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.”