My body was aching, wracked with feverish chills. The knife had hurt badly. And it kept hurting. Being in the warmth of Horace’s home wasn’t helping. I was becoming disconnected. I could feel the world flowing like wax around me. It was becoming difficult to concentrate on what was happening. Memories were echoing in my head. I heard a crack, and shook free of a vision of people who had been dead for millenia.
Randall and Horace stood, facing each other. Horace’s arms were wrapped tightly around himself, blood dripping down his lips. Li had her hands over her mouth, her red eyes wide in horror. Phoebe had gone rigid, hand tensed into a fist. Randall shook his head slowly. “You’re tougher than I gave you credit for, nephew. I’m sorry I had to hit you. I always thought it was a terrible tool for someone to use for discipline.” He looked down at his fist, opening and closing it slowly. “You don’t learn anything from a fist. You just hate the person who struck you.” My head was pounding. My blood was rushing in my ears. My vision was turning red. The pain was gone.
“Yeah. But you always said I never learned anything from you anyway.” Horace raised his hands, balling them into fists. Blood was dripping down his shirt. “And I’m not going to let you hurt my cat.” He threw a clumsy punch, and cursed as he struck his uncle on the cheek. The older man’s hair was a rich black color, like coffee. He didn’t seem to even notice the blow, standing with his back straight and his eyes distant. The aura of malignant divinity clung around him as he towered over his nephew.
“I admire your spirit, boy. But think of the bigger picture. It’s in her nature to fight me. She can’t stand the thought of competition. She’s lazy, uncooperative, arrogant. She doesn’t care about people. She won’t be able to save the world.”
“I still believe in her more than you.” I watched as Randall clenched his jaw. His muscles stood out in the stained and ruined jacket. His back was no longer hunched, his spine had grown straight. He was humming with power, youthful energy, and rage. I tried to push myself to my feet, but it felt as though lead was filling my bones.
“You really know how to test me, Horace. I’ve got to say, you learned that from your father. I guess that you’re not my apprentice or my pupil anymore. You’ve really grown up. You’re an equal. And I’m going to treat you like one.” Randall’s fist barely seemed to move. There was the slightest suggestion of a blur, and Horace was doubled over, wheezing, clutching his stomach. “Your father could hold his own in a fight against me, barely. You ready to step into his shoes, boy? If you want to defy me, you’re going to have to be a damn sight stronger than you are.”
Randall looked around. At Phoebe, whose eyes were full of fury, and whose fingers were tensing around one of the knives in the kitchen. At Li, whose expression was torn by grief. At me. “You give away the power in your heart so freely to these parasites. You make them strong, boy. And what do they do in turn? They know they’re not strong enough to fight me. They’re nothing but animals, and they’ll bow to fear even if something that loves them is dying. They don’t know what it means to die for a cause. You and I? We’re humans. That’s what makes us special. You could have faced me, if you didn’t spend all of your time worrying about animals.” He looked down at Horace. “Let it go. It’s nothing but a distraction.”
“That’s what you said when my frog died.” Horace stood up straight, although he wasn’t looking very well. “Is this the way it’s going to be? Uncle and nephew fighting? Were we always fated to end up like this?”
“We’re not fated!” Randall said, his eyes narrowing, his fist tightening. “My choices are my own! We’re humans! We are not-” His fist loosened, and his shoulders hunched, as he laughed. “Well… Good point, boy. I guess that I don’t have much choice, do I?” He reached out, resting a hand companionably on Horace’s shoulder. Horace took another swing, and Randall stepped out of the way without showing a sign of anger. His fist lashed out, and there was a horrible cracking sound. Horace held his chin, cursing. “Why do it, boy? You know that not once has that cat been willing to die for a human. That’s how she’s lived so long. She’s nothing but an animal. They’re not people. They are not worth all of this effort. They are not worth dying for!”
Horace looked up. Blood and saliva dripped down his lip. His jaw was broken. His lip was split. “I don’t care.” His voice was tired. “I don’t care whether they’d die for me. I don’t want them to. But if the only way I can protect them, even for a little while, is by dying, that’s okay.” I began to force myself to stand. Horace looked up, resting a hand gingerly on his jaw. “You always were an asshole, uncle.”
Randall lashed out with a foot that could have caved in Horace’s chest. He was intercepted halfway through the air by a screaming Phoebe. She had a fruit-knife in hand, and plunged it hilt-deep into his knee, right where the bone ended and the tendons began. Li was half a second behind, her arm going around Randall’s throat while he was unbalanced. She pulled with all of her inhuman strength, forcing him back as Phoebe lifted his leg into the air. He slammed into the ground, momentarily overwhelmed, and I was by Horace’s side.
My human slumped to the ground. He wasn’t in good shape. I could feel the weakness in him. Something he had drunk was making him strong enough to stay alive despite the damage, the internal bleeding. But it wouldn’t last for long. “Horace.” I felt something wet dripping down my cheeks. Tears. They weren’t something I was used to. But I couldn’t stand seeing him like this. “I didn’t ask you to save me.”
“I don’t want the world to be ruled by my uncle,” he grunted softly. “This wasn’t about you,” he said, resting a hand on my cheek.
“That’s impossible,” I said, laughing softly, as he stroked my ear.
“Just don’t let him get away with this bullshit. If there’s any man who shouldn’t have the power of a god-” He coughed, blood dripping down his lips. I leaned close, and purred. I could feel the weakness stealing over me. It wasn’t easy to preserve life, and he’d taken a beating. I could feel the strength leaking out of my limbs as I poured it into him. But I was the First Cat. I had strength to spare.
There was a thump from behind me. I turned, standing. Phoebe flew straight upwards, impacting against the ceiling, and disappearing, becoming insubstantial. I could feel her withdrawing like a wounded animal. Li stayed on top of the man, even as he struggled. “Finally breaking your vow to me, serpent?!” he asked, as she tightened her arms around his throat. She was putting him in a full nelson even as he struggled to his feet, dragging her like a cape.
“You told me to protect your nephew. Even against you.” Her voice was level, even as I saw the pain in her eyes.
“Ha!” He flipped her over his head, onto the ground, and slammed his fist into the center of her chest like a jackhammer, half a dozen times. Then, he lifted her, spun, and threw. Li flew on a flat trajectory past me, and I caught the serpent in mid-air. Her chest was a mass of blood, but she seemed little more than annoyed by this, hissing loudly at Randall as the man stood upright.
“Betrayer! Slayer of kin! Murderer! Bastard!” She screamed at the top of her longs, her slender frame straining to leap at him. I turned her to face me.
“Protect Horace. Keep him covered. I’ll take care of Randall.” She opened her mouth as though to argue, and then looked down at him. She nodded, and I released her, turning to face Randall as she moved to stand guard over him. I looked Randall in the eyes. Brown, just like Horace’s, but something cold lurked in them. “You have hurt my human.”
He snorted. “Took the three of you long enough to react. I wondered how far I would have to go to make you fight. I didn’t want to kill you while you lay sick and helpless on a couch. That wouldn’t be the right way. I want everyone to know that the Goddess Bastet, fighting with all of her heart and soul to protect someone she cared about, was still not strong enough to defeat me. I am going to break you, and make a trophy out of you. You are going to spend the rest of eternity as a reminder of what my wrath is. And if that meant I had to slap a rebellious boy around a bit, he’s been asking for it for a very long time.”
“When I kill you, I am going to forget all about you.” I grinned. He lunged.
My eyes are better than any human’s. Even with adrenaline pumping, the human ability to process visual information is limited compared to mine. Despite this, Randall flickered in my vision as he leapt towards me. I crouched and sprung, diving beneath him. I twisted in mid-air, my nails coming up to rake over his chest, reducing his shirt to ruins. He landed, cursing, as the cuts closed on his skin. He adopted a boxing stance, his fists up. I smiled, standing up. “You’re not as strong as you should be, Randall.”
“I held back the plague. Cured all of the people who were suffering from it. I saved every one of them from this, though it meant I couldn’t draw power from them. Because I know the value of a life. And because I don’t need all of that power to kill you.” I laughed, and danced forward on the balls of my feet before leaping at him. My nails gashed him, opening up bloody streaks across his sides. He stepped back, his arms up, catching the cuts on his arms. Slashes healed as quickly as I delivered them, but I could see him slowing.
He stepped forward, his feet moving in smooth strokes. He swung his fist in a clumsy haymaker, which I dodged. The jab from his other hand caught me in the jaw with the force of a speeding car, and my brain slammed around the inside of my skull as I stumbled back. He followed up with a series of strikes at my ribs, cracking them with vicious hammer blows. I stood, dazed, trying to force my limbs to work as he crouched, and brought his fist up in an elegant uppercut, catching me in the chin. I left the ground, and landed full on my back, my legs striking the ground a moment later, as bells rang in my head.
I tried to get back to my feet, as he stood over me. “You’ve never been weak. You’ve always been a predator. But we humans, we know about weakness. We loathe it, because we know it so well. So we train ourselves to overcome our weakness. With craft. With tool. You were born strong. I had to earn it!” His fist came down on my skull as I got to my knees, sending me spinning across the floor, fetching up against the wall as he approached. He leaned down, and pulled the knife out of his kneecap almost lazily, rolling it around his fingers contemplatively.
There was a crash of cutlery. The knife block sailed through the air, long blades tumbling out like the world’s most deadly rainstorm. “You don’t know weakness!” Phoebe screamed, as she appeared in mid-air, holding a long chef’s knife. She landed in front of him, and stabbed him in the stomach. Randall’s counterstrike sent her into the wall adjoining the bathroom, destroying pipes and drywall together, as she became insubstantial again. Before he could recover from the strike, however, she appeared again, catching a long-handled steak-knife, and shoving it into his belly next to the chef’s knife. He struck again, and this time she cracked the wall to the bedroom before disappearing. And she appeared again, and again, catching the knifes from mid-air, driving them deep into his gut while his guard was open. The last blade, a long-handled cleaver, hit the ground, and he grabbed her by the throat as she lunged for it, yanking her into the air.
“You’re a fierce one, house-Lar! Protective to the end! I’m almost sorry to kill you! But this IS the end!” He hefted her into the air by her throat, and brought her down on the ground, slamming her into the floor hard enough to snap floorboards. Then, he lifted her again, grinning maniacally. “I know your weakness! I’m going to destroy your shelter, and watch you die for the insult you’ve inflicted on meAAAAAAGH!” He screamed wildly as her thumb jabbed into his eye. Blood dripped down his cheek as Phoebe slipped from his grasp. I leapt over her, grabbing his shoulders, my feet pressing against his stomach, where the knives had slashed him brutally. I tightened my nails into the back of his neck, and bit into his throat as my legs kicked. He roared with pain, and pulled his head back, headbutting me violently. My nose crunched under the blow, as I slipped off of him, tumbling to the ground, and skittering away from his stomping feet.
I hopped to my feet, facing him, my hands coming up, fingers curved forward into claws. “Impudent human,” I hissed. “You have never seen me at my full power. You have never seen me fighting to protect those I care about. This human is mine, and I won’t let you hurt him.”
“Please.” He snorted, stepping forward, his fists flickering out with terrible force. I dodged, but it was a close thing. I could feel the fatigue overpowering me. The rush of adrenaline and fury was fading away, leaving just a bone-aching exhaustion. Horace was weak, his Hearth barely flickering, and it wasn’t helping me anymore. But I had to keep fighting. I swung an arm, and he caught it. In a single smooth movement he grabbed one of the knives from his stomach, and drove it through my wrist. I let out a wail, falling back. “You don’t have anything like the power that I do, now.” He stood over me, grinning broadly.
“You’re a man without honor or respect.” Phoebe hissed, her eyes narrowed. “Your power was stolen, and it will be taken from you!” She danced forward, slicing three times with the cleaver, retrieved from the ground. Randall stepped back from the first two blows, and caught the third blow on his wrist, stopping the heavy blade, as blood trickled down his wrist.
“Impudent little spirit-” he began, and she spat in his good eye. He roared, and lifted both hands together as she cut forward. His belly button was split open, as he brought both hands down on her like a sledgehammer, slamming her through the floor. The already damaged building let out an ominous rumble as a crack ran across the floor and up one of the walls. “Oh, you filthy little-”
The building collapsed very suddenly. All of the vital energy that Phoebe had filled it with, keeping the building alive even with the rest of the house spirits consumed, was lost with her. I wasn’t sure whether the blow had been too much for her, or if she had sacrificed herself deliberately. I could feel the life in the house fade, and like all dying things, it crumbled quickly. There was a roar of godawful noise as the floors above collapsed down, slamming down on top of us. I leapt for Li and Horace, helping to cover the two of them as the weight of the building came tumbling down. Stone and falling pipes battered my body, as dust erupted around us, and the noise became unbearable. Then, darkness fell.
I’m not sure how long we were stuck there. I couldn’t concentrate. My body hurt. My energy was drained. I was barely able to breathe, let alone move. I could hear Li and Horace struggling to breathe as well.
There was a crunching sound from nearby, as a massive piece of debris was lifted. Randall stood over us, grinning. “Well, I must give the house-Lar points for effort.” His stomach was a ruin of blood and muscle, but he didn’t seem fazed. The desperate attempts to cut his belly open, rob him of the power he’d swallowed, had come to nothing. He was looking more energetic than ever as he reached down, seizing me and Li by the neck. “But futile. God, it feels good to finally have some power.” He hauled us up above his head, holding us in the air, fingers tightening.
I felt myself relax. This was how it was going to end. I’d fought so long, and so hard. Maybe this was alright. It wasn’t a happy ending for me, or for Horace, or for Li, or for poor Phoebe. But maybe it was the ending that was supposed to happen. I let my eyes drift, and saw the bronze statue that Horace had bought for Phoebe. It glittered in the light from the streetlights, the golf club held in the air in a victorious pose.
Then it was real. Phoebe stood up from it, transparent, holding a shining brass golf club in one hand, a large knob visible at the end.
“And now, I’m going to kill you three.” He laughed, as Phoebe stepped up behind him.
“Four.” There was a soft swish of air, as the golf-club’s lopsided head swung up between the man-turned-god’s legs.
In my line of work, there is only very rarely any call to strike someone’s genitals. Most of the creatures I face don’t have the depth of sensitivity and attachment that a human does in their gonads, and certainly they don’t have them in such a vulnerable position. At any rate, it had always seemed extraordinarily cruel as a method of attack. Phoebe had absolutely no compunctions about this. As the Lar faded from view, Randall’s grip slackened, and his eyes slowly crossed. A variety of expressions danced across his face as he seemed to come to terms with the pain, his face turning green. He dropped the two of us, and we fell to the ground.
He turned to the side, and retched a few times, before he was noisily sick. A thin slippery wash of stomach acid splattered onto the ground. And then a large bundle of rat tails, about the size of an orange, thumped into the rubble. I heard the crunching of pavement, as Horace climbed up. He was wounded, but not as badly as he had been. The combination of whatever had made him strong and my power had helped to heal him somewhat. He limped over to the uncle, and crouched down, picking up the bundle of rat tails. He brushed it off on his shirt, and slid it into his pocket as I lay on the ground.
“You really fucked it up, uncle.” His voice was soft, and very sad.
“Why did you believe in her? Why couldn’t you believe in me?” Randall asked. His voice was soft, as he knelt. The divine power had flooded out of him with the bundle of rat tails. He was on the verge of death, blood leaking out of him, his life no longer sustained by the power of a god.
“You’re a great man, uncle. I hope I can be more like you someday.” Horace’s voice was soft as he patted the small lump in his pocket. “But you’re not a good man. I hope I never become just like you.”
The man bent forward, laughing, falling onto his side. “My boy. Your father’ll be proud. I hope that I get the chance to tell him.” And without much fuss, the old man died. Horace crouched down next to him, tears running down his cheeks.
“Stupid old stubborn fucking bastard. You couldn’t let go of a grudge.” I managed to slowly pull myself to my feet, crawling over to him. I leaned my head on his side as he cried, and purred loudly, trying to drive away the sorrow inside of him. There was no dignity in the crying, no solemn manly sorrow. They were choked sobs, snot dripping down his lips. He made noises that sounded like someone dying painfully as he slid his arms around me.
“There was nothing you could have done,” I said softly. This only seemed to make things worse.
After a long time, he recovered himself a bit, tears beginning to try, as he wiped his face with his sleeve, looking up at the trophy. “Phoebe… Did she…?”
I shook my head softly, even knowing that it’d hurt him. “I don’t know how she survived the house collapsing. Maybe she was just tough enough to make it a little longer. Long enough to save you. Maybe it was some echo of her memory, living on in her power. But…” I waved at the trophy, and the bundle of rat tails in his pocket. “They’re both like corpses. The power’s still there, but it’s an empty shell.” I held him softly. “I’m sorry.”
“She was a good person.”
“No, she wasn’t. She was just a killer.”
“She didn’t have a choice in the things that happened to her. She killed because it was the only thing she knew how to do. But she didn’t kill him because she wanted him to die. She killed him because she wanted me to live. She didn’t even use a knife to do it.” Horace shook his head. “Sometimes you can’t be strong enough to keep everyone alive, and you have to choose who lives, and who dies. But that’s a lot better than not being able to protect anyone.” He leaned against me, looking around the ruined building. Li had disappeared. I licked his cheeks gently, trying to lick away the tears, and he reached up, softly scratching behind my ears.
“You protected me.” I whispered softly, and squeezed him. “You gave me the strength to fight. You stood up to your uncle, let him beat you until we couldn’t take it anymore. You nearly got yourself killed giving us the will to fight. I wish that you hadn’t done that, but you saved my life because you’re a stubborn idiot who put yourself in danger.”
He snorted, brushing his nose. “Great. I managed to save the day by being useless and nearly being beaten to death. That’s a morale-booster.” But the tears lessened a bit.
The two of us sat under the stars as the emergency services arrived, and started helping people to escape the rubble. “So, what now?”
“I don’t know.” He muttered softly. “It’s over. I guess. Is Nergal still in the ball of rat-tails?”
“I can’t feel any sign of him. It’s… unprecedented. Your uncle killed a god, and took his power. It’s…” I frowned. “A little bit disturbing, honestly. But… He also saved everyone. He withdrew the power of the sickness from everyone. He saved untold millions of lives from a horrible death.”
“He always was a great man.” Horace looked up at the sky. The moon was just a moon. “We saved the world. Billions of people. And only two people I cared about had to die.” He rubbed his cheeks. “I need to be better than that.” I looked at the pain in his face, and hugged him softly.
“We both do.” I gave him a soft kiss on the cheek, and held him as the fire fighters and police approached us.