I raised an eyebrow. That was an unusual claim. “I wasn’t aware that servants of War COULD go renegade. She’s not known for playing delicately. I don’t think I’ve ever met a servant of War who was whole when she had finished with them. How did you get away from her influence?”
“Wasn’t easy,” said the man. Then he opened his door, and stepped out. I followed him into the humid air, which had lost some of its choking quality this far from the ocean. The sergeant major snapped his fingers at the driver, who promptly drove away, leaving the two of us standing in the streets of Paradise. “Good man. Prester John had him waiting for us when we arrived. He’ll be ferrying us. And I’m sorry, but the story’s a bit personal.”
The city was spectacularly beautiful. The buildings around us were modern, well-shaped. It reminded me of downtown New York City, where everything was shiny and new and bright, standing out in an attempt to be noticed by businesses. There were two obvious differences. First was the lack of the old buildings, the ones that were inhabited by those too stubborn to leave. The ones that would mar the beauty and conformity of the city. The other thing missing was the people.
“Seems… quiet, today,” I said, as I studied my surroundings.
“This part of town, closest to Prester John’s, is pretty sparsely inhabited at the best of times. Right now… Well, no one wants to be at ground zero, you know what I mean? The Vemana are all down in the slums trying to stay unnoticed. The Loa are probably scattered among them, making sure where they can that no one hurts the Vemana. And the Aztecs holed up down on their bloody crescent. Prester John’s good Christian folk sitting in their tower, waiting for the shit to hit the fan.”
“I’m surprised it hasn’t already.” I looked up at the apartment where I would be staying. A large and elegantly shaped tile mural was set across the walls at ground level, a depiction of some scene from the Bible. I presumed, anyway; I’d never read the book, and was only dimly aware of its contents. The delicate blend of blues and turquoises that made up the sea in the mural was beautiful, though. I raised my hand for a moment, and rested it against the mural.
I pulled back like I’d been shocked, a strange frisson running down my spine. “What’s wrong, ma’am?” asked the Sergeant Major. His rifle had materialized in his hands, and he was scanning the street in both directions. I reached out and touched the wall again.
It was warm to the touch. I closed my eyes, pressing my fingers harder against the mural. I could feel power flowing through it. Horace’s face appeared unbidden in my mind, and I avoided crying only because it would’ve ruined my image. “The murals,” I murmured softly. “They’re full of faith.”
The sergeant major turned, and frowned. “Can’t say I’m much of a Christian, ma’am, but they are pretty.” He stared at it for a moment, and I felt a gentle pulse of heat from the tiles, almost like the beat of a heart.
“Well… Is that how he did it?” I asked softly, a smile spreading across my lips, an odd sense of satisfaction. “That’s quite an interesting trick.” I turned towards the human. “It’s like a dreamcatcher, or a ritual circle, or a laser pointer.”
“A … laser pointer, ma’am?” He paused, and his eyes very deliberately did not lift to my ears, or drop down to my tail.
“You know what I mean. Gods, monsters, creatures, they’re sustained by faith. By belief. Most of the time, this means that they have to have someone believe in them. Different gods prefer different kinds. Like… food. Some people might be vegetarian, some might be unhappy if they don’t have meat, some might like sweets, some eat a lot, some eat a little-” I paused, and frowned. “I am absolutely starving. Where’s this apartment?”
“Just along here.” He took three long strides towards the building, and pulled open a door that had, a moment before, appeared to be just part of the facade. I stepped through into the cool air conditioning of the apartment tower. “So, what’s the significance of the food analogy?”
“Well, a vast majority of the people in the world worship God. Maybe not as devoutly as they could, but sheer numbers make up for it. Prester John nets it. A fisher of men’s souls.”
“I didn’t take you for a bible quoter,” said the sergeant major, as he pressed the call button for an elevator.
“Is that from the Bible?” I frowned. “I was thinking about what I want to eat. Do you have fish?”
“Yeah. Mister Creed gave us your preferences. So, people worship god, and it goes to Prester John?”
“I imagine that he nets it in various ways. Churches, temples, mosques, all places for him to redirect it back towards himself. Islam, Judaism, Christianity- Between the three of them, they make up more than half of the world’s population.”
“That’s… terrifying. He’s able to capture all that? Then-”
“Well, see, that’s the thing. It’s worship for God. Yahweh. The distant creator. People aren’t supposed to worship angels or saints, although they kind of do. But the vast majority of that prayer, that belief, that /thought/, it’s not really usable as is. So… the murals. It’s like… bone marrow. You can’t eat a bone raw, not really, you need to cook it and prepare it. And even then, while you can live on marrow alone, it’s not great. It doesn’t make you very strong compared to faith dedicated just to you. But it keeps you… Well, alive is the wrong word. Gods can’t starve because of lack of belief.”
The two of us stepped into the elevator as it arrived. “Well, do they just… dwindle away? Or?”
“Food isn’t the best analogy. Faith is like a combination of food, and… companionship. Imagine that you went for a week without talking to anyone, without being close to anyone, without having sex or sharing a meal. Imagine if you went for a year without it. Imagine a thousand years without it.” I shook my head. “Gods need faith like men need food, air, water, love. It makes them strong, but it also keeps them from becoming… Well, things.”
“I hear that you went for nearly eighty years without any worshipers. Our files kept track of you, where we could. How’d you manage that?”
Determination. A murderous streak. Desperation. “I’m a cat, as well as a goddess.” I smiled. “I like humans, I like being fed by them, but I don’t need them.”
He was quiet at this, and the elevator door slid smoothly open. Two heavy caliber machine guns were leveled at the door, belt feeds visible, stabilized atop tripods. Each was manned by a man in heavy black combat armor, face-concealing masks hanging over their faces.
Other than that, the apartment was gorgeous. An entire floor devoted to the room, tasteful furniture, lots of nicely upholstered sofas with deliciously large pillows. A large and sumptuous looking bed was set in one corner of the room. On the far side, four cots had been set up. The kitchenette was immaculately clean, but there was a garbage can bulging with the boxed remains of MREs. The floors were hardwood, the walls clean smooth stone, and two massive floor to ceiling glass windows were set into the east and west sides of the apartment. I noted that sofas had been strategically lined up against the glass, covered with sandbags, and were manned by more dark armored men carrying binoculars and very impressive rifles.
I turned towards the Sergeant Major, and smiled. “Nice place. You sure those machine guns would handle anything here, though?”
“Depleted uranium. Probably won’t kill anyone, but they’ve got a lot of mass, which means they can throw a target a long way away. Men, stand down.” The two men stood up from the machine guns. Something like that wouldn’t kill me, but it could inconvenience me, or even hurt, this far from Horace. “We’ve been keeping this place locked down as tightly as we can. Standing orders are maximum obfuscation. A lot of my men have families. Hiding their identities gives them protection. Names, faces, hair- There are a lot of awful things you can do with magic. We’ve learned that the hard way in the Esoteric Forces.”
I nodded, and looked over at the kitchen. “So, which one of you is the cook?”
A few minutes later, I sat at the table. The filet of salmon was fresh-caught, which was impressive considering we were over 3,000 miles from Alaska. The four men were standing at attention, still dressed in their form-fitting outfits. I’d like to consider myself fairly skilled at telling humans apart after all the time I’ve spent around them, but I would have found myself hard-pressed to tell any one of the men from the others. I listened to the sergeant drone on about the beings they’d made pacts with, all of which went over my head.
I tried to pay attention, I really did. But I was thinking about the food. The cook, who I could not tell apart from the others once he left the kitchen, had done a wonderful job. The salmon had been fileted skillfully, and lemon applied to it. There was a delicate sprig of lemongrass, just the way that Horace always prepared it. I cut off a chunk, and chewed it.
It tasted good. But that was all. It had been made by someone who was doing a job. I pushed the plate away, and straightened up. “Sergeant major, with all due respect, I am a goddess of kicking ass. I’m not much for tactics or synergizing with others. If hell breaks loose, I’ll fade into the shadows and kill things. I’ll do my best to protect your men, but that’s not really what I’m about. Okay? It’d be better for you to retreat to the shore, and get ready to leave. If it’s something I can’t handle, you nine aren’t going to do any better.”
The sergeant major was silent for a moment. Then he nodded, very stiffly. “Understood, ma’am.”
I was quiet for a moment, watching him. “It bothers you, doesn’t it? Being dismissed. Me acting as though you can’t make a difference.”
“No, ma’am,” he said, staring straight ahead.
“Sergeant, you seem very determined, and very gung ho. But this is a world of monsters, demons, and gods. I am powerful, but I am away from my place of power. I doubt I would stand a chance in a direct conflict with any of the gods of the Loa, the Aztec, let alone Prester John’s archangels. Even the lowliest Vemana would be able to tear your men limb from limb, even fed on the gruel of this place. War’s gifts are potent, but often subtle. What do you think you can do to help me here, if it comes down to a fight?”
He was quiet for a moment. Then he tilted his head down to meet my gaze. “The world’s changed a lot in the last two thousand years. We started to get a handle on reality, as a species. To ask the important questions, figure out the answers that mattered. And in the last year, that’s begun to backslide. Monsters, gods, they’re all getting active again after Zion was destroyed. The world’s turning into a darker place. Imagine what would happen to human civilization if something like the Aztec gods decided they wanted to be worshiped again?”
“I remember you humans trying to help against Nergal. You were very brave, and a good distraction. But that was about it.”
“Nergal had civilian cover. He woke up in the middle of the most populated city in the world, and he was subtle. We didn’t know he was coming. And believe me, we’re working to fix that. But we’re out here in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.” He pointed towards the northwest wall. “Approximately thirty miles from here, we’ve got a carrier group on maneuvers. You know anything about naming conventions for US ships?”
“They’re female, right?” I asked, an eyebrow raised. The Sergeant Major gave me an impassive look. “You humans and your objects. It’s all so… incestuous.”
He shook his head with a look that might have been despair. “Destroyers are named after military heroes, usually of the Marines, or the Navy. The Robert Heinlein is sitting there with three prototype railguns. They can throw a thirty pound slug at over a mile and a half a second. Fire one off, and it’ll arrive here in twenty seconds, to land like the fist of God in the unfortunate face of whatever divine entity deserves it. My job, my specialty, is spotter.”
I was quiet for a moment. “That’s War’s gift. Distraction, camouflage, luring a target in and predicting where they’ll be. That definitely seems like her style. How did you wind up slipping her grasp? She’s usually very careful.”
He crossed his arms, and his expression grew somewhat tight. “I don’t like to talk about it. She wanted me to do something unconscionable, and for a long time, I went along with it. Then she stopped appearing to me. I came to my senses, handed myself over to the military authorities.” He tilted his head to the side, revealing a small lump on the side of his throat. “If my superiors think I’ve gone rogue, if they suspect me in the slightest, my medulla oblongada turns into a small expanding chunk of ground meat.”
I raised an eyebrow, and frowned. “Your superiors did that to you?”
“I suggested it, ma’am. Tamper-proof. If absolutely anyone tries to remove it, it goes off. I don’t want to betray my country, ma’am. Ever.”
I sat with my fingers tented, and stared up at the man for a long few seconds, studying him. There was no regret in his features, no sign that he was doing anything but living the dream.
It scares me, sometimes, the things that humans can fall in love with. Even gods and demons are dicey propositions, but at least a god can embrace you. At least a demon can do something for you. I’d never met the goddess of America, and I didn’t know if there was such a creature lurking on the other side of the Cities, though if there were I was sure she’d be female. But whatever these men saw in that idea, it could make them do crazy things.
Personally, I was long past wanting a man who would die for me.
“Squad two should be returning at midnight. They’ve been scouting the Aztec’s bloody crescent. When they arrive, they’ll get eight hours sleep, then it’s their turn for watch duty, while Squad One does observation on Prester John’s tower. We’ve got a meeting with Prester John tomorrow. In the meantime, I can brief you- Ma’am?”
I stood by the window, gently pushing it open. The hot afternoon breeze of the city rushed in through the open room, as the five men stood up in alarm at my movements. “I’m feeling a bit restless. I’m going to get a feeling for the city. I’ll be back around dinner-time.” I winked, and then hopped lightly out of the window.
The rush of air felt good. I loved that moment of exhilaration, the rush of wind through my hair, and the feather-soft landing as I caught myself on all fours. In the same moment I changed, taking on feline form, and flicking my tail. My clothing shifted with my body, vanishing in the dark fur as I stood up straight. I groomed myself carefully, with excessive dignity, and brushed a paw back across my ragged ear. Then I began to stalk the streets.
In honesty, either form would have stood out. There were no domestic or feral cats in the city. There was the distant pulse of big cats, jaguars and leopards and cougars, and the occasional haughty scent of a lion, but nothing my size. Still, it couldn’t hurt to be tiny and harmless-looking. I much preferred to look weak when I was strong than the other way around.
I padded down the streets, keeping in the shadows where my dark fur would not absorb any more heat than it needed to. I sniffed at the air, and studied it.
How long had it been since I had smelled a monster, or a god, who I was not hunting? Who were, if not friendly, at least not locked in a mortal struggle with me? Creatures who could truly understand the things that I dealt with? Who understood what it was like to watch mortals die, and be torn between forgetting them and hurting forever? How long had I not had anyone who I could talk to?
I entered the part of the towns that might have been called the slums. The murals were dingier here, skin oil and constant wear from touches rendering them dull, muddy, tiles ripped out from place to place, nowhere near as attractive as the ones in the nice part of town. The buildings were shabbier, less well-maintained, closer together. There was barely room in the streets for people, let alone cars, among street sellers and shows. People were clustered close together, furtive, gathering in large crowds. The herd instinct of humanity, translated into the supernatural.
There was a cause for this fear. Not simple anxiety about the future, or the stress of a future leader. Eyes were too glassy, dances too frantic. I had been around many catastrophes over the course of history, either before, or after. Before a disaster, people spent most of their time content, with only occasional, but intense moments of concern. You caught the moment of shaking rage in one or two people, or the sight of tears. A catastrophe had already struck these people.
I brushed up against the legs of a young woman. She had pale skin, and her eyes were rimmed with red. She crouched down, gently picked me up, and buried her face in my fur. I purred for a while, then leapt from her arms, moving onwards into the city.
I didn’t see wounds on anyone. There was no smell of corpses in the air, no tang of blood, no rot, no flies. Whatever it was that had done this, it had left no sign of its actions. There was no sign of the Loa out among the streets. There was no distant noise of parties. No Ghede having fun among the populace.
Anything that could make Baron Samedi’s family stop their carousing was dire indeed. I turned back towards the apartment, and was ready to return home, when I heard something familiar and entirely unexpected. A high, whirring noise, combined with the sound of protesting metal.
I leapt six feet into the air to land on the ledge of an open window. A small two story apartment building, the interior of the kitchen was messy. A woman stood within, dressed in red. Her skin was almost the same shade as mine, her hair red like fresh-spilled blood, her eyes green like greed, her teeth the color of iron. She turned towards me, and smiled as she proffered the small can of tuna. “Hungry?”
“War.” I smiled brightly as I sat down on the ledge. “How long’s it been?”
“Three years, I think,” she said, smiling. “It was when you visited Sierra Leone, wasn’t it? Hunting down that-”
“Cthugha,” I agreed, nodding. “I can’t believe I’m meeting you here again. God, it’s such a shame that I’m going to have to kill you.”
My claws were out, raised, pressed against her throat, my body human-shaped once more. She had her machete out, and the tip pressed against my chest. Our eyes met, and we were still for a moment.
“I’m not here to destroy the City,” she said very softly. The machete pulled away from my chest. I didn’t fall for it.
“Yeah, and you weren’t trying to undermine the hunt last time.” I smiled cheerfully. “Come on, War, I-”
“It’s Bella,” she said.
My hand dropped from her throat, and I stared at her for a few seconds. “You’re fucking kidding me. You-” I began to laugh, leaning back against the wall, the sound of amusement filling the room. “You got tamed. You’re a house-pet.”
“It’s Betty, now. And all of that certainty, all of that anger at humans, the whole omnicidal bent, ‘they’ll disappoint you every time’, and one of them finally got you. I can’t believe it.” I leaned back against the wall, grinning. “I fucking told you so.”
“Betty, you’re in danger.”
“I’m always in danger. Come on, am I going to get shot right now?”
“Then we have time.” I took a seat on the counter, and smiled a mile wide. “Come on. I’ve been waiting over two thousand years for all of your smug ‘domestic animal’ remarks to bite you in the ass. All that time, ‘hahaha you actually started caring for the humans, I can’t believe you would let yourself be hurt by them, you know that they’re as mayflies’. What did he do?”
“He didn’t kill me, when I gave him the chance and good reason.”
I nodded sagely. “That’s true love alright. Well, fantastic. The balance of power just got bent around some guy’s d-” I paused for a moment. “How is he, actually? You’ve slept with him by now, I hope. You’ve been needing to get laid for all of recorded history.”
“Betty, please. This is very dangerous. For both of us. If the others find out what I’ve done, if they suspect that this is more than just a ploy, that I really have given up on destroying humanity, they will flay me, rip away my power, and make someone else become War.” She looked down at her hands. “I don’t want to die. Not now.”
I threw my arms around her shoulders, and hugged the mad Horseman. “Come on. We can take them. You and me, Wa- Bella, and Betty. Come on, who could stop us?”
She was quiet for several seconds. I sighed.
“Yeah. If Horace was here, I’d wipe the floor with that band of assholes. Can’t believe I agreed to let him go off on his own. He’s probably getting eaten by a snake right now.” I frowned. “Well, let me guess. The usual omniscience bullshit. You know everything that’s going on in this city, you could solve every goddamn thing in a second here because you know the truth of what’s happening, but oooh, if you gave it away, everyone would know that you were the one who’s behind it, and what kind of a chessmaster would you be then?”
She smiled wanly. “It’s good to work with a professional again.”
“You ARE going to have to tell me about this guy you fell in love with, though.”
“Betty…” She had a pained look. “It’s not like that. He’s a mortal. A fantastic mortal, but we both know it can’t be like that.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Just like you couldn’t ever change your mind about destroying humanity. I’ve been through all this, little sister.” I grinned.
“We’re not related in any sense of the word,” she said sourly, though she couldn’t hide the gleam of appreciation in her eyes.
“Yeah, but you’re about to go down the same road that I did. I can’t wait. Give it a year or so, you’re going to be fighting for humans everywhere. You just wait and see if I’m wrong.” I leaned back on the counter, smiling. “So. I’m in danger.”
“Yes.” Her face grew dark. “You know about Jack and Jill.”
“Vaguely. God-killers? Did they really manage that?”
“Yes. And I’m fairly certain they’ll come after you. Betty, you could probably take them with your human at your back, but here, you’re vulnerable. If you fight them, they’ll kill you.”
“Maybe,” I said, smiling nonchalantly.
“I’m not willing to chance it. Death’s been getting… unstable. She’s interfering way too much. She gave these two more power than was remotely wise. If you’re in danger… I can’t protect you directly. But there are things in motion.”
I nodded slowly. I knew a few things about… Bella. She tricked people. She led them on wild goose chases. This wouldn’t be the first time she’d pretended to be reformed. It wasn’t the first time she’d lied about falling in love. It wasn’t the first time she’d fucked with me. That was just part of our friendship- Bella tested the people she cared about, constantly. It was a pain in the ass, but important. “That marine. Can I trust him?”
“You can trust him to be what he is. Nothing more, nothing less.”
I sighed cheerfully, and slapped Bella on the shoulder. “I love our talks. You’d better not be fucking with me, or I’m going to tear your throat out!”
“I know, Betty.” She smiled. “Good luck. I’ll talk with you again soon.” Then she was gone, only the lingering scent of gunpowder left on the air.
I wondered for a few moments about who it was who’d gotten to her. I frowned softly. There seemed to be an obvious candidate, but my mind wasn’t making the right connections to reach it. I could feel the little interference, the way the thought slipped away from me. That wasn’t entirely odd. Bella would prefer a man who people wouldn’t notice. She liked survivors. Big, flashy humans burned out fast in this world, here and then gone in an instant. If it was someone, it’d be someone like Horace, who’d gone unnoticed, who would be ignored by her enemies. I thought of Horace again, and felt annoyingly gloomy for another long few seconds, arms crossed as I stared down at the tile floor.
When I returned to the apartment tower after several more hours of wandering, I came in through the window, badly surprising one of the men, which he communicated through a muffled yelp. I was impressed by the way he didn’t shoot me, though. The sergeant major stood in the kitchen, and gave me a dark look as he prepared the meals. “I’d appreciate it, ma’am, if you didn’t scare the hell out of my men.” The door opened, and the other four soldiers entered, dressed in the same black body armor. I idly wondered how discreet they could be like that, when I noticed one of the suits flicker slightly, its surface changing color from matte black to a delicate and varied olive tone for a moment, and then back. “Corporal, report.”
One of the men, indistinguishable from the others, snapped off a quick salute. “Lot of cooking fires going on in the Bloody Crescent. Lot of stone dust, too. Knapping tools, pigments. Looks kind of like re-armament, stone age style.” There was no trace of humor in the man’s report. They were taking their work seriously. I could respect a human who understood the danger they were in.
“If we see any sign of raiding parties or slavers, we get active. Harassment, disincentives.” I raised an eyebrow at this.
“Humanitarian work, Sergeant?”
“I don’t like seeing civilians murdered, but it’s more than just that. The Aztecs take power from blood, hearts, flayed skins, sacrificed captives. Gathering prisoners means they’re getting ready for something bigger. Delaying the process until the Loa or Prester John can kneecap them is preferable. If they take the others by surprise, we suspect they could have control of the city within a couple of days, and they’ve got a nasty habit of snowballing.”
I nodded slowly, and leaned back in my chair, pushing the tender crab cake around the plate slowly. “You know, gods. We have a lot of senses. For example, I’m very aware of some things when it comes to taste.” I lifted a flake of the cake. “Like, for example, when someone is cooking for me because they have a mission to do, but secretly loathes me.”
There was a very ringing silence in the room.
“I understand why you men were chosen. I doubt it was because you have a deep and abiding love for gods. I’m willing to bet that many of you have been hurt by what deities do.” I let the fork drop onto the plate, my eyes wandering around the room. Even with the masks, I could tell that not one of them met my eyes. “I imagine that if it comes right down to it, you’d kill every god on this island to protect your country.”
I could sense the slightest tension in the sergeant major’s arm, his fingers twitching involuntarily.
“And I don’t much care for you, either. Wearing that armor, hiding your faces, not using your names. You seem less like people because of it. Less like the things I seek to protect. That I have protected since before your species had cities. I love one human, and I would kill you all if you threatened him.” I slammed my hands on the table, and every man in the room raised his gun towards me, aiming at my face. I let them realize what they were doing, and lower the guns, before I continued.
“What we are fighting right now, it wants to kill your country. It wants to kill my human. I may not like you, you may not like me, but our goals are in alignment. As long as you are straight with me about your plans, I will be the most glorious ally you have ever experienced. I have had humans distrust me, and think I was a monster before. It never turned out well for them. I can’t say that it always turned out roses for the ones who trusted me, either. But the monsters that killed those humans I cared about never lived long enough to celebrate their victory.”
I stood up, and turned around, turning my back on the guns. “I’m going to get some sleep. Tomorrow, Sergeant, first thing, you and me are meeting a man of God.”