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.
“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?”
“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.