There was something in the room with me. Breathing. A presence. Evil, and hungry. I lay on the bed, staring up at the ceiling as the car lights far below flashed by. The darkness fled from the lights in stripes across the ceiling, and then returned once the car had gone. I couldn’t lift my head. Couldn’t look away. I could still remember the sight of Daryl, as he told me that I was worth more than his father. Still remember Betty’s expression as she begged me to stop. Begged me not to give too much. I could have given more. Damn it, I had so much, and I couldn’t use it for anything. I could have saved him. I wouldn’t have died. If I hadn’t been such a coward…
“You know, this was how it started the last time,” murmured the evil presence in the corner. “A man, desperate to save someone he cared about, giving away too much of his soul. He gave it away until his soul was cracked, threadbare. Open. Like a wound. And I crawled in.”
The presence walked closer, as I kept staring up at the ceiling. I tried to turn my head, but I could not. Stuck. Trapped, as the presence walked closer.
“Betty thought she won. She thought she was safe. But she did not realize how badly you were hurt, did she? She never does. She takes it for granted that her humans will always be there, until she uses them up. And then she forgets them.”
The evil presence leaned forward, and Ku-Thule stood there. He was not visible, but his presence was there. Malevolent. Dark. Hateful. Whispers filled the shadows.
He stumbled back, as though he’d been struck a blow. The malevolence vanished, leaving panic, bewilderment. “You-“
“Sleep paralysis,” I murmured. “I read about it a lot.” I slowly tilted my head to either side. “A dream, and not a dream. I used to play around with lucid dreaming when I was younger. And when I learned that I was dealing with a fucking God of dreams, I started thinking about it again.” I tested my arms. With determination, they moved. Slowly, but with gathering strength as I sat up. I pulled myself to my feet, not bothering to focus on the room. “You know, I wondered about it. Betty had said she’d killed Ku-Thule long ago. Apparently, if a god dies- really dies- it forgets about everything. The power persists, but the memories are gone. If you were Ku-Thule reborn, all you’d remember is the theme park stuff. And then it struck me, the dreams. Half of the world, dreaming of Yam Hamawet. Half of it dreaming of Ammit. And here I was, having dreams about a shitty New England sci-fi writer. Doesn’t quite fit in with the others, does it?”
“I am not Howard Phillips-“
“No,” I said, my voice very harsh. “Not anymore. But you used to be, didn’t you? The way you tried to avoid me, the way you went after Betty, the mish-mash of feelings… It must have just torn you up inside, Howard-“
“Do not call me that!”
“Why?” I asked, standing up. “Because if I name you, it might change you, or some horseshit like that? Or because if I keep saying it, it gets harder and harder for you to deny?” I stepped towards the presence. “Why did you do it? Why did you come back, like this?”
“I…” Howard stood before me. Human, though his features were warped, his skin green, his eyes too large, his nose too flat, his nostrils too small, everything just a little off. “I was scared.”
“Well. I can understand that-“
“Can you really?!” He looked up, his eyes meeting mine, furious and burning with a cold anger. “She talked of you in such grand terms. How you were special. How you weren’t like the others. How you weren’t like me. How you wouldn’t simply… die, and abandon her…” He stared down at his hands. “I just wanted to be with her again. As a god. Not as some worthless hack writer, not as someone who died like a fool while challenging the night, and who accomplished nothing but breaking her heart again. I died, and I found… a small sliver of power. I wandered, until I found that priest, kept barely alive by the stories that she had spread. And I fought, and strived to return, to show her she was not alone, and I found out…” He sighed. “She moved on. We humans are such pitiful creatures. So small. So weak. So worthless.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But I think that’s just the way you looked at the world.”
“Look at me. The only way I could be anything, the only way I ever even came close to her, was by becoming… this. Something sick. Twisted. Corrupted.” Howard chuckled softly. “If only I had paid more attention to my own stories, hmm? I could have avoided all of this.”
“Advice is always easier to give than to follow. But I still don’t think you get it, Howard. The Atlanteans- They were humans. They were just like us, where it mattered. I don’t think humans are quite so helpless as you think. And I think that attitude led you down the road to ruin.”
“Then why do you still carry that bundle of rat tails in your pocket?” asked Howard, and I didn’t really have a good answer for him. “At any rate. I suppose that it doesn’t matter. You are… too strong. I lost so much fighting Bastet. Lost hold of the dreams, lost hold of the nightmares. I thought you would be weak, but here, in your heart… There is something awful there. Something that I do not think is entirely human.”
“You aren’t really an authority I’d trust on what qualifies as human.” I smiled softly. “I read some of your stuff.”
“Ah. How quickly time and culture turns against us when we are adrift on celestial tides, afloat among the bracken of humanity’s dreams.” He looked away. “Please. Please, Horace, whatever you do, don’t tell her it was me. Let her think I was a monster. Whatever else, I don’t want that to be how she remembers me, twisted by madness and hate into the very creature that she fought so hard to protect me from. That is too cruel.”
I opened and closed my mouth. “I don’t know if I can do that, Howard. She deserves to know what happened, to know…” I sighed. “To know the good, at least, that you did. You broke her heart when you died, you know. She went for eighty years without someone to look after her. She nearly got herself killed, wandering, trying to make things right for you, Howard.” I looked aside. “She never told me your name. But she didn’t forget you, Howard. I don’t think she can ever truly forget the people she’s loved. She can forget their names, their faces- But the harm and the help they offer, that never fades. You’ve made your mark on her. For better, or for worse.”
He smiled weakly. “Would that it had been a positive change, rather than slashing her heart to ribbons. I never wanted to hurt her.” He let out a soft breath. “She is a good cat.”
“Yes she is.” I studied him for a moment. “You could stay. You could help her. You could be a good god, fight alongside her. She might not… want you, exactly, in the way that you want, but… She needs people like you, Howard. People who are strong. People who can do something.” I smiled. “Not people like me.”
“Oh, no,” said Howard, softly. “I am not the right person for anything like that. Do you know the fear I felt? The panic? It was only fury that gave me the ability to stand up, and now…” He shrugged. “Will, or power? Is there any question which I lacked?” He reached into his jacket, and took out something. A small idol of jade, carved into a strange shape. “I do not have the will, but I can make a gift of the power.” He placed it down on the table, and met my eyes. “I did not begin to remember, until I saw you. I did not recall what I was, I did not have an inkling of myself, until I met you again, Horace. Perhaps you are a common theme to this.”
“I didn’t save John,” I said. “I got him killed. His soul destroyed.”
“Thus is scientific experimentation. The costs are great to mankind’s… Well, humanity.” He sat down slowly on the bed, his hands with their overlong, slender fingers interlaced on his lap. “Horace- The dream- about Betty-“
“She’s not going to eat me. Literally, or metaphorically.” I paused for a moment, considering my words. “Well, maybe metaphorically, but in the fun way.”
“Don’t let what I did drive you away from her. I have done her enough harm.”
“I won’t.” I reached out, my fingers a couple of inches from the jade idol. I didn’t quite touch it. “I guess I don’t quite have the will, either.”
“There is power in desperation, and you are capable of nothing if not throwing yourself into desperate situations.” Howard smiled wanly, which seemed like the only way he could smile. “I saw when you stormed Atlantis. You were not weak then. Perhaps when you are not witnessed, when you are cornered, you are at your most dangerous.”
“Madness, true madness, can drive a fist through a plank,” I said.
“Hmmm… Yes. That’s quite good. An excellent turn of phrase.”
“It should be. I borrowed it from someone who’s a lot better at writing than me.” I was quiet for a moment. “You know- I didn’t agree with your philosophy, or your conclusions, or your view of the world… But the stories you wrote… They were important. They helped people. Made some people awfully depressed, but they were a worthwhile addition to the world.”
“… Thank you.” Howard rubbed his eyes. “It’s nice to feel appreciated. A man wonders.” He stood up, and breathed in, then out. “And now, I think I should be going. I feel that I am finally ready to go forth, and see what awaits me. Without the anchor of divinity, I feel as though perhaps there is finally something out there, waiting for me. Perhaps Heaven is simply a sweet dream, hmm?”
“Well,” I said, not sure what else to say. “I hope it’s something nice.”
“Thank you. I would like to think that helps.” He stood up, and I felt the dream fraying at the edges, something working at me. Then his eyes widened. “Wait. Before I go- There is something important. Something I gleaned from the lost knowledge, from the dreams and the nightmares. There is something missing from the world, something that was forgotten. You must tell this to Betty. Remember. There is another Sister-“
I snapped up, panting, hard, and Betty let out a displeased squawk as she was dumped off my chest, onto the floor of the apartment. Today was the last day we had before the bank seized the property at the top of the apartment, and we would need to flee to… Well, I’d figure that out while fleeing. I blinked, as she glowered up at me. “What’s the matter? You have a bad dream or something?”
“Dream.” I rubbed my face. “I had… God, some sort of dream. There was this heavy thing, on my chest-“
“Oh, very funny.”
“No, no-“ I closed my eyes. Sister. Was that…? “Betty. Do you have any sisters?”
“What? No. I’m totally unique. Why do you ask?”
I shook my head, the memories of the dream already fading like mist under a hot sun, aside from one particular detail. “Nothing. Never mind.”
The image of a small jade statue, carved into the shape of a thing that was beyond words, lingered in my mind.
I sat on the bench, outside of the UN. The great monolithic structure sat in the path of the light, casting a shadow over the city. If I were an Alex Jones listener, I’d probably read into that a bit more, but I wasn’t of the personal opinion that the UN could manage much of anything.
I looked down at the new smart phone. It was faster, certainly. It was without all those little quirks and problems. A fresh phone always left one feeling clean, as though something had been swept away. And yet…
I sighed, and opened Google News.
Atlantean hardliner faction blamed for mysterious dreams and New York terrorist attack.
Atlantean Queen Ku-kaili-mocha-polemo to address U.N. today.
Furthest Rockaway colony housing boom revitalizing Brooklyn economy.
Atlantean Psychic Powers- Do you have the gift? Probably not.
9 reasons that Atlantean fashion appropriation is not cool. Number 3 will shock you!
Shark Belly Franchise absolved of responsibility for war crimes of CEO John Pertwee.
Wedding announced between Shark Belly Scion and Atlantean Queen.
I looked up, and smiled. Ku stood, wearing an extremely provocative bikini. “You gave a speech to the UN in that?”
“If one is to be a queen, one must be eccentric. Strange behavior that others choose to ignore is a sign of royalty.” She smiled. “And if they choose to underestimate me, well…”
“Ma’am,” said one of the agents behind her. He gave me a dark look behind his black sunglasses, an earpiece in his ear. “You shouldn’t be out in the open, there are lines of sight-“
“I am a goddess, agent. That isn’t exaggeration, that isn’t a cult of personality. I am capable of incredible things.”
“Nonetheless, ma’am, I would feel a great deal better if you could come behind the wall with me-“
“Monster!” screamed a man, leaping at us. I had enough time as he leapt to realize there was a grenade in one hand. His eyes were wild, as he pulled out the pin, shoving it against Ku’s chest. She raised an eyebrow, and put her hand over it, trapping it against her chest, shoving the man back with her other hand. There was a low thump, a smell of cordite, and she dropped a handful of fragmented shards to the ground. There were screams and shouts as the agents tackled the man to the ground. Ku sighed.
“Very well, I suppose it would be more peaceful to continue this conversation in a more private location.”
The two of us walked through the U.N. garden. I looked over my shoulder. The street was a mess of police cars and confusion. “Are you okay?”
“The wedding.” She sighed. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about this before- I know it’s sudden, but, Daryl’s company has a great deal of financial and legal connections which have eased my people’s integration. It is not what I expected, it is not exactly what I hoped for, but it is what my people need, and… I think I will grow to love him, over time.”
“That wasn’t what I meant, but- It’s okay, Ku.”
“If it were just me- I could wait for you. Wait forever, if need be. If it were just me, I could even be just near you, and it might be enough, but…” she breathed in. “Daryl would give aid without asking. But we need to show that our people are compatible. That we are human. That we can connect on the deepest level. My people need this if we are to survive.”
“Ku.” I smiled. “It’s okay. I don’t own you. I never did. I had you in my life for a little while, and it was an incredibly fun and interesting time. Occasionally terrifying, but- I always knew that eventually, you’d leave.” The day was cool. Summer was, finally, blessedly, ending. The brutal heat of the summer giving way to the cool balm of fall. The leaves still hadn’t changed, because it was still quite warm out, but you could taste the winter coming on the morning air. “That’s what it’s like. I’m a mortal. I won’t live very long compared to all of you. Everything I can do, everything I can give you, it’s… just for a little while. I’m not an owner. I’m a caretaker.”
“Horace…” Ku looked sidelong at me, her brow furrowed. “You nearly killed yourself bringing back my father. You came even closer trying to bring back John.”
I reached into my pocket, and took out a small, broken form. “This was the cellphone I had when I first met you.” I held up the new one. “I’m realizing, now, that it could have been a person. Like every other object, it seems. Like the Thunderbird, like my mother’s swords, they could be people. If I took care of them. If I didn’t let them down.” I took a deep breath, and closed my eyes. I hadn’t known what I was doing when I healed Ku’s father. I still didn’t. All that power, and I didn’t understand how it worked. “I could heal it. I could make it a person.”
“Horace… I could wait for you. I could spend eternity doing it. Life presents us with countless choices, countless possibilities. Countless endings. And we only ever get to experience one of them. All of those lives that won’t be. The one where you chose me, became my king…” She sighed softly. “But regrets don’t do anything for us.”
“Exactly,” I said, softly, and gently dropped the broken case into the trash can. “Every sperm is sacred, every sperm is great.”
Ku stared at me blankly.
“It’s a song. A satire. Just because something can become a living thing, doesn’t mean it has to be. The world isn’t big enough for all the possibilities, no matter how much we wish it is.” I sighed. “More’s the pity.” I smiled at her. “It was wonderful, but I know that you and Daryl will be happy together. I think he’s a better guy than me, especially for you.”
“Thank you, Horace. If you should ever want an ambassadorship…”
“God, that’s tempting.” I smiled.
“It might be a couple of years until we have the embassy up and running. For the time being, we are technically U.S. citizens until we can establish our homes here. My father is quite interested in seeing if he can share our experiences with divinengineering with humans.” She smiled softly. “I need to go. I hope you will be at the wedding.”
“Wouldn’t miss it.” I winked. “Stay safe, okay?”
“There are advantages to being a goddess. So much harder to assassinate than a mortal head of state.” She smiled. “You did everything for me, Horace. Believed in me. Brought Betty to me. Saved my city. Saved my people.” She wrapped her arms around me, and squeezed me tight, the titanic Atlantean holding me firmly. “Please. Please, for my sake, for everyone’s sake, stay alive. I do not think this could be a happier world without you, no matter what your death buys.”
I hugged her back, and after a few moments, the hug broke as I stepped away. “Thank you for saying that, Ku. But even if I don’t die… People leave. Sooner or later. That’s just how it is. It’s not something to be sad about.” I smiled. “If they’re better off than when I found them, that’s reward enough. Trust me.”
“Don’t give everything away, Horace.” Ku smiled. “Trade is important. You need to get something, as well as give something. Trade is when both sides gain more than they lose.” She held something out to me. A small seashell. “If you ever need to talk, whisper my name into this. I will always be listening for your prayers.”
“Thank you, Ku.” I paused for a moment. “That trophy room- There were a lot of gods there. Dark gods that had been kept there. Lost gods. Did they die, with the annealing of Atlantis?”
“I’m not sure. I hope so. The alternative is that they were scattered, far and wide.”
“Well, fucking fantastic.” I smiled. “Dramatic Irony is going to have a field day with that.”
“A cruel god, this Dramatic Irony of yours. I wonder why you worship such a being.”
“Because it cuts both ways.” I smiled. “We worship the things that frighten us, sometimes, in the hopes that it will give us control over them. And when we know how Dramatic Irony works… Well, maybe we can get ahead of it, sometimes.”
“Pity the god that hunts men,” said Ku, very softly.
I looked around the apartment. “Fancy.” I looked back at Markov Lorickson, formerly one of the richest men in the world. “Yours, huh?”
“The bank’s, now. I’m… destitute.” Markov chuckled. “I lost everything. Everything except the things that mattered most to me. Likely a parting gift from my former patron. She always did like to remind people what really mattered to them.” He carefully folded the chainmail into a square, placing it gently on a table, resting the sword by it, and the slender iron rod on top of it. I frowned at them. “I appreciate you seeing me, nonetheless. But even if, by some impossible chance, this works- I can’t pay you what it would be worth to me.”
“That’s not what it’s about. What I understand about this is… The hard part about a Tsukumogami is the soul. Once they have that, the power to change comes to them in time. That might take decades, even centuries, normally.” I looked down at the three. “I don’t know how any of this works. I can’t promise I can do anything for them. But if I were to think of how to do this… I think the best way to start is for you to tell me about them. Help me connect with them.”
He nodded slowly. “I suppose. It has been a long time since I talked with anyone about them. My wife… I met her in college, you know. I was an immigrant’s son, pursuing a business degree. She was an art student. She mocked me for my materialism, but it was always somehow gentle. Inviting.” He smiled. “I remember when I proposed marriage. I spent the entire summer, while she was at home, working at the school as a groundskeeper. Preparing in my spare time. When she returned to her dorm room, in the garden below, she saw the fall flowers in full bloom. I’d planted them in the shape of a marriage proposal, weeded them every day… She told me I was a damned fool, and that she’d stay with me forever.” He looked down at the armor. “My son… He was a surprisingly easy birth. I remember when I first held him. I swore I would do anything in order to provide all he needed for a good life I remember the first day he went to school. Not a moment’s fear, not an instant’s hesitation, he simply walked out the door, bold as brass.” He looked over at the iron rod. “And my darling daughter. Lili. She was such a good girl. I remember when she went to her first dance, just a high school freshman, and she told me that none of the boys had asked her out, I told her that a Lorickson always goes out and grabs what they want…”
The two of us sat there, together, the three objects sitting on the chair behind my back, and I listened as he told me the stories of his family. His wife. His children. A happy life, shattered by tragedy. A life he had been willing to do anything to bring back. My mind wandered as he spoke, staring into the middle distance.
Would I ever be a father? If I was, could I hope to be a good one? Who would I even be a father with? Did it even work like that, with Betty? She was a cat, but- Man. That would be an awkward question to ask. But being a dad… having kids… Taking care of them, raising them… Was that even fair, in a world like ours? To bring new life into a world that might be on the verge of destruction? A world where they might not have hope tomorrow? Was it right to bring these people back, when it might simply mean they were entering a world that could become a hell at any moment?
That wasn’t the right way around to think of things. We brought these things into the world to have something to live for. We did it because it made the world one worth living in.
“I remember, when my son came back from his first year of college, he had grown so much, he-“ Markov looked up, and his eyes widened.
I turned. Three people stood there. A young man. An older woman. A teenage girl. They were young, compared to Markov. They hadn’t aged, apparently, since that car accident. But they were whole.
The three of them streamed around me, their arms going around Markov. I stood up, looking away, a bit embarrassed by the show of affection as I turned to go. “Wait.”
I turned back. Markov stood up.
“I don’t know that I even did anything, Markov. I don’t know that any of this was because of what I did. And you’re the one who fought. You’re the one who brought them back.” I smiled. “This is your happy ending. I’m sorry about the money-“
“I got rich once. I can at least provide my family with a happy life with what I can do. And there is one more thing.” Markov stood up straight, a hand tousling his daughter’s hair. She was definitely too old for that, but she seemed to tolerate it nonetheless. “My conglomeration had a supremely prestigious legal firm on retainer. While there is little they can do for my situation, they are still on retainer for the next three years. That would go to waste, but…” A smile spread slowly across his lips. “I understand you’ve been having difficulty with the government. Frozen assets?” He tilted his head. “You helped me. Please. Allow me to deeply inconvenience the government on your behalf.”
“This form…” I was quiet for a moment, studying the Thunderbird. She sat in her human form, her head tilted, as she relaxed on the bench near where she’d been parked. Say what you will, there was something about a car that could park herself, and who could avoid traffic cops. “Are you comfortable with it?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“It’s…” I was quiet for a moment. “Phoebe- She was- It was a complicated thing. Having you look like her…”
“I know you miss her. I wanted to… make you feel better. You’re a good owner. I wanted you not to hurt as much.” She looked down at her feet. “Was what I did wrong?”
“No one can replace Phoebe. She died. She died saving me, and I can’t ever make that right.”
“And no one can replace you. You saved me, twice. You’re a good car. And you deserve to be treated like your own person. Not like just… a replacement for someone else. You deserve to know that you’re special.” I smiled. “You can keep that shape if you want. You can have another if you like. But you’re special. You are not just a replacement for Phoebe.”
“So you don’t want to name me Ford-Bee?”
I paused a moment, blinking. I considered it for a moment. “Ford-bee… Ford Thunderbird… God. Coincidences are strange like that, aren’t she?” I smiled. “She was Apartment 4B. That’s why I named her Phoebe. Kind of funny, isn’t it?”
“It sounds like someone you’ve wanted to talk about for a while,” said the Thunderbird. “Would you like me to be named Ford-bee? Because that is what Betty suggested.”
“God no. That’d be a ridiculous name.” I sighed. “I’ll think of something better. I hope. And in the meantime… If you’re okay with it… I would like to tell you a bit about Phoebe.”
“That would be very nice,” she whispered softly, and smiled, as she rested a hand on my shoulder.
“I didn’t bring the swords back,” said Walter, his head lowered. The two of us sat in the hotel room where he was staying.
“Hey, look. They got here.” I smiled, running the polish across one of the blades, the wood glue setting, sealing the crack in Recht. That, and the healing effect of attention. They still hadn’t shown any sign of becoming people, but perhaps they were just shy. “You kept your word. You came back. They did too.” I frowned. “How did you lose track of them?”
Walter looked away. “There is another player in this game. I can’t say her name. She would hear it. She hears… a great deal. And honestly speaking, I don’t know what she would do if someone found out.” He took a deep breath, and let it out. “There is someone setting up madmen. Giving them access to power, to hoist them by their own petard. I don’t know why. She was the one who took the blades from me.”
“Hmm. Talking with Bastet, Daryl, and Ammit… She gave one to Daryl, one to Ku-Thule. The one in Ku-Thule’s hands wound up with Betty, the one in Daryl’s hands wound up with Ammit.” I crossed my arms. “Interesting. But I don’t really know what to do with that information.”
“Neither do I,” said Walter. “I am not sure what to do with my life. I lived for vengeance for so long, and I gave it up. Now…” He shrugged. “I don’t know what I will live for, now. But I do not think I can fight the dark things hiding in the cracks of the earth anymore. I’ll find something interesting to do.”
“Good, or bad?” I asked, an eyebrow raised as I continued polishing the sword.
“Oh, I’m sure I can’t be picky.” He smiled. “Thank you for the swords. I’m sorry I treated them roughly.”
“They kept you alive. You kept them alive.” I smiled. “You’re even.”
He nodded, and stood up, walking towards the door. Then he paused, looking over his shoulder. “Here.” He took out a card, and placed it on the night stand. “If you ever need to contact me for any reason. If you ever want to go fishing, or bowling, or something like that. Give me a call.”
“Well. I spend a couple of weeks doing damage control, let my messages pile up, and look what’s happened.”
I sat across from the Colonel. The two of us sat in the Shark Belly restaurant I’d been working in last year, when those fishmen had come through the door and attacked me. They were on Ku’s bodyguard now. A cushy, meaningless position for a dignitary who could take a tank shell to the face. Life was funny.
“Try the Long Fish, Colonel.”
“You’ve got the rat-tails, boy. Only reason you would’ve done the things you did. Only reason you would’ve been willing to go off on your own. We were watching you.”
“I bet,” I said, and smiled. “So, why didn’t I use it?”
“Maybe you thought better of it.” He tilted his head to one side. “I think you should give that power to someone who can do something with it.”
“I think that’s the last thing I should do.”
“I could always take it from you.”
“I bet.” I smiled. “You could have me shot. Arrest me. Do a lot of very unpleasant things. Push me into a corner where I might do any number of desperate things.”
“I don’t respect you, son. And I sure as hell don’t fear you.”
“The rat tail bundle’s not the only god’s power I’ve got. Ku-Thule… He vanished. Don’t you wonder about that?”
Sweat suddenly pinpricked on the colonel’s forehead. He didn’t breathe hard. He didn’t swallow. He didn’t give anything away. But the sweat gleamed on his forehead. “Son, I-“
“If you ever fuck me around like this again,” I said, “I will tell Betty.”
His jaw tensed. He took a couple moments of silence. “I told you about interrupting-“
“Ever. I will tear you down to the fucking ground, Colonel. I have given you and yours the benefit of the doubt, believed that you are trying to do what’s best for humanity, for Earth, and that belief is shaken. If it happens again… I will treat you like an enemy, Colonel. I will tear you down.”
“You’re a cat-sitter, b-“
“I’m the High Priest of Bastet, Colonel. And I am just looking for an excuse to show you what that means. So. There’s three things I’m going to tell you. As a favor. There is someone helping madmen to seize power, so she can turn it against them. If you meet someone like that, tell me. And I suspect- if Dramatic Irony has anything to do with it- that there are lost gods that are loose in the world now. If you see them, fucking tell me. And Yam Hamawet is getting active. If you see Ateroleum, fucking tell me.”
The colonel stared at me. “You aren’t a soldier.”
“This isn’t a war.” I stood up, and dropped a twenty on the table. “I’m two for two, Colonel.”
“You know why we never approached the Order of Set?” said the colonel, his voice softer than I’d ever heard it, his expression contemplative. “They were great fighters. Heroes. They had an ego. They thought they knew it all. You’ve run afoul of that shit twice. You really want to be like that, boy? You want to find yourself becoming the monster, one day? You’ve seen two heroes of the order turned into horrific monsters, because they thought they could handle the power you’re carrying around in your pocket. Bet that’d put some tears in the eyes of that catgirl of yours.”
“I have something they never did, Colonel.”
“Yeah? What’s that, son?”
“I know the secret. The trick is to not fear them,” I said, and walked out of the door.
No bullet slammed through the base of my neck. No men in black masks tackled me into a van. No helicopter hovered above, shouting warnings down at me. I looked back in the window, and smiled at the Colonel. He watched me uneasily, as I returned to the apartment. And on the way, I stopped by the grocery store.
Dane opened the door, glaring at me. “When are you going to get your own place?”
“Shmooli’s writing the new book.” I smiled. “What, you don’t like having company?”
“Your goddamn harem is not my business, kid.” Dane grinned. “But I have been enjoying the meals.”
Li smiled as I walked in the door. Ford-bee- I had not in fact been able to come up with a better idea, and it had stuck- was helping Li to pack things while Jormungandr watched from the couch. I’d put the down payment, first month’s, and last month’s rent on the apartment I’d be moving into soon. It had cost an uncomfortable proportion of the savings I’d been keeping, but I had the feeling it’d be a good idea to be in town. Betty had complained bitterly about supernatural creatures gathering in New York while she’d been away, and who knew what was going to happen next.
“Did you get the beef hearts I asked for?” said Ammit.
“Yes. Any luck remembering Ur’s location?”
“No,” she said, withdrawn. She’d been trying to remember the location of that other City. Betty was worried about it. I had decided to handle it the way I usually did, by trying to support people. Ford-bee didn’t eat anything, which was helpful, but five people were a lot to feed. I’d been interviewing at fast food places, again. It wouldn’t pay enough, but it’d help me keep things going while I waited for Markov’s ravenous team of lawyers to accomplish something. And it was a way to bring things back to normal.
We were going to enter a calm time. I remembered the last one. It was always a little melancholy, when the adventure ended, and life returned to normal. After all the excitement, the fear, and the tension, it left you feeling drained.
“Horace!” Betty smiled, and threw her arms around me, purring loudly. “You did it! You brought me salmon!”
I smiled. “And I got that nice herb butter. A little treat for all your hard work.”
She purred loudly, and I smiled as I stepped into Dane’s small kitchenette, beginning to open packages and set out plates.
Betty hadn’t talked with me about sex since I’d woken up. I hadn’t quite had the guts to bring it up either. Maybe both of us were a little gunshy after what had happened. She’d been keeping an eye on me, the entire day, everywhere I’d gone. I knew she thought she was being subtle about it, but I’d caught glimpses of her in the dark as she made sure that I was safe. I didn’t mind it. It was part of the way she showed she cared.
She cared. I smiled, a bit wider, as I slapped the salmon steaks down onto the frying pan, the sizzling sound filling the air.
I wouldn’t have them in my life forever. It would end. With any luck, if I had any choice in the matter, it would end because they found someone better. My eyes flickered to Ammit, and Jormungandr, and Ford Bea. It was okay that things ended, that they had to leave, because new people would come into my life.
I would keep going, keep living, as long as I had people to live for. And if they were taken away from me…
Well. Revenge and justice. They weren’t as good as love, but you could still live on them, at least for a while. Long enough to make the ones who took them from me pay.
I served the salmon up, and we all tucked in. No need to worry about that while everyone I cared about was still safe.