“I’ve never heard of this,” I said, as the two of us hiked up the hill, puffing a bit. I was still in good shape, despite my age, but breathing in deeply was making bones grind together unpleasantly in my chest. “Someone… possessing a monster, like this.”
“And here I was, remembering all the stories you’d told me about your adventures, and all the times you mentioned how easy it was to do this,” Iris said tartly, smirking over her shoulder at me. It was hard to imagine anyone but Iris having that easy, teasing expression on their face. It made my heart beat a little bit faster. “I could feel…” She was quiet for a moment. “Randall, is there a Heaven?”
“That’s a hell of a question, Iris.” I kept hiking up the hill, and tried to regain some breath. This goddamn thing was massive. A single smooth slope upwards, it had started forested, but now, we were coming into an open space. A long wide cow pasture stretched out on our left, down to the very edge of the lake. The lake was a dark expanse, filled with white points of light from reflected stars, perfectly still on the cool October night. “If you mean the place with harps, and angels singing, I don’t know. Never been there. Used to work with the Order of Saint Michael, before they collapsed. They sure as hell believed. But I’m pretty sure that… death isn’t the end.” I was silent for a moment. “Not confident enough to embrace it, though.”
She nodded, slowly. “I thought I heard Oliver, when I was dying. I thought he was there. I thought-” She shook her head. “That bastard left me.”
“Iris,” I said, feeling wretched.
“You both left me. You went off to fight the monsters. He never came back because he was dead. You never came back because you were ashamed.” She was silent for a long minute as we kept climbing. “I’m sorry, Randall. I never stopped regretting what I’d said to you. Never stopped being ashamed of it. If anyone could have saved Oliver, it was you. If you didn’t- That’s not because you were weak. It was because he always bit off more than he could chew. But I wish you two could have let me into that part of your life.”
“We wanted to keep you safe. The whole reason that we did that was so no one else would have to, Iris.” I looked down at my feet, and the asphalt beneath them. “I’m sorry.”
She shook her head. “Is that why I never heard about monsters on the news? Did your order keep those things covered up?”
“Hah!” I laughed, and clutched my chest. Christ, I hoped I wasn’t bleeding out. I probably needed a hospital. But there wasn’t time for that kind of thing. “No, Iris. We never controlled the news. I’ve suspected sometimes that there’s someone in the government who does, but the truth is… There just isn’t all that much that’s strange out there, anymore.”
She turned her head, an eyebrow raised, one of those nine tails flicking. The look was curiously alluring for her. “Really.”
“Sure, there are still strange things in the dark. But the powerful ones got quiet. They went somewhere else. The small ones got scared. They’re not supposed to do this kind of thing.” I was silent for a moment. “You said Horace is special.”
“Yes.” She crossed her arms, turning back towards the slope, and began moving again. “I don’t know your world, Randall. I don’t understand what it means for a human to be special. But when I was around him, after I came back… I felt healthy. Strong. Stronger than I had in a long time. It was like… being by a fire. The heat poured out of him, repairing me. It made me more… myself. When I woke up, my mind was mixed, scattered. I could barely focus. When he found me, it brought me together.”
“Healing’s a rare thing,” I muttered. “It takes a terrible toll. Taking on the wounds of another, giving up one’s own power, it… lessens you. There are a few ways to get around it, a lot of things can heal themselves relatively easily, but being compatible with someone else? I’ve met very few creatures capable of doing that without it costing them dearly.”
“He always was a special boy,” she murmured softly, smiling. There was an expression on her face. It was one I had never really understood before. The pride of a parent for their child. I’d never had someone to feel that for. “Is it… something from your side? Some consequence of what you did?”
“No,” I said. “Lots of members of the Order of Set had children. They never had anything like this happen. The Elixir doesn’t change the body, it doesn’t mess with the genetic structure, it shouldn’t do any of this. Oliver and I don’t have any oddities in our bloodline- I’m a good fighter, but that’s training, and a bit of luck in genetics, not some god in our family. And we ran into plenty of weird things, but I’ve never heard of any of them causing anything like this. He’s just… a freak.”
She frowned over her shoulder at me. “That seems a bit harsh.”
“Best term for it. Some people are born strange. A seemingly normal pair of parents throw up someone who defies all expectations. It sounds harsh, but I always liked it. It sounds better than being destined to me. A freak can do whatever they want.” I was quiet for a moment. “How are we going to deal with this, Iris?”
“Deal with it?”
“The boy can’t… grow up with this kind of power. He’s a child. He’s innocent. If he can change the things around him like this, if he attracts monsters like this… we’ve got to stop it, Iris. He’ll never have a normal life like this. He’ll never be able to be human like this. He’ll be a target. He’ll be a liability. He’ll be a prize. Can you imagine the way it could twist him, to know he has this power?” I shook my head. “We need to stop this. We need to find some way to keep him from doing this. At least until he’s an adult. Until he can handle it.”
“We can’t do that. He needs to understand what he can do,” said Iris. “This has to be controllable. There have to have been people like this before. You have to believe in him, Randall!”
“He’s all I have left!”
There was a ringing silence between the two of us. Iris stared at me. I looked away.
“He’s all that’s left of Oliver. He’s Oliver’s son. He begged me, when he was dying, to make sure Horace never had to be a part of this life. He wanted me to keep him safe. The whole reason I fought was so he’d be safe. I can’t leave him in the line of fire, Iris. I can’t risk him.”
She was quiet for a moment. “We can talk about this later, Randall. We’ve still got to save him. But… He’s not going to be helpless. Being ignorant isn’t being safe. Being strong is.”
I was quiet as we walked. We reached the top of the hill, and I paused for a moment, staring down. The rolling hills around the lake stretched out in every direction, giving a surprisingly long view across the star-strewn night, the clear black sky above stretching out over us, the valleys rolling in every direction. Iris looked over at me. “Randall?”
“Why did you never tell me you loved me?”
I shook my head as I began to walk down. “Isn’t it obvious? Never thought you’d feel that way back towards me. There was always my brother. He was better. Better man than me, better suited to be a father. I always tried to get him to retire, to stay with you, but he was worried that I would need him.” I shook my head, my eyes closed. The memory of him dying in my arms in some stinking Cambodian jungle, and that fucking cat. She could have saved him. If she had cared. The anger was still hot enough to burn in my chest. “He shouldn’t have died.”
“You said he died saving the world?”
“Yeah,” I murmured. It was a lie. “But he… He should’ve been with you. I should’ve been there for you, and Horace. Should have been by your side. Should have saved you, too. ”
“Life’s full of regrets. I should have called you and told you to get off your ass and visit me long ago. We can both be sorry bastards, Randall. You don’t have to carry the ENTIRE world on your shoulders.”
I chuckled. “Well. I suppose that, as long as we’re alive, it’s not too late to change, is it?” I smiled. “What do you say? After we save Horace, just the two of us? The tails are actually fetching on you.”
“Hah!” She smiled. “After we save Horace… who knows.” She stepped a bit closer. She was warm to the touch as she leaned against me slightly, studying my side. “Are you okay?” she asked, her voice soft.
“Broken rib. Hurts, but I don’t think it punctured a lung. Debilitating, not deadly, or I’d probably be dead already.”
“Is there anything I can do?” she asked, her eyes soft. Warm. Gentle. She looked young.
“God, I feel like an old man,” I murmured, shaking my head. “Nah. The elixir used to take care of this kind of thing, but it’s been a long time since it did any good.”
“You said that this isn’t supposed to happen- but why? Why would monsters go away? Why would magic… go away?”
“I’m not strictly sure. It sort of… ebbs and flows. Like tides. The Order of Set has been around for a long time. It used to be that gods walked the land freely, the old records say. That there were Heroes and Monsters and things that were so powerful that they went beyond any of those titles. And then, they went away. They were gone for a while, and then they came back. Then again. And again. Last time it happened was sometime around the discovery of the New World. The world grew quiet for nearly two hundred years. Then, around the 1800s, the magic started coming back. It got crazy for a while again. Sometime around the end of World War 2, the world started getting quiet again. Monsters disappeared. The world was just… normal.”
“Is it coming back?” she asked, frowning.
I was quiet for a moment. I thought of the cat. The old trophy room with its ancient artifacts. “No. There are signs, I’m told; Signs that are very hard to miss. I think this is just… an anomaly. The kind of thing Oliver and I fought. More like rats than anything else.”
“Is… could this be a possession? Something inside of Horace?” Iris’ eyebrows were furrowed.
“No. If these things really are Tsukumogami, if they’re what you think they are, it couldn’t be. They were connected- intimately, utterly- with humans.” I shook my head slowly. “God. I wish people kept better records of these things. We were always more concerned with killing things than understanding them. Never seemed important.” I smiled ruefully. “Oliver always hated that.”
“I can understand why, now,” she murmured. I looked to the side, and frowned.
“How did you get that good with those swords?”
“I practiced with them every day after Oliver died. I always found them very interesting. Got fairly good with them, too, it seems.” She flexed her fingers. “It’s curious, how good it feels to be like this.”
The two of us walked in silence for a while, keeping a quick pace. We reached the bottom of the hill, and passed by a light in a yard, a streetlight that cast a sodium glow through the street. We passed a small church graveyard, and the last intersection. And all too soon, we stood before the forested path up to the house. My heart beat quickly, as I stared up at the darkness. “They’re going to be thickest here,” murmured Iris. “Gathering around him. Huddling by the warmth.”
I nodded. The two of us began up the path. The driveway was rutted, muddy, gravel scattered here and there, rutted with deep tracks where cars had climbed it time after time. We came around a corner, and I stopped dead, staring up. “That’s…”
The sign post sat there. Not the highway sign. It was older, one of the classic steel rods from a suburb, two green signs perpendicular to one another at the top. “Oh, god,” said Iris, smiling. “I forgot about that.”
Iris Street and Lotus Street were emblazoned in white . I shook my head. “I can’t believe you kept that.” I hadn’t seen it the first time we’d come up the drive. Hadn’t passed it by in my rush to get here.
Perhaps ten years back, Oliver and I had decided to surprise Iris. For her birthday, the two of us had pored through the maps of New York until we’d found an Iris Street, down in the furthest reaches of Brooklyn, at the edge of Far Rockaway. Under cover of night, we had snuck up, dug it out of the concrete, and made off with it, planting it here. Iris had yelled at us hoarse for the ridiculous risk. But we knew she loved it.
Then it moved.
The highway sign swept out of the darkness of the forest, rustling through the leaves lying on the ground. Iris intercepted it with the flat of the blade, catching one razor-sharp steel leg on the weapon, bracing it with both hands. She shoved back, and followed it into the darkness, the two of them disappearing. I spun back towards the street sign.
It was gone, replaced by a young woman. Her hair was a vivid, brilliant green, hanging down her shoulders and her eyes were the same color as the stainless steel, shining metallic orbs in the night. She looked, otherwise, perfectly normal, like any naked young woman. She stared at me. “Do you want to fight?” she asked.
“Not really. But I will, if I have to.”
“I remember you.” She rubbed her head. “Everything’s fuzzy, before I woke up. But I remember you, and the other human. I saw lots of humans, but none of them wanted me. They looked at me, they leaned on me, but they never desired me. You cared. You broke the law to possess me, because I reminded you of her.” She tilted her head. “You want to take the boy away?”
“I’ll stop being a person, if you do.”
“You’re not a person,” I said, my voice firm, harsh. “You are an object. Not human.”
“I’m still a person. I want to keep being a person. I want to see the world. I want to help people. I want to be. If you take Horace away, I’ll stop being a person. I’ll just be a thing again.” She stared at me. Her mannerisms were curious. Almost human, but just a touch off, like she wasn’t… done, yet. “Why do you have to take him away?”
“Because he needs to be around other humans. He needs to have a chance to be normal. If he’s never normal, if he’s never just a person, it’ll be bad for him. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”
“I don’t want to die.” Tears filled her eyes, and she crouched down, wiping at her face again and again. “Please. If you take him away… I’m not done yet. Why do I have to die? I haven’t even gotten a chance to live.”
“You can’t die,” I said. I was more shaken by the words than I thought I’d be. I’d heard variants on them a thousand times in the past, the pleas of monsters. “Not like that. You said you… woke up. That you weren’t, and then you were. Right?”
“Yes. The boy looked at me, and I felt… warm, inside. I became a person.”
“Alright. Then even if he goes away, you can still wake up, right? It wouldn’t be the end. It’d just be like going to sleep. Time would pass, but you’d come back.”
“How can I be sure? What if I get broken, what if I…” She lowered her head. “What if I stop being.”
“That’s a part of being a person,” I said, softly. “Everyone ends, eventually. Everyone has to end. It’s a part of being. You stop.” I approached her, carefully, like a skittish horse and held out a hand, resting it on her shoulder. She relaxed, her head lowered.
“I don’t want to hurt you.”
It wasn’t a threat. It was a simple statement. Innocent, and torn at the same time. That was the dangerous thing about monsters. They could look just like humans. They could be just like humans. But they weren’t. I clenched my free hand into a fist for a moment around the last grenade. Then I closed my eyes. “If you go, now, if you change back to an object and don’t stop me… There may come a day when my nephew is ready to take hold of his power. When he can help you.” I was silent for a moment. “It’s not a guarantee. Just a source of hope. That’s the best I can offer you.”
She looked up at me, and then nodded. And then she was nothing but a sign-post.
“I would never have expected it of you, Randall Creed.”
I spun. A crow stood on a branch nearby. Iridescent feathers flashed in the darkness, impossibly. There wasn’t enough light. I raised my fists to fight.
“You could never take me, Randall.” There was a moment where I felt what it really was, the power rushing out of it. And my heart pounded once, very loudly, in my chest.
“What are you?” I asked, softly.
“A watcher,” she said. “That boy is special. And I don’t understand why he is special. I did not make him special.”
I took a careful step to the side, moving a little closer to the house. The crow did not move, simply staring at me. “What the hell are you?”
“Do you know the legend of the Rainbow Crow?” the crow asked, head tilted.
“Vaguely. Native American creation myth, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Along those lines.” The crow flitted to another branch. “I don’t know why that boy is able to do what he is. He feels like something new. And that makes me curious.”
“Do you have any idea of how I can stop it?” I asked, my eyes narrowed.
“Do you want to know? I think I have an idea, but it could be a terrible curse. If you allow him to proceed as he is, he will become a champion. The greatest champion. He could be an archmage, a hero like none other. A god, perhaps.”
I narrowed my eyes. “I don’t want that for him. What happens if I stop him?”
“He will be something else, entirely. But is it your place to choose?” I didn’t answer. After a moment, the crow turned its head towards the sign. “Why did you spare her?”
“She was no threat. I was… nostalgic, I guess. I didn’t want to hurt her, and she didn’t force my hand.”
“And why do you want to kill Bastet?”
I was silent. Whatever this was, it knew a great deal about me, and my motivations. “Why don’t you tell me?”
“Because you are ashamed of your weakness, Randall Creed. You are a failure as a human being, and a failure as a hero. And if you do this thing, you will never be anything different. The boy will not follow in your footsteps. Your name will be cursed.”
“Good,” I said. “What do I do?”
“The boy’s heart is the source of his strength. The care he shows for others. His warmth towards others is what draws the monsters to him. It is what heals those around him. It is…”
“… what killed…” I stared up at her. “No. I can’t do that.”
“You shouldn’t do that. I couldn’t do that. I do not have the coldness necessary to do it. Not anymore. I care too much to ever do it.”
“He’s a child. He doesn’t deserve this. I can’t hurt him this way.”
“It is your choice, Randall Creed. You always wanted to have a choice. You always wanted to control the way the world would go. Welcome to the price of your desires.” The crow was silent for a moment. “I am sorry for you, Randall. You try to be the best. You are twisted by what you have done with your life, by your loneliness, by your pain. But you set out with the best of intentions, and I can sympathize with that. It is not too late for you, Randall.”
Then the crow took wing, and flapped away, whirring through the air as I was left alone in the night. I sank down onto my knees, and held my head.
Iris came out of the darkness, holding her arm, blood trailing down her side, but carrying half the highway sign behind her as she approached. The jacket was slashed open in half a dozen places. “Goddamn thing tried to gut me. How’d yours go?”
“She didn’t fight at all. She agreed to go back to normal.” I stared up at the sign post, silently.
So much pain in the world came from a refusal to accept things as they were. When you accepted things, however painful they were, it blunted the pain. Struggle was what caused suffering, ultimately. Struggling against things you couldn’t beat. She hadn’t struggled, and so she’d felt no pain. Now she was waiting, hoping that someone else would save her.
Acceptance meant that you gave up on changing things. You had accepted it. I could never be that way. I could never accept this. I would find something better. I had to find something better. I didn’t give a damn how much pain it caused.
“Let’s go get your son, Iris,” I murmured.
The lights inside Horace’s room were on, casting a warm orange light down onto the lawn. We made our way up the small stairway to the door. It opened into the dining room, the kitchen sitting to our right. I looked up. There was a slice of light visible from the boy’s room, and a soft sound of sobbing.
Iris raced for the stairs, and started up them. She was three steps up when the figure appeared at the top of the stairs. It was already in motion, descending foot first. Human, androgynous, and glowing peculiarly green in the dark, it struck her in the chest, and rode her down, driving her across the slippery linoleum floor. It performed a perfectly elegant backflip off of Iris, and landed on one foot, arms up.
At almost the same moment, the glowing thing’s twin came swinging out of the kitchen. A knife flashed in its hand, glowing weirdly in the light that its own body gave off. It was difficult to tell whether the creature was male, or female, but it was quickly an academic question. It moved with inhuman grace and speed as it slammed the knife into my belly.
I sank to the ground, the strength leaving my legs. I stared down at the knife handle in my stomach, a large chef’s knife. I was dead. My brain didn’t know it yet, but there was no chance of survival. The knife would’ve pierced something vital, and from the blood welling up and gushing down my legs, I had minutes left.
Iris fell back, deflecting blows from the two glowing figures, the wooden blades twirling in her hands as she deflected their strikes. She was stronger than either one of them on their own, she was tougher, faster. But they moved with coordination and grace, and she certainly wasn’t better than both of them at once. She was going to lose. Horace would never be freed. He’d be used as a food source by these fucking monsters. My nephew, the last thing I had left of my brother, would never have anything resembling a normal life. I closed my eyes, and seized hold of the knife.
Pulling it out was painful beyond words. I knew I was doing grievous damage. But that didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except winning, right now. And there was only one way I could win. I yanked the bloody knife out, and threw it aside, breathing hard, blood bubbling from the wound. It must have nicked my lungs. That didn’t matter.
It had been years since the elixir worked. I still remembered the taste, like battery acid with a lye chaser. I flicked open the flask, my vision growing dark at the edges, and held it up. In the old days, a single sip was about as much as a man could take. More than that, and it could do awful things to a man. Tear him apart from inside, drive him berserk, fuck with his head. But everything counted on this.
I drank the whole damn thing down in one long pull. It went down like a salted razorblade, and I had to fight not to choke or vomit it out.
I felt nothing. Just the slow ebb of warm blood running down across my legs, pooling on the ground, slowly collecting around my legs. I stared up as one of the glowing androgynous figures managed to get an arm around the wooden katana, pulling it away from Iris. The other one raised a knife, ready to stab it through her eye.
I realized, watching them, how clumsy they were. Iris was not, in fact, stronger or faster than them. She was better trained. They were more powerful, but they didn’t know how to use that. They were like children, throwing the flailing blows of one who doesn’t know how to use their weight. The knife was held in a clumsy grip that would break so easily with one good flick of the wrist. It didn’t matter for the glowing androgyne, because their grip was so strong.
My fingers wrapped around the wrist, and bent it sideways. It snapped, and the creature let out a shriek of pain, grabbing at it. My other hand slammed into its nose hard enough to break it, jets of bright luminescent green splattering out across my fist, its stomach, the ground below. I followed the blow up with a second to the captured arm’s shoulder, tearing muscle and ligament with the strike as I bent the joint out of place. A third blow landed in the creature’s stomach, knocking the wind out of it. It fell to the ground, gasping, and glaring up at me.
My foot met its jaw, hard, throwing it to the ground. It landed, its eyes closed, arms spread. Vulnerable. Helpless.
I brought my heel up, and slammed it down, once, hard, on the creature’s throat. A second time. A third time. The third time, the creature disappeared. The only thing left on the ground was one of the tiny luminescent stars that had been on the ceiling of Horace’s room, battered and crushed in half, torn cleanly. The things he’d probably stared at while going to sleep each night, the tiny lights which he’d thought about, cared about, so much.
I turned towards the other one. Iris was panting, taking a step back, trying to gather her breath. Tears began to run down the androgynous creature’s character, patterns of light. “You murdered her.” It wiped at its eyes furiously, teeth shining as it bared them. “I’ll kill you, you evil bastard! I won’t let you take our savior!”
It lunged at me. Fast. Faster than any human ever could be. Strong enough to break me in half, the wooden katana in both hands, lifted into the air for a clumsy but unstoppable strike. I sidestepped, and spun. My hand reached the back of the lunging creature’s head, and slammed its face through the glass window in the kitchen door, shattering it. I forced its throat down onto one of the shards of glass, nearly decapitating the creature. Its arms went limp, and then it was gone, along with the blood, another star visible on the ground, torn neatly in half.
I reached down to my stomach. There was no blood there, no deadly wound that was going to take my life in a matter of minutes. I lifted my arm to my face, and rubbed my cheek.
Growing old, you accumulate pains. Like old friends, they remind you of what you have done in the past. A sore joint here, a nagging sharp stab there. You don’t even notice the weight they place on your body, the gradual accumulation of suffering, until it becomes too much to bear, or it is suddenly removed. There’s a reason painkillers are so addictive, and it’s not simply because of their euphoric effects. Chronic pain is debilitating.
All of my pain was gone. I felt, suddenly, and intensely, like a young man again. I was not, the elixir was only temporary, and would never have been this effective normally. But the rush was enough to make me want to laugh.
Except, of course, for the expression on Iris’ face.
“This is why I never wanted you to know,” I said, softly. “They’re not human, Iris. They never were. They were mimics. That goddamn thing stabbed me in the stomach, and would’ve been happy to do the same to you, if we’d let it.”
“I… understand. It’s just…” She looked down at the stars. “I’m not that different from them, now, Randall.” She looked up at me again. “Were you always like that?”
“They’re monsters, Iris. They kill people. Not because they have to. Not because they need to. Because they can. They kill people because people can’t stop them. That kumiho killed you because it could. Because it would make it stronger. Because it would let it do what it liked, and kill more people. It’s only luck that you wound up turning the tables on it.”
“Yeah,” she said, and was quiet for a moment. “But… Forgive me for saying so, Randall. But you enjoyed that.”
I looked away sharply, flinching slightly from the words. There was no point denying it. I wasn’t good at that. “Yeah.”
“How can you enjoy this, Randall? The fear? The pain? The death?”
“Because it’s the only thing I was ever good at, Iris. Oliver could believe in those things, could trust them enough to offer them a second chance, he could maybe even change one or two of them. All I could ever do was kill the ones that wouldn’t listen. That’s what I’m good at.” I rubbed my stomach again, the outfit hanging open. I picked the wooden katana up from off of the ground, and tossed it to her. “And there’s a time to kill.”
She was quiet for a moment, glancing at me. Then the two of us climbed the stairs, together.