There was someone warm in my bed. I shifted slightly, an arm going over them, squeezing them gently. They were soft. I squeezed a little bit tighter, pressing my face into warm, soft, faintly musky hair. I felt an ear flick against my nose, and a soft purr filled the air, the vibration rocking my chest. “Good morning, Horace.”
My eyes snapped open. Betty peered up at me, bright green eyes flashing with mischief. She was entirely naked, and curled up by my side in the bed that was barely big enough for me. She had even hogged the covers, which explained why I was slightly chilly. I blinked once. “Betty?” I felt the tears began to swim in my eyes, and rubbed at them furiously. “You’re- You’re alive? You’re back?”
“You had any doubts?” she asked, an eyebrow raised. “Come on. It was a little touch and go there, but I kicked ass. The sandwiches were great.” She slid her arms around me. “Horace. I’m hungry.”
“Yeah. Yeah, of course.” I began to sit up, and found her yanking me back down to the bed. Suddenly, she was on top of me, her legs spread around my waist. She was warm, and it struck me how much I had missed her. How much I had missed her confidence, her being around, her being sure of what to do. How much I had missed how warm she was. Betty is a fucking goddess, and god why on earth did my mind choose that particular intensifier to focus on. I was in serious danger of being mocked, right now.
“Horace. That’s not what I mean by saying I’m hungry.” Her hands rested on my chest. Slowly squeezing, and releasing, nails gently digging into the shirt. She smiled softly. “I had a lot of time to think while I was away from you. To think about how much you mean to me. About how much I’ve missed you. About… all of those things.” She rubbed her cheek, and I saw a tear glistening there. “I kept hearing that… you were going to die. People kept threatening you, and I knew I wasn’t here to protect, you, and I couldn’t stand it, I thought-” She let out a little hiccup, and believe me when I say there is nothing sadder than watching a cat cry. “I need you, Horace.”
“It’s okay, Betty. I was fine. A few close calls, some ridiculous bad timing, but- come on.” I smiled. “You had any doubts?” I put my arms around her, and squeezed her. Seeing Betty vulnerable like this, crying, needing to be reassured… It was unusual. I had to wonder what had happened to her. I squeezed her gently.
“I did. I was worried. I was just so worried.” She leaned forward, and licked me gently. Her raspy tongue ran across my neck, and I shivered a bit at the sensation. Betty was being substantially more snuggly than I’d seen from her before, her arms tight around my shoulders. Her eyes dropped down. “Horace. I… want something from you. Is that okay?”
I froze, my heart pounding. “Uh. I… suppose it depends on what it is.”
“I… know I’ve been stand-offish, before. That I’ve teased you, mocked you, that I’ve made you feel insecure. But I really do like you. I realized how much I cared for you, while I was away. And- I’ve been hurt by losing people before. I’ve been hurt a lot of times. I didn’t want to get attached to you, because I was scared I might lose you.” She looked up, her eyes meeting mine, and thinking became very difficult. “I want-”
“Yes,” I said, without thinking. “Whatever it is. Yes.” I still remembered the discussion with The Lass. Betty’s eyes sparkled. “Betty- I mean- I- Fuck. You’re the first worthwhile thing that ever happened to me. Pretty much every happy memory I have since my mom died is because of you.” I squeezed her. “I just want to help you. However I can.”
“Thank you, Horace,” she murmured softly, and licked my shoulder again. The rasping tickled, and I smiled, holding her. It felt good just to say it. To be open. To not be rejected. The rest could wait, all the confusion and the monsters and the world-ending threats and the weirdness, it could all just wait a bit.
“Hey, Betty, come on, that tickles,” I said, and chuckled, even as she kept licking. Then I winced. When a rough cat tongue scrapes somewhere long enough, it goes from ‘ticklish’ to ‘painful.’ “Ah, come on- Ow! Betty, lay off-!”
She lifted her head, and her lips were dripping with blood. The arousal wilted as she stared down at me, her eyes hungry. “I need you to die for me, Horace. I need you to give me everything you have. I need every last drop of your life. I knew I could trust you.” She leaned down, and bit, and the sound of tearing meat and crunching bone filled the air, and I couldn’t move, and I screamed, and I screamed, until she tore out my throat-
I snapped up out of bed, in a cold sweat. My knuckles were white, gripping the bed, and I still had an erection. Fuck, that was probably some horrifying fetish that was going to take years of intensive therapy to scour away, now. I ran my fingers through my hair, soaked with sweat, turned stringy and messy. The first touch of dawn was just showing in the bed. I sighed, and there was a crunching sound. I let out a scream, and noticed, for the first time, Ku, crouched at the end of my bed. “What the fuck, Ku!”
She nibbled on the can of salmon, making another low, menacing noise. “I’m hungry. I wanted to wake you up, but you looked like you were having a nice dream. Right up until the screaming.”
“Jesus.” I lay back in the bed, staring at the ceiling.
A good bout of terror in the morning is great for getting you up and out of the bed. Beats the hell out of stale coffee any day of the week. I was up and in the kitchen in no time, mixing up a salmon omelette for Ku.
It didn’t take Freud to figure out the dream. Sexual desires mixed with lingering anxieties. The unconscious fears. I wanted Betty to be back, and I was afraid that I was just being used, just being taken for granted. Fear. Maybe even… Fuck. We were dealing with a god of dreams. It might even be something Ku-Thule had done, to try to fuck with me. To drive me away from someone who could help me. I had to believe that Betty was going to be back. She would come back, she would save our asses. She’d be here in time. She’d be here for me.
And as to the rest… That was probably just wishful thinking.
I looked over at Ku. Sometimes what you needed wasn’t what you wanted. Sometimes what you wanted wasn’t what you needed. Maybe… I’d just been fooling myself about Betty needing me. There were a lot of people who could feed her, and be strong for her. I’d nearly gotten myself killed last night, too. Maybe I could help Betty find someone who could care for her, and protect themselves worth a damn. Someone she wouldn’t have to worry about all the time. Maybe that was what I was good for. Keeping an eye on her until she found the right person.
“Are you okay?” asked Ku.
“Because those eggs are smoking.”
A few minutes later, I sat at the table, leaning back in my chair. “I want you to come to the restaurant, today.”
“There might be a confrontation.”
“I think that Daryl’s father is a former member of the Order of Set. A demon-hunter, a monster-fighter, and possibly an ally.”
“But he might be someone we need to fight. He might be…” I was quiet for a moment. “Randall couldn’t let go of his grudges. If this guy is the same… he might try to hurt you. We need to convince him that you’re a friend, and that we can solve this all peacefully, if we do things right.”
“Oh.” She considered that for a moment, and then nodded firmly. “Friends! Yay!” She paused for a moment. “If we’re going to solve this all peacefully, why do you have those swords with you?”
I looked down at Rache and Recht. “Because plans are great, but you should always have more than one. Just in case.” I patted the two swords, and a thought finally ran from my hindbrain up to my forebrain, carrying an idea. “Ku…”
“You proposed to me.” I frowned at her. “Proposed a pact. Connecting our souls. Giving me power. Do you know what kind of power you would give me?”
She shrugged. “I don’t. Not really. I know what I’m supposed to be, but what form our connection would take- That kind of thing is hard to predict, isn’t it? I was made to command, to fight, to inspire…”
“It might…” I opened, and closed my mouth. “It might be a good idea to make that pact. Now.”
She looked into my eyes for a moment, and looked down. She opened her mouth, and closed it a couple of times.
“You don’t want to do it unless it’s a real connection.”
“Sharing souls like that is a serious commitment. It connects people on an intimate level. It can change who you are. If it were just a matter of convenience, if I saw you as nothing more than a tool for my will and vice versa, it would be simple, but… I do like you.”
“Why?” I asked, and I couldn’t keep the chuckle out of my voice. “What is there about me? It can’t be that I’m nice. There are a lot of nice people in the world.”
“You have given me food. You have rescued me from danger, repeatedly. You are attractive for a human, and full of passion. You are capable of violence to protect what you care about.”
I rested my head on my hand. “Ku… I’m no one important. I work the lowest tier of work that a human being can. I don’t have an education, I don’t have an inheritance beyond a trunk full of illegal weaponry and drugs and a bunch of assets frozen by the government. I’m- Insanity apparently infests my whole family tree, I’m-”
She rested a finger on my lips. “Perhaps it is just infatuation, then. Perhaps it will grow weaker over time. But not if we made a connection. It could bind us together.” She studied me silently for a moment. “I do not think that you would be happy with that kind of threat, lingering over you.”
“You don’t even know if that’s what would happen, do you?”
“No,” she admitted.
I leaned back in the chair, rubbing my forehead.
“Are you alright?”
“Just weird dreams. It’s got me… worked up.”
“Yes, I can smell that,” she said, taking a bite of her omelette while I choked on my tongue. “Nothing to be ashamed of. Clearly you’re capable of siring children.”
“Wait- would that even work? I mean, you’re a goddess…”
“Plenty of precedent for it.”
“Of an entirely different species!”
“Well, Betty’s a cat, and she has had children with humans.”
I looked down. “She has?”
“According to the legends, anyway. Not for a very long time. But she has.” She gave me a curious look. “Does that make you jealous? You weren’t even born, yet.”
“Yeah, don’t rub it in. Come on.” I stood up, feeling the desire to move. “Let’s get to the store. Find out what’s going on, and… maybe, just maybe, we can get some allies into this thing.”
It was a beautiful summer morning, but there was just a hint of chill in the air. It was the 23rd, and the dog days of summer had ended the day before, Sirius’ fevered influence on the world releasing. Winter was just around the corner. I hoped, anyway. I didn’t want another long and torturous extended summer lasting into November.
There were three cars in front of the Shark Belly. An old, foreign pick-up truck, rusty and rough. A beater of a car, some sedan now unrecognizable, with ‘420’ prominently displayed in the back window and one of those Coexist bumper stickers. The third car was an anomaly. It looked sleek, and distinctly German. I parked in the back, and took the employee entrance, which was unlocked.
I walked in, and was greeted immediately by the sight a man who could only be John Pertwee. Tall, well-groomed, silver-haired. He looked like he had been carved out of teak, leathery brown skin heavily creased by age. Wearing a jacket with one sleeve stapled up to the shoulder, a rifle slung across it. He sat at a table, a glass of water before him, and turned towards me. He smiled, and nodded his head. Despite all of those differences, I could see Daryl’s face in him. “Horace Creed. The pictures don’t quite capture you, do they? Walking in, you looked a bit like your father. I want to give you my painfully belayed condolences, on both your father, your mother, and your uncle. They all deserved better.” He sighed, and coughed into one hand. When he’d recovered from the cough, he smiled. “But then, don’t we all?”
Daryl sat across from the table, looking deeply nervous. At a glance, I’d have to peg John at somewhere around seventy years old, which means he’d had Daryl in his late forties. Randall had been somewhere around that same age, and he’d been not much older than my father. That was a question I’d have to ask about some time; The Order seemed to have a habit of having children late in life. But in the meantime… “John Pertwee, it’s an honor. I’d like to introduce Ku-kaili-moku-polemo. Goddess of War, and rightful sovereign of Atlantis.”
Walter stepped away from the wall where he had been standing, his eyes narrowing, bundling into fists. John raised an eyebrow, and opened his mouth. Ku bristled, the petite Polynesian woman’s teeth becoming serrated. I stepped forward.
“You knew my father. You knew my uncle. When he refused to let go of his grudge against Betty, Bastet, he and I came to blows over it. It ended badly, because he didn’t know who his enemies are. Who are your enemies, Mister Pertwee?”
John held up a hand, nodding silently. Walter glared at him. “Fish. She was the one who had the sword. She was the one-”
“It’s you,” said Ku, her eyes widening. “The human. I remember you. The one they wanted me to sacrifice. I sent you back- When did you get so old?”
“Old? That was nearly fifty years ago,” said Walter, his eyes narrowed.
“That can’t be. It wasn’t very long ago. I remember it was when the trouble truly started with Nachtka Wai.”
I frowned at Ku. “Wait. How can that be? Is there some kind of disconnect in time?”
“This is all interesting,” said John, “but irrelevant. The past may be a tangled skein, but it is still the past. Walter, do you believe that she is the one who returned you to our world?”
Walter was quiet for a moment, and then nodded. “It explains it far more succinctly and cleanly than any other explanation I could imagine.” His voice was thick with some Eastern European or Russian accent, though I couldn’t quite recognize it. It seemed to get more intense in the face of his anger. “Is this important?”
“Quite.” John sighed. “Let’s start from the beginning. In 1967, five men walked into a Canadian fur-trappers camp. Three walked out, and of those, only two were whole. The fur-trappers had a cult, the Keepers of the Feast. They made Wendigos, with an artifact, the Heart of the Keeper of the Feast. You familiar with the myth of the Wendigo?”
“Yeah. Comics. Pet Semetary. A little of my own reading.” I frowned. “But a Wendigo is supposed to be someone who eats human flesh. They get addicted to it.”
“The Wendigo myth started as a North American thing. Cannibalism has always been a major source of mythological angst, but its particular form in North America was among the native tribes of the Northeast. A curse on the greedy. Normally completely uncontrollable, feral beasts who care about nothing but devouring the meat of humans, feeding an appetite that can never be sated. The Heart of the Keeper of the Feast is an artifact; probably the remains of a god, though I’m unsure of the specifics. It is said that whoever holds the Heart can grant lucidity to Wendigo… Or turn them into puppets.”
“There was a strange creature among the Keepers of the Feast. Like a man, but with a long bladed nose, a fin on his head, and after we were done with him… a scar on one eye. We barely escaped the place with our lives, though, and before we had the Canadian air force bomb it to the ground, he must have gotten away. With the heart.”
“Nachtka Wai,” said Ku, softly. “I know he has great distaste for humans. He was one of the ones who called most strongly for war against your kind. I never knew that was how he got the scar, though.”
“Quite so. Randall gave it to him, in fact, with that black knife of his.” John leaned forward on his good arm, resting his chin on his palm. “I suspect that the Wendigo are part of a plot by the Atlanteans. For the last year or so, there have been attacks on Shark Belly franchises. I believe this has been part of a seeding plot, placing some contaminant in the food that is meant to trigger the Wendigo transformation at a specific time. I believe the man last night triggered the transformation early through an overdose of whatever contaminant they used.”
“The Atlanteans have two key advantages in this war. Surprise, and the supernatural. They have their gods. They can use the Wendigo and their other fallen gods to make attacks on us. This woman here is another example of that. And frankly, there is no way for us to deal with that without opening up a can of worms that is going to bury us all.” John sighed. “I left the Order because they believed that the Atlanteans were not worth the fight. There is no way into, or out of, their realm- Not without the permission of one of the Atlantean gods, or far more divine firepower than we could hope to gather. Maybe one of the old gods of psychopomp or borders could get through. If the Sisters were real, they could do it. Bastet probably couldn’t, not without a fracture point already weakened and a lot of help. So we can’t take the initiative. But with you, Ku…” His eyes turned towards her.
“I could let you invade my world.”
“Your appearance presents a problem, and a much greater solution,” said John. “In frankness, our plan had been to wait for them to cross over, watching the places where they might find the greatest impact, and then send through strike teams. Equipped with… small nuclear weapons.”
There was a very heavy silence in the room. It held until Ku spoke, her voice quavering.
“You cannot do that,” said Ku, her voice pleading. “Please. My people are… localized, in our world. We would be poisoned by your gods. We would never recover.”
“That was the intention,” said John, his voice very cold. “We cannot fairly attack the Atlanteans. Our hope was that we could kill whatever god is responsible for letting the Atlanteans enter our world, and trap their forces there. Buy our world… a little longer.”
“A little longer?” I asked, sharply.
“You have seen it. The rising tide of gods, of strange creatures, returning to our world. The lost gods, coming back. The obsession with apocalypse. Your uncle believed it was a trend. And he has proven persuasive. Even now, there is a conflict in the Caiman Islands, which threatens to end the world. That, I am given to understand, is why Betty is not with you. She has… bigger fish to fry.”
“It’s a little alarming that you know that.”
“I never stopped being connected. In honesty, most of what I know is simply hearsay, or conjecture. But the evidence is suggestive.” I noticed that didn’t quite answer the question inherent in what I’d just said.
“This does not make sense,” said Ku, frowning. “My people are desperate because we have been attacked. Because the Wendigo you mention have been assaulting us. It is a human attack. Humans are the only ones who can become Wendigo. Our species is not prone to that disease.”
“A false flag,” said John. “A natural choice of dictators everywhere. Your leaders wish to expand, so they create a crisis. They create an enemy, and they decide that the seizing of that enemy’s land, their resources… their people… is all justified. In the face of a crime. History is rife with examples.”
Ku’s shoulders were slumped, her eyes in her lap. “I wanted to believe- Even at the very worst of times, I wanted to believe that their intentions were noble, even if their methods were flawed. That they were motivated by survival. By the desire to save their people. That even if they had done awful things, they were still not awful people.”
“Redemption is precious because it is so rare,” said John, softly. “But your presence changes things. For the better.”
“How?” She asked, frowning. “I can’t-”
“You are a source of information. You are a way for us to enter Atlantis. And most importantly of all, you are a source of leadership for your people. You know this leader?”
“There are two. Nachtka Wai, and… A god, who has possessed my father. They are the ones who have most driven this conflict forward.”
“Then if they can be killed-” He paused a moment, and gave her a sympathetic look. “Or neutralized, if that is possible. Then this war can be ended before it begins.”
“What about my people?” She asked, softly. “Am I to betray them?”
“You don’t have to,” I said, and looked across at John. “The oceans are awfully big. I think we can share them, don’t you?”
“Territoriality is a hard instinct to overcome,” said John, looking uncertain, and looking over at Walter. The big man didn’t speak, staring off into the middle distance with an unreadable expression. Daryl was looking a bit lost in the whole thing. I wondered how much he’d actually known about his father’s past. God knows that Randall had never told me about any of it. “On the other hand… Xenophilia is a part of humanity’s nature. I have acquired a great deal of wealth; I am, in fact, the owner of Shark Belly, which I suspect is part of why the Atlanteans targeted it, a piece of vengeance on the part of Nachtka Wai.” He smiled towards Ku. “I think that if we can stop this, together, we can find more than enough room in our world for your kind.”
Ku slowly nodded. “That is… a heartening thought.” She bent forward, her fingers interlacing. “What is the makeup, disposition, and status of your forces?”
“Mostly mercenary. Former soldiers, professionals. Well-trained in marine operations, submerged combat. I’ve put a fair amount of the money I’ve made into this army. They’ll be an equal for anything that they find underwater.”
“What about those black things that attacked me?” asked Walter. “They were quick.”
“Ateroleum Thralls,” I said, and paused as I saw the looks the other three gave me. “If Nachtka Wai made a deal with Yam Hamawet- and I think he did, from what I saw- they’d be Ateroleum thralls. Strong, fast, dead already, but vulnerable to being… penetrated. Gunfire was never any good against them, but Dane and Betty could take them down pretty fast with an edge.”
“Mmm. Useful to know,” said John, smiling towards me, and I felt a little flicker of pride in myself, like on those rare few occasions that Randall’d had something good to say about me. “Anything else you can help us out with?”
I looked aside, and saw Daryl, his eyes on his thumbs in his lap. “Not really. But, uh, how about I make us some food? Daryl, you mind helping out?”
“Huh? I was, uh… Oh. Yeah, yeah.” He nodded, standing up, as the two of us went into the back, entering the kitchen. I opened the freezer, and pulled out some fish, beginning to chop it up for something a little more exciting than the usual burgers. “You got along with my dad, huh?”
I looked up. Daryl was looking down at his feet. I turned towards him, moving the fish to a bowl, tossing it with one of the sauces from a squirt bottle. “You know, I never knew my father. He died before I was born. Closest thing I had was my uncle, and he was a real bastard. Always seemed to have a grudge against me, always seemed to just… subtly hate me.” I stared down at my own feet. Seemed, sometimes, as though he blamed me for my mother’s death. Silver-black fur in the night and shining stars and all your fault–
“So?” asked Daryl, his voice sullen.
I shook my head. “So, your dad made sure that you were safe. He put you somewhere where you could keep an eye on things, and he made sure there was someone who could protect you there. He might just be bad at showing you he cares about you. Why not think the best of him?”
Daryl didn’t look away from his feet, but his arms uncrossed, and his posture became a little bit more relaxed. “Shit. You really think so?”
“I think that when you’re in the Order of Set, your kids are always going to have trouble measuring up. I never measured up to any of my parents.” I smiled. “But it’s not a contest.”
“Mmm. Guess I never got my arm torn off and eaten by a Wendigo. He always said…” He sighed. “He always said it was a hunting trip. Man, that wasn’t subtle, was it?”
“Yeah, something about the supernatural, and those involved with them. They can’t help wanting to leave clues for people to find out. I attribute it to arrogance, myself.” I smiled. “So, your dad’s super goddamn rich, huh?”
“Ugh. He founded Shark Belly around 1970, and it took off, big-time. Married my mom, a trophy wife. She was always so nervous he’d leave her if she stopped being pretty, and you know what happened?”
“What?” I asked, somewhat uncertain, as I set the contents of the bowl on top of the grill, letting it sizzle away.
“He never did. They’re STILL married, even though she’s, like, forty-five now and starting to get wrinkly. She always tells me that I should be more like him.”
“Minus the lost arm?”
“Well, you never know. I mean, maybe it’s like when you lose a sense, and the rest of your senses get enhanced.” He sighed. “I wish I was like you.”
“Well, that makes one of us.”
“Come on. You hang out with literal goddesses? You’re actually someone he respects, he was telling me about you before you got here, about the stuff you’ve done. You stood up to plague gods? You went to crazy other worlds filled with monsters? And you were never even trained.”
Shit. That did sound pretty badass. “If it helps any, most of that stuff I did because I didn’t realize how dangerous it was until after I succeeded, and because it wasn’t worth their time to actually kill me.”
“Oh, yeah, that makes it so much less impressive. You’re like a hero.”
I shook my head. “Look. I’ve known a lot of real heroes. Dane Larson, down in New York City? She’s a hero. Harold Schmooli, that author? He’s a hero. My dad, my uncle, they were heroes. Bastet, she’s a hell of a hero. Me…” I sighed. “When it comes right down to it, I’m always going to fail. I’m just glad your dad’s here. I’m glad Walter’s here. They look like they’re actual heroes.”
“They didn’t kneecap a fucking monster to save my life last night, either.”
I was quiet for a moment, and then I chuckled. “That was pretty sweet. Total fluke, though.”
“Kind of a lot of flukes around you, huh?”
“You have no idea.” I smiled, and scraped the food off the grill, onto one of the cardboard containers meant for Fisch Stix. “How’d the weekend shift go, by the way? I forgot to ask.”
“Oh, fine. Roy had everything on lockdown. Good guy, if a little intense. He was interested when he heard your name, said he’d heard about you from a friend of his, wanted to talk to you about something.”
“Huh.” I handed over the box to him, and tapped my chin. “You know- If John’s a member of the Order, he might be able to make heads or tails of something. Back in a second.” I stepped towards the employee entrance, and out into the summer morning. It was cool, and I frowned to notice that there was a large puddle across the parking lot. I looked to the side, to see if it was someone’s hose or something. I noticed the water puddling out of the ground, and cursed. It was probably a broken water main or something. I stepped over to the car, opened the trunk, and took out the map.
The earth jolted beneath me, throwing me to one side, and I hit the ground on my side, a crunch filling the air. I stumbled to my feet, and saw the hairline fracture in the ground. It ran all the way around the Shark Belly, and water was leaking out from it at a prodigious rate. I lunged for the door, running as fast as I could. The employee entrance swung open, and Ku was framed in it for a moment. She reached out for me. My fingers touched her.
In the darkness inside the restaurant, Ku-Thule materialized from behind her, a grin on his face. His hand went around her throat, and with impossible strength, he pulled her back, the denticles on her fingers ripping away a layer of skin from my fingers, leaving them bleeding and cut. The earth shook again, throwing me off my feet, and I hit hard.
When I stood up, the Shark Belly was gone, nothing left in its place but a sink hole, filling rapidly with water.
I was alone.