I smoked a cigarette to try to regain some sense of normalcy. I smelled of rosewater and lavender, which made for a disconcerting change. The strange spirit had come through with disease-repelling essential oils. I’d taken a long bath in it, and while it had been enjoyable, it had made me feel like I should be eating chocolate ice-cream and doing my nails. It helped that Hector, John, and Marco were no more pleased with the situation than I was. We had met briefly on the sidewalk outside of the park, before moving to our predetermined locations to prepare for the battle ahead. It was Sunday. Horace had gone with the camera to go get what he was needed. Randall had arrived as the last of the cult’s setup was being completed. Betty and Li were… Well, I didn’t know. I didn’t need to know exactly where they hid, and with any luck, they’d remain hidden until the moment when they could do the greatest damage.
I took out the Webley. Its immaculate iron barrel gleamed in the dull light of the city. Central Park at night was different from the day. In the day, it was lush, green, invitingly fresh and beautiful. At night, there was a sinister air to the park. Bright, actinic lamps created small globes of light. Beyond them was sinister, pregnant, and highly suggestive darkness. It had been a terrifying place in the 70s, where you had to tread carefully, or risk getting mugged at best. Nowadays, it was supposedly safer, because of an understanding about the nature of darkness. When people were mostly immersed in light, then pools of darkness created an environment conducive to ambush. But when the points of light were relatively infrequent, but continuous, people’s eyes could adjust to the darkness and see people waiting for them.
Tonight, I was glad for the darkness. I looked up at the heavens, where there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. No reflected light from the buildings surrounding the park on all sides. That was of mixed benefit. On the one hand, it meant that the park was dark as pitch outside of the pools of light from LED street lamps. It also meant that I could see the moon. Bright, white, and with a growing stain spreading over its face. Rather like the marks spreading across the diseased in the city’s hospitals. I shuddered.
“Hey, boss,” Hector whispered. Wind whistled softly on his headset, as I adjusted the headphones. Sound-dampening to help with the sound of gunfire, and to keep us in touch. “Did you have any luck with city hall?”
“I tried to warn them, but…” I shook my head. “We can’t afford to fight like we’re going to get reinforcements. When the cult starts the ritual, we’re going to need to pull them away, and keep them distracted long enough for Betty and Randall to do their work. Chances are good that we’re going to all die, here. But if we can pull this off, we’re going to be heroes.”
“What good’s being a hero if you aren’t around to get the drinks?” John asked, his voice soft, chuckling, as he hefted the shield. “Can’t believe I’m going into battle with an antique.” He adjusted his position next to me. I lifted the binoculars, and stared. There were dozens of rat-faced men, armed with submachineguns. Not hugely accurate, but effective in numbers, and they had plenty of those. I would have liked more cover, but city parks were notorious for their lack of waist-high walls and convenient barrels. We’d have to make do with darkness and-
“They’re moving,” I whispered. I watched as the men withdrew from the perimeter, and into the large ordered ranks mathematically divined for maximum faith. The rat-tails were in the center of a well-lit area, at the very edge of the reservoir’s bike path. There were dozens of the men, forming concentric circles around the focus of the god’s power. They were chanting in low, droning voices. “Alright. Time to take our positions. Marco, Hector, get in position. When John brings in the noise, Hector, you’ll bring in the funk.”
“Wow, boss. If we survive this, I’m going to be talking with HR about our hostile workplace.”
“We’re off the clock, Hector. It’s not harassment, it’s just me being a bigot.”
“Damn.” Hector chuckled, and I felt a little tension in the pit of my stomach. This was the moment. When we’d find out what we were made out of. John stood up from the bush, and judged the distance. We were perhaps two hundred feet down the hill from the gathering. A skilled javelineer… Javelinist? Javioso? Well, they could hit someone from about fifty feet, using a Roman pilum. John had shared that fact with me while we were practicing. John wasn’t a skilled javioso, but these weren’t normal weapons.
The golden-shafted spear left his hand like a bolt from God. It moved soundlessly through the air, describing a glittering golden arc, which ended halfway through one of the rat-faced men. It exploded ferociously, light flaring around the men, and two or three others dropped dead to the ground, eyes full of shock and horror.
I didn’t know if they were all victims in this, lost souls who would do anything without understanding whether it was right or wrong. If I were stronger, I’d be able to do something about that. I could authorize us using nonlethal force. Try to save as many of them as we could. But they outnumbered us thirty to one and carried extremely lethal weapons. I didn’t have much choice.
The men turned, and charged down the paths, shouting. Some of them tried to leap across the thick undergrowth around the paths, and were slowed. I raised my pistol. The cultists were trying to hold their fire, even as John lifted the other spear, and threw it again. The enemy couldn’t see where we were, and they were trying not to shoot each other. For the moment, their numbers were providing us an advantage. The first spear suddenly appeared on John’s back. It nearly gave me pause, but I was knee-deep in insanity already. It was just good to see the insanity was on our side for once.
There was the crack of an 18th century rifle, and two of the cultists fell, one of them struggling and the other still. I’d looked into the make. It was an old 1819, one of the first rifled firearms made in the USA. It had been equipped with a percussion lock. It was a thing of beauty, mahogany frame custom-made with a silver trim. It also shouldn’t have been able to fire half so quickly as it did. Another crack filled the air, much too soon for it to be reloaded normally. The cultists scattered for cover, trying to find the sniper who was harrying them, scanning the trees and the bushes. They weren’t looking in the right direction. I pulled up the binoculars quickly, and studied the lights around the cultists.
There was no sign of Betty yet. She couldn’t move in until we’d forced the enemy to commit. I could feel the plague god’s influence beginning to pull at me. My nose was running, my throat tickling, as I felt the urge to cough and clear my throat. I fought it. John was staggering a bit as he threw another of the shimmering golden javelins, and the second one reappeared on his back again. Each time they struck home, I felt a little spike of hope. A little prayer that maybe we’d live through this. Then, one of his throws went wide, striking the ground, and sinking into the earth, not returning to his hand. He cursed loudly, as he drew the other spear.
The rat-faced men had entered the darkness. Their guns were rising into position, finally able to make out our silhouettes. “Close your eyes, boys,” I whispered, softly, into the headset, and raised the gun, shutting my eyes as I fired. It didn’t matter who I hit.
There was a moment of retina-searing white, and a chorus of anguished screams from the men, as they were blinded by the sun-bright flash of my weapon. One of them wasn’t moving anymore, and I fired two or three more times. Then they returned fire, sending bullets winging into the darkness. John and I huddled behind the shield, and he rocked with each impact, sending jarring shocks through his shoulders. And as they fired, blinded and confused, Marco rose from in the middle of their lines, appearing out of a thick shrub. He laughed wildly, his strange apparatus lifted into the air. There was a low roar as flame leapt from the hose, sticky and cloying. It lit up the field, trees beginning to burn, creating a beacon to the city. Unfortunately, it also illuminated Hector.
He floated, fifty feet up, lying down on the carpet. The blessed darkness, provided by the clear sky, was lost. One of the men screamed, pointing towards the shape, and their guns lifted. I fired wildly. Marco tried to hose them down. John lifted his spear. It was too late. A burst of gunfire ripped through the air, and a dark shape detached from the floating carpet, tumbling down into the dark bushes far below. There was a snapping of branches and a heavy thud. Marco cursed loudly, charging at the men. Half a dozen bullets struck him, and he went down, spinning and dancing wildly. I screamed out a curse, as John threw his second spear again. This time it missed. Then it was just the shield, and the charging men. Bullets seemed to pull out of their paths, landing against the shield, rattling it violently. He held his best. But we weren’t going to make it. We weren’t going to last. The men spread out, surrounding us, their guns trained on us.
“Surrender,” said one of them, “and come to witness glory.”
I stared at him, slowly, from over the sight of the Webley. It could keep firing continuously. I could kill a lot of them before I went down under the hail of bullets. Not nearly enough to make a difference, but damn, I could kill a lot of them.
“I think we’re out of options here, boss.” John muttered, his eyes narrowed.
I sighed, and lowered my gun. The men spread out, and one of them roughly seized the sidearm. I wondered privately where the hell Betty had been. Or Li, for that matter. We were marched up the path, and Hector and Marco were soon joining us. Marco was walking unsteadily, his clothes slick with blood. One of the cultists was bandaging him. “What the fuck are you doing?” he asked, slurring.
“Unnecessary death is against our religion,” The rat-faced medic responded coolly. “We would not want you to die before you have a chance to be embraced and enlightened by our god.”
Hector was limping a bit, but looked very good for a man who’d plunged to almost certain death after being struck with a hail of bullets. “How the hell are you alive, Hector?” I asked softly, under my breath. He shrugged.
“I rolled off when I got lit up and saw people aiming for me. My ankle’s killing me, though, and I don’t know where the rifle is.”
The four of us were marched up the hill, to stand within the lights of the circle. Four spotlights, pointing down at a small bundle of rat-tails. Scabby, pink, tangled into a ball about the size of an orange. And it cast four shadows. This wasn’t a very rational day. Randall stood to one side of the rat tails, with his flask out. He had a morose expression, and a black-bladed knife hung from his belt. The Deacon stood to the other side, smiling. “Ah, Randall. Such a sad play. You wanted to be the hero one last time, did you? Stop us?” She shook her head. “A group of violent thugs with a handful of scavenged artifacts. I hope that you were more impressive during your glory days.” She turned, her eyes meeting mine. “I wonder. Don’t I know you?” she asked, smiling musingly. “Oh, of course. You tried to evict me once. I cut you open. I’m truly sorry about that day.” She reached out, resting a hand on my shoulder. A smile spread across the thin, pale woman’s arch face. I remembered razor-sharp claws and horrible pain, and watching my insides spill out. “I’ve since found religion.”
“Ma’am. We think this was all of them.”
She shook her head. “Keep an eye out. That little snake is no doubt still waiting for the right moment. Just fill it with bullets, even an immortal can’t ignore enough lead. Randall, really, you’re lucky this didn’t escalate any further. Any more of us lost, and Nergal would be in serious danger of being maladjusted when he arrives.” With her words, a dark form rose out of the ball of rat tails. It looked humanoid, with a large, comically simple face, a jagged half-circle smile and a pair of large white eyes. It was black, and almost gaseous save for the face. That looked more like a drop of ink floating in mid-air.
“I’m going to get to help everyone soon?” the spirit asked, its voice soft, smiling. I looked down. Randall had a glint of something black and sharp in his hand. The knife was no longer on his belt. “I get to embrace the world?” The spirit giggled softly. “I can’t wait. You’ll help me?”
“You know you can’t control that god,” Randall said. “Billions are going to die. You’re not strong enough. Even with all of these men… You’re going to be subsumed. You’re going to lose yourself in the power.” His eyes were hard as stone. “I’ve seen a thousand people like you, Mary. Every one of them died, consumed. We’re not gods. We can’t hold that kind of power.”
“I don’t wish to hold the power, Randall. I’m just going to give it some gentle guidance. And Nergal is so eager for it, aren’t you?” The creature let out a soft, high-pitched giggle. The moon was growing darker. “Only a few minutes left until totality. Any last words?” I looked down at the knife in Randall’s hand. My head pounded. Thumping, as though my air was being cut off. It was growing louder by the second as I tensed. I’d die, for certain, if I went for the knife. The question was how much good I’d do by cutting off the woman’s head, first. Maybe enough.
God, the thumping was getting unbearable.
“A dirty bomb.” The commissioner sat across from me, his face drawn. “You’re telling me that death-worshipping cultists have snuck fissile material into the middle of New York City, and plan to detonate it.”
“Yes, sir.” The fan spun slowly above the desk, as the old man sighed softly, his head resting on his hand. The National Guard Colonel sat in a desk off to the side, watching impassively. Both of them seemed, frankly, a lot more dismissive than I thought was entirely fair. I had come into the office on the morning of the attack, only to find the Commissioner on the verge of giving up all hope. He was exhausted. Weeks of dealing with a major plague could do that to you.
“That you found out about because of a connection with one of their financiers. Something that none of our counter-terrorism units have heard a peep about. In the middle of Manhattan. That hasn’t even pinged a single Geiger counter in the city. And which they are going to detonate while the city is almost completely depopulated, and already suffering from the plague.” I opened and closed my mouth a few times. The commissioner leaned forward, his fingers tented. “Dane, what in the name of God has lead you to think that this is the time for jokes, or pranks? What the hell are you even trying to achieve? I had my ass grilled up and down by the Mayor after your little escapade in the east side, with that mummified corpse. What in the hell-”
“Mummified?” asked the Colonel, frowning.
The commissioner rested his hand on his head. “Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. Yes, Colonel. The city has had some… unusual activity, lately. Dane, here, and a handful of others, are part of what we call the… Neighborhood Watch. Dealing with-”
“You’re the source of that former Ateroleum thrall, then? We heard a few reports about one.”
The commissioner and I stared. “How do you know…?” I started, and the colonel gave me a cool look. His hair was shaved, leaving a bare skull visible. His eyes were muddy brown, and his emotions were equally clear.
“Classified. Officer Larson, we’re here to help. Perhaps you’d like to tell us what is really going on, here?”
I took a deep breath. It wasn’t as though they could believe me any less. “The Church of the Survivor is going to summon an ancient Babylonian plague-god into the center of the city, and infect the entire world.”
“Jesus Christ, Dane, how drunk have you been getting-” the commissioner started.
“Nergal?” The Colonel asked.
“I… Yeah. I think so.” The colonel nodded.
“I would recommend that you not interfere. We’ll observe the situation, and if necessary, we will act.” The colonel sat back, his arms crossing.
I stared. “Does that mean you’re going to do something, or…” I tried to unclench my jaw, but still spoke through gritted teeth. “What do you mean, if necessary?”
“I mean that the choice to act or not will remain within my sole discretion.” His face was impassive. “There are greater priorities to this situation.” I stared, dumbfounded.
“What on earth could be more important than a plague god waking up in the middle of Central Park?” I asked, incredulously.
“I go to very great lengths to keep you from finding out the answers to exactly those questions, officer. Now, is there anything else?” he asked, completely unfazed as I stared at him.
“No.” I stood up, and prepared to storm out, feeling the bile building in the pit of my stomach. Then I stopped. “There’s one more thing. There’s this cat.”
The colonel stood up suddenly, his eyes widening. “Cat?”
The thumping wasn’t in my head. I stared, my mouth opening. “The bastard actually came through,” I whispered. Out over the reservoir, half a dozen lights were appearing, running lights on a set of helicopters. The churning beating of their rotors filled the air. From down below, bright spotlights filled the air, painting the force of rat-faced men with light. The helicopters began to circle overhead.
“Attention! This is the United States National Guard! If you do not drop your weapons immediately, we will cut you down where you stand! This warning is in deference to the fact that you have prisoners. If a single one of them is harmed, you are going to enter a world of unending pain and misery. Trust me when I say that your gods will not protect you.” The colonel’s voice boomed out across the park. I stared up at the sky.
“He really wasn’t fucking with me.” I muttered softly. It had been in my head, the entire time. That it was all some bizarre joke at my expense. That we were going into this fight with no backup. I hadn’t wanted to raise the hopes of the others without a sign of it being real. Around us, men in rat-nosed masks stood, uncertainty filling their features.
“Fight,” The Deacon said, her face drawn into a tight rictus of rage. One of the men raised their weapon, and fired. There was an awful sound, and I covered my ears tightly as John pulled the iron shield from one of the men who had grabbed us. It probably saved our lives from the shrapnel as it dragged the metal into its frame, leaving those of us within the circle of light unharmed. As the shield dropped, we stared. It wasn’t a pretty sight. It was mostly a waste of life. The Deacon lowered her head. “Nergal.”
“Yes?” Nergal asked. The creature sounded terribly sad, looking out across the group, with a frown on its face.
“Show these men the errors of their way.”
The dark creature looked up at the sky, its body bulging, growing muscular, flexing itself larger. The moon was entering totality. “You hurt my friends,” it roared, the sound of pain and wretched despair in its voice. Then, it brightened. “It’s okay. I’ll forgive you all. You’ll make such good new friends. I bet we’ll be sitting around and laughing about this, soon.” The creature’s arm rose into the sky like a pillar of black smoke, extending. “Let me into your hearts, and your eyes, and your skin, and your EAAAAAAAGH!”
The scream was horrible, filling the air as the creature’s arm was chopped off at the shoulder. It fell to the ground, evaporating into thick, wretched-smelling pools of miasma as it struck the earth. It turned around, grabbing at its shoulder, hissing with rage as its form shifted, growing a new arm to replace the slit one. We all stared at the figure stepping slowly into the pool of light. Golden bangles around one wrist, an elegant silk dress that hung down to her thighs, a bright necklace with rubies the size of bird eggs set in it. She stood, smiling, her skin dark, her teeth bright and shining, her eyes flashing, just outside of the ring of light. I’d seen her before, but now, she was a goddess of war and protection, standing in her full glory. “I’m terribly sorry I was late, everyone. I hope nobody was hurt.” Betty looked around, studying the bodies on the ground. “Nobody who I care about, at any rate. But I needed to make sure I looked right for this.”
“They were my friends.” Nergal whined, a frown painted on his childishly simple features. “Why do you have to do this, Bastet? Why can’t you just let me be?”
She laughed softly. “I’m going to torment you, Nergal. I’m going to pick the limbs off of your friends, one by one. I’ll savage them, cripple them, leave them helpless, until they can’t even endure your touch anymore.” Her eyes glittered, as she stepped backwards into the gloom. The only thing visible of her were those flashing eyes, and those bright teeth. “I’m going to make sure all of your friends die, Nergal. Then I’ll shove you back into the dark places, where you can’t touch anyone ever again. Everyone will forget about you.”
“You’re a monster.” Nergal whispered, bright white eyes widening.
“Yes. And I’m better at it than you, because I enjoy hurting things.”
“I’ll stop you.”
“Try it.” Betty lunged for the Deacon, as she spoke, and Nergal imposed himself between the two. Betty stepped back, grinning. “Do you want to stop me, Nergal? Do you want to save your friends? Better finish the job, this time. You’ll have to kill me!” The dark god lunged forward at the dark goddess, and she danced back further.
“No! You fool, she’s just trying to provoke you-!” the Deacon shouted, as Nergal lunged after Betty. Her warning fell on deaf ears. The two divinities disappeared into the darkness, leaving the Deacon standing, her teeth gritted. “You fools. I only wanted to save the world.”
Randall was staring down at the small tangle of rat-tails. “You know you couldn’t have done it, Mary. You didn’t have the spirit to change the nature of Nergal. The god would have entered the world, eager to embrace everyone he could. He wouldn’t have been able to show restraint. You’re too compassionate, really, for your own good. You wouldn’t be able to hold back from contact with others.”
Mary screamed with rage, growing, twisting, nails lengthening. She became the rat-thing from my nightmares. Randall was lifting the black knife I’d seen in his hand before, trying to defend himself, but the hideous thing was on top of him in a moment, the knife skittering to a half at my feet. She reached out to claw at him as I grabbed the knife, lifting it into the air, lunging. I was going to be too late to save him.
Then, Li dropped from above. One of her legs wound around one of the legs of the rat creature, the other around the creature’s waist. One of her arms went around the Deacon’s chest, and the other around her neck. The two stood still for a moment, locked together like lovers, an intimate embrace between two very frightening things. Every tendon on the Deacon’s inhuman body stood out, fighting with desperate strength against the hold. Then, Li squeezed. I decided I had experienced about as many horrific noises as I could accept in a single lifetime. I closed my eyes and jammed my fingers in my ears, which was good, because the Deacon didn’t die easily.
After a few seconds, I opened my eyes. Randall was stumbling back to his feet, Li helping him. The serpent girl looked over her shoulder at me, and smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry. I heard what she said, I thought it would be polite to give you the chance to kill her, but I had to protect Randall. I do hope that I haven’t cheated you out of some very important catharsis and a chance to overcome the inner demons that drive you.”
I looked down at the body. Eyes bulged, turned red. It looked like a rat that had been caught in the world’s largest, most inhumane rat-trap. “I think I’m just satisfied knowing she didn’t die well.” I suggested, checking over Randall. “I’m feeling a bit useless, though. It would’ve been nice if our little diversionary tactic had accomplished much of anything…”
“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Randall said, grinning, as he managed to get back to his feet, approaching me. I handed him the knife. “The Deacon had been planning on killing me. With Betty absent, she would’ve likely done it sooner had you not distracted her men. Li wouldn’t have stood a chance against Nergal.” He sighed softly, smiling. “And it appears that you were able to find the right people to talk to.” The Colonel marched up the hill from where his helicopter had landed, his face impassive as he approached us.
The ball of rat-tails sat on the ground. I looked up. The moon was almost at its darkest point. It had turned a ferocious, bloody red, sickly and shadowed. I licked my lips slowly. “So… Do we shoot it, or…”
“That tangle of rat tails is the stuff of gods.” Randall explained. “It is the actual body of that thing we saw before. The black phantasm is more of, shall we say, a manifestation of its thoughts. That is why it is so difficult to kill. Much like Horace’s house-Lar, it is not the whole of the thing. This is relatively fragile.” He held out the black knife, and sawed through the tails. They cut reluctantly, but eventually, he hefted it. I stared down at the small ball of rat-tails. “Our time is limited. When totality arrives, the god will manifest fully. I need to destroy this.” He stared down at it.
“What are you waiting for?”
“I was just… thinking. Of all of the people who I met over the years who attempted to summon gods, because they thought they could control them. Because they thought they could take that divine power for their own. Every one of them who tried found themselves corrupted by it, devoured in seconds, becoming nothing more than a new avatar for the god. All of their good intentions could not overcome the nature of the god. They were fools, every one of them. That is why the Order of Set was so focused on divinity, and the reminder that humans are not divine. We are not gods. We are less. We cannot use their power. We can only succumb to it, or do our best to hold it back.” He stared down at the knife.
I shook my head. “Sounds like a wise group to me. What would make someone think that they could get away with something like that?”
“Oh, many things. The reason they risked it was because they wanted power, or respect, or the ability to protect the people they cared about. But the real heart of it is that each one of them thought they were special. More special than anyone else. That they, and they alone, could do what nobody else could.” He twirled the knife slowly between his fingers. “But you know, they were wrong.”
“They weren’t me.”
And then, he swallowed the bundle of rat tails, choking it down before any of us could react. And a second sun blossomed into life in the sky.