“So this is the best you could do, is it?” I asked, waving a hand. “This is meant to be my nightmare? The torment that you’d visit upon me, my greatest fears? You’re a moron, Ku-Thule. This is my life. This is what I deal with all the time. I made peace with it long ago.”
The graveyard spread out on all sides. Tombstones that spread beyond view. A handful of them were legible- only a handful. Randall. Howard. Oliver. Horace. And beyond them, the countless others. A few names were visible, the people I still remembered. The priests. The worshippers. But most of them were so old, so worn, that there was barely anything legible on them. Some of them had crumbled entirely. Perhaps those were meant to represent the ones that I had forgotten even existed. Who was to say? The sky above was slate gray, like the worst overcast days, and there was no scenery but the occasional dead, scraggly tree and grass turned brown from lack of light, extending off in every direction.
“This is incredibly dull of you, Ku-Thule. What could you be hoping to accomplish? Do you think seeing all the people who have died to protect me, who have died because of my enemies, is going to make me less motivated to rip you apart? Or is this some suicide by cop thing? Are you trying to die?”
No response. I gritted my teeth. “Horace isn’t dead, you moron! He’s still alive, and I trust him to keep living! He’s tough, tougher than you could hope to imagine! You aren’t able to just kill him!”
There was a sweep of light, and suddenly, Ku-Thule stood before me. He stood with his head tilted to one side. I took a deep breath, and tasted him. Divinity, but no substance. It wasn’t really him. I glared. “Still too chicken-shit to face me directly?”
“Let us say I am too wise,” he said, softly. “So. Your friends have arrived. They rest deep within their own dreams. And they rest uneasily. What is it, do you think, that makes people reject their dreams? When given everything they want, most people’s reaction is to not trust it. What do you think that says about them?”
“I think it suggests that they’re not going to fall for bullshit. When life gives you everything you ever desired, there’s usually a hook in it.” I ran my fingers through my hair. “I used to be so comfortable with just killing, Ku-Thule. And trust me when I say that I can kill you, with just a moment’s desire. So I’m giving you a chance, here, because I feel merciful. Leave that body. Leave this world. Flee into the black. Never darken my doorstep again, and you can go.”
“Is that so, Bastet? You would allow me to go? After all that has happened between us, after all the suffering we have caused each other, after the lives I took, I could just… leave?” He tilted his head to one side. “You can’t expect me to believe you.”
“I don’t care what you believe. You get one chance. That was it.”
The world swirled around us, and suddenly- I stood on a windswept piece of black basalt. A very familiar one. The body of a human lay across the stone, staring in utter horror up at the sky. “Even after what I did to Howard? You would just let me go, Bastet? You would give up on vengeance?”
“Vengeance hasn’t gotten me anywhere in the past,” I said, my voice soft but full of edges, like cotton candy laced with razor blades. “It doesn’t seem to stop the mad things in this world from killing the people I love. It doesn’t seem to make them any safer. But vengeance is very tempting right now.” The sea raged around us, stormy waves slamming against the rock, sending fitful spray across the two of us. It matched my mood nicely, because I was about an inch away from ripping him apart.
“He must have meant very little to you.”
“No,” I said, softly. “I was heartbroken. Don’t you remember? I murdered a pantheon for him. He was… a bit of an ass, in some ways, he had some ideas I found ridiculous. But he was a good person, despite that. Full of ideas, desperate to share them with the world. I just wish I could have made him a bit less frightened. I wished I could have protected him better from you, and your kind.”
“And now you have a new one,” said Ku-Thule. He paused for a moment. “I tried, you know, to keep Horace from getting involved. Not out of any personal sympathy to you. Just because I knew that his involvement would draw you in, and I wanted- Oh, how I wanted- to keep you from getting involved.” He sighed. “What are the odds that Ku-kaili-moku-polemo would have found him on the first try? That he would throw everything into helping her? That he would throw himself at me, again, and again?”
“Horace is like that,” I said, softly. “Not much like Howard at all, except at the end, there. Horace… He doesn’t value himself, except the fear of what his loss might mean for the people around him. He doesn’t care about himself at all. And it might be poisoning him. It might just… destroy him.”
“You should leave him,” said Ku-Thule, his voice harsh, but not entirely unkind.
“Maybe I should. That might really be the best choice, just leave him, let him go, let him marry Ku or live together with Li, but then I’d have to find another human, and…” I rubbed my face. “You know. I met someone, in Paradise. A human who could fight as my equal.”
“Maybe him, then. Maybe that’s your true love. Someone who can finally stand and fight by your side.”
“But that’s not what I want. I don’t want a human who’s a great warrior, who’s a hero, or an archmage, someone who fights as well as me. I want someone who is kind, and gentle, and stays out of trouble, and will pet me and stroke my ears. I want someone who doesn’t have to fight. I don’t want Horace to ever have to fight. Is that- Is it so wrong, that I just want to keep these fights between me and the lost gods? That I want them to leave him alone? That I want him to stay weak, so he doesn’t risk his life? Any man, no matter how strong… Is mortal.” I looked down at the body. “I just don’t want him to take any risks.”
“I could make it safe,” said Ku-Thule. “It’s not too late, Bastet. I could spirit this world away. Make it a land of dreams. The same old memories, the same old experiences… It would be the way things used to be.” His eyes flickered over to the body. “I could bring Howard back for you. I could bring back the Egyptian pantheons. I could bring them all from… Your memory. I could make it feel real for you.” He looked up at me. “Don’t you feel it, Betty? The future, it holds nothing worth having. Dark revelations, pain, new monsters, old horrors reborn. The world is suffering. The world is spiraling into devastation. It is becoming a hell. The only escape for us lies in the past, in memories.”
“I won’t stop fighting,” I said, softly.
“Until you are dead. Bastet…” He took a deep breath. “We live in an entropic universe. We live by the whims of a callous God, who has already preordained our destruction. There is no Hope, Bastet. Can you remember that? We have no Hope.”
“Fuck you,” I said, gritting my teeth. “Maybe you gave up! Maybe you quit! But I’m not going to! I never lost my way, Ku-Thule! I never forgot what I was striving for! Maybe life takes things away from us, but we leave them behind! We leave them in the past where they belong, and we keep going into the future.”
“And what about Horace?” asked Ku-Thule, his voice suddenly thick with venom. “What makes him so special, Bastet? What makes him different from the countless humans you lost before? What makes you so certain that he will not end up like this?!”
The lightning flashed in the sky, illuminating Howard’s stark, pale figure, those eyes staring up in horror at the infinite sky.
“He’s not dead yet! He’s different!”
The world seemed to crystallize around us. The waves stood frozen. A lightning bolt hung motionless in the sky. Ku-Thule stared at me with a hollow-eyed expression. One flabby-clawed hand was clutched into a fist. “Is that so?” He began to chuckle, a low, and strangely human sound, tentacles writhing. “You think that he is different, Bastet? That this new human will survive where the others have not? He is nothing special. Just another human. Just another mortal. I will show you. I will cripple you, break your limbs, leave you helpless. I will bring you before him. And when I am done with him, when he is cursing your name, cursing your existence, cursing the day he met you, cursing every time he could have run away and didn’t, I will core him. I will hollow him out like an apple, and I will wear him like a suit, and I will hurt you. Forever.”
“You have made two incredibly unwise assumptions, there. The first is that you could do anything to him.” I cracked my knuckles. “The second is that you have a hope in hell of escaping me, let alone beating me.” I lunged forward, and my fist struck the projection. The frozen dream began to shatter, falling apart in great shards, slipping away. And behind it, I saw the Dreamlands.
All of humanity’s nightmares, all of their fears, coalescing. I stood atop the tallest spire of a city. I could see a thousand landmarks from a dozen cities, spread across the land before me. Bridges spanning great boulevards, rivers flowing through districts, skyscrapers from all the great cities, dead and dying neon lights and LCDs and gas lights and spotlights, all flickering wildly. Beyond that, on all sides, a great black ocean, roiling and peaking, great waves appearing. Above, the sky was a circle of wild cloud, stretching to every horizon, a torus that spread out beyond sight. Above me, a ring of open sky like the eye of a hurricane. In that sky, a half moon, blood dripping down the white, creating lines that gave the illusion of teeth, bloody and jagged. Fear. Nightmares. Everything that plagued the dreams of humanity.
“Look at this world, Bastet,” said Ku-Thule, standing across from me atop the spire. I looked down, and it was, for a moment, dizzying. I recognized it. Horace had once shown me a video of it. The Burj Khalifa. We stood, barely enough room for the two of us, atop the tallest structure in the world. And it creaked, its pole rusted, pitted. “Full of fear. Full of terror. Nightmares plague humanity. Do you know what a nightmare is, Bastet? It is the human mind, trying to predict threats. Trying to figure out what to do about them. Trying to prepare itself.” He waved a hand. “What can humanity do in the face of the threats that march towards it from every side? What can humanity hope for? Doom is coming to Earth.”
“Maybe humanity can’t do anything about it,” I said, softly. “Maybe humanity is helpless in the face of these things. I don’t believe that, but I’ll confess that it’s a possibility.”
“You see, then-”
“That’s why my kind came out of the dark. We saw the way humans stumbled through the world. Men domesticated dogs. Cats domesticated men.” I smiled, my sharp teeth glinting. “If men cannot fight alone, then I will protect them.” I raised my arms lazily into the air, my bangles jingling down across my arms, and stretched them into the air lazily. “I have no fears. No nightmares. I confronted them in Paradise. Famine warned me about you. That you would attempt to hurt Horace. That you would threaten him. I won’t let that happen, Ku-Thule.”
He held up a small box. I looked down, and my eyes widened. It was the transmitter I had been wearing on my dress, now in his hands. As I looked up, two green lights flickered to life on the display. “A daring, audacious plan, to heal this fractured realm, to cleanse it. But doomed. I am humanity’s dreams, now. Their fears, their nightmares, they cry out to me. Begging me to take them into the sweet bosom of dreams.” He pressed the button. The third light flickered on. “You always liked a bit of drama, Bastet. I will feed on that explosion. Use it to power my apotheosis.”
“Come on, Ku-Thule. We both know that’s bullshit. Be honest… You’re just trying to take me with you, aren’t you?”
“Hah. You always could see through me, Bastet. If only because of the hole you put through my chest.”
He vanished, and the transmitter fell. It struck the edge of the pole, and then bounced off, spiraling and tumbling through the air, disappearing into the distant gloom. I looked up, as the city creaked, the tower beginning to sway as the wind grew stronger.
So often, when warring with lost gods, what is being waged is a war of beliefs. Imagination is central. Thinking of a way to define yourself, something that trumps your enemy, lets you be more powerful than them. You must defeat their imagination, rather than their body. Humans occasionally engage in such contests.
I do not. For such tactics to work, they rely on a certain inadequacy in the one being assaulted. They must believe that they cannot punch a hurricane. They must believe that they cannot dodge a falling star. They must believe that they cannot simply scream a monster to death. They must believe that, at their heart, they are not equal to the task.
I am Queen Betty. I am the First Cat. And like all things First, and like all things Cat, I am superior.
The tower pitched, suddenly, and began to fall. The pole creaked alarmingly, breaking off, and began accelerating towards the ground. I hopped off of it lightly in the opposite direction, effortlessly flying into the air. I fell through the air, and landed on all fours, as light as a feather, on the streets. The cacophony filled the air as the building collapsed, a great rush of wind and dust and screeching steel that grew louder and louder, threatening to pour out across me, strip the flesh from my bones, until I backhanded it, effortlessly beating the falling building’s wreckage into submission, and the world fell silent. I looked up, and smiled.
“I’m stronger than you, Ku-Thule.”
In response, the hurricane above began to spin faster. Writhing tendrils of cloud reached out, spiraling into tornadoes, twisting. The hurricane visibly shifted, one side lowering, the other side lifting. The tornadoes tore through the city, punching great holes through the skyscrapers, ripping it apart with their impossible force. The great wall of the clouds bit into the city like a buzz-saw, the entire hurricane turned on its side, tearing through the foundations, spiraling gravel and stone filling the storm, giving it sharp teeth. I leapt up, and bit through the spine of the hurricane, teeth sinking into it, and it died, the clouds dispersing, flying apart.
“All of those little tricks! All of your little gags! You’re a god of dreams, Ku-Thule! You cannot be anything but what you imagine! And I know, in every one of those fantasies, you remember what it was like to see my fist, sunk through your chest! What it felt like to die because of me! You shouldn’t have come back!”
The black tides receded, the sea pulling back, and back, and back. Then it rushed forward, surging forward, a tidal wave a thousand feet tall, filling the air with the roar of death, and bringing the stench of burnt oil with it. I ducked down, spun, tripped it, and the sea went retreating, limping, wounded, back to its bed, withdrawing from the city, every drop of tar withdrawing from the scene of its defeat. The air cleansed, and freed of Yam Hamawet’s foul stench.
“You keep overextending yourself like this, and you’re going to get sloppy! You get sloppy, I’ll kill you in one strike, Ku-Thule! You won’t trick me twice the same way!”
There was a soft groan. I looked up, and smiled. The moon was growing larger, those bloody teeth yawning open, drooling blood down onto the world. I smirked, as it fell towards me. I waited until it was within arm’s length, and swung. The sound of breaking teeth filled the air as the jaws of the moon shattered, crumbling and falling apart. The moon fell to the side, cracking down upon the earth, great washes of blood and placenta pouring across the land.
“Ah. About time you showed yourself.”
The long, flabby-clawed hand rose out of the shards of the moon. It slowly tightened in one of the great shards. Bigger than the city, bigger than the moon, bigger than anything in this world. I smiled.
“Always too overdramatic, Ku-Thule. You can’t take your time in a fight like this. But you know, that reminds me… Did you ever read any of Howard’s works? I remember one of my favorites.”
In the city, everywhere, eyes opened. First dozens, then thousands, then hundreds, then millions, then billions. Curious, green, yellow, golden, but all slitted. Ku-Thule’s great and terrible form lifted into the air, pulling itself to its feet, reaching out towards me, hand growing larger, warping perspective as it approached, so big it dwarfed the world.
“The Cats of Ulthar. I know I don’t normally go in for this kind of thing, but I can’t help but think Howard would have wanted it this way.”
Sometimes it was fun to play the imagination game. To show I was better at it than any lost god. I didn’t need to do this. I just thought it would be fun.
Ku-Thule stumbled, his eyes going down. The sound of mewls and meows and hisses filled the air, a great cacophony. He tried to lift his foot, and stumbled, his other foot snapping off at the ankle-equivalent.
“Cats dream too, Ku-Thule.”
The creature began to wail, howling like a child, as it fell. The great tide of felinity swept up and over the creature. Furred bodies swarmed like piranha, covering the creature.
“Mostly, about food.”
The wail disappeared as the cats ate, and ate, and ate. Never getting full. Dreams couldn’t fill you up, after all. They could taste awfully good, though. I watched, and smiled, as the tide of felines swept back into the shadows. My children, helping me out for a moment. I didn’t know if they were really cats, or if cats dreamt in the same realm as humans. It didn’t really matter. It was what it had represented that really mattered. I strode forward, towards the cyclopean skeleton, and stood over Ku-Thule.
He breathed hard, gasping as he pushed himself to his feet. Ku-Thule himself, the body, real. He held, in one hand, a familiar sword. One of the two Horace had been carrying. One of the two that Horace had given to Walter. He stumbled to his feet, holding the hilt in a clumsy two-handed grip, squaring his shoulders. “You careless fucking beast. You never understood, did you? You never even cared what happened to me.”
“No,” I said. “You died, and I didn’t think about you again. You were just another in a long series of conquests, Ku-Thule. You weren’t special.”
He screamed, and lunged at me, swinging the sword. I stepped aside contemptuously, and brought my knee into his stomach, hard. He stumbled forward, gagging and retching, clutching his stomach as he hit the ground, breathing hard, trying to get to his feet. I let him. He shot me a look. “You always underestimated me!”
“Come now. It would be impossible to underestimate you.” He swung the sword sideways. I leaned back, just far enough for the sword to miss me entirely, and kicked him in the face. He fell stumbling to the ground, clutching his face. His breathing was ragged as he tried to push himself back to his feet, blood running down his tentacles, across his chest. “This isn’t like you, Ku-Thule. You were always a creature of dreams. A creature of metaphors and unimaginable attacks. What happened to the days when you could smite your foes dead with a fierce look?”
He lunged at me, bringing the sword around in a great overhead blow. I tilted my head to the side, and the blade struck my shoulder. He put a great deal of strength into it, but I did not even flinch as it bounced off of my skin. He cursed, tears running down his cheeks as he stared up at me, enraged. “Why can’t I hurt you?!”
“You’re just too weak,” I said, and slapped him across the cheek.
He threw up his hand, screaming. And the dream fell in place around me.
I stared. Horace, there. Lying on his bed, beneath me. Smiling as I licked his neck, chuckling. Then wincing. “Betty, that- It hurts-” Blood. Blood running down his throat. Then I was biting deep, and-
The dream shattered as I swept my arms through it. I stared at Ku-Thule, my eyes narrowed. “You showed him that dream? Did you do that to him?”
“A little taste of what is to come,” he said. “You’ll rip his heart out. You always do. You don’t change, Bastet. You never change. You’ll eat him alive.”
I stepped forward. He swung the sword at me, trying to strike my shoulder. I moved inside of his guard. My right shoulder struck his left, my arm wrapping around his. I twisted, once, sharply, and the sword dropped from his fingers, into my hand. I kept pulling, twisting further, spinning him around, and down onto the ground. He struck hard, letting out a cry of pain as he struck the ground. The tip of the wooden sword rested at his throat.
“Release your hold on that mortal, Ku-Thule,” I said, my voice calm, even as my eyelid flickered.
“Or what?” asked Ku-Thule, blood running down his chest, his eyes fixed on me, hatred flashing in them.
“Or I will kill you, and apologize vigorously to Ku-kaili-moku-polemo.”
“The man is already dead,” growled Ku-Thule. “He gave away too much of his soul when he created the little goddess. She should have been mine. Should have been… He’s hollow, now. Not enough to sustain this frame. He’ll be dead within minutes when I leave.”
“Then that is a few moments where he will be free, at least.” I leaned down, resting the tip more firmly against his throat. “Release him.”
“You will not escape, Bastet. The weapon has already detonated. The only thing holding it back is my will. When I leave- You will die. You will be burned in the rebirth of this place. Gone. Forever. You can’t step through worlds. You have many great gifts, but that was never one of them.”
“Bastet.” His eyes focused on me. “I was not Famine’s puppet. You are not done yet.”
“Will I ever be?” I asked, softly.
“You want to complain? Every foe, every hatred, every fight, is because of your actions in the past. You will be paying for the mistakes you have made until the end of eternity, Bastet. Until you die. This was a kindness. Dying here instantly, forgetting- That was me doing you a kindness.”
“Yes, well.” I smiled. “Do me no favors, Ku-Thule.”
Then, he was gone. The Atlantean lay, unconscious, on the floor. The musk of divinity had left him, and he looked very old, very frail, his forehead spotted, his arms slender. An old man, even by Atlantean standards. I crouched down, and lifted him, taking the wooden sword out of his hands and slipping it into the back of my dress.
God, I was so tired. So tired of the fighting. So tired of the suffering. So tired of my past coming back to bite me. What had I done that was so wrong? I had killed the monsters that had tortured and murdered someone I loved. They had started this. And they had the audacity to complain when it turned out that I was stronger than them, fiercer than them, deadlier than them.
Maybe I should have killed Ku-Thule. Maybe I should have made certain he never harmed anyone again. And yet, I had done that once before, and it hadn’t accomplished anything.
Maybe he would change.
Probably he wouldn’t.
There was a detonation. I saw the light flash, and hunched over the old man, protecting him from the lethal sleeting bombardment of radiation. The bomb itself wouldn’t kill me- not from as far away as it was. It was the collapse of this dimension, the annealing, that would be lethal. It would be spreading out, now, at a terrible speed. I had to get out.
I realized, abruptly, that I had no idea how to do that. I reached out a hand, and clawed at the air. Nothing happened. My heart began to pound. I’d been certain that I could do this, that I could pull myself out. How hard could it be?
I began to laugh, softly, tears running down my cheeks. All of this, all of what I’d done, and I was going to die because I was too cocky? Because I wasn’t as capable as I thought? What kind of stupid end was that for me? I deserved something much more glorious. What kind of amateur-hour bullshit was this?
The dimension was collapsing, things around me disintegrating, falling into sand. I was holding myself together for now, but when it all fell apart, it would close in on me like a thousand tons of earth. Crushing me, grinding me down, turning me into nothing. Death. Like I had faced so many times before. I’d always gotten out before. I thought I always would. But maybe everything had to end.
I closed my eyes, concentrating. Nothing. I had no idea what I was even supposed-
I opened my eyes. Had that been in my head?
Betty. I love you.
I could feel the tug.
Betty. Please come home. I don’t want to face this world without you.
Was it him? Or was it just what I wished he’d say?
It didn’t matter. It was something to follow. I reached out, through the sticky, burnt, cloying blackness all around this dimension. With my other hand tightly gripping Ku’s father, I felt an arm. I seized hold of it, and pulled myself forward, into icy cold water. And back onto Earth.