How did all of this begin?
There was a boy who believed in people-
No, there was a man who was betrayed by everything, even his own fate-
No, there was an athlete who sought bigger game-
No. First, there was a goddess.
“I am dying, Horace,” I said. The tension finally released. God, to finally say it out loud. To put away words like ‘terminal’ and ‘metastisize’ and ‘prognosis’. To say the simple thing. My body was betraying me. Bit by bit, piece by piece, my own cells were destroying me. And my body was simply too old, too weak, too useless to stop them. I had been so strong, once. “The cancer is eating away at me. I went off of the drugs about a week ago. This elixir,” I held up the bottle- My special blend, the blend I had made to suit my tastes- and smiled. “It’s the only thing still keeping me going, and I can feel its power failing. There’s only so much that it can do to stop tumors from crushing my heart, my brain, my liver.”
If there is any proof that mankind was not created by a loving God, it is cancer. What god would allow our bodies to so turn against us, make us with an expiration date, make us die suddenly and horribly, and without even a chance to fight it face to face?
“I’m sorry,” whispered Horace, and it was genuine. This boy had hated me, loathed me a couple of minutes ago. He had been ready to sacrifice himself, take the ultimate plunge, just for the sake of stopping me from hurting people. And now, there were tears in the corners of his eyes. “Does- I mean, does Daryl-”
“No one knows, except a handful of overpriced doctors. The elixir- It does a wonderful job of making me look healthy, making me act healthy. Right up until the moment I keel-” I clutched my chest, gritting my teeth. Pain radiated out, my heart nearly giving up the ghost- But the elixir pushed it. Made it start beating again. I sat back, breathing hard. “I don’t have long, Horace. I need you to listen.”
First, there was a goddess. But then, there was an athlete, who sought bigger game.
“Come on, boys, what’s the matter? Never been on skis before?” I grinned back, over my shoulder, at the three men behind me. Kopesh wasn’t a bad hand- He was a mountain climber. He’d been on these trips before. He’d been mostly keeping pace with me. The other three, they were having a bit more trouble. Ewing was a good man, but he was mostly a scholar. He was doing his game best, though, and he had the lightest load of us all. But the other two…
The Creeds. The golden boys of the Order. Five years they had been a part of it, and they had gone on more missions than any agent still alive. They hadn’t impressed me, thus far. Randall had set a good pace, but the man was carrying twice what was wise on skis. He shot me a murderous look as he pushed forward. “Goddamn savage bastards don’t have the decency to plot their murderous plots on God’s green Earth.”
“We’re almost there,” said Oliver, patting his brother’s shoulder. Not as strong as Randall, he was the one who was lagging behind the most, striving to push forward. He was a liability, I suspected, but the two never went on missions solo. “How far would you say, John?”
“Another couple of miles and we’ll be in their forest. We’ve got an idea of their settlement, from those reports. Get in, take the source of their power, kill anyone who gets in our way.”
“Bit sad,” said Kopesh, shaking his head. “Should we go in under cover of night?”
“These things see in the dark,” said Randall, glaring up at the night. He tapped the flask at his side. “But then, we do, too. I’d say when night falls. Mind if we set up camp and get our last meal, Pertwee?”
“What, you think we’re going to die?” I asked, grinning.
“I eat every meal like it’s a last meal.” Randall grinned back at me, and it was an unnerving expression. “Makes them taste better.”
“God help us. We deserve a better last meal than this,” said Oliver, as he settled down on a fallen log, opening his package, and passing out the LRP rations.
“Hey, at least we’re eating as well as the troops,” said Kopesh.
“Poor sons of bitches,” I murmured. “Out there killing each other over some ideology. Makes you kind of sick, doesn’t it?”
“Communism’s human,” said Randall, as he cracked open the chemical heater, placing his can on top of it. “Capitalism’s human. War’s human. That’s why we go out and risk our lives like this. So people can be free to be people. For better, or for worse.” He chuckled. “We’re all going to die eventually. We should all be so lucky as to die for something we believe in.”
“Such a waste,” murmured Oliver. “It’d be easier if it weren’t. If there were something out there we could blame for the war. If there was someone responsible.” He sighed, and opened the can. “Damn. Pork and potatoes. What did you get, Randall?”
“Beef and hash.” The two brothers exchanged cans, and crumbled snow into them. I watched, slightly bemused. Then my eyes drifted down to Randall’s belt.
“So,” said Ewing. “Is that the knife?”
Randall smiled. He reached down, pulling it out of the sheath. A black knife, its edge surprisingly smooth. It came to a sharp point, and its hilt was black iron, short but lethal. “This is the knife. All the stories you’ve heard are true. Even the contradictory ones.”
“How do you find something like that?” asked Kopesh, his eyes excited. I looked away. I’d never been much of a believer in artifacts, relics, the kind of things that the older members of the Order claimed were important. They’d never done a great deal in my experience, and never anything that could not be explained by simple placebo effects.
“Won it in a card game. It-”
Ewing made a choking sound, grabbing at his throat. Bright red blood poured down his throat. Randall was on his feet, swinging at another patch of snow, which stumbled back, bloody teeth shining as it stumbled back, stunned by the blow. Kopesh fell to the ground, his hair slick with blood. Something hit me very hard from behind-
Oh, how I remember those days. The endless feast. The devouring of the unworthy, the unjust.
I opened my eyes. The smell of piss, shit, and blood surrounded me. Slaughterhouse smells. My heart began to beat faster. A fire lit the hut. Bodies hung from the ceiling, smoky fires built beneath them. Some were new, fresh. Others were older, muscle tissue darkened and smoked, like jerky. They were human. Every one of them was human.
I was tied to the ground, my arms and legs staked out, and additional bindings over my waist, the knee, the elbows, the shoulders. I wiggled. There was a small amount of give. I might be able to pull free, given a while. I looked around, and saw the figures moving in the shadows. White-furred, humanoid. Not human.
I looked up. My eyes widened. Kopesh hung from the ceiling. He was hurt, blood dripping. I might be able to save him, get him back to civilization. Ewing hung beside him, already dead. Throat yawning open into a terrible, ragged smile. But I could still save Kopesh. I could get out of here. I wouldn’t die here.
“You know,” said a voice, strange, not quite human. “I am told that many of your kind believe that fear, stress- It ruins the taste of the meat. The reason is quite interesting. You see, your body has energy stores, in the form of glycogen.”
I looked aside. The figure stood over me. Definitely not human. A fringe of fin like a mohawk, a long and almost comical nose. It was a swordfish’s face, I realized. He stared down at me, naked, but with a certain dignity. He didn’t look like the things shuffling in the shadows. “That’s… fascinating, I guess. You seem like a reasonable man.”
“How about letting me go?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Well,” I mumbled, shifting my arm. “I had to ask. So, glycogen.”
“Ah, yes. On death, it breaks down into lactic acid. Tenderizing the meat. Making it last longer. I understand that your people go to great lengths to make pigs die as comfortably as possible, to prevent the unpleasant side effects. Meat grows bitter, and brittle.” He waved a hand towards the two hanging. “Ambush seems to work well. No time to spend all that glycogen, and the meat stays tasty.”
“Well, I suppose that’s a good thing for me,” I said, forcing false joviality into my voice. “I’m stressed all to hell.”
“Oh, yes. But then, there are those with unusual tastes, aren’t they? Some like their meat very fresh indeed. Personally, I find the whole thing abhorrent, but I am willing to face up to the grim truths of your kind. They are… illustrative.”
One of the white figures came out of the darkness, a knife in hand. It cut David Kopesh’s throat as calmly as a butcher slaughters a hog. Then it crouched over me, taking out a piece of wire. It began wrapping it around my shoulder, and my breathing sped up.
“It’s a trade-off. The Wendigo will live forever, never grow old, never die, but it is consumed by hunger. One kind of suffering in exchange for another. Try remembering that pain is merely a biological reaction, and leave your body. I imagine that might help,” said the fish man, smiling. “Or you could simply die. That would show them.” The creature pinning down my arm tightened the wire until my shoulder ached. Then he slid the knife in, and the world disintegrated into white hot agony as Kopesh’s blood ran down on my face.
Running. Running across the endless ice. Heart pounding in terror, I presumed, though it was no longer in my chest. How could I run without a heart? She had been right. Heavens help me, she was right. I was Lost. I was going to die. My heart, my heart, it hurt, it hurt so much, how could I have done this so many times, how could I have done this, my heart, falling, tumbling through the ice, falling into endless water, darkness, oh Anapa, oh M-
I opened my eyes. Cold. I was cold. I lay in the snow, insensate. Oliver was standing over me. He had gotten away? He had survived?
I looked to the side, and saw the wendigo approaching us, half a dozen of them. Oh. So we hadn’t gotten away, and we wouldn’t survive. I leaned back, feeling very calm in the face of certain death.
A shadow dropped out of the trees. Randall Creed. He hit the hindmost wendigo from above. His hand went to its throat, and squeezed, and the creature dropped dead. He waded forward through the snow, his foot snapping out in a kick that snapped the knee joint of one of the others sideways, the creature shrieking as it hit the ground. His third blow was a punch that went through the spine of another. I stared, barely able to contemplate what was happening. I tried to push myself to my feet, and nothing happened. Oh, yes. I’d lost my arm.
The last blow was a stomp, finishing off the crippled wendigo. He stood up. I lost time. The fish-man was standing there. He lunged at Oliver. Randall fought him off. Hurt him. But didn’t kill him.
They didn’t understand. They didn’t realize how evil that bastard was. He was the one responsible. They had to stop him, they had-
I opened my eyes. Warm. White. Hypothermia. I was dying in the snow. A bird chirping in the distance. A woman leaned into view, and my expectations changed. I was lying in a bed, in a hospital, hooked up to a heart monitor. I had survived. All the pain. The loss of an arm. The loss of men I had respected and admired. It was all worth it. I was still alive. I would do anything to stay alive.
“We’re sorry, John,” said the leader of the Order. “You will be taken care of. I promise.” I nodded, silently. “We’ve seen no sign of the fishman. He likely died in the firebombing. I think that you need retirement. Take up a hobby.”
Work. Work. Work. My obsession. My quest.
I had seen the face of death, and I had realized, I never wanted to die. There was nothing in this world that was worth dying for. No cause, no god, no country, no one was worth what I had gone through. Nothing was worth being butchered like a hog. Ewing, Kopesh, they hadn’t died like heroes. They had been slaughtered like animals. The same thing would happen to the Creed brothers, eventually, their own heroism catching up with them as they took on something too big.
“I became rich. I became powerful. I put my money mostly towards my obsession, the Atlanteans. I knew they were a threat to us all, and I fought. But always, in the back of my head, there was that memory. The Wendigo wouldn’t die of old age. They were the spirit of survival. They were what we needed to be. We just need a way to keep control of ourselves.” I looked up at Horace, and my expression was quite sad. “You’re a good man, Horace. Like your father. You’re a kind, and decent man, and I pray that you realize that nothing, not even Bastet, not even humanity- Nothing is worth dying for. When you’re dead, you’re just meat in the ground. Forgotten. Like all of those noble people who were Bastet’s priests before you.”
A spasm of anger at this boy. This priest of her, the betrayer.
I gritted my teeth, took a deep breath, and sat up straight. “Please, Horace.”
“You- I-” He shook his head. “God. I want to tell you that It’s against nature, that it’s wrong, that it’s not worth it, but-”
“But you want to live forever,” I said, softly, suddenly understanding. “You want to live alongside her. You want to prove me wrong. You want the same thing I do.”
“You could make a pact-”
“I tried that. Maybe if I had made a pact before the cancer- But no such luck. It would require the power of a god.”
“How the hell do you know that?!”
“I don’t,” I said, softly. “It’s just a hope. But that’s better than nothing.”
“Not if you’re wrong,” said Horace.
“Jesus. You really are like your uncle in some ways.” I smiled, and held up the chunk of dried meat. The power of a god.
“There’s got to be some other way.”
“Does there? You are supposed to be capable of some great things, Horace.” I lowered the heart to the desk. “Can you heal me? With that power you possess, with your strange abilities, can you drive back the cancer? Are you a god, Horace?”
He didn’t meet my eyes, staring down at the ground.
“You’re starting to understand. Humans are helpless in this world. We aren’t strong enough to survive on our own. Your uncle understood that. He sacrificed the thing he valued most, his humanity, in order to save hundreds of millions from a wasting death. He was a real hero, Horace. His grudges aside… He’s a man you should try to emulate more.”
“I could kill you,” said Horace. “I bet I could move faster than you. You’re an old, sick man.” Tears were running down his cheeks.
“That would be the death of hope.” I squeezed the jerky. “I read the reports from the Esoteric Forces. Randall’s gambit failed. He was consumed by the god. And you brought him back.”
“If you want to make sure that nothing terrible happens, Horace.. Help me. Please.” I closed my eyes. “Help me.”
There was silence for a moment. “I don’t know if I can.”
There was a shock of pain. My heart stopping. And the elixir wasn’t starting it. I gasped, and wheezed. “Out- Out of time- I need-” I reached for it, and found my fingers fumbling.
Horace took the heart, and held it up to my mouth. I bit into it, and swallowed. Felt the rough thing going down my throat, felt the strength-
It was in the blood.
It was the blood. You were consumed by pain, so you did not notice it. But you drank his blood. Kopesh’s. That’s what gave you the strength to survive.
I… Who are you?
You knew I was there, all along. You blamed me for so much of it. Do you remember the look in your wife’s eye, the pain and disappointment, knowing that you did not truly love her, that you cared more about your crusade? Do you remember your child? You abandoned him when he was not useful. You tore him apart. You killed thousands of innocents. Did you think there was redemption waiting for you, John Pertwee? Did you think for a moment that your actions would not catch up with you? You sought immortality for the same reason every man does: To avoid his reckoning. To hope that with enough time, he can make up his debt.
I didn’t- I just- I can still help-!
But the debt is always called in. Everything dies. Even the immortals. Everything can be destroyed. And eventually, they are. All things come before me, eventually. And then, you must settle accounts. How heavy is your heart, John?
I’m special! I’m not just going to die! I’m different!
Not lighter than a feather, I’ll wager.
A terrible pain filled my chest, worse than any before, the pain of it growing more and more intense, it made the heart attacks feel like nothing, a horrible pain that seared my eyes and made even the loss of my arm seem small in comparison, and the last thoughts that ran through my fading mind were that it can’t end this w
Everything ends. And most of the time, it ends ignobly. Shitting in a bed surrounded by uncomfortable loved ones, butchered on a battlefield, killed meaninglessly. John Pertwee should be grateful. He died for his sins, for his refusal to follow the natural order, for his hubris. His death was just, and all humanity should wish for such a fate.
I looked up, at the boy. He took a step back, and his hand went for the ball of rat tails.
I was faster. I plucked it from between his fingers, and slapped him to the ground. He rolled across the ground, striking a desk heavily, and let out a gasp.
“No, no. I don’t have any desire to meet Nergal again. I have things I must do first, and he would merely… complicate things.” I smiled down at the boy. “I’ll be back in a moment. Don’t go anywhere.”
I felt the cannibals. The Wendigo. They were mine. The eaters of flesh, the ever-hungry, they were all of my power. I saw through their eyes, as they stood at the water’s edge. The blonde police chief stood across from Daryl, the body’s son, and the leader of the Atlanteans. The Wendigo gathered around them, brought there by my will, pulled free of Yam Hamawet, where they had almost been stuck. I stepped through one of their bodies.
“Hello, Officer Larson,” I said, smiling. “Son. You did well. I am proud of you.”
The boy stood in front of me, holding up the sword. Recht. “Dad. I know what you were up to. I won’t-”
I took the blade from his hands with a single smooth movement. He gasped, pulling back, clutching a broken finger. “Eat,” I said. “There’s not a single one of them without sin in their hearts. Eat your fill, if you can.” I stepped back, as the wendigo took on their forms, driven forward by the command, berserk, shrieking. As the police chief stepped in their path, a simple wooden stick in one hand, I was gone, back to the tower.
“I’m truly sorry about that,” I said, bowing my head apologetically. “You know how it is.”
“John, fight it! You can fight it, don’t be afraid, I believe-”
“Horace,” I said, softly, gently. “John is dead. I ate his heart, consumed it whole. He was a monster on par with history’s greatest. His fear, his hatred, caused the death of thousands of innocents. He killed because he was afraid of dying. He was planning genocide, to butcher a race.”
“He- He changed his mind.” Horace looked down at his feet. “He wanted to make things right.”
“People always say they will change. And then, they die, and it turns out they never got around to it. That is why death comes. To remind people that they do not have an eternity to make things right.” I sighed. “That’s why Bastet has to die.”
“Not this fucking song and dance again. What can-”
“You forgive her,” I said, my voice very cold, very hard. “All of her misdeeds, all of her sins, you forgive them, because you are a fool. You do not know the true scope of what she has done. The betrayals. She is a betrayer unlike anyone else, Horace.” I shook my head. “She betrayed us for you. She betrayed divinity, grandeur, nobility, for you disgusting creatures, crawling in the mud.”
He looked up at me, with an expression of pure hatred, the kind of contempt that could burn the soul. “You don’t know her.”
“I know her so much better than you ever could, Horace.”
“You don’t know her now.”
“People don’t change, human or god.”
“They can!” He glared at me, teeth gritted, and I laughed.
“Are you trying to manipulate me? Buying into your own hype about being able to make the gods do your bidding? You’re just a human, Horace. The only power you have is weakness. You make gods love you, and then you put yourself in harm’s way. You use their fondness for you to manipulate them. I don’t feel anything for you.”
“Please. Please, don’t do this. The others have almost won. Everything will be okay, everyone will be okay, all of Ku’s people, humans, just- Why do you have to ruin this, at the last moment?”
I was taken aback, for a moment, by the statement. A little twinge somewhere deep inside my dessicated, black heart. Then I regained my bearing. “Do you know what John’s last thoughts were? They weren’t of his wife, his child. They weren’t of some desire to do something great, they weren’t of the people he’s lost along the way. The last thing he thought was that it couldn’t end this way.” I swept out the sword, pointing it at him. “You, first. I’ll kill you, and then, when Bastet returns, I will kill her, too.”
His eyes widened. “Where did you get that?”
“Does it matter? You are going to die, Horace. You are alone. Powerless. Helpless. Hopeless. Your friends are in another world. And with you dead, they will fall so quickly.”
“Why are you doing this to me?”
“Because you’re a sinner, too. Debauchery. Giving in to base lusts. Growing wroth. Transgressing the law. You are not a good man, Horace. And you have no one left to shield you, now. You placed the heart within John Pertwee’s mouth. If you had simply been content to let him die, to not grasp the burning brand of godhood, this would not be happening. And more, it was your presence that healed me, that gave me the presence of mind to recover, to become whole once more, to take him over. This is your fault.”
His head dropped, his expression drawn. Every man was like that. When they understood the truth, that they were not as good as they had believed themselves, not half so good, they saw my face. They saw the truth. They gave in. It gave me no pleasure to do this, though eating his heart would be quite enjoyable. I rested the tip of the sword on his chest. “Do you have any last words?”
He opened his mouth. The ring of a bell filled the air. I turned, frowning, as the elevator doors opened. An empty red car sat there. I tilted my head to the side, bemused. “Odd prank.”
The engine revved, and the car leapt out of the elevator with an incredible speed, tires ripping up the carpet as it accelerated. The horn honked wildly, filling the air with a sound like a dozen voices screaming.
I set my feet. The effort was pointless. Two tons of steel accelerating from zero to sixty miles in the space of perhaps forty feet was the kind of raw force that I could not overcome. I was not so lost. It struck me hard in the legs, pitching me backwards. I hit the glass, and it slammed into me again, pinning me like a butterfly. The glass cracked like ice, as the two of us fell out of the window. The world spun wildly, and I caught a glimpse of Horace, an anguished expression on his face, as the Tsukumogami and I tumbled through the air.
I hit first. The car landed on top of me, I suspected deliberately, and bounced away, leaving me lying in a crater of pavement and tarmac, staring up at the blue sky. Inconvenienced, maybe even injured. Not incapacitated. I took a slow, deep breath, pushing myself up to my feet. Screams were filling the air, as people began to back away, cars coming to a screeching halt as the drivers recognized what had just happened. I tossed my head once, and turned towards the car.
It had taken human form. A woman, blonde haired, wearing a bright orange top and skirt, gloves, a pair of golf shoes. She was pulling herself to her feet, squaring off against me in a boxing stance, marred by her obvious lack of balance.
“You are a god. A small one, but still a god. Your place is among gods. Do not sacrifice yourself for a human,” I said. She did not answer, simply glaring at me, hatred in her eyes. “You do not stand a chance.” She still did not reply. “Look at you. You took the worst of that exchange, and I did not even touch you. Just walk away. I will forgive you, this once, because you did not know what you were doing, and because you are innocent.”
She bared her teeth at me. I sighed, and stepped forward. The crater in the ground where she was standing was filling up with water, a burst water main. I stepped forward towards her, and spun the sword in my hand once. I felt it resisting me. It did not matter. I was Justice. It was powerless to resist me while it lay in my hand. I lifted it into the air, as she glared up at me. Her arms too weak, too injured to even throw a punch.
I smashed her across the face with the sword. She spun into the water, landing on her stomach. She pushed herself up and out of it, gasping as she tried to turn to face me. I struck her ankle, and she let out a sharp cry as the wood bit in like steel, opening a brutal cut. She fell into the water again, and breathed hard, trying to push herself up a second time, with no success. Her arm was caught in something.
“Sinner,” I said, and brought the sword down.
I noticed, as the sword descended, what had caught the Tsukumogami’s arm.
It was a hand. A woman’s hand, dark, and with polished nails.
Bastet rose from the water, a sword in hand, almost the mirror of the one I carried. She caught Recht on it, and swept it aside. As she rose, her fist caught me in the jaw, and threw me across the street.
“Good job,” she said. “You’re a good car.” She looked down at the beaten Tsukumogami. “Don’t you dare die. You’d give Horace a complex.” She stepped forward towards me, and cracked her knuckles, her eyes furious. “I am going to richly enjoy this.”
And my heart quaked.
Running across the ice, fleeing the one who had betrayed me, and murdered me. My heart. My heart. My heart-