“Are you anything more than human?”
I stood in the parking lot, still staring at the phone, my hand tensing and untensing sporadically around the phone.
“Then stay away. It will be okay.”
The line went dead.
Poverty is always bad. It’s always miserable and soul-grinding and horrific. But when you’re smart- and despite my situation, my life, what I do, I like to delude myself into thinking I’m smart- it becomes a thousand times worse. Take the phone. It was a piece of shit, but it was my only link to the world. If I gave in, right now, and threw it against the Shark Belly’s wall as hard as I possibly could, I would feel better for a while, until I remembered that I was now hosed for communication, and a couple of hundred dollars. But god, it would feel good.
Instead, I dialed another number. It rang twice before a woman picked it up. “Senator Phillips’ office, how may I help you?”
“I need to talk with the Colonel.”
“I’m afraid you must have a wrong number, there’s no Colonel-“
“This is Horace Creed. Tell him that if my cat dies, so does he.”
The line cut out. And then a familiar voice emerged. “Well, that’s a hell of a threat to be making. If your cat dies, I think so do you, son. She’s got a lot of enemies.”
“Two of whom are apparently after her. Get her out of there. Now. She’s not fucking safe.”
“Son,” the man drawled, “I think that you have greatly misinterpreted our relationship. I do not respect you. I do not fear you. I do not even trust you much. And I think all that’s fair, as you clearly do not feel any of those things for me. Your cat is in the hands of the most capable military officer that I have available to me, a man who has personally strangled an ifrit’s head clean off. She is on a mission of literally world-shaking importance. She-“
“Then fucking send me there! Get me on the first helicopter to that city, so I can help her!”
There was a long, deadly silence. “Son? Don’t you ever, ever interrupt me again.”
“You are a cat-sitter, boy. You are around because you make her happy. But she would get over you in two heartbeats. She has never been a creature of sentiment.”
“If you don’t-“
“You’ll what? Whine at me?”
The phone line was quiet for a moment. He hadn’t hung up on me. I took a deep breath, and concentrated. He was baiting me. The clever son of a bitch. There were a lot of things I could say to shut his ass up. My hand went down to my pocket, to the small ball of what might be mistaken, by a casual observer, for rubber bands. “This isn’t over, Colonel.”
“Sure feels over to me, son. Don’t worry. We’ve got your ol’ childhood home all cleaned up. There’ll be a car to drop you off there. Thanks again for helping your country.” The phone clicked as he hung up. I gritted my teeth.
“Hey, Creed! We need you on the deep fryers!” said the manager, glaring at me. “You’ve been out here nearly five minutes, who’s calling, your fucking mom?”
At last. A situation that I had some control over. “Jameson? Take this job, and shove it. I quit.”
“What? But the dinner rush is about to start! Sally’s going to be short-handed, and you’re covering Phil’s shift tonight, I’d have to write him up!”
I paused for a moment, and screamed internally at myself. “Fine. Today’s my last day.”
“You’d better believe it is, unless you improve that attitude, mister!”
I am the High and Only Priest of the goddess Bastet, who I referred to as Queen Betty. She Who Waits on the Threshhold, the Perfect Huntress, the First and Best Cat… She loves when I make up epithets for her. I am the source of her power, the one who heals her wounds, who gives her the strength to fight the dark gods in the night, who ensures that the world keeps spinning through my hard work and sacrifice. You would think that position would come with a little bit of respect. You’d be dead fucking wrong.
“Thanks for staying on,” said Sally, a dumpy blonde who was a devoted mother, and who hoped to go to beautician school someday. She was a good person. She definitely didn’t deserve taking on the lunch rush solo. “This’d be a madhouse by myself. It’s going to be sad to see you go.”
“You’ll get a replacement in no time, there are plenty of high school kids and college drop-outs in this state,” I said, smiling. “You won’t be able to tell the difference between them and me.”
“You care, y’know? Most people would just say the hell with it and leave me to work on my own. That counts for something, Horace.”
I lowered the basket into the fryer.
In the old days, from what I’ve read, the priests of Bastet were given great respect. After all, they were the human interface with the guardian deity of all mankind. But the priests died. Frequently, at that. At a certain point, I suppose they just became seen as… disposable. There were lots of people out there who loved cats. And so, I worked at this piece of shit Shark Belly franchise in Binghamton, so I could pay the bills for me and Queen Betty. Entering law school was on permanent hold, and getting further away all the time.
I want it clear, there might be people who, in my situation, would have stopped reaching for anything because they thought they were doomed. They believed that they’d die, used against Betty by one of her enemies. That strategy invariably proved a terrible mistake, because she was big on her vengeance. But Betty didn’t fight sane and rational things.
I digress. I didn’t go to law school, because I had more important things to do. I checked that the manager wasn’t around, and took out my phone, reading the blog. The case files the lawyer kept. Not a lot of comments on them. Most people took them for amateur fiction.
But I recognized something in them.
The secret to power.
“Hey, where’s your girlfriend? She usually comes by around now for a meal, doesn’t she?”
“She’s not my girlfriend,” I said, pocketing the phone, mind working on autopilot. And it was true. I was fond of Betty, I was even attracted to her, but she… Hell, what did I even know. She was used to humans dying. She didn’t want to get too attached. I could always feel her at arm’s length. And besides. Loving something just made it go away. “She, ah. She’s on a business trip.”
“She has a job? I thought she just bummed around on your couch all the time.”
“Hah. Yeah.” I smiled wanly. “Nah, she’s got a job. An important one. It just pays shit.”
“God, that sounds like the worst job imaginable.”
“You’re not kidding.”
I thought of Betty, and my heart ached a little bit. I met her when I got drawn into a ritual my uncle had been a part of. An attempt to summon and empower one of the lost gods she hunted. He had turned good, and then bad again, or- I shook my head, trying not to think about it. My feelings towards my uncle were complex, and full of a lot of old pain and incoherent thoughts. I’d been thinking about that more, ever since I’d learned about the house.
That was part of why Betty had gone on her mission. When my extremely wealthy uncle died, all of his assets had been willed to me. But they had been frozen by the government in the wake of the ritual. All the money. The law firm. The apartment in Manhattan. The home out on Long Island. The keys to the treasure trove of artifacts in the Museum of Natural History. And my childhood home, in upstate New York, a little north of Binghamton. The general had offered me that home in exchange for Betty.
He didn’t need to bother. A month of lying low in this city had Betty ready to kill something out of boredom. The blog suggested there was a lot of supernatural activity in the city- and god knows, I saw some pretty weird stuff on the night shift. But it was a dead city. The manufacturing jobs had dried up in the 70s, and it had been decaying for the last 40 years. Like most of America, really. We hadn’t found what we were looking for.
I stared down at the fryer as the oil bubbled and sizzled around the hunk of battered cod. I looked up at Sally. That was the issue, really. I cared. I wanted to help people. I wanted to do something. My instinct to help was what had brought me and Betty together in the first place. My desire to do something for the world, or just the people around me. And I kept Betty alive. I’d saved her life three separate times during that first turbulent month. I’d accomplished something.
Of course, each time, it had been healing her after she’d nearly been killed. It had been her own survival instinct and strength that had let her survive. I’d just gotten her back in the fight. Back in harm’s way. That was the way she’d wanted it. That was the way she liked it.
My knuckles popped as my fist tightened around the fryer’s basket. I leaned forward. I didn’t want to see her hurt like that ever again. I couldn’t stand being so weak that I couldn’t protect her. My fingers strayed to the rubbery lump in my pocket-
“Hey, Creed! If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean!”
The manager slapped the mop into my hand. I fought the urge to smack him in the face with it, and instead, I simply nodded.
“You going to be okay closing up?” asked Sally, late that evening. I smiled, and nodded. “Oh, thank god. You’re a life-saver.”
“Say hey to the kids for me.” I smiled.
“Now, be careful, okay? If it gets stormy…” She let the words hang in the air.
That was part of the reason I was working at these fast food restaurants. Last year, there had been a series of murders at Shark Belly restaurants throughout the Northeast. The Shark Belly Slasher, they’d been called. It had culminated in an attack on a Shark Belly where I was working. A couple of fucking fish-men had waltzed in at night, shouting about how the deep would rise again. I was saved by a friend, and they disappeared by the time we came back to pick them up. Since then, the attacks had stopped- until last December. When a ‘tornado’ had demolished a Shark Belly in Binghamton. This Shark Belly, in fact.
I wasn’t an idiot. There was no way it could be a coincidence. So after learning about this, I’d been tracking leads around here. And they’d all led nowhere.
But if I waited long enough, I-
I looked up at the door, and frowned. It stood intact, the dark parking lot visible beyond. Damn, I’d been sure someone had been on the verge of smashing it open and attacking me. I dropped my gaze back down to the floor.
I looked up again. A slender figure in a white kimono stood in front of me, red eyes gleaming. I didn’t yelp or jump, because this was how Li Xue Zi habitually greeted me, and I had long since got use to the androgynous snake demon’s sense of humor. “Li. I’m glad to see you. I need you to go help Betty.”
“Absolutely not,” he said, his arms crossed, his tone implacable. “I am sworn to protect you. I have no interest in leaving you without a guardian-“
“Li.” I took a deep breath. “Someone attacked Dane, down in New York. They’re trying to find Betty. She needs someone to warn her, to back her up. You are the only person I can possibly trust with this. You are the only person who can and will do anything to save her.” I placed a hand on his shoulder, very gently. “Please. I need you to get to the Caiman Islands. You’re the only person who can do that.”
Li Xue Zi also had extremely strong, notably romantic feelings for me. That was its own can of worms, but I didn’t have time to not take advantage of them. The demon shook for a moment. “You will be vulnerable.”
“I’ve been here for a month. It’s been a year since there was an attack. What are the chances that something’s going to happen now?”
“Do you mean what were the chances before or after you tempted fate?” he asked, tone a little bit bitter. “If you die-“
“If Betty dies, it’ll be worse. Besides.” I smiled. “I know how to run away, which is more than Betty does.” The demon let out a soft little laugh, and then nodded firmly. He turned, and vanished through the door into the night.
Li Xue Zi was resourceful. Not anywhere near Betty’s level of power, but capable, strong, thoughtful, clever. Powerful. He’d manage more than I ever could.
Power was what it all came down to.
I could have power. All the power I could choke on. In my pocket, like a can of mace, I carried a bundle of rat tails which contained the power of the god my uncle had tried to summon. Conventional wisdom, apparently, was that a human being trying to steal the power of a god would always fail. At best, they would die. The power would consume them utterly at worst. But my uncle had managed it. The trick, he’d told me, was to not fear them.
Fat chance there. I’d considered it a hundred times over the past year, choking down the revolting knot of power and divine strength. But if I failed..
You see what I mean about the dangers of being smart. You think about all of the consequences of your actions. You can become paralyzed by the thought of failure.
When I’d locked up, there was a black car waiting for me outside, driven by a man who was almost certainly military. I stepped in, and he started the engine without a word.
It had been twenty years since I’d been in my childhood home. The last day I’d been there had been the first day I’d met my uncle Randall. He’d picked me up after my mother died of a heart attack. And then…
For the longest time, I didn’t know why exactly my uncle was always so hard on me. It had come out, eventually, that he was a demon hunter. Part of the Order of Set, and how’s that for a coincidence? He’d been training me, or something, and if he’d only been able to let go of his grudges, if he’d only been a little bit more forgiving, he could’ve been there to fight alongside Betty, and be a hero.
If I’d only been a little stronger. If I’d been able to stand up to him worth a damn. Two people I loved would still be alive, if I had been strong enough. They had both died, because of me.
The drive was almost painfully familiar. It had been decades since I’d visited the place, but that only made the memories more poignant, more intense. The off-ramp, the drive through town, the long climb up the hill and into the hinterlands. For someone who’d grown up in New York City, it was wild and feral country, though I knew the most dangerous things in these hills were coy-dogs. The car stopped at the foot of the long, rocky driveway, and I stepped out.
I’d checked it on Google Maps a few time, the satellite view. It all seemed so small from that bird’s eye view. Down here, on foot, the world expanded. The oaks and pines lining the rocky gravel driveway stood tall in the cool summer night, a cold wind slowly blowing down from the peak of the hill the house was built on. I slowly walked up the stairs, slightly breathless as I made my way up the driveway, more from the intense emotions playing through my heart than from the easy climb. I walked past an old, aluminum-roofed building- the building my father had made, in anticipation of one day buying horses. My mother had never had the heart to buy them after he died. I felt a little shudder run through me as I passed the old street sign, a solid silver-gray pole with two names on it. One of them was Iris.
I had spent a long time after my mother’s death consumed with guilt. She’d died of a heart attack. If I’d been paying attention, if I’d found her, if I’d known CPR, if I hadn’t been a seven-year-old child, I could have done something. Maybe I could have saved her. Called for help.
You may think it psychotic for me to take these things on my shoulders. I couldn’t have changed things. I’m too small to matter. In games of gods and demons and horrifying fishy things from beyond the stars, the best I can do is make a safe and happy home for Betty to return to. That could be enough, more than enough for me.
But my uncle had showed me that there was another way. I’d sworn not to be like my uncle in so many ways. To not be as cruel and as callous as he was. To not be as arrogant. To not be as heartless. To not be as cold. But he’d died showing me that I could be Betty’s equal. And when I had seen that, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’d have to take that plunge someday.
Not today, though. I stared at the driveway. A tarp hung there, over the shape of a car. I carefully tugged the tarp aside, and it revealed the car. And the dark thoughts swept away on a tide of elation.
Among cats, Betty. Among cars, this fucking car.
I recognized it, even though I’d only ridden in it once before. One of the few happy times I’d ever had with my uncle, when he’d driven me down to New York City in this car, the day after my mother’s funeral. Opening it up on the highway, provoking a police officer into trying to chase him down and give him a ticket only to effortlessly outrun him. The car had moved like a panther among the slow and lumbering trucks on the road. And when my uncle had delivered me, he’d had it taken away, explaining that the loyal old Ford Thunderbird was going into storage. I hadn’t seen it again.
I rested my hand on the hood. It was a midlife crisis car, and it was beautiful.
I didn’t drive much. I’d never had the spare money. But I’d loved it every chance I’d had. Driving represented the ultimate American freedom. It’s a nation that was spread across thousands of miles of flat, open plain, a nation which had been crisscrossed with one of the greatest highway infrastructures made since the Roman empire. This car had been designed to be its ruler, its apex predator.
And most important of all, it meant that I would be able to eat dinner tonight if I could find the keys.
I stepped through the front door. A pair of keys rested on top of the microwave just to my right- one the key to the house, the other the key to the Ford, judging by their shape. I took a moment to slowly walk through the house. It was a beautiful old two-story house of the classic 70s type, a stairwell in the middle of the ground floor leading up to three bedrooms. My parents’ bedroom remained as it had been. I stared into my room.
Books lined the shelves. God, I’d read endlessly when I was a kid, absorbing every story I could get my hands on, innocent of how it might mess me up. The closet was filled with old toys that I only dimly remembered, but which brought a heartaching nostalgia back to me. The ceiling shined with delicate green sticker stars, that eerie glow of glow-in-the-dark toys that had been all the rage when I was a kid. I sat for a moment on the old bed, and as the springs creaked, I lay down for a moment. It was just like being back home.
I’d dreamed of coming home for a long time. Of course, in those dreams, my mother and father had been alive. Without them, it was just an old, empty house full of a lot of memories. It was part of the human condition to wish you could return to those early, happy days of childhood, when the world was so simple and sweet. But those days were long gone, now. They’d died with my mom.
I walked downstairs, and grabbed the keys off the microwave. Then I headed down into town.
I’d have to find a job tomorrow. Not just for the money- I was doing well enough, and with the house, I’d have fewer expenses each month- but also to keep my eye out. And to avoid thinking about Betty, and wondering if she was safe. If I could have gotten down there, I would have. Supported her, given the love and worship she needed. But I couldn’t.
I started the engine, and the dark and frankly tedious thoughts that always were at their worse when I was alone were banished as the pistons revved smoothly into action. It sounded as good as it must have the first day it rolled off the assembly line. I took it at a gentle pace down the rutted and gravel-covered driveway, and out onto the road. It handled like a dream, purring down the road.
Insurance, gas, maintenance. A litany of expenses that I would need for the car, sooner rather than later. I shouldn’t even be driving it like this. I didn’t give a flying fuck. To hell with the consequences for one night.
The old Gregg’s Big M was still open, some nano-franchise of the area, that I remembered from childhood. The sprawling, open feeling of a grocery store out in the country, so wide and open unlike the cramped aisles I was used to back in New York City. I wandered through the aisles, picked up a few necessities, the food I would need to make it through the weekend, buying as cheaply as I could. I had picked up three cans of salmon before remembering I didn’t need them to feed Betty. I bought them anyway; I had a recipe for Betty I wanted to try out. And in a single act of mindless self-indulgence, I bought a root beer. A short and meaningless conversation with the cashier later, and I was driving back home.
On the way back, on another wild whim, I brought the car down into the park. I’d had a few good summers here with my mom, and the great big reservoir was as beautiful tonight as it had ever been. I parked the car by the side of the lake, near the launch where people would put their boats in during the day. It was nearly midnight, and quiet. The nearly-full moon shone above. I opened the car door, and sat sideways in my chair, feet on the pavement. It was a warm night, but with just a hint of chill in the air. Maybe the first taste of winter coming, though that was still months away. Maybe just the sign that rain was going to come.
I rested my hand on the seat behind me, and felt something hard and metal. I picked it up, and found it was the old black flashlight I remembered vaguely from childhood. I didn’t know what its model was, but it was about half as long as a bat, and twice as heavy, steel casing designed for emergency use as a club. I twisted it, and found that the bulb and batteries were still good as it lit up.
The moonlight was sufficient, with the nearly-full-moon, to keep the park pleasantly lit, but I kept the flashlight in hand anyway as I walked out onto the grass by the water’s side. I stood by the water’s edge, taking a long slow sip of the root beer. It was cool and sweet and bubbly, and tasted better than just about anything. I realized I hadn’t eaten since the sandwich for breakfast, worried as I had been about Betty. My body reacted to the sudden rush of caloric input by calming, my mood becoming more stable. No longer frightened of starving, it could consider the issue more calmly.
Betty was one of the most capable predators in the world. She had survived over five thousand years of a very dangerous life. Whoever those killers were, whatever was happening in the Caiman Islands and down in New York City, there were very competent people there. They would be okay. I trusted them. I felt a little bit silly, now, over the way I had panicked. There was probably nothing at all wrong. Li would go find Betty, give her warning, and they’d be back soon. Everything would be okay.
The lake surface erupted violently in front of me, as though a depth charge had gone off. I stumbled back, holding up a hand as shockingly cold spray pattered around and against me, blinding me momentarily.
I wiped my eyes, and stared up. The figure loomed over me. Humanoid, vaguely. In the pale moonlight, gray and white mixed together strangely, giving an almost blue tinge to its skin. It was humanoid, wreathed in what looked like a great cape, and visibly powerful. Dozens of brilliant white triangles, jagged-edged and gleaming, danced in its mouth.
“You are the Priest of Bastet. I have come for you,” the thing said, its voice curiously high and lyrical.
It reached out for me, and I saw a dorsal fin rising from its back, the kind of thing that had been cut into humanity’s cultural memory since time immemorial, and more prominently since the 70s.
My arm was up and swinging before I had even finished processing this. I wasn’t some badass, I knew, but I had been forced to hone my reflexes since getting Betty, oftentimes at her violent insistence. I’d even spent some time learning from Dane, who was almost as violent as she was angry, and who was a very good if rough teacher. Even so, I would never be the kind of person who could punch an angry man clean out.
But the ten pound flashlight clutched in my fist certainly helped. Its end slammed directly into the creature’s nose, knocking its head away. It turned slowly back towards me, and my stomach dropped.
Then the creature burst into tears, and I realized a few things. The cape was not a cape; it was hair. Dozens, hundreds of elegantly stranded braids, reaching down to the creature’s ankles, dark green like strands of seaweed. Second, it was naked. Third, ‘it’ was a ‘she’.
This was not the first time I’d been in a situation like this, but it was the kind of situation that no amount of training could ever properly prepare you for.
“W-w-why did you hit me?!” the shark-woman wailed, tears running down her cheek as she held her face, twin lines of red dripping down from her pointed nose.
“I thought you were going to attack me. Here-“ I reached out, and her teeth flashed in a terrified grimace. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m just going to clean it off, okay?”
She nodded, and I gently ran my sleeve across her nose. She let out a sigh of relief at the touch- and her skin was like sandpaper, rough to the touch, forcing me to be very gentle. “Thank you. I am sorry, Priest of Bastet, I am not accustomed to your world.” She sniffed, wincing. “So dry. And I was forced to enter at some speed.” She drew herself up proudly. “I am the Princess of Atlantis, Ku-kaili-moku-polemo. I come to your land as an honored guest, to bring two messages, a plea to the goddess Bastet, and a warning to humanity.”
“Oh.” I coughed into my hand, a distinct sense of awkwardness stealing over me. “About that. Betty- Bastet, isn’t quite… around, just at the moment. There was another world-threatening disaster.”
“There is?” Her dark eyes widened momentarily, and then narrowed. “You are useless to me, I am afraid. I must find her, immediately, and deliver the warning.” Ku turned away from me, and stepped towards the water.
“Hey, Ku, wait a second-“
She wheeled on me, suddenly, her eyes ferocious. “How dare you? What right do you think you have to twist my name like that, to-“ She paused, and her eyes widened, her breath rushing out suddenly. “Ah. Not a priest. You are…” she peered more closely at me, bending forward, her teeth gleaming as she spread her lips wide. I wasn’t sure whether it was a threat, or meant to be reassuring. It certainly wasn’t reassuring. “What are you?”
“I… don’t know.”
She moved even closer, her rough skin pressing lightly against mine as she loomed over me. “You are strange. Unfamiliar.” She peered at me silently for a moment. “May I bite you?”
“Hmmm.” She turned, and spread her hands, breathing deep. She clenched her fists, and then her eyes widened. “They locked me out,” she said, in a very soft voice. “They… have sealed me out of my kingdom, out of Atlantis. How dare they?”
I was beginning to build an idea of her. A pattern of behavior. It wasn’t an unfamiliar pattern. “Look. You’re in trouble. You need help. Is there another way you can get where you’re going? I might be able to go with you, even. I need to get to Betty- I mean, Bastet- and if the two of us can help each other out…”
“I will need some time. I know little of your world’s topography and geography. A day or two to orient myself and attune to the Currents of Power, and I will know where we need to go.” She crossed her arms. “You are the Priest of Bastet. That makes you, I would imagine, important. To be the guardian of your world’s guardian. Thus, I shall deliver my second message, a warning, directly to you.” She drew herself up, her back straight, and spoke. “Your world finds itself in greatest danger. The Kingdom of Atlantis has declared war upon you surface dwellers. They shall thresh your soldiers, clear your ships from the seas, and bring your civilization crumbling down. You have struck the first blow against us, and so we will war. I have come in the hope that I can find a peace for us.”
She frowned after a moment or two.
“Why on earth are you laughing, human? I speak of cataclysmic war.”
“Horace,” I said, brushing a tear out of my eye, still chuckling softly. “My name is Horace. And I’m laughing because it fucking figures.”