The sand swept around the ruins of the temple. Out here, in the depths of the desert, there was no human life. Once, a long time ago, a tributary of the Nile had drawn through this place. It had died before Egypt was born. The windswept temple, its black surface coated in a thick rime of sand, was the only sign that anyone had ever lived there. I slowly climbed the dune, lifting my hand to ward off the harsh sun. From the top of the dune, I could see into the temple, the darkness intense. I took a deep breath, and looked slowly around, the endless dunes rolling off in every direction.
It was dead. Just like my village. It had been killed. Just like my village.
I had stood, claws unsheathed, before Djehuty. I had threatened to pluck every feather from his body if he did not tell me who the traitor was, who had allowed my village to be slaughtered. He’d protested innocence, then begged me to spare him, telling me that Ausare had been the one who had told him how important it was that I stay with them, how much the negotiations depended on me. As I’d dangled him by one leg over the flames of his crucibles, letting his feathers singe one by one, I had decided he was telling the truth, and taken my rage elsewhere.
I stepped forward, into the shade. The temple was dark inside, only a few stray rays of light reflecting off the black stone walls. To a human, it would have been impossible to navigate. To any normal cat, it would have been terrifyingly dim and murky. So many creatures in this world feared the darkness, because they could imagine what lay within. They shied away from the night, visiting it only briefly, depending on moonlight and firelight and daylight. They feared it.
But I was the First Cat. The darkness feared me, and like humans, it propitiated me out of its fear. It did not obscure my vision.
When I went to Ausare, he tried to play the king with me. I threatened to find the fish that ate his manhood, bake the fish, and then eat it whole. Frankly, I was less than certain how I was going to follow through on the threat, but my anger seemed to get through to him. He’d told me the words that I hadn’t wanted to hear. “Anapa,” he’d said. “Anapa begged me to keep you away. He swore that we had to keep you here. Please, Bastet. We only wanted you to be safe.”
I frowned down. In the center of the great, dark temple, there was a curious sight. Two cisterns, one inside the other. The outside cistern was filled to the brim with water. It was a bit of a surprise to see that, water in the middle of the desert, in a place where it should not have been. But down here, inside the temple, where neither light nor heat could reach, it was clammy and cold. The water might not evaporate for a very long time in this place. That was fortunate. Because the inner cistern was filled with something else.
The smell was difficult to describe. I had smelled something like it, once. In the great city of Babylon, they had used a strange black fluid to make their walls and towers. Its smell was disturbing when hot, but it could be used as a glue for stones, sticking them together so tightly it was as though they became one great sheet. It had poured out from a wound in the earth near that city.
This smelled like that, but it did not look like that. I stared down into it, and frowned. Its surface was utterly still, a matte black. It looked almost solid.
Anapa had been ashamed, when I had confronted him. Frightened. And the most vexing thing was that he had not been frightened of me, but for me.
“What do you mean,” I had asked, “he is not like other gods?”
“You, and I, we are the consequence of beliefs. We arose from people worshiping the things they saw. He is older than that. Much older. He may be older than humanity itself. He told me what he had planned. He said that he wanted you to chase him. He told me that if you were there when he arrived at the village, he would kill you, too.”
I had slowly nodded. “Then he’s the one that’s responsible.”
He had held out a hand to me. That was all. In return, I’d given him a cold look. “You are a coward, Anapa.” I’d not even bothered to spit at him. I didn’t know it then, but that was the moment when I’d given up on the idea of loving an immortal. They feared loss too much to ever really love something.
I stepped closer to the tarry surface. Past and present washed together like ink in water, becoming indistinguishable. I had been weeks without human contact, focused on this. Everyone I loved dead. I felt slightly mad.
“You shouldn’t touch it,” said Nyarlathotep. He emerged from the shadows, the arrogant prick. Those were my shadows. I pointed my claws towards him, and he held up his hands. “A moment, before you kill me.”
“You’re the god of peace,” I said. “I am the god of war. And you killed my humans. You are long past forgiveness, and I don’t intend to let you talk your way out of this.”
“I am also the god of satisfaction.” Nyarlathotep smiled brightly. “Don’t you wonder why I did it? Don’t you care?”
“No,” I said, and lunged towards him. My claws rent through his frame, tearing into the black, slippery ichor that filled him. He dissolved, cackling, into the shadows. I frowned. “Oh, no. Do not dare to lecture me while incorporeal. Come out and be disemboweled like a man.”
“But I’m not a man,” said the god, cheerful as ever. “Bastet. Do you know what this city is? It was once great. They grew upon a riverside, and became populous, buoyed by the waters. The water was common, so common that they used it for all manner of luxuries. They thought it infinite. And for a time, it was. Then, the rains shifted. Less water came. And still less. The people did not wish to change. They hated change. They were happy, and wished things would stay the way they were. So they prayed to a god.”
“You, no doubt.”
Nyarlathotep chuckled at me. “Oh, no. They thought they were clever. They thought they would retain their power with a god. They tried to summon something. They got me, instead. They did not recognize how precious the water was. How precious life is. They did not pay a heavy enough price for what they had. That is the nature of men. Plenty destroys them. They grow, and grow, until they cannot be sustained, and then, they cannot stand to cull one another to fit the resources. It is why they collapse so violently. You should thank me.”
“Thank you?” I said, my voice deadly soft.
“Yes. The gods are no different. They, like the men who make them, are prone to decadence. The powerful wish to stay powerful, and so seek to keep things from changing. A thing unchanging becomes brittle. And soon, the gods and the men have power which is nothing but an empty husk. With one firm blow… It is shattered.”
He appeared from the shadows. He was too fast, a blaze of black. His fist struck me in the chest, and I felt it pass clean through my heart. I fell to the ground, and tried to breathe in. Nothing happened. My head began to pound.
“You were so comfortable with what you had. The familiar things. You took them for granted, Bastet. You forgot how precious they are. How precious a single human life is.” Nyarlathotep crouched down over me as I tried to breathe. “What would you do, for just one human to be here? What would you do for them, if they were?”
A red haze fell over me, the rage building to a fever pitch. How dare he. How dare he be so smug, so condescending, how dare-
Breathing came as a shock. The sudden rush of air running into my lungs. The first thing I saw was the young man standing over me. His concern burned like a bonfire, warming my skin. I had always been faintly aware of the way human’s souls felt. I’d never felt it as strongly as I did right now. The young man was like a furnace. I was bedraggled, beaten, weak. I felt half-drowned, and as I lifted my head slightly, I could see why. The river flowed nearby, down into the Nile. The dead river. I blinked, and shook my head, flicking my ears. “Goddess! You are okay.” The young man’s voice was full of relief.
I slowly shook my head. “I… What happened?” I frowned. “I must have beaten him. Right?” I stared up at the young man. “I’m sorry… What was your name?”
Soft eyes looked at me. “Don’t you remember me, Betty?”
“You didn’t forget already, did you? I’m not even cold yet.”
I pulled back, my teeth shining in the white light, my breath coming in sharp, harsh little gasps.
“You were supposed to come back to save me, Bet-”
Then he stopped, and frowned. Then his eyes grew very serious. “Betty.” Flames danced around him.
“Oh, shit, Marinette. Now’s not a good time.”
“It is the only time.” Horace’s soft, warm voice was harsh with Marinette’s accent and her strain, as she stood up straight. “You cannot be distracted by panicked nightmares. Horace is safe. You must push forward. You cannot stop pushing. He will be okay, so long as you do not falter. You have to help. If you do not, Nash will never escape.”
“How do I know?” I said, very softly.
“Have faith. Horace has someone watching over him. He has for a long time.”
I stared for a moment or two. My eyes narrowed. “You’re not Marinette.”
Fire did not have a poker face. Horace’s eyes widened, his mouth opened, and it pulled into a tight line. There was a blur, like the wave of heat, and the Sister of Fire stood before me. Her hair was red on the verge of orange, and moved slowly in the air, her pale green eyes meeting mine. “How did you-?”
“Come on. You’re no good at hiding who you really are.” I was quiet for a moment. “You and the other Sisters, you’re hiding from Nash. Why?”
She looked down. “Because we’re all so weak. Do you know what it’s like, to rely on a human in that way?”
“Intimately. It’s not so bad, Fire. Humans like being relied on. The good ones, at least. And I tell you what.” I stood up slowly, and shuddered. “Give me a sign. That you’re real. That you’re not just a dream. Show Nash that you’re there for him, that you’re fighting alongside him. Give him some hope. If you do, I’ll trust you.”
She looked at me for a long moment.
I snorted, jarred suddenly. My eyes opened and my claws extended from my fingers. Nash let out a soft grunt of pain, but otherwise did not react much. I was on his back, arms slung around his shoulders, legs around his back, his hands under my knees. He didn’t wheeze or pant as he walked through the endless grey moor, his eyes fixed on a point at the horizon. I narrowed my eyes. “Where are we going?”
A man’s voice spoke from behind me. “To the entrance!”
Nash let out another grunt of pain as my nails extended into his collar bone, my tail frizzing out. I took a moment to relax, and looked over my shoulder. A man walked along shortly behind us. He was wiry, slender as cables, the kind of look a man would acquire after spending too long at sea without enough to eat, and with nothing to do but exercise. He wore a great cloak over his shoulders, and walked with a bent staff, a length of wire hanging from one end. “Who the hell are you?” I asked, frowning.
“Eumaeus,” he said pleasantly. “I found you two wandering, and offered to act as a guide.”
“The path back to Paradise is gone. So…” Nash paused for a moment. “Have you ever read Dante’s Inferno?”
“I played the game?” I offered hopefully. “How different could they be?”
Nash shook his head softly. “Why doesn’t anyone know both modern and classical stories? It’s always one or the other. In the Inferno, Hell was described as a series of concentric circles. But for Dante, the only way to reach Purgatory and Paradise was to delve to the center. Pass through the eye of the needle.”
“Are we going to have to fight fetuses?” I asked, suspiciously.
“I can’t say no for sure. It’s… How did you put it, Eumaeus?”
“Hell is like an ant lion’s burrow. It is… slippery. The damned are meant to be kept where they will suffer most. So there are the barriers to egress. If a man were to try to travel upwards, out of the circles of hell, the path would stretch into infinity.”
“Like a black hole,” said Nash.
I frowned. “Then how do you know so much about this stuff? Who exactly are you?”
“Me?” asked Eumaeus, and shrugged. “I’m nobody, and my story isn’t terribly interesting. I’m just used to taking long journeys. So I traveled to the depths of this place and back again, to understand it. I must warn, the lords of Hell are formidable creatures. If we run across them, it would be best not to confront them. Life is much simpler when you simply give them what they want. They all seek their pound of flesh, in one way or another.”
I could see Nash’s fist tighten. “Somehow, I don’t think things are going to go so smoothly,” I said, and shifted my knee. It still stung a bit, so I decided to let Nash keep carrying me. “Are you okay?” I asked, very softly.
“Doesn’t matter. It’s the whole point. People betray me. At the worst moment they can.” He laughed, and it was a hollow sounding thing. “Adversity builds character.”
“Nash…” I considered telling him about the dream for a moment. I decided not to push him. “They were afraid.”
“Of course they were. That’s why I don’t hold it against them. They wanted to save their children. They might even have succeeded. I hope like hell they have. But the Horsemen, they use hope like a hook. They dangle it in front of you, and leave you thinking that if you just keep fighting for a little bit longer, if you just keep struggling, things will be okay. They-” He shook his head. “Hope’s a terrible thing. It lets people endure the most awful torments, and by enduring them, they prolong them. You ever think about what he offered? Heaven? The idea of an end to it all? Maybe that’s what good people get. A happy ending in death. Maybe saving them is just…” He shook his head, his lips tight.
“We all die eventually, Nash. What’s the rush?”
He was quiet for a moment, then he let out a second laugh. This one was a lot less hollow. “Yeah. Guess you’re right. I mean, if the worst that happens is that everybody dies, it’s kind of a boost to morale, isn’t it?” He lifted me up a bit, and we kept walking. I lifted my head. The horizon looked a great deal closer. “So. The nine rings.”
“Hell comes in three sections, nine circles, four rivers, many rings and rounds…” Eumaeus sighed. “God, it would appear, is obsessive compulsive.”
“Bet those are the kinds of remarks that got you here in the first place,” I said, smiling.
“Something along those lines,” said Eumaeus, chuckling softly.
We walked in silence for a few minutes, before I worked up the courage to ask. “Nash?” He didn’t answer, but he turned his head slightly to me. “How do you do it? How do you… not worry?”
He was quiet for a moment. “You’ve killed people. Yeah?”
I looked away, feeling a bit of shame, staring down at his back. But I murmured a ‘yes’.
“If I were there, I would have stopped you. Would have stopped them from doing whatever they were doing, too. But I wasn’t there. I can’t change the past.” He was quiet for a second. “Not without weird shit happening, anyway. Still don’t know how that worked. But the point is, I can’t kill someone to stop them from having hurt people. I can’t change what people did. I can only try to change what they do in the future. Sometimes that means taking away their powers. Sometimes it means terrifying them. Sometimes it means stopping them.”
“… I hate to bring this up, Nash. But you had the chance to stop that guy. If you’d taken away Markov’s powers when you fought him all those months ago, you could’ve stopped all of this from happening.”
“I could’ve stopped Prester John from using this particular plan. I’m sure they would have had other plans. The Horsemen are big into the plan B thing.” He sighed, and stopped for a moment, lowering his head. “But you’re absolutely right, Betty. If I had taken his powers, I could have taken away the chance for his wife and children to ever be human again, I could’ve stopped him from saving anyone else’s lives with the same powers, and I could have stopped all of this. Anyone who dies now, is on my head.” He lifted his head once more, taking a deep breath, and started walking again. “That’s what I’m dealing with, all the time. Everyone who dies, I could have saved them, if I’d been there.”
“You can’t save everyone, Nash.”
“Yeah. But I can feel bad about not saving everyone.” He smiled, and there was a manic edge to it.
“I remember when I first felt like that.” I stared off. “Nyarlathotep was the one who did it to me. Murdered a village full of people whose families I’d watched for millenia. We fought, he wounded me badly, I…” I frowned. “I thought I overcame him. Got a rush of strength. I thought I killed him. But I don’t remember it. I just remember passing out, and not seeing him again. Everyone forgot about him, until Howard…” I was quiet for a moment.
“Could it have been one of those… I don’t know what the word is for a reincarnated deity. Reity? Could he be a Reity?”
“I’m not calling them Reities, Nash,” I said, a little more tartly than I needed to. “How do you not worry about Ariel? How are you not worried sick? She and Horace are out there, and who knows how long this trip is going to take, or if we can even escape at the end, I…” I shook my head slowly, and I felt the tears prickling at my cheeks. “I should never have left.”
“The answer to those questions are simple. This trip will take as long as it needs to, but in Hell, time is slowed,” said Eumaeus. “It is part of the torment of this place that a day in the mortal plane can seem to take years to pass in here. I think that you will not be gone as long as you think. And as for your friends…” Eumaeus smiled. “You two are heroes, aren’t you?”
“I’m not,” said Nash.
“Whatever word you want to use for it. You’re obsessed with saving the people close to you. But you’re afraid that you’ll be too late.” Eumaeus tapped his nose. “There is a secret to being a hero, to being a champion, to being a protector. You are needed, it is true, so we should not tarry. But you must have faith. The people you love and care for are strong, too, though they may not have much chance to show it. It is in these moments, when you are away, that they show their true strength. Have faith in them, as you would ask them to have faith in you. Not to be as strong as you, but to endure.”
Nash was quiet for a moment. “You had someone waiting for you, too, didn’t you?”
“Oh, many people.”
“Did they hold out hope?”
“Oftentimes better than I did.” He smiled. “What people need to be strong is a role model. Someone they respect. They’ll be strong for you. It’s when you actually arrive that things become difficult. Then you have to live up to their expectations.” He shaded his eyes. “Ah. We’re almost there.”
There had been a churning in the distance, a strangely squishy, muddy sound. As we came closer, there was a seething movement. It was difficult to describe, not least because I didn’t want to look closely at it. The river was so broad I could barely see the other side of it. The only way I could tell that it was a river was because of the ferocious riptide that dragged along it. Occasionally, people were hurled screaming out of the water by the current, and onto the muddy banks. Other people would dive into the waters, ferociously swimming against the current. Some of them made it a decent distance. The waters themselves were clay-gray, and seemed thick, flowing more like milk than water. I could see a rope in the distance, staked deep into the clay on the near side. Souls occasionally grasped at the rope as they swam , but they were ripped away from it, hands bloody, screaming in pain as the current tore them from the lifeline.
“Who are these?” I asked, frowning. “Is there a hell for… I don’t know, futility? Hydrophobes?”
“The undecided,” said Nash. “The ones who never chose a side, in real life, or in the war between Heaven and Hell. Locked on the shores of the River Acheron. The ones who die without a proper burial, or an obol to give Charon.” He frowned. “Which might be a problem.”
“Yes. Prester John gives his obol to the beings he traps here, sometimes, to allow them to cross. Those who deserve it. Those who can’t live up to his standards for being strong enough to be useful wind up here.” Eumaeus waved a hand. “If they had the strength he needed, they could cross this river.”
“Auditions,” said Nash, and his voice was more than a little bit cold. “Proving you have what it takes to be tormented? What’s the point?”
“Strength in adversity,” said Eumaeus. He reached over, and tugged twice at the rope. There was the distant sound of a bell.
“So, any ideas for how we’re going to convince him to let us across?” I asked Nash, softly, keeping an eye on those around us.
“I thought we’d be charming, and if that failed, we’d try violence. It’s always worked for me so far.”
“He’s just doing his job, Nash.”
“So is the black plague. I’m not going to be violent unless he doesn’t help us immediately without compunctions.” Nash turned towards me, and smiled. “Come on, seriously? Do I seem that much of a psycho?”
“Christ, Nash, I don’t know, you did wind up fighting a bunch of girls in a dance hall.”
“That was an accident, and…” Nash paused, and slowly looked over his shoulder, staring very hard at me. “You’re messing around with me again, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” I said, my face full of apology and regret.
“And you’re still doing it.”
“I am. I’m an awful person, Nash. Really just the worst.” I was quiet for a moment. “Jack. Michael. Prester John. They’re pretty determined on their route.”
“Yeah. They seem pretty certain.” He smiled. “I’ll change that.”
“What if you can’t?”
“… I thought I killed someone, once. It ate me up inside. The momentary thoughtless act, and what it cost. I don’t want to do that again. I’m fighting to never be put in that kind of position again. But if I ever truly, absolutely believe that someone is beyond redemption… Yeah.” He sighed. “I’ll kill them. That’s the problem with hope, though. You can never stand to see someone as beyond redemption.” He looked down at the people around us. “Like this. These poor goddamn people. When this is what you’re reduced to, what can you learn from it? How can you stop being angry, how can you stop living like a beast, when you’re in the middle of this kind of horror, all the time? And out there…” He looked up, and towards the horizon. “It’s all so grey.”
“Kind of like Pleasantville, huh?”
“I never actually saw that movie.” Nash frowned. “Is that the one where the kid winds up changing the town through dancing?”
“Nash, I…” I paused. “You’re messing with me?”
He turned to look at me again, and grinned.
“Damn, Nash. Be sure you don’t burn up your soul like that.”
There was a soft splashing, in the distance. We looked up, and saw a figure appear out of the mist. Robed in a gray cloak, his head dropped low. He was kicking the head of a struggling man, and delivered a firm blow. “I told you! If you want a fucking ride, you can fucking pay me!” he shouted after the thrashing figure. “You’re not going to fucking drown, you pansy!” Then he continued. Four lines of rope rose from the small rusty-red skiff, connecting to the rope that stretched across the river, tied into loops that held it in place. He pushed forward with the oar, groaning. The barge came ashore, and landed heavily. Several of those on the shore tried to grab at it, and were given stinging blows on the fingers by the oarsman. He addressed us without looking at us. “Alright. You interrupted my lunch. So I’m gonna have my sandwich, and tell you the rules. Then if you’ve broken any of the rules, you’re out of here.”
The man sat back. He had well-tanned olive skin, a dark and messy beard, and didn’t wear much besides the cloak. He unwrapped a gyro. “First. I am paid. It’s not an expensive toll. If you don’t have it, tough shit, you’re not getting across.” He took a large, messy bite, and more of it seemed to end in his beard than in his mouth. “Second. I do NOT take ass or grass. I don’t care who you are, I don’t need to get laid, and I get the worst fucking headaches on intoxicants.” He took another huge bite. “Third. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t think you had some chops. If you try to get tough with me, you’re going to regret it.” He cracked and popped his knuckles. “I have had a truly vast number of people try to strongarm me, to get in or out of Hell. I have whipped every one of them. I am the son of Nyx, the brother of Thanatos and Erebus. I’m not someone to be messed with.” He popped the last bite of the gyro into his mouth, chewing, and sucked his thumbs clean, standing up from the chair. “So. Who are your friends, Eumaeus?”
“Silas Nash, and Queen Betty,” said Nash.
Charon’s head had been lifting as Nash spoke. His eyes widened, blue and fierce. The effect was ruined by the way he stepped back, stumbling, and tangled his leg in the chair. He fell hard, hit the ground, and stared up at the two of us. “Oh, fuck me. I thought the fucking crow was joking.” There was a look of fear on his face.
I raised an eyebrow as I processed that last statement. “What?”
“You’re here for something awful, aren’t you? Jesus. The man who freed Promethea, Tantalus, Ixion, and Sisyphus. And the cat who eats bad gods.” He swallowed hard. “Why are you here?”
“Prester John threw us in here. We’re going to get out,” said Nash, looking down at the river. “We don’t have any obols, I’m afraid. Is that going to be a problem?”
“Fuck.” The boatman looked up at Eumaeus, and narrowed his eyes. “I should have known. You would be involved with this bullshit, you tricky motherfucker.” He gritted his teeth. “Can’t believe this is happening to me. Fine. Get aboard. Maybe I’ll get lucky and you’ll all die, and I won’t get executed for helping you out.”
“How dangerous is this going to be?” I asked, frowning. “I thought Dante was some poet, he got through this whole thing.”
“God was protecting him,” said Eumaeus. “He had the blessing of divinities. You will have a somewhat less peaceful journey.”
“Fantastic,” I said, climbing aboard, standing up. My leg was feeling a bit out of sorts, but I could stand easily enough. I reached down, helping Nash up onto the boat. There was a strange expression on his face as Eumaeus hopped aboard, grinning at Charon. The oarsmen groaned, as he began to push away. “Charon,” I asked, frowning. “Are you trapped here?”
“Not… exactly.” He frowned. “I wasn’t welcome in Hades after Promethea escaped. Hades was in a bit of a mood about the damage that Nash over there did. I wound up having to find a place to stay. Prester John lets me stay here, in exchange for my ferrying services, and keeping the four rivers flowing properly.” He sighed. “Fucking bastard.”
“… How would you like to leave with us?”
“I…” He lowered his head. “Come on. This is Hell. There are no happy endings when you wind up here. Just… this.” He waved a hand towards the churning river that stretched off in either direction around us. “No hope survives in this place.”
“The crow,” said Nash. I turned, and frowned.
“You mentioned a crow, Charon.”
“Huh?” Charon frowned. “Yeah. I was over there, heard the bell ring. A crow flew down. I thought it was a lost soul. Told me that you two were waiting for me. It told me who you were, Nash, what you had done. That you were the one who’d released Promethea and the others.”
“I only released Promethea, but…” Nash was silent for a moment. “I guess they must have taken the lesson to heart. A crow.”
A smile spread across Nash, as he raised his head towards the sky, and I noticed a tear there. He wiped it away, the grin so wide it looked painful. I frowned. “You know any crows?”
“Yeah. She’s still looking out for me. She’s still there.” He took a deep breath. “We can do this.”
“Because of a crow.”
“Yeah.” He smiled. “Let me tell you a story, Betty. It’s about the Rainbow Crow.”