The problem with fighting lost gods was what they had lost.
Losing things was strange. In pure physical terms, all loss is entropy; The destruction of something, replacing order with disorder, the gradual spiraling down of the universe. But humans think of losing things in stranger ways. Losing control. Losing inhibitions. Losing hope. Losing minds. Loss could make you terrifyingly powerful, when you lost the things that held you back. It was still a loss, a destructive act, an entropic ruining of some essential part of you. People tended to cling hard to their flaws, their failures, because your flaws are as much a part of you as your strengths.
Nash had lost his soul, and become something that could break gods because of it.
The lost gods lost their minds, lost their inhibitions, lost what made them them. Normal gods, like me, we had to at least nod our heads to physics, to reality. We shared it with humans, and overpowering it was costly, tiring, and unpleasant. For a lost god, reality was simply a state of mind, one they had abandoned.
Take Nergal. A god’s nature was that their power, their body, and their mind, all were as one. You couldn’t dissect me from my power any more than you could cut a human’s heart out and expect them to keep walking around. But Nergal had been able to do just that. The focus of power in the rat tails, and his mind had been separate. He’d been able to act at a distance from the tails, from his power, manifesting himself. Astral projection for the divine. In his case, he had been diminished badly, driven into infantile mindless need for contact by the countless years without the touch of another mind.
Nyarlathotep was different. Nyarlathotep had lost things, no doubt, in the countless years of silence. He had been a lost god for twenty five hundred years. But he was smart. And he was rapacious.
As the sky erupted into flames, Nyarlathotep spread. To someone who did not understand, who did not comprehend the world of divinity, it would seem like he was growing, mass spreading and displacing the air. I stared up at the fire in the sky, certain that Nash was responsible, and listened. There was no gentle rush of displaced air, no pressure on the world around him. I watched, and saw Nyarlathotep spread into the roof. Replacing the substance of the building with more of himself. I narrowed my eyes.
This was the true danger of the things that I hunted, the things that I ate. A lost god could consume things, spit them out as a part of its reality, eating away at the world like a virus, mindlessly consuming and spreading until they became a new reality. That was what Nergal had done, with his plague, turning a handful of human into its fanatics, turning others into scarred survivors. It had tried to do it to me, in fact, sickening me, poisoning my body. One of Nyarlathotep’s tendrils reached out for me, the writhing obscenity licking across my skin, trying to consume me, too.
I slashed through it, and the severed tentacle vanished, a little pop of air pressure as it reverted back to reality. “This is my world, Nyarlathotep. I have claimed it. I’m giving you a chance, here, to surrender, to be made whole again. I don’t know if that’s even possible for you anymore, but if there is some faint spark of sanity remaining inside of you, some part of you that wants to be a god, then you-”
He bull-rushed forward, tearing great strips out of the ground, the star on the floor, and nearly ripping off one of Wukong’s ears as the prince of hell leaned aside, barely able to act to preserve himself under the heavy weight of Prester John’s control. The massive black obscenity rolled forward like a black hole, trying to shove me over. I caught it on one palm, a shock running through its thick, writhing flesh, stopping it in its tracks. My leg lashed out, and my nails tore a deep hole through the creature’s side as the storm above us grow more ferocious and furious. I wondered what the hell Nash was up to, and then spun back, avoiding a lash of tentacles as the dark god struck at me.
I had lost something, too. Perhaps I was one of the lost gods, forgotten and twisted by it, but in just the right way. Humans could be made into monsters or heroes by pain, by suffering, by loss. Maybe gods were the same way. Maybe loss could really make you a better person.
If Nyarlathotep wasn’t stopped, he’d devour the city. I could see it now, understand his goals. The city was full of gods and monsters, and they had all been rendered unable to defend themselves by the wailing mouth above us. It was flooded with belief that Prester John had gathered in his nets of imagery and symbolism. The mouth was devouring that belief, leaving the city hollow, vulnerable, unable to protect itself from the insidious darkness. An entire city full of gods, heroes, and monsters, waiting to be consumed. It would be a beachhead that would be almost impossible to assault, once Nyarlathotep spread. I doubted even the Pugno Dei would stop him.
But that was why I was here. I raked upwards, and my claws split the air and Nyarlathotep. The massive blob of flesh sprung to one side with incredible speed, and still lost a tenth of its mass in one great strike. “You found someone special, Betty,” growled the god, voice low and hissing, as he twisted and writhed, tentacles springing into the air and then coming down again in a fountain, trying to devour more of the world around it. I smiled.
“Yeah. And he’s not dead. I know that much. But you’re going to be.” I pointed at the writhing tentacles. “You and I both know how the stories go. Once you’ve gone like this, you’ve lost. Becoming a giant, inhuman monster?” Nyarlathotep lashed out, and I severed another tentacle with a contemptuous flick of my hand. “So what did you to do Prester John? How did you manage to make him lose faith? It sounded like he had a hell of a plan behind him.”
“I showed him what it would cost. What the true price of his love, his faith, his hope, would be. He paid it still, but it destroyed all three. It’s easy in the abstract, to say you would pay any price for your ideals. But humans are pitiful creatures, at heart. They can’t stand the sight of suffering. Watching his island, his people, withering away, because of what he did? Watching his child die?” Nyarlathotep shook his head. “Humans cannot face the truth. They need delusion, stories, fantasies, to continue living. Humans who understand, truly understand it, cut their throats rather than live in a universe like ours.” Nyarlathotep howled with laughter, eerie, echoing out of a thousand mouths, tentacles spreading into the air. “Even now, Jack has learned the truth. The reality of his world. And it destroyed him. And you will soon learn the truth, too. I can’t wait to see the look on your face.”
“Here’s my truth,” I said, and smiled. “I had tuna today. I’ll have tuna tomorrow. I’m going to beat you, stop Famine, help Nash stop your mad plans, then I’m going to go home and save Horace.” I flicked a hand lightly, and made the bangles jingle. “It’s not even going to be a challenge.”
Nyarlathotep roared, and surged forward again, leaping up, and coming down on me. The thick darkness spread around me, encompassing me, trying to infringe on me. The weight of despair battered at me, an impossible weight, crushing down. Every low moment. Every human I’d let down. Every lover I’d let die, because I was not strong enough or not smart enough. Every time I’d failed.
I thought of Horace. I thought of all the damned depressing people around me who had let fear of loss, of pain, keep them from being happy. Who were too obsessed with the past and the future to feel the present. To hell with them, to hell with pain, to hell with depression. I thought of Horace, and smiled. Then I swung.
There was a terrible sound as I rent Nyarlathotep. The lost god let out a scream as he fell to the ground in two halves, human-shaped again. He lay on the ground, choking and panting, small black strands trying to reach out, to bind him back together. I kicked his legs, hard, and sent them tumbling through the air, off the roof of the building, and glared down at him. At that same moment, the sky cleared, blue and bright, the sun shining in the air.
And a star glittered near the horizon, distant, a pinprick. But I fancied it was getting larger by the second.
Nyarlathotep chuckled. “All of that work. All of that struggle. All of your fighting, and it’s all hopeless. The fist of god will fall. You will die, and so will everyone else. Do you see, Bastet? The truth of this world. There is nothing special about the noble and the righteous. Nothing that preserves you. You do not have fate on your side. You can fail. The humans of this world believe in the hopeless truth, that all things end, that you shall fail. They don’t believe in happy endings.”
“I don’t need fate,” I said, and smiled. “I don’t need the faith of humanity. I have two people.”
“And you think that will save you?”he asked, his voice harsh.
“No. I know it.” I smiled, my ear flicking, as the footsteps filled the air. I turned, and Nash stood in the doorway. He looked unharmed, standing tall, his suit torn, hair messy, but looking untouched. I felt a surge of joy, and grinned at him.
“Am I late?” he asked, an eyebrow raised as he looked down at the top half of Nyarlathotep.
“No. Just in time.” I flicked my head towards the ring on the chest of the young girl. “What can we do?”
He stopped, and frowned. “The last time, I destroyed it. Stopped the connection from draining the energy of the children. But…” He bit his lip.
“Can you destroy it? The way you did that one?”
He bent over the ring, and stared at it. “It’s got their souls in it. The children’s souls.”
“Isn’t it wonderful, the way plans come together?” asked Nyarlathotep, smiling. “I have every certainty you could destroy it. Destroy the children’s souls along with it. Ruin three kings with one stroke. A lose-lose situation. You know, Nash, you really should take up a little chess.”
“That’s what I told him.”
Every person on the tower turned, at once. Bella stood there, her hair red, shining. Blood trickled down her side, and she looked hurt, terribly weakened. I heard a soft intake of breath from Nyarlathotep.
Markov Lorickson stood beside her, over the girl.
“But chess isn’t his game. He seems to prefer boxing. So I suppose we just must each play to our strengths.” Bella smiled. She seemed unharmed by the mouth above, even as it breathed in. I wondered if it was because she was one of the Horsemen. “We need six minutes, Nash.”
I looked up. The bright flickering star was becoming visible. “Getting the feeling we don’t have that long. Nash, I know you’re pretty tough, but you think we can take something that big?”
“No,” he said. “We need someone professional.” He turned his head.
Jormungandr was staring, her eyes wide. I realized that during the fight, I’d never looked at her. There was no control over her. She was shaking faintly, her eyes fixed on the star. “Please. I can’t.”
Nash approached the girl, and rested a hand on her cheek softly. “Jormungandr. I can’t force you to do it. I can’t promise you that you’d be okay. But I think you’re the only one of us who could do it. You’re the one who was too heavy for Thor. You’re the world serpent. If anyone can do this, it’s you.” He pointed up. “That’s the end of the world. Ragnarok. You have a chance to stop it.”
“It’s the hammer of Thor.” She shook, and I couldn’t help the little twitch of pity inside of me for her, her gray ears flattened against her head, in a tremendously feline expression of pain and uncertainty. “You don’t understand. Every night, in Hell, I dreamed of that moment when it would crush my skull. When it’d kill me. I can’t.”
“I understand.” Nash softly patted her shoulder, and turned back towards the falling star. He looked down at the ground, and picked up a length of wood, broken free by Nyarlathotep’s rampage, some timber beam that had been displaced. He knocked it twice against the floor, and lifted it up in a batter’s grip, squaring his shoulders and facing the star. “Everyone who can, get as far away as you can. I’m going to give this my best shot, but I can’t promise you it’s going to work.”
“I’m with you, Nash,” I said, softly. I looked around. Prester John had his eyes lifted towards the star, empty and hollow. Nyarlathotep was still staring at War. The rest of the demon princes were staring loosely, expressions vacant yet betraying a hint of… something. Bella stood, her eyes on Nash, even as Markov bent over the girl, feverishly murmuring, running his fingers over the body, small trails of light dancing with his fingers. He had a pair of golden rings set down beside her, and they began to glow as well. Places for the souls of Tezcatlipoca and Samedi’s sons.
“You can’t be serious,” murmured Jormungandr. “I can’t stop that thing! There’s no way you can!”
“Maybe,” said Nash. “It’s amazing what people are capable of. It can surprise the hell out of you.”
Tears ran down Jormungandr’s cheeks, and she turned and ran, sprinting away, leaping from the building, running south, towards the bay.
“Makes me ashamed to be a cat,” I said, shaking my head, frowning.
“I can’t blame a person for being afraid to die. God knows I am. How did she break free, though?” Nash asked, frowning over his shoulder at me, taking a couple of practice swings with the length of wood.
“Probably stealing my whole ‘I don’t follow the rules’ schtick. Goddamn snakes.” I flicked my tail irritably.
“Maybe she’s stronger than she acts,” said Nash.
The tower shook, as the distant star erupted. A massive sonic boom as it entered the atmosphere, coruscating sheets of flame haloing it, growing into a tremendous fireball. I covered my ears, hissing with the pain of the sheer, overwhelming sound.
There was another rumble. This one came from the sea, the earth rumbling beneath the tower, making it shake more violently. “Oh, fucking great, don’t tell me we’re getting an earthquake, too-” I began. Then I went silent.
The water bulged. It was as though it was rising up into the sky, a living being of water so great that it could hardly be described. Then the water began to pour off, revealing the shape beneath. A tongue, nearly a mile long, forked at the tip.
It kept rising, followed by a head the size of a small city. The serpent’s massive body propelled it up, up into the air, the remaining clouds torn by the passage of the world serpent’s body. It rose into the air, higher, and higher, distorting the shape of reality through sheer size. Water flowed off of shining grey scales, as the head eclipsed first the sun, and then the descending star.
Jormungandr was large on a scale that was beyond simple biology. She was more like a mountain range than an animal, dwarfing the meteor.
But the meteor had gravity on its side.
There was a tremendous sound, and a shriek of pain from Jormungandr that tore through the air before ending in a terrible explosion. A second sun erupted, eclipsed by the serpent’s body, silhouetting it for a moment. My eyes streamed as the light blinded me for a moment. There was a distant, surprisingly soft rumble. When I opened my eyes, the serpent lay in the water. Its body rose like a mountain range, curled protectively in a circle around the island, its head submerged under the water.
Nash simply stared, his jaw tight, letting the length of wood drop from his fingers.
“I’m sure she’s alive,” I said, resting a hand on his shoulder. “She’s the world serpent. She’s tough.”
He shook his head, his jaw tensed. “Stronger than she thought.”
“You know,” murmured Nyarlathotep, “I knew you were doing this, War. That you were helping the sisters. Preserving things. But I never thought you’d be so brazen. That you would act so openly. You know, I can’t simply let you do this.”
I turned. Nyarlathotep was writhing, body shifting and wriggling strangely. I narrowed my eyes. “What the hell makes you think you have a say in it?”
“Oh, Betty. Betty. The rule of three,” said Nyarlathotep, smiling. “Things can happen once. Thrice. But never twice.” Then he deflated, like an empty suit, as something slithered out of the rent where his legs had once been.
It was a girl.
She had black hair, and dark eyes, and pale skin, and wild features. She smiled, and her teeth were all black as night. She spoke, and her voice was achingly beautiful, reminiscent of a song that I had forgotten long ago. “My dear sister. Showing yourself, acting openly, fighting to save humans. This isn’t like you, War.”
“Famine,” said Bella. “That’s the whole point. And it’s Bella.”
“You know what the price will be for this.”
“Yes. And I’m all too happy to pay it.”
“You’ve acted. You have given me freedom to act in return. I am… justified. And you are weak. You have given too much away for the sake of a human. That was a terrible mistake.”
“Yes,” said Bella, and smiled. “I was rather counting on it. I want you to meet someone.”
Famine moved like lightning. Her nails sharpened out like claws. Her teeth stretched, lengthening until they were more like the teeth of an anglerfish, sharp and needle-like. Her teeth spread and grew matted, feral, like a madwoman. She was naked, and terrible, and moved on all fours as she lunged. She fought like me, bestial, ferocious, feral. Her nails stretched out for Bella’s smooth, dark throat.
Nash’s hand intercepted her, and spun her down to the ground, slamming her into the concrete, hard. She bounced up and lunged for him, and my fist intercepted her, knocking her to the ground again. She snarled and spun up, eying us, circling warily. Nash and I moved together, keeping between her, and the helpless Bella and Markov.
“Five minutes,” said Famine. “You need to hold me off for five minutes. You’ll never manage it.” She lunged, dancing up into the air, and came down towards Markov, moving more like a bird than a beast. I struck her in mid-air, and we spun on the ground, each trying to land on top, to get the position to pin and tear at the other.
She was stronger than me. Even with all of Horace’s strength poured into me, she was still stronger. Her teeth gnashed shut inches from my throat, and she stood atop me, slavering jaws spread to tear into me.
She was not stronger than Nash. His arms went around her, putting her in a full-nelson, pinning her, and pulling her back from me, enough that I could squirm out from under her. She spun in his grip, trying to bite at him, and I struck her at the base of the skull with one heel, discombobulating her, giving Nash time to disengage and pull away.
She stood up, shaking her head, and growled. “You keep fighting. Keep holding it off. For what? The war is coming for you, Nash. The end is nigh, Betty. You struggle for seconds, to hold off the final end for just a little longer. Even if you succeed, you will only hold off the end. Another City destroyed, another step closer to the reunion of worlds. Why fight so hard, just to prolong the struggle?”
“You’re Famine, aren’t you?” asked Nash. “You should know that the less there is of something, the more precious it becomes.”
She swept forward like a whirlwind of teeth, and sharp edges. She had the speed of instinct, the fury of an animal. And, Nash proceeded to prove, the predictability of instinct.
It was something I had learned, when I had fought Randall Creed. The man had been powerful, but that was not all of it. He had been trained. Human fighting was not like an animal’s fighting, a fury of scrabbling and mindless struggling for advantage. It was an art form, a science. It was designed to make the best use of human abilities that it could. Animals were far superior to humans, but they didn’t learn the way humans did.
Nash caught each blow, moving them aside. He wasn’t fast enough, wasn’t strong enough, to counter before another blow rained down on him. But he didn’t need to. I fought by his side, and he moved in perfect sync with me, opening up openings that I viciously exploited. The two of us fought together, and we were, for a few deadly moments, unbeatable. We swept aside her attacks, and she stepped back, her teeth sharp. And I realized that she was playing for time.
“You are fools. I am one of the Horsemen. I am beyond you. Utterly.” She blurred, and her fist nearly struck me in the stomach. Nash pulled me aside, and took a savage blow to the cheek. He staggered and then straightened, the two of us taking a step back, regaining our breath. My power was running out. The power the sandwiches had contained was great, but I had perhaps a minute left. When it ran out, we were dead. And I didn’t see any way to stop her short of killing her.
Famine took a step towards us. Then she stopped. The Sergeant stood between us and her, his hand up, fingers spread out. “Stop,” he said.
“Oh?” asked Famine, her voice amused as she studied him. “Why? What do you think you can do?”
He folded his thumb against his palm. Famine narrowed her eyes.
“A miscalculation. I can dodge it. You cannot predict my movements.”
“How sure of that are you?” asked the Sergeant, his expression dark. as he folded down one of his fingers, then another.
“And do you think that a human weapon, something so small, can hurt me? What arrogance.”
“I have faith. God bless Am-“
Famine moved. She leapt up, fast as greased lightning. The crack of the round filled the air as it swept harmlessly beneath her, and I saw a look of triumph on her face. It lasted as long as it took her to realize the weapon’s true target.
Nash spun a tight circle with the momentum of the railgun’s round, bringing it in a complete loop, and threw it again. The massive round slammed through Famine’s knee, and in one timeless moment, her shriek of pain filled the air as it tore her leg clean off.
She hit the ground, crumpled to the roof, panting, black blood dribbling from the wound. It wasn’t fatal. It was, however, debilitating. “Surrender,” I said. “You lost.”
“Checkmate,” murmured Bella.
“That’s it, then? I’ll tell you the truth, Betty. The nature of the threat. Your Horace is in mortal peril, and by my hand.” Famine smiled, her sharp teeth shining. “My servants have pursued him while you have been here, away from where he could be protected. I was the one who gave the Church of the Survivor the key to finding Nergal again. I have been harrowing you for as long as you have been. I was the one who sent the lost gods after Howard. I am the one who killed everyone you loved!”
I felt a cold chill run over me. I heard Nash shout as I lunged forward. Famine moved with impossible speed and strength, raising on her good leg, swiping at my belly, trying to gut me.
I imitated Nash’s movements. I didn’t have his training, but I was a natural. I shifted Famine’s blow, dragging her arm down and to the side, unbalancing her. My knee rose into her ribs, and cracked them. Black blood splattered the ground as she let out a choked gasp, and fell to the ground. I kicked her once in the cheek, and sent her spinning. I crouched low over her.
“You did all of that?” I asked, softly, very gently, resting my fingers on her throat, nails dragging elegant patterns across her skin. “You are the reason that the people I love died? The reason all of this happened? The reason I have been alone?”
Famine nodded, grinning with those terrible teeth. The time limit was not a concern anymore. “I did it all. Because I wanted to hurt you. Because I liked to watch you suffer. Because it amused me.” She smirked mockingly. “And what will you do about it?”
“I’ll tear your throat out.”
“Really?” She nodded towards Nash. “Do you think he will let you?”
“He’s not going to have a choice about it. He can forgive the people who hurt him. He can forgive a Horseman. I’m not going-”
“Betty,” Nash said softly. “She’s baiting you.”
“What does it matter, Nash?!” I yelled, standing up, keeping a foot on Famine’s jaw, pinning her down, holding her against the ground. “The harm she’s done! The pain she’s caused! She is responsible for everything that happened here, and she’s still not done!”
“She’s not telling us the whole story, Betty. Bella was the same way. Trying to provoke. Trying to die.”
“Bella is not like her! Just because you found one Horseman you could trust does not mean you can trust the others!”
“That’s not what I’m saying. Betty… I didn’t realize it before. The smell that was on Nyarlathotep, and the smell from you. It was the same. You wondered why you were different, why you were unlike the other gods.” He looked down at Famine, his head tilted. “I think it’s because she did something to you. Gave you her power.”
“I…” I narrowed my eyes. “Why?”
“If you kill her, and she has given you a gift,” said War, her voice soft, “her power will flow to you. It could consume you. It may have been her plan, all along, to turn you into her avatar.”
“Do you want to know?” asked Famine, and smiled. “Look into my eyes.”
I stared down at Famine, and growled. “If this is a trick, I’m going to be pissed.”
I met her eyes.
“Oh.” I frowned. “Well, why didn’t you just say so?”
“Would you have ever accepted it, if you knew what it would cost you?”
“Of course. Haven’t I always?”
Famine dropped her gaze. “I knew there was a reason I chose you.”
“It’s ready, Nash,” said Markov, even as Bella opened her mouth.
Nash carefully, reverently, took the ring. He crushed it between his fingers. And Famine vanished from beneath my heel as the mouth disappeared. He paused, and turned towards me. He opened his mouth to ask a question, and then shook his head. “Two down.”
Prester John lifted his head, and a smile spread across his face. “I knew you had it in you.”
Nash moved like an avalanche. Not excessively fast, but completely unstoppable. His hand wrapped around Prester John’s throat, and slammed him against the ground, hard. His knuckles were tight around the man’s throat, his expression ferocious. “You fucking prick! What the fuck was wrong with you!? What could possibly make you do that to your daughter?! To the children of others! What kind of fucked up bullshit test was this?!”
“The story-” Prester John choked a bit, and Nash’s fingers loosened. “The story of Abraham and Isaac. As you mentioned. God demanded Abraham slay his child. And he sent an angel. I knew that you were right, Nash. I knew that you were who I was waiting for. The hero I was waiting for-”
Nash stood up, sharply. “All this. Because you counted on me to save you from your fucking mistakes? Because you wanted to test me?! Or-”
“No,” said Prester John, shaking his head. “Not to save me. Her.”
“Nash,” I said, and rested a hand on his shoulder. I looked up at Bella. “We need somewhere private to talk.”
She nodded. “I think I would like to hear this, too. There is still a lot to clean up, here. Settling up accounts. Preparing for a clean exit. There will probably be a celebration.” She gave Nash a smile. “Stay, for just a little longer, here? I would like to make a happy memory. While we have the time.”
He nodded slowly, and lifted his head. The sun spread over the island, and the bright blue sky flashed. Jormungandr moved slightly, and a tremendous head lifted out of the water, scarred, but whole. She disappeared, shrinking away into that tiny form once more. Waves rushed and whirlpools appeared, and then she was gone, but I imagined I would have to deal with her again someday. Nash turned, moving to the corner of the building with Bella and I, away from the others, where we could not be overheard.
And I began to tell Famine’s story.