I woke up with my arms wrapped tightly around a pillow, and grumbled. The bed was uncomfortably empty. and Horace was nowhere to be found. That irritated me until I remembered where I was, and where he was, which tufearrned irritation to depression. I crawled out of bed and found the extremely jittery looking Sergeant Major, a cup of coffee in one hand, his eyes narrowed. “I thought you said we were going to Prester John’s first thing.”
I yawned, nodded, opened the refrigerator, and grabbed a small carton of cream. Horace never let me drink it at home, talking about how it wasn’t healthy for cats. I’d made the counter-argument that it was perfectly healthy for Egyptian Goddesses, but he still never bought the stuff. I tossed back half the carton, and smiled at him. “I did. We’ll head out in a little while.”
“It’s nearly noon.”
“I said first thing, not the crack of dawn.” I took another sip. “It’s an important difference. I’m a goddess, I need to get enough sleep, or I might not be able to investigate properly.”
He stared at me for several seconds. I could see the desire in him to challenge me on that. But he was a soldier. He was trained to obey authority. Oftentimes, the main outlet for defiance in soldiers was mindless obedience.
It may seem odd that a goddess of war would conflict with soldiers, or have some distaste for the regimented life of the military. It wasn’t entirely fair, what I was doing to him. I’ve just had bad experiences with soldiers, in the past. Men who do what is asked of them, even when their hearts, their morality say otherwise, are little better than tools. And while I may sometimes respect humans, I have no respect whatsoever for tools. And humans who make themselves tools are… a little bit sad.
It’d long been a sticking point between Bella and I. She never respected the people she made pacts with. She just wanted to hurt them. I thought of that poor Silas man, and wondered how he’d feel when he realized she had abandoned her course out of love. To go through all of that pain for someone only to find out you didn’t matter after all.
I polished off the rest of the cream in one long chug, and took a luxurious shower, washing myself clean fastidiously. When I’d finished, I finally dressed myself. The soldiers hadn’t reacted at all to my nudity, and frankly, that just creeped me out. I’d met humans who had no sexual feelings one way or the other, but they still could take some aesthetic pleasure in my appearance. These men acted more like ants than actual people. I briefly thought of spartoi, and myrmidons, as the Master Sergeant and I descended in the elevator.
“Where to, ma’am?” asked the Vemana driver. He had the door held open for me, the hat still pulled low over his eyes. Many creatures instinctively hid their eyes when trying to conceal their true nature. I wondered, briefly, if he were some old enemy who’d sought refuge in Paradise. Perhaps he’d make an attempt on my life. That’d liven things up.
“Prester John’s tower,” I said. “And take it slow. I want to enjoy the sights a bit.”
The center of the city seemed to belong to those who had gathered the lion’s share of Prester John’s favor. There were not many of them, at the moment. Monsters and minor gods walked the streets, exchanging furtive glances. I did not know whether they were staying off the streets, distancing themselves from the King, or he was distancing himself from them. As the car approached, they stopped, staring at us. Staring at me. “What happened here, sergeant? What happened to these people?”
The sergeant looked up, eyes widening a bit. Then his expression returned to neutral. “You noticed that too? It took us three days reconnaissance to conclude there was something wrong. We arrived here barely a week ago, so we’re fairly sure that it happened before then, because there haven’t been any major changes. But how do you tell what’s changed when you don’t know how it was before?”
“Pretty simple. You assume normalcy.” I stared out of the window. “Figure out what’s missing that should be in any healthy city. Unfortunately, I’ve spent the last few years in New York.”
The Sergeant Major barked out a laugh, and then his face stiffened. I grinned at him. “Sorry, ma’am.”
“Don’t be. I like humans much more than I like ants.” The car rolled to a stop, and the driver opened the door.
From this angle, whatever metal or paint that coated the face of the building took on a different color. The front of the building was iridescent, shining like the scales of a fish or the surface of a pearl, gleaming brilliantly. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen, the lines arching together as they rose towards the roof of the building, becoming like a tremendous pair of gates.
“What an eyesore,” muttered the Sergeant Major.
“But it’s so shiny,” I said, grinning at him. I pressed the buzzer. “Queen Betty and the Sergeant Major, here to see Prester John.”
The door opened, with a dramatic lack of urgency. There was a distant blast of trumpets as a figure stepped through the door. Male, though not excessively masculine. Fair blonde hair fell in curls around his shoulders, a delicate blue robe around him, a ledger balanced carefully in one arm, marketing materials visibly blooming from it. Six great pale-feathered wings surrounded him, two before his eyes, two over his bare feet, and a third pair flapping. They reminded me of the world’s largest and most succulent dove, and I wiped my mouth self-consciously.
“Bastet. Goddess of War and Mothers, Lion-turned-Cat, She of the Black F-”
“Come on,” I said, smiling pleasantly. “I know it all. It’s hot out here, let’s get into the air-conditioning.”
Gabriel stopped with no sign of being bothered, and bowed his head, turning to enter. The Sergeant Major coughed into his hand, and swayed a bit. Gabriel looked over his shoulder. “I apologize. The presence of true divinity such as mine can be dangerous for mortals. If you wish, you may stay in the-”
“I’ll come,” he said, growling. “Gods don’t scare me.” Gabriel simply nodded again.
The receptionist was an old man, balding, gray-haired, wearing what resembled nothing so much as a bathrobe. A laminated badge with “Hello! My name is PETER”, the ‘Peter’ scrawled in a delicate yet somehow agitated calligrapher’s hand, pinned to his chest. He nodded at the two of us, and wrote something in the book in front of him. Gabriel walked on past him, and the three of us entered the lobby proper. A large fish tank occupied one wall, dozens of large, colorful, and succulent fish swimming in gentle circles inside of the tank. I tried to focus on Gabriel, with limited success.
“Goddess. How long has it been since I last saw you?”
“About three hundred years,” I said. “You told me that the gods could not survive in the world to come, that they would suffer as man grew proud. That while my pantheon could not take me back, I could always become one of Prester John’s mercenaries. As I recall, I told you what you could do with your city.”
“Ah, yes. I must say, you have at least survived. It is the rare god who could adapt the way you have. You look, if anything, stronger than when we last met.” His wings withdrew, revealing his face, and his feet, flapping behind him. His expression showed genuine pain and sympathy as his eyes lifted to the ragged hole in my ear. “But I fear that the years have not been entirely kind to you, either. May I?”
I shrugged. He lifted his hand to my ear, touched the rim of the hole very gently, and then winced.
“Yeah. It won’t heal. You know how it is. Some scars you don’t want to fade.”
“And others refuse, even if you do.” He sighed, and shook his head. “We are building a better way here, Bastet. A way where there is always faith and prayer to be shared among gods. Where we need not fight with one another for believers, where all may work in the service of the Lord. It is not too late to be born again, Betty.”
I slowly nodded my head. “I saw that. The murals. Gathering the faith of everyone who believes. Nice trick. It reminds me a little bit of an animal shelter. Have you ever been to one?”
“I cannot say that I have. My duty is to humans; It is up to humans to care for beasts.”
“Yeah. Well, I’ve been to a few. They’re good flophouses when you can’t find anything better. The thing is, they’re limited to the charity of humans. While there are some extremely charitable humans, most of them aren’t. Many of them can’t really afford to be. So there’s only so many resources, and only so many caring homes. And an animal that doesn’t find a home quick, it’s not likely to find one ever. And there are always more animals in need. So, when there’s not enough food to go around, when there’s not enough space… Well, I saw it, once. It was painless. Humane. Still an execution, though.”
There was a long silence, and Gabriel’s expression became aggrieved. “You make it sound as though we would murder.”
“Oh, hey,” I said, smiling. “It’s better than the alternative. It at least gives them a chance at finding a happy home, which is more than most of them would get without humans. It seems harsh, but it’s a consequence of the world we live in.” I leaned in closer, and my teeth gleamed. “But you’d better believe I didn’t stay long in those shelters.” I patted Gabriel on the cheek. “So, no thanks on the offer of becoming one of your hired goons. I fight for humans. Never gods.”
“God,” Gabriel said, frowning slightly, the capital G evident in his tone. “It doesn’t surprise me, and we will, of course, not begrudge you your independence. The offer will remain open.” He smiled pleasantly. “All come to God in the end, after all.”
“Mmm. What happened here, anyway?” I asked, nonchalantly. Gabriel stiffened, and then relaxed, meeting my eye. I could tell he was getting ready to lie to me
“Nothing in particular. The Loa stir discontent, the Aztecs foment rebellion. As always, so now, just with an actual purpose this time. They believe that the destruction of Paradise’s keystone would grant them their freedom, and allow them to take the world as theirs. A foolish, prideful lie to themselves. Nothing more, nothing less.” He pressed the button for the elevator. “Michael will see you, and explain the situation in greater detail.” The stainless doors slid open soundlessly, revealing a sizable elevator. The back wall was glass, providing an excellent view of the island as it ascended. I frowned up at the elevator panel. There weren’t any numbers. They appeared to be astrological symbols from the few I recognized- ☽, ☿, ♀, ☉, ♂, ♃, ♄, ★, and ☋. It didn’t make a lick of sense to me. The ☿ lit up.
There was an obvious tension on the floor as we entered. It resembled a barracks and communication center. Winged men in security uniforms sped back and forth, passing around reports, maintaining weapons. Gleaming black shotguns lined the walls. I was guessing that they were not actually shotguns. Firearms didn’t work well for angels. Several hard looks were directed our way, but when we didn’t proceed to draw weapons and assault the barracks, they found more important threats to deal with.
The sole exception stood against the far wall. His features were androgynous, neither masculine nor feminine, but an almost perfect blend of both. He dressed in a pair of jeans and a white T-shirt, the shirt’s sleeves rolled up, a pack of cigarettes visibly bulging along one slender, steel-cable-tense bicep. The angel was built along those lines, slender, petite. Almost as though meant to hide his strength. It was a spectacular failure. No wings emerged from his back. A single slender cigarette sat between the archangel’s lips, its tip flaring bright as a star. No smoke rose from it.
“Bastet,” said Michael, nonchalantly, giving me the slightest nod of his head, letting the cigarette hang from his lips as he spoke. “Still fighting the good fight.”
“Michael,” I said, bowing my head. “The fight would be a lot better if you were to join in.”
“Mmm. The coach side-lined me.” Michael sighed softly. “Come into my office.”
It was spartan, to say the least. Barely larger than a storage closet, a desk sat with a simple, severe wooden chair. The chairs on our side were actually more comfortable- At least they had padding. Michael’s bright grey eyes met mine. I smiled. “Wishing you’d stayed in the real world?”
“It doesn’t really matter what an angel wants. I’ve had to teach that lesson to other angels enough times, it sank in for me.” Michael leaned back. “If my place were elsewhere, he would have told me by now.”
I’d never fought Michael. You could tell from the way I was still alive. I’d never known anything to have beaten him. His name meant something along the lines of ‘Who is greater than God?’, and he was a living object lesson. Even if I didn’t believe in the existence of an omnipotent creator deity, three billion humans did, and they believed that Michael was the embodiment of his protection, and his instruction to wayward children. I’d never met Lucifer, either, but Michael was living proof that he still existed only because God deemed it important.
All of that made for a terrifyingly potent being. I looked out the small window behind Michael’s head, down at the slums, and the distant burning crescent of the Aztecs. “Gotta say, Michael. I’m surprised that those lot have the guts to challenge Prester John while you’re still around here.”
“You know how I am. I’m the cop, not the vigilante. I have to wait for someone else to strike the first blow before I can get involved. Evil must be given a chance, you see. It must actually act, not merely be thought, or there is no justice at all. I must be reactive, for to strike people down for what they are, what they think, rather than what they do, is horrific.” He tapped the cigarette on the ash tray in front of him. “But I cannot deny, I sometimes wish the Lord would allow me to box their uncouth ears.”
I smiled, as the Sergeant Major nodded quietly. “Michael. Between the two of us. Why am I here?”
Michael chuckled softly. “Prester John hasn’t told me directly. He plays his cards close to his chest. But if I were to hazard a guess…?” He shrugged. “Someone needs their ears boxed before they do evil, rather than after. You know about the Vemana, and the murals, I’m guessing?”
“I know about the murals. What’s the deal with the Vemana?”
“Mercenaries,” said Michael, nodding softly. “Divinities and creatures that you might have hunted, had they not decided to come here. The church has always embraced other gods, monsters, spirits, so long as they were willing to play the proper role in the church. The Loa seemed like they could play ball with us for a long time, but they’re beginning to chafe. Not that I can blame them. They’ve got their history to think about.” He sighed softly. “Why is it that people never appreciate the good you do for them?”
I thought of Randall Creed. “We don’t always do our best, do we? Sometimes we fuck up. Perfection’s impossible-” Michael gave me a sharp look. “For most of us,” I sighed, rolling my eyes. “But people still want perfection. I guess that’s why your church is so popular.”
He looked down at his desk, and frowned, lips puckering around the cigarette as he took a puff. No smoke emerged from his nostrils. “Prester John deals with the financial side of the church, more than the military. Do the men of my Order still help you?”
I winced. “I’m afraid that the Order of Saint Michael collapsed about 40 years ago. There just weren’t so many threats to be had to justify it. Things got… quiet, there, for a while.”
Michael nodded slowly. “It’s the way of men. And gods, and angels, and devils, and monsters, I suppose. Peace is a drug, and there is none more insidious. Once you’ve had a taste, you’ll do anything for more. Of course, war is no better, is it?” He smiled. “I suppose you should go see Prester John. He’ll be on the eighth floor.”
I turned to leave, and made it to the door. Then Michael coughed, drawing my eyes back to him.
“One more thing, Betty. A warning. The other pantheons will desire your strength, too. They will offer, and inveigle, all in the hopes of convincing you to fight for their side. If it must be, it must be. But remember. I will raise my hand against evil, wherever I find it.”
I smiled. “I’ll make sure you don’t find any evil I do, then.” We shared a laugh, and then I walked out, the Sergeant Major following me. We entered the elevator, and after some brief puzzling, I pressed the ★.
“I’ve got to say, you seem to know an awful lot of the gods here,” the Sergeant said, frowning at me.
“I spent the last twenty-five hundred years protecting your species from things. You meet a lot of gods in my line of work, and earn a lot of respect. I know most of the most powerful people on this island.” I frowned. “Still not happy about being here, though. Prester John is going to have quite a lot of explaining to do.”
The view from the eighth floor was spectacular. It was a single large conference room, the walls glass from floor to ceiling. They gave an unparalleled view of the entire island, from coast to coast. The glittering afternoon sun turned the water into a stunning vista of turquoise, teal, and cerulean, white sand sparkling at the edge of the water. Prester John sat with his back to it, at the head of a massive table. It was made of lacquered wood, and had to be nearly a hundred feet long. It was also a single piece.
He gestured for the two of us. The walk was substantial, but a large buffet tray had been spread out at his end. I also noticed a delicate golden bird cage, with a cover over it. I took out several long sections of salmon and sat down with them. As I did, I noticed the words above the elevator. “Faith, Love, and Hope? Odd name for a floor.”
Prester John was an older man, middle aged, salt and pepper hair and a grand beard. His skin was dark, though it was difficult to tell whether he was Indian, Middle Eastern, African, or something else altogether. It was much more likely that he was simply… foreign. Whatever kingdom he’d once ruled was centuries gone. He wore a white business suit, sparklingly clean, a red tie tucked into the jacket. His smile was pearly white was he turned towards me.
“In Dante’s Paradiso, he saw nine levels of Heaven, in ascending celestial order; The nine crystal spheres. Each represented a different virtue. Some were adulterated, though still virtues. But faith, love, and hope were always pure.” He smiled. “So long as you are guided by those three virtues, you cannot go far wrong.”
I flicked an ear, curious. “Nine. So, why are you on the eighth floor, instead of the ninth?”
“Ah,” said Prester John, and smiled. “That floor is reserved for… a higher power.”
“Cute,” I said, rolling my eyes. “John, I’m a busy cat. Why did you ask me here?”
He was quiet for a moment. “Bastet. Why did you not join the cities? Each time one was made, you were invited, offered a place. Even when the gods could no longer sustain themselves in the world, you stayed. You did not, perhaps, thrive, but you are the only god who has stayed in the world of men, and not become… lost. Do you ever think about what drove you to do that?”
I was quiet for a moment. Then I looked at the Sergeant Major. “You mind going down to the lobby? I’ll be with you in… not too long.” He looked discomforted by the idea, his eyes flicking to the floor-to-ceiling windows, no doubt thinking of how many snipers might be watching. “I’ll be fine,” I murmured softly. He nodded, and began the long walk back towards the elevator. When the stainless steel doors had closed behind him, I sighed, and spoke again. “You know the Horsemen agreed to the Cities.”
“Why didn’t anyone else seem to find that as suspicious as hell?!” I asked, my voice more vehement than I had intended. “Didn’t the rest of you get that the only reason they would suggest something was in order to use it to kill humanity? It was a transparent trap! They wanted us to separate ourselves from the humans, so that there’d be nothing to protect them!”
“Oh, Betty,” John said, his expression rather sad.
“You must know how many times, humanity has come within a hairsbreadth of self-destruction in the past hundred years. They need us. To guide them, to protect them, from themselves, and from-” I looked down at the slums. “Those who would do them harm.”
“Betty, you are a goddess of mothers. And like all mothers, you share a few common issues. It is true, humanity faces great challenges. Existential threats. But that is what makes them strong. Throwing themselves into the teeth of the night.” He reached out, and gently set a hand on my wrist. “You do not want humanity to suffer, but you fear it so badly that you do not let them grow, either. There may come a day, not so very far in the future, where you are not needed as humanity’s protector. When you must gracefully step down. You cannot mother them forever.”
I frowned at him. “What are you saying?”
He stood up, and turned towards the northwest, his eyes distant as he stared at the horizon, where the water glittered like diamonds. “I respect men. Men like that Sergeant Major. I know about the power he holds in his hands. I personally helped to finance the Robert Heinlein, and agreed to allow the US government to use it if they saw fit on this island. The spear, ready to smite those who believe that humanity does not have a right to choose.” He smiled. “And there are greater weapons still. Men reach ever higher.”
“Sort of like the Tower of Babel?” I asked innocently. He turned his head, and gave me a very level look.
“I’m fully aware that you have little to no interest in the Bible. Do you just have a talent for knowing just enough to needle people?”
I smiled. “Maybe.”
He laughed. “Well, without needles, confidence becomes arrogance, and rulers swell like overstuffed balloons. And it’s true, Betty. While I dream of a day when your endless war will be over, that day has not come yet. We still need you. It was, I believe, a good thing that you stayed in the world. It let humans develop undisturbed.” He sat. “You know why Michael cannot intervene. And I fear that by the time he can, things will have taken a turn for the worse. You are active. You straddle the lines between justice and violence. You find vermin. That is why I asked you here. Find what the Horsemen have seeded in my city, root it out, and destroy it.”
I opened my mouth to respond, when there was a sudden squawk. A harsh voice said “She will betray you! She will betray you!” I jumped nearly a foot in the air, my tail fluffing out to nearly double its normal size.
“Oh. I apologize. Iblis, making trouble again?” The king sighed, and gently lifted the cover off the bird cage. A brilliant scarlet macaw sat within, giving a baleful glare. That was surprising, considering that it had black, beady eyes in the middle of an expanse of white skin, surrounded by gorgeously colorful feathers. I struggled very hard not to drool, or pounce. Then I noticed the delicate six pointed star on the cage’s circular door.
“Your bird looks impertinent, and delicious. May I?”
“Awk! Your plan will fail! She cannot be trusted!” The bird let out a little whistle after this, which sounded remarkably akin to a train whistle. It was also looking in my direction. I licked my chops, and it went quiet.
“I cannot recommend it,” said Prester John. “This is my good friend, Iblis. Not THE Iblis, of course. A pet name for the first demon I captured. He always gives bad advice, advice that will harm those who listen. And that, in itself, is a very helpful thing.” He opened the cage, and the parrot alighted on his hand.
“Yeah, I guess. Just do the opposite of what it says. Of course, what if it decided to give good advice?”
“Change is a privilege reserved, I am afraid, mostly for men. Many things can change the nature of a man, but almost nothing can change the nature of the supernatural. It is a product of being a being of belief. You are what others think of you, and little can change that. Even humans have trouble fighting expectations.” He lifted Iblis up, and opened the window. The parrot launched itself out, squawking loudly into the bright day. “Nothing so faithful as a demon with nowhere left to go. Meaning no disrespect, but you are a wonderful example of that, aren’t you?”
I shrugged. “You know, there are gods who’d smite you down to the bone for calling them a demon.”
“And you aren’t one of them. That’s why you’re still alive. You allow men to make light of you, and turn their wrath away. You were their companion, never their ruler. God was to be obeyed, but he was ever reasonable. Moses was allowed to bargain with him on the number of commandments. Abraham was asked only to show devotion, not cut his child’s throat. Even the most high could show respect, and forgive impertinence.” He smiled. “On Monday, I will hold a meeting. An attempt to convince the people of the town that they should hold together. To unite us in this matter. To show that the church holds the way forward. I hope you will be there. Best of luck on your work in the meantime. Root out that which is poisonous.”
I descended in the elevator, and pondered what I’d discovered from the conversations. I nodded at the Sergeant Major as I joined him outside the building. “Well, not a lot of answers, but some very interesting questions. That’s always the best part, the questions. You start getting the answers, and they always wind up being disappointing.” I sighed. “You can take the car home, I’m going to walk around town again.”
“You know there’s a shapeshifter potentially on the loose, screwing with us, right?” He asked, frowning at me.
“Well, if I suddenly start acting out of character, like by agreeing to travel in groups and following commands, it’d make you awfully suspicious, wouldn’t it?” I smiled. “Come on, make out with that poster of America under your bunk while I’m walking. I’ll never know about it, that way.”
“I-” He looked much too guilty. “I don’t make out with it.” But he took the hint, and got into the car. The driver was gone in a few seconds, turning a corner. He drove a bit recklessly, when he wasn’t ordered to do otherwise. I shook my head softly.
Instead of traveling west, towards the apartment, I walked south, towards the beach. Before I reached that, I was in the slums. This time, I was in my divine shape, largely human aside from the ears and the tail. I walked through the crowds of scavengers and the downtrodden, keeping my ears open.
“Don’t put any weight on it… I know, but if you- Look, the bone will not heal properly, even if you can regenerate, unless it is properly braced. Yes. Yes, here. Peace be with you. If you feel any pain or grinding, return here right away.”
The woman looked up. She sat in the small clinic. Dark hair was pulled back around her head, and her skin was the same warm, chocolate brown as mine. I bent forward, and flicked her nose gently. “None of that chameleon stuff. I don’t need you to take a form I’m comfortable with. If I did, you’d look like a fish dinner.”
She sighed, and breathed out. Her skin tinted up, becoming paler, until it was the color of coffee drunk by someone who hated the taste of coffee, creamy and pale by comparison. Her features shifted slightly, becoming more Middle Eastern than old-Egyptian, and I smiled. “Sorry. It helps relax the patients to have someone who looks more like them offering care. I got a bit wrapped up in things. It is good to see you again, Bastet.”
“You too, Raphael. Still healing the world one wound at a time, huh?”
“Yes.” She sighed again, standing up, gathering the bandages. “The faith we parcel out helps, but some here have been badly neglected. They need a personal touch. The Loa help them, but there’s never any such thing as too many hands offering aid, is there?” She smiled. “And you, Bastet? I can see the wounds on you. Did you come seeking me out for help?”
“No. Just answers. A lot of things aren’t being talked about, Raphael. And the people who don’t answer, the way they don’t answer, it tells you a lot.” I smiled. “What happened here?”
“Hmm. An interesting technique.” She smiled tiredly, packing up her supplies. “Easily foiled, though, if one has a greater or more interesting secret. For example, there’s news for you. Good, and bad.”
“Oh?” I asked, an eyebrow raised. “Good news? What a nice surprise.”
“Yes.” She sat down on a stool, and smiled up at me, with an expression that screamed of weariness beyond words. “Your long war is finally at an end, Bastet.”
“Oh, humanity’s safe?” I asked, my voice dripping with sarcasm. “You angels going to finally start pulling your weight? I can retire and have children?”
“No,” she said, and her voice was very soft. “You are going to die. Azrael has written it in his book. Sunday night. It won’t be particularly peaceful or painless, but it will be quick. Everything dies, Bastet, and you always knew you were going to die in battle.”
My heart raced. My teeth clenched. My nostrils flared. Fight or flight reflex, triggered by mere words. I thought of Horace, and of everyone around me. “I’ll fight it. Whatever it is. I’ll kill it.”
“Oh, Bastet.” Raphael shook her head softly as she pulled the backpack on and closed the clinic’s doors, locking them and pulling the cage down in front of them. She began to walk towards the tower, and paused, looking over her shoulder, back at me. “You can’t fight fate. I’m sorry.”