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…”
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.”