“You found it?” I asked, softly. Li nodded. She held out the small vacuum-sealed container.
“Is the DNA going to survive, Horace?” asked Li, her head tilted to the side, a frown on her face. “Freeze-dried, for who knows how long-“
“I think so. If I can confirm this…” I was quiet for a moment. “Randall wasn’t particularly unusual in his views, as far as the Order of Set goes, was he, Li?”
She looked down. “No. Not entirely. You don’t trust John?”
“I just want to make sure of things. I don’t think he’s going to ever be as big a threat as the two gods. But…” I took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “Trust’s tough in this, isn’t it?”
She nodded. “Was there anything else I can help you with?”
“Actually, yeah.” I held up the recipe cards. “I finally got around to looking at the recipe for the Elixir.” I watched her quietly. She didn’t meet my eyes. “Interesting ingredients. Most of this stuff- It’s tricky to get ahold of, but shouldn’t be impossible. Shark cartilage, ginko baloba, alligator snapping turtle shell. Some kind of questionable things. But…” I tapped the card lightly on one edge. “Blood of a white snake.”
“There were different blends of the Elixir. Your father was fond of experimentation. He… asked me to do that. I was actually quite willing to help him experiment. To give of myself to help those who had helped me… It felt right.” She looked at me, her head tilted. “I hope you don’t think less of me. Or him.”
“I…” I took a deep breath, and let it out. “That elixir could help a lot of people in our little party. Walter, Markov, Daryl, they’re all pure human. They could do with a dose of the elixir. But… I don’t want to hurt you.”
“I am sure we could get a blood-drawing kit. It would be easy.” She smiled softly. “You are such a gentle person, Horace.”
“Yeah,” I said, thinking of an Ateroleum-covered Atlantean, its face torn away by a wooden sword, making a horrible keening sound deep in its throat as the oil leaked into the water, stark white bone stained with tar visible beneath. “I’m just a softie.”
“I would be happy to help. I helped your father and Randall both with making the Elixir.” She smiled. “They really would have been proud of you, Horace. You are the kind of man your father would have wanted you to be.”
“You’re trying to make me feel better,” I said, a quirked smile on my lips. “Did he ever even know I was going to be born?”
“He knew he wanted to have children with Iris. And you are the kind of man that he was. He always worried about taking blood from me, too.” She reached out, and squeezed my shoulder. “The Elixir was used to keep the members of the Order of Set in their prime for longer. It didn’t make them more powerful. But with my blood, well… I am potent, at least. It was not like a pact- not exactly. I had no control over it, for example. And it did not have nearly the same power as making a pact- It was very temporary, and did not make someone nearly as strong as a full pact…” She was silent for a moment, and bit her lip. “Horace… If you are going to confront John, alone… I could-“ She swallowed, and didn’t continue.
“You’re asking me to make a pact,” I said softly. “And I’m guessing that it’s kind of an intimate thing to be asking.”
“The Order of Set… did not approve of such things. They believed that it made one too dependent on monsters. That it could corrupt one of them, that it could leave them unable to do… what had to be done. Your father, Randall, they never accepted one.” She took a deep breath, and let it out. “I have gathered that it is… intimate. A form of love. A connection, that is deep, but-“ She looked up. “I have never made a pact before. I would like my first time to be with you. I know it is… something of a fraught time to ask, but…”
I took a deep breath. “To be clear. This is not sex.”
“Well. It’s at most, a metaphor for sex.” She looked down. “I would not suggest it, but- You are very strong. It might make me stronger, too. It would be… convenient, for us both. And also…” She coughed. “I would like it. It may be too forward-“
“I’ll do it,” I said softly. “I mean- You’re one of the very few people I really would trust with this, Li. You’ve always been honest with me, even when it hurt you. You’ve always been watching over me. And I trust you to not try to control me with it. You’re better than that.” I smiled. “I like you a lot, Li. So, uh… How, exactly, do we make a pact?”
“Well,” said Li. “A kiss is traditional, I have gathered.”
“Christ.” I checked the door. We were in one of the countless rooms on the top three floors of the tower. I was given to understand it was a janitorial closet, though it was better decorated than most places I’d ever lived. “A quick one.” I closed my eyes, and leaned forward. There was a brief, soft kiss, and a flicker of a forked tongue.
I felt… Strong. Healthy. The aches of the fighting, the pains that had accumulated over the last few days of chaos and fighting, they washed away in seconds, replaced by a soothing warmth. The connection with Li was… serene. Soft. I smiled, turning towards her.
Li had a frown on her face, wincing every couple of seconds. She let out a soft little hiss. “Are you okay?”
“I… Mmm. It’s just…” She winced again. “It’s hot. It’s… Nnngh.” She took a deep breath. “I’m okay. I can do this- I- Nnngh!” She let out a sharp cry, and a tear dripped from one eye as she clutched at her face, eyes tightly closed.
“Li!” I said, reaching out, grabbing her. She let out a sharp gasp, an animal sound of pain, sobbing a bit as she swayed on her feet. “Li-“
“It hurts- It’s- It- I can do this, Horace! I- Ah!” Her scream was sharp, piercing, as she flinched back, tears trailing down her cheeks. “It hurts! Horace, I- I- I hurt! It’s-!”
“Li!” I said, and grabbed her shoulders hard.
I felt the snap as the connection broke, as I pulled away. It felt like a hook yanking in my heart. I wasn’t sure if that was how it was supposed to feel, or if it was hurting her. She stood, slumped against me, tears running down her cheeks. “I’m sorry, Horace. I’m sorry. It was too much, I…” She sniffled, crying a bit, clinging to me. Her body was warm. Soft. And I don’t think I’d ever seen her quite so vulnerable. The way I’d just hurt her, without even meaning to. It was…
“I’m sorry, Li. It wasn’t your fault,” I said, trying not to cry. Trying not to just hate myself for not thinking, and for hurting her-
“You’re just too big,” she said.
I was quiet for a moment, then a little snort escaped me. “Did you really have to phrase it that way?” I asked, trying to fight off the grin. “Jesus, Li, you assured me this wasn’t a sex thing.”
She smiled up at me, her eyes a bit dark around the corners, looking exhausted, but still smiling. “If you cannot laugh at these things, what can you laugh at?” Her smile turned down. “I’m sorry. I… don’t know if that’s supposed to happen. I’ve never heard of anything like that. It really was just… It was like you burned inside. And I got too close, and it began to burn me.” She stared down at her feet. “Perhaps I am just too weak to accept your feelings, Horace. To be close to you. How funny is that?” She smiled. “You are so warm, I cannot approach too closely.”
“Yet,” she stated. “I cannot approach too closely, yet. Betty has made a pact with you. It can be done.” She looked up, her expression determined. “And you were willing to make a pact with me.”
“Well… of course, Li. It’s like I said.” I smiled. “I trust you.”
She took my hand in both of hers, and squeezed it gently, thumbs rubbing my palm gently. “So it’s just a matter of time.” She looked up, and smiled. “I will get stronger, so I can bear you.”
“God,” I said softly. “I really hope nobody hears about this.”
“Really,” said Betty, her eyes narrowed. “You’re really still going to do this.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” purred Jormungandr.
“Oh don’t even dare purr at me! You know that I was the one who started that whole ‘innocent smart-ass thing’! All cats do that because I did it! I am the First, and the Best Cat, and how dare you!”
“First, maybe, but best? I’m not even a cat, and I’m far more popular-“
“Oh you think so, huh?!”
The sound of cats hissing and growling filled the air. I opened my door, and found Betty on the ground, Jormungandr on top of her, sitting heavily on the middle of Betty’s back, the catgirl pinned on her stomach. Jormungandr had found a Love God t-shirt somewhere, and now looked almost uncannily like Betty, skin and fur color aside. Betty writhed and struggled, and then looked up at me, ears flattened against her head. “Horace! Tell me I’m better!”
I stared down at the two for a moment, fighting the tremendous urge to step back into my room and put on the headphones. “Jormungandr, get off of Betty, come on. This is pretty undignified.”
Jormungandr stretched one leg out, and smiled, the motion lifting the hem of her shirt dangerously high. High enough, in fact, to tell she was wearing nothing else underneath. “Why don’t you get me off?”
I slowly stared. “I can’t handle this,” I murmured, and closed the door. I opened it again a second later, and threw the glass of cold water now in hand at a smirking Jormungandr. She let out a cry of surprise, flinching back, giving Betty enough leverage to scramble out from under her. I returned to my room as Betty hurled insults at Jormungandr, who returned them with additional venom.
“Dane,” I said. My eye twitched. “I’m really… really sorry that we weren’t here.”
She smiled, sitting back in the chair. “It was kind of a rough time. But we made it through.” I tried so hard not to stare at the brilliant golden eye. “Horace, you’re staring at my eye.”
“I’m really sorry we weren’t here, Dane.”
“It’s fine. This steak is fucking amazing.” She cut off another slice, smiling. The apartment was actually well made up for once. I’d been here a few times before, and… Dane Larson, despite being a really decent person, a great police officer- now commissioner- and a good friend, was not good at maintaining her life. “I’ll have to hear the whole story of what went on. I’m guessing, though, that those killers didn’t manage to get to Betty.”
“I still haven’t gotten up the spirit to ask her about everything that happened. She gave me this, though, when I told her I was coming to visit you.” I took out the jar. “She said, uh… It was a gift from them.” I looked down at the blue eye, and winced. “Dane. I’m so sorry-“
“Hey, the new one is way more striking.” She winked at me, and I had to admit that it would intimidate the hell out of anyone who looked at it. “So. There’s some shit going down.”
“Yes. I’m sorry I’m not involving you more in this, but I think that any more people isn’t going to help, and…” I was quiet for a moment. “If this doesn’t work-“
“The dreams.” Dane shivered. “Been having the Food dreams. They’re getting kind of fucked up. Been dreaming a lot about the preparation, specifically.” She looked down at the steak, and grimaced. “Put it this way, I’m really glad you made steak instead of pork.”
“That’s-“ I paused for a moment, and gagged. “Jesus. Yuck.”
“Yeah.” She looked down at the small cooler. “So. You want me to run this through forensic to check for DNA? What is it?”
“I’m not sure, exactly.”
“I mean, Horace, we’re not exactly able to determine what the DNA comes from if it’s not human and doesn’t match an existing sample. This might be a boondoggle.” She frowned. “You want me to check this out, and make sure that the police department keeps its head together if this first strike goes wrong. Fair enough. Have you contacted the Esoteric Forces?”
“Yeah,” I said, frowning. “The Colonel won’t talk with me. I’ve called six times in the last couple of days. Nothing. We had… words, just after I talked with that Li Fang Fen woman.” I coughed. “I might have threatened him.”
“Doesn’t usually get you very far with that kind of guy,” said Dane, not unkindly.
“Well, it’s probably for the best. I suspect that this plan involves a Russian nuclear weapon acquired through the black market, which would probably cause some real problems regardless.”
Dane sipped at the small glass of lemonade I’d made, and nodded. I noticed there were no liquor bottles in the room, another notable change. After she finished, she lifted the glass jar of formaldehyde, examining the eye. “This is going to look amazing on my desk.” She grinned. “We managed to muddle through, anyway. You had your own emergencies to deal with. Things won’t fall apart if you’re out of town for a little while.” She paused for a moment. “Did Betty mention anything about an Ariel?”
“Ariel?” I frowned. “I don’t think so.”
“Mmmm. Maybe…” Dane shook her head. “Ah, forget it. Anyway, I-“
The door opened. A young man stood there. He looked surprisingly like Dane- same shade of blonde hair, similar build, though taller. About her age, too. He frowned. “Dane, you’ve got a visitor?”
“Ah. Tonfa, meet Horace. Horace, Tonfa.”
“Tonfa?” I frowned. “I didn’t know you had a brother.”
“I’m not her brother,” said Tonfa. “I’m her stick.”
I opened and closed my mouth, and stared for a moment. “I…”
“He’s a tsukumogami,” said Dane. “It’s… a really long story. Really long. One I should tell you some time, when we don’t have bullshit going on. He was an heirloom. Someone helped me fix him after he got broken, he became a real person.” She shrugged. “I’m not sure how it all works.”
“Huh.” I frowned. “That… is awfully interesting.” I smiled, and stood up, holding out a hand to shake. “It’s good to meet you,” I said.
“I don’t think this is the first time we met,” said Tonfa, shaking my hand, and frowned at me. “You seem familiar. I feel like I’ve seen you before.” He shook his head. “Anyway. I know that you took care of Dane a lot. And it’s good to finally meet you.” He grinned. “If there’s anything I can do to help, just say the word.”
“Well…” I paused for a moment. “I actually have had some… weird things, happening. I’ve had some tools which I think have been acting on their own. Would you recognize a tsukumogami if you saw it?”
I took a deep breath, and bent down, opening the canvas bag. Three objects sat inside. Rache, Recht, and the golf trophy that, once, had provided a House Lar with a shape, a purpose, and a second chance.
“The swords… They’ve got some power. They must be old, to have accumulated that much. A century or so, maybe? Give it another decade of dedicated treatment, they might even awaken, but they’re not quite there yet. They’re potential, not shape. The statue… I don’t see anything in that.”
I frowned, and lifted one of the swords. There was a small imprint of its making information and its date on the base of the hilt. Made in 1986, in China. “Hmmm.” I slipped them back into the bag, and smiled. “Thanks. That helps me a bit.” I stood up, and bowed my head. “And, Dane, again, I’m really-“
“Sorry, I get it.” She grinned. “Come on, Horace. I was the one who was too proud to call you guys when you could have helped me and saved my binocular vision.” She tapped her eye, and I winced at the display. “Besides, this thing makes me look tough as hell.”
“Pardon her French,” said Tonfa.
“You want to know how I became a part of Zion?” asked Wendy, her head tilted.
“I have heard vague stories of the places in this world where Gods go. Zion was one of them,” said Li. “Places where mortals, and minor creatures like myself cannot enter. Cities.” She sat at the small dinner table as I leaned against the wall outside, listening in. “My question is, I suppose… Were you always what you are now? Or did you change? Were you always someone who could have joined a City, or…”
“Apotheosis,” murmured Wendy. “That’s the question, isn’t it? What differentiates a white snake from The White Snake Maiden? A cannibal spirit from The Wendigo? Is it Sorites Paradox, that at a certain point you cross the line from story to myth?” She smiled. “I don’t have answers. Only speculation. I remember being a human woman, a witch who consorted with minor spirits until one terrible winter. I remember being a hungry beast which devoured, and killed. I remember becoming The Wendigo. I do not know if I was the first, or if I was special. I do not even know if those memories are true.”
“I do not need truth. Just… a lead.”
“Very well.” Wendy smiled. “First. There are four paths recognized. I am sure you have met old and powerful creatures. I am sure you have also noticed that they are no God, no Monster. Gods, Monsters, they must be unique. There can be those who descend from them afterwards, but the first method is… consumption. You could kill the White Snake Maiden, devour her, take her power. Many Wendigo have sought me out over the centuries, for just such a purpose.” Wendy smiled. “I would not recommend this path to you. The current White Snake Maiden is… well protected. And a good and decent person.”
“An unacceptable path.”
“There is also the path taken by those who favor strength. You have felt the thrill of victory, of defeating someone who is powerful. Defeat a god, and you may take of that god’s strength, becoming greater. A difficult path, to say the least, and uncertain. After all, it relies on besting someone greater than you.”
“Hmmm. And the other two?”
“The third is most passive. If a god or a monster dies, their power moves on. Usually to a human, but there are exceptions. That one is largely luck, however. Not reliable.”
“And the last?”
“Well, the most natural of all. What are gods without worshippers? Any god must have humans worshipping them. And when one of the lesser creatures think of them, worship them, write of them, hate them, love them… What could be more natural than godhood, in the face of that? Without humans worshipping them, remembering them, speaking of them, Gods become Lost. And when they die, everything- everyone that they were- that vanishes. All their next incarnation remembers is what humans say about them.” Wendy tilted her head. “Now. Why are you seeking this power?”
“It is… a personal issue.” Li bowed her head softly. “Thank you.”
“Godhood- It is not all it’s cracked up to be,” said Wendy.
“Innocence, likewise,” said Li. “Thank you.”
“Walter,” I said, smiling. “I talked with John. About your past. About what, exactly, was driving you.”
“I make no secret of it,” said Walter. He sat on his bed, hunched over, tremendous shoulders raised, the light streaming down through his stringy hair, hiding his face. “This is a war. I will kill Nachtka Wai for what he did.”
“He took away a lot of people you cared about, didn’t he? The whole story… It’s tough to figure. Neither of you really made the first strike, did you? The Atlanteans began to attack because someone on this side attacked them. You started to fight against them because they killed your friends for no good reason. It’s all a knot.”
“Yes?” he asked, not looking up.
“This was a setup. From the very beginning. I’m not sure who did it, but they started the conflict. It might have been Ku-Thule, or Nachtka Wai, or Yam Hamawet, or someone else entirely.”
“Horace. Do you have a point to all of this?”
“You can’t die there,” I said, firmly, and held out Rache and Recht.
“These are not swords. They were my mother’s. They are going to awaken as Tsukumogami. They are people. They are strong, and they will give you the strength to fight Nachtka Wai and the Ateroleum. They let me hold my own for a little while against them. In your hands, they’ll let you win. But they are people. You have to bring them back to me.” He met my eyes. “Do you understand? I need you to bring them back to me safely.”
He looked down at the blades again, and stared at them for several long seconds. “Rache, and Recht.” He frowned. “German.”
“Yeah,” I said softly. “But it’s not nations, or ethnicities, that do evil. It’s all just people. Individuals.”
“Rache,” he said, holding up the longer sword. “Vengeance. The blade that strikes. The cutter.” He held up the other one. “Recht. The short blade. The one that guards your heart.” He looked up at me. “Even I can feel the power in these things. What are they?”
“People,” I said. “Or they will be. Please. Protect them. Bring them back to me.”
Walter chuckled slowly, softly. “I can make no guarantees. Many have died despite my best efforts.” He stood up, towering, and placed a hand on my shoulder, the other hand wrapped around the two blades. “But I will not die so long as these have not been returned to your hands.”
“Yeah. On that note.” I took out a small flask. “This cost a dear friend. Drink it before you enter. It’ll help on that whole ‘not dying’ thing.” I paused for a moment. “Walter… Do you know much about John?”
“Little more than what you have already shown you know. He has a darkness to him. The Order of Set did not choose people without that dark will. But I trust him to have humanity’s best interests in heart.”
“Yeah,” I said softly. “Yeah.”
The salty seashore. The place where horrible things rose. Smelling of death, of rot, of decay. And never moreso than tonight. I held the lantern before me, the light juddering as I shivered. The waves slammed against the rock shore with unusual ferocity. And there.
The black rock, a viscous basalt, leading out to the sea. Hexagonal steps like the kind I had seen once before. There was a place on Ireland, along the northern shore, called the Giant’s Causeway.
Oh, what fearsome fate had led to its brother showing itself here, scant miles’ walk from my home? The same thing that had called out my cat, my guardian, a short time ago. The same thing that had shown me the visions of the future. The same thing that had driven my writing these past twenty years.
I stepped out onto the rocks. It was foolish. Suicidal. If I did this, I knew that it would end with my death, as I had seen so many times. But if I did not…
I was just a failure of a writer. She was important. I had to save her.
I saw her, and I saw it. The thing looming over her, growing to encompass the entire world. I saw her turn to face me. I saw the great flabby-clawed fist drive her into the ground. I leapt forward, between her and the god. “Stay away from my cat!”
I threw an ember into the night, and it was snuffed out. So was I.
Dying hurt far more than I expected. The cold closed around me. I felt my soul torn into strips, devoured brutally by the creature before me, and then its death throes as Betty took it
I woke up, breathing hard, a cold sweat soaking my clothes as I stared out of the window onto the city, the sun not yet risen.
It was the day of the Half Moon. Time for the last push.
“Here, Daryl.” I held out the small flask. “Drink this before you go in. I don’t know how much it’ll do for you, but it should help.”
“Yeah,” he said, softly. “God. This was a stupid idea. What was I thinking? I did this because… Shit.” He smiled up at me, his expression somewhat sickly. “No backing out now, though, is there?”
“You still can,” I said. “There’s always a choice, Daryl. You can back out. I wouldn’t think any less of you for it, and… I believe in Ku-“
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I can’t just keep running away from this shit. It’s the right thing to do.” He groaned. “No matter how stupid it feels.”
“Well,” I said, softly. “That’s how it goes, isn’t it? We’re in the same place there, at least-“
“Hey, man. I appreciate the pep talk, but we’re not the same. Whatever else- I’m a fuckup, through and through. I never tried hard enough. I’m not the one who’s surrounded by smoking hot women who are literally obsessed with you. I’m not the one who had the cojones to fucking take a swing at one of those horrible things. We’re different, Horace, you and I.” He looked down. “I only agreed to this attack plan in the first place to try to impress someone.”
“If your father doesn’t recognize what you’re worth, he’s not worth impressing, Daryl.”
“Uh. Yeah, my dad. That’s who.” He flushed a bit. “So. If I get in a fight… what should I do?”
“My advice? Don’t let them kill you. It’s always served me well.” I squeezed his shoulder. “You can do this. When you acted on impulse, you did the right thing. Act on impulse a little bit more. Don’t be afraid of the consequences. After all, chances are the world will end either way.”
“Yeah, well, if you say so. You’re the one who’s going to be safe and cozy back here, while the rest of us are fighting crazy monsters,” Daryl said, although without any particular rancor.
“Yeah,” I said, smiling softly. “It should be plenty safe here.” I rested my hand gently on the bundle of rat tails in my pocket.
“Good luck, everyone,” I said, as we stood around the large pool of water. The kiddy pool had been placed in the center of the top floor. Betty, Ku, and Li stood closest to it, hands over it, their fingers spread as they chanted the mantra. My phone buzzed, and I stepped away as the water turned midnight black, into a side room. “Dane?” I whispered.
“Horace. The DNA analysis was completed. I’m sorry, the sample must have been corrupted or something, the results were nonsense.”
I sighed out. “Yeah. I suppose it was a bit of a long-shot. What happened?”
“Some lab-tech must have gotten the samples contaminated. It came back as human. Impossible, considering that was pretty clearly fish-meat. Where’d you get it?”
“One of Shark Belly’s Long-fish Filets,” I said, as my stomach grew cold as ice. I stared at the wall, and didn’t see a thing.
“Weird. I’ve been meaning to try one of those.”
“I wouldn’t recommend it. Thanks for the help, Dane,” I said, closing the phone slowly. Staring at the wall.
I’d hoped, you know? I’d really hoped that Randall was a freak in the Order. That he was weird, different. That nobody else was like him.
But I guess he wasn’t as special as he liked to think.
I pushed open the door. John sat at his desk, hunched forward, staring at the dark pool. The others had all left. The city was spread out behind him, the lights flickering in the darkness of the night. He looked up at me, and smiled. “And then there were two, hmm?”
“What, oh what, do you put in those wonderful Long-fish sandwiches of yours, Mister Pertwee?” I asked, softly. His expression stiffened. “Yeah. I looked into it. You know, I wanted to trust you. To believe that you had more sense than that. But I guess that it’s my lot to be disappointed.”
“You know something is coming,” said John, his voice soft, and unimaginably tired. “You know what this world is like. I just wanted to find something that would make humanity strong. To give us the strength to endure this. And in the cold, and the ice, I learned what true endurance was.” He rested a hand on his arm, looking down at it. “Do you have any idea what I’ve sacrificed for humanity?”
“Doesn’t mean you own it. Doesn’t mean you get to make decisions for it. You were the one behind those first attacks, weren’t you?”
“1968. The Year the Philadelphia experiment was repeated. You know about that, boy? The experiment on the USS Eldridge? An attempt to cloak a ship from all watchers.” He chuckled. “We crossed dimensions instead. In 1968, Eldridge technology was perfected. Four nuclear superpowers attempted to use it to cross over between dimensions. There was one survivor from those ill-fated expeditions. Our dear Walter. In 1968, also, I learned that there was a hostile force. The Atlanteans.” He smiled. “We got some of their DNA. They were human. But their control of gods was… something else. The first shot had been fired. We had to strike back, before they decided to set one of their gods loose on us. Like this. And I saw… an opportunity.”
“Human meat. Enough to make Wendigo, but in a form that could be accepted, that nobody would think was actually human,” I said, softly. “You started raiding them. How did you get through?”
“Well, that’s the real secret, isn’t it?” he whispered softly. “She came to us. Grandmother Spider. She opened a path for us, let us attack. Told us that we needed to be strong for what was coming. But we couldn’t make the plan work. Not without the Heart of the Keeper of the Feast. They could keep their minds for a time in Atlantis, but only briefly, and then- We had to put them down. But you gave us what we needed, a chance to seize this.” He reached into the desk, and held it up. “The power of a god. A god of strength.”
“You can’t handle that power. The Order of Set knew that well. We can’t become gods.”
“Really?” asked John. “Then why do you carry Nergal’s power in your pocket? I saw you prepared to eat it in Atlantis. I saw you ready to swallow it whole.” He grinned. “It’s true, isn’t it? Randall did it. That crazy, magnificent bastard. He beat one of them. He won.”
“He did,” I said softly. “He fought off Nergal. He conquered a god’s power. But that doesn’t mean either of us can do the same. I did it because I was desperate.”
“And you thought there was a chance.” John smiled. “You’re not the only one who’s desperate. What did he say?”
“He said… the trick was to not fear them.” I took a breath, and let it out slowly, teeth gritted. “Don’t do this. This whole sick plan, harvesting the Atlanteans-“
“Oh, I don’t need that anymore. I thought that was the only path to power. That our future lay in cannibalism. That we had to sacrifice everyone’s humanity. But with this…” He held up the Heart. “The power of a god. The trick is not to fear them, hmmm?” He smiled at me, and it was waxen. “I stopped fearing them long ago, when they maimed me, took away my strength. I watched them eat me. It is hard to fear anything after watching yourself be devoured. After being reduced to food, and surviving.” He squeezed the heart tight, his knuckles going white.
“You look a bit nervous there, John. How can you be sure you can do what Randall did?”
“Two things. Once a thing has been done, it is much easier to be done. People tried for the better part of a century to run a four minute mile. When one man succeeded, suddenly other did the same. Technology had not changed notably, but records are continually broken. Evolution does not work at that speed.” He smiled at me. “Knowing it can be done lets us do it. If one human can do it, then every human can. They simply have to know they are capable. We can be gods. And there is the other thing.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
I stared blankly for a moment. “What? Are you kidding me? What do you think I can do?”
“You are special. I have seen the way you attract the lost and the broken to you. In all the world, that goddess of war, Ku-Kaili-Moku-Polemo, tore her way through the fabric in a panic, and landed right in front of you. Bastet, the ancient guardian, came to you. The white snake became loyal to you. Even Randall succeeded because you were there.”
“If I could do this, if I was capable,” I said, my voice shaking, “would I have choked? Wouldn’t I have gone through, with the power of Nergal, to save all of my friends from fighting, and maybe dying, to save the world?”
“Oh, I’ve seen what you’re like. You have no faith in yourself, Horace.” John chuckled. “That’s okay. I have all the faith in the world.”
“Don’t do this. I’ll eat the rat tails if I have to. I’ll fight you.” I looked around the office. “There’s no one else to get hurt. No one to see how bad I can be. I’ll kill you if you threaten the people I care about by being a reckless bastard, John.”
“I don’t have a choice,” he said, softly. “This is my last chance.” And tears began to run down his cheeks as he wiped at his eyes.