I hit the ground in front of Prester John’s tower, rolled, and was up again. I found myself immediately faced with a half dozen friendly faces, which was a welcome change of affairs. Huitzilopochtli stood there. Marinette and Itzpapalotl flanked her. Ogoun was with them, and Legba still in his greyhound form, and Xipe Totec shining golden bright in the midday sun. They had armed themselves for war, and were flanked by a few dozen of their eagle and jaguar warriors, and a group of angry looking Vemana. I smiled. “Well, look what the cat dragged in. And just what I needed to see. I’m going to get some power. When I get it, I’ll have about an hour.” I lifted my head to study the top of the tower. “That’s just enough time. Things’ll be finished by then, one way or another.”
Huitzilopochtli frowned. “Where’s Nash?”
“He got hung up a bit. Don’t worry.” I grinned. “He’ll be here in time to save all our asses, I’m sure.”
Huitzilopochtli straightened her shoulders, holding the spear-thrower, her eyes narrowed. “What happened in Hell, Betty?” I opened my mouth to reply, and then noticed the look of suspicion on her eyes. The mistrust. That was understandable enough, with a shapeshifter like Nyarlathotep on the loose.
“I am Betty,” I said, hands on my hips. “When we first met on the island, we talked about- Oh, hell, I don’t remember what we talked about, because you were being boring.”
Xipe Totec watched me levelly. “That is certainly proof that you are the Betty we know. But it does not answer the question of whether you are Bastet. The true Bastet, I mean.”
“What?” I rolled my eyes, and sighed. “I’ve known you all for literally millenia.”
“Yes,” said Marinette, her eyes on me. “We knew Ghede Linto since the beginning. And it turned out that, all this time, he was a plant. There never was a Ghede Linto. He had always been Nyarlathotep, manipulating us.” She clenched her teeth. “The little god told us this before leaving. His ‘release’ a double bluff.”
“What we are trying to say,” said Legba, politely, “is that there is a certain precedent. The Horsemen are masters of deception, even self-deception. Those who they use as avatars can be more active, or more passive. They could go unnoticed for years. Decades. Centuries.” There was a long, still pause. “Millenia.”
“After all I have done for you-” I began, my eyes flashing, and Ogoun held up a hand.
“Where you go, death follows. War and the fall of nations. Is it so odd to you, Betty, that we would wonder?”
I opened my mouth, and closed it. I had come face to face with Conquest, once. I had murdered one of her chosen champions. She had spared me. It had not been in her character, but she had chosen to not strike me down for the insult.
And Nyarlathotep. What had happened in that time between when he had plunged his fist through my chest, and the time I had woken up? There were so many strange, misty periods in my memory. Times when I could not truly remember what had happened.
“You are not like a god, Betty,” said Huitzilopochtli. “You take power from only a few. Famine has been behind all of this, and she has not shown herself. You have been curiously held back in everything you have done here. Avoiding fights, letting others do the work for you. That is not like you. What happened in Hell, Betty?”
I opened my mouth to answer. At the same time, the mouth in the sky opened, and screamed. I felt nothing as the others roared in pain, and twisted, and writhed, their bodies twisting, blackness spreading across their veins, their eyes going dark. I could see exactly where this was going, though.
I’d never been witness to one of my kind being twisted by loneliness. I didn’t know what it looked like for a god to be devoured by the darkness, to lose the belief they needed. To starve. It couldn’t kill us, I knew. It could only turn us into things, horrible and feral.
Well. I said us. As the others twisted, and changed, I felt nothing. But I vaulted the crowd of gods, and hit the road running. I could hear their shrieks of rage, of pain, of betrayal, as they followed me. Their minds torn to shreds by the loss, by the hunger welling up inside of them. I didn’t know whether they wanted vengeance for some imagined wrong that I had done. Perhaps they blamed me for everything that had happened here. It was a frequent enough choice on the part of others. Or maybe they were just so twisted by the hunger that they wanted any taste of divinity that they could get their hands on. The fact was, it didn’t matter. I ran.
The streets were a madhouse. I sprinted on all fours, running through the crowds as the feral gods chased me, howling and shrieking. They didn’t sound like animals. They didn’t sound like men. They didn’t sound like anything natural. They were the horrors from outside of this world, the forgotten gods, the ones I’d spent so long fighting. And maybe that was why they chased me. Maybe they recognized the vermin-killer in me, the death of those like them. Maybe they were threatened by who, what I was. I might be a catspaw of Famine. I might be Famine herself. For now, it didn’t matter, because I had a job to do. The same job I’d been performing since time immemorial.
Perhaps ten minutes had passed when the apartment tower that I had been staying in came into view. I came around a corner, and a sizzling-hot bolt of sunfire struck the wall in front of me. I spun and rolled under it, only for something sharp to chomp down on my tail. I hissed, turning to find Legba with his teeth fastened in my tail, growling. His hair had grown mangy and patchy, his already lean figure now practically skeletal, his stomach hollowed out disturbingly. His teeth were yellowed, and foam bubbled around his jaws. I cursed. Horace was going to insist on a rabies shot.
I struck him in the jaw with one heel, forcing him away, and began to move, only for a huge hand to clamp over my wrist. Ogoun lifted me up, his skin blackened to nearly midnight darkness, his eyes burning like a pair of coals as he slammed his fist into my stomach, again, and again. He raised it high into the air, and I could only stare up as the fist shook, knuckles tightening into jagged bolts and scraps of metal, aiming for my face.
The arrow slammed into the side of Ogoun’s skull, at an oblique angle. It slammed into the temple, at a shallow angle, emerging through one burning eye. Ogoun howled like a stuck pig, his arms shaking through the air as he stumbled back, his legs barely holding him up. He shook his head, grabbing at the arrow, and pulling it out, molten iron dripping from the wound as he cast his head around wildly. “Who dares?!”
Another arrow flew out, and slammed into Ogoun’s wrist, pinwheeling the giant man around. I looked up, and saw Eumaeus standing atop a building, a smile on his face, teeth shining brilliantly in the light. “Come on, Betty! No time to lose!”
“You fucking moron!” I shouted, even as I stood, and began to run. “You can’t take them all on!”
“I don’t need to!” he shouted, running ahead of me. “I’m good at running!”
And the two of us paced, Eumaeus twisting in the air to fire arrows back into those following us as he leapt from building to building, a perfect description of grace. He was catlike, and there is no greater compliment I could offer him. The horde of twisted gods chased us, screaming in agony in time with the mouth in the sky. I saw Eumaeus’ pace slow each time that the mouth opened, each time that it called out its terrible cry. He was feeling it, too. But I didn’t.
Why? Why did Famine’s curse not affect me? I was not used to uncertainty. I was not used to being unable to trust myself. I was First, and I was Cat, and I was the greatest creature in the world.
But had I always been Bastet?
Eumaeus let out a sharp cry, as Marinette flashed up the side of the building and raked at his arm. He stumbled, blood streaming down his hand, and his ankle hit the building’s edge. He tumbled, down towards the unforgiving ground. I met him halfway, an arm going around his waist as I scaled the building. He gave me a quick grin as I raced across the rooftops.
The apartment was just ahead of us. Five stories higher than the building I was on currently. I crouched low, and leapt, with the very last of my strength, spiraling madly through the air towards the penthouse. I crashed through one of the repaired windows, feet first, in a spray of glass, Eumaeus in my arms.
The eight soldiers inside turned instantly towards me, leveling guns. I tilted my head behind me. “Hell’s on my ankles, boys. Buy me a second.” I tossed Eumaeus towards one of them. The soldier let out an oof, and caught the hero. They were unaffected by Famine’s cry, though I could see their uncertainty. “Helmets off. We’ve got seconds, and you want to be people, not mooks.”
The roars filled the air as I raced towards the cooler. The heavy machine guns barked their low, continuous pounding, filling the air with the smell of cordite. I didn’t watch them. I trusted them, as I threw open the refrigerator. The cooler sat there, untouched. ‘IN CASE OF EMERGENCY’ was written on a sticky note, in Horace’s familiar handwriting. I rested a hand on it, and felt the pulse of warmth.
I pulled the cooler out as the men behind me screamed, as the monsters roared, and frowned as I peeled one of the sandwiches open. “Oh, god damn it, he knows how I hate celery.”
Then I scarfed it down.
The memory of Horace ran through me like a shock. I remembered when I saved him from the Ateroleum. I remembered when he found me, shivering and broken-armed, in an alleyway. I remembered the warmth pouring off of him like a bonfire, the strength of his soul, the kindness in him. The sacrifices he made for me, to make me strong enough to save the world. The way he smiled when I protected. I realized that, for the first time in a very long time, I believed in a human. He would hold out. He wouldn’t die on me. I knew he was special. I took the next sandwich, ate it too, and the third.
To hell with dramatic escalation.
There was a sudden ferocious wind, and the shattering of glass. A wave of air pressure passed, breaking every window in the building, and there was silence for a moment as I turned around, straightening my back.
There was no gradual rebuilding of my body. No need for it. The weakness, the pain, the injuries, they were gone as quickly as a dream, leaving nothing but a fading ache. My eyes ran across the room, and I smiled. Ogoun, black-skinned, molten, one eye missing, stood over Eumaeus, a fist upraised and forgotten as he stared at me. Legba, mangy and beaten, was gnawing at the arm of one of the soldiers as the man struggled with him, the struggle forgotten momentarily as both gaped. Marinette stood, her body shrouded in flames, a skeletal figure visible only as dark bones in the flame. Itzpapalotl had taken her skeletal figure, but it was different. The bones were broken, shattered, held together by a black smoke that stretched between them like ligaments, rattling ferociously. Xipe Totec stood, golden and yet tarnished, in a strict defiance of chemical realities, black mold spread across her feminine figure, the remains of the flayed flesh gone.
Huitzilopochtli watched me with burning eyes, blood dripping down her entire body, coating her like a film of sweat, weeping from the corners of her eyes, running down her lips and her chest. She stood holding the cold blue spear-thrower, the serpent straight as an arrow, its fangs dripping a corrosive black fluid. She stared into my eyes, and I saw something familiar in there. Despair, and pain.
They were wounded and drained, but that didn’t make them less dangerous. They were desperate and maddened creatures, and they’d fight with everything they had. For all the good it would do them.
“Kill me,” she hissed.
“Nah,” I said, and set my hands on my hips, stretching my head to either side, letting the bangles shift down into my wrists, smiling as the garment made itself whole again. “So. Who wants to start first? Or shall we do everyone? I’ll take on everyone if you like.”
Legba was the first to move, foaming mouth opened wide as he leapt at me. I intercepted him with an easy sideways kick, sending him spinning into the corner of the room, striking his ribs hard enough to break them, leaving the dog wheezing helplessly on the floor. “Fucking dogs, Legba, I swear.” I grinned at the silent room, Eumaeus and the other humans staring at me in stunned silence as I flicked my tail. “Did you know why there are so few canid species compared to big cats? We were outcompeting them, in every single environment. The only thing that saved them were humans. There’s a metaphor in there for you all.”
Ogoun was the next one to charge at me. He pounded forward with his massive, burly arms raised. He smoked with the heat of the molten iron flowing through his veins, mouth open in a scream of silent rage, furnace fire bursting from his mouth, his nostrils, his eyes. I intercepted him with a heel in the breadbasket, one swift kick. He was bent in half, stumbling to the ground, hands and knees striking the ground. Then he was noisily, violently ill, all over the ground. I set my foot back on the ground, and smiled.
Itzpapalotl and Marinette came at me in a flash of steel and rattling bones, fire and smoke swirling around me as they lashed at me with sharp nails. I spun and dodged, grinning. Nash was fast. Jill was fast. They were not as fast as me, when I was properly fed, when I was flush with the power. I spiraled and danced around their blows, and then, just for fun, let them think they were going to strike me. I slid out of the way at the last moment, and Itzpapalotl let out a howl of pain as she plunged a bony fist into Marinette’s flaming jaw, sending both of them spiraling back. I seized Itzpalaotl’s leg, yanking it entirely off, leaving her stumbling and bouncing back, and struck Marinette a ferocious blow in the ribs, cracking them and sending her bouncing away.
“This is why I like to fight gods, you know?” I said, smiling. “I can really beat the hell out of you, and still know that you’ll be fine.” I tilted my head to either side, letting small cracks and pops fill the air as I did. “Alright. Xipe Totec, Huitzilopochtli, which of you is first?”
Xipe Totec took a step forward. I grinned. “I got clowned a bit by a golden man not long ago. So you’re going to have to forgive me if I get a bit overenthusiastic with you. I’ve got a grudge.”
The golden woman paused at that, a look of uncertainty on her face. That was always the way. The twisted gods were feral animals, but they could still sense danger. I had spent my time here harried, threatened, unable to properly defend myself because my human was somewhere else. I had been a damn fool to let Horace be away from me for a moment, I knew now. I needed him, and he needed me. The two of us were meant to be together, and my strength right now was proof of that fact. I leapt forward, and easily twisted around a clumsy punch from Xipe Totec that could have taken my head off. My knee sank into her side, and left a deep impression in her, leaving her stumbling to the ground, off balance from the sudden shift of her mass. I turned towards Huitzilopochtli.
“Why won’t you kill us?” she asked, her voice hollow, her eyes empty, blood dripping down her skin. “We have seen our end. The humans do not need us anymore. To raise the sun each morning, to provide the spark of life, to make the crops grow, to provide the paths. They don’t need us. They have abandoned us.” The tears poured down her cheeks, red and viscous. “Why won’t you let us rest?”
“Because everything’s going to be okay,” I said, softly. “There’s still room in this world for gods and monsters. Humans still want us. They still love and care for us. They may not need us, but they still want us to be a part of their lives. This despair’s going to pass, Huitzilopochtli.” I smiled. “I believe in them.”
The goddess lunged at me. She was the best fighter of them all. Even twisted, she was still a goddess of war. On any other day, she would be my equal, my peer. She had fought back the apocalypse in her own way for a thousand years, and I respected her for it. On any other day, this would be a difficult fight.
I demolished her with three quick blows. The woman spun back, landing hard on one ankle. It collapsed beneath her, sending her down to the ground in a sprawl. “Why?” she asked, hissing at me. “Why doesn’t it drain you? Why doesn’t it hurt you, the way it does us?”
“Simple,” I said, smiling softly, raising my hands in an infuriatingly smug shrug. “I’m better than you.”
There was a howl, and the six of them leapt at me as one, moving with the coordination of a wolf pack, injured and bloodied, but not yet broken.
A few moments later, they lay on the ground around me, arms twisted in sockets, joints dislocated, panting and breathing hard, still maddened, still feral, but too weak to fight back. I stretched my shoulders, and cracked my knuckles. “Men. You’re the only human beings on this island. Help them out. Bandage their wounds. Make them some food. That mouth is draining the belief out of them. If you pour a bit back in, it’ll help keep them from falling apart. Won’t preserve them forever, though.” I looked up, towards Prester John’s tower.
“How long will it preserve them, ma’am?” asked one of the soldiers. I flashed him a smile. It was always a pleasure when a human set me up for a line like that.
“Just long enough.”
I leapt from the window, and landed easily on the balls of my feet. I walked confidently through the streets of the broken city. Where I passed, the fighting stopped. The lost and the damned alike faded into the shadows, aware of the presence of a predator beyond any of them. I made them frightened. I made them safe, because they dared not draw my ire. The city grew calm and quiet where I had walked, Famine’s presence no longer able to goad them. They had seen true fear.
The pearly gates of Prester John’s tower lay open. I entered the stairwell as I had before, and began my slow, smooth climb up the stairs, taking my time. I reached the top, and slammed my heel into the door, sending it spiraling out through the air, narrowly avoiding tearing Nyarlathotep’s head off. The god spun, teeth exposed, his eyes narrow, and angry.
There were nine individuals standing atop the tower, now. The six princes of hell, their heads lowered, held in the bitter sway of Prester John’s Seal of Solomon. Their heads were downcast, their eyes empty. Miller and Prester John stood opposite Nyarlathotep, and Miller’s eyes were wide, the sergeant major’s jaw dropped, a few tears visible in his eyes. “Bastet? You’re alive?”
“Of course,” I said, sauntering out onto the seal, carelessly, stepping around Jormungandr, whose back had greeted me on the way out. “I’m not going to go down that easily. But you knew that, didn’t you?” I smiled pleasantly. “I’m here to stop you. Stand down.”
“And why should we do that?” asked Nyarlathotep, his dark eyes smiling, full of laughter. “We are about to win.”
“No,” said Miller, his voice soft. “You are not.” He pointed up. “The Pugno Dei is coming. In approximately ten minutes, a seventy-meter-wide asteroid will strike this island with the force of the Castle Bravo device. You will die, Prester John. Your monsters will die. I’ll die.” He looked up. “I’m sorry, Bastet. I triggered it when I saw the apartment damaged. I didn’t-” He choked a bit on his words, and shook his head. “I thought you were dead. I didn’t believe you. I’m sorry, ma’am.”
“Don’t worry about it, Miller.” I smiled. “We’ll deal with it.”
“Oh, really?” asked Nyarlathotep, smiling, teeth shining against his dark skin. “You have ten minutes until an illegal US weapon of mass destruction destroys a sovereign nation and violates countless treaties. War will erupt. The gods will scent weakness like blood in the water, and begin their crusade to put humanity back in its place. The Sisters and the Horsemen will make things worse. Everyone will die. There’s nothing you can do about it, Bastet.”
I shook my head, smiling. “Come now, Nyarlathotep. We both know that’s not true. I beat you once before. I’ll do it again. Nash’ll help me stop Famine. Speaking of which…” I smiled. “You wouldn’t happen to know who she is, do you?”
“Of course I do,” Nyarlathotep said, sneering. “You haven’t worked it out yet? Poor fool. It’s been before your eyes this entire time.”
“You’d better not be about to tell me that I’m Famine.”
“Really?” Nyarlathotep smirked in amusement. “You think you’re Famine? Such a narcissistic being. No, not quite. But it’s amazing that you’re finally starting to work it out. How you survived our encounter, all those years ago.”
“Had a hole put through your chest, and then awoke, far away, with no trace of me. Didn’t you ever wonder who stopped you? I know who Famine is. This isn’t the first time we’ve met.” Nyarlathotep grinned. “But I’m going to enjoy hurting you.”
“Yeah, sure.” I shook my head, and lifted my hands, my claws extended. “Except for one thing. The last time we fought, I was starved. Alone. Weak. I’ve been feeding for the last two and a half millennium, preparing, all for this rematch, Nyarlathotep.”
“I-” he began. He never finished the sentence. My fist plunged through his chest, and ripped out his heart. It was black. I smiled.
“I’m going to assume this isn’t going to kill a shapeshifter as capable as you. But it’ll give me a few minutes.”
He choked and sputtered, and I threw him aside with my free hand, tossing him off the building. He didn’t make a sound as he disappeared over the edge. I didn’t need whatever satisfaction he had to offer. Instead, I turned towards Prester John.
“It’s not too late, John,” I said, my voice soft. “You can stop this. We can stop this, together. We can stop the Fist of God. We can stop the ritual. We can save your child. Nash is here, and he’s going to arrive any second. He’ll help you. We can save everyone.”
“Not me, I fear.” Prester John smiled. “You’ve done a wondrous job. You’ve fought harder than I could have asked of anyone. But it has to go this way. The world has to end this way.”
“Why?” I asked, and I couldn’t keep the heat out of my voice. “Because God said it to you, huh?”
“Yes,” he said, very softly. “I’ve spoken with God. I’ve seen his face. And he hates us.” He lowered his head. “We are a damned people, Bastet. This is what our end must be. We insult the one who created everything by our continued defiance, our refusal to die.” His voice was broken, in a way that reminded me precisely of the lost. This was Prester John, the King of Paradise, with his faith drained from him. I wondered, for a moment, what the mouth had shown him. I shook my head, and stepped over towards the ring, picking it up off the ground. Black veins had grown through it, tarnish covering its surface. The girl’s body lay beneath it, pale and very weak. I drew my claws across it. Claws that could cut madness and monsters. They didn’t even nick the keystone.
“There are few things in this world that could shatter that keystone,” hissed Nyarlathotep, voice raspy, as he pulled himself over the edge of the building. “You are not one of them.” His arms writhed, dozens of black tentacles spilling out from under his clothes, as he grew, beginning to spread around the top of the roof, thousands of wide yellow eyes splitting open on the tentacles. The building shook beneath my feet, and I smiled.
“Come on, freak. Let’s dance.”