I slowly set down Ku’s father, resting him on the ground. The street lights were on, and the sky was black, the skyscrapers on either side lit up bright. There was no questioning what city I was in; New York had a smell all its own. John Pertwee faced me, his eyes wide, his gray hair flapping in the soft breeze. He held the sword in one hand, his shirt sleeve loose now, flapping in the air, bringing attention to that missing arm. He stared at me with a sense of loathing that I had felt in very few humans, every tendon standing out, his eyes wide and unblinking. He was fighting the very desperate urge to run away from me. “What is it,” I asked softly, “about you Order of Set assholes? What is it that drives you to attack me, time and again?”
“What?” He said, his brows knit.
“I mean, is this about me? Or am I just in the way of some stupid plan of yours, John?”
He stared at me silently. “You don’t recognize me.”
“People always say that. They get so offended that I don’t remember them, that they don’t stand out to me the way that I stand out to them. It’s so- what’s the word…” I snapped the fingers of my free hand theatrically. “Tedious.”
“All you did to me-”
“I don’t remember what I supposedly did to you, and I don’t care,” I said, swinging the sword in a lazy circle. “So, what. Did you make a deal with Famine? Accept some of that power in exchange for… Well, damned if I know, whatever let you control the Wendigo, whatever you were doing to cross the dimensions? Come on, now’s the time to glo-”
He leapt at me. I caught his ferocious swing on the wooden sword just by the handle, and threw it back. He went stumbling backwards, off balance. He regained his footing quickly, though, and bared his teeth. “You stupid self-absorbed bitch.”
“Hey,” I said, narrowing my eyes. “Don’t you ever dare imply I’m a dog.”
John lunged for my midsection. I struck him with a hard sideways kick, throwing him into a parked car. I felt momentarily guilty about that, but they probably had insurance. I stepped towards him, and the car exploded- Likely some fuel leak or, for all I damn well knew, the laws of dramatic narrative taking direct action.
“Shit. Shit shit shit!” I ran forward, towards the fire, stepping into the flames, feeling them lick at me like an aggressive dog. “I’m not letting you just die like that, you bastard, I’m-”
The fist that sank into my stomach was strong. Stronger than I had expected. It threw me from the flames, and I rolled across the ground. I stood up slowly, and cracked my knuckles. “That’s how you want to play it, you asshole? Fine. We can do this rough.”
The fight against Ku-Thule had been draining, both physically, and emotionally. I was tired. I was angry. All I really wanted was for this endless morass to be done, to be able to kick back and relax for a while. I was a goddess of protection, and I’d spent the last three weeks dealing with this stupid bullshit. I had earned a vacation, salmon steaks, a back rub, and possibly sex, if Horace wasn’t completely traumatized by Ku-Thule’s assholery.
John stepped out of the shadows. His arm was back. Well, not quite his arm. So far as I understood, John’s arm had not been covered with a light golden fur, and it had not ended in sharp, black cat claws. He sneered at me, his teeth shining. I glared back. “How many people are going to steal my whole cat schtick?”
John blinked like I’d spit his face, bewilderment and injured pride showing on his face. “You don’t recognize this?” He swung his arm. “You don’t recognize me? I know you remembered me when we last fought. You must have. You can’t have forgotten me!”
I blinked, and narrowed my eyes. “… Hecate?”
“Hec-” John sputtered. “Hecate?!”
“Oh, no, no, the other one, uh… Ceridwen! Wait, she was white cats-”
“Stop guessing!” shouted John, furious. “You forgot me. You forgot me. You forgot me. Did you forget us all?!”
“I deal with a lot of humans!”
“I am not a human, Bastet!” screamed John. “How dare you!”
He lunged at me, slashing with the paw while holding the sword back, trying to disembowel me. He was fast. Inhumanly fast. Divinely fast, I might suggest. Of course, so was I, and I did not have nearly so far to move. I took a step forward, and his paw struck my side. I pressed my arm down around it, drawing it up to my armpit, my own arm snaking around his, wrapping tightly around it. My hand against his chest, forcing the elbow joint of the leonine forelimb into full extension. I seized him by the throat, and forced him back, his own weight pulling the shoulder joint into painful dislocation. He let out a scream as it popped out of place, and I reversed my grip to slam him forward, face down into the ground, cutting the scream off abruptly.
“I’ve killed a lot of gods, John. I don’t bother remembering the names of all of them, because I simply don’t care. They’re not important to me. You weren’t important to me.” I stood up straight. “You have two choices. You can leave that body, give John back to his world, or I’ll kill you.”
“John’s heart was devoured,” growled the god wearing his skin, still face-down in the pavement. And I froze. The god looked over its shoulder at me, and smiled, its mouth full of far too many sharp teeth. “Oh, you remember me now, don’t you. It’s funny the things that make us remember, isn’t it? A scent on the wind. A familiar tune. A turn of phrase. I knew you wouldn’t forget me.”
I crossed my arms, my eyes narrowed. “I thought we were friends.”
“Friends? How could you think that? You always hated me, for what I did.”
“Well, hate’s a bit of a strong word,” I said, shrugging. “I thought it was a bit beneath you. I mean, you’re a cat god. Eating mice and rats to protect fields, regular cats do that all the time. I mean, can you really call yourself a goddess if you’re just doing what a mortal cat would, on the same scale?”
The god rolled onto its back, face blank, staring up at the sky as it stood up, a slight twitch developing at one corner of its mouth. It slowly stood up, showing no emotion save for the tic building at the corner of its mouth.
“Look, I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you, but we can still make things right, Li Shou-”
“I am Ammit! You fool!”
I frowned. “Ammit?”
“Eater of hearts! Judge of the Dead! Destroyer of sin!”
I shrugged, my expression as confused as I felt.
“Oh! Ammy!” I smiled brightly. “I remember now! You were always tagging along with him everywhere he went, always wanting to be included in everything, always underfoot! Goodness, why didn’t you just introduce yourself in the first place?” I frowned. “What on earth were you doing chasing after me? Shouldn’t you be with Anapa?”
“You left us! Abandoned us! Abandoned our religion, our civilization, forced us to take refuge with the gods of Ur! You abandoned Anapa! Do you know how that hurt him?! Do you know how you broke his heart?!”
It all came flooding back in a moment. The memories, the angers, the regretful decisions. “Ammit… Sweet-heart, I had to stay in this world. I had to make things right. I finally got revenge, I finally understood why, but-”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Ammit, as she tore the flesh away from her face, revealing her own figure. The large, luminous, almost feline eyes of an alligator, the scales down her cheeks. The forearms of a lion. The legs and hips of a hippopotamus. She was almost comically short compared to me, her figure squat and powerful, her eyes murderous. “I’m going to break every bone in your body, I’m going to drag you back to the others, and I’ll force you to make things right. If I have to kill every human you love to force you to come, I’ll do it. I’ll take away the people who sustain you. I’ll make you… I’ll make you come back…”
The tears were running down her cheeks at this point, thick and undignified. I stepped closer. “Ammit, you don’t have to do that. I’ll come see everyone. But I won’t apolog-”
I stepped back, as she swept the sword in a vicious arc that could’ve broken my neck, rolling my eyes.
“Crocodile tears. Really cute.”
“I don’t want you to come along willingly! I am justice! I am the richly deserved punishment for your misdeeds, Bastet! I am the one who will make sure that you suffer for all that you have done! This is Justice, in my hand! And it will break you!”
“Oh, please, Ammit!” I stepped back again as she swept her free paw out, slashing at my stomach again, and frowned down at the claw marks she’d made in my silken dress. “You were never justice. You were never fair. Anapa was justice. Anapa was fairness. Anapa occasionally forgave people, though his standards were high.” I shook my head softly. “You were just a hungry animal that ate anything that was put in front of you. Did you ever see a heart that you decided was too good for you to eat once it had been dismissed by Anapa? Did you ever forgive anyone?”
“Who deserves it?!” Ammit let out a scream, and brought the sword down in a tremendous overhand swing. There was an unpleasant crack as I lifted my own sword to stop the blow, and I saw the crack appearing in the blade she was holding. That wasn’t good. I knew how Horace was about his things. He had nearly cried when his cell phone had needed to be reformatted, and these swords were something special to him. I gritted my teeth, and tossed Rache aside, lifting my hands.
“Damn it, Ammit, I’ve thrown aside Vengeance, and your Justice is uncomfortably close to breaking! You’re in serious danger of making this whole fight a direct metaphor!”
“Shut up! Stop treating this like a joke! Stop treating me like a joke! Stop-” The tears were running down her cheeks in thick rivulets. “They all suffered so much because of you! Don’t you even care, Bastet?!” She swept the sword at me, trying to stab me through the stomach. I caught her wrists, and twisted her, over, down, throwing her to the ground. The hilt came free of her hands, and I held the sword at her throat, keeping her pinned as she stared up at me. Then I slid the blade into the back of my dress, my eyes dropping.
“Of course I care, Ammit. But I don’t regret my decisions. I made the right choice, all those years ago. I just… could have done it better. What happened had to happen, but I wish I hadn’t made so many mistakes along the way.” I met her gaze, and narrowed my eyes. “Let them go, Ammit.”
The Wendigo surrounded me. Dozens of them. Maybe hundreds. They stood silently, some perched atop cars, more spread in the streets. Ammit glared at me. “I could set them on you. They’d eat you whole.”
“They’d die,” I said. “You can take away that curse, can’t you, Ammit?”
“I could protect this world. Make them mine. Or make them take you. Or… Or…” She lowered her head. “It won’t ever go back to the way things used to be.”
“No,” I said, softly. “But it could get better.”
“I wasn’t lying about the body. He was dying anyway. His whole body was falling apart. I just ate what was left of him.” She looked down at herself. “I can’t beat you, can I? I was right, and I was just, and I still can’t beat you. That’s not fair.”
“Life’s not fair. But I’m forgiving you.” I set the sword aside. “If you change them back.”
“What if I don’t want to be forgiven?” she asked, in the petulant tone of voice that I remembered so well from her.
“Then I’ll cut you down, pull out that heart, and keep it in a sock somewhere safe.”
She lowered her head. “But I’m lost.”
“You might not have to stay that way. Look at you. The last time I saw you, when you were the ‘Keeper of the Feast’, you looked like five miles of bad road scraped into a humanoid shape. You look like yourself again. You’re… better.”
She slumped down, defeated, and I finally stepped away. I looked up, and saw the men blinking, confused. The men that John Pertwee had gathered, and turned into Wendigo, who had been meant to go into Atlantis with us, and who now stood bemused. And a familiar face was approaching through them, blonde and carrying a tonfa.
“Dane! How are you doing? Uh… Sorry about the…” I waved in the direction of my eyes. “But I like the golden eye. You look tough as hell.”
“Thanks, Betty.” Her eyes dropped down to the god. “Is she-”
“Surrendered,” I said. “I’ll take custody of her.”
“I can’t let you do that, Betty. She’s responsible for property damage, and the possible death of several foreign dignitaries.”
She met my gaze, her expression perfectly level, for about five seconds. Then she burst out laughing, and slapped her knee. I smiled. “You really got me there, Dane.”
“As long as you’ll take her off my hands, I’ll be grateful for the break. Explaining this shit is going to be hard enough as it is.” She sighed. “A whole new species just…” She stared past me. “Is that… Phoebe?”
I turned. The curious pale Tsukumogami had the old Atlantean in her arms, with a tortured expression on her face. She looked up. “He’s not breathing.”
Ku-kaili swept out from behind the crowd, running forward, Daryl trailing just behind her. She grabbed her father, gently, delicately, and began to let out soft, tortured animal sounds, bent forward. I stepped a little closer, and reached out, but couldn’t quite bring myself to touch her. “Ku- I made him leave your father, but your father had been badly used, he was…” I looked down, feeling the sick little feeling growing in my stomach.
“And my dad?” asked Daryl, his voice soft. My eyes flickered over to Ammit. The chimeric monster looked away, and I wasn’t sure if she was ashamed, or just embarrassed. Daryl stared at her for a moment, and then his eyes dropped to the ground.
Jormungandr, Wendy, Markov, Li, and Walter entered from the other side of the street, coming to a sudden stop. “Shit,” murmured Li. “Where’s Horace?”
I looked around, my panic suddenly rising. What had she done? In the time while I was away, what had happened?
“I’m right here.” Horace stepped around one of the parked cars, into the street. I felt a sigh of relief whisper through me. He was okay. He’d stayed out of trouble. Once again, he’d managed to avoid getting killed. When it came down to it, he was good at that. He was skilled at surviving, at keeping ahead of the monsters. I knew he’d been okay. But there was a look on his face, as I stepped towards him, which kept me from embracing him. There was a guilt, there. A horror.
“What’s wrong, Horace?” I asked, softly.
“I did it. It’s my fault. He asked me to help him stay alive, to keep him alive, and- I gave him the heart.” Horace stared at Ammit, his eyes hollow. “I killed him.”
“He was already dying-” began Ammit.
“What happened to his soul?”
A very stark silence fell across the street. Ammit looked away, and there was no question which expression was on her face this time. I’d never seen Ammit look nauseous before. “It’s- That which I devour- He deserved-” She fell silent under Horace’s furious gaze.
His eyes tracked across the street. Walter, his chest bloodied from the fight. Markov, one arm dangling uselessly at his side. Wendy, blood streaming from toothmarks along her shoulder. Jormungandr, her skin bruised and red. Li, her dress ripped, blood dripping down her fingers, cuts visible in her arms. Dane, her missing eye. My stomach, where Ammit’s claw had torn open the raiment. “Horace. I know what you’re thinking-”
“Yeah. I’m not a hard person to read.” He stepped forward, approaching Ku. She still hunched over her father, tears running down her cheeks, Daryl standing a dozen paces back, looking like he wanted to approach, but without the spirit to do so. “What happened to him?”
“It’s not his body. It’s… Something was hollowed out of him. It’s like he was devoured from within, all of his spirit, his soul. It’s just… embers. Going out-”
Horace crouched down in front of her, and rested a hand on the old Atlantean’s octopus-like head, frowning.
“Horace, what are you trying to do?” I asked, stepping towards the two of them. I could feel something I could best describe as a spiritual heat, a burning glow around him, growing stronger. His Hearth, but… not nearly as inviting as it usually was.
“I said it, didn’t I? I said I’d get him back, that we’d save him. We said that we wouldn’t let people die.”
“Horace,” said Wendy, her voice cold. “Sometimes, people die, for no good reason-”
“He died for a very good reason! He died because some awful fucking thing hollowed him out! That wasn’t inevitable! This isn’t right, this isn’t fair!”
“The world-” started Wendy.
“I know the world isn’t fair! That’s why we have to be! If we’re not, then there’s no point to anything.” Horace stared down at the man, his brow furrowed. “Come on. Come on, damn it, what the hell is the point of me if I can’t do something like this. What the hell is the point?!” He grabbed the man by the shoulders, dragging him up, and slapped him suddenly. I stepped forward, grabbing his arm, and he pulled away, shaking the man. “Your people need some fucking help! Do you think you can just lie down?! Do you think you can die and leave everything as it is right now?! None of the rest of us get to rest, so this is no time to be goddamn SLEEPING!”
I grabbed him again, harder this time, pulling him back, and felt the heat suddenly die away, Horace stumbling back in my grasp as the Atlantean man fell back, limp, into Ku’s arms. Horace slumped, breathing hard, fighting my grasp, but with no success, as Ku lowered her head. “I am sorry, Horace. You- I am thankful that… you tried so hard-”
“It’s just fucking dramatic timing! Just wait!” said Horace, and he had a certain desperate look in his eyes. “I can’t be that fucking useless! I can’t…”
“Horace.” Ku lifted her eyes, and though they were still teary, she seemed calmer. “It is okay. You did everything you could. You saved my people, because you tried. You saved me, time and again. The gifts you gave us saved our lives. You don’t have anything else to prove. It’s-”
“Gods above,” murmured the Atlantean, lying in her lap. “Must you all be so loud?” He opened his eyes, and blinked. “Ku! My dear. It’s good to see you.” He rubbed his tentacled mouth. “I have had the most bizarre dreams.”
I stared, my arms dropping to my side, as Horace grinned in a way that was not entirely comforting. A manic rictus. “I knew it,” he whispered, his voice hoarse. “I knew I could do it. I knew it.” He turned, and pointed at Ammit, his finger shaking. “You. I can bring him back. I can make him whole again.”
“Horace,” I whispered, softly.
“I can do it! I’m not fucking useless! I can make it all right, I can-”
He reached up, and brushed his fingers over his upper lip. They came away red. “Fuck, Betty- It’s just a nosebleed. It’s dry out, I-” He fell backwards without any preamble, and it was only my own magnificent reflexes that let me catch him.
“Horace,” said Ku, her voice very small. “Your soul…”
“It’s- Fuck-” Horace pulled out of my hands, falling onto the ground, and scrabbled, trying to push himself back up. “It’s just fucking fatigue, probably. Nothing without a price, right?” He laughed once, just a little too high pitched. “Come on. This is what I was hoping for. I can actually do something for once in my life, Betty, I’m not going to fucking play it safe! I can help him! Please, you have- You have to let me help him.” His eyes met mine, and he shook a bit. “You have to let me help him. It’s my fault. I can’t let this happen to him.”
“Horace, man,” said Daryl, his voice soft. “Let it go.”
Horace turned, staring. “Daryl- It’s your dad. It’s your fucking dad, and he’s dead. If I don’t do this, his soul- It’s going to be gone forever. I know that he did terrible things to you, I know that he was a bad father, but if you lose him, you can’t ever-”
“You didn’t do this to him,” said Daryl, softly. “He made those choices. He tried to force you to go along with it, like he always does. But he was the one who made those choices. This isn’t your fault. And the thing is… I’d really rather you be in this world than him.” He looked for a moment at Ku, who was watching the two of them, her expression very curious. Then his eyes returned to Horace. “You’ve done more than anyone could’ve asked. More than anyone could have believed. Okay? You can rest, now, buddy. Just take five.”
“Do you think anyone here would be happy if that old bastard was alive, and you were dead?” asked Daryl, his voice suddenly surprisingly firm. “Nobody here wants to lose you. Please.”
Horace looked down. He was suddenly kneeling, the folding up surprisingly graceful as he slumped down in my arms. His eyes flicked up to me, and he smiled. “Well. We only lost one person this time.”
“Yeah,” I said, my voice soft. “We’re getting better.”
His lips tugged up in a smile. “She said I’d regret saving him. But I don’t. Not for a damned… second.” Then he slumped down. I caught him before his face hit the gravel, and held him, very gently, purring as best as I could, trying to help. It was about all I could do. I looked up, at the street. Midtown Manhattan, under the half moon. Relatively empty, but there were still a lot of people gathering, staring. At me. At Ku. At Ammit.
“Maybe we should get somewhere private,” said Li. “This will all be difficult enough to explain as it is.”
“There’s not going to be a coverup,” said Dane. “It’s too late for that. Entire city, maybe the entire world saw the Atlanteans. Ku gave an interview and everything.” She sighed. “The Atlanteans were granted refugee status in the United States as of about two minutes ago, in an emergency session of Congress. Life’s about to get complicated.”
“Huh.” I looked down at Horace, and stroked his head softly, squeezing him a little bit tighter. “That sounds like someone else’s problem.” And I hefted him up, carrying him carefully, as Li and I made our way to the edge of the crowd. The Tsukumogami car was a step behind me, and as I paused at the intersection, she reached up, and gently scratched behind my ears. They splayed a bit, and I closed my eyes, purring. It felt very nice.
“You are a good cat.”
“Thanks. You’re a good car.” I smiled over my shoulder. “Don’t get too comfortable, though. I’d hate to have to mark my territory.”
“Huh?” asked the car, her head tilted quizzically. “What’s so bad about that?”
“It involves certain disgraceful acts,” said Li.
“That doesn’t sound so bad.”
Li and I turned, and stared. The car was just grinning, her eyes just a little too wide. I shuddered. “Damn it. The car is a lunatic.” I turned back forward, and began walking, a bit more briskly. “I’m going to have Horace wreck you for parts.”
“Oooh, yes! I’ve been a bad car. I need to be punished. Maybe you can put a boot on me!” She was suddenly pressed up behind me, her hands on my shoulders, squeezing in a way that might have been pleasant from literally anyone else.
“Li? Please take Horace.” I handed the white snake Horace’s sleeping body. Then I ran.