I was always the black sheep. My brother was kind-hearted, smarter than me, more athletic. All I had was my anger, and my ambition. But he didn’t mind that. In fact, I think that was part of what he liked about me. I had the passion to get things done when he would have let bygones be bygones. He never said it, but when we wound up in a fight, there was glee in his expression. I gave him an excuse to not be a good person. He needed that. And in exchange… He cared about me. He believed in me. He told me that I would do great things.
He was right, wasn’t he? Everyone needs a friend. That’s why I’m so glad I have you, Randall.
Shut up. Why are you here?
Because you invited me in. You wanted my power. And now you have it. Of course, you also have my mind.
How did you do it?
I was stronger than you. You’re not a god, Randall.
“Well, you two boys are in quite some trouble, aren’t you?” The gray-haired man stood outside of our cell. He smiled indulgently. His jacket was exquisite, and he wore a Stetson fedora. One of his eyes was covered with a black silk patch, and there was a scar visible down across the length of his cheek. He leaned heavily on a cane. “Celebrating the bar exam, and you wind up knifing the mayor’s son. A dozen witnesses identifying you as the culprits. Quite an embarrassing peccadillo.”
Oliver stood up, frowning. “Those dozen witnesses were the thugs that were kicking the crap out of me. My brother did it to save my life.”
“Oh, and I’m sure that the judge who plays golf with the mayor every week will take that into consideration. You two picked a fight with someone you shouldn’t have. Over…” He studied the warrant. “An argument over a woman, hmmm?”
“He shouldn’t have done that to Iris,” I whispered, my eyes hard as I finally looked up at the man. His blue eyes were glimmering, as he rested his head against his fist. “I know what the bastard did. He was smug about it. He deserved worse than he got.”
“And that, too, doesn’t matter. And on such a promising night, too…” He smiled. “Your futures are very uncertain, boys. But thankfully, there’s a place in the world for those who don’t fit in. It’s on the borders, where violence, roughness, and tempestuous tempers have their place. Tell me, do you boys believe in God?”
“I can’t say that I do, no.” I frowned. “What are you getting at, old man?”
Do you believe in God now?
I’ve never met the guy.
Ahahah. Yes, I heard about that movie. I enjoyed it quite a lot. Maybe I’ll watch it with your nephew while he recovers from the plague.
Half a dozen of us stood in the rifle range. The old man ran a finger across the eye-patch. “Knowledge is the greatest weapon that we have. It is in knowing our enemy that we learn their weaknesses. It is very difficult to kill something if you don’t know its anatomy, and it is nearly impossible to predict them if you don’t know their mind.” He waved a hand at the range. “A shot that would kill a human will do nothing against a demon of wind and fire. And if you should find yourself faced with a god, there are few ways to survive the encounter. It is my sincerest hope that none of you ever find yourself needing to kill one.”
“But they can be killed?” I asked, frowning.
“Oh, yes. Everything can be killed with determination, Randall. That is the nature of our organization. We kill the things that threaten. We were there when the meat-grinder of the Great War nearly brought forth Bloody-handed Sek. We drove him back into the darkness between worlds with the help of the Protector. We were there when the Germans brought forth the bones of the Norse, and nearly brought Ragnarok down on the world. With the help of the Protector, we defeated them.”
“The Protector?” I asked, frowning.
“Oh, yes. The Goddess. Bastet. Pray that you never meet her. She is an ally, but she is a careless one. When she is forced to intervene in the affairs of the mortal world, our men die. She is a wild thing, lethal and without compunctions. When she fights… Men die.” The trainer smiled. “You are not a god, Oliver. Don’t try to fight on their level. What we can accomplish is to stop things from reaching the point where a being like the Goddess must intervene, or placing our thumb on the scales to help the devil we know.”
“There has to be something more that we can do.” I complained, frowning.
“Know your limits, Randall. Be satisfied with them. Now, there are certain weapons that can cut short the life of even an immortal. If you can learn how to use these…”
You’ve always wanted to be more, haven’t you?
Have you ever been weak, Nergal? Have you ever known there was nothing that you could do? That you couldn’t even begin to save someone? Not because you didn’t know what to do, but because you simply didn’t have the power?
No. I’m a god! Even when I’m alone, I am far stronger than you. That’s why I want to protect you humans. You need that help so badly!
“What do we do with it?” I asked, holding the black knife. The snake huddled in its kimono, leaned over the old priest. He was lying in his bed, his eyes closed. The snake aped the form of a human, with pale white hair and pale, fine skin. Its chest heaved as it sobbed. No tears fell from its red eyes. Oliver was staring at the scene, transfixed. The old man had died of a heart attack. We’d heard reports of a demon terrorizing the people who had tried to visit the shrine. There was no question that it was the small figure in front of us. Its cheek was cut open, dripping red blood from a wound that wasn’t healing like it was used to. It must have been the first time it had ever met someone who could defeat it.
“We can’t just kill it.” Oliver said, frowning.
“The hell we can’t. It’s a White Snake. You know why it’s so tough? It stole the immortality that belonged to a human by right. It’s alive because that man there is dead.” I took out the flask. Inside, the elixir shimmered. My ribs still ached from where the snake had delivered a brutal bear hug. I took a sip of the elixir, and felt better. The stuff was something that the Order of Set used, to make its members stronger. To restore youth. To help them heal. But it seemed to get a little weaker every year, the power dripping out of the stuff. The same way it was dripping out of the world
“What’s your name?” Oliver asked, kneeling down next to the figure. The snake hissed, its tongue slipping out between its lips, forked.
“Li Xue Zi. It means…”
“Yeah. I know what it means.” He looked at the old monk. “You’re sorry about how he died, aren’t you? You didn’t realize what it meant, when you ate the pills.” The snake shook its head. “We’re not going to kill Li, Randall. We’re taking the snake back with us.” He looked down at Li Xue Zi. “You’re immortal, and powerful. That means you’ve got a responsibility. You need to make up for what you’ve done, right?” He smiled. “I’ll offer you the chance to do it. Help protect me and my brother, the way you protected the priest, and we’ll take care of you.” He held out his hand. “Deal?”
The small figure reached out, and gently took his hand. They squeezed gently. I saw a brief vision of my fingers lashing out, striking Li’s throat. The snake collapsing to the ground, choking and gasping, and my boot connecting with that delicate rib-cage.
I didn’t want to hurt her, you know. I don’t want to hurt anyone. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t.
It doesn’t mean anything to me. I couldn’t stop you if I wanted to, and I know that it’ll recover. Maybe it’ll kill me.
Then, I saw the flash. Li’s arms around my rib-cage, squeezing tight, like they had before. But no harm being done. The snake struggling with everything it had. Well, so much for that hope.
There’s no hope left for you to win. But that’s okay. You helped me to win. You’re a hero. And now, I’m going to protect everyone. And I’ll even get revenge for you.
My brother lay on the ground in the temple. The gods had taken their fight elsewhere. He looked up at me, his eyes empty, as he choked on his own blood. I pressed the flask to his lips. He swallowed the elixir. It didn’t do anything. He coughed, and blood ran down his lips. His chest was a mass of gore. He was missing two limbs. The elixir could only keep him alive for a little bit longer. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Oliver.” Tears were running down my cheeks as the only person who’d ever really believed in me bled to death under my fingers.
“It’s your fault, Randall,” he whispered. “But I forgive you. Alright? Just- Take care of Iris. And my boy. He needs someone to show him his way in the world. Someone to protect him from ever having to find out the things that we did. I believe in you.” He smiled. And then he died. Lying there, among the corpses of the team. A dozen good men dead. I heard footsteps, and looked up, grabbing the black knife. If the thing that had fought the Protector was back- But it was just the Protector. She was nude, and it might have almost been a pleasant sight, except for the blood that stained her, thick yellow curds that dripped down her skin. Her nails gleamed like knives in the twilight, as she looked down on me dispassionately.
“You alright?” she asked.
“My brother’s dead.”
“Mmm.” She stared out across the corpses, giving no sign that she was bothered. “Are you able to get back to civilization alright?”
“I… Aren’t you listening? He’s dead! Don’t you even care? He died trying to help you! He died-”
“Did he?” she asked, frowning. “I didn’t ask him to do that. I didn’t need his help. Look, I’m sorry.” She wasn’t. “But a lot of people die in this business. He was just one of many.” She waved a hand. The corpses on the floor. The members of the Order of Set, the Cambodian blood-mages who had summoned whatever that thing had been. “The world’s safe. That’s all I can offer you. Good luck.” She turned on her heel, striding away.
“They wanted to kill you, you know. You were the reason why they summoned this thing. They wanted to get rid of you. My brother died because he wanted to save your life!” I shouted after her. She didn’t turn. She just kept walking, into the darkness.
She can be horrible, can’t she?
I hated her. For being so powerful, and so careless. If I had that kind of power, I could protect everyone. But of course, we’re not gods. We’re only men. Weak. Pitiful. Powerless.
That’s right! But it’s okay to be weak and powerless, because you care, and you can make spirits strong. Look at how strong you’ve made me! Bastet couldn’t even lay a finger on me. That’s all thanks to you, Randall! Because you believed in me. I was pretty frightened when I realized Bastet was coming after me again! And she had a human. That made her strong, you know? I was so scared that I wouldn’t be able to protect any of my friends, but then you took on my power! And I promise that I’ll make you proud.
“It should have been you.” Iris whispered. She was beautiful. Her hair the color of flax, her eyes blue, her arms crossed over her pregnant stomach. I agreed with her, of course. Tears were running down her cheeks, as she sat on the small bench, the two of us bathed with the warm sun. She was sobbing softly. “Did it even mean anything? Did he do anything worthwhile by dying?”
“He saved the world,” I lied. “If it weren’t for him… I wouldn’t be alive. We’d be dying, slowly.” Oliver hadn’t been young when he’d married Iris. The two of them had experienced a rocky, fraught relationship. I had always thought I could do a better job. I’d wanted to. But I couldn’t change who she loved. Even if I could, I wouldn’t have. “The Order’s got a fair amount of money for these kinds of cases. You’ll be okay. I’ll be there for you.” I considered resting a hand on her shoulder. But I didn’t have the right. “I’m sorry. You’re right, it should have been me.”
She shook her head. “No. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.” She looked down at her stomach. “You know what he wanted to call him? Horace.” She shook her head, and I laughed.
“Sorry.” I said, seeing the look on her face. “It’s just… Damn. That’s so like him. Him and his god damn puns.” Horace, screaming, firing a gun that didn’t have any ammo at me. The look on his face as I grabbed him. The feel of my fist rushing to crush my nephew’s face and wrenching-
What? How did you do that?
Another punch. Another wrench.
Striking him again and stopping the blow. Directing it at my own chin. Struggling.
This is the way you thank me?! You useless, filthy, disgraceful-
I struggled. I could feel myself sinking. The madness tearing at me like insects under my skin
The old man with an eye-patch, lying on the hospital bed. His breathing wheezing. His age finally catching up with him. I rested a hand on his. “You’re the last of the Order, Randall.” He coughed, grinning. “Never would have thought you had it in you. Outlasted even me.” He sighed, holding up the elixir. “Useless now. Not as though there are any monsters left to fight. It’s all getting quiet out there, once again. The last time this happened, it lasted for nearly two hundred years. Two hundred years of peace and serenity for the world. It was a golden age.” He coughed again. “Take good care of things, won’t you, Randall?”
My bones were heavy. I was getting old. My hair turning white. The world was weighing down on me. I was going to die, in just a scant few years. But that was okay. I’d helped in my own way. And there was Horace. The world would turn out alright. I watched as the life drained out of the old man. He breathed, and the heart monitor began to let out a steady whine. It swelled until it deafened me, the green and black extending in my vision until it was all that
Randall, are you still there?
Hah, good. I smile, feeling the silence around me. The second sun, my symbol of power, shines down on the world. I can see everything illuminated by it. People lying in the streets, sickened. They will, a good number of them, recover. The humans will adapt. Many of them will die, which is sad. I don’t want humans to die. I couldn’t spread, I couldn’t become strong, without them. I could feel their desperate prayers being made to me, begging for salvation. And I could smell the human, the last scion of the house of Creed. He was the one who was responsible for the plan that had killed so many of my friends. Him, and that cat, and that snake. They’d turned people against me. I would make sure they paid for what they did.
The city was silent, as I walked through it. I smiled, spreading my arms wide. I could feel the sick around me. They were suffering, but it would make them stronger, and it made me stronger. I laughed softly as I walked out of the park, and onto the streets. Cars sat abandoned, people lying on the streets, stricken. The curious opening their shades, only to be afflicted as well. I was touching so many souls. I could feel their power surging into me.
Randall Creed had been a foolish man. He’d thought that he could use my power for his own goals. He’d welcomed me into his body, given me a direct link, an avatar into the world. He had thought, for a few minutes, that he was special. That as a human being, there was something about him that would give him the heroic willpower that he needed to overcome me. Of course, that was foolish. It was a story that humans told themselves to make themselves feel better about being powerless.
Bastet was waiting for me. She would be with her friend. In the heart of his power. I would kill the boy, first, take away his Hearth. Then the snake. And then, I would embrace Bastet, hollow her out. There was more than one way to skin a cat, and I was going to enjoy helping her experience them all. I had finally won. The world was mine. And regardless of what Randall had thought, I would be able to protect the world from the things that were coming. I would be strong. I wasn’t scared of Bastet. I wasn’t. Even though I was shaking. Even though my stomach wrenched at the thought of it. I stood outside the building.
“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 boy said. He was right, of course. I had been a bastard. Hopeless. Believing that it was all over. When had I stopped believing I had power? When had I lost faith in myself? I was Randall Creed. I was the last of the Order of Set. I was not a god. I was a man, and men can choose.
I shook my head. It had been a strange fit. Some last spasm of memory from what remained of Randall’s gutted personality. No human could hold the power of a god. They were small, limited things. They could hardly hold on to the power of their own belief. They certainly didn’t have the strength needed to hold the belief, the worship, the prayer of millions of their fellows. It would burn out their soul.
“Do you even have a soul, Uncle?” the boy asked, frowning at me. I laughed. Of course I didn’t. Souls were a childish sort of thought. He was rebellious. He would never obey. He tried to be good, but he couldn’t help his father’s nature. He defied me. And that delighted me, because if there was one thing I didn’t want, it was for my nephew to mindlessly follow my directions.
I groaned, sitting down, holding my black, slick head. It was throbbing with pain. It was strange. The memories were sharp. They cut into me as I studied them, making me burn and writhe. They were poisonous memories, things that were indigestible, that hurt into me as I tried to sort them. They were memories of Randall’s nephew.
The boy stood up, his fists clenched. “You’re the last of an ancient order of demon hunters who protected the world. You’ve got the loyalty of a supernatural demon who I’ve watched kill men with a squeeze of her hand. I know a psychotic house goddess, a group of cops who hunt monsters for sport on the weekends, and an actual protector deity. Together, you’ve got to damn well be able to do something! You can’t just let everything fade into the darkness like this! You always told me that men are the masters of their world! You can’t be willing to just let all of this happen!”
He was right, of course. I felt pride swell in my chest. He was right. When had I become so frightened of consequence? Of course it would be hard. It would be nearly impossible to defeat the god. To protect the world. But not impossible.
I gritted my teeth together. You can’t do this, Randall. I don’t know how you survived, but you’re just a human. You know what has happened to humans who try to take the power of the gods. This is your ending. You can’t win.
Nonsense. Humans are always doing what’s said to be impossible.
You’re nothing! A speck! A momentary existence! You are
I am Randall Creed. And I’m sick of lies, and believing I’m a victim in all this.
You are not powerful enough for this, human.
Of course I am. I always was. I was just frightened of the consequences of power. I was worried I wasn’t worthy. I was worried that I was just a useless old man. I was filled with guilt about what happened to my brother. I believed that he was the one who should have survived. I’ve acted shamefully. I was willing to let the world fall into destruction, just because I believed I wasn’t the right person to save it.
You can’t do this. It’s not fair. I was going to rule everything.
Life is not fair.
You said doom was inevitable! You said that even with my power, things would end! What does this change?!
I have your power, now. And I am better at this than you are.
And the voice in my head screamed as Nergal shrank away, locked in the darkness in my skull. I took a deep breath, and reached out. I could feel the sickness covering the world. I could withdraw it. Make them healthy again. I could feel the health of every person Nergal had touched. I drew the plague away from them, accepting the loss of power. I could take my time. I had the power I needed to accomplish this now. I didn’t have to compromise, ever again. I had all the strength I needed to succeed. I smiled, as I tore the black slime off of my face. The bright red sun in the sky dimmed, going dark, becoming the moon again.
It had been so many years since I was young, and vital. My hands were no longer thin and clawed. They were as fresh and strong as when I was 20. I took a deep breath, and didn’t cough my lungs out. I stretched my arms out to either side, grinning as I felt the strength surging in me. Youth, vitality, and power. I stood up, and walked up the stairs to my nephew’s apartment. I could feel the fresh strength in my limbs. The certainty. I rested my hand on the door, and knocked. After a few seconds it opened, and Li leapt at me. I checked the snake’s advance easily, feeling the strength of youth combining with a lifetime of training. “Hello to you too, Li.” I held the snake’s wrists in one hand, and checked its side. It was already mostly healed. “I’m glad you’re alright.”
“Mister Creed? But- How?”
I smiled, stepping into the apartment, tugging Li along behind me. My nephew stood in the center of the room, his fists clenched. The house-lar was watching me warily, a knife-block sitting on the counter next to her. Bastet lay on the couch, a black spiderweb of veins growing out from her leg where I had stabbed her. She was breathing hard, and watching me with a twisted expression. I could feel the loathing in her. I was a god, invading her turf. The two of us couldn’t live at the same time.
I turned towards Horace. “My boy.” I reached out, and he flinched. I rested a hand on his shoulder. “You know, I couldn’t have done this without your help. I’d lost all belief in myself. In my ability to save anyone. I thought I was just a useless old man. But you gave me a second chance. You gave me the confidence to try. I’m proud of you. Your father would be proud, too, if he could see you.”
“You’re…” Horace stared. “How?”
“The trick,” I explained, smiling, “is not to fear them.” I turned towards Betty, smiling softly. “I spent so long being afraid. Believing that we were really powerless. But it’s not true, is it, Betty? The truth is, you were the one who was powerless. If people didn’t believe in you, if they didn’t think they needed you, they wouldn’t, would they? You were always holding us back.” I stepped over her. “The world doesn’t have any place for you anymore.” She looked up at me, hatred in her eyes. I knew that I was right. It didn’t matter, of course, I wasn’t trying to persuade anyone. “You forgot the source of your power, didn’t you? You’re a protector, but you’ve lost touch with those you want to protect. You can’t bring yourself to be connected, because you think you’re superior.”
“What are you going to do now, uncle?” Horace asked, softly.
“Oh, spread the plague. Carefully. Gather power without killing. Maybe take a position of leadership. I’m powerful, now. I can make a real change in the world. I can make things better. I can help everyone. And I can turn back the forces that are threatening our world. A golden age that will never end.” I looked down at the goddess, in her gold and silk. “But first, because I am a human, I’m going to get revenge. I’m going to kill this goddamn cat.” I would make her pay for what she had done to my brother, all of those years ago. I couldn’t even remember what had happened there, in the stinking jungle. My memories were a hash. But I knew that she was responsible. I looked over at the group. “And are any of you going to stop me?”
Li crossed her arms, looking down, her face troubled. “It would be against the agreement I made with your bloodline.”
The house Lar looked at Horace, and back at me. “I don’t owe her any duty. Do as you please.” She saw the look Horace was giving her. “I am sorry, Horace. But I will not die to save the cat.”
I looked Horace in the eye. “It’s for the best, boy. She’s unruly. She’s dangerous. She’s a killer. She’s unpredictable. The world deserves a better protector.”
He returned my gaze. The boy knew how to stare me in the eye. I had the power of a god, and he still wouldn’t flinch away from me. “I can’t let you do this, Randall. I believe in her. I believe in what she’s done. I trust her. More than you.”
“That’s a damn shame, boy.”
I didn’t mean to strike him hard. But humans are fragile. I slammed my fist into his diaphragm, and he let out a choking noise, blood running out between his lips as he gasped for air. His ribs were cracked. I stood over him, shaking my head. “You and your father. You always believed that she was doing what was best for you. And look where it got you both.”