.” The colonel sat back, his arms crossing.

I stared. “Does that mean you’re going to do something, or…” I tried to unclench my jaw, but still spoke through gritted teeth. “What do you mean, if necessary?”

“I mean that the choice to act or not will remain within my sole discretion.” His face was impassive. “There are greater priorities to this situation.” I stared, dumbfounded.

“What on earth could be more important than a plague god waking up in the middle of Central Park?” I asked, incredulously.

“I go to very great lengths to keep you from finding out the answers to exactly those questions, officer. Now, is there anything else?” he asked, completely unfazed as I stared at him.

“No.” I stood up, and prepared to storm out, feeling the bile building in the pit of my stomach. Then I stopped. “There’s one more thing. There’s this cat.”

The colonel stood up suddenly, his eyes widening. “Cat?”

The thumping wasn’t in my head. I stared, my mouth opening. “The bastard actually came through,” I whispered. Out over the reservoir, half a dozen lights were appearing, running lights on a set of helicopters. The churning beating of their rotors filled the air. From down below, bright spotlights filled the air, painting the force of rat-faced men with light. The helicopters began to circle overhead.

“Attention! This is the United States National Guard! If you do not drop your weapons immediately, we will cut you down where you stand! This warning is in deference to the fact that you have prisoners. If a single one of them is harmed, you are going to enter a world of unending pain and misery. Trust me when I say that your gods will not protect you.” The colonel’s voice boomed out across the park. I stared up at the sky.

“He really wasn’t fucking with me.” I muttered softly. It had been in my head, the entire time. That it was all some bizarre joke at my expense. That we were going into this fight with no backup. I hadn’t wanted to raise the hopes of the others without a sign of it being real. Around us, men in rat-nosed masks stood, uncertainty filling their features.

“Fight,” The Deacon said, her face drawn into a tight rictus of rage. One of the men raised their weapon, and fired. There was an awful sound, and I covered my ears tightly as John pulled the iron shield from one of the men who had grabbed us. It probably saved our lives from the shrapnel as it dragged the metal into its frame, leaving those of us within the circle of light unharmed. As the shield dropped, we stared. It wasn’t a pretty sight. It was mostly a waste of life. The Deacon lowered her head. “Nergal.”

“Yes?” Nergal asked. The creature sounded terribly sad, looking out across the group, with a frown on its face.

“Show these men the errors of their way.”

The dark creature looked up at the sky, its body bulging, growing muscular, flexing itself larger. The moon was entering totality. “You hurt my friends,” it roared, the sound of pain and wretched despair in its voice. Then, it brightened. “It’s okay. I’ll forgive you all. You’ll make such good new friends. I bet we’ll be sitting around and laughing about this, soon.” The creature’s arm rose into the sky like a pillar of black smoke, extending. “Let me into your hearts, and your eyes, and your skin, and your EAAAAAAAGH!”

The scream was horrible, filling the air as the creature’s arm was chopped off at the shoulder. It fell to the ground, evaporating into thick, wretched-smelling pools of miasma as it struck the earth. It turned around, grabbing at its shoulder, hissing with rage as its form shifted, growing a new arm to replace the slit one. We all stared at the figure stepping slowly into the pool of light. Golden bangles around one wrist, an elegant silk dress that hung down to her thighs, a bright necklace with rubies the size of bird eggs set in it. She stood, smiling, her skin dark, her teeth bright and shining, her eyes flashing, just outside of the ring of light. I’d seen her before, but now, she was a goddess of war and protection, standing in her full glory. “I’m terribly sorry I was late, everyone. I hope nobody was hurt.” Betty looked around, studying the bodies on the ground. “Nobody who I care about, at any rate. But I needed to make sure I looked right for this.”

“They were my friends.” Nergal whined, a frown painted on his childishly simple features. “Why do you have to do this, Bastet? Why can’t you just let me be?”

She laughed softly. “I’m going to torment you, Nergal. I’m going to pick the limbs off of your friends, one by one. I’ll savage them, cripple them, leave them helpless, until they can’t even endure your touch anymore.” Her eyes glittered, as she stepped backwards into the gloom. The only thing visible of her were those flashing eyes, and those bright teeth. “I’m going to make sure all of your friends die, Nergal. Then I’ll shove you back into the dark places, where you can’t touch anyone ever again. Everyone will forget about you.”

“You’re a monster.” Nergal whispered, bright white eyes widening.

“Yes. And I’m better at it than you, because I enjoy hurting things.”

“I’ll stop you.”

“Try it.” Betty lunged for the Deacon, as she spoke, and Nergal imposed himself between the two. Betty stepped back, grinning. “Do you want to stop me, Nergal? Do you want to save your friends? Better finish the job, this time. You’ll have to kill me!” The dark god lunged forward at the dark goddess, and she danced back further.

“No! You fool, she’s just trying to provoke you-!” the Deacon shouted, as Nergal lunged after Betty. Her warning fell on deaf ears. The two divinities disappeared into the darkness, leaving the Deacon standing, her teeth gritted. “You fools. I only wanted to save the world.”

Randall was staring down at the small tangle of rat-tails. “You know you couldn’t have done it, Mary. You didn’t have the spirit to change the nature of Nergal. The god would have entered the world, eager to embrace everyone he could. He wouldn’t have been able to show restraint. You’re too compassionate, really, for your own good. You wouldn’t be able to hold back from contact with others.”

Mary screamed with rage, growing, twisting, nails lengthening. She became the rat-thing from my nightmares. Randall was lifting the black knife I’d seen in his hand before, trying to defend himself, but the hideous thing was on top of him in a moment, the knife skittering to a half at my feet. She reached out to claw at him as I grabbed the knife, lifting it into the air, lunging. I was going to be too late to save him.

Then, Li dropped from above. One of her legs wound around one of the legs of the rat creature, the other around the creature’s waist. One of her arms went around the Deacon’s chest, and the other around her neck. The two stood still for a moment, locked together like lovers, an intimate embrace between two very frightening things. Every tendon on the Deacon’s inhuman body stood out, fighting with desperate strength against the hold. Then, Li squeezed. I decided I had experienced about as many horrific noises as I could accept in a single lifetime. I closed my eyes and jammed my fingers in my ears, which was good, because the Deacon didn’t die easily.

After a few seconds, I opened my eyes. Randall was stumbling back to his feet, Li helping him. The serpent girl looked over her shoulder at me, and smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry. I heard what she said, I thought it would be polite to give you the chance to kill her, but I had to protect Randall. I do hope that I haven’t cheated you out of some very important catharsis and a chance to overcome the inner demons that drive you.”

I looked down at the body. Eyes bulged, turned red. It looked like a rat that had been caught in the world’s largest, most inhumane rat-trap. “I think I’m just satisfied knowing she didn’t die well.” I suggested, checking over Randall. “I’m feeling a bit useless, though. It would’ve been nice if our little diversionary tactic had accomplished much of anything…”

“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Randall said, grinning, as he managed to get back to his feet, approaching me. I handed him the knife. “The Deacon had been planning on killing me. With Betty absent, she would’ve likely done it sooner had you not distracted her men. Li wouldn’t have stood a chance against Nergal.” He sighed softly, smiling. “And it appears that you were able to find the right people to talk to.” The Colonel marched up the hill from where his helicopter had landed, his face impassive as he approached us.

The ball of rat-tails sat on the ground. I looked up. The moon was almost at its darkest point. It had turned a ferocious, bloody red, sickly and shadowed. I licked my lips slowly. “So… Do we shoot it, or…”

“That tangle of rat tails is the stuff of gods.” Randall explained. “It is the actual body of that thing we saw before. The black phantasm is more of, shall we say, a manifestation of its thoughts. That is why it is so difficult to kill. Much like Horace’s house-Lar, it is not the whole of the thing. This is relatively fragile.” He held out the black knife, and sawed through the tails. They cut reluctantly, but eventually, he hefted it. I stared down at the small ball of rat-tails. “Our time is limited. When totality arrives, the god will manifest fully. I need to destroy this.” He stared down at it.

“What are you waiting for?”

“I was just… thinking. Of all of the people who I met over the years who attempted to summon gods, because they thought they could control them. Because they thought they could take that divine power for their own. Every one of them who tried found themselves corrupted by it, devoured in seconds, becoming nothing more than a new avatar for the god. All of their good intentions could not overcome the nature of the god. They were fools, every one of them. That is why the Order of Set was so focused on divinity, and the reminder that humans are not divine. We are not gods. We are less. We cannot use their power. We can only succumb to it, or do our best to hold it back.” He stared down at the knife.

I shook my head. “Sounds like a wise group to me. What would make someone think that they could get away with something like that?”

“Oh, many things. The reason they risked it was because they wanted power, or respect, or the ability to protect the people they cared about. But the real heart of it is that each one of them thought they were special. More special than anyone else. That they, and they alone, could do what nobody else could.” He twirled the knife slowly between his fingers. “But you know, they were wrong.”

“Yeah.”

“They weren’t me.”

And then, he swallowed the bundle of rat tails, choking it down before any of us could react. And a second sun blossomed into life in the sky.

 

Chapter 15: Aiding and a Betty

I can’t say that I am prone to self-examination. I have lived a very long time, which is itself proof of my skill. I am First, and I am Cat, and these things are sufficient to overcome almost any obstacle in my way. The handful of times when I have found myself defeated, I returned to my human, settled down to receive affection and grow stronger, and then proceeded to murder whatever had embarrassed me. It was very difficult to kill me, so long as I had a human. But Horace had a rather frustrating lack of confidence in me. “You know what your job is, Horace. Why are you going through this? How can you even trust this man?”

The three of us stood on the city-streets. The homeless man’s face was badly ruined by disease, but his body language was contrite. “I trust Harold. He’s always been a good person, and I think that he’s saner than the others who got hit with the plague.” I frowned, my eyes narrowed as I studied the man. He didn’t wear one of the rat-face masks that the cult seemed to favor, but I wasn’t pleased with this at all.

“Look, I’m sorry about getting Horace in trouble. I didn’t realize the kind of insane things that the church was up to.” The man looked crestfallen, which was an impressively elaborate expression considering the damage that the disease had done to his extremities. “I want to try to help how I can. I’ve got keys to the clinics, I can help him get in and out, and we can get the footage that he says you need. I know it might be hard to trust me, but…” Horace nudged Harold’s side. “Oh! Horace said that this would help.” He reached into a pocket of his dirty overcoat, and withdrew a plastic-wrapped package. He handed it to me. I slowly opened the plastic, and the rich smell of tuna filled the air. I delicately removed the top slice of bread from the sandwich, and tried a bit of the fish. It tasted excellent. That seemed to settle it, he must be trustworthy.

“Very well. You seem to have a good heart. I will trust you, for now. But if I detect even a hint of ill intent towards Horace, I will gobble you up, bones and all.”

“She’s just joking, Harold… I think.” Horace patted the man’s shoulder. “But Betty-” He looked around the small alley-way. “How in the hell did you even know that I was here?” he asked, frowning suspiciously. My eyes flickered down to the medallion around his neck, and I couldn’t stop the guilt from flashing across my face. He looked down slowly, and frowned. “Oh, I really should’ve seen that coming. You’ve been spying on me? This whole time, you’ve been keeping an eye on everything that I do while wearing this thing?” He shook his head. “I’d be a lot more pissed about this if you hadn’t saved my life multiple times, Betty.”

“I know.” My ears were flattened against my head as I looked down, chastened. I was doing it for his own good, but…

“Look, just- We’ll discuss your trust issues later on. Alright?” He patted the medallion. “Have you been watching me the entire time?”

“No. I need to actually focus on it, and it only alerts me if you’re undergoing powerful emotional reactions of fear. Like when the Lar girl tried to strangle you.”

“So you saw…”

“If you sleep with her before me, I’m going to hate you forever,” I stated primly. “I don’t accept anyone’s castoffs.”

“Betty, I will gladly indulge in romantic comedy and all of the rest of that kind of interpersonal fun when the world isn’t on the verge of being destroyed. You need to go and save everyone. This plan doesn’t stand a chance in hell without you, okay?” He rested his hands on my shoulders, and squeezed me. I was not usually one for letting someone else invade my personal space. I preferred to be the one to initiate such contact. But the way he was holding me, it felt like he thought the entire world was about to fall apart. He had the sort of desperate grip that humans got when they thought they were going to lose something they loved. That made me feel a little bit better about his little agreement with the house Lar.

“Alright. I have one more stop that I need to make.” I saw his confusion. “Oh, just a little something that I haven’t worn in a long time.” I smiled brightly. “If I’m going to be the hero of the day, I need to dress appropriately for it, after all.” I laughed softy. “It’s been such a long time since I’ve been anything but a stray cat. I’m going to be visiting the museum, first.” I grinned brightly, and then wrapped my arms around him, squeezing him back. I licked his cheek gently, and he blushed. “Don’t be afraid. I’m going to make everything alright.” His arms dropped, and I scampered away into the darkness.

I could feel the arcane tension. The city had been depopulated by this point, healthy humans no longer in control. The unpleasant resonance of the cult was thrumming through the streets like a mosquito’s wings, whining and sawing at my nerves. I walked through the streets, wearing one of Horace’s shirts, making my way down to the museum. Horace had mentioned visiting it recently, and it had reminded me of what I kept there. It had been decades since I’d last worn it. Just the thought of wearing it again brought a smile to my lips. The upstart disease god had beaten me the last time. I’d underestimated him, and I’d forgotten how weak I’d become over the decades of neglect. I was going to rip his whining head off for that.

I stepped into the museum’s lobby, deftly sidestepping the security guards as I made my way into the building. I could feel the humming energy within the building. All of the power that had been gathered here, spending the last sixty years dormant and weakened, finally awakening. The world was going to become very interesting if it didn’t die. Thinking about that, I padded carefully through the endless rows of sleeping artifacts, until I found the mannequin which held my vestments.

They were not, so far as I knew, magical. They had simply acquired a certain divinity from their connection with me, drinking my power in. It was how they could survive the things I put them through. In the time while I was without an owner, I’d left them here, in a museum, where they’d been viewed as wonders. I reached out, gently pulling the bangle off of the mannequin’s wrist. An alarm began to ring, but I didn’t particularly care. My dominance over this world had been challenged by the upstart, Nergal. I was going to show him what a terrible idea it was to do so. I licked my lips, glee filling me. I would not say that I am a cruel being, but everyone has their vices, and mine was victory. I was going to tear the plague spirit to ribbons, scatter his followers, and protect my world. And I would exult in the praise of those who knew what I did.

I took one last moment to lift Horace’s shirt, burying my nose in the fabric. It smelled warm, the distinct odor of the human heavy on it. It was a comforting smell, reminding me of him. His kindness there to buoy my spirits when I began to fall back into old thoughts. But I didn’t need to be merciful today. I removed the shirt, dropping it to the ground, and began sliding my vestments on. They’d been cleaned, it seemed, no sign of the blood that had once stained them, marring the perfect gold, and turning the blue silk black. The rubies glittered, but not as beautifully as when they’d been bathed in the blood of some enemy or another. I would change all of that, soon. I could feel the old instincts flooding back into me.

Perhaps the oily things had been right. Spending so long as a house cat, it was easy to forget what I was. Being fed, not having to hunt for myself, maybe it made me rusty. But it had learned the hard way that even with rust on my joints, the First Cat wasn’t to be dismissed. And fighting with a human behind me made me into a terror that would give even Nergal pause. The world had forgotten the debt it owed me. It would remember once I carried the head of the plague god through its streets. If the creature actually had a head.

I sprinted down the hall and leapt through a window without slowing, glass shattering and turning to dust against my skin. I landed easily on all fours, wearing my divine vestments, dressed to kill. I stalked across the road, ignoring the traffic as people honked. I entered the park, and exulted in my natural habitat. Grass, trees, the scent of water.

Humans feared the forest. They always had. Their cities were designed to protect them, to take away the places that camouflaged their predators. And yet, they couldn’t shake their attraction to the very thing that frightened them. They made a home for predators in the heart of their sanctuary. I had always been fascinated by that. When I had to kill people, I had always seen that last little flash of admiration. They way their eyes widened, and the desire they felt for me. They tried to subvert me, to make me theirs. It didn’t work, of course, but it made life so satisfying to see the way they loved me, even when they died.

Then, there was the thumping. I looked up, frowning. Large black machines soared overhead, wind rushing through the trees as they made their way towards the reservoir. I sped up, running. The eclipse wasn’t far away. I didn’t have time to play around. I was getting lost in the anticipation, falling into old habits, stalking and toying with my prey. I thought of Horace. If I didn’t hurry, he would be in danger. I raced up the hill and watched from beyond the fence.

I was nothing more than a shadow in the night as I watched the soldiers announce their ultimatum to the cult. The men of the cult looked to their leader, who sacrificed them carelessly. The men of the cult died in droves. A bullet struck me in the arm, and I licked the small contusion it left. I saw the plague deity, raising its arm. And I cut it, and cut him, and taunted him, and then drew away, making him follow me. I danced backwards along the path. Bright white lights shined down, as the black thing followed me.

“Betty! Why won’t you let me help you?!” Nergal called, chasing me, his cartoonish white eyes flickering.

“I don’t need your help, Nergal. This world, and all of its people, are mine. I protect them alone, and I can’t imagine that I’d ever need your particular brand of aid.” I looked around. We were getting further away from the focus, and its power. The plague-thing was growing thinner, more transparent. He was too far from his source. I stopped, my claws shining in the air as I lowered my stance. My tail stuck out straight, balancing me in my crouched position, my tendons tightening like steel cables. The plague god looked down at me, a pitying expression on its face.

“Betty… You’re always so lonely. Fighting all on your own. Not having anyone to support you. I’m not like that. I know that I can’t do it alone. I’m surrounded by so many people who could be my friends. So many people who could make me strong. Why can’t you accept help? If we worked together, we could protect so many people, you know. Some of them would die from my touch, but you could help to keep as many from dying as possible. We could work together, and protect this world. Why won’t you give me a chance to be your friend, Betty?”

The creature lunged, and my claws slid out. A gash opened in it, and black putrescence spilled out across the ground. I stepped back, avoiding the contagious filth. I smiled. “I don’t need your friendship. I don’t need billions of worshipers. I have a single human, and it is more than enough.” I laughed, a high, cruel sound, urging the creature to make another wild attack. He obliged, and I put out one of his eyes with a razor-nailed thumb. He howled, and I spun around his blind side, leaping onto his back. My clawed fingers dug into the creature’s shoulder, securing my hold as I kicked and clawed, ripping open the creature’s back. I jumped free before any of the black blood could land on me, smiling. “Even as we speak, a handful of my friends are killing your priestess. They will soon destroy your focus. You’re nothing to me, Nergal.” The creature stared at me, its eyes wide, uncomprehending. “You’ve lost.”

“I don’t know about that, Bastet. I think I’m about to make a great new friend.” And with that, he vanished, leaving me standing in the path. Something had to have happened to the focus, to remove his manifestation like that. I looked up at the moon. It was growing darker.

Then, there was a flash of light, and my vision went white. I screamed, covering my eyes, as tears streamed down my cheeks, my head pounding. I managed, after a moment, to open my eyes. Divine power repaired my damaged retinas, as I stared. The city was being lit brightly by the sun, hanging in the sky. Prominences leapt and danced around it. It was blood red, and gave a sickly radiance to everything. I could feel the sickening touch of the plague god. And I cursed Randall Creed, because somehow, I knew that this had to be his fault. None of the others could have screwed things up as thoroughly as he had. So I sprinted for the ritual site.

I passed dozens of men in uniforms, lying on the ground, struggling to breathe. Pustules of plague grew from their throats and armpits, where they were visible. Other, more exotic diseases were also in evidence. The touch of the diseased sun was filling them with sickness. I jumped over them, hoping I wasn’t too late. I thought momentarily of Horace, and hoped that he was somewhere safe. I couldn’t feel the medallion. The magic of the sun was interfering with it, leaving only a sense of dis-ease.

I broke through the tree line, and stared at the tableau in front of me. Dane and her Neighborhood Watch, on the ground, writhing in pain and filled with contagion. The Deacon’s body, rat-like, transformed, and thoroughly dead, lying across the floor. Li Xue Zi standing, her arms up, hands balled into fists, facing the man responsible for it all.

Randall was standing stock-still, his back straight. His fists were clenching and unclenching, his body twisting from side to side. His head was gone. In its place was a swollen black balloon, with a cartoonish set of white eyes and a jagged half-circle on it. It was smiling. Nergal turned towards me, and laughed. “See, Bastet? I’ve got so many friends in the world. I can feel them now. Even this one! He welcomed me into his heart. He wanted power, to protect the world. He wanted it so badly he was willing to risk everything to do it! And now, I know everything that he did!” The old man flicked out his hand, and a black knife appeared between his fingers. “His body’s old, but it’s strong. I’ve got shape, now. I’ve got power. I am a God, Bastet, greater than you could ever be. And I’m going to do what he wanted. I’m going to protect the world. And I’m going to tear your heart out!”

He moved faster than I could. In a moment, he was in front of me, the knife coming down in one hand. I had an advantage, because where he had just lunged forward ten feet, I only had to lift my arms. He still almost beat me to it. My wrists crossed above my head, catching his hand. The impact was like an avalanche, and I nearly buckled under the pressure. His other hand came in under my guard, and hammered into my stomach. I felt the explosion of nausea as I rolled back, hopping back to my feet unsteadily. I could barely stand. The blow had been terrifyingly strong, and suddenly, I was feeling very alone.

Li Xue Zi appeared out of nowhere from behind him. Her arms slid around the old man’s throat and his chest, tensed. “If you do not release my master, foul god, I will break every bone in his body.”

Nergal laughed. “Oh, come on, snake-y.” His voice changed, from the sing-song, childish tenor of Nergal, to Randall’s own calm, dispassionate voice. “You know you would never hurt me. Think of all the good times we’ve had together. You couldn’t hurt me, could you?”

“You are not my master. You are simply inhabiting his body. I am under no obligation to you.” Li’s arms tensed, muscles standing out in the kimono, as she squeezed with all of her might. Nergal laughed, and bent his head forwards, before hammering it back. Li let out a shriek of pain as she stumbled back, her nose twisted, streaming blood.

“You silly little spirits. What are you fighting for? Dominance? Power? Glory? I’m fighting to save the world. I’m the hero of this story. I’m not going to be defeated by you.” He grinned. “Come on, I’ll prove it. Go ahead. Attack me.” He turned to the side, facing away from us. I narrowed my eyes. He was challenging me. Provoking me. Deliberately. I decided to surprise him, by falling for the ruse hook, line, and sinker. I leapt forward, my nails glittering as they slashed through the air.

With one arm, he parried every strike from me, not even turning to face me. “You’re a selfish, hateful creature, Bastet.” He caught my wrist, arresting the motion of a slash for his spine. Then, with lightning speed, he spun around, pulling my arm out to full extension. His other fist struck the back of my elbow, and with a sickening crack, my arm flexed the wrong way. I let out a scream of pain. It hurt, badly. I hated the pain. I hated him. I hated the weakness in my body. I hated Randall for what he had done. I hated the humans for not being strong enough to stop this. I hated Horace for not being there to protect me. I hated him for being too weak to save me from this. I hated him for being off, doing something more important.

And more than anything else, with a passion that made all my other emotions seem pale and shadowed by comparison, I hated myself for being so weak. I fell to my knees as Randall, or Nergal, stood over me. “Don’t worry. I’m going to embrace your human, too. I’ll take care of him. After all, Randall’d hate it if something happened to his nephew.”

“You will not touch- Glrk!” Li had rushed at the man. With contemptuous ease, Nergal had flicked out a hand. I’d seen many fighters try to use knife-hand strikes. It usually did little to an opponent. In a best case scenario, it might stun an enemy. In Li’s case, it had collapsed her throat, leaving her choking on the ground. I could see the cartilage repairing itself already, but she wasn’t going to be standing up for a while. Nergal smiled, as he held out the black knife.

I jumped to my feet, lunging at him, trying to slash open his belly with a kick. He dodged easily, his elbow colliding with my knee. He stabbed the knife deep into my leg, and I felt a sudden weakness. He lifted my leg, overbalancing me, sending me to the ground. I could feel the blood dripping onto the silk dress. It was my own. That wasn’t the way this was supposed to happen.

“You two are awfully resilient, you know that? But I’ll be honest, Bastet, you’ve pissed me off, and snake, you don’t seem like you’re going to be willing to bend your knee to me. So I’m afraid I’m going to have to kill the two of you first.” He looked up, smiling. “You know, I can’t see that human of yours. I guess he’s hiding, somewhere safe. Out of view of the sun. Maybe the two of you should have asked him to save you. Maybe he could have. But really, what are the odds of that? He always was a useless one. Don’t worry, Bastet. I’ll take care of him. Much better care than you did.” He lifted the knife, and I thought of Horace.

I could feel him. My eyes opened, and I stared into the shade beneath the tree. Horace stepped forward, under the sun. There wasn’t any sign of sickness on him. I felt a moment of hope. Then, Nergal looked up. “Well, nephew.”

“We had a plan, uncle. We could have saved the world.” He was holding the Webley pistol in one hand, raising it to face the man who had been his uncle. “Why did you do it?”

“It’s not-” Li choked out, and then screamed, as Nergal kicked her in the ribs, hard enough to leave her chest partially concave as she writhed on the ground.

“Little snakes are meant to be seen and not heard,” Nergal said, with Randall’s voice. “Because I saw the chance for real power. I saw the chance to make a difference. I saw that I could be powerful. You know how it feels to be powerless. Imagine it, Horace. The power of a god, but being put to good use. It was all I ever wanted.” He laughed. “I could share some of it with you. Perhaps, if you bring that cat of yours to heel, I’ll even let her live. The two of you could have a good life. She could be your pet. Wouldn’t that be nice? We can be gods.”

Horace’s face was still. Then he pulled the trigger. There was a crack of the trigger striking the barrel. That was all. The magic in the weapon had died with its victory. I felt my heart sink. Nergal ran forward, and grabbed Horace, slamming the young man against a tree with Nergal’s fingers tangled in his shirt. Horace grunted, as Nergal raised a fist.

“Just out of curiosity,” he asked, his voice a sing-song, “How did you know I wasn’t your uncle?”

“He didn’t think being a god was a good thing. Is he still alive?”

“Oh, no. I hollowed him out. There’s nothing left of him. I’m sorry I had to do that, but he was much too stubborn a person. He never would have been able to share a body with me. Maybe you’ll be more pliable, though.” Black putrescence surrounded Nergal’s fist, and I screamed, trying to stand, as he struck Horace full in the face.

Horace stood still. The fist had pulled to the left, taking a chunk out of the tree. “Sorry,” Nergal said jovially. “New body. Still getting used to the kinks.” He pulled his arm back, and struck again. His arm pulled to the right at the last second, and even as Horace shook, Nergal cursed. “Damn it! Stay still!” He struck again, and his fist stopped, an inch from Horace’s face. “God damn stubborn old fool-” Nergal screamed, and then his fist collided with his own face, cracking into his jagged white mouth with a wet, meaty sound.

“Uncle!” Horace stepped away from the tree, wincing. Randall was on the ground, gasping, as he struggled back to his feet. The black bulbous head was twisting, and Randall’s stern features were barely visible underneath it, like a face pressed into the side of a balloon.

“Nephew- You’ve got to get them out of here- I can’t-” There was a hideous scream, as Randall stumbled to his feet, lunging at Horace. The young man sidestepped him, as Randall fell to the ground. “Please- Get safe- I’m going- to come for you- You need-”

“Uncle! Please! You can do this!” Randall sank to his knees, grabbing his uncle’s shoulders, as I grabbed Li with my good arm, carrying the choking snake towards Horace. “You stubborn old son of a bitch, you got yourself into this mess! You always told me that any mess you had the brains to get into, you had to have the guts to get back out of!” The young man shook his uncle’s shoulders, as the man wretched and writhed, black filth dripping from between his lips.

“It’s too late!” I shouted, grabbing Horace, as Randall rose to his feet. Nergal’s face took on a bright, wide smile, his arms raising, opened wide, as though to embrace us. Randall’s features disappeared below the writhing surface. Horace turned towards Li and I, his arms wrapping around us. He whispered something, and there was a sudden flash.

We were in the apartment. I felt my arm repairing itself as I sank onto my knees. The House Lar stood in the center of the apartment, her hands on her hips. “What the hell happened?” she asked, staring at the three of us. The curtains were drawn, but bright red light was visible around the edges, sickly and bloody, twisting and writhing as though it was trying to sneak into the room.

“Randall tried to seize the power of the god,” Li managed, her voice rough, as she massaged her throat. “It overpowered him. Consumed him. The god is getting stronger by the moment.”

“And it also wants to kill us,” I stated. “Luckily for us. It will come to attack us. And we need to be ready for it. If we can’t beat it, now, then it’s going to consume everyone.” I stood up, and then fell, cursing, my vision flashing. The black pain in my thigh was spreading. Whatever that knife was, it had hurt me, badly. I crawled over onto the couch, curling up on it, my arms crossing under my head, as I purred loudly, trying to hold the pain at bay.

“This is our last chance.” Horace said softly. “We’ve got to stop him, before this gets any worse.”

Phoebe was still giving Horace an appraising look. “You managed the spell. And with two others alongside you.”

He looked slightly confused, then realized what she was saying. “Yeah, I… Huh. I did.”

“That should not technically have been possible. I was only pulling you through. If Betty and the snake came with you, it means that you were carrying them along with your own power.” She crossed her arms, studying him suspiciously. “I wouldn’t have expected that of you. It is… surprising.”

“But what does that mean?” Horace asked, frowning. “I mean, can I use it to stop him, or to save my uncle-”

There was a knock at the door. Every one of us turned our heads. Phoebe smiled. “I suspect you are about to find out.”

 

Chapter 16: Randall’s Well That Ends Well

I was always the black sheep. My brother was kind-hearted, smarter than me, more athletic. All I had was my anger, and my ambition. But he didn’t mind that. In fact, I think that was part of what he liked about me. I had the passion to get things done when he would have let bygones be bygones. He never said it, but when we wound up in a fight, there was glee in his expression. I gave him an excuse to not be a good person. He needed that. And in exchange… He cared about me. He believed in me. He told me that I would do great things.

He was right, wasn’t he? Everyone needs a friend. That’s why I’m so glad I have you, Randall.

Shut up. Why are you here?

Because you invited me in. You wanted my power. And now you have it. Of course, you also have my mind.

How did you do it?

I was stronger than you. You’re not a god, Randall.

“Well, you two boys are in quite some trouble, aren’t you?” The gray-haired man stood outside of our cell. He smiled indulgently. His jacket was exquisite, and he wore a Stetson fedora. One of his eyes was covered with a black silk patch, and there was a scar visible down across the length of his cheek. He leaned heavily on a cane. “Celebrating the bar exam, and you wind up knifing the mayor’s son. A dozen witnesses identifying you as the culprits. Quite an embarrassing peccadillo.”

Oliver stood up, frowning. “Those dozen witnesses were the thugs that were kicking the crap out of me. My brother did it to save my life.”

“Oh, and I’m sure that the judge who plays golf with the mayor every week will take that into consideration. You two picked a fight with someone you shouldn’t have. Over…” He studied the warrant. “An argument over a woman, hmmm?”

“He shouldn’t have done that to Iris,” I whispered, my eyes hard as I finally looked up at the man. His blue eyes were glimmering, as he rested his head against his fist. “I know what the bastard did. He was smug about it. He deserved worse than he got.”

“And that, too, doesn’t matter. And on such a promising night, too…” He smiled. “Your futures are very uncertain, boys. But thankfully, there’s a place in the world for those who don’t fit in. It’s on the borders, where violence, roughness, and tempestuous tempers have their place. Tell me, do you boys believe in God?”

“I can’t say that I do, no.” I frowned. “What are you getting at, old man?”

Do you believe in God now?

I’ve never met the guy.

Ahahah. Yes, I heard about that movie. I enjoyed it quite a lot. Maybe I’ll watch it with your nephew while he recovers from the plague.

Half a dozen of us stood in the rifle range. The old man ran a finger across the eye-patch. “Knowledge is the greatest weapon that we have. It is in knowing our enemy that we learn their weaknesses. It is very difficult to kill something if you don’t know its anatomy, and it is nearly impossible to predict them if you don’t know their mind.” He waved a hand at the range. “A shot that would kill a human will do nothing against a demon of wind and fire. And if you should find yourself faced with a god, there are few ways to survive the encounter. It is my sincerest hope that none of you ever find yourself needing to kill one.”

“But they can be killed?” I asked, frowning.

“Oh, yes. Everything can be killed with determination, Randall. That is the nature of our organization. We kill the things that threaten. We were there when the meat-grinder of the Great War nearly brought forth Bloody-handed Sek. We drove him back into the darkness between worlds with the help of the Protector. We were there when the Germans brought forth the bones of the Norse, and nearly brought Ragnarok down on the world. With the help of the Protector, we defeated them.”

“The Protector?” I asked, frowning.

“Oh, yes. The Goddess. Bastet. Pray that you never meet her. She is an ally, but she is a careless one. When she is forced to intervene in the affairs of the mortal world, our men die. She is a wild thing, lethal and without compunctions. When she fights… Men die.” The trainer smiled. “You are not a god, Oliver. Don’t try to fight on their level. What we can accomplish is to stop things from reaching the point where a being like the Goddess must intervene, or placing our thumb on the scales to help the devil we know.”

“There has to be something more that we can do.” I complained, frowning.

“Know your limits, Randall. Be satisfied with them. Now, there are certain weapons that can cut short the life of even an immortal. If you can learn how to use these…”

You’ve always wanted to be more, haven’t you?

Have you ever been weak, Nergal? Have you ever known there was nothing that you could do? That you couldn’t even begin to save someone? Not because you didn’t know what to do, but because you simply didn’t have the power?

No. I’m a god! Even when I’m alone, I am far stronger than you. That’s why I want to protect you humans. You need that help so badly!

“What do we do with it?” I asked, holding the black knife. The snake huddled in its kimono, leaned over the old priest. He was lying in his bed, his eyes closed. The snake aped the form of a human, with pale white hair and pale, fine skin. Its chest heaved as it sobbed. No tears fell from its red eyes. Oliver was staring at the scene, transfixed. The old man had died of a heart attack. We’d heard reports of a demon terrorizing the people who had tried to visit the shrine. There was no question that it was the small figure in front of us. Its cheek was cut open, dripping red blood from a wound that wasn’t healing like it was used to. It must have been the first time it had ever met someone who could defeat it.

“We can’t just kill it.” Oliver said, frowning.

“The hell we can’t. It’s a White Snake. You know why it’s so tough? It stole the immortality that belonged to a human by right. It’s alive because that man there is dead.” I took out the flask. Inside, the elixir shimmered. My ribs still ached from where the snake had delivered a brutal bear hug. I took a sip of the elixir, and felt better. The stuff was something that the Order of Set used, to make its members stronger. To restore youth. To help them heal. But it seemed to get a little weaker every year, the power dripping out of the stuff. The same way it was dripping out of the world

“What’s your name?” Oliver asked, kneeling down next to the figure. The snake hissed, its tongue slipping out between its lips, forked.

“Li Xue Zi. It means…”

“Yeah. I know what it means.” He looked at the old monk. “You’re sorry about how he died, aren’t you? You didn’t realize what it meant, when you ate the pills.” The snake shook its head. “We’re not going to kill Li, Randall. We’re taking the snake back with us.” He looked down at Li Xue Zi. “You’re immortal, and powerful. That means you’ve got a responsibility. You need to make up for what you’ve done, right?” He smiled. “I’ll offer you the chance to do it. Help protect me and my brother, the way you protected the priest, and we’ll take care of you.” He held out his hand. “Deal?”

The small figure reached out, and gently took his hand. They squeezed gently. I saw a brief vision of my fingers lashing out, striking Li’s throat. The snake collapsing to the ground, choking and gasping, and my boot connecting with that delicate rib-cage.

I didn’t want to hurt her, you know. I don’t want to hurt anyone. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t.

It doesn’t mean anything to me. I couldn’t stop you if I wanted to, and I know that it’ll recover. Maybe it’ll kill me.

Then, I saw the flash. Li’s arms around my rib-cage, squeezing tight, like they had before. But no harm being done. The snake struggling with everything it had. Well, so much for that hope.

There’s no hope left for you to win. But that’s okay. You helped me to win. You’re a hero. And now, I’m going to protect everyone. And I’ll even get revenge for you.

My brother lay on the ground in the temple. The gods had taken their fight elsewhere. He looked up at me, his eyes empty, as he choked on his own blood. I pressed the flask to his lips. He swallowed the elixir. It didn’t do anything. He coughed, and blood ran down his lips. His chest was a mass of gore. He was missing two limbs. The elixir could only keep him alive for a little bit longer. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Oliver.” Tears were running down my cheeks as the only person who’d ever really believed in me bled to death under my fingers.

“It’s your fault, Randall,” he whispered. “But I forgive you. Alright? Just- Take care of Iris. And my boy. He needs someone to show him his way in the world. Someone to protect him from ever having to find out the things that we did. I believe in you.” He smiled. And then he died. Lying there, among the corpses of the team. A dozen good men dead. I heard footsteps, and looked up, grabbing the black knife. If the thing that had fought the Protector was back- But it was just the Protector. She was nude, and it might have almost been a pleasant sight, except for the blood that stained her, thick yellow curds that dripped down her skin. Her nails gleamed like knives in the twilight, as she looked down on me dispassionately.

“You alright?” she asked.

“My brother’s dead.”

“Mmm.” She stared out across the corpses, giving no sign that she was bothered. “Are you able to get back to civilization alright?”

“I… Aren’t you listening? He’s dead! Don’t you even care? He died trying to help you! He died-”

“Did he?” she asked, frowning. “I didn’t ask him to do that. I didn’t need his help. Look, I’m sorry.” She wasn’t. “But a lot of people die in this business. He was just one of many.” She waved a hand. The corpses on the floor. The members of the Order of Set, the Cambodian blood-mages who had summoned whatever that thing had been. “The world’s safe. That’s all I can offer you. Good luck.” She turned on her heel, striding away.

“They wanted to kill you, you know. You were the reason why they summoned this thing. They wanted to get rid of you. My brother died because he wanted to save your life!” I shouted after her. She didn’t turn. She just kept walking, into the darkness.

She can be horrible, can’t she?

I hated her. For being so powerful, and so careless. If I had that kind of power, I could protect everyone. But of course, we’re not gods. We’re only men. Weak. Pitiful. Powerless.

That’s right! But it’s okay to be weak and powerless, because you care, and you can make spirits strong. Look at how strong you’ve made me! Bastet couldn’t even lay a finger on me. That’s all thanks to you, Randall! Because you believed in me. I was pretty frightened when I realized Bastet was coming after me again! And she had a human. That made her strong, you know? I was so scared that I wouldn’t be able to protect any of my friends, but then you took on my power! And I promise that I’ll make you proud.

“It should have been you.” Iris whispered. She was beautiful. Her hair the color of flax, her eyes blue, her arms crossed over her pregnant stomach. I agreed with her, of course. Tears were running down her cheeks, as she sat on the small bench, the two of us bathed with the warm sun. She was sobbing softly. “Did it even mean anything? Did he do anything worthwhile by dying?”

“He saved the world,” I lied. “If it weren’t for him… I wouldn’t be alive. We’d be dying, slowly.” Oliver hadn’t been young when he’d married Iris. The two of them had experienced a rocky, fraught relationship. I had always thought I could do a better job. I’d wanted to. But I couldn’t change who she loved. Even if I could, I wouldn’t have. “The Order’s got a fair amount of money for these kinds of cases. You’ll be okay. I’ll be there for you.” I considered resting a hand on her shoulder. But I didn’t have the right. “I’m sorry. You’re right, it should have been me.”

She shook her head. “No. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.” She looked down at her stomach. “You know what he wanted to call him? Horace.” She shook her head, and I laughed.

“Sorry.” I said, seeing the look on her face. “It’s just… Damn. That’s so like him. Him and his god damn puns.” Horace, screaming, firing a gun that didn’t have any ammo at me. The look on his face as I grabbed him. The feel of my fist rushing to crush my nephew’s face and wrenching-

What? How did you do that?

Another punch. Another wrench.

Stop it.

Striking him again and stopping the blow. Directing it at my own chin. Struggling.

This is the way you thank me?! You useless, filthy, disgraceful-

I struggled. I could feel myself sinking. The madness tearing at me like insects under my skin

The old man with an eye-patch, lying on the hospital bed. His breathing wheezing. His age finally catching up with him. I rested a hand on his. “You’re the last of the Order, Randall.” He coughed, grinning. “Never would have thought you had it in you. Outlasted even me.” He sighed, holding up the elixir. “Useless now. Not as though there are any monsters left to fight. It’s all getting quiet out there, once again. The last time this happened, it lasted for nearly two hundred years. Two hundred years of peace and serenity for the world. It was a golden age.” He coughed again. “Take good care of things, won’t you, Randall?”

My bones were heavy. I was getting old. My hair turning white. The world was weighing down on me. I was going to die, in just a scant few years. But that was okay. I’d helped in my own way. And there was Horace. The world would turn out alright. I watched as the life drained out of the old man. He breathed, and the heart monitor began to let out a steady whine. It swelled until it deafened me, the green and black extending in my vision until it was all that

Randall?

Randall, are you still there?

Hah, good. I smile, feeling the silence around me. The second sun, my symbol of power, shines down on the world. I can see everything illuminated by it. People lying in the streets, sickened. They will, a good number of them, recover. The humans will adapt. Many of them will die, which is sad. I don’t want humans to die. I couldn’t spread, I couldn’t become strong, without them. I could feel their desperate prayers being made to me, begging for salvation. And I could smell the human, the last scion of the house of Creed. He was the one who was responsible for the plan that had killed so many of my friends. Him, and that cat, and that snake. They’d turned people against me. I would make sure they paid for what they did.

The city was silent, as I walked through it. I smiled, spreading my arms wide. I could feel the sick around me. They were suffering, but it would make them stronger, and it made me stronger. I laughed softly as I walked out of the park, and onto the streets. Cars sat abandoned, people lying on the streets, stricken. The curious opening their shades, only to be afflicted as well. I was touching so many souls. I could feel their power surging into me.

Randall Creed had been a foolish man. He’d thought that he could use my power for his own goals. He’d welcomed me into his body, given me a direct link, an avatar into the world. He had thought, for a few minutes, that he was special. That as a human being, there was something about him that would give him the heroic willpower that he needed to overcome me. Of course, that was foolish. It was a story that humans told themselves to make themselves feel better about being powerless.

Bastet was waiting for me. She would be with her friend. In the heart of his power. I would kill the boy, first, take away his Hearth. Then the snake. And then, I would embrace Bastet, hollow her out. There was more than one way to skin a cat, and I was going to enjoy helping her experience them all. I had finally won. The world was mine. And regardless of what Randall had thought, I would be able to protect the world from the things that were coming. I would be strong. I wasn’t scared of Bastet. I wasn’t. Even though I was shaking. Even though my stomach wrenched at the thought of it. I stood outside the building.

“You always told me that any mess you had the brains to get into, you had to have the guts to get back out of!” the boy said. He was right, of course. I had been a bastard. Hopeless. Believing that it was all over. When had I stopped believing I had power? When had I lost faith in myself? I was Randall Creed. I was the last of the Order of Set. I was not a god. I was a man, and men can choose.

I shook my head. It had been a strange fit. Some last spasm of memory from what remained of Randall’s gutted personality. No human could hold the power of a god. They were small, limited things. They could hardly hold on to the power of their own belief. They certainly didn’t have the strength needed to hold the belief, the worship, the prayer of millions of their fellows. It would burn out their soul.

“Do you even have a soul, Uncle?” the boy asked, frowning at me. I laughed. Of course I didn’t. Souls were a childish sort of thought. He was rebellious. He would never obey. He tried to be good, but he couldn’t help his father’s nature. He defied me. And that delighted me, because if there was one thing I didn’t want, it was for my nephew to mindlessly follow my directions.

I groaned, sitting down, holding my black, slick head. It was throbbing with pain. It was strange. The memories were sharp. They cut into me as I studied them, making me burn and writhe. They were poisonous memories, things that were indigestible, that hurt into me as I tried to sort them. They were memories of Randall’s nephew.

The boy stood up, his fists clenched. “You’re the last of an ancient order of demon hunters who protected the world. You’ve got the loyalty of a supernatural demon who I’ve watched kill men with a squeeze of her hand. I know a psychotic house goddess, a group of cops who hunt monsters for sport on the weekends, and an actual protector deity. Together, you’ve got to damn well be able to do something! You can’t just let everything fade into the darkness like this! You always told me that men are the masters of their world! You can’t be willing to just let all of this happen!”

He was right, of course. I felt pride swell in my chest. He was right. When had I become so frightened of consequence? Of course it would be hard. It would be nearly impossible to defeat the god. To protect the world. But not impossible.

I gritted my teeth together. You can’t do this, Randall. I don’t know how you survived, but you’re just a human. You know what has happened to humans who try to take the power of the gods. This is your ending. You can’t win.

Nonsense. Humans are always doing what’s said to be impossible.

You’re nothing! A speck! A momentary existence! You are

I am Randall Creed. And I’m sick of lies, and believing I’m a victim in all this.

You are not powerful enough for this, human.

Of course I am. I always was. I was just frightened of the consequences of power. I was worried I wasn’t worthy. I was worried that I was just a useless old man. I was filled with guilt about what happened to my brother. I believed that he was the one who should have survived. I’ve acted shamefully. I was willing to let the world fall into destruction, just because I believed I wasn’t the right person to save it.

You can’t do this. It’s not fair. I was going to rule everything.

Life is not fair.

You said doom was inevitable! You said that even with my power, things would end! What does this change?!

I have your power, now. And I am better at this than you are.

And the voice in my head screamed as Nergal shrank away, locked in the darkness in my skull. I took a deep breath, and reached out. I could feel the sickness covering the world. I could withdraw it. Make them healthy again. I could feel the health of every person Nergal had touched. I drew the plague away from them, accepting the loss of power. I could take my time. I had the power I needed to accomplish this now. I didn’t have to compromise, ever again. I had all the strength I needed to succeed. I smiled, as I tore the black slime off of my face. The bright red sun in the sky dimmed, going dark, becoming the moon again.

It had been so many years since I was young, and vital. My hands were no longer thin and clawed. They were as fresh and strong as when I was 20. I took a deep breath, and didn’t cough my lungs out. I stretched my arms out to either side, grinning as I felt the strength surging in me. Youth, vitality, and power. I stood up, and walked up the stairs to my nephew’s apartment. I could feel the fresh strength in my limbs. The certainty. I rested my hand on the door, and knocked. After a few seconds it opened, and Li leapt at me. I checked the snake’s advance easily, feeling the strength of youth combining with a lifetime of training. “Hello to you too, Li.” I held the snake’s wrists in one hand, and checked its side. It was already mostly healed. “I’m glad you’re alright.”

“Mister Creed? But- How?”

I smiled, stepping into the apartment, tugging Li along behind me. My nephew stood in the center of the room, his fists clenched. The house-lar was watching me warily, a knife-block sitting on the counter next to her. Bastet lay on the couch, a black spiderweb of veins growing out from her leg where I had stabbed her. She was breathing hard, and watching me with a twisted expression. I could feel the loathing in her. I was a god, invading her turf. The two of us couldn’t live at the same time.

I turned towards Horace. “My boy.” I reached out, and he flinched. I rested a hand on his shoulder. “You know, I couldn’t have done this without your help. I’d lost all belief in myself. In my ability to save anyone. I thought I was just a useless old man. But you gave me a second chance. You gave me the confidence to try. I’m proud of you. Your father would be proud, too, if he could see you.”

“You’re…” Horace stared. “How?”

“The trick,” I explained, smiling, “is not to fear them.” I turned towards Betty, smiling softly. “I spent so long being afraid. Believing that we were really powerless. But it’s not true, is it, Betty? The truth is, you were the one who was powerless. If people didn’t believe in you, if they didn’t think they needed you, they wouldn’t, would they? You were always holding us back.” I stepped over her. “The world doesn’t have any place for you anymore.” She looked up at me, hatred in her eyes. I knew that I was right. It didn’t matter, of course, I wasn’t trying to persuade anyone. “You forgot the source of your power, didn’t you? You’re a protector, but you’ve lost touch with those you want to protect. You can’t bring yourself to be connected, because you think you’re superior.”

“What are you going to do now, uncle?” Horace asked, softly.

“Oh, spread the plague. Carefully. Gather power without killing. Maybe take a position of leadership. I’m powerful, now. I can make a real change in the world. I can make things better. I can help everyone. And I can turn back the forces that are threatening our world. A golden age that will never end.” I looked down at the goddess, in her gold and silk. “But first, because I am a human, I’m going to get revenge. I’m going to kill this goddamn cat.” I would make her pay for what she had done to my brother, all of those years ago. I couldn’t even remember what had happened there, in the stinking jungle. My memories were a hash. But I knew that she was responsible. I looked over at the group. “And are any of you going to stop me?”

Li crossed her arms, looking down, her face troubled. “It would be against the agreement I made with your bloodline.”

The house Lar looked at Horace, and back at me. “I don’t owe her any duty. Do as you please.” She saw the look Horace was giving her. “I am sorry, Horace. But I will not die to save the cat.”

I looked Horace in the eye. “It’s for the best, boy. She’s unruly. She’s dangerous. She’s a killer. She’s unpredictable. The world deserves a better protector.”

He returned my gaze. The boy knew how to stare me in the eye. I had the power of a god, and he still wouldn’t flinch away from me. “I can’t let you do this, Randall. I believe in her. I believe in what she’s done. I trust her. More than you.”

“That’s a damn shame, boy.”

I didn’t mean to strike him hard. But humans are fragile. I slammed my fist into his diaphragm, and he let out a choking noise, blood running out between his lips as he gasped for air. His ribs were cracked. I stood over him, shaking my head. “You and your father. You always believed that she was doing what was best for you. And look where it got you both.”

 

Chapter 17: Betty Bye

My body was aching, wracked with feverish chills. The knife had hurt badly. And it kept hurting. Being in the warmth of Horace’s home wasn’t helping. I was becoming disconnected. I could feel the world flowing like wax around me. It was becoming difficult to concentrate on what was happening. Memories were echoing in my head. I heard a crack, and shook free of a vision of people who had been dead for millenia.

Randall and Horace stood, facing each other. Horace’s arms were wrapped tightly around himself, blood dripping down his lips. Li had her hands over her mouth, her red eyes wide in horror. Phoebe had gone rigid, hand tensed into a fist. Randall shook his head slowly. “You’re tougher than I gave you credit for, nephew. I’m sorry I had to hit you. I always thought it was a terrible tool for someone to use for discipline.” He looked down at his fist, opening and closing it slowly. “You don’t learn anything from a fist. You just hate the person who struck you.” My head was pounding. My blood was rushing in my ears. My vision was turning red. The pain was gone.

“Yeah. But you always said I never learned anything from you anyway.” Horace raised his hands, balling them into fists. Blood was dripping down his shirt. “And I’m not going to let you hurt my cat.” He threw a clumsy punch, and cursed as he struck his uncle on the cheek. The older man’s hair was a rich black color, like coffee. He didn’t seem to even notice the blow, standing with his back straight and his eyes distant. The aura of malignant divinity clung around him as he towered over his nephew.

“I admire your spirit, boy. But think of the bigger picture. It’s in her nature to fight me. She can’t stand the thought of competition. She’s lazy, uncooperative, arrogant. She doesn’t care about people. She won’t be able to save the world.”

“I still believe in her more than you.” I watched as Randall clenched his jaw. His muscles stood out in the stained and ruined jacket. His back was no longer hunched, his spine had grown straight. He was humming with power, youthful energy, and rage. I tried to push myself to my feet, but it felt as though lead was filling my bones.

“You really know how to test me, Horace. I’ve got to say, you learned that from your father. I guess that you’re not my apprentice or my pupil anymore. You’ve really grown up. You’re an equal. And I’m going to treat you like one.” Randall’s fist barely seemed to move. There was the slightest suggestion of a blur, and Horace was doubled over, wheezing, clutching his stomach. “Your father could hold his own in a fight against me, barely. You ready to step into his shoes, boy? If you want to defy me, you’re going to have to be a damn sight stronger than you are.”

Randall looked around. At Phoebe, whose eyes were full of fury, and whose fingers were tensing around one of the knives in the kitchen. At Li, whose expression was torn by grief. At me. “You give away the power in your heart so freely to these parasites. You make them strong, boy. And what do they do in turn? They know they’re not strong enough to fight me. They’re nothing but animals, and they’ll bow to fear even if something that loves them is dying. They don’t know what it means to die for a cause. You and I? We’re humans. That’s what makes us special. You could have faced me, if you didn’t spend all of your time worrying about animals.” He looked down at Horace. “Let it go. It’s nothing but a distraction.”

“That’s what you said when my frog died.” Horace stood up straight, although he wasn’t looking very well. “Is this the way it’s going to be? Uncle and nephew fighting? Were we always fated to end up like this?”

“We’re not fated!” Randall said, his eyes narrowing, his fist tightening. “My choices are my own! We’re humans! We are not-” His fist loosened, and his shoulders hunched, as he laughed. “Well… Good point, boy. I guess that I don’t have much choice, do I?” He reached out, resting a hand companionably on Horace’s shoulder. Horace took another swing, and Randall stepped out of the way without showing a sign of anger. His fist lashed out, and there was a horrible cracking sound. Horace held his chin, cursing. “Why do it, boy? You know that not once has that cat been willing to die for a human. That’s how she’s lived so long. She’s nothing but an animal. They’re not people. They are not worth all of this effort. They are not worth dying for!”

Horace looked up. Blood and saliva dripped down his lip. His jaw was broken. His lip was split. “I don’t care.” His voice was tired. “I don’t care whether they’d die for me. I don’t want them to. But if the only way I can protect them, even for a little while, is by dying, that’s okay.” I began to force myself to stand. Horace looked up, resting a hand gingerly on his jaw. “You always were an asshole, uncle.”

Randall lashed out with a foot that could have caved in Horace’s chest. He was intercepted halfway through the air by a screaming Phoebe. She had a fruit-knife in hand, and plunged it hilt-deep into his knee, right where the bone ended and the tendons began. Li was half a second behind, her arm going around Randall’s throat while he was unbalanced. She pulled with all of her inhuman strength, forcing him back as Phoebe lifted his leg into the air. He slammed into the ground, momentarily overwhelmed, and I was by Horace’s side.

My human slumped to the ground. He wasn’t in good shape. I could feel the weakness in him. Something he had drunk was making him strong enough to stay alive despite the damage, the internal bleeding. But it wouldn’t last for long. “Horace.” I felt something wet dripping down my cheeks. Tears. They weren’t something I was used to. But I couldn’t stand seeing him like this. “I didn’t ask you to save me.”

“I don’t want the world to be ruled by my uncle,” he grunted softly. “This wasn’t about you,” he said, resting a hand on my cheek.

“That’s impossible,” I said, laughing softly, as he stroked my ear.

“Just don’t let him get away with this bullshit. If there’s any man who shouldn’t have the power of a god-” He coughed, blood dripping down his lips. I leaned close, and purred. I could feel the weakness stealing over me. It wasn’t easy to preserve life, and he’d taken a beating. I could feel the strength leaking out of my limbs as I poured it into him. But I was the First Cat. I had strength to spare.

There was a thump from behind me. I turned, standing. Phoebe flew straight upwards, impacting against the ceiling, and disappearing, becoming insubstantial. I could feel her withdrawing like a wounded animal. Li stayed on top of the man, even as he struggled. “Finally breaking your vow to me, serpent?!” he asked, as she tightened her arms around his throat. She was putting him in a full nelson even as he struggled to his feet, dragging her like a cape.

“You told me to protect your nephew. Even against you.” Her voice was level, even as I saw the pain in her eyes.

“Ha!” He flipped her over his head, onto the ground, and slammed his fist into the center of her chest like a jackhammer, half a dozen times. Then, he lifted her, spun, and threw. Li flew on a flat trajectory past me, and I caught the serpent in mid-air. Her chest was a mass of blood, but she seemed little more than annoyed by this, hissing loudly at Randall as the man stood upright.

“Betrayer! Slayer of kin! Murderer! Bastard!” She screamed at the top of her longs, her slender frame straining to leap at him. I turned her to face me.

“Protect Horace. Keep him covered. I’ll take care of Randall.” She opened her mouth as though to argue, and then looked down at him. She nodded, and I released her, turning to face Randall as she moved to stand guard over him. I looked Randall in the eyes. Brown, just like Horace’s, but something cold lurked in them. “You have hurt my human.”

He snorted. “Took the three of you long enough to react. I wondered how far I would have to go to make you fight. I didn’t want to kill you while you lay sick and helpless on a couch. That wouldn’t be the right way. I want everyone to know that the Goddess Bastet, fighting with all of her heart and soul to protect someone she cared about, was still not strong enough to defeat me. I am going to break you, and make a trophy out of you. You are going to spend the rest of eternity as a reminder of what my wrath is. And if that meant I had to slap a rebellious boy around a bit, he’s been asking for it for a very long time.”

“When I kill you, I am going to forget all about you.” I grinned. He lunged.

My eyes are better than any human’s. Even with adrenaline pumping, the human ability to process visual information is limited compared to mine. Despite this, Randall flickered in my vision as he leapt towards me. I crouched and sprung, diving beneath him. I twisted in mid-air, my nails coming up to rake over his chest, reducing his shirt to ruins. He landed, cursing, as the cuts closed on his skin. He adopted a boxing stance, his fists up. I smiled, standing up. “You’re not as strong as you should be, Randall.”

“I held back the plague. Cured all of the people who were suffering from it. I saved every one of them from this, though it meant I couldn’t draw power from them. Because I know the value of a life. And because I don’t need all of that power to kill you.” I laughed, and danced forward on the balls of my feet before leaping at him. My nails gashed him, opening up bloody streaks across his sides. He stepped back, his arms up, catching the cuts on his arms. Slashes healed as quickly as I delivered them, but I could see him slowing.

He stepped forward, his feet moving in smooth strokes. He swung his fist in a clumsy haymaker, which I dodged. The jab from his other hand caught me in the jaw with the force of a speeding car, and my brain slammed around the inside of my skull as I stumbled back. He followed up with a series of strikes at my ribs, cracking them with vicious hammer blows. I stood, dazed, trying to force my limbs to work as he crouched, and brought his fist up in an elegant uppercut, catching me in the chin. I left the ground, and landed full on my back, my legs striking the ground a moment later, as bells rang in my head.

I tried to get back to my feet, as he stood over me. “You’ve never been weak. You’ve always been a predator. But we humans, we know about weakness. We loathe it, because we know it so well. So we train ourselves to overcome our weakness. With craft. With tool. You were born strong. I had to earn it!” His fist came down on my skull as I got to my knees, sending me spinning across the floor, fetching up against the wall as he approached. He leaned down, and pulled the knife out of his kneecap almost lazily, rolling it around his fingers contemplatively.

There was a crash of cutlery. The knife block sailed through the air, long blades tumbling out like the world’s most deadly rainstorm. “You don’t know weakness!” Phoebe screamed, as she appeared in mid-air, holding a long chef’s knife. She landed in front of him, and stabbed him in the stomach. Randall’s counterstrike sent her into the wall adjoining the bathroom, destroying pipes and drywall together, as she became insubstantial again. Before he could recover from the strike, however, she appeared again, catching a long-handled steak-knife, and shoving it into his belly next to the chef’s knife. He struck again, and this time she cracked the wall to the bedroom before disappearing. And she appeared again, and again, catching the knifes from mid-air, driving them deep into his gut while his guard was open. The last blade, a long-handled cleaver, hit the ground, and he grabbed her by the throat as she lunged for it, yanking her into the air.

“You’re a fierce one, house-Lar! Protective to the end! I’m almost sorry to kill you! But this IS the end!” He hefted her into the air by her throat, and brought her down on the ground, slamming her into the floor hard enough to snap floorboards. Then, he lifted her again, grinning maniacally. “I know your weakness! I’m going to destroy your shelter, and watch you die for the insult you’ve inflicted on meAAAAAAGH!” He screamed wildly as her thumb jabbed into his eye. Blood dripped down his cheek as Phoebe slipped from his grasp. I leapt over her, grabbing his shoulders, my feet pressing against his stomach, where the knives had slashed him brutally. I tightened my nails into the back of his neck, and bit into his throat as my legs kicked. He roared with pain, and pulled his head back, headbutting me violently. My nose crunched under the blow, as I slipped off of him, tumbling to the ground, and skittering away from his stomping feet.

I hopped to my feet, facing him, my hands coming up, fingers curved forward into claws. “Impudent human,” I hissed. “You have never seen me at my full power. You have never seen me fighting to protect those I care about. This human is mine, and I won’t let you hurt him.”

“Please.” He snorted, stepping forward, his fists flickering out with terrible force. I dodged, but it was a close thing. I could feel the fatigue overpowering me. The rush of adrenaline and fury was fading away, leaving just a bone-aching exhaustion. Horace was weak, his Hearth barely flickering, and it wasn’t helping me anymore. But I had to keep fighting. I swung an arm, and he caught it. In a single smooth movement he grabbed one of the knives from his stomach, and drove it through my wrist. I let out a wail, falling back. “You don’t have anything like the power that I do, now.” He stood over me, grinning broadly.

“You’re a man without honor or respect.” Phoebe hissed, her eyes narrowed. “Your power was stolen, and it will be taken from you!” She danced forward, slicing three times with the cleaver, retrieved from the ground. Randall stepped back from the first two blows, and caught the third blow on his wrist, stopping the heavy blade, as blood trickled down his wrist.

“Impudent little spirit-” he began, and she spat in his good eye. He roared, and lifted both hands together as she cut forward. His belly button was split open, as he brought both hands down on her like a sledgehammer, slamming her through the floor. The already damaged building let out an ominous rumble as a crack ran across the floor and up one of the walls. “Oh, you filthy little-”

The building collapsed very suddenly. All of the vital energy that Phoebe had filled it with, keeping the building alive even with the rest of the house spirits consumed, was lost with her. I wasn’t sure whether the blow had been too much for her, or if she had sacrificed herself deliberately. I could feel the life in the house fade, and like all dying things, it crumbled quickly. There was a roar of godawful noise as the floors above collapsed down, slamming down on top of us. I leapt for Li and Horace, helping to cover the two of them as the weight of the building came tumbling down. Stone and falling pipes battered my body, as dust erupted around us, and the noise became unbearable. Then, darkness fell.

I’m not sure how long we were stuck there. I couldn’t concentrate. My body hurt. My energy was drained. I was barely able to breathe, let alone move. I could hear Li and Horace struggling to breathe as well.

There was a crunching sound from nearby, as a massive piece of debris was lifted. Randall stood over us, grinning. “Well, I must give the house-Lar points for effort.” His stomach was a ruin of blood and muscle, but he didn’t seem fazed. The desperate attempts to cut his belly open, rob him of the power he’d swallowed, had come to nothing. He was looking more energetic than ever as he reached down, seizing me and Li by the neck. “But futile. God, it feels good to finally have some power.” He hauled us up above his head, holding us in the air, fingers tightening.

I felt myself relax. This was how it was going to end. I’d fought so long, and so hard. Maybe this was alright. It wasn’t a happy ending for me, or for Horace, or for Li, or for poor Phoebe. But maybe it was the ending that was supposed to happen. I let my eyes drift, and saw the bronze statue that Horace had bought for Phoebe. It glittered in the light from the streetlights, the golf club held in the air in a victorious pose.

Then it was real. Phoebe stood up from it, transparent, holding a shining brass golf club in one hand, a large knob visible at the end.

“And now, I’m going to kill you three.” He laughed, as Phoebe stepped up behind him.

“Four.” There was a soft swish of air, as the golf-club’s lopsided head swung up between the man-turned-god’s legs.

In my line of work, there is only very rarely any call to strike someone’s genitals. Most of the creatures I face don’t have the depth of sensitivity and attachment that a human does in their gonads, and certainly they don’t have them in such a vulnerable position. At any rate, it had always seemed extraordinarily cruel as a method of attack. Phoebe had absolutely no compunctions about this. As the Lar faded from view, Randall’s grip slackened, and his eyes slowly crossed. A variety of expressions danced across his face as he seemed to come to terms with the pain, his face turning green. He dropped the two of us, and we fell to the ground.

He turned to the side, and retched a few times, before he was noisily sick. A thin slippery wash of stomach acid splattered onto the ground. And then a large bundle of rat tails, about the size of an orange, thumped into the rubble. I heard the crunching of pavement, as Horace climbed up. He was wounded, but not as badly as he had been. The combination of whatever had made him strong and my power had helped to heal him somewhat. He limped over to the uncle, and crouched down, picking up the bundle of rat tails. He brushed it off on his shirt, and slid it into his pocket as I lay on the ground.

“You really fucked it up, uncle.” His voice was soft, and very sad.

“Why did you believe in her? Why couldn’t you believe in me?” Randall asked. His voice was soft, as he knelt. The divine power had flooded out of him with the bundle of rat tails. He was on the verge of death, blood leaking out of him, his life no longer sustained by the power of a god.

“You’re a great man, uncle. I hope I can be more like you someday.” Horace’s voice was soft as he patted the small lump in his pocket. “But you’re not a good man. I hope I never become just like you.”

The man bent forward, laughing, falling onto his side. “My boy. Your father’ll be proud. I hope that I get the chance to tell him.” And without much fuss, the old man died. Horace crouched down next to him, tears running down his cheeks.

“Stupid old stubborn fucking bastard. You couldn’t let go of a grudge.” I managed to slowly pull myself to my feet, crawling over to him. I leaned my head on his side as he cried, and purred loudly, trying to drive away the sorrow inside of him. There was no dignity in the crying, no solemn manly sorrow. They were choked sobs, snot dripping down his lips. He made noises that sounded like someone dying painfully as he slid his arms around me.

“There was nothing you could have done,” I said softly. This only seemed to make things worse.

After a long time, he recovered himself a bit, tears beginning to try, as he wiped his face with his sleeve, looking up at the trophy. “Phoebe… Did she…?”

I shook my head softly, even knowing that it’d hurt him. “I don’t know how she survived the house collapsing. Maybe she was just tough enough to make it a little longer. Long enough to save you. Maybe it was some echo of her memory, living on in her power. But…” I waved at the trophy, and the bundle of rat tails in his pocket. “They’re both like corpses. The power’s still there, but it’s an empty shell.” I held him softly. “I’m sorry.”

“She was a good person.”

“No, she wasn’t. She was just a killer.”

“She didn’t have a choice in the things that happened to her. She killed because it was the only thing she knew how to do. But she didn’t kill him because she wanted him to die. She killed him because she wanted me to live. She didn’t even use a knife to do it.” Horace shook his head. “Sometimes you can’t be strong enough to keep everyone alive, and you have to choose who lives, and who dies. But that’s a lot better than not being able to protect anyone.” He leaned against me, looking around the ruined building. Li had disappeared. I licked his cheeks gently, trying to lick away the tears, and he reached up, softly scratching behind my ears.

“You protected me.” I whispered softly, and squeezed him. “You gave me the strength to fight. You stood up to your uncle, let him beat you until we couldn’t take it anymore. You nearly got yourself killed giving us the will to fight. I wish that you hadn’t done that, but you saved my life because you’re a stubborn idiot who put yourself in danger.”

He snorted, brushing his nose. “Great. I managed to save the day by being useless and nearly being beaten to death. That’s a morale-booster.” But the tears lessened a bit.

The two of us sat under the stars as the emergency services arrived, and started helping people to escape the rubble. “So, what now?”

“I don’t know.” He muttered softly. “It’s over. I guess. Is Nergal still in the ball of rat-tails?”

“I can’t feel any sign of him. It’s… unprecedented. Your uncle killed a god, and took his power. It’s…” I frowned. “A little bit disturbing, honestly. But… He also saved everyone. He withdrew the power of the sickness from everyone. He saved untold millions of lives from a horrible death.”

“He always was a great man.” Horace looked up at the sky. The moon was just a moon. “We saved the world. Billions of people. And only two people I cared about had to die.” He rubbed his cheeks. “I need to be better than that.” I looked at the pain in his face, and hugged him softly.

“We both do.” I gave him a soft kiss on the cheek, and held him as the fire fighters and police approached us.

 

Chapter 18: Horace Hunting

“-Military has stated that the unprecedented operation was in response to a major terror threat by the known cult, the Church of the Survivor, to detonate a low-yield nuclear device in Central Park. They attribute their victory to the quick actions of Dane Larson in tracking down the cultists, and the device has been safely dismantled-”

Click.

“- of the Survivor was brought down by one man, Harold Schmooli, an early survivor of the plague that the Church had unleashed on the Big Apple. A homeless itinerant and former investigative journalist, his shocking footage of the clinics, the isolated patients below-ground, and the obvious breeding facilities for plague rats-”

Click.

“-e have Harold Schmooli in the office today with his brand new book, ‘Saints with black hearts: The Church of the Survivor.’ Now, it’s been only a few days since the cult was brought down, and you’re already putting out a book that everyone is fascinated by. How on earth did you manage it?”

“Well, thanks, Carol, and thanks for having me here today. The answer is, great ghostwriters.”

“Hahahahaha-”

Click.

“-all Creed was found dead in the rubble after the house collapse on the Upper West Side. His firm has been implicated in the Church of the Survivor’s actions, and there are lingering concerns that he was responsible for-”

Click.

“-spected that the sudden die-off of the plague is because of the downfall of the Church of the Survivor, which is now being blamed for prolonging symptoms and releasing new rats into the city. The city is humming back to life, and while there has been a substantial economic downturn, disaster relief money is already pouring in, and the Dow Jon-”

Click.

“-n Discovery, we’ll be hearing an explanation of how the Aurora Borealis was responsible for the strange phenomenon of the ‘glowing moon’ just a few days ago, on Yukon Me-

Click.

“Are you ready, kids?”

“Aye aye, Cap’n!”

“I can’t hear you!”

“AYE AYE CAP’N!”

“Ooooooooh,”

I looked up from the bed as Betty walked out of the bathroom, toweling her hair. I looked away when I saw she wasn’t wearing anything. “Look, Betty, you have a human body, the least you could do is be ashamed of your body like a normal person.”

“Are you kidding me? Look at how excellent I look. Come on, look!” I didn’t look. “Oooh, I love this show. It always makes me hungry.” She climbed onto the large hotel room bed, making herself comfortable on the crisp, white sheets. It was soft, in that special way that only hotel mattresses can be, particularly after you’ve been dealing with a long, difficult day. “You never had any of these shows at your house.”

“I couldn’t afford cable.” I tossed her a pillow, and she sighed, reluctantly covering herself partially. The small hotel room was a bit close, but it was cheap, and I didn’t mind living in close proximity with Betty.

“How long can you afford this place?”

“About… Another 12 hours. Then we’re out on the street.” I sighed softly. “You know, you could pickpocket some deserving people, right? Like mob bosses and stuff?”

“But they’re a lot harder to find than policemen. They usually don’t wear uniforms and stroll around the streets with badges, either.” She smiled as she leaned across the bed onto my shoulder. “You okay?”

“Not especially. My uncle’s dead, and he took my job and my apartment with him. I don’t even have a letter of recommendation or anything.” I sighed. “Who knows what the hell’s going to happen with his will, or when for that matter. I didn’t end up getting any of the credit or the vast amounts of money being made on this whole deal. You’re right, the world probably should be more aware of this stuff. Sacrificing everything you have for other people seems like a good idea at the time, but then you’re out on the street with nobody to help you.” I leaned my head back against the bed, staring up at the ceiling. Then, Betty was lying next to me, purring loudly as she leaned against my side.

“Not with nobody.” She smiled. “You’ll always have me.”

“I know that you’re not completely aware of human culture, Betty, but if the only person who cares about you is a cat that you feed, that actually makes you more pathetic than if you had no one.”

“Bitter?”

“A tad.”

She purred and pressed her face into my ribs, hugging me gently. I groaned softly. My jaw was still aching, and my ribs felt tender, but I hadn’t needed a doctor’s visit. That was good, because I couldn’t remotely afford one. “Thanks,” I murmured softly, petting her hair as she leaned against me.

“Things will get better.”

“Oh yeah?” The phone rang.

“Yeah.” She smiled, as I picked up the hotel phone, sitting up.

“Hello, Mister Creed? This is James Watt, your uncle’s estate attorney. Do you think you could make time to come down to the office in about an hour? There’s some news about your uncle’s estate.”

“Oh! Yes, that’s great! Thank you.” I looked up, and gave Betty a smile. She returned it. “I’ll head over now.” I hung up the phone, and opened up one of the trunks. I did my best not to notice the small bronze trophy, or the bundle of rat tails. The pain of loss was still sharp and fresh. I’d known Phoebe for only a little while, but she’d been special. And I couldn’t help the thought. The one that said, deep in the pit of my heart, that I could have saved her. The bundle of rat tails was a reminder. I could’ve been powerful enough to save everyone. It wasn’t impossible. Every night, I dreamt of having that power, of being able to protect the people I cared about.

I shoved the idea out of my head. I wasn’t ready for that. I wasn’t my uncle. I couldn’t even cast the few spells I’d learned from Phoebe anymore. Without her helping me along, they just didn’t work. She’d been supporting me. I wasn’t sure whether to be angry about it or not. “I’ll be back soon, okay? I’ll get us some Shark Belly’s at the end of my shift.”

“Get me a Great Whitefish!” she said, smiling.

“I’ll get you something off the Small Fry list. Okay? We need to tighten our belts.” She pouted. I sighed. “Oh, fine.”

I stepped out of the door, and into the hallway. The small hotel was in the middle of Chinatown, and I’d chosen it because it was the cheapest place that was still in the city. My meager savings were already being eaten away. Finding a job was proving difficult, as my resume’s last position was ‘Clerk at law firm responsible for black plague in NYC.’ The whole city was still in economic turmoil, and I’d been working two shifts at a fast food restaurant just to keep the lights on. I’d thought the job with my uncle had been bad. This was worse. But at least it was Friday. I had a whole two hours until my shift that afternoon.

I checked my wallet, and opted to walk. The law office was only a couple of miles away. The heat had dropped precipitously in the last couple of days, and this morning, there was a nip in the air. Trees lining the streets were changing with the season. The trash had been removed from the streets, finally. I’d actually made a couple of hundred dollars working as a temporary freelance worker for the sanitation department. I sighed, taking a breath of the clean, fresh air. It felt good. I always preferred fall to summer, in the city.

The law office was buzzing with activity as I entered. I walked past the reception desk, following the corridors to the office. James Watt had been a friend of my uncle’s for a long time. I’d been here before. Granted, at least once before it was to serve a summons on behalf of my uncle, but James hadn’t held it against me. I knocked on the door. “Just a minute.” I waited by the wall, leaning against it. I wasn’t dressed my best. It was hard to get up much enthusiasm to dress nicely for law offices anymore, particularly if I was walking there. “Alright, come in.”

I opened the door, and took a seat. The office was small, and cramped, full of signs of life. A battered paperback copy of Saints With Black Hearts, pictures of his kids. It was in many ways the opposite of my uncle’s. I liked it. The seat was comfortable, and didn’t even conspire to make me feel like a naughty child called to the principal’s office. “So, you said you had news?”

“Yes. First of all, your uncle’s estate. He’s left everything to you in his will.”

“That sounds good.”

“Yes, I thought you might think that. Unfortunately, with the recent crisis, and his role in it as a legal counsel for the Church of the Survivor, he’s been under investigation by the FBI. His assets have been seized and frozen, and even if they’re ever unfrozen, it won’t be for years. I’m afraid that the financial assets, the law office, the house in Amagansett, his apartment overlooking Central Park, his various collections, have all been seized. I wouldn’t get my hopes up about them. But, on the positive side, you’ve become the inheritor of a trust for his pet.” He held out a form, studying it owlishly. “For an… albino, reticulated python, male. Name is ‘Li Xue Zi’, or ‘Beautiful Snow Son’. This also includes the title he held as a wildlife rehabilitation expert in order to own the snake, and-”

“Wait- Male?” I asked, frowning.

“Apparently. A small trust was set up for the snake, and you are now the trustee for it. It should provide what you need to buy an appropriate terrarium, feed it, and so forth. Unfortunately, the snake itself is missing, and hasn’t been found, but if animal control tracks it down, we will of course have it shipped to you as soon as possible.”

“So… I can’t actually use that money to pay for an apartment or somewhere to live.”

“No.”

“Thanks, James.”

“Of course.”

“I don’t suppose you need a paralegal?”

“We couldn’t really justify the expense at the moment. Besides…” He shrugged. “Your last employer had something of a reputation. We wouldn’t want to be tarred with the same brush. I’m sure you understand.”

“I helped save the world! I let my uncle die to protect everyone, and I didn’t get a single damn reward for it! And you can’t give me a fucking job?!” is what I didn’t scream in his face. “Of course,” is what I said, my shoulders hunching down.

“The secretary will give you the information on the trust. Good luck.” He smiled, patting my shoulder. “You’re a good kid. All of this will blow over soon enough.”

“Yeah.” I stood up, and walked out.

I didn’t bother to change on my way to the Shark Belly fast food joint. I arrived, and the manager hurled abuse before leaving for the day, leaving me to mop the floors. I got to work, setting down a large yellow sign, and began mopping, hating the entire world just a little bit. “Well, don’t you look charming. You seriously working at these places? Haven’t you heard about the Shark Belly Slasher?”

I looked up. Dane stood over me. She was still pale from the brush with illness, but she looked a lot better than she had the last time I’d seen her. Flanking her was a tall man who I didn’t recognize. He held out a hand. “Colonel.”

“Colonel…?” I shook his hand, letting the question linger in the air.

“Just Colonel. I don’t make a habit of sharing around my name. Name magic. Dangerous stuff.” I stared at him blankly for a moment. He looked dead serious. I sighed, and returned to mopping. “I wanted to thank you. You played a substantial part in saving your country from both a deranged cult, and a power-mad man. I don’t know the specific details of the confrontation with Randall after he was possessed by that thing, but I know that you helped the Protector to put it down.”

“He wasn’t possessed. He was able to overcome it. He saved everyone who had been touched by the disease. He could have been a guardian for the entire world, if he had just been a bit less stubborn. If he just could’ve listened,” was what I didn’t say. Instead, I simply nodded.

“I know it can’t have been easy, seeing what became of him. And it cost you personally a significant amount. Your home. Your livelihood. Your last remaining family member.”

“Yeah.” I leaned on the mop, looking up at him. “I don’t suppose there’s a reward out there for that? Some money? A job? Maybe a shiny medal?”

“There aren’t many rewards for the jobs we do. We stay deep in the dark. The world’s better off not knowing how fragile it can be.”

“Yeah, I heard that line of thinking was what caused the Cuban Missile Crisis, too.”

The colonel smirked. “Smart mouth on you, kid. Of course, there is one possibility… The rat tails.” I didn’t freeze up or look up sharply. I simply raised my head, frowning. “We haven’t been able to find them in the debris.”

“Maybe they were destroyed. That would probably be for the best, right? Nobody should have access to that kind of power.”

“Maybe. Or maybe that kind of power could be used for good. People shouldn’t be powerless. That kind of power could give us a great advantage the next time this happens. And believe me when I say that it’s going to happen again.” The man lit up a large cigar. I pointed up at the ‘No smoking’ sign. He smirked, and puffed on the cigar, letting the trail of smoke rise to the ceiling. “In any case, if you should happen to know the location of the rat tails, we might be able to make an agreement. See about getting the FBI off your uncle’s assets. You could live awfully well on that money.” I sighed.

“You couldn’t just do that because it’s the right thing?” He smiled indulgently. “No, of course not. Sorry, colonel, I haven’t seen any sign of it.”

“That thing could do a hell of a lot of damage in the wrong hands, boy. Remember that.”

“Trust me, Colonel, if I knew where it was, I’d do everything I could to keep it out of the wrong hands.” He eyed me, and then shook his head.

“Fair enough. By the way, here. A little something to say thank you.” He took out a small can. I took it. Fancy Feast.

“She doesn’t like this stuff. She prefers salmon.” I handed it back.

He shook his head. “That’s not good, feeding a cat nothing but fish.”

“She’s a goddess. I don’t think it’s about the nutrients. I think it’s about showing I care.”

The man snorted, withdrawing the can. “Well, tell her that if she ever wants a job, and can learn to follow orders, we’ll be there to help out. Until then…” He looked around the restaurant lobby, twirling his cigar between two fingers. “Good luck with the food service industry.”

I resisted the urge to hit him with the mop. I’d lose my job, and probably get my ass kicked. It would be worth it, but only until I had to tell Betty why she wasn’t going to get fed. I took a moment, breathing deep, letting the anger float out of me as he walked away, leaving Dane and I alone. “Sorry about him. Turns out that being in charge of a secret government branch of paramilitary activities isn’t actually a job that attracts kind-hearted or noble people.”

“That’s life. I’m used to it. So, look at you, eh? Deputy Inspector? That must come with a whole extra dollar a year raise.”

“Yeah. I’d help bail you out, but they don’t exactly pay out the nose for this job. The hazard pay was just enough to cover the hospital visits for Marco.” She sighed. “Amazing how they can find new ways to fuck you, while you’re still recovering from the last round. Pardon my french.” She studied me. “What actually happened after Randall got possessed?” I shrugged. She frowned. “You don’t think you can trust me?”

“It’s not worth talking about. It’s over now. And he’s dead. He paid for his hubris.”

She studied me. “Was it really hubris, what he did?”

“He thought he was equal or superior to the gods, and wound up dying because of it. It is the textbook definition of hubris.” She smiled.

“He just wanted to be strong. I can empathize. When we tried to distract them… Magical weapons, tactics, and we were still no match against them. I don’t know if we even made a difference, being there.”

“Oh, we definitely made a difference. A positive one, too.” I shrugged, rubbing my chin as I leaned on the mop. “What else are we going to do? Stop trying to help people, just because it’s hard?” She looked around the restaurant, and raised an eyebrow. “Hey, it keeps me and Betty off the streets. Sometimes you have to help who you can.”

“If you say so, Horace. Good luck.” She clapped me on the shoulder. “And if you see anything weird, give me a call. I’ve been hearing some weird reports about attacks around Shark Belly franchises throughout the greater Metropolitan area. The Shark Belly Slasher is no joke.”

I moved into the back, washing the surfaces, and preparing food. At the end of the night, my coworkers left early, leaving me to shut things down alone.

It couldn’t have been more than a month since Betty had joined me. It had been exciting. Terrifying, full of danger, and caused by a threat to the entire world, but it had been fun. I’d met new and interesting people. I’d gotten a chance to do something, even though it hadn’t been as heroic as I’d hoped. And now, everything magical was dripping out of my life. I felt a dull little ache in the pit of my stomach, and wondered if this was how it had felt for Randall when he’d realized that the world was safe again. How many times had he been shit on for doing the right thing before he grew cold, and started focusing inward? What had happened that made him who he was? Another thing I’d never know.

The back door exploded open. Two bulky forms stood in the darkness beyond the door. The thick stench of low tide swept into the kitchen, along with a significant amount of mist. They had gills, and scaled skin, white and grey. The taller one approached me, speaking in a thick Louisiana accent. “Human! You have profited off of the devouring of our kind for too long!”

He was nearly seven feet tall, flabby, and reminded me of nothing so much as a colossal walking catfish. The other had a figure more like an alligator gar, lean, with a jaw that projected out over a foot long, sharp teeth gleaming in the light. I stepped back, trying to keep my balance on the floor slick with condensation, backing towards the fryers. “What the hell? I don’t own the place! I just work here!”

“Your death shall be the glorious call to battle for our kind! We shall dip you within the very oil with which you turn our brethren into your cheap food, and share your flesh at our holy table! Rejoice, human, for you shall be reborn as muscle and sinew in our great warriors! THE DEEP SHALL RISE AGAIN!” The catfish stepped sideways as the alligator gar approached me, grabbing my shoulders, his jaws opening wide. I grabbed the handle on the deep fryer’s basket as a glint of white scales flashed in the door. I lifted the basket, dripping with boiling oil, and flung it into the gar’s face.

There was a sizzling sound, as the gar shrieked in pain, stumbling back, hand going to his eyes. At the same time, Li’s arm went around the catfish’s throat, and there was a wet choking noise. I kicked the gar in the stomach hard, using the fryer to stabilize myself as I shoved him towards Li, and she put the two of them into a head lock, dragging them out through the back door. I sat, panting, and looked around the kitchen. “Shit.” I muttered softly. “There goes that job.”

In the back, the large dumpster had closed. Li was standing, her arms crossed, smiling. “You seemed to be less frightened of the unknown, that time.”

I reminded myself. Not she. “So… You were a guy all along.” I looked at Li’s face. It was still very hard not to think of those pretty features as female. He crossed his arms, flushed.

“Yes. I, ah… Well. I thought you would become disturbed if you realized I was male. I know that there can be taboos on that kind of thing.”

“I mean, it doesn’t bother me.” I considered. “There’s probably a much bigger taboo on being kissed by a snake, anyway. So, what the hell were those things?”

“I don’t know.” Li shrugged. “Perhaps they would be somewhere in Randall’s notes, or the many books that he collected, but those are beyond my reach. They wanted to hurt you, so I put them into a choke-hold. They’re not dead, though. I wanted to question them. Later, once you were safe.” He looked down at the bodies. “I suspect that they may have something unfortunate in mind.”

“I thought that we’d have a little more peace than this.” I admitted, staring down at the two. “It’s been less than a week, and already…”

“That is the nature of our world. We live on the brink of chaos. There is always something happening.” He smiled. “You are not tired, are you?”

I looked down at the dumpster. “You know, you’re mine, now.”

“Yes.”

“When’s the last time you had a good meal?”

Li tilted his head.

“Come on. Let’s get back to the apartment. Those two will keep for a few hours, right?”

“Oh, yes.”

I smiled, and put an arm around Li’s shoulder. I was going to have to do a long personal inventory later, about the thoughts that he brought up in my head, and the fact that the best kiss I’d ever had was with him. That could wait, though. The strange monsters who had tried to deep fry me might get away, too, but that was also something that could wait. “I’m probably going to be fired in the morning. I’m okay with that.”

The two of us walked home together, towards the apartment. I sighed softly. Tomorrow morning I’d need to start looking for a new job, and we’d be out on the streets. For the time being, though, I didn’t have the mental wherewithal to confront that fact.

I opened the door to my apartment room. Betty was wearing a shirt, and talking animatedly with a man. He turned, and I recognized the lack of nose. Harold was sitting on my bed, wearing a rather snazzy looking jacket. He stood up, grinning brightly. “Horace! I’ve been having an absolute bitch of a time tracking you down! I was lucky to run into Betty today!” He clasped my hand, and pulled me close, hugging me fiercely. “Can you believe it! Ten years since I’ve been able to find someone to talk to in the news industry, and now, I’ve got a book out! And all thanks to you. I always knew that you were a good man. Giving everything you had, even when it hurt you.” He smiled, and I felt something in my palm. I held up a check. There were a substantial number of zeroes on it.

“What’s this?” I asked. I didn’t want to question it. It felt like it might vanish like a pleasant dream if I asked too many questions.

“It’s your part of the royalties! Now, I’m afraid that it’s not as generous as I’d like it to be. The book’s popular, but it’s still a bit of a specialty market. Still, it should be enough to help you get back on your feet, and with any luck, there’ll be more like it!”

“I… I can’t accept this, Harold, I mean-”

“Nonsense! I’m back in the game! I only have what I do because you helped me, so many times, when you really couldn’t afford to. I can afford to help you now. It’s the least I can do.”

“But…” I stared down at it. It felt wrong. Maybe too many games, where the right and moral thing was to refuse reward and to do it even when it hurt. Maybe I enjoyed being a martyr too much. Or maybe I felt like, when so many people had been hospitalized, killed, sacrificed everything doing something meaningful, and all I’d done was sit there, useless… The truth was, perhaps, that the world just didn’t work this way. Good things didn’t happen to the right people. Problems weren’t solved because you helped someone out at the right time. Not in reality.

Harold gave me a long look, and smiled. “Take it, Horace. So often, we tell ourselves that the world isn’t fair, that good people get treated badly because life is cruel. And that’s why humans have to be kind. This is me helping you, because you’re a damn good person, and you deserve to be rewarded. A happy ending can’t happen unless someone makes it happen.”

I stared down at the check. It wasn’t ‘retire’ money, but it would help a lot. Enough to support us for a few months while I searched for work that could keep us going. My tongue felt thick in my mouth. “I don’t deserve this-”

“You really do, Horace,” Betty said, smiling.

I stared down at it, feeling a smile blossom across my face. “Thank you, Harold. I thought… I don’t know. I thought you’d forgotten about me. I thought everyone had. I thought-” I wiped a tear from my cheek before it could give me away.

Harold grinned. “Well, it’s not entirely motivated by altruism and debt-repayment. The book’s selling well. My agent thinks that there’s a real market for these kinds of real-life conspiracy things. I figure that if I can keep you and Betty close, we get another book. Symbiotic relationships. They’re great, aren’t they?”

I nodded slowly, and then raised my head. “That reminds me- Betty, I was attacked by a group of… I don’t know. Fish-men? At the restaurant tonight. They said something about the deep rising again. Do you know anything about that?”

Her eyes widened. “Fish-men?” She was practically salivating.

“They were pissed about being eaten or something like that. Sounded like something important?”

“Never heard of them.” She smiled. “Sounds interesting, though. I’ve been getting bored sitting around.”

“Oh. And Li’s going to be living with us from now on.”

She took this rather worse, her smile turning into a dark frown. “What, really?” She eyed Li, annoyed. “You’d better not hit on him.”

“Or what?” Li asked demurely, smiling mischievously as he rested a finger on his lips.

I laughed, as the two began to bicker. There was a certain release of tension as I felt my life slipping back towards madness. It was absurd, the idea of throwing myself back into that danger. These fish-people weren’t my problem, and it was dangerous. But in danger, I found strength. I found meaning given to the people around me. I found meaning for myself. I could meet new people. I could do the things that my uncle should have done. Maybe, someday, I’d even be able to tell people that he’d died a hero. I could tell everyone about Phoebe and all she’d done in just a few short days. Maybe I’d even become strong enough to save the people I cared about. I was a failure in the real world, but when things turned mad, I could finally justify my existence. I had meaning. I wondered if that was how it had felt for Randall.

I looked down at the trunk, where the bundle of rat-tails sat, unnoticed, unremarkable. Just a trophy of what had happened, with the power of a god resting inside of them. I wasn’t ready to handle that kind of power, yet. I didn’t know if I’d ever be.

But I knew that a human could have the power of a god. I’d seen it done once. That meant it could be done twice.

Betty slid an arm around my shoulder possessively, frowning at Li. “Just don’t steal any of my food, and if I find you two messing around, I’m going to be very angry.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of letting you find out about it.” Li said, grinning broadly. He seemed to be enjoying himself a great deal. I smiled, and forgot about the bundle of rat tails, for now.

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