Chapter 10: Horace Gets Mad

The water churned as it filled in the sink hole. My fingers throbbed with each beat of my heart. The earth stood still beneath my feet.

My hand went to my phone. Call the Esoteric Forces, call Li, call Dane, call Harold, call the national goddamn guard, anyone I had to get help. I tugged it out of my pocket, and stared.

An extremely fatal crack ran through the phone’s screen from top left to bottom right. When I pressed the power button, nothing happened. I opened the back, and found it was thoroughly fucked. Battery, chip, everything.

It was like finding my pet kitten run over on the side of the street.

I’ve heard that one of the signs of being autistic is an extremely strong tendency to treat objects like people. To act like they’re alive. It’s a recurring trait in humans in general, to act as though your tools are living things, to ascribe personalities to them, to believe that treating them gently or harshly is a social act, like it would be with a human. That’s the basis for the myth of the Tsukumogami.

But then, was it a myth? What about Phoebe? A House Lar, the spirit of an apartment, a living creature that had been abused into becoming a monster. She was real. That was undeniable. She had lived. She’d died. Saving me.

And now my phone was dead, and it’d never have the chance to be someone. That was a thought that was almost too harsh to bear. I looked down at it, and said, feeling foolish and really wretched at the same time, “I’m sorry.”

No one. No one to contact. No one to reach. No one to help me. No gods to make deals with, no protectors. I was alone.

What would I do, now? Ku-Thule had shown, once and for all, that he had no interest in me. No respect for me. He’d wiped away all of the real threats, taken them into his clutches. I could look for help, try desperately to get in touch with someone who would listen to me, wait. Hide. That’s what I should do. That was the wise course of action. Or, more appropriately, it was the course of action most likely to preserve my own life.

The question, at the heart of it all, was simple. What was I? I’d been told I was special, but what kind of special was it? Was it being special like being the ball in a sport? Valuable, sought after, but with no control of its own? Was I just some fucking MacGuffin, a hub that everything revolved around, but that didn’t do anything on its own?

Why did I rebel against that idea? Why did I insist that I be the one who could do something, who could fight, who could protect, when there were so many people who were better than me at it?

Because of a day like this. When I was alone, and I was the only one who could make a difference. Because the lives of four people might depend on my willingness to stand up.

This had happened once before. When Randall had stood over Betty, flush with the power of a god, and no one was willing to stand up to him. When she could barely move, I’d confronted him. My entire contribution to that fight was getting the absolute shit beaten out of me, and collapsing on the floor, protected by Li, while Phoebe and Betty fought Randall. And Phoebe died to protect me.

That’s the thing I didn’t get. I didn’t want to be so special that immortals would give their lives to save me from my own stupid choices. I didn’t want to bear the weight of all the years Phoebe could have had, all the good she could have done. I didn’t want to be responsible for her death. I didn’t want her to die. And I didn’t want to be the one who stood by while Ku, or John, or Walter, or Daryl died.

I remembered the map, and the points Ku had circled. Three points where the barrier between Earth and Atlantis was thin as rice paper. Manitoulin Island was way too far away. That one somewhere near Buffalo… I didn’t know its exact location, and I didn’t know what I might find there. The description had been vague.

But I knew one of those locations. I’d visited it as a child, after all, one of those happy memories with my mom. I didn’t know why that place was a weak point. It might just have been some grand cosmic coincidence. The world was big, and full of a lot of crazy shit, after all.

But it was hard to believe in coincidences, in the face of everything that had happened.

I got into the Thunderbird, and checked the gas gauge, and frowned. Slowly, comprehension dawned.

The tank was still full.

Driving to Ontario and back, I’d been distracted. I hadn’t thought about it. But I’d driven the car an easy thousand miles, and the gas gauge had never dipped below half.

The previous night, the parking brake- which was immaculately preserved, like the rest of the car- had given way, just at the right time to save me, and cripple the Wendigo.

“Hello?” I asked, softly. There was no answer. “Hey.” I waited another moment, and ran my hand over the dashboard. “Can you hear me?”


“I want you to know. Everything you’ve done for me… thank you. You’re a good car.” I stroked the steering wheel gently. “You’re a really good car. I’m about to do something… rash. If I don’t make it back…” I rubbed my forehead. I grabbed a piece of paper, and started writing out a note. “Go down to New York City. Go to Dane. I’ll tell her to take care of you. She’s a hard-ass, but she’ll take care of you. Her address is… here, I’ll write it down for you on this. She’ll take care of you. She’ll appreciate you. Probably do a better job of keeping you safe than I ever could.” I placed the note into the glove-box.

There was absolutely no response.

“You know…” I smiled. “I don’t care if I’m crazy. It feels really good to be able to talk to someone.”

The engine revved to life. That was because I’d turned the key in the ignition, though.

“This is probably how people go insane.”

I drove at a frankly reckless rate, a whole fifteen miles above the speed limit, the whole way. Just over an hour, through Syracuse, up north. When I remembered that my phone was broken, and the GPS wasn’t working, I had to stop and rummage through the glove box, finding a map I wasn’t entirely certain had been there before. It was barely noon when I turned off the road, through the small town, and out onto Montrario road.

The sky had turned cloudy as I drove, heavy stormclouds that hung low and foreboding over the treetops. The light had been turned a sickly yellow, the bright sun held back by the cloud cover, giving the world an ominous feeling. I stepped out into the air, and it buzzed with ozone. The wind was blowing fiercely. The parking lot- such as it was, most of it just trees, grass, and gravel with ruts cut by tires where cars had driven across them- was empty. The oncoming storm had driven away all of the people. That was probably for the best.

It hadn’t changed much since I was a child. An inland swamp, filled with great lily pads, dragonflies, and countless other animals unseen below the surface. A path through the woods, sometimes flooded, that lead to the beach. A great island of beach that separated the inland swamp from the lake, with a channel carved through it. I wasn’t entirely sure whether it had been done by nature, or by people. It hadn’t been there the last time. Otherwise, the beach was identical.

I stroked the car’s hood once, and moved around to the trunk. I took Rache and Recht from their place among the guns, and ran my fingers along them. “How about you? You have anything to say?” I asked, softly. They didn’t answer, but they felt sure and secure in my hands as I tested them through a couple of swings. I nodded, and pushed them through my belt, one on each side. I paused for a moment, and my eyes found themselves drawn inexorably to the flask.

I’d had the Order of Set’s elixir, once before. It helped the body heal. It wasn’t foolproof- it wouldn’t stop you from dying to sufficient trauma- but it could keep you alive and fighting and healing through a lot more than humans could normally take. I grabbed it, unscrewed the top, and choked back a bitter swallow, gagging a bit as I closed the cap, and pushed it into one pocket. I had no idea how it was made, and I’d have to hope I’d be able to find out from the recipe cards. I didn’t even know if it was still good.

The guns wouldn’t be any use underwater. The grenades, either. All I had was Rache and Recht. I really should have looked up those names.

I turned, and strode down the path, to the lakeside, and stood at the edge of the sand.

As I reached the edge of the water, I realized far too late that I had no idea how to open a gate. I’d seen it done by others, but that didn’t tell me a thing. I waved my arm through the air, and there was no response. I closed my eyes, and tried to visualize the lakeshore spreading apart. I opened my eyes, and the lake continued sending small waves rolling onto the shore as the ominous clouds kept moving. The chill of winter was on the wind, and I shivered. The nuclear power plant was visible on the shore far to the south, so small it looked like a toy, hazed blue from distance, steam rising from its towers.



“Damn it, open!”

Silence save for the waves.

“God damn it, I can’t be this fucking useless! OPEN!

I swung Rache down at the water. It splashed pointlessly, and I felt very stupid.

“Well, Shinji. You decided you mustn’t run away, huh?”

I spun. The Lass’ torso emerged from the swamp water, the rest of her eel-like torso hidden within. She had a smile on her lips, but her eyes were sad. “You. What are you doing here? How did you get through?”

“Me? I can always get through. Anywhere there’s water, I can find my way. Gatekeepers can’t keep me out.”

“Then help me,” I said. “Take me through. Please!”

“No one can fault your manners.” She sighed. “I heard that story you told Ku-kaili-moku-polemo. Subtle, that one. You came here, wanting to do something, and you found that there was nothing you could do. You’re like a nuclear reactor. All of that power, all of that danger, but you can’t actually do anything yourself. You can’t move anything. All you can do is ask for help.”

“Maybe we need to do something about that.”

I spun. A woman stood on the beach, perhaps a dozen steps away from me. Her hair was black. Her eyes were dark. Her features were wild and pinched with starvation. She didn’t wear anything, but shadow clung to her slender, almost emaciated frame like a veil.

“What are you doing here?” asked The Lass, her tone level. “I haven’t broken any of the rules. I haven’t made a move. I’ve just talked, and not about anything in specific.”

“Yes. You’ve followed the rules. That always was a weakness.” She tilted her head, and smiled. “Hello, Horace. Still holding that trump card, are you?”

I was aware of the rat-tail ball in my pocket. The tails writhed and wriggled disquietingly, as though the woman’s words had awakened them. “What are you?”

“She is evil,” said The Lass. “Do not accept anything she offers you. Please, Horace. Every gift she offers is tainted.”

“I’m not offering a gift. For the same reason you don’t. Because you, Horace, are… special.”

“Why?” I asked, my eyes narrowed.

“No one knows. That’s the part that frightens us. That frightens Ku. That frightens Betty. You aren’t something we know how to deal with. In a world of lost gods and terrible monsters and awful creatures that no one knows about but us, you are a blind spot. You’re not supposed to happen.” She chuckled.

“What are you even trying to accomplish?” asked The Lass, her voice level.

“Why, I’m trying to help you, ‘Lass’.” The pale woman turned to look at me, her expression cold as ice, and strangely… hungry. “You are trying to do something foolish. You are risking your life. Risking all. And neither of us can take such a risk at end-game. The reason that woman fears you, the reason she denies you, is because you could order her to open a gate. You could tell her that she must do it, and she would. She would have no choice but to obey you. She, after all, is a god. At least, enough for what you do to affect her.”

“What?” I asked, incredulous. “That’s… Why would she do what I say?”

“Because she would have no choice. You could impose your will. If you meant it. If you wanted it enough to violate her. To take-”

“Stop!” said The Lass. “If you insist on revealing me, let me at least be the one to do it.”

I turned back towards her, and saw that she’d changed. She was a human, now, standing on the sand, her bare feet immersed in the water. Her skin dark, darker than Betty’s, rich hair hanging around her shoulders, bright blue eyes soft. She wore a white chiffon, folded and baring her shoulders. There was a tattoo on one shoulder, of a water droplet in black ink “So. Not one of the Atlantean gods.”

“I came before them,” said The Lass, softly. “Before any being on this world. Life couldn’t exist without me, after all.” She crossed her arms, her eyes on her feet. “Horace. Do you know why humans cannot do magic?”

“No,” I admitted. “I don’t know if I even believe that’s true.”

“It is. Humans cannot do magic because they are tool-users. Your magic is in the things you can make. But without them, you are helpless. You are a source of energy, but not force. You have the will, you have the power even. But you lack the means. Because it means you must rely on others.” She lifted her head, and looked at me. “A human who did not need others, who could do everything itself- It would be an abomination. A tyrant. A nightmare. A human who could force their will on the world unaided. We didn’t think such a thing was possible.”

“You think I can do that?” I asked, stunned, barely able to keep from laughing. “I can’t make Betty fucking eat the celery in the sandwiches I give her!”

“You are gentle. You are kind. You don’t demand people obey. You ask, you wheedle, you beg, but you don’t demand. But if you told me to, right now, if you demanded it of me… The Atlanteans have their godwhisperers. They must rely on strength of numbers to guide their gods. A chorus of whispers. You… Well, I suppose we might call you a godshouter. Your voice can break through the chorus, through the god’s own will.”

“Horse-shit. I’ve never done anything like that. Like, maybe I surprised Ku-Thule, and the Keeper of Gates had good reason to want us gone, I could’ve just shocked her into making a move-”

“Apartment 4B,” said the pale woman with the black hair and the hungry look in her eyes. My fist tightened.

“Her name’s Phoebe.”

“You give names to things, and they have no choice but to take on those names. You twist them so easily. What does that say about you?”

“I’m not the one who changed her. She wanted to change.”

“She had nothing but the desire for revenge, nothing but the desire to survive. She gave up both for you,” said the black-haired woman. “She died for you because you made her-”


The two stared at me, the pale woman’s lips pale with the tension in her jaw.

“Stop that. Stop fucking mocking me! I don’t have that kind of power, I can’t just fucking make the things I want happen!”

“Horace,” said The Lass, her voice soft, gentle, trying to negotiate with someone on the edge. I took a deep breath. Push down the anger. Push it down and down and down just like I always did, push all the anger back. Don’t be angry. Don’t hurt someone.

“She didn’t change because of what I did. She didn’t- she didn’t die-

“Didn’t she?” asked the pale woman. “Wasn’t that exactly what happened, because you wanted her to? You wanted her to protect you. You put yourself in harm’s way. You manipulated her. She died because of what you did. You sacrificed her life for Betty’s-”

“Stop this,” said The Lass, her eyes narrowed, cutting off the pale woman.

“He must know what he values. Why he values it. That’s what I’m all about. You made that decision, Horace, when you decided Betty’s life was more valuable than yours. When you made Phoebe value you. Your actions were responsible for her death. Your actions have consequences. You are far from powerless. Your uncle was right, all of those years back. It is your fault.”

I sank down onto the shore, the gritty sand shifting underneath me as I rested my head against my palms, the stiff wooden handles pressed against my forehead. It hurt, and I didn’t care. It was one thing to hear those words in my head. One thing to think it. Another thing entirely to hear it said aloud. “What the fuck do the two of you want?”

They exchanged a look again. The Lass sighed. “If you go through, you are almost certainly going to die. If you go back-”

“Betty is still alive, and free. Even now, she is coming to your aid,” said the pale-skinned woman. “If you enter that place, you will die. Ateroleum thralls, Nachtka Wai, Ku-thule. Your persuasion will not stop them. They will kill you without a second thought, without giving you a chance to speak. If you die, Betty will not be able to serve her purpose. The Lost Gods will be able to run rampant.”

“But… One of those four that are trapped there, they will be lost,” said The Lass, and she didn’t meet my eyes as I looked back at her again. “They’ll die.”

“Which one?”

“I can’t tell you.”


“Because,” said the pale woman, “it will be for the best for her that that one dies. Even if, by some miracle, you don’t die in your attempt, you will regret saving them forever.”

“Fuck me,” I said, shaking my head. “How do you deal with this shit?”

“Horace…” The Lass stepped towards me, and rested a soft, warm hand on my shoulder. It was a feeling I hadn’t experienced in a long time. It reminded me, of all damn things, of my mother. “Betty, has lost many humans she cares about. She is opening her heart to you. If you do this, and you die, you’ll break it. Maybe forever.”

I turned back towards the water, standing up, sand crumbling off my pants, grit in my socks. I rested my hands on Rache and Recht. “You know. I keep hearing that. That recurring reminder, that Betty’s lost a lot of people. That she’s lost the people she loves. That they died, because they didn’t appreciate what they were. I know what I am.”

“Good,” said The Lass, softly. “Come on. Betty, Li, they miss you-”

“They died because they were props, didn’t they? That’s what you think. That their purpose was to be a tragic story,” I said, cutting her off. The heat growing in my skull, becoming unbearable. “I’m not just another lost love for her to pine over. I’m not just another sad story for Betty to tell! My name is Horace fucking Creed, and I’m not going to die! I’m not going to just be another tragedy!”

“Then what are you going to do?” asked the pale woman, her head tilted. “Become a tyrant? Break the will of the woman behind you to make her open your way? Become a threat that even me and my kind would be dwarfed by?”

I looked down at the water, as the waves lapped in. “There were three paths in and out of Atlantis around here, ‘The Lass’, or whatever your name is supposed to be. What were they? What made them?”

“Manitoulin island, the place where a dying Lost God made its way through the ice, barreling through in pain and confusion. Zion, a shattered barrier between this world and the world of the gods that splintered out, creating many cracks through to every world that floats alongside this one. But this one… I don’t know.”

“So. The echoes of things that happened in the past for those other two.” I stared down at the waves. “Is there such a thing as fate?”

“Yes,” said the pale-skinned woman. “You would be well-served not to meddle in it.”

“I don’t see that I have a choice,” I said, studying the two swords. Rache and Recht. I’d used Rache before. The longer of the two blades, the katana. I stepped forward, and let the waves break around my feet, socks growing sodden.

I lifted Recht, and brought it down in a single smooth movement on the lakeshore. It struck the sand, hard. That seemed to be about it. “Fuck,” I said, face glowing red. “All that drama for nothing.”

The two didn’t respond. I turned and looked over my shoulder. Both of them were gone. I sighed, and turned back to the lake, feeling very foolish.

The cut only gradually became visible. The waves on either side were slightly disjointed, almost matching, but not quite. It extended out towards the edge of the horizon, out past where I could see it. Slowly, I pulled Recht to one side, and the water, the shoreline, were swept aside like a carpet

Endless water lay beneath.

“Was that me? Or you? Or The Lass?” I asked Recht, softly.

It didn’t give me any answers. But it didn’t really matter. I stepped forward, into the water, and sank down into warmth.

I found myself face to face with a fishman. Lean. Mean. Wearing an eyepatch with a very distinctive scar across one side of his face. A burn scar, specifically. He was a gar. I knew him

“Oh, fuck me, you again,” we said, at the exact same time.

He swung a coral trident at me. I caught it on Recht, and slammed Rache into his kneecap. There was a popping sound, and he let out a howl, dropping the trident, cringing as he went limp, his arms up over his head, shaking softly. “Oh god. Oh, god, you’re going to butcher me, you’re going to fry me and eat me, oh sweet merciful Ku-Thule, oh great and wise Ocean of the Dead, please protect me, please-”

“Shut up!” I hissed, looking around. I was definitely back in the temple, but there was something… wrong. The walls were coated with strange mossy patterns of black slime. I couldn’t feel any hint of the gods in the wall. No idea where I was. No idea of where to go. “What the hell are you even doing here?”

“I- I was promoted, after encounterin’ you!” He said, the Southern accent still thick. “Palace Guard for escaping from one of the butchers who’ve been eating our people! A reward for bringin’ back info!”

“We’re not the ones responsible for the Wendigo,” I hissed. “That’s Nachtka Wai, or Ku-Thule. They’ve been playing us against one another!”

“I don’t believe you for a second! Help! Hey! Hel-” He choked, as I pressed Recht against his neck, hard enough to make him choke on his words for a moment. “Oh, sweet merciful Ku-Thule. Please. Please don’t kill me,” he whispered, voice guttural from the pressure.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t kill the guy. I knew that the moment I let him go, he’d warn the other guards, and this rescue mission would be fucked. And I couldn’t kill him. I didn’t have it in me to even try to order The Lass to open the gate. I wasn’t a killer. I wasn’t a cold, hard bastard. I wasn’t like Randall, no matter how much I wanted to be. It turned out, when things really mattered, I wasn’t so good at being a badass as I’d hoped. And the portal out was gone. I had no idea how to reopen it, if I even could open it, where I needed to go…

I was a fucking idiot. But what else was new?

“I’m not going to kill you,” I said, my voice low, threatening. “as long as you don’t make any trouble. What’s happened to the spirit? This temple used to be alive.”

“‘ts the black stuff. The Ocean of the Dead. She demanded access, and Nachtka Wai gave it to her, she’s been engulfing the temple, and the gods. She said it’d keep you from being able to subvert it again, you freak.”

“My friends. Ku-kaili-”

“The goddess? She’s here?” The gar’s eyes widened. “She was stolen! Taken by humans-”

“No. Ku-thule has her, and he’s planning to do something to her.”

“Impossible- They’re allies, both members of- Oh! Hey! HEY!”

I turned around, and froze. Half a dozen Ateroleum thralls. The ones I’d found on earth had been… doughy, misshappen, blob-like. Only vaguely humanoid. These were different. Almost reminiscent of killer whales, but all black, and more humanoid. They were sleek, silent, deadly. Coral blades glittered in their hands. And behind them swam a fish-man with a long, sword-like nose, and a scar that ran up along one cheek across a pearlescent eye. He came up short as he saw me, his hand going to his lost eye. “You- But how-?” His eyes turned towards the alligator gar-man. “Ah. Weakness. Defeated by a human? Crippled? Don’t worry. You will soon be of use again.”

“Godwhisperer?” asked the man, his voice full of flat horror and disgust. “I- I’m still alive, I-”

“Might as well be dead. Kill him. Kill the human.” Nachtka Wai turned his back, and the Ateroleum thralls tensed. “No room for weakness.”

“Nachtka Wai!” shouted the man, and I heard the despair in his voice, the weakness. I looked over my shoulder. He had fallen unconscious. Shock, maybe, or the pain of the wound and the betrayal together overcoming him.

I could run. I might even get away. I could search for them. It was the wise thing to do. This was a terrifying situation. The man behind me had tried to kill me once before. I could leave.

If I was frightened, it would be easy to leave. Everything would be so easy if my reaction to this situation was blind terror, if I was filled with the desire to flee. It would be so much safer for me.

But I was furious.

I raised the sword, trying to parry a blow, my arms clumsy in the resistance of the water. The Ateroleum Thrall in the lead easily swept around it, and nicked my arm. The pain spread out from that place. Not a deep cut, but enough to bleed me, enough to fill the water with the scent, the taste of blood. Enough to bring my mind down to a single place. The Ateroleum swung again.

Recht caught the blade halfway up, and it shattered under the force of the blow, the Ateroleum’s hand bleeding. Rache swept sideways, and suddenly, the Ateroleum was in two pieces. Thick black oil flowed forward like an ink cloud, and it engulfed me.

Had I lifted Recht, or Rache? Had I been the one to swing them? It didn’t feel like it. Not entirely. It felt like my mother’s hands, guiding me. Protecting me. The more I thought about that, the easier it became to deal with. That made sense. Rache and Recht- they were Tsukumogami. They had to be. That would explain how they could do what they did. That would explain how I could fight with such ferocity. With such merciless power. How I could kill them so easily. A coral sword swept out of the ink, and I knocked it aside with the hilt of Rache, cutting the creature’s head in half with a horizontal blow that swept away its expression.

The anger was very distant, now. It was almost like I was watching all of this through a television. The panic and the fury had fled, and I was simply following a very simple set of motions that I seemed to know instinctively. I came forward, out of the ink cloud, and skewered a third Ateroleum thrall, took every limb off a fourth with two sharp blows from Rache and Recht.

The pictures fractured into a kaleidoscope as more of them piled down into the tunnel. I pursued them, cutting down more. I lost sight of the swordfish man. I kept fighting. Images flashed before my eyes like a slideshow directed by Quentin Tarantino. I didn’t stop for a moment.

Laughter rang through the water. I realized it was coming from me, and I laughed harder at that.

I stared down at my hands. There was no one around me anymore. None of the Ateroleum thralls. I’d left the gar behind. The swordfish man had run. This part of the temple did not have the same mossy Ateroleum corruption on the walls. I felt my hands shaking, my wrists, my forearms, my biceps, my shoulders- They felt horribly weak, like I’d been engaged in some impossible life or death struggle. That seemed only fair, really. I let my arms fall to my sides, slipping the two swords back through my belt. I noticed that the nick in my arm was closing up quickly, and my bloody palms, ripped by Ku’s grasp back when Ku-Thule had torn her from me, were already showing signs of healing.

I reached out to the wall, and it responded. Sluggishly. Pained. Suffering. But recognizing me, like a wounded hound. I held my hand against the wall, and closed my eyes. Trying to concentrate, to do… something, to feed it. To help it. To make up for the harm that had been done to it because of me. My mind went to Phoebe. To the accusations the pale woman had made. And I knew that memory was going to play a central part in my nightmares for a long time to come.

I stroked the wall. “Come on. It’s okay. I’ll… I’ll figure out something. Okay? It’ll be okay. You just have to show me to the prisoners. Just show me where Ku-kaili-moku-polemo is. Okay? Then I promise you, I’ll make everything right.”

I had no idea if I could even keep that promise. If it was worth anything. But I’d do my best. And the god in the temple seemed to understand that, as the current built up- weak, straining, but stronger than it had been before. I was shaking as the current carried me, soaked in the thick tar of the Ateroleum thralls.

It came to a stop, delivering me into the mouth of the temple.

Assume that the temple was arranged like a clock. I entered at six o’clock. From one to four were perhaps a thousand Atlanteans, well-armored, well-equipped, carrying armor and equipment emblazoned with a stylized squid’s face. From seven to eleven were perhaps two hundred of those Ateroleum thralls. I’d killed- destroyed- whatever, two dozen? And I could barely lift my arms now.

In the center of the room, Nachtka Wai and Ku-Thule slowly turned, to face me.

Across from me, just beyond the two leaders, was a great coral sphere, jagged lines of bony protrusions on the inside. Walter, Ku, Daryl, and John floated within. Ku’s eyes met mine.

“Horace,” she said, full of hope, her voice ringing through the chamber.

“Horace,” said Ku-Thule, amused.

“The human,” said Nachtka Wai. “Be careful, he is-”

“Spent. Spent all his effort carving through a few of your Fiends. He is in out of his depth. He is going to die, here, tonight. Waste all of his effort. Disappointing everyone.”

I reached into my pocket, and slowly, drew out the ball of rat tails. “This doesn’t have to get any uglier, Ku-Thule.”

“Oh, please, devour it. Be consumed by Nergal. Bring back a creature who would be my natural ally, so easy to manipulate. Break my stalemate with Nachtka Wai. You cannot hold that power, Horace.” He chuckled. “You are nothing like your Uncle Randall.”

“Really?” I asked, my voice soft, holding it up to my mouth.

“You’ll lose everything.”

“Really,” I said. I held it up to my mouth.

And I fucking choked.

I bent over, gagging, trying not to throw up, the sense of nausea filling the bit of my stomach as the thing wriggled horribly between my fingers, as I choked. I just wasn’t the one who could save the day. Ku-Thule’s laughter filled the air, wild and shrieking, as he watched me.

I just didn’t have what it took.

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