I stretched out on the small, inflatable raft, and frowned down at the cut on my arm, tail flicking. Bella had always been a bit overdramatic. It was a bad habit of humans, and she was oh-so-very human in some ways. Mind you, I wasn’t against the occasional display of showmanship, but I didn’t take it too seriously. I hadn’t, for a very long time. I slid a length of fabric torn from my clothes around it, tying it tight.
Ji-a looked up at me uncertainly. “Was the cut bad?”
“No.” I leaned back. “But it lets me get away with raising the hemline a bit further.” I smiled, and she watched me warily. “That was a joke, Ji-a. Relax.”
“Are you going to kill me?” she asked softly.
I leaned back, and looked at her appraisingly. I wasn’t going to kill her, obviously, for several reasons, but I could still let her sweat. “Tell me. Would you have killed those men in the apartment building?”
“If they were a threat. Sometimes, you don’t have a choice. The powers Jack and I were given, they can let us do a lot, but they’re meant to kill. They don’t help us to protect ourselves, except by killing. They’re not like…” She looked up again, staring at the small island island. The boat slowly rocked. The island was sinking- Not quickly, but at a pace of a few fractions of an inch every minute or so. Within a day or two, it would be submerged again. There would probably be a lot of frantic scientists trying to figure out what happened, but they’d probably dismiss it as an icequake, or a glacier grinding against the seabed, just like they did in 1997.
“I know what it’s like, Ji-a. You and I, and Jack even… we’re a lot alike.” I lifted my head. “Mind you, I’m a lot better at it, and choose my targets much more carefully, but you can hardly be blamed for that. I find that the Horsemen don’t give much direct attention to the things I take care of. Nobody seems to care about the rats.” I sighed. “So why did you want to kill me? What did I ever do to you? I mean, you know the kind of work that I do, right?”
Ji-a looked down. “You killed a friend of Jack’s. A man he respected. Someone he cared about.” My lips went dry. “They’d started a correspondence soon after I met Jack. He gave Jack advice, helped him to learn more about this world, how to fight. The old man was part of this order, which fought monsters and gods, and he thought that Jack had the right idea. Then… he started getting low. Talked about how there was no hope. That we’d never beat the things. Jack kept meaning to visit him, but the pressure was on from Interpol and Amaterasu, and we could never get there. We got a letter from him, a little less than a year ago, telling us that he’d regained hope. He asked for us to come, to provide backup to fight this god that was coming back, but we couldn’t make it in time.”
She looked away, and my stomach turned into a horrible little knot as I said the name. “Randall Creed.”
“We pieced together what happened afterward. We had to raid his apartment while we were in New York City. A god rose. A powerful god. He changed the goddamn moon into a second sun, he had to be powerful. And Randall ate him. Didn’t he? He took the power into himself, and he cured everyone who was sick. He saved them all.”
“So why the fuck did you murder him?”
I looked aside. “I didn’t murder him. It was my fault, more or less, but I wasn’t the one who killed him. I couldn’t. He fucking beat me into the ground. Gods… we get so arrogant over the years. Most of us don’t train, you know? Humans are born so weak they can’t walk, can’t feed themselves, can barely even open their eyes. It takes nearly two decades for a human to be considered an adult. So they get strong. But the thing is, they can’t take in the power of a god. They can’t survive it. It destroys them, or it consumes them. And it did for him. At first. But then… I don’t know how.” I looked up at the sky. “The only thing he said was…”
The memory flashed in my eyes. The man had been old, decrepit, when I’d seen him in the park. He’d walked into the apartment, glowing with power. Young again. Strong. Totally in control. Unafraid.
“‘The trick, is not to fear them.'”
She stared up at me. “So…”
“So he won. He had it all. He’d triumphed over a god, and stolen its power. He wiped the floor with me, and that was after he’d sacrificed most of the god’s power to preserve the others. He threatened his nephew, to get him to back down, and…” I shook my head. “I wasn’t strong enough. But this little pissant House Lar, a little domestic goddess turned serial murderer turned crazy possessive possession, wouldn’t let him hurt his nephew. She killed herself trying, either intentionally or just pushing herself too hard, and then she came back for just a moment, to kill him. She…” I shook my head. “She hit him in the crotch. He wound up vomiting out the god’s source of power. Brilliant, really. I was totally helpless by that point. But it’s still my fault, because of why he did it. He said I killed his brother.”
Ji-a frowned. “Did you?”
“I don’t know,” I said, and my ears sank low. “I’ve killed people. My presence has caused people’s death. I’ve always tried to be better, to bring more good into the world than I’ve taken out of it, but…”
“But killing always takes a little good out of the world.”
The two of us looked up. Nash stood there, Bella a couple of steps behind him. Ji-a looked down. “We are not all invincible, Nash. We cannot all defeat gods without a scratch. We cannot all stand up to Sisters and Horsemen with certainty.”
Nash looked troubled for a moment. “The truth is, I can’t-”
Bella rested a hand on his shoulder. “Nash,” she said softly. “She is not your ally. She is Jack’s. She will betray you for him.”
Nash smiled, and reached up, touching her hand. “I know, Bella. But that’s okay.” He looked back at Ji-a. “I’m not invincible. Anyone could kill me. I’m very tough, but every fight I go into, by definition, there’s a chance that I can die. Hell, without the Sisters’ powers, I’d be the underdog in everything I do. But the harder I make things on myself, the more challenge I face, the stronger I get.” He carefully helped Bella into the inflatable raft. I thought that was totally unnecessary, but she seemed to be feigning a bit of a limp, and holding his hand longer than she strictly needed to.
“Yeah,” I said softly. “Adversity builds character. But… I don’t know.” I looked out towards the sea. The waves were getting choppier, and the black clouds growing larger. “That’s how it works with iron. Burn it, beat the hell out of it, and you make it stronger. But I’m starting to think, people aren’t like iron. Maybe suffering isn’t something that just makes you stronger. Maybe it destroys all the things inside of you that aren’t strong. Good and bad.” Nash look troubled for a moment. I shook my head. “Well, not all the good things, obviously, since you two were easily out there long enough for a quickie.”
“Betty,” said Bella, without flushing or growing irritable. That’s how I knew I’d gotten to her. She always turned to professionalism when she was embarrassed. “We haven’t got much time. We need a proper plan of attack. At the moment, there are three primary sources of concern. The first is Jack. He is on the move. He is the least time sensitive. He will…” She looked up, and her face was strained. “He will hurt Ariel, very badly, very soon. But this will keep him contained for twenty four hours.”
“Will she die?” I asked, my eyes widening.
“Not immediately. There will be time. But it will entail suffering on her part.”
The three of us looked towards Nash. His lips tightened. “The others?”
“Prester John, and Baron Samedi. If the letter of surrender is not delivered by nightfall, the Loa will descend on the Aztecs. It will be a bloody, brutal battle. We need to st-” She swallowed. “Stop that.” Bella visibly struggled. She was, I knew, not used to the idea of preventing conflict. It must’ve been like a smoker trying to quit in the middle of a cigar factory. “Prester John has the children. I cannot find them, but with triangulation, the Loa can. We will need the blood of the three kings of Paradise; They will have the strongest connection through dint of sheer power. The other Loa have been corrupted by Santigo. We will need to make our way past them. We cannot trust them to listen to reason. Nash, you may need to make them do so. The golden ring is how he will control them. Remove it, incapacitate them. They will be…” She frowned. “Difficult. They are insubstantial creatures, and as such, difficult to pin down. They will draw you into their world. They will make you doubt your own senses. You will need a hunter.”
I grinned. “Teamwork. Reminds me of the old days. The real old days. I have a few grudges to settle, and a few friends who need some saving.”
“Ji-a.” The young woman looked up. “I need you to remain back, as a reserve. You are still one of the more formidable fighters on this island. I know you want to be with Jack. I know you want to convince him away from his current direction. But his pride is wounded, and he would take it as a betrayal. Remain among the Vemana. Vex Prester John’s forces. When confrontation erupts between Jack and Nash, keep close. Jack will need you to provide him with an alternate option. With hope. I will go to Tezcatlipoca, and persuade her.” She looked troubled for a moment. “I want to be with you, Nash, to help, but I would be of little use, and there are other places-”
“It’s alright.” He smiled. “I’m not the type to get clingy.”
“Good. When the Loa and Aztec are reconciled, I will lead Huitzilopochtli and Ogoun on a raid to distract the Christians. They will draw out Prester John’s forces with a feint, drawing Michael’s attention. If all goes well, we should be able to retrieve the children then.” She paused, and looked around at the three of us. “What?”
“I’m just wondering where it’s going to go wrong,” murmured Nash.
“Where it always does, Nash. When the other Horsemen get involved. They are a blind spot, after all. And I am terrible at improvisation.” She smiled at the three of us. “That is why I need you three.”
“We’re almost there,” whispered Ji-a. Paradise was growing larger on the horizon.
“What about the Sergeant Major?” I asked, frowning. “Can’t he help us?”
“He has disappeared from my view. I can only hope that he sticks to his deepest instincts. If he gets involved…” Bella was quiet for a moment, and shook her head. “If he acts with the only trump card left to him, then all is lost, and there’s nothing for it but to flee the island and prepare for a very long, very costly war.” She stood up. “Time for me to go.” She gave one last look at Nash, and the briefest smile was visible on her lips. Then she was gone, the raft shaking slightly from the redistribution of weight. It ran ashore onto the sand of the deep bay. We were at the foot of the slums. As we stepped out, there was an aura of the tension on the island. Nash led the way as we walked up the sandy shore to the edge. Every door was shut, the windows tightly shuttered.
“Hurricane, slavers, and a war,” murmured Nash softly, as he walked through the steps, letting his eyes run over the area. I lifted my head, and sniffed at the air. He looked across at me. “Do you know where they are?”
“I’m not a dog,” I said, scornfully. “We cats aren’t like scent or sound-hounds, designed to lead a human to the prey.” I paused for a moment. “But yes, I do. I can smell them.” I gave Nash a brilliant grin as he stared at me.
“You know, you’ve got one hell of a sense of humor,” said Nash, shaking his head. He lifted his hand to the small length of string around his neck, and took out the iron rod, looking down at it for a moment. He frowned.
“What is it?” I asked. “Good luck charm?” He didn’t answer me for a moment, so I reached out, and gently tapped his shoulder. He shook his head. “You alright?”
“Sorry. Hearing voices.” He frowned, and tucked the rod back into his shirt. “Which way?”
I nodded ahead. “Straight on.” We began to walk, and Ji-a took a turn down an alley, disappearing into the shadows. The clouds covering the sun were turning everything gray, now. It was surprising how dark the city became without that tropical sun, but my eyes could always cut through the gloom. We walked into the alleyways, and then down narrow corridors, shifting sideways to shuffle through them.
About ten minutes passed before Nash frowned. “Betty?”
“This looks like a dead end.”
The small courtyard was perhaps thirty feet on a side, bordered on all four sides by large buildings. The slender alleyway we’d passed through was the only entrance. “It is,” I said, looking up. The walls were sheer. A small shrine sat in one corner of the courtyard. “You don’t get to the other Loa without going through Papa Legba first.”
The two of us turned. A young man stepped out of the alleyway, lead along by a dog. This one was not a slender, silly looking dog. It was lean, and handsome, its ears flopped over, an orange muzzle and eyebrows showing against black fur. It was not wearing a collar. I smiled. Nash set his shoulders, and entered a stance, but I held up a hand. “It’s okay.” I could see the slender golden ring pierced through one of the dog’s nostrils. “Legba here isn’t a fighter, or a soldier, is he?”
“No, indeed I am not. Nash, boy, come now. I’m not here to hurt you. You’re a damn hero, boy. We’ve got a big feast going. The Vemana have gathered together for safety while the Loa prepare to go to war. Come on, and join us. Everyone wants to toast you.”
“Will Baron Samedi be there?”
“He might come by in morning. We’ve got some traitorous dogs of the Horsemen to crush first. Ah, no disrespect meant to you.” The dog chuckled, sitting back on his haunches. The young man lit his pipe, and placed it between the dog’s teeth. The bowl flared as that big orange chest inflated. The dog coughed a few times, and shook his head. “Come on. I’ll lead you to the feast. You can get some food. You look like you’ve had a long day.”
“Can’t rest just yet,” said Nash. The dog tilted his head quizzically to the side. Nash crossed his arms. “There’s a message we need to get to Baron Samedi. You know how it is.”
“Oh.” The dog grinned, and the young man reached into his shirt, and pulled out a small roll of paper, with a familiar wax seal. “You mean… this scroll?”
Nash’s hand went up to his chest. To his credit, he moved very fast for a human. The moment he realized the scroll was no longer there, he lunged. Unfortunately, Legba was faster. The dog was changing shape even as he leapt, becoming a lean and skinny greyhound. He launched through the air, the scroll caught between his jaws, a moment before Nash reached him. He landed lightly on the roof of one of the buildings, and grinned down at us. Then he turned and ran.
Nash narrowed his eyes. “You won’t be able to keep up,” I said. “Stay here. I’ll take care of him. Be careful. This city is going to be full of traps for you. You scare people, Nash. Keep doing that, it distracts them beautifully.”
He nodded. I turned, and leapt.
The roofs of the buildings were mostly corrugated iron, painted, with the occasional patch of treacherous rust hidden by the thick whitewash. The alleyways and streets were narrow, but they dropped thirty or forty feet onto hard stone, enough to crack the skull of any normal person who raced along them. Legba knew this region like the back of his hand. He was the messenger of the gods. He was in a four-legged shape, a wild dog racing with incredible speed. Greyhounds are capable of hitting close to fifty miles per hour on a straight line. On the rooftops, he moved like gravity meant nothing, surging forward across the gaps, covering them in a long stride.
I fell onto all fours, my form shifting. Not into a housecat. My legs lengthened, my body stretching out, my pace growing longer.
Dogs were the first animals to be tamed, because they were pack hunters, and because they were endurance hunters. Only canids and humans practice the style. You can see it in the ways that humans act nowadays. Long term planning, determination, the way they spend an ungodly amount of time awake every day. Jack and Jill were persistence hunters, stalking gods until exhaustion and fear ran them down. Nash, in his own peculiar way, was a persistence hunter. After seeing him fight three times, his entire fighting style was built around exhausting someone, letting them attack him until fatigue and despair defeated them.
The thing was, they were persistence hunters because that was all they could be. Persistence hunting only works for an apex predator, because when it becomes time to run away from something, you really don’t want to be ‘slow, but steady’. It was a rare niche.
I hit sixty miles an hour, and then accelerated.
I caught Legba in mid air over the gap, my claws sinking into his haunches. He let out a high-pitched yelp of pain through his teeth as the additional weight fouled his leap. He struck the opposite roof at chest level, and scrabbled at the edge, before falling, pulling down.
We struck the ground together, hard, but I landed on my feet, and he landed on his side. Dust fountained up around us. It filled the air, grit getting into my eyes, forcing me to blink away tears as it surrounded us.
When the dust settled, Legba stood again. He was no longer a hound. He stood, a tall, elderly man, with salt and pepper in his hair, a broad hat over his head, a gold ring through one nostril, and a corn cob pipe clenched between his teeth. I realized that we were no longer standing in the city.
The baking sun hung overhead, filling the air with the hot smell of cooking earth. Orange savanna grasses stretched out in every direction. The two of us stood at the center of four roads, which each twisting off in different directions. They vanished on the horizon, obliterated by the mirages that hovered above them. The air was so dry it left me wheezing slightly after the hard run, drying out everything it touched as the two of us stood across from one another.
“You’ve got a choice to make, goddess,” said Legba, his arms crossed. He held a walking stick in one hand, leaning rather heavily on it. The golden ring still pierced his nostril. A little blood ran down his leg, and he rested a hand on it, letting it heal. The cut closed slowly, but surely. He was in the center of his power, here.
Every god has a center of power. A place where they are strongest. For most, it is a realm, of sorts. For Tezcatlipoca, it had been the temple, though she’d been forced to borrow that from another pantheon, one now largely extinct. For Legba, it was the crossroads.
Horace had once tried to explain the economy, and money, and taxation to me. The idea that money had to keep moving to mean anything. Power was the same. Power came from humans, and was given to humans. It was like an investment. In the same way, a god who spent sufficient time in one location would pour their power into it, making it an extension of their will. Like a savings account and a comfortable home.
I didn’t have anything like that. I had given it up, when Egypt and the other gods had fallen. My home was a person. I didn’t think it was going to make him stronger, though-
I shook my head, raising my eyes. I changed, becoming human. “Sorry. I’m missing someone.”
“Yes.” He nodded softly, and sympathetically, and drew his hand around. “Crossroads. There are four paths, Betty. A crossroads is a place where your decisions matter. So often, the decisions we make do not have any great significance. We may tell ourselves they do, we may even try to push ourselves to act as though they always do. But so often, it is our attitudes that direct us, more than our choices. Whether you favor your left or your right will make a much greater significance in any journey than any individual choice. Except here.”
He pointed down one road. “Down that road lies the Aztecs. You can help them. Make this battle more even. You are known for your taste for the rebels. You can give them a fighting chance. By doing so, you condemn more to death, and make the fate of this city more uncertain.”
He pointed down the next. “Down that road lies the Christians. You can fight alongside us, and them, in stopping the Horsemen from taking root further. Preserve Paradise, and keep this city alive a while longer.”
He pointed down the third. “Down that road lies the Horsemen, Marinette, and that human, Nash. Destruction and calamity lie down that road, but I merely show where the roads lead; If you set down that road, then I will not be able to help you, but I will not stop you.”
I looked over my shoulder. “And that one?”
“That is the road that leads home. It’s always the way on a crossroads, isn’t it? Nobody finds themselves at the crossroad without having first journeyed on one of the four roads. But it’s always a choice available to you.” He looked me in the eye. “You can go home.”
I opened my mouth to speak, and a scream rang through the air. I spun, my ears pricking.
It was Horace’s voice. “BETTY!”
It was the voice of utter loss. Pain, fear, suffering, hopelessness. The sound people had made when tortured. The sound people made when they needed me. My heart pounded against my chest. I felt my head spin.
“That’s not him,” I said softly.
“It is,” said Legba. “He needs your help. He is in desperate straits, his life threatened. If you leave, at this very moment, you can save him. But the path is closing.”
“He’s got friends,” I said. “Even if I’m not there, he’s got strong people who can protect him.”
“But strong enough to handle the trouble that’s coming your way, Bastet?” he asked, his head tilted. “Perhaps you should go home, Bastet. Go home, and protect what is yours, while you still have time. How much are you really needed here, anyway? You are away from your places of power, you are in a strange and distant land… Would it not be better to go home?” He smiled. “Wouldn’t you like to see him again?”
“You are afraid, yes? Afraid that he will move on. Afraid that he will be killed. Either way, afraid he will be taken from you. Like all the others. You can save him, though, Bastet, if you move now.” Legba smiled. “You are a being of your connections, Bastet. You should be where you belong.”
I thought of Nash. I thought of the look on his face when he had agreed to not pursue Ariel immediately. The pain at not going to save someone he cared about, and the willingness to trust them.
But Ariel was one of the most powerful creatures in the world, and Horace was an underemployed man in his mid 20s with a very big heart.
I turned towards the path home, and took a step.
Then I frowned. “Legba. I can’t help noticing that you’re standing on the crossroads, too.”
“I always am.”
“Yeah. So which path are you going down?” I turned towards him, and took a deep breath. If he was telling the truth, I would have to let Horace handle this on his own. I had to believe he would be alright if I wasn’t there for a little while. I couldn’t leave yet. “You have paths to choose, too. You’ve set down one of them already, but there’s still time to change your mind.”
“I…” His eye flicked. “I can’t change my path. I’ve set my course. I can’t… turn back.”
“You, Legba?” I asked, very softly, my head tilted to the side. “You, of all people, can’t turn back…? You’re the messenger of the Loa. The one who speaks with Bondye. You, of all people, can always choose another path.”
“I cannot.” The golden ring glinted in his nose. “I have heard the voice of the Bondye. The Good God has spoken to me. He has told me the way forward. Many will die, but…” He shook his head slowly. “You know what we are. The gods of slaves, the gods of broken men. There is a reason that Baron Samedi is a god of laughter, of pleasure, of joy and good drink. When death comes, it is not with tears and pain, but with a smile and a wink and a drink and a cigar. Death is not a curse, it is not the end of everything. It is the end of the work day, the end of the suffering and the toil.” He looked up towards the sky. “Why shouldn’t we die? What is there left for us in this dank and dirty world but more pain, and more suffering, Bastet? The good lord is calling us home.”
“Nash… It’s not a party for him, or those like him. For him, it’s just oblivion. You’d let him go like that?” I met his eyes, and suddenly I was very close to him. “You think that your Good God would?”
My claw hooked through the golden ring. I yanked, hard, and Legba let out a startled scream, yanking back from me, covering his nose. “Christ! Lady! What the hell is wrong with you?!” He held onto his nose, a trickle of blood falling across his fingers. “Agh! That really hurt!” He rubbed his nose, and frowned. I tossed the ring aside. Suddenly, we stood back on the street of Paradise.
“You have four paths, Legba. You can go along with the Christians. You can submit yourselves to someone else’s ideas. You’ve seen how that’s happened before. You can side with the Horsemen, damn it all and bring everything down. You can side with the Aztecs and take your revenge, and watch everything burn around you while you’re getting your satisfaction.” Then I grinned, and jerked a thumb at my own chest, letting a wide smile spread across my face. “Or you can side with me, and join the winning team.”
“Lady… You’re strong. But you’re not a side unto yourself.”
“Oh, no.” I grinned. “A cat is a loner, by nature. But a cat and a human…?” I grinned toothily, white teeth shining. “We’ve got a plan. We’re going to find the children. You just have to bring me to Baron Samedi.”
“What about Nash?” Legba asked, a frown on his face. “It is not safe for him in the city, we need to find him before he stumbles into trouble-”
There was a distant crash, a rumble, and smoke and dust began to rise. I looked up, and sighed. “I think that he’ll be fine. That man blazes his own path. But we need to find Baron Samedi, and stop Ghede Linto. He’s been giving gifts to the Loa, and maybe others. He’s one of the servants of the Horsemen. Where does he live?”
“It’s… He’s one of the lesser Ghede. Come.” Legba grabbed my arm, and hustled down one of the roads. The surroundings sped by us in a blur of color. In a moment, the two of us stood in a small apartment. A pair of neatly pressed suits sat folded on a couch. A small bed was set in one corner of the room, and a door to a bathroom visible against one wall. On the kitchen stove sat a pot, bubbling merrily. I approached it. There was an unpleasantly familiar scent of pork filling the air.
With the perfect timing that only a god’s bones would employ, a skull rose on the boiling bubbles briefly, polished white. Tooth marks were visible on it, places where someone had scraped the meat off the bone. I groaned, and turned off the stovetop. “I think I found Ghede Linto.”
“How?” murmured Legba. “He was a lesser Ghede, but to kill a Loa is never a minor thing. How could he?”
“I don’t know.” I frowned. Domingo Santigo was supposed to be dangerous because of his ability to go unnoticed. He’d killed and eaten a legendary servant of one of the four Tezcatlipocas of the Aztec. He’d eaten a lesser Ghede. This was outside of the things he was supposed to be able to accomplish. And he’d done it all without anyone in the city noticing.
“… What if he were to do the same to Baron Samedi?” asked Legba, looking nervous.