I sat in the tree, and watched as the man approached my village. My territory. My humans.
He walked like a human. He was shaped like a human. He wore clothes like a human. But he was not a human. I could smell it on him. The subtle musk of divinity.
The desert had not always been here. When I had first taken these humans as mine, when I had slain a beast and been deemed a god, there had been great rains that flooded this land. As they faded, we had traveled, towards the great river of life. The man who had risked his life to show his gratitude to me, all those countless years ago, was long dead. I could not say how many of his descendants had died in the meantime. But I was still here. And so were my memories.
Now, the desert grew, a wasteland of sand and bare rock. The plants had died, and the only remaining greenery came from the flow of the vast river. It brought floods, and fertility. I didn’t particularly care either way, as I didn’t eat the things the humans grew in the muck, but it allowed them to fish, cook, and feed me as I deserved, so I had a certain vested interest in the process continuing smoothly.
Likewise, it linked us to the villages upriver, and downriver. Like a great lifeline reaching deep into the desert, every human on the great river was able to communicate and trade with one another, for life could flourish only along that great winding ribbon. I didn’t take much interest in that, either, save for the offerings my humans sometimes brought me when they returned from one of their trade trips.
And finally, it brought interlopers. Like this god.
The sun hung on the horizon, just on the verge of setting. Once, before I had become a part of human life, I had been wholly nocturnal. I had stayed in the dark, where I was safest, hidden by my own dark fur. When I had joined the human village, becoming their protector in exchange for what they offered me, I had learned about Fire. Fire held back the night, turned it into day, where humans were at their most fearsome. At night, they stayed close to their fires, and no wise predator dared venture too close. It protected them as thoroughly as I could. The issue was the times between light, and darkness. The twilight. When it was too dark to see but too bright to light the fires yet. That was when my humans were vulnerable. It was when predators and scavengers lurked. It was when I fought.
I came down on the man with no sound at all. With gods, I did not take chances. My claws tore his throat open in a jagged strike. To my modest surprise, his blood was black as pitch, and gushed out in thick splatters. Gods did that kind of thing, though I couldn’t fathom why. It didn’t make them any harder to kill. He fell to the ground like a sack of grain, boneless. I stood up, and carefully brushed the black blood off on my stomach, wiping my fingers. I would have one of the humans wash me with the waters of the river later. It was somewhat unpleasant, but it beat licking whatever foul substance the creature’s heart-
I twisted, and dodged the scything blow. The man’s arm flashed past me, rubbery, boneless, and tipped with hook-like claws. His face had melted, shifting, transforming. His throat still hung ragged, but he was eyeless now, and no more of the black blood pumped from his throat. His body shifted, and changed subtly, bulging and hollowing until it approached normality again. I gave him an appraising look. “Well, you’re not as pathetic as you looked.”
“And you, cat-god, are not as overconfident as I thought.” The god’s arm pulled back into its normal shape, and he smiled. “My fellows have sent you two messengers. One human, one monster.”
“The human visited. I ignored him. The monster visited. I killed it.” I lowered myself to all fours. Light and easy, my eyes on the god. “Now a god. You must really care about this. Do you want to be ignored, or to die?”
He surged towards me. He was fast, but not as fast as me. The confusing part was his movements. He was more like a blob of something sticky than a person, despite his shape. His movements were erratic and weaving, approaching me in a way that was hard to time. I slipped between the blows nonetheless, my own body moving in ways that would have snapped the spine of a human. That was why they had me, and why they devoted their lives to feeding me and caring for me. I slashed my nails through his belly, tearing open ragged, sticky wounds that didn’t bleed, and stepped around him, landing on my heels. He turned, and grinned. “You are very difficult. Why do you refuse to listen? What we have to offer you might be interesting.”
“I have no need for anything you could offer. My humans bring me fish, and I keep them safe. There is nothing more in this world that I could desire. I am content. All you could offer is some complex, annoying thing, which would make my life difficult, and which might threaten my humans.”
“Ah, yes.” He smiled. “Those who are strong, who have all they want, they fear any change. They can see no way to go but down. Change is feared by anyone with something left to lose.”
I didn’t change my lazy stance, standing with one hand on my hip, my head canted. “I certainly hope you don’t think you can make me more pliable by taking what makes me happy. Among other things, I don’t think that you have the power that it takes.”
“I am a god of an empire.”
I frowned. “What’s that?”
“A village made up of villages made up of villages. Hundreds of thousands of humans know my name. They worship me. They give me power, cat-god. How many worship you?”
I shrugged lightly. “Oh, there are a couple of dozen humans. Hamon and Pithak and Lapra and-”
“A couple of dozen. A pitiful number.”
I held up my hand, my nails curving, ending in sharp points. “More than enough to kill you.”
He laughed. “Oh, but you can’t protect them from everything, can you? Perhaps a plague will come upon this land. Perhaps the river will stop flowing. Perhaps you will meet a challenge you cannot slash and kick and bite. What would you do then, goddess?”
“I suppose I’d kill it anyway.” I stared into his eyes. He was silent for a long few seconds, and then his body became human-shaped again, and he laughed uproariously. The violence, the tension, the ugliness around him seemed to recede like the river from its banks as the summer floods approached.
“You are the one I’ve been looking for! My empire seeks new lands, and the submission of those around. We have gods of sun, goddesses of earth, gods of tools, goddesses of magic, gods of knowledge. We need something, however. Something that you can offer. There is chaos in our land, and people who do not submit to our rule. We are the first, but in time, there will be others who seek to take what we have made. We must be strong. We need a goddess of war.”
I frowned at him. “What the hell is war?”
He chuckled softly. “It’s new. Don’t worry. You’re a natural at it. You attack anything that stands out to you, anything that threatens your way of life. You kill it without remorse. You would be a boon to us.”
“I can’t see the profit in it for me.” I turned and started walking towards the village. I did not decapitate the man as he followed me. The two of us arrived on the outskirts of the village, among its people. They looked towards me, and smiled. I felt my heart beat faster for just a moment as they did, their expressions joyful, knowing I was there for them. He continued walking along just a step behind me, his arms crossed.
“I have thought of many tacks. Threats to your people seem unlikely to work. You do not brook the possibility that you could fail to protect them. That’s part of why I want you to join us. I could offer you rewards, but they are simple variations on what you already have. You do not need to eat more than you already do, and while we have rare delicacies, you are not a creature that can be bribed with luxuries to do what you don’t want to. Your deal with these humans shows me that.”
“You’re good at pointing out why I don’t want to do what you say. That seems like a terrible trait in the one who’s meant to persuade me to join this group of gods you’re making.”
“Oh, trust me. I know what you want.” His eyes turned towards the humans. I looked with him. Young Rodthep, standing with his lovely wife, Mirna, watching the fields sway in the gentle wind as the sun set. Their child, little Bas, clung to her mother’s neck, face nestled into the woman’s throat gently. “They’re like children to you, aren’t they? Clumsy, helpless, unable to protect themselves, unable to do much. They can’t fight. They’re soft and weak and make funny sounds. But you love them despite their strangeness. You protect them from the things that would hurt them, like you would your own kittens. And there are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of humans who are crying out for your protection in our empire. They will be slaughtered if they do not have a strong goddess to protect them. They need you, Bastet. They cry out into the night for your strength.”
My tail flicked, twice, my back stiff. “I was wrong. You are good at persuasion.” I turned towards him. “What do you do, in this pantheon? What’s your name?”
“Me? I give people what they desire. Peace, so often. I am a god of satisfaction.” He smiled, his dark, swarthy skin gleaming as the moon rose, his teeth white as bleached bones. “My name is Nyarlathotep.”
I snapped out of the dream, my ragged ear twitching, my heart pounding. It had been decades since I’d thought of Nyarlathotep. Decades since I’d thought of any of my fellows among the Nile and the Fertile Crescent. But it wasn’t particularly strange that I was thinking of them, now. I opened my eyes calmly, in contrast with my racing mind, and fixed my eyes on the young man sitting across the helicopter from me. One of the military attaches that the United States Government had sent with me, a young man dressed smartly in suit and tie, who would not accompany me on the island. I yawned slowly, and shifted.
Golden bangles hung around my right wrist. Elegant white silk did not so much preserve my modesty as highlight my immodesty. It had been linen, once, but I was not hidebound about that. I’d had the dress made from silk sometime during the fall of the Roman Empire, and was glad for the change. A delicate necklace lay around my throat, rubies set in it, blood red and shining within with an inner fire. I sat with one leg raised, as much to mess with the human as for comfort. It was clearly working, as he could not make eye contact with me.
I was also desperate for something to stave off the boredom. The view outside the window showed a great expanse of turquoise water, the helicopter banking over stringy cirrus clouds, and was no more interesting than the last twenty times I’d looked out the window. “How much longer?”
“Just thirty minutes, uh, your-”
“Betty,” I said, yawning. “I don’t stand on ceremony.” He barked out a laugh, and then looked very embarrassed with himself. I smiled pleasantly. “I don’t need you to worship me. I have someone for that.”
“Yes’m. If you’re willing, we really should be going through that briefing to prepare you.”
I pressed my lips together. Was I really that bored, that I would consider preparing for this work? To my growing horror, I realized that I was. Some insidious trick of the humans, putting me in a state of such dire boredom that even naps couldn’t hold it at bay, and then giving me no choice but to pay attention to their boring lectures. “Fine. Paradise.”
He nodded. “Paradise; Fourth of the Cities. Founded in the 1500s by Prester John on the fourth Cayman Island. Originally it acted as a shelter and safe port for conquistadors in the Caribbean, providing aid to the Christian nations of the world in their conquest of the new world. Its conversion into one of the Cities happened in the early 1600s. The scattered remnants of the Aztec pantheons were forced to seek shelter as their population base crumbled, and the displaced Loa of the Yoruba agreed to join Paradise as a part of the development of Voudoun, Voodoo, and the other hybridized Afro-american religions-”
He wasn’t even using a folder. I stared at him, more in wonder at the ridiculous things humans would devote their lives to than any actual desire to listen to what he was talking about. I realized he was still talking about the nature of the island, a nature that I knew- in general, if not in particulars. I held up a hand, and he stopped. “Why am I needed there? The Colonel said the place was in trouble?”
“Yes. About a year ago, the fifth City, Zion, was unmade, its keystone destroyed. We believe it’s what gave Nergal the power to manifest as quickly and powerfully as he did, among other things. At any rate, the city locked down. Prester John did not want any chance of the same thing happening to Paradise, and has limited travel in and out to a handful of people that he personally trusts. A few days ago, he sent out an urgent request to the Colonel, a personal request for your presence. The Baron of Paradise concurred.”
I frowned. “I knew Samedi and King John, briefly, back in the old days. I haven’t seen them since before Paradise was made. I hadn’t been paying much attention to what the gods did.”
“Apparently, the feeling is not mutual. Prester John was not specific about the issues that called for your presence, but he agreed to allow our people onto the island to act as an escort and support.” He frowned. “Frankly, we’re not sure what we’re getting you into here. All we can do is provide the best backup we have available, and hope it’s enough.”
There was a soft ding as the helicopter lowered towards the sea. I fastened my belt, and watched as we descended towards an open stretch of ocean. It was a little bit unsettling. I could swim, but I certainly didn’t enjoy it the way humans do, and my senses and movements were dampened in water. Plus, I had some bad memories relating to sea creatures. On the other hand, there might be fish to be had.
“The three major forces in Paradise are the Aztecs, the Loa, and Prester John himself. Prester John rules the island mostly through common consent, as the one who made it and who provides faith to the other gods as they need it. He apparently distributes excess belief to those monsters and gods which swear fealty to him, and employs heroes. He’s supported by the archangels Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel, though only Gabriel takes a regular, active part in the actual governance and maintenance of the island. Michael mostly seems to stay on the island as a kind of warning, keeping anyone from attempting to overthrow the king. This has kept John’s control of the city stable for a long time, but if he’s calling for help, that’s likely to make him look weak. His mercenary forces may be less willing to fight for him.”
I nodded, as the helicopter splashed down into the open water, its pontoons keeping it afloat as it set down. I unbuckled my seat belt and stood up, stretching in the hull of the helicopter as it rocked gently, on the seemingly open sea. I also noted that the waves were very mild for the wind.
“The Loa have played ball with Prester John for most of their history. The Baron’s been acting as their leader for the past year, but he’s apparently having some trouble keeping everyone on the same page. He’s a half-decent diplomat, and has kept them from falling apart, but the Loa consist of several ‘families’ of gods, and the other families besides the Ghede are getting antsy with him. They got in on the ground floor of Paradise, and they want to start taking advantage of all of their time and investment. We suspect that they’re going to try to act as a king-maker, back whatever side seems like it’s going to come out on top while grabbing a larger share of the power for themselves. You familiar with the Loa?”
I nodded. “African gods. I knew some of them, back before they went and got religion.” I wrinkled my nose. “I never could understand a god who began believing in a higher power. It freaks me out. But I guess that they needed a little faith. They’re not as passive as they seem.” I yawned. “There any food on this helicopter?”
“I’m afraid not. You could have one of your sandwiches?” He nodded towards the cooler. I rested a hand on top of it, and shook my head.
“Nah. Saving those for a special moment.” Just the thought of it made my heart ache a little bit, and my stomach rumble. I missed Horace. “I’ll get something to eat on the island.” I looked out the window. “When are we going to reach that island?”
“We’re already there. Only the three rulers of the island have permission to open the barrier from within, which slows things down a lot. The last major faction on the island are the Aztecs. They were allowed in as indentured servants, when the Aztec Empire fell, and their key source of worshipers was destroyed. Ever since then, they’ve been… mostly quiet. In point of fact, so far as we can tell, they mostly just did what they were told. There was some concern around 2012, but the end of the Long Count didn’t seem to raise any stir among them. In the last year, however-” He was quiet for a moment, and his lips twisted into a frown. “Well, you’ll see for yourself. It’s not good. They’re pissed. They seem to think that the age is ending, and they want to figure out who the new sun will be.”
I shook my head. “Solar deities. People always get so nuts about them. I never saw what all the fuss was about. The moon is much more interesting.” The human gave me a momentary, uncertain look. “I’m trying to make light. I’m taking this all seriously. It sounds like a bit of a powder keg.” I frowned. “I’m not sure what would possess Prester John to bring me, of all gods, into a powder keg, but maybe he needs something blown to hell.”
There was a tremendous, rumbling noise. The sea shook violently for several seconds. And then, Paradise was there.
It appeared around us. Shaped like a great coin with a perfectly circular section taken out of the south end of it. We sat in that hole, a massive bay ringed by sandy island on all sides, near the shoreline at one of the tips of the crescent shape. “It’s on the other side of the barrier,” I murmured, unable to keep a little admiration out of my tone. “I’ve heard that the Cities could do this kind of thing. Avalon, Shangri-La, appearing and disappearing to the worthy. I didn’t know that any of them could do it on command like this.”
“An artifice of Prester John, from what I’m told.” The young man stood up, and saluted me as the jet gently hummed towards the small docks. “My country thanks you for what you are doing.”
“Yes, I imagine so.” I stepped out of the airplane, and it was like being slapped in the face with a wet towel. The heat outside was phenomenal, and the humidity more so. I was designed for dry savannas, and frankly, it was as disgusting for me as it was for humans. I was certainly grateful for my decision on clothes as I stepped onto the waiting quay.
I took a moment to look across the island. A garage sat by the docks, and a long road was visible reaching all the way inland. On the beach and by it was a large and populous looking town, buildings clustered together, shining and well-painted. Above them all stood a building, nine stories tall. It was nothing compared to New York City, but it was the largest building on the island, and stood out among the others, glass and steel glittering brilliantly. It was breathtaking.
And then there was the other arm of the bay. I turned towards it, and my eyes narrowed. As the helicopter pulled away, it revealed a scar on the land. Shanty town, slum, corrugated aluminum glowing in the sun. Black smoke rose here and there from the fires. It was not a particularly attractive looking part of the city. It was made worse by the structure in the center. Perhaps half the height of the tower, it rose in nine square terraces, made out of corrugated iron. Its surface was stained a dull, brownish red, and I had to wonder to myself for a moment whether it was rust.
“What does it remind you of?” asked a man’s voice behind me. I turned. A dark-skinned man, his face was reminiscent of a bulldog, unpleasant yet endearing, thick jawed, heavy browed, but with very warm eyes. He wore military fatigues, an insignia that looked at least vaguely American, and a flag of the United States stitched into the fabric of one shoulder. He had to be seven feet tall. His build was heavy, soft looking, but the kind of softness that concealed incredible strength.
“A challenge,” I said simply. “You’re part of my escort here?”
He nodded, and waved a hand. “We’ve got a car and a chauffeur for you here, one of the Vemana.” I raised an eyebrow. “Local slang. Means gods and monsters and heroes without a City of their own to go to, who come here to rely on the king’s good graces. Quiet guy. He won’t bug you.” He waved a hand towards the street. The car was a hummer, which struck me as a bit excessive. The chauffeur stood by the door, his white cap pulled down over his eyes, a little scruff of messy dark hair poking out. His head was lowered as I approached, and I accepted his desire to avoid connections wholeheartedly. The military man and I slid into the car, and the chauffeur began driving.
“Thank you for offering me this aid. I appreciate a bit of company.” I gave him a pleasant smile. Despite his bulk and intimidating appearance, he had the mien of a schoolchild eager to please the teacher.
“Yes ma’am. We set up here approximately four days ago. We’ve got nine men total, one squad divided into two fireteams of four. One fireteam is typically scouting the city, keeping an eye on things, or checking our egress from the docks, ensuring that the roads stay clear and undamaged. The other squad keeps our home base in the city proper under lockdown, makes sure there aren’t any spies or bugs.”
I raised an eyebrow. “I don’t imagine that the gods here use technological means to spy. I know many of them are… perceptive.”
“Yes they are. We endeavor to obfuscate better than they perceive, ma’am.” He slid out a folder, and I thanked god. “We have been writing up detailed dossiers on the major players, particular those of divine power, ma’am. Give you what you need to get involved. Prester John appears to want you here as a way to break a stalemate peacefully. You’ve got a reputation for killing gods, which means that your support could mean a more peaceful change of power, out of fear of provoking you. And…” He frowned. “Ma’am, are you aware of the Horsemen and the threat they pose?”
I was quiet for a few seconds. “Yes. I know one of them quite personally. I have clashed with the others, in one way or another.”
He nodded. “We suspect that they have several assets either on the island, or soon to arrive here. I’ve ranked them by order of their likely danger.” He took out a dossier, and handed it to me. “The first is Markov Lorickson. American industrialist, believed to have heavy connections with the American government. We know that he made a deal with Famine twenty years back, followed by a precipitous climb in personal wealth. He apparently takes power from money, and as he’s one of the richest men in the world, he’s damn dangerous. Big fan of collecting weapons. He has a large portion of his savings stored here on the island as a tax dodge, and we know that he has a personal relationship with Prester John.”
“Hmm. Bad sign when the Horsemen have that kind of hook into a king, but Prester John did believe in neutrality. Is he on the island?”
“Not at the moment. He’s been out of the public eye for the past couple of months. His exact motives are unknown, but as the most prominent servant of Famine, if Famine’s going to make a play, he’ll probably be showing up here. We’ve kept a close eye on the docks to make sure we know if he does arrive in a moment.” He opened the dossier, and took out several photos. A man was visible in it. Holding an absurdly oversized sword with the practiced ease of a man who knew how to use it, several blurred shots of him in motion training against half a dozen other men. “Sword fighter, apparently, loves his phallic symbols. Dangerous, but nothing you can’t handle.” He took out the next dossier. “Domingo Santigo.”
I frowned. “I don’t know the name.” I flipped open the dossier, and found it remarkably thick. There were no pictures, however. “Got a lot of information on this guy. But what’s he look like?”
“That’s the thing. He’s a shapeshifter. Cannibal, too, we suspect, although we don’t know whether it’s necessary for him to change or if it’s just personal habit. Believed to be a servant of Conquest, he can take the shape of people. The limit of his abilities are unknown, but he’s been active for nearly eighty years at this point, and he’s a real piece of work. This would be the first time he hits a target this prominent, but we’re using standard shapeshifter protocols. Codewords, the usual. He’s not physically dangerous, but in a situation like this, he’s potentially a nightmare. We need to be aware. If people act out of character, it’s to be taken as a sign that he’s involved.”
“That sounds frustrating, considering how much stress and tension everyone must be under.”
“Yeah.” He sighed, and shook his head, taking out the next dossier. This one had a picture of a couple. An older Greek man, and a young Korean girl. I tilted my head. “This is Jack and Jill.”
“Odd. What’s their deal?”
“Assassins. They kill murderers, soldiers, hitmen- And gods. Killed Susano-o and Artemis, to hear it told.” I frowned. “We haven’t been able to confirm it, but we know that they’re blessed by the Horseman Death. Unusually powerful blessings. We’re taking it as credible that they managed to kill two gods.”
“That’s… quite a thing to hear.” I frowned. “Even blessed by the Horsemen, it’s a rare human who can manage something like that. Ambush hunters?”
“Yes. They’re fond of setting up traps and bushwhacking targets. No sense of honor, though they avoid killing noncombatants.”
“Not much use in a place like this. Are they after a target here?”
There was a moment’s very awkward silence. I raised an eyebrow at the sergeant as the car reached the edge of the town, entering the crowded foot traffic, occasionally honking to clear space. “Four days ago, they were confirmed to be active in New York City. They engaged with a Dane Larson- someone you know- and injured her significantly. They were seeking information. The police intend to take them into custody, but we rate their chances at success at extremely low. They’re looking for you, ma’am.”
My blood ran cold. Horace. “Stop the car.”
The car came to a halt, and I reached for the door. “We have strong reason to suspect that they will know where you are. If they aren’t apprehended, we have contingencies to leak your location to them, so they won’t go after Horace. They’re good at killing, but we can hide him out of their sight. We can set a trap for them if they do arrive here.”
I was quiet for several long seconds. I didn’t even know how I’d get home without their cooperation. Horace was alone, vulnerable. The thought was everything I feared. I told him not to take risks but the stupid bastard couldn’t take good advice- I paused, breathed deep, and wiped my eyes. I wasn’t crying. Cats don’t cry. “That’s three dossiers. You’ve got a fourth one. You telling me there’s someone worse coming to ruin my day than a pair of assassins who hunt gods successfully?”
“Yeah.” His lips tightened. “This guy is… the biggest danger. We lost track of him several months back.” He took out a photo. I gave it a look. A dark-haired man on a plain looking badge. His eyes were hollow, his expression drawn. He looked very sad, and very worn out. There was something slightly familiar about him, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. “This man is a servant of War.”
“Hmm.” I frowned. “Why’s he get so much fanfare?”
“FBI agent. He was called into Zion on a murder case. We don’t know the specifics of what happened, but over the course of five days, he beat one of the greatest heroes in that city, one of the greatest monsters, and the goddess Izanami in hand to hand combat, first sequentially, and then all at the same time. He was personally responsible for the destruction of the keystone. To all appearances, he was a perfectly ordinary human being until he entered the city. We’re working on the assumption that he was a deep cover agent planted by War.”
“Hmm. They usually self destruct,” I murmured. “Decent people who realize the depth of what they’ve done.”
“Yeah. Usually,” he said, his expression darkening. “Since then, he’s been on a tear. Striking members of the US government, random individuals. He doesn’t kill anyone, but he’s shown a demonstrated ability to… remove the powers of people he beats. The Secretary of the Treasury was beaten to a pulp last December, and found himself no longer able to use the supernatural powers he’d been given previously.”
I stared down at the screen. “I’ve never heard of someone able to do anything like that.”
Silas Nash’s sad, hollow eyes stared up at me. I realized why they seemed familiar. It was not, as I’d first thought, his appearance. He didn’t look anything like the man he reminded me of. But that look of hollowness, that certainty. It reminded me of the man who’d nearly killed me a year ago, the mad human who’d eaten a god’s power.
He had an expression like Randall Creed’s.
“That’s strange, though,” I said, frowning. “War always sends two agents when she’s actively interfering. Who’s the other?”
The big man grinned. “That would be me. Sergeant Major of the United States Esoteric Forces, and renegade servant of War, at your service.”