I can’t say that I am prone to self-examination. I have lived a very long time, which is itself proof of my skill. I am First, and I am Cat, and these things are sufficient to overcome almost any obstacle in my way. The handful of times when I have found myself defeated, I returned to my human, settled down to receive affection and grow stronger, and then proceeded to murder whatever had embarrassed me. It was very difficult to kill me, so long as I had a human. But Horace had a rather frustrating lack of confidence in me. “You know what your job is, Horace. Why are you going through this? How can you even trust this man?”
The three of us stood on the city-streets. The homeless man’s face was badly ruined by disease, but his body language was contrite. “I trust Harold. He’s always been a good person, and I think that he’s saner than the others who got hit with the plague.” I frowned, my eyes narrowed as I studied the man. He didn’t wear one of the rat-face masks that the cult seemed to favor, but I wasn’t pleased with this at all.
“Look, I’m sorry about getting Horace in trouble. I didn’t realize the kind of insane things that the church was up to.” The man looked crestfallen, which was an impressively elaborate expression considering the damage that the disease had done to his extremities. “I want to try to help how I can. I’ve got keys to the clinics, I can help him get in and out, and we can get the footage that he says you need. I know it might be hard to trust me, but…” Horace nudged Harold’s side. “Oh! Horace said that this would help.” He reached into a pocket of his dirty overcoat, and withdrew a plastic-wrapped package. He handed it to me. I slowly opened the plastic, and the rich smell of tuna filled the air. I delicately removed the top slice of bread from the sandwich, and tried a bit of the fish. It tasted excellent. That seemed to settle it, he must be trustworthy.
“Very well. You seem to have a good heart. I will trust you, for now. But if I detect even a hint of ill intent towards Horace, I will gobble you up, bones and all.”
“She’s just joking, Harold… I think.” Horace patted the man’s shoulder. “But Betty-” He looked around the small alley-way. “How in the hell did you even know that I was here?” he asked, frowning suspiciously. My eyes flickered down to the medallion around his neck, and I couldn’t stop the guilt from flashing across my face. He looked down slowly, and frowned. “Oh, I really should’ve seen that coming. You’ve been spying on me? This whole time, you’ve been keeping an eye on everything that I do while wearing this thing?” He shook his head. “I’d be a lot more pissed about this if you hadn’t saved my life multiple times, Betty.”
“I know.” My ears were flattened against my head as I looked down, chastened. I was doing it for his own good, but…
“Look, just- We’ll discuss your trust issues later on. Alright?” He patted the medallion. “Have you been watching me the entire time?”
“No. I need to actually focus on it, and it only alerts me if you’re undergoing powerful emotional reactions of fear. Like when the Lar girl tried to strangle you.”
“So you saw…”
“If you sleep with her before me, I’m going to hate you forever,” I stated primly. “I don’t accept anyone’s castoffs.”
“Betty, I will gladly indulge in romantic comedy and all of the rest of that kind of interpersonal fun when the world isn’t on the verge of being destroyed. You need to go and save everyone. This plan doesn’t stand a chance in hell without you, okay?” He rested his hands on my shoulders, and squeezed me. I was not usually one for letting someone else invade my personal space. I preferred to be the one to initiate such contact. But the way he was holding me, it felt like he thought the entire world was about to fall apart. He had the sort of desperate grip that humans got when they thought they were going to lose something they loved. That made me feel a little bit better about his little agreement with the house Lar.
“Alright. I have one more stop that I need to make.” I saw his confusion. “Oh, just a little something that I haven’t worn in a long time.” I smiled brightly. “If I’m going to be the hero of the day, I need to dress appropriately for it, after all.” I laughed softy. “It’s been such a long time since I’ve been anything but a stray cat. I’m going to be visiting the museum, first.” I grinned brightly, and then wrapped my arms around him, squeezing him back. I licked his cheek gently, and he blushed. “Don’t be afraid. I’m going to make everything alright.” His arms dropped, and I scampered away into the darkness.
I could feel the arcane tension. The city had been depopulated by this point, healthy humans no longer in control. The unpleasant resonance of the cult was thrumming through the streets like a mosquito’s wings, whining and sawing at my nerves. I walked through the streets, wearing one of Horace’s shirts, making my way down to the museum. Horace had mentioned visiting it recently, and it had reminded me of what I kept there. It had been decades since I’d last worn it. Just the thought of wearing it again brought a smile to my lips. The upstart disease god had beaten me the last time. I’d underestimated him, and I’d forgotten how weak I’d become over the decades of neglect. I was going to rip his whining head off for that.
I stepped into the museum’s lobby, deftly sidestepping the security guards as I made my way into the building. I could feel the humming energy within the building. All of the power that had been gathered here, spending the last sixty years dormant and weakened, finally awakening. The world was going to become very interesting if it didn’t die. Thinking about that, I padded carefully through the endless rows of sleeping artifacts, until I found the mannequin which held my vestments.
They were not, so far as I knew, magical. They had simply acquired a certain divinity from their connection with me, drinking my power in. It was how they could survive the things I put them through. In the time while I was without an owner, I’d left them here, in a museum, where they’d been viewed as wonders. I reached out, gently pulling the bangle off of the mannequin’s wrist. An alarm began to ring, but I didn’t particularly care. My dominance over this world had been challenged by the upstart, Nergal. I was going to show him what a terrible idea it was to do so. I licked my lips, glee filling me. I would not say that I am a cruel being, but everyone has their vices, and mine was victory. I was going to tear the plague spirit to ribbons, scatter his followers, and protect my world. And I would exult in the praise of those who knew what I did.
I took one last moment to lift Horace’s shirt, burying my nose in the fabric. It smelled warm, the distinct odor of the human heavy on it. It was a comforting smell, reminding me of him. His kindness there to buoy my spirits when I began to fall back into old thoughts. But I didn’t need to be merciful today. I removed the shirt, dropping it to the ground, and began sliding my vestments on. They’d been cleaned, it seemed, no sign of the blood that had once stained them, marring the perfect gold, and turning the blue silk black. The rubies glittered, but not as beautifully as when they’d been bathed in the blood of some enemy or another. I would change all of that, soon. I could feel the old instincts flooding back into me.
Perhaps the oily things had been right. Spending so long as a house cat, it was easy to forget what I was. Being fed, not having to hunt for myself, maybe it made me rusty. But it had learned the hard way that even with rust on my joints, the First Cat wasn’t to be dismissed. And fighting with a human behind me made me into a terror that would give even Nergal pause. The world had forgotten the debt it owed me. It would remember once I carried the head of the plague god through its streets. If the creature actually had a head.
I sprinted down the hall and leapt through a window without slowing, glass shattering and turning to dust against my skin. I landed easily on all fours, wearing my divine vestments, dressed to kill. I stalked across the road, ignoring the traffic as people honked. I entered the park, and exulted in my natural habitat. Grass, trees, the scent of water.
Humans feared the forest. They always had. Their cities were designed to protect them, to take away the places that camouflaged their predators. And yet, they couldn’t shake their attraction to the very thing that frightened them. They made a home for predators in the heart of their sanctuary. I had always been fascinated by that. When I had to kill people, I had always seen that last little flash of admiration. They way their eyes widened, and the desire they felt for me. They tried to subvert me, to make me theirs. It didn’t work, of course, but it made life so satisfying to see the way they loved me, even when they died.
Then, there was the thumping. I looked up, frowning. Large black machines soared overhead, wind rushing through the trees as they made their way towards the reservoir. I sped up, running. The eclipse wasn’t far away. I didn’t have time to play around. I was getting lost in the anticipation, falling into old habits, stalking and toying with my prey. I thought of Horace. If I didn’t hurry, he would be in danger. I raced up the hill and watched from beyond the fence.
I was nothing more than a shadow in the night as I watched the soldiers announce their ultimatum to the cult. The men of the cult looked to their leader, who sacrificed them carelessly. The men of the cult died in droves. A bullet struck me in the arm, and I licked the small contusion it left. I saw the plague deity, raising its arm. And I cut it, and cut him, and taunted him, and then drew away, making him follow me. I danced backwards along the path. Bright white lights shined down, as the black thing followed me.
“Betty! Why won’t you let me help you?!” Nergal called, chasing me, his cartoonish white eyes flickering.
“I don’t need your help, Nergal. This world, and all of its people, are mine. I protect them alone, and I can’t imagine that I’d ever need your particular brand of aid.” I looked around. We were getting further away from the focus, and its power. The plague-thing was growing thinner, more transparent. He was too far from his source. I stopped, my claws shining in the air as I lowered my stance. My tail stuck out straight, balancing me in my crouched position, my tendons tightening like steel cables. The plague god looked down at me, a pitying expression on its face.
“Betty… You’re always so lonely. Fighting all on your own. Not having anyone to support you. I’m not like that. I know that I can’t do it alone. I’m surrounded by so many people who could be my friends. So many people who could make me strong. Why can’t you accept help? If we worked together, we could protect so many people, you know. Some of them would die from my touch, but you could help to keep as many from dying as possible. We could work together, and protect this world. Why won’t you give me a chance to be your friend, Betty?”
The creature lunged, and my claws slid out. A gash opened in it, and black putrescence spilled out across the ground. I stepped back, avoiding the contagious filth. I smiled. “I don’t need your friendship. I don’t need billions of worshipers. I have a single human, and it is more than enough.” I laughed, a high, cruel sound, urging the creature to make another wild attack. He obliged, and I put out one of his eyes with a razor-nailed thumb. He howled, and I spun around his blind side, leaping onto his back. My clawed fingers dug into the creature’s shoulder, securing my hold as I kicked and clawed, ripping open the creature’s back. I jumped free before any of the black blood could land on me, smiling. “Even as we speak, a handful of my friends are killing your priestess. They will soon destroy your focus. You’re nothing to me, Nergal.” The creature stared at me, its eyes wide, uncomprehending. “You’ve lost.”
“I don’t know about that, Bastet. I think I’m about to make a great new friend.” And with that, he vanished, leaving me standing in the path. Something had to have happened to the focus, to remove his manifestation like that. I looked up at the moon. It was growing darker.
Then, there was a flash of light, and my vision went white. I screamed, covering my eyes, as tears streamed down my cheeks, my head pounding. I managed, after a moment, to open my eyes. Divine power repaired my damaged retinas, as I stared. The city was being lit brightly by the sun, hanging in the sky. Prominences leapt and danced around it. It was blood red, and gave a sickly radiance to everything. I could feel the sickening touch of the plague god. And I cursed Randall Creed, because somehow, I knew that this had to be his fault. None of the others could have screwed things up as thoroughly as he had. So I sprinted for the ritual site.
I passed dozens of men in uniforms, lying on the ground, struggling to breathe. Pustules of plague grew from their throats and armpits, where they were visible. Other, more exotic diseases were also in evidence. The touch of the diseased sun was filling them with sickness. I jumped over them, hoping I wasn’t too late. I thought momentarily of Horace, and hoped that he was somewhere safe. I couldn’t feel the medallion. The magic of the sun was interfering with it, leaving only a sense of dis-ease.
I broke through the tree line, and stared at the tableau in front of me. Dane and her Neighborhood Watch, on the ground, writhing in pain and filled with contagion. The Deacon’s body, rat-like, transformed, and thoroughly dead, lying across the floor. Li Xue Zi standing, her arms up, hands balled into fists, facing the man responsible for it all.
Randall was standing stock-still, his back straight. His fists were clenching and unclenching, his body twisting from side to side. His head was gone. In its place was a swollen black balloon, with a cartoonish set of white eyes and a jagged half-circle on it. It was smiling. Nergal turned towards me, and laughed. “See, Bastet? I’ve got so many friends in the world. I can feel them now. Even this one! He welcomed me into his heart. He wanted power, to protect the world. He wanted it so badly he was willing to risk everything to do it! And now, I know everything that he did!” The old man flicked out his hand, and a black knife appeared between his fingers. “His body’s old, but it’s strong. I’ve got shape, now. I’ve got power. I am a God, Bastet, greater than you could ever be. And I’m going to do what he wanted. I’m going to protect the world. And I’m going to tear your heart out!”
He moved faster than I could. In a moment, he was in front of me, the knife coming down in one hand. I had an advantage, because where he had just lunged forward ten feet, I only had to lift my arms. He still almost beat me to it. My wrists crossed above my head, catching his hand. The impact was like an avalanche, and I nearly buckled under the pressure. His other hand came in under my guard, and hammered into my stomach. I felt the explosion of nausea as I rolled back, hopping back to my feet unsteadily. I could barely stand. The blow had been terrifyingly strong, and suddenly, I was feeling very alone.
Li Xue Zi appeared out of nowhere from behind him. Her arms slid around the old man’s throat and his chest, tensed. “If you do not release my master, foul god, I will break every bone in his body.”
Nergal laughed. “Oh, come on, snake-y.” His voice changed, from the sing-song, childish tenor of Nergal, to Randall’s own calm, dispassionate voice. “You know you would never hurt me. Think of all the good times we’ve had together. You couldn’t hurt me, could you?”
“You are not my master. You are simply inhabiting his body. I am under no obligation to you.” Li’s arms tensed, muscles standing out in the kimono, as she squeezed with all of her might. Nergal laughed, and bent his head forwards, before hammering it back. Li let out a shriek of pain as she stumbled back, her nose twisted, streaming blood.
“You silly little spirits. What are you fighting for? Dominance? Power? Glory? I’m fighting to save the world. I’m the hero of this story. I’m not going to be defeated by you.” He grinned. “Come on, I’ll prove it. Go ahead. Attack me.” He turned to the side, facing away from us. I narrowed my eyes. He was challenging me. Provoking me. Deliberately. I decided to surprise him, by falling for the ruse hook, line, and sinker. I leapt forward, my nails glittering as they slashed through the air.
With one arm, he parried every strike from me, not even turning to face me. “You’re a selfish, hateful creature, Bastet.” He caught my wrist, arresting the motion of a slash for his spine. Then, with lightning speed, he spun around, pulling my arm out to full extension. His other fist struck the back of my elbow, and with a sickening crack, my arm flexed the wrong way. I let out a scream of pain. It hurt, badly. I hated the pain. I hated him. I hated the weakness in my body. I hated Randall for what he had done. I hated the humans for not being strong enough to stop this. I hated Horace for not being there to protect me. I hated him for being too weak to save me from this. I hated him for being off, doing something more important.
And more than anything else, with a passion that made all my other emotions seem pale and shadowed by comparison, I hated myself for being so weak. I fell to my knees as Randall, or Nergal, stood over me. “Don’t worry. I’m going to embrace your human, too. I’ll take care of him. After all, Randall’d hate it if something happened to his nephew.”
“You will not touch- Glrk!” Li had rushed at the man. With contemptuous ease, Nergal had flicked out a hand. I’d seen many fighters try to use knife-hand strikes. It usually did little to an opponent. In a best case scenario, it might stun an enemy. In Li’s case, it had collapsed her throat, leaving her choking on the ground. I could see the cartilage repairing itself already, but she wasn’t going to be standing up for a while. Nergal smiled, as he held out the black knife.
I jumped to my feet, lunging at him, trying to slash open his belly with a kick. He dodged easily, his elbow colliding with my knee. He stabbed the knife deep into my leg, and I felt a sudden weakness. He lifted my leg, overbalancing me, sending me to the ground. I could feel the blood dripping onto the silk dress. It was my own. That wasn’t the way this was supposed to happen.
“You two are awfully resilient, you know that? But I’ll be honest, Bastet, you’ve pissed me off, and snake, you don’t seem like you’re going to be willing to bend your knee to me. So I’m afraid I’m going to have to kill the two of you first.” He looked up, smiling. “You know, I can’t see that human of yours. I guess he’s hiding, somewhere safe. Out of view of the sun. Maybe the two of you should have asked him to save you. Maybe he could have. But really, what are the odds of that? He always was a useless one. Don’t worry, Bastet. I’ll take care of him. Much better care than you did.” He lifted the knife, and I thought of Horace.
I could feel him. My eyes opened, and I stared into the shade beneath the tree. Horace stepped forward, under the sun. There wasn’t any sign of sickness on him. I felt a moment of hope. Then, Nergal looked up. “Well, nephew.”
“We had a plan, uncle. We could have saved the world.” He was holding the Webley pistol in one hand, raising it to face the man who had been his uncle. “Why did you do it?”
“It’s not-” Li choked out, and then screamed, as Nergal kicked her in the ribs, hard enough to leave her chest partially concave as she writhed on the ground.
“Little snakes are meant to be seen and not heard,” Nergal said, with Randall’s voice. “Because I saw the chance for real power. I saw the chance to make a difference. I saw that I could be powerful. You know how it feels to be powerless. Imagine it, Horace. The power of a god, but being put to good use. It was all I ever wanted.” He laughed. “I could share some of it with you. Perhaps, if you bring that cat of yours to heel, I’ll even let her live. The two of you could have a good life. She could be your pet. Wouldn’t that be nice? We can be gods.”
Horace’s face was still. Then he pulled the trigger. There was a crack of the trigger striking the barrel. That was all. The magic in the weapon had died with its victory. I felt my heart sink. Nergal ran forward, and grabbed Horace, slamming the young man against a tree with Nergal’s fingers tangled in his shirt. Horace grunted, as Nergal raised a fist.
“Just out of curiosity,” he asked, his voice a sing-song, “How did you know I wasn’t your uncle?”
“He didn’t think being a god was a good thing. Is he still alive?”
“Oh, no. I hollowed him out. There’s nothing left of him. I’m sorry I had to do that, but he was much too stubborn a person. He never would have been able to share a body with me. Maybe you’ll be more pliable, though.” Black putrescence surrounded Nergal’s fist, and I screamed, trying to stand, as he struck Horace full in the face.
Horace stood still. The fist had pulled to the left, taking a chunk out of the tree. “Sorry,” Nergal said jovially. “New body. Still getting used to the kinks.” He pulled his arm back, and struck again. His arm pulled to the right at the last second, and even as Horace shook, Nergal cursed. “Damn it! Stay still!” He struck again, and his fist stopped, an inch from Horace’s face. “God damn stubborn old fool-” Nergal screamed, and then his fist collided with his own face, cracking into his jagged white mouth with a wet, meaty sound.
“Uncle!” Horace stepped away from the tree, wincing. Randall was on the ground, gasping, as he struggled back to his feet. The black bulbous head was twisting, and Randall’s stern features were barely visible underneath it, like a face pressed into the side of a balloon.
“Nephew- You’ve got to get them out of here- I can’t-” There was a hideous scream, as Randall stumbled to his feet, lunging at Horace. The young man sidestepped him, as Randall fell to the ground. “Please- Get safe- I’m going- to come for you- You need-”
“Uncle! Please! You can do this!” Randall sank to his knees, grabbing his uncle’s shoulders, as I grabbed Li with my good arm, carrying the choking snake towards Horace. “You stubborn old son of a bitch, you got yourself into this mess! You always told me that any mess you had the brains to get into, you had to have the guts to get back out of!” The young man shook his uncle’s shoulders, as the man wretched and writhed, black filth dripping from between his lips.
“It’s too late!” I shouted, grabbing Horace, as Randall rose to his feet. Nergal’s face took on a bright, wide smile, his arms raising, opened wide, as though to embrace us. Randall’s features disappeared below the writhing surface. Horace turned towards Li and I, his arms wrapping around us. He whispered something, and there was a sudden flash.
We were in the apartment. I felt my arm repairing itself as I sank onto my knees. The House Lar stood in the center of the apartment, her hands on her hips. “What the hell happened?” she asked, staring at the three of us. The curtains were drawn, but bright red light was visible around the edges, sickly and bloody, twisting and writhing as though it was trying to sneak into the room.
“Randall tried to seize the power of the god,” Li managed, her voice rough, as she massaged her throat. “It overpowered him. Consumed him. The god is getting stronger by the moment.”
“And it also wants to kill us,” I stated. “Luckily for us. It will come to attack us. And we need to be ready for it. If we can’t beat it, now, then it’s going to consume everyone.” I stood up, and then fell, cursing, my vision flashing. The black pain in my thigh was spreading. Whatever that knife was, it had hurt me, badly. I crawled over onto the couch, curling up on it, my arms crossing under my head, as I purred loudly, trying to hold the pain at bay.
“This is our last chance.” Horace said softly. “We’ve got to stop him, before this gets any worse.”
Phoebe was still giving Horace an appraising look. “You managed the spell. And with two others alongside you.”
He looked slightly confused, then realized what she was saying. “Yeah, I… Huh. I did.”
“That should not technically have been possible. I was only pulling you through. If Betty and the snake came with you, it means that you were carrying them along with your own power.” She crossed her arms, studying him suspiciously. “I wouldn’t have expected that of you. It is… surprising.”
“But what does that mean?” Horace asked, frowning. “I mean, can I use it to stop him, or to save my uncle-”
There was a knock at the door. Every one of us turned our heads. Phoebe smiled. “I suspect you are about to find out.”