“Salmon,” I said, nodding my head as the plane came in for a landing on the Binghamton county air strip. “Smoked salmon. That’s what I’m going to have him make when we get there.”
The deposed king of Paradise didn’t say anything. The billionaire industrialist just nodded quietly.
What a weekend.
“Or crab cakes. Crab cakes would be fantastic. He’s been experimenting more with breading and frying things.”
The deposed king looked down at his daughter, and stroked the girl’s hair. Still sleeping. Still an awkward conversation waiting to happen there. I looked across at Markov. “So, how-”
“Five minutes,” he said. He looked tense.
I might have threatened to rip a hole in the plane when we had flown over Binghamton. Everyone was a little bit tense. I just really wanted to make sure Horace was okay. “I’m sorry. It’s just- You know.”
“Yes, I know exactly what you’re feeling. He’ll be okay. As I understand it, you have torn a bloody path through history, killing everything that couldn’t learn the simple fact that harming your priests was a terrible idea. Unless you have enemies who have lurked in another world since prehistory, it will be fine.”
“You know, if Horace were here, he’d start talking about how you were tempting Dramatic Irony, and how you’d just guaranteed he was in trouble.” I stared out the window as the plane taxied into the hangar. The door opened, and I sprang forward, badly shocking a young security guard. I was at the edge of the hangar before I stopped, frowning.
“Bastet,” said Markov, from the stairway of the private jet.
“Betty,” I said, pointedly. He nodded.
“Betty. You said that Horace was here, but can you tell where he is?”
“No,” I admitted. “I might be able to when I’m closer, but… Oh.” I frowned. “I’m going to need to go to our apartment, and figure out where he is.”
“And a rented car will help that greatly. I ordered one as we were flying. Please, I might as well get you all the way to his door.”
I paused for a moment, giving the man a look. Over his shoulder was slung a large amount of chainmail. On his other shoulder was a two-handed sword. Around his neck hung an iron rod. They looked pretty silly on him, like the CEO out to run around in a forest for a weekend, pretending to be an elf. There was a whole story behind them, a tragically lost family and incredible powers he’d accepted in order to save them. Another in a long history of tragic stories.
Humans were delicate. Fragile. They died in silly, often pointless ways. Gods were usually too powerful, too stubborn, to die for anything but the most dramatic of reasons. I sometimes thought that sheer embarrassment had been enough to save me from quite a few dire fates. But humans could die just walking to the store for groceries. Humans could die tripping down stairs. They were such delicate, helpless things. I couldn’t help but love them for that. But it made it painful to watch them put their lives in danger. They were as helpless as my own kittens.
The rental car waited for us in the parking lot of the airport. I didn’t really pay attention to it, to be honest. Cars are strange. Loud, grumbling, vibrating, I don’t find them particularly comfortable. I have also been struck by more than one car, and while the car inevitably took the worst of it, the experience is still unpleasant. Perhaps it’s a racial solidarity thing; all those fellow felines, struck down by careless cars, haunting me. But the driver was almost reckless in the way he got us to Horace’s apartment, which I could appreciate.
“Horace?” asked the landlady. “He was here on Sunday, picking up the rest of his stuff. He didn’t tell you?” She looked to either side, and leaned forward conspiratorially. “He had this girl with him. Little Polynesian thing.” She glowered. “Tattoos. She looked real trashy. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I always found you a bit trashy too, but she was, you know. Anyway, didn’t he have that place up north that the government was giving him trouble over? I’d guess that was where he went.”
I narrowed my eyes as I returned to the car. A girl? That was silly. What the hell did Horace need with a girl? What, I wasn’t enough for him? I was more than enough for anyone!
I took a deep breath as I sat down in the car. “There’s a little town about twenty miles north of here. Horace has a house there, now- It was part of the deal the government made with me to save the world. Uh…” I closed my eyes, trying to remember the address. “Just drive us there, we’ll see if we spot him.”
I crossed my arms tight over my chest as the car drove. I’d always been well aware that Horace had a certain… charm, when it came to monsters. Something about him fed us. It attracted us. I wasn’t quite sure why. I was happier, more content, more powerful when I had him close by, even beyond his status as my priest. He was a very good human.
I wondered if he’d attracted another stray while I was away. It wasn’t like Horace to simply go out looking for trouble, but it was very like him to bring it home with him. After all, he’d taken me in without thinking twice.
As we entered the small town, speeding up the off-ramp, we drove past a large sign which proudly proclaimed it ‘The best little town by a dam site’. I frowned at it. Bad spelling, and blasphemy. I was even less thrilled about this town than Binghamton. Binghamton had been merely a nest of undead, fairies, and demons, the supernatural rotting the underbelly of a once great and noble city. I could get used to that. New York City had been like that when I’d arrived there. I kind of liked that environment. This place… It was barely a village. It might have been a thorpe, from what I remembered of the books that Horace had showed me about dragons and dungeons. It was small, and I could smell barely anything in the way of monsters, here.
A sheriff’s car sped past as we arrived at an intersection, lights flashing. I stared after it, a very unpleasant feeling filling my stomach. “Markov? Can we follow that car, see where it goes?”
Again and again, in Paradise, people told me that I was going to be too late. That I was going to come home and find something awful had happened to Horace. I had refused chance after chance to leave, to run home to check up on Horace. Partially because the world was in danger. Mostly because I had to trust, I had to believe, that Horace would be alright. I had to trust that he could survive without me hovering over him for a handful of days.
I was an idiot, I decided, as I stared at the police tape being spread around the hole in the earth. Dozens of people were watching, talking together. The sinkhole was unfathomably deep, filled to the brim with icy cold water. From a broken water main, one of the policemen told Markov while I stared down at it. I could smell Horace. He had been here. Had.
They’d taken him. There was no other explanation. Someone, somewhere, had stolen Horace away, and I was going to ruin their day. I was going to absolutely fuck them. I was going to tear whatever they were doing down to the very roots and all of that was if they hadn’t harmed a single hair on his head. If they had-
“Bastet,” said a woman’s voice. The smell of rotten meat and the chill of arctic winds ran on it. I turned, and smiled.
“It’s Betty, Wendigo.”
“It’s Wendy, Betty,” said the old woman. She stood at the edge of the parking lot. A large RV sat in the parking lot behind her, and another old woman behind her. Wendy’s hair was snow white, her eyes almost the same color. She smiled, showing off long rows of sharp canines, her face wrinkled and emaciated. She was extremely thin. I narrowed my eyes.
“What are you doing out in the world, Wendy?” I asked, my own teeth sharp. “You’re quite a handful, I know. But if you think for a moment that I will let you eat humans, you have badly misjudged-”
“Betty, for chrissakes, I’m reformed. I quit eating humans years ago.”
“How many years?”
I whistled. “That’s… actually quite impressive. I am proud of you, Wendy.” I glared. “You didn’t eat Horace, did you?”
“The nice young cashier here? No, Betty, I did not eat Horace. I tried to warn him, in fact.” She frowned down at the waters. “What do you remember about the Keeper of the Feast?”
My head swam for a moment. I had lived a very long time, and memories could get intense. The Keeper of the Feast- “Cannibal god. Ate hearts. I fought it in Canada. It-” I stared at Wendy.
“Yes. That’s the last time we met, if memory serves. And I forgive you completely for kicking my ass when I tried to seize the heart; I was being a pain.” She glared down at the water. “Some chickens are coming home to roost, Betty.”
“Oh, good, I like chicken.”
Wendy blinked slowly at me, and I did the same back at her. She took a deep breath, and let it out through her teeth. “I forgot what it’s like to talk to you. I’m saying that your past actions-”
“I know what chickens coming home to roost means.” I smiled. “You really HAVE forgotten what it’s like to talk with me. Now what happened to Horace?”
I stared down at the water for a moment, trying to remember.
“The Atlanteans? Ancient race of fish-like humanoids?”
“You would occasionally visit?”
“You waged a genocidal crusade against their wayward pantheon for the last 80 years? Murdered every one of their gods?”
“Oh. Oooooh!” I was quiet for a moment. “So they went after Horace for revenge?”
“No, Betty, they were quite grateful, because their gods were bastards. They grabbed this place because they wanted someone who was in it.” She sighed. “We’re not going to get through this path. They’ve got a goddess keeping the doors closed, and she’s quite experienced at it. We’ll need a weaker place to get through.” She smiled at me. “As it just so happens, though, we’ve got one.”
“Oh, no,” I groaned. “I don’t have to go to Zion, do I?”
“Come on. Everyone will be looking forward to seeing you.”
“Are those three biddies still in their passive aggressive war?” I asked, frowning.
“Actually, Izanagi and Echidna are getting along quite well, now.”
“Huh. Who would have guessed…? Markov, you’re probably not the best person to bring there at the moment, people in Cities always tend to be nervous about someone who’s worked for the Horsemen. Can’t imagine why, but how can I get in contact with you?”
He handed me a small phone. I dropped it into my top, nodding appreciatively. He averted his eyes as he spoke. “I’ll give you a call later tonight. My contact information will be in there.”
“Of course. Wendy.” I nodded as she stepped over to the RV, and opened the door. I climbed up the high step, and into the interior of luxury.
“You like it?” asked Wendy.
“Horace really needs to get one of these,” I said, staring appreciatively around the inside. It was like a house, but it could move around. That seemed like the best of both worlds, so far as I was concerned. “So, is Horace in Atlantis? Did they capture him? Why were you interested?”
“As far as I know, he is in the Atlantean’s grasp; Certainly, he wasn’t there when we arrived, and there were a few cars outside the building. It’d be my best guess. As for why I was interested, there have been Wendigo loose. One attacked him last night. I felt it.”
My heart felt like it had just fallen out and splattered on the floor.
“He was okay, Betty. I could feel the creature coming into being. A human who had eaten the flesh of another human- And a great deal of it.” She met my eyes. “Not many Wendigo these days, are there? Rare for someone to get a taste for flesh. Rare for someone to be in a situation where a taste for flesh makes sense. Around these parts, at least.” She tapped her fingers together. “The Wendigo was dead when I arrived, which suggests someone extremely competent was there. This human… He a fighter?”
“He’s…” I frowned. “He’s not much of one. He’s got a lot of spirit, but he’s just a human, you know? He’s… delicate, like humans are.”
I looked away, silent.
“Ah. How insensitive of me. I forgot about your issues in that field.” Wendy waved a hand towards a refrigerator. “Can I make you a hamburger? Oh, don’t give me that look, I don’t use long pork anymore. Nothing sapient.” She winked.
“Are the Wendigo related to the Atlanteans?” I asked, my memory stirring.
“That’s a good question. Atlanteans are not humans, are they? They certainly don’t smell or taste like it. They shouldn’t be able to become Wendigo. They could be feeding humans and setting them loose, but that’s a plan that’s more likely to alert the authorities than cause any major damage. A few fast food patrons- That’s bad, but the amount of meat they’d need to make them into Wendigo would be substantial. Very difficult to keep under wraps.”
“Ugh. This mystery shit kills me. Why can’t they just come up and say, ‘Hey, let’s fight, winner takes all’?”
“Because everything that ever did that to you had its throat ripped out, Betty,” said Wendy, not unkindly. “You do not encourage the creatures to play fair.” She frowned. “I would not be interfering, but-“
“Interference is becoming all the style, isn’t it?” I smiled. “I’m not going to complain if you’re not murdering and eating anyone, Wendy. I said all along that this is what we should be doing. Stopping things from getting worse. Interfering.” I sat down in one of the chairs, elbows resting on a table, head resting on one of my palms as I stared out the window. “The humans are more enthusiastic about us interfering than you might think. I never saw Horace so happy as when he realized that someone was out there. Someone who cared.”
I didn’t mention how happy I’d been. I had lost a lot of humans over the years. A lot of humans who I had given my heart to, who I had loved and cared for like my own kittens. They’d gone and died. It would be nice to believe that Horace was different.
Of course, if he was. If he found out that he was different, that he was something special, he wouldn’t need me anymore. He’d probably leave.
But Horace- Horace was a wonderful caretaker, but he wasn’t some avenging nightmare, some terrible hero or fearsome berserk warrior. He was just a human. That was why I loved him. He wasn’t like his uncle.
The trip passed surprisingly quickly with my head running in circles like that. Before I knew it, we approached the white pines of Zion.
I remember when this city was built, back in the 1800s. They asked me to become a part of it, to give it my blessing. I had considered it. Then I’d met Howard, and I’d never looked back. The miserable goddamn cowards had waited in their cities, hiding away as the problems they’d set into motion ran rampant. Their plan contributed to the Lost Gods, to everything that had happened. If I ever met Marduk, I was going to rip him a new one. This was all his fault for falling for that stupid goddamn plan to let humans face things on their own. To bear the burden of keeping the world whole alone, and allow the gods peace.
It was a problem that humans dealt with quite a lot. People- be they humans or gods- could change over time. But put them back among their family, among childhood friends, and they regressed, both sides pressing one another to act as they used to. I was the same way among gods. All those old arguments came bubbling back. Before I’d left Paradise, I’d beaten the tar out of a solid half dozen gods, all at once. It probably wasn’t a healthy long-term way to deal with the problem, but it had been very relaxing.
I jerked up. “Mmm? Not asleep. Wasn’t asleep.”
“Are you alright? You look a bit… strung out,” said Wendy.
“Long day.” I rubbed my hair, and frowned at myself in the reflection of the glass. I licked the back of my hand and ran it across my hair, grooming it carefully back into place until it was right again. “Went to Hell, freed a bunch of lost souls, fought a bunch more, met some really strange humans, nearly died, beat up a Horseman. It was a long day, and I’ve been having trouble sleeping.”
“Because of the human.”
“Don’t give me the whole ‘You should fall in love with a Hero, they live longer’ spiel,” I said, my tone dangerous.
“You want a human-“
“I don’t like Heroes,” I said. “Not in that way, anyway. They…” I looked down, glowering. “They remind me of Anapa.”
“Of course, dear,” said Wendy, patting my shoulder. “I know you feel deeply for humans. They mean a great deal to you. That does you credit. It’s a compassion I often envy. But… They only live a handful of decades at most, Betty. They die, and then they go to a lovely place, and there is little they could do that would be as important as providing you the worship you need to keep protecting them. It doesn’t do anyone any good for you to lose your mind because of one of them dies. I don’t think the world can afford such things.”
“It won’t come to that.”
“But if it does. Do you think Horace would want you to mourn him, or would he want you to keep going?”
I looked away. I felt so damn tired. So empty. I’d only been away from him for a few days, and granted, they were terrible, exhausting days, but… Maybe I was just getting older. Every day I got a little slower, and the people I fought got a little faster. I’d run into those humans on Paradise. Humans who could’ve killed me. When had that ever been a possibility before?
“We should go see Water,” I said, standing up. I was worrying myself about things that hadn’t happened yet. What was important was that I save Horace. He would still care about me. He’d still love me, no matter what happened. As long as I wasn’t too late.
The old hotel was still there. It had been upgraded, at some point, to a more modern motor lodge. There were a handful of cars in the courtyard, which was surprising. An old and apparently thriving auto repair shop sat across the road from it. We walked in, and met the young, pale, Nordically blonde woman standing at the desk. She smelled like a house, and I suspected she was one of the old house-gods who had gotten a bit too big for one house. Wendy leaned up on the desk, and glared up at the woman. “I want to talk to your manager.”
A few minutes later, Wendy and I stood in one of the hotel’s bedrooms with the elemental incarnation of Water. I glared at her. “If you’re going to give me the speech about the Horsemen and the Sisters and the balance and all that stuff, don’t.”
“I had no such plans. You know a lot, now, Bastet.” Water looked to the side, her eyes dropped. “I’m sorry you had to find out that way. About Famine, and everything else.”
I waved a hand. “It’s Betty. And I always knew I was special. Famine wasn’t the most important part of that. Besides, my job is still my job.” I rested my hands atop the bed, leaning in. “What do you know?”
“Not much. Not enough, to be blunt. You know how the Lost Gods are.” She was quiet for a moment, and looked away. “I have little influence over Atlantis. Ku-thule and Yam Hamawet have corrupted the place. I fear that the entire dimension is on the verge of shattering.”
“Shattering?” I asked, an eyebrow raised. “That can happen?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t known it to happen before. But strange things are happening in our world.” She tilted her head to the side. “Betty, I might be able to open a way for you. But you’d be a long way from the palace proper.” She was quiet for a moment, and opened her mouth, as though there was something she wanted to say. Then she closed it.
“What are you hiding?” I asked, amicably. The Sisters were like this, always weighing their words carefully. Foolish decisions on their part had consequences for everyone, and unlike me, they had never acquired the confidence that they would be able to fix those problems too.
“Nothing. Just… When you see Horace… Be careful. Okay? He’s had a very hard time with you gone.” She looked away. “He’s not as safe as you think he is, Betty.”
“Is he in danger?” I asked, a little notch of panic in my voice, that I tried very successfully to hide.
“That’s not what I mean. He’s dangerous, Betty.”
I stared for a moment. Then I laughed. “Horace?! Dangerous? Water, I’ve never met a more compassionate, gentle person in my life.”
“Yes,” said Water. She looked down at her hands. “Just please be careful, Betty. I’m worried that he is on a precipice. The wrong thing said, the wrong words… Remember what his uncle was able to do.”
I looked down at my leg. The scar was still there. Faint, barely visible, but still there. Where that horrid black knife that Randall Creed carried on him had nearly killed me. “He is not his uncle.”
“I hope you’re right.” Water stood up, and waved us towards the bathroom. She knelt down, and turned on the faucet, the bathtub filling with water. My ears flattened. “Betty, please, don’t make a fuss about this.”
“I’ll be fine,” I hissed, arms crossed, shoulders tense. “But I don’t have to like it.” I frowned. “There are a lot of lost gods held in captivity in Atlantis. What happens to them if it shatters?”
“Nothing good,” said Water. “For any of us, that is. Best case scenario is that they are scattered far and wide to unknown places, where any fool might reawaken them with a moment’s lack of caution.”
“And the worst case?”
“That depends on your imagination.” Water smiled apologetically. “I am really sorry about this, Betty. Life these days seems to be just one disaster after another, doesn’t it?”
“Keeps me feeling young,” I said, watching the bath. Water drew her hands across it, and the white ceramic bottom faded, as though ink were slowly spreading out through the tub. It became a perfect black mirror, reflecting everything in the room in desaturated hues. I looked sideways at Wendy. “You going to come with?”
“Of course,” she said. “But ladies first.”
I snorted, and stepped forward, taking the plunge in one smooth movement, into the chilly water.
The chill vanished almost immediately. I found myself in one of the strange Atlantean apartments, spherical and filled with hooks and nets hanging in both directions. It took a moment to calm myself as the aerated water poured into my lungs, but this wasn’t my first time in the underwater realm.
I opened the door, and stared at the tremendous face outside. A serpent of what could only be called epic proportions, its body vanishing into the water’s haze in the distance. I stared. “Jormungandr, what the hell are you doing here?”
The serpent’s mouth opened, and a tongue flickered out. Standing on the tip of one fork the size of a subway train car was Li Xue Zi.
“Bastet?” she asked, looking rather surprised.
“Betty, Li. It’s Betty.” I frowned at the white snake. “What are you doing? Why aren’t you with Horace?”
“He asked me- Look-” Li rubbed her face, looking distinctly embarrassed. “He got worried and he asked me to go get you, I met Jormungandr in Florida, she told me what happened in Paradise, we got back- Horace is in trouble, Betty, we don’t have time for this!”
“Ugh.” I looked up, frowning at Jormungandr. “You’re going to have to tell me what you’re up to. After we save Horace.”
The ride was brief. Jormungandr, through sheer size alone, was fast- Only a few minutes to reach the temple. Her mouth opened, the tongue ramming through the walls like a battering ram, projecting us forward into the cage. Li and Wendy on one fork, me on the other. Li leapt into the shattered cage, grabbing the captured people while Wendy swam towards the trophies. I saw one of the fishmen leaping for Horace- I could feel his presence, and it was nourishing and warm as usual, though there was something wrong there. I swept down, and backhanded the swordfishman, preparing myself for just the right words. Just the proper way to impress him and cheer him up and show him that I was there for him.
“Horace, can we have swordfish tonight?”
Yeah, that was awesome.
There was chaos all around, the sound of rubble falling from the walls, screams as the slick black creatures that had once been Atlanteans before Yam Hamawet got her graspers on them tried to attack Jormungandr, an action that was rapidly proving suicidal. But there was silence behind me. I slowly turned, my heart in my throat.
For the first time, I saw Horace. Not just felt his presence, but saw him. Black tar streaked his body. He was bloodied and cut, and his eyes were distant, strange. He held a pair of wooden swords, and his shoulders were tense. His chest rose and fell as though panting, though there was no need for that in the water. He stared at me. He looked like the world had hollowed him out. And I felt suddenly uncertain. “Horace… I’m- I’m sorry I was late, there was a lot happening-”
He stepped towards me sharply, and I froze as he lifted the blades.
His arms went around my shoulders, and he embraced me tightly, almost clinging to me, his face pressed against my shoulder, squeezing me with all the meager strength that a human body possessed, the wooden swords crossed behind my back. “Betty,” he said, and that one word contained a thousand little messages, and one very big, and important one.
“I’m here, Horace,” I said, my arms going around his chest, squeezing him as tightly as I dared, the purr building in my throat, unable to hold it back as my chest rumbled. “I promised I’d come back.”
“I knew you would.” He sniffed, and rubbed his cheek, letting me go. “Shit. I’m sorry. I got tar all over you.”
“It’s okay, Horace. What happened?”
“I… just had to run from some Ateroleum.” He smiled. “I got in over my head. Thanks for bailing me out.”
I could feel the strength building inside of me again. Just being near him was washing away all the doubts and uncertainty. I’d been frightened that when I came back, he would be cold. That all of that warmth might just drain out of him, that he might have become a different person. All of those people telling me he’d leave me, that he’d change, that he would forget about me.
But who the hell could forget about me?
“Yes,” he said, his voice very firm. “We can absolutely have swordfish tonight. But we need to do something, first.” He pointed. “See that guy with the tentacles in his mouth?”
I turned, and my eyes narrowed. Oh, that was a familiar face. “I certainly do.”
“Fucking kick his ass, Betty.”
I smiled, and kicked off the floor, throwing myself through the water fast enough to leave a trail of collapsing bubbles, Horace just behind me. The chaos seemed to crystallize around us. The Ateroleum Thralls slipped away from the tongue as Jormungandr withdrew, tremendous eyes watching us. Li and the prisoners paused, staring. Wendy stood at one of the pedestals, a look of anger on her features that faded away as she noticed what I was doing. And Ku-Thule stood, bold as brass, tentacles wiggling smarmily at me.
“Betty,” he said.
“You make a move against me, I will kill that human of yours. Like I did the last one.”
“Oh, Ku-thule,” I said, my voice warm, and cheery. “You think-”
Flush with the power Horace had fed into me, I slammed my fist through his chest before he had a chance to react. His body shook once, and then went limp around my arm.
“Zero for two.”
The voice echoed through the room, eerie and strange, seeming to come from nowhere, and everywhere. I glared around as the body slowly dissolved, leaving only a glowing hole in the air around my wrist. Even as I pulled my hand back, I could see the cracks and lines, spreading slowly through the air from the hole. Like a piece of fractured glass, they spread out.
The winner never learns, do they? They do the same thing they did the last time. You only learn from your mistakes. You got arrogant, Betty. But you are a cat. That is your prerogative.
The lines were spreading faster, and a scream rose from the throat of the swordfishman, his hands pressed against his skull. The scream spread out among the Atlanteans, living and Yam Hamawet’s thralls alike, an eerie sound harmonized between a thousand voices. Then the humans began to scream, too.
The world fractured around me. I saw it in a series of snapshots, like broken glass. Horace’s back arched, one of those wooden swords flashing through the air, the prisoners leaping through the air, the whole world turned into a kaleidoscope. I saw Li leaping towards us, and one of the Atlanteans, and then-
I opened my eyes, and vomited out a large amount of water onto the sand. I took several hard breaths, and sat up slowly. We were on a sandy beach. The sun hung low in the sky, just balanced on the horizon. I blinked, and ran my fingers through my hair, groaning with disgust.
Horace hit me from the side, his arms going tight around me. He was shaking slightly, but he didn’t look harmed. “What just happened?”
“I… think I just fucked things up royally,” I said softly, looking down at my hands. “That crafty bastard.” Then I looked up. Li stood on the water nearby, looking slightly awkward. And the Atlantean was standing there. The one I had seen embracing Horace in a vision I’d thought was a falsehood. The tall one with the shark teeth and the long green hair. “Horace? Who the hell is that?”