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.
“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?”
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.”