I closed Betty’s phone, and let out a sigh of relief. “Alright. It sounds like everyone’s safe. That woman, Wendy, is back in Zion. Daryl, John, Walter, and Jormungandr are back at the sinkhole.” I frowned at the phone. “Everyone returned to the place where they entered… Except for you three.”
“We are unusually attached to you,” said Li, his voice soft. He was crouched in the sand, his arms crossed. I noticed that his kimono, usually sleek and proper as could be, had taken a real beating. Torn, ragged around the edges. It made him look weary, and just a little bit mussed. His eyes were down on the ground, and I don’t think he’d looked me in the eye since we had arrived here.
“Li, it’s not your fault you weren’t around. That was me, being an idiot. I don’t always give the best advice.” I smiled. “Heck, I don’t often give the best advice. Plus, you were the one who got Jormungandr, right? If you hadn’t done that, you and Betty might have taken longer to arrive, and my dumb ass would have been dead.” I stepped closer and squeezed his shoulder. “You did an amazing job. You made it in time. And you did a lot more than I did to save the day. All I did was nearly get myself killed.”
He gave me a weak smile. “You are a very kind person, Horace.” He took my hand, and squeezed it gently, and I tried not to think about how soft and feminine his skin was. Thankfully, I was distracted.
“What on earth are you doing?” asked Ku, as Betty stepped closer, her eyes fixed on the substantially taller woman. Betty was the kind of person who could look down her nose at God in Heaven Above.
“Smelling you,” stated Betty, taking another delicate sniff. “You smell good.” She sniffed again, and licked her lips, her eyes flashing with something as she stepped entirely inside of Ku’s personal space. “Mmmm. Shark. I do love the taste of shark. I’ve had it before, and I always enjoy it.” Her tongue flicked out, and ran across Ku’s stomach for just a moment, and Ku took a couple of steps away.
I had worried about this. Incessantly, really. Having two people you care about meet is one of the most fraught experiences available to a human, because you never know how they’ll react. Any conflict between them, and you may be asked to take a side, which can critically wound a fragile relationship. Taking no side at all can be even more dangerous. And so, it’s a terrifying experience to have to go through.
This was not one of the ways I’d expected Betty to react. She grabbed one of Ku’s arms, squeezing it experimentally, rubbing her chin with her other hand, studying her. “Hmmm. Good muscles. Strong. A true hunter. Not one of those namby-pamby ambush predators that rely on surprise and lying around all day waiting for a meal to come under them.” She gave a meaningful look to Li, who rolled his eyes.
“I’m sorry, I don’t quite understand what’s happening,” said Ku, her face flushed. “I thought that we were… romantic rivals, or something along those lines.”
“Well, rivalry can take so many interesting shapes, can’t it?” asked Betty, raising an eyebrow, a salacious grin on her lips.
Quite suddenly, Ku darted. Towards me, in fact. Before I could react, she was crouched behind me, staring over my shoulder, hands on my arms, using me as a shield. “I proposed to him, you know!”
“Oh? Well, I don’t mind that. I’ve never been much of a marriage girl. I prefer the ‘Mistress’ role,” said Betty.
This was a thousand times worse than any fight could have been.
“Horace!” said Ku, accusatorily. “Tell her to stop! She’s being weird!”
I took a deep breath. “Hey,” I suggested. “How about we get home, and get some food. You two need new clothes,” I said, pointing to Betty and Li. “And Ku, you need a chance to relax. It’s been a long day.” I frowned. “Ku… There’s no chance that Thule and that Nachtka guy will be able to pull another sinkhole trick like that, is there?”
“No,” said Ku, firmly. “If they try it again, I will be able to sense it coming, and stop it. I should have, but… I confess, I didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late.” She looked down. “You came to save me again.”
“Don’t read TOO far into it,” said Betty, grinning. “He’s always trying to save people. So, if he becomes the King of Atlantis, tell me. Does that come with an unlimited supply of fish?”
“Betty!” I said, staring at her. She smiled innocently.
“What? You can have a marriage of convenience, can’t you? I’m fine with you sleeping with her if it means an unlimited supply of fish for us.” Betty leered. “And as long as she understands that I’m still in charge.”
“I don’t want to share!” said Ku, sputtering a bit.
“Come now, Horace is a bit too big to keep all to yourself. Do you think you could even handle that? He can be a bit insatiable when it comes to affection.”
Li tugged my shirt sleeve. “I will drive,” he said, softly. “So that you can deal with this.”
“You must be missing being alone already,” Li said, wryly, a smile quirking his lips.
I considered that for a moment. “No,” I said. “No, I really don’t.” I smiled. “I missed this.”
The blessed chaos of… Well, call it family, because anything else made my life sound much too perverse. Being surrounded by people and seeing them get along, more or less.
It was almost enough to distract me from whatever the hell had happened in Atlantis. But that wasn’t my issue. That wasn’t my role. If I’d realized one thing from my desperate flight to the lake, from my fighting, from all of that- It was that I wasn’t very good at it. I hadn’t made much of a difference in anything, there, had I? Just a damned embarrassment. In the end, if Betty, or Li, or Ku weren’t around, there was very little I could meaningfully do. Even The Lass’ argument seemed silly, now, the idea that I was something dangerous. I’d sure not been very dangerous when Betty had saved me from getting skewered.
But I could make sure that the people who could do something were stronger. Make sure they were ready, fed, healed. I could take care of them, even if I couldn’t protect them myself.
I realized, abruptly, how kind an offer it was for Li to offer to drive. If she didn’t, I would be forced to decide. To choose who was sitting in the front seat, who was seated behind. All of those little issues of showing favoritism.
The terrifying dreamscape almost seemed inviting compared to that.
Li stared as we approached the parking lot. “The Thunderbird. You found the Thunderbird.”
“The Thunderbird?” asked Betty, an eyebrow raised. “It’s just a car.”
“Betty,” said Li. “I once saw this car used to decapitate a minor god. It’s a very good car.”
Betty let out an extremely long, exaggerated sigh, while rolling her eyes all the way around. She slid into the back seat, and I followed after, winding up sandwiched between her and Ku. Ku had taken her human form, presumably because it let her more effectively hide behind me, and because it would actually fit in the back with us.
The ride south was mostly quiet. Betty was frowning at the car. “Do you know this car is a god?” She asked me, slightly accusatory. “It’s not another serial killer, is it?”
“Be nice to the car. The car saved my life.”
“Yes. So did the other serial killer you liked. Did it save you by driving you out of the way, or by slamming into something?”
“I don’t have to answer that,” I said, glowering a bit. “Just be nice to the car, Betty.”
She trailed her nails down the upholstery, with a smug expression on her face.
“Do not rip that upholstery, Betty!”
“I’m not going to rip it,” she said, her expression nonchalant. “I’m just reminding your serial killer car who’s boss.”
“It’s not- God.” I buried my face in my hands, and let out a groan. “Li? Do you mind stopping at the fish market in Syracuse? I can get the address for you.”
I reached into my pocket, and stopped as I took out my phone. The cracked faceplate, the shattered battery. I stared at it for a moment, and then breathed out. I set it on the divider between the driver’s seat and passenger seat, and took out Betty’s phone, trying not to think about the small, crushed black frame. Tried not to think about how it could have been someone. Tried not to wonder whether I could heal it. I was feeling tired enough already. My body felt absolutely drained. Terrified fight or flight struggles echoed in my bones, the effort of whatever I’d done sapping my energy. If indeed I’d done anything.
After I’d given Li the address, I sat back, and I was asleep in no time.
A brief flash. A black cat, slipping between my legs. An old, dusty mansion of the Victorian style, though I had no idea what ‘Victorian style’ entailed. It was creepy, so that seemed to qualify. I had a candle sitting in a dish in one hand.
I turned around, and-
“Horace, we are home.”
I blinked. Betty had her head on my shoulder, and a hand resting rather possessively on my knee. Ku had fallen asleep with her arms resting around me. Both of them were thoroughly asleep, and it was very hard not to rejoin them. It had been a long day. Li smiled pleasantly from the front seat.
“Your life continually complicates itself, Horace.”
“Yeah.” I smiled. “I’m a bit of an asshole, aren’t I? Stringing people along, not making a decision.”
Li turned to sit forward, looking out of the front window at the seemingly endless expanse of forest behind the house. “May I venture an opinion, Horace?”
“Li, have I ever forbid you from venturing an opinion?”
Li nodded once, and frowned. “You are… needy.”
“I mean… yeah.” I shrugged, trying to brush the statement off, and not show how much it hurt. “That’s probably fair.”
“That is not a criticism. It is not even a negative. I did not meet you until you were grown, but I heard about your upbringing. Randall was not a caregiver. Your mother and father were dead. You were moved frequently, and as I gathered it, deliberately. You were not allowed to form connections. That may be less deadly for a human than it would be for something like me, but it is still painful, and unpleasant. That is the kind of experience that twists a human being for life. Loneliness like that is a knife.” He rested a hand on his chest, his eyes lowered. “Being away from you, even for a few days, was agony.” He looked up again. “I can only imagine how it felt for you.”
I didn’t answer.
“At any rate. I don’t hold any grudges that you don’t choose me, for what it’s worth. You allow me to stay close, you care for me, you provide a place of warmth and acceptance. That is worth more than you could imagine to me, Horace.”
I put on a smile. I’d read once that if you keep smiling, you would become happier. Fooling your own brain into working properly. I didn’t deserve to be surrounded by people who cared about me, but then, they weren’t really mine. They weren’t possessions. They were responsibility. I had to take care of them until they left me. And that was okay. Because they did deserve to be cared for, and I could make sure they were better off when they left.
“Alright, girls,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. Ku shook awake, gasping, and Betty grumbled, tightening her nails into my leg. “Ah! Betty! Come on, if you don’t get up, I can’t make dinner!”
“Ugh. Life is so hard,” she muttered, slowly sitting up, blinking her eyes sleepily. “Mmm. This your old house?”
“It looks uppity,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “I’m going to go mark my territory.”
“Betty, please don’t scratch anything up.” I paused for a second. “And if you mark it in the other way-”
“I’m not going to leave any stains. Just making sure it knows who’s boss.” Betty smiled as she sauntered out of the car.
“She’s not the way I expected her to be,” said Ku, somewhat subdued.
“It’s simply her way of dealing with interlopers,” said Li. “She is extremely possessive of Horace, and while she tolerates others, she likes to make it clear where they stand. In my case, by attacking my femininity and attractiveness. In your case, by… Well.” Li coughed into his hand, flushing faintly. “I will confess that took me by surprise. And here, Horace.” He held up a small package, with the fish from the market. “I took the liberty.”
“You are an absolute life-saver,” I said, feeling a wash of gratitude more intense than a man ever should for someone else doing grocery shopping. “I’d better go in and get everything started.” I slipped out of the car, my mind already awash in logistics. The swordfish would cook quickly, best to leave that off until other things were taken care of, I would need to do a wash cycle for Betty and Li’s clothing, and figure out where everyone would sleep. Domesticity. Running the household.
“Ku, you can sleep on the big bed. Li, you can have the guest bedroom. Betty’ll get my bed, I’ll sleep down here on the couch.”
Li raised an eyebrow. “Nonsense. I will sleep down here. I take up much less space than you. Besides, doesn’t Betty habitually sleep with you?”
“Yeah, but I’m usually on a bed that’s bigger than a single. I’m not sure that bed’s even going to be able to carry two people.”
“You don’t want the large bed?” asked Ku.
I looked down. “I don’t know if I’m quite ready for that. It’s still sort of… my parents’ bed, you know? Even if they’re gone.” I took a deep breath, surprised by how shaky I felt. “Anyway. Go, get some rest, relax. We can talk about everything tomorrow. I’ll bring you up some food in a little bit, alright?”
She nodded, and stepped up the stairs. I realized that Li was still standing by me. I looked at the white snake. His pale white hair was mussed, still slightly damp from the dip we all took. The kimono looked like it had seen a hell of a day. It’d take some hard work to mend it.
“Anyway. Here.” I handed Li one of my white undershirts from the hamper. “Undress, I’ll turn around.”
“I don’t mind if you watch,” said Li, softly.
“Li- You’re a good friend, and I care about you, but I’m not into-”
Li opened the kimono, and dropped it.
“Li, uh. You’re a girl.”
“Do you like it?”
“How did this happen?”
“I decided to try it. It was not as frightening as I thought. A new shape is… interesting.” He- she- I was entering a political minefield here, I knew- Li looked down briefly, and then back up. “There are, understandably, limits to how much I can change my form. I know you like large breasts.”
“What?!” I clenched my jaw, flushing. “How do you-”
“I see the way you look at Betty. Your eyes wander.” Li smiled pleasantly, taking the undershirt, and pulling it on over her head. “I feed on attraction. On desire. You do not need to act on that desire to give me what I need, Horace. The mere fact that you feel it is what I seek.” She looked up at me, her lips quirked in a smile as she tugged down the hem of the shirt. “If you wish to surround yourself with people, if you wish to divide yourself, then you should learn how to divide yourself evenly.”
“Li, that is very profound, but I’m having so much trouble focusing on it right now.” I looked over at the food. “Do you mind slicing some lemons for the swordfish? I need to go check on Ku, and see that she’s okay.”
“Of course,” said Li. She- that was going to mess with me- opened the refrigerator while I took the stairs up to the second floor.
Ku lay on the bed, on her face. Her arms were out to either side of her, her massive frame spread across the bed, in her true shape.
“You okay?” I asked, and then thought about it. “You’re almost certainly not. Do you want to talk about it?”
“The god you mentioned,” said Ku. “Dramatic Irony. Why do you humans have such a god?”
I sighed. “I suppose because, when the world goes wrong, it’s nice to have someone to blame. It’s a silly thing, really. There’s no terrible god who’s responsible for everything that goes wrong. But when the universe seems so cold, and harsh…”
“You humans create a god who embodies the universe’s distaste for you.”
“I guess so.”
“Because it gives you something to fight,” she said. She looked up, her eyes red. “I thought Betty would make everything okay. But Ku-Thule was prepared for her. And now, my people…” She looked at me. I thought about it. There was nothing that said they had to be okay. For all I know, Ku’s species might be extinct. But…
“Look. Ku-Thule didn’t want to exterminate Atlantis. He wanted to rule it. He wanted to conquer. And that means he needs a populace. Whatever he did to Atlantis, whatever the hell that cracking was, I think your people are still alive. I… Can you feel them? You’re a god.”
She rolled over, onto her back, staring up at the ceiling. “I cannot. They are silent.” She was quiet for a moment. “What will I do if they are gone? If I have no purpose, no place to be-”
“Ku.” I reached out, and squeezed one of her fingers, my hand almost childlike in size compared to her, but still as earnest as I could be, trying not to think about all the clothing she wasn’t wearing. “As long as I’m alive, you’ll always have a place to be.” I smiled. “I promise.”
“Hah.” She let a wry smile spread across her face. “How did you get in? Ku-Thule claimed that it was impossible, he’d locked out everyone. Who helped you?”
“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “It could’ve been any of a few possibilities.” I thought of Rache and Recht in the trunk. They’d protected me. I had to take care of them. I also had to look up those damn names. But that could wait a little bit longer. I stood up, and smiled. “In the meantime, you need to be ready. This is your moment, Ku. You’re going to be great.”
She snorted. “Yes. I have been such a bastion of strength so far.” But I could see the way she fought to keep the smile down. The words had helped.
“I’ll bring up dinner in a bit.” I closed the door, and stepped out onto the landing. I could hear Li still busily working downstairs. And Betty stood there, appearing out of the darkness in the way that only cats can. Her green eyes sparkled, and she held her elaborate silken dress in one hand.
“Li!” She shouted, and Li stepped around the corner to appear at the bottom of the stairs. Bastet carelessly tossed it towards the snake, and Li grabbed it out of the air. “See to that. I need some time with Horace.”
She sat perched on the toilet as I tested the water in the bathtub. “Should be good now,” I said, the temperature warm but not scalding.
“Don’t forget the bubble bath,” she said, frowning at me. I smiled, and grabbed the bottle off the counter, pouring a generous dollop into the bath, letting some more hot water run into it. Soon a foaming layer covered the top. “A few days away, and you’re already forgetting your training.” She sighed elaborately as she stretched, and I turned my head away because there was only so much a man could take.
“Betty. What happened?”
“A lot of stuff. Fought a bunch of gods, there were these assholes who went after me…” She was quiet for a moment. “They knew Randall. They wanted to kill me, because they thought I killed him.” She pulled her legs up against her body, her arms slipping around them, hugging herself.
“He just keeps coming back to haunt us, doesn’t he?” I said, a bit more jauntily than I felt. “He always did have trouble knowing when to quit.” I smiled. “Now, are you going to get in, or do I have to drop you in?”
She snorted, and stood up. I finally looked at her once she’d sunk below the bubbles, leaning back in the bath. The old bathtub had the strangest set-up for its cubicle, three sliding plastic walls that folded out to block the shower from flooding the floor. I’d always thought it was annoying how easily they slipped out of their grooves, but the idea of replacing them was unimaginable. “Horace?”
I shook my head, coming out of the reverie. “Betty?”
“Do you think I’m bad?”
I paused at that, and considered. “I mean… You’re provocative, Betty. You try to get a reaction out of people. You test them a lot. You can be kind of mean, and you can be distant and cold.” I reached out, and scratched her behind the ears. “But that’s just being a cat. That’s not bad. You’re a good cat.”
“I don’t care what you think,” Betty said, but she was leaning her head into my hand, her ears flicking softly. “Horace… If I lose you-”
“You know, I thought about that a lot. And I thought about how I should deal with it. Whether I should tell you to go on even if I lose my life. And you know what I decided?” I smiled. “I’m not going to die.”
“Humans always die,” Betty said, and her voice was almost heartbreakingly soft and sad. “They die, or they stop being humans. I don’t want you to be a god or a hero, Horace. I want you to keep being my human.” She sank a little lower. “I know that’s selfish. I know you want to fight, I know you want to feel like you mean something, but you mean everything to me, and if you leave me, I-”
My arms went around her shoulders, squeezing her gently. I was getting wet, but I didn’t care. She stiffened for a moment, almost pulling away, but then she leaned her head against mine, and purred loudly, her arms sliding out of the bath to embrace me back. I held her until her breathing calmed, the purring becoming softer, but still there, a vibration that was deeply comforting. “Betty. I’m not going to become any of those things. Come on, you’ve seen what’s happened to me, every time I stood up and fought. Every time I tried to be some dumbass hero. I’m not built for it.” I smiled. “That’s okay. Because I can help you. I can take care of you.”
“You could be that kind of person,” Betty said, softly. “If you made a pact with Ku. She’s a goddess of war. The gifts she could give you… You could be the kind of hero you always wanted to be.” She looked up. “It’d hurt to lose you. But it might be better for you. If I weren’t a bad person, that would be what I’d do. Tell you to go with her.”
“You can’t make a pact with me?” I asked, giving her a wry smile.
“Horace… I made a pact with you the day you took me in.” She lowered her head a bit more. “But I’m a bit broken inside. I learned more about it while I was in Paradise. I think… someone did this to me. Changed the way the pact works. I just take. Take everything that you have to offer. And it doesn’t give you anything in return. No strength, no healing, no magic. It’s just… selfish.”
I was quiet for a moment. Then I smiled. “How appropriate for a cat.”
“Horace! This is serious!” She looked up at me, and then back down. “I can never give you what you want.”
“I don’t want to be powerful, Betty. I want the people I love and care about to be safe. Power is just a means to that end.” I softly stroked my fingers through her hair, and her purr filled the air again. “Did I help you in Paradise?”
“I kicked an entire pantheon’s worth of ass,” she said, rather smugly. “I went toe to toe with one of the most powerful creatures in the world because of your sandwiches. It was pretty great.”
“There you are, then.” I stroked her again. “You’re the person who protects the Earth, Betty. I wish that I could do it with you, but if the place I can help you most is behind you, that’s where I’ll be.”
“I won’t hold it against you if you decide you want her. You’d be safe there, by her side, I think,” said Betty, her eyes not meeting mine. “I’d be okay with it.”
“You’re an awful liar, Betty,” I said, and scratched behind her ears.
“I would accept it,” said Betty, turning her bright green eyes to meet my gaze. “I do not want you to refuse that opportunity because you think that I need you more. Be selfish, Horace. Do what is best for you.”
I smiled. “Yeah. That’s real likely to happen. Now come on.” I pulled down the loofah. “Don’t just soak, do some scrubbing.”
“Do my back?” She asked, smiling. I nodded, and she leaned forward as I began to run the loofah over her back. Smooth muscle, as hard as iron under my fingers, a thin layer of fat concealing a body that could tear a car in half. She purred loudly as I ran it across her back. It wasn’t exactly sexual- though I wouldn’t want to testify to that in a court of law- but it was deeply satisfying.
“So what do you think happened?” I asked, softly.
“I don’t know. The scientific method is more of you humans’ style. I just know that I’ll find him again.” Her eyes narrowed. “And this time, I’ll put him in the ground.” She suddenly leaned back, flashing me an eyeful. “Do my front?”
“God, Betty,” I said, flushing as I tossed the loofah onto her, turning around, my cheeks blazing as I dried my hands and arms on a towel.
“Goddess, but close enough.” She giggled. “Thank you, Horace. I’m looking forward to dinner.”
I stepped down the stairs, and studied the food. I might regret the expense later, when I had to work hard and stress over whether I would have to dip into meager savings and a thousand other little stressors. Small, domestic terrors. But a life without luxuries, without the occasional extravagance, was miserable. God knows that Randall had never seemed particularly happy saving all of his money, and then he’d died and had all of his assets frozen by the government. Li stood by the kitchen, ready and eager to help, as he- she- they?- always was.
“Take a seat, Li. You’ve had a very long day, too, it sounds like.” I switched on the radio, the old boombox my father had rigged up with an antennae, as I turned on one of the coils on the stove, leaving the frying pan atop. I fiddled with the knob until NPR came on.
“-nd the two fugitives are believed to have died in the crash. The wreckage of their plane was found in the Pennsylvania mountains by a search party. No sign was found of the two fugitives, whose crime spree had carried them from Florida up the Eastern seaboard, but the impact was violent enough that the authorities have ruled they are likely dead, as the sole parachute was still left in the wreckage. Described as two young women, one Asian, one Caucasian, dressed in cosplay for one of the conventions in the Northeast-“ I sighed, and changed the knob, looking for something cheerier.
“Sad, isn’t it? I wonder what drove them?”
“I could not possibly say,” said Li, sitting quietly at the table with a glass of hot water, sipping at it delicately. She was blushing for some reason. I turned back to the food. A little bit of flour mixed with some black pepper to coat the swordfish. A little soy sauce over the dredged steaks. A bit of olive oil into the pan. The sizzle as the meat hit the metal filled the air, and the rich scent of food followed it. I took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, savoring the smell.
I turned around, and three sets of flashing eyes were watching me. Betty crouched by the foot of the stairs. Ku’s form was visible at the top. And Li had turned her head towards me.
“Give it a couple of minutes, guys. Got to make sure it’s fully cooked.” I turned back to the food, and smiled as I began shaving down a couple of potatoes I had in the refrigerator, slicing it into a thin hash. The domestic touch. I liked cooking for them. I liked taking care of them. I liked being there for them.
I liked that they needed me. That I wasn’t completely useless. That I wasn’t just some god damn anchor around their necks, getting in trouble and needing to be saved, over and over again. That I wasn’t just the damsel in distress.
We sat down. Betty took the head of the table. Li sat at the end. I sat by Betty, Ku by Li, the two of us side by side. And for once, I said Grace.
“Thank you, Betty, for saving the world. Thank you, Ku, for helping us to find out what was coming. Thank you, Li, for hurrying home and making sure that Betty could reach me in time.” I smiled softly. “Amen.”
A prayer to gods who were listening. What a rare and special thing.
We ate. And it was the mark of what a good and satisfying meal it was that we didn’t talk at all, everyone enjoying their food, and then returning to their rooms. Sleep crept over me without even noticing.
“I’m sorry, Howard. Your work- It’s just too gloomy. Too depressing.” The man smiled at me. “You understand how it is. With radio taking over people’s interests, print is dying. And the stories you write- They really are quite frightful. Imagine the complaints we could get!”
“Of course,” I said, numb. Another failure. Another miserable failure. I tried to tell the stories I saw in my head, but each time, each time I found myself stymied by words, and by my own failures at making people appreciate my work. Perhaps there was just nothing there to be appreciated. I stood up, and did my best to smile. It felt hollow, and I could see on the man’s face that he thought the same. “Sorry. Bit of underdone potato,” I said, bowing my head quickly as I stepped out.
The streets were fogged. I shivered, and pulled my coat tighter. The street lamps burned with a faint actinic glow, humming in the night, some dread far place producing the humming tension that drove them to such mad flickering. The fog smelled heavily of fish and low tide, the scent of death and decay, like an encroaching apocalypse, the end of all things good and decent and bright and noble. But what else was new?
I found myself down, by the dockside, staring out across the dark waters. The distant lighthouse spun, sending occasional flares of light my way. Somewhere, out there, men fought and died in mud and barbed wire, dying by the thousands, the tens of thousands. The science of war had been made too efficient, too skilled, and now it had become a meat grinder.
Who needed the horror of the cosmos, when the horror of home was so vast? Who needed lost gods, when you had all the delights of mankind? That was what they told me.
And oh, what fools they were. The human imagination is as nothing compared to the vast panoply of the world. This is the truth. The world does not care about u-
I turned, and frowned. There, sitting on a small pile of rubble was a cat. A fish’s bones sat beneath its paws, and it stared at me with luminous green eyes. A little guardian in the night, watching the dark sea, and making sure that nothing dark and squamous crawled forward to menace humanity. “Hello, puss,” I said, smiling as I crouched down.
I stumbled back, nearly falling on my ass. “What on earth-!”
“Howard. You were being stalked. A creature named Dagon. It took an interest in you.” My skin went cold. The story. Of course, the story. Written after that dream, that awful dream. I was-
I paused, and frowned. “I was?”
“Yes.” She bent down, and nibbled on one of the bones. “Not anymore.”
“Killed it, yes.”
“Thank you,” I murmured, and stared at the bones. Grisly, flakes of meat and bloody scales still clinging to the bones where the cat’s rough tongue had not rasped it clean. Yet… “Why?”
“Because the world is ending. Dark things are crawling out of the cracks in the Earth. Evil, vicious things. And they’re going to kill every single human on the planet, and leave the world a burned out, smoking husk. And I’m going to stop them.”
“Because I’m a goddess.” And the goddess purred.
I woke up slowly. Something warm was on top of me. Purring. I reached up, and felt Betty’s soft skin. I opened my eyes.
Li was standing in the room. Ku was standing by the door, head poking halfway in. The two of them looked extremely guilty when my eyes opened and I snapped up, Betty falling out of the bed with a squawk of protest.
“What the hell are you three doing here?”
“I was cold,” said Betty, sitting up.
“I like watching you sleep,” said Li.
“You got a call,” said Ku. “From John Pertwee. He wants us to join him in New York City, today. At his corporate headquarters.”
I rubbed my nose. “That’s burying the lede, alright. We’d better get going, then.” The dream was already fading, but one memory stayed there. Howard. And the words Betty had said to him. They were strangely familiar.
But I didn’t have time to worry about that, for now.
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