Love is powerful.
I am not speaking, here, of the metaphysical properties of love. This isn’t some soppy speech about how love will free you from evil, how it will right wrongs, how it brings people together. I do not have a romanticized view of love. I am, after all, a goddess of family.
No, if you want to understand what makes love great, you must understand what love is.
Love is a simple dopamine reaction that is used by certain lifeforms, mostly mammals, to facilitate pair-bonding. It makes the animal commit to a mate, and to children, thus allowing the children to be cared for by both parents for an extended period. Love allows animals to start out weak, so they can be stronger in the long run. The longer an animal takes to mature, the more its parents must love it to keep it from dying of neglect as it grows.
Humans take at least eighteen years before they’re considered competent to leave their parents behind, in modern society. That is a terrifying amount of love.
The inherent reasons for love are selfish. Animals that love continue to love because it improves their genetic fitness. A creature that is willing to die for its mate, for its children, is an unsettling prospect for a predator, because predators are designed to hunt, not to fight. When you come across prey and find that, instead of running, it chooses to fight you, it’ll give almost anything pause. So love is the willingness to suffer, to die for something that is not yourself.
In most animals, that’s the end of it. A simple genetic goad to make sure that they don’t accidentally eat their babies or leave them to predators. Humans, as usual, take things too far. It’s not enough that humans are monomanically, terrifyingly focused in their love. They are also extremely vulnerable to pairbonding with anything. Humans will grow attached to a specific tool, lavish it with affection and attention, give it a name.They will take animals which view them as a simple source of food and shelter, and love them so dearly they start to think the animals love them back. They will love countries, and philosophies, and religions.
They will die for those things, because they love them.
Love terrifies me. I don’t know if I could truly love anything anymore. Giving up an immortal life for the sake of anything- not to mention my immortal life, which is easily of the highest grade an immortal life can be, as the First Cat- is a terrifying idea.
But what’s even more terrifying is being loved.
I’ve been loved by a lot of humans, and it always got them killed.
Horace tugged gently at his tie, and frowned at me. He carefully began to rub my hair out of my eyes, gently petting my ear, trying to get it to fix into place. I took all of this with aplomb, because I knew how much grooming could help someone calm down. Especially when they did it to someone they loved.
Horace loved me.
“Betty? Are you alright?”
“Uh?” I shook my head. “Yeah.”
I looked down. I carefully unclenched my fist, revealing the little ruby pinpricks where my nails had dug into my flesh hard enough to draw blood. “Nothing. Just… thinking.”
“Yeah.” He frowned, turning his head back towards the door. “Can’t believe the bastard had the nerve to call us in like this. Probably going to lose my job at that Shark Belly.”
I thought of the past. It wasn’t a happy place to go. I didn’t think about the past. I was of the present, and the past was another country where people did stupid things without thinking about it, and the food was always worse.
“-erman?” The sickly young man frowned. “Where are you, N-”
I leapt down from the stairs, landing with my characteristic nimble grace before the young man, clad in my full feline form. I looked up at him nonchalantly, and flicked my tail once, purring. The name wasn’t the most tasteful thing I had ever been called, but he was coming from a place of love with it. I could forgive him that. He crouched down, and gently picked me up. There was a scritching from somewhere nearby, and he looked up, eyes filled with alarm. “It’s okay,” I murmured. “They’re just rats.”
“I fear, sometimes, that-” He shook his head. “No. It’s silly.”
He wrote very well, and very elaborately. I didn’t read his work, but I enjoyed hearing him read it aloud. He managed to capture something that very few humans ever had. An understanding of the true size of the universe. If only he understood the true size of himself. He always seemed to underestimate what he could do. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of them again tonight. ”
He nodded wanly. “I fear, you know, each night that you go out, that you will not return in the morning.”
I rolled over in his arms, and purred loudly, tail swatting against his face. I didn’t show him my form as a god, partly because of certain notions he held, and partly because I did not want to make his life more difficult. “I’ll be fine. You worry too much.”
“Can you blame me?” He shook his head. “Each night, the dreams grow worse. The fantasies of what you face out there, in the night. The beasts. The Outer Gods, the Elder Things, the Great Old Ones…”
“It’s just rats,” I said, nonchalantly.
I am the First Cat. I can lie. Among gods, my word means nothing, because I am not bound by it. I am not bound by my names, or by anything. I am not like other gods, who must hold to what they swear for fear of retribution or loss of power. There is only a single thing that binds me, and it is out of choice, not obligation.
Howard seemed to accept that for the moment. He began to stroke my fur gently, leaning his head forward, and planted a soft kiss on my forehead. I flicked an ear, but enjoyed it nonetheless. It felt good to have an owner. Thirty-something years, now, he’d owned me, taken care of me, through thick and thin. And there had been an awful lot of thin. The last city had been built, and the gods were falling asleep. All of my old friends and allies, all of the heroes. It was just me, now, and a handful of the humans who knew the things between worlds. The Order of Set was languishing, the Brilliant Sect had gone into decline, the Devil-eaters had retired to their lotus-blossoms. Even the Catholic Church had lost its fire, in spite of Pius’ taking back of his city.
The world was so lonely, now. And it was just me, against the monsters.
The cities were like a wall that had been erected to keep out the hordes, to separate humanity from the myths and legends- though which side contained the hordes was a matter of debate. It had all been very logical, and well-thought-out. But walls are always vulnerable to rats. The things that were neither gods, nor demons. They lurked beyond the borders, and gnawed their way into the hearts of believers. Those who needed gods, and who no longer had them.
As usual, I was left to clean up my kind’s mess.
“How are you, Howard?”
“Better.” He smiled. “The sickness seems less these days. The melancholy not as savage. And I think that-” He paused, and flushed. “Well, I would hate to bring misfortune through undue optimism.”
“Come on, Howard. Tell me about it.” I purred loudly, tail lashing against him lightly as I shifted in his arms, rolling onto my back and stretching one paw out, claws stretching out nonchalantly.
“Well, I have been speaking with that editor. Perhaps my work can find a larger audience. I fear, though, that this knowledge may not be meant for the likes of modern men…”
“You deserve a living. You should share your work.”
He snorted. “You are a cat. You are hardly an authority on great writing. No, my work is…” He sighed. “If it were truly worthy, it would already have been found so.” He smiled. “I should go prepare dinner.”
“Fish?” I asked, tail twitching with excitement, happy as the conversation moved beyond Howard’s fears and anxieties.
“Ugh. I do hate them,” he said, giving a frown.
“You’re a sick man, Howard.”
“Yes.” He smiled, and planted a soft kiss on my forehead. “But less so when you are around.”
Thirty years I’d spent with him, through thick and thin. Much too much thin. People didn’t respect gods these days, for good reason, but I was still formidable thanks to his belief. Howard was a man with passions, and while they were not always healthy, they were always strong. I could admire him. In the last few years, his body had been consuming itself. I had sacrificed something to heal him. The repair would be slow, but he would live for many years yet. I flicked my tail, and hopped down out of his arms. “I should go for a walk.”
He nodded, and opened the door for me. I stepped into the New England mist. The clammy tendrils clung to my coat, leaving traces of water on my black fur as I began to pad through the garden. I sniffed the air, and the smell of rotten fish hung heavy on the air.
They were a pantheon. One that had gone bad, that had consumed its old worshipers in sacrifice and madness and then left them behind. The vast majority of their former worshipers sat on the far side of the barriers around the world, now, under the ocean, in the deepest lakes, their civilization in stasis, bereft of the fresh blood that humanity had provided. But the gods were… more active.
I took on my divine form, strong and tall and naked, and walked through the fog of New England. I could feel where the holes were, gnawed by humans who sought money, or power, or simply an end to the suffering. They would get none of those things, but humans had to make their own mistakes to learn from them. It was the metaphysical equivalent of letting a child touch a stove to learn that it’s hot, and I was standing by with the ointment. I stepped down to the sea’s edge, and the black basalt stretched out in a stepping stone arrangement, small humps of stone left slick and unpleasantly organic by the spray of the sea. I wandered out across them, my steps never faltering, to the island.
One of the pantheon’s greatest gods dwelt here. The stars had come into alignment, breaking apart the wall around the rathole, giving enough room for the terrible thing to slip loose. The architecture of the island was alien, from a civilization that hadn’t set foot on Earth in five thousand years, at least. There had been a time when humanity’s gods would have rode forth to stop this thing, to destroy this threat to their herds. Now I was all that waited for it.
This Pantheon represented madness. They were the twisting of one’s mind. Fears, uncertainties, horrors. Humans were terrified by them, because humans, as the thinking ape, are terrified of all that twists that thinking. My current owner wrote of them extensively. He saw them in his dreams, perhaps because he had a touch of madness in him too. He’d written about all of the gods that made up these horrors. He’d seen them in dream and vision, and believed they were unstoppable. He believed that these gods would consume the world one day. He might have been right.
But it would not be while I was here.
“DREAMER!” I roared, into the night, the tiger’s fury in my lungs. I stood before a crypt, one hundred cubits high. Its great door was carved with runes that were, not to put too fine a point on it, obscene. The crypt shook slowly, and then its door fell inward. It kept falling out of sight, and there was never any sign that the door landed. The intense darkness of the crypt swam and shook, slowly roiling like the surface of a pot of boiling water. “You have a choice, Great Dreamer. You can stay here, in my world, and attempt to rise. Or you can fall back into your slumber. You can give it up. You could not ask for a fairer chance.”
I am… amused, that you come to face me.
“Really?” I smiled, my teeth sharp and white in the light. Its voice did not fill the air. There was no echo. Indeed, there was no sign that the creature had spoken at all. Just a memory of it having spoken. “Amusement is a wonderful emotion. I’m amused you think that you’re going to survive that insult.”
The world does not crave protection, Bastet. It spirals towards disaster. It craves death. Humanity’s gods abandon it. They leave only a place for us to take root. They forget their needs.
“They’re not the only ones. You’re a shadow of what you once were. There was a time when you flowed through the dreams of mankind like a cancer, commanding and dominating them. Nowadays, you can hardly show yourself anymore. Everything’s getting smaller, lesser, Dreamer. Why don’t you go to sleep, and hope for better times to wake up in?”
The god stepped forward. You know what he looks like, I’m sure. He was massive, not in the sense of being physically huge, though he was, but in the sense that he took up all the available space. He grew each time my focus was not on him, swelling to encompass the world. He twisted the universe around him, making everything else smaller around him. I slashed a hand through the air, and he recoiled, shrinking slightly, four luminous green lines opened across his chest.
If we do nothing, stasis will engulf this world. Eternal night. You know what the Cities mean. They dam the world. They damn the world.
“I know it means that things like you cannot ride rampant through humans, which saves me a lot of work. I just have to catch the occasional rat.” I grinned toothily. “Now-”
The god was strong. Stronger than I’d expected. He rushed forward like the tide, slow but flowing and unceasing, and brought his fist down. Basalt and rock shattered, and split, and warped into horrific and tortured shapes. I leapt back. The time I’d spent with my current owner had fed me. I had been with the man for decades, now, and it made me strong indeed. The god threw another lazy, unstoppable overhand blow, and missed again.
Little queen! You are alone now, bereft! Your family gone! Your worshippers scattered! What can a god do when it is just a cat at heart?
“Hah!” I whipped out a hand, and one of the tentacles roiling around the god’s mouth was slashed free, twirling through the air to land heavily on the ground. “Cats outrank gods. Haven’t you heard?” I smiled. “I always wondered, you know, why did Howard have all those dreams of your kind? What did you do?”
Do? I merely showed him his end.
I frowned. Then I saw the flickers of light, the fog banks lit up by the shine of a lantern. I turned. Howard stood there, his eyes wide, staring at me, and the great, terrible thing behind me. Then the god’s fist caught me and plowed me through several yards of broken black basalt, grinding me through the rock and the stone. I let out a scream of pain, the moments distraction leaving me aching and broken on the ground.
The world spun around me as I stared up. I could feel Howard’s presence through the energy he gave me. The fear, the worry, visible on his face. He ran forward, over me, standing between me and the god on the windswept black basalt as the fog roiled and churned around him. “Stay away from my cat!” he screamed, and hurled the lantern.
It twirled, end over end, and shattered against the chest of the god. Oil spread, and then ignited, flaring brilliantly as it covered his chest. It didn’t hurt the god. It probably didn’t even annoy him. But it did offend him. The god’s eyes flashed. Poor Howard fell on top of me, cold, dying. The last sparks of his life drifting out, into the air. Ripped free by a simple exertion of the god’s will.
I did not go berserk. Berserk fits of screaming and rage aren’t my way. My heart turned very cold, freezing in my chest, my arms numb. I stood up slowly, Howard’s dead body falling to the ground. I stepped towards the god, and slashed through the air. The god returned to my size, cut off from the universe around him, finding it suddenly a hostile and impossibly terrifying place. The god cowered as I approached.
“He wrote about these things. You know that? He talked about how you were pierced through the chest by a steamship. It didn’t kill you. It just sent you back to sleep. He thought you couldn’t be killed.”
I will go, said the god, fear tinting the soundless speech. Forever. Back into the dark.
“Little late for that.”
I slammed my fist through the god’s chest. Divine flesh parted under my blow, ichor spilling out across my arm.
It’s not an easy thing to kill a god. You have to want it more than the god wants to stay alive, and there are precious few gods that don’t want to stay alive with every fiber of their being. The Great Dreamer choked and gurgled, slowly slumping to the ground.
Love is powerful. More powerful than survival
Not powerful enough to bring Howard back, though. I lifted his limp body, and shook my head softly, carrying him back across the sea as the island sunk back into the bay, its dead god bleeding out.
There were three ways I honored Howard. The first was to place his body in his bed, where he could be found. People would blame the illness. There was certainly no other mark of how he had died.
The second was his legacy. I did what I could to encourage his old friends. With his death, as was always the way with humans, his true genius was finally recognized.
The third were his killers. The gods who had terrified him all through his life, and had ultimately taken him from me. I hunted down every one of the pantheon. It took the better part of seventy eight years, and drained me till I had nearly forgotten what I was.
I swore to myself I would not grow close to another human. I didn’t need them.
My stomach growled. Horace frowned, and took out a sandwich, handing the plastic-wrapped meal over. I opened it, removed the top slice of bread, picked out the celery, and began to nibble at the tuna.
“You should eat the fiber. It’s good for you.”
“I’m a cat. I’m an obligate carnivore.”
“You’re shaped like a human. You should take care of yourself.”
“I’m a goddess.” I smiled, and purred loudly, tail lashing at him. “Besides, it’s more about the care you show me.” I looked up as a secretary stepped into the room. She gave us a nervous smile. She probably knew what I was. Everyone in this building seemed to. Horace and I had been called by the Colonel, a strange man who was part of the United States military in some extremely vague and unspecified way. He’d shown a great capacity for violence in the past on the behalf of humanity, and while he was only a talented amateur in this game, he knew how to use his advantages.
“The Colonel will see you, now.” I nodded, and stood up. Horace stood up with me, frowning. “Mister Creed, you weren’t-”
“Don’t do that,” I said, smiling easily. “Horace is going to be deciding whether this deal you’re offering is a good idea or not. I trust his judgment. It’d be a damn shame if we just had to leave immediately.”
“Your people need you,” said the Colonel. He stood in the doorway to his office. His head was shaved, so polished that it looked more like skull than skin, perfectly smooth. His eyes were a muddy brown, unspectacular in his appearance.
“She’s not American, you realize,” said Horace.
“It’s not Americans I’m talking about. The cities of the Gods are in a dire state.”
“This is not going to change my mind.”
“I understand,” murmured my priest. He was a young man, handsome, honest, kind. I wouldn’t mind mating with him again, if circumstances permitted. Unfortunately, the surroundings were not conducive to calm enjoyment. Blood stank in the air. The crackles of fires were audible from miles away. Smoke blew, and people screamed, their voices mixing together to become something inhuman in the air. It was a terrible time.
The Scourge of God had returned once more. In the year 450, Marcian, Emperor of the East Roman Empire, had ceased his payments of tribute to the Hunnic Empire. Now Attila prepared to ride forward once again, as he had before, and bring death and devastation with him. His army prepared themselves for another spectacular bloodletting. And my priest, Gallenius, wanted to stop it. The two of us walked in silence for several hours along the shattered remnants of the road. My cloak covered my ears and tail, and I shook my head.
“You’re going to throw your life away.”
“It’s always been a possibility.”
I’d had him for less than a few months. I liked him, though. He had helped me fight the Ateroleum in Rome. He had spirit. He had passion and fire. But he thought he was some kind of hero. That was a dangerous attitude for any human to have. Attila was the leader of the Huns, and he was a terribly skilled warrior. Gallenius was a naive young man who loved his country a bit too much. “If I asked you not to do this, would you do it for my sake?”
He stopped a moment, and turned towards me. He regarded me very seriously for a few seconds. “If I asked you not to face a dark god, for fear of what it would do to you, the love of my life… Would you?”
I looked away. “It’s different. I don’t lose to dark gods.”
“But I still worry for you. And I worry for you more now. If Rome collapses under the weight of this monster-”
“A lot of people will suffer. But they’ll rebuild. Rome can’t die, not like that. But you can die. I don’t want you to fight this man.”
“Then stop me,” he said, turning and walking onwards.
“Oh, don’t you dare tempt me,” I growled, my eyes narrowed. But I believed in humans. I didn’t stop them from aiding me. I didn’t stop them from fighting their battles. I knew they had to scream out against the darkness. They had to try to tame the night. It was the only way they could truly be human. If they stopped, I’d probably not still want to protect them. They were like my own kittens, helpless, foolish, inexperienced, and weak. But with so much potential. I slid my arms around him from behind, and held him tight. “Why do you have to do this?”
“Because I love my country. And because I believe that when push comes to shove, you will stop him rather than let me die.”
“You’re an arrogant bastard, Gallenius.”
He smiled, and kissed me on the cheek. “I have faith in you.” And the words and the kiss burned in my chest so hot it felt as though it could consume me.
The court of Attila was raucous. He had taken another wife, and the wedding celebration was cacophonous. The Hun himself, and his bride, sat alone in their chambers. Gallenius and I slipped through the crowds with ease, and entered the chambers. The guards never saw us. It was not for nothing that I cared for Gallenius.
“Attila,” said Gallenius. The Hun narrowed his eyes, and sat up, his silver-haired young bride laying in the splendor beside him, a great amphora of wine sitting close at hand. Gallenius drew himself up. “You are a pox upon this world. A plague upon Rome. You are a false prophet and a foul being. Turn away from Rome. Prey upon other countries. Or you will die.”
“Really.” The man smiled. His voice was rough, his eyes slightly unfocused. “I can’t say I’m threatened. How old are you, boy? Nineteen? Twenty? And you don’t even look like you’ve killed. Have you come to offer me your woman in the hopes that I’ll be sated?” He tangled his fingers in silver hair of the young maiden beside him. “I can’t say I’m impressed, either.”
“There are gods of this land, Conqueror. Great and terrible. And if you press this land, you shall find yourself on their claws. This woman is the greatest among them. She has held back. She has shown you mercy until now. But if you push again, you will find yourself on the claws of Bastet.”
“I have something better than gods,” the conqueror chuckled. The woman beside him in the bed lifted her head. She smiled, and golden teeth gleamed. My eyes widened, as I flinched back, and then began to move towards Gallenius.
It was already too late. A moment’s distraction, and Attila had moved with the practiced skill of a warrior. He must sleep with the sword under his pillow. Gallenius’ head landed on the floor, followed shortly after by his body, and I felt the cold anger fall over me like a shroud. Attila stood, grinning, weaving the sword’s tip through the air in elegant figure eights, not as drunk as he had first appeared. “I was given a great gift by the woman. The power of fear, of terror, and a body no sword can pierce, no mace can break, skin that cannot-”
My knuckles slammed hard into his nose. It didn’t break. It didn’t pierce. But it did tear. Blood ran down his cheeks, and he growled, swinging the sword. I dodged it easily, and struck again, throwing him to the ground. I crouched over him, and placed my hand over his nose, and his mouth. Not hard, but keeping him from spitting out the blood. I watched as he began to choke and spasm, blood running down his windpipes, filling his lungs. Not much of it needed to do it. He began to spasm, and then went red, and blue, and dark, his eyes rolling up. I slowly stood up, and stared at Conquest. She frowned down at him. “Well. That was a waste of decades of good work.” She sighed. Then she had me by the throat, pulling me into the air.
I’m powerful. A god, and among gods, I am easily one of the strongest. I seek conflict, where so many of them seek pleasure. I slay the dark things from outside of the world, and it makes me more terrible than them. I take humans who are intensely devoted, who love me, and me alone, and stay close to them, and it makes me powerful. On my best day, I might be able to fight Conquest and escape.
But Gallenius had been young, and my power had been only in its dawning days. I hung, and stared her in the eye. “Well? Does it matter enough to you to kill me and accept the consequences?” I asked, my voice raspy.
“I’m not going to kill you.” She smiled, and looked down at the man. “The way I look at it, we’re even. You took away decades of my hard work and planning. And my man has taken away decades of happiness and strength from you. Besides, I don’t care for killing innocents.”
“Innocen-” I stopped dead, my eyes widening.
“Yes. You know me. I’m not Death. I don’t kill. I… control. I choose to let you live, because the death of one of the most promising champions I have had in centuries is worth the look on your face.” She smiled. And then she sat back on the bed, and I fled, carrying Gallenius’ body with me. And his child.
I was a cat, but I was also a god, and a god is just another kind of human. I could have children with humans. I did not often indulge in it, because it was rare that I found a human that was worth the time. It was rare that I found a human that was worth me. Gallenius had been one. I did not mind bearing his child. I just wish he had been there to see it. Offspring are a poor substitute for true immortality.
It was a difficult nine months. Without a priest providing me with faith, the drain of a half-divine child was great. I found a family, devout and out of the way, who would care for the child as their own. I wished them luck, and hoped that they would be well. I bore the child, called on those spirits which owed me debts to watch over the bloodline, and then I left them. Perhaps it was selfish, to deny the child the knowledge of their true heritage, though they would be protected by my divinity, and their line, forevermore. But I could not bear to see the reminder of all that I had lost.
For so many humans, children are their path to immortality. A way for them to continue on beyond their death. A way to transcend a single generation. For me, it was a reminder, eternally, of someone who I had lost. A life, forevermore out of my grasp.
I swore to myself that I would never mate with a human again. The pain of it was too great.
“You can see why we came to you,” said the Colonel.
Horace’s lips were twisted into a frown, his arms crossed, staring down at his feet. “You’re asking Betty to go to some insane otherworldly dimension full of gods and monsters.” He looked up, his eyes hard. “Alone.”
“You’re a mortal, Horace. I understand your… relationship, with Betty, but you wouldn’t be welcome there. Betty’s power is in mortals, particularly you, and you’d be a huge target, to say nothing of the threat you’d pose,” said the Colonel. “And there’s a great deal at stake. Prester John of Paradise has his fingers in financial systems throughout the world. I’m sure you’re aware of the financial instability in the world. Things are on a knife’s edge. If Paradise falls…” The Colonel meshed his fingers together, leaning his head forward.
Horace was a great man. He did not realize it, but he had something special to him. I couldn’t say whether it was bloodline, upbringing, or just a freak of nature, but he made me want to break those promises I had made myself. I’d made them for a reason, but he was special. He fought for me.
He survived. I’d watched him stand up to a divinely empowered man out for revenge, and he had lived. It was a freak chance, but survival was a learned skill. He made me want to change my mind.
Maybe that was why I wanted to escape. If only for a little while. “I’ll do it, Horace.”
“Betty, if this is about what he’s offering me-”
“He’s offering you your childhood home, Horace. Besides, I’m not going there to fight, am I? Just to talk.” I smiled. “Right, Colonel?”
“Right,” he said.
I wasn’t the only one who could lie, apparently.
It was before history.
It was a time of horror. Humans did not have gods, as such. They had predators, and they worshiped them. They had terrors, and they worshiped them. They desperately tried to flee the things that hunted them. The monsters.
And there was no greater monster than I.
Humans were delicious. Meat and blood, softened by their cities and their agriculture. They were easy prey, big, clumsy, practically blind, practically deaf. I killed them when I was hungry, and they feared me for it.
It was the Fertile Crescent where it happened- Not Egypt, despite what people may think. Night. My belly rumbled, as a man walked across the path through the forest. He must have been foolish. He was walking deep in the woods, late at night, alone, without fire or spear. Easy prey. I licked my lips, and approached openly, padding on all fours. Small, perhaps. I allowed myself to seem small. I could still kill him easily.
He turned, and bowed. A rich, delicious scent filled the air. I stared as he set down the slab of fire-charred meat. It was a strange thing. I tore into it, eating it. After I had finished, my belly was full. Murdering the human didn’t seem like much of a necessity, but he was still intruding on my territory. I raised my head, eyes flashing in the night. “Why are you here?”
“To thank you.”
Both of my ears swiveled down. “To thank me?”
“A great beast has been preying upon our village. Horned and scaled, which exhaled fire and poison. Devouring men whole, shattering our homes, spoiling our crops. One of our scouts saw you battle with it, and slay it. Thank you, Bis-‘t.”
“I am Cat, not Bis-‘t,” I said, and frowned. “I know the creature you speak of. It violated my territory. I killed it for that, not because I care what happens to you.”
“Nonetheless, we thank you, Bis-‘t,” he said. He bowed his head. “We will bring you this meat every day, as a sign of our worship for you.”
“Wait,” I said, and tilted my head. “You’ll feed me, take care of hunting, all in exchange for my killing the things I’d already kill?” I snorted. “You’ll make the meat hot and sweet like this?”
“Of course, goddess.”
“I am not bound by my word, you understand. If you don’t feed me one way, you’ll feed me another. And I will stop protecting you when I feel like it.”
“Of course, goddess.”
“Well,” I said. “There are worse ways to get a meal.”
I swore to myself that I’d never hold to my word.
I softly slipped my arms around Horace, and hugged him tight. “You’re going to be okay?”
“There’s been no sign of those fish-people since that night. Barely any attacks on Shark Belly franchises since then. Things are quiet. Dull, even.” He shrugged. “I’ll be fine. But are you going to be fine?”
“Horace, I lived for ten thousand years before meeting you, I’m not going to keel over. Besides, I have these.” I smiled, patting the cooler. Three tuna-fish sandwiches sat in it. “If I’m in trouble, I’ll just have one of these, remember how much you care me, and my strength shall be the strength of ten. Plus, I’ll cheat.”
“I don’t want to make you do this for me.”
“Oh, get over yourself, Horace. You think I do all of this because I love you?”
I did love him. So much it hurt. I wanted him to be mine, and mine alone. I burned every time I saw one of those others around him, taking the attention that was supposed to be mine. But I would never, ever admit it. I could lie to anyone. Even myself.
I turned towards the Colonel. “When do I leave for the Cayman Islands?”
“Now,” he said, standing up. “I’ll see you off. We’ve got a jet to take you to the heliport in Puerto Rico, where you’ll get a helicopter onwards. We’ve negotiated with Prester John, and he has recognized your right to visit, along with the Baron. In fact, the king seemed quite eager that you should be the one to intercede.”
“Oh?” I raised an eyebrow. “It’s good to know he still remembers me from the old days.”
“Indeed. We have a team of special forces operatives on the island, and an embedded asset.” The Colonel grinned. “Call him our ace in the hole. One of the Horsemen made a bit of a mistake in judgment. I hope you don’t have any objections to working with someone empowered by War?”
I smiled pleasantly. “Oh, I’m more than familiar with her. There might be a bit of territory to be hashed out, but I’m sure I can manage it.” I softly shook my head, and drew my hair out of my eyes, turning towards Horace. “You’d better not die.”
“Same to you, Betty.”
I smiled. “Of course I won’t. This’ll be easy. Just watch and see.” I thought of kissing him. I really wanted to. Something warm, something to keep me from going out into this powderkeg with regrets. Something to make me come back when all of this was done, instead of just running away and being a stray once more.
He reached out, and his arms slipped around me, and he kissed me. Not on the lips, which would have been my choice, but on the forehead. It was still awfully nice, and the fire inside his heart left me feeling warm. Like I could take on the world.
“I’ll come back,” I promised. I didn’t lie.