“You’re not serious,” said Horace, eyes widening slightly. “Please tell me that the Order of Set wasn’t on the Nazi’s side.”
“Well,” began someone, and I jumped, fluttering and flapping wildly, shocked by the new voice.
“How long have you been here?!” I asked, when I had settled, staring at the pale girl with the snake-like demeanor, giving her a suspicious look.
“I was here when you came in,” she said, her hands crossed, her head tilted to one side, expression quizzical. Then she turned her attention back to Horace, which made me far more comfortable. I hate snakes. “At any rate, there were often members of the Order on any side of a given conflict where monsters could be found.”
“Please tell me Otto fucking Skorzeny was not a member of the Order of Set,” said Horace, resting his face on his hand.
“It is astounding,” said the pale girl, “how many diverse and seemingly incompatible belief systems can all agree that the world should probably not be destroyed in the grips of mad gods.”
“You knew Otto?” I asked, tilting my head quizzically.
“Arrogant nazi with a very obvious scar, it wasn’t hard to guess.”
“Well, no. He wasn’t a member of the Order.”
“My master does not know of my allegiances,” said the eagle. “He knows I am pursuing you to take hold of the eye.” She had alighted on the ground, and towered over me, dark feathers sparkling in the night, her eyes piercing as she watched me warily. I had considered making a break for it, but she’d already showed me she could have killed me if she wanted. “Why did you think that I allowed you to escape?”
“Well, among other things, I did break your breastbone.”
She chuckled. “That was a good one. But I could have kept fighting. I wanted you to break the siege. But there is a problem. What do you know of gods?”
“Lady, I think it’s safe to assume I know jack and squat. I don’t know what the fuck your Order of Set is supposed to be, either.”
“In mythology, Set was the god of chaos, discord. He was the god of foreigners, pale-skinned and red haired. He killed his brother, and tried to kill his nephew. And despite all of this, he was a god of honor. He was the one who protected Ra from Apep, the Dragon that would consume the sun. The terrible men who stand at the borders, who do the unforgivable, and who atone by protecting the human from the threats that lurk in its nightmares.”
“So, what, you think that the eye is going to be in better hands with the Nazis owning it?” I asked, incredulous.
“The whole point is that the Eye of Horus is not meant to be in anyone’s hands. Neither Nazi Fascism nor Soviet Communism nor Allied Democracy can handle the power of a god. I joined Otto because he seeks to gather that power, and because he needed the aid of a demon, one capable, and wise.”
“Wait, wait. So… she was a demon, and a member of the Order of Set?” said Horace, frowning. “I didn’t read anything about that in her file. I was pretty sure that the Order of Set didn’t allow that kind of thing. They seemed pretty humanocentric.”
“I never heard of such a thing,” said the pale young woman, frowning. “And to maintain such a lie, to hide her true identity, particularly from those who would know, would have been a… formidable performance.”
“Yeah, well,” I said, looking to one side. “She was a pretty formidable lady.”
“So, what do you propose I do about all of this?” I asked, tilting my head. “You’re nuts if you think I’m letting the fucking Krauts get their hands on it.”
“It would be just as great a folly to allow that man from the government to possess it. Whatever your feelings may be about our goals in this war, that power is not something that can be held by a mortal. Both sides will burn, and everyone else along with them. You must return this to the II Corps. There, Otto will undoubtedly attempt another raid. Pass it to me during the raid, and we will fake that it has been destroyed.”
“Why can’t we do this little exchange now, if you don’t mind my asking?” I said, head tilted.
“There are only the two of us. If both of us return from our mission claiming it was lost, it will never be believed. In the confusion of a raid on a major fortified city…” She shook her head. “We cannot destroy the power. Physically impossible. Power cannot be created, or destroyed; merely reorganized, and contained. We will hide it in a deep corner of the earth, defended by those who recognize it for the danger it is.” Her voice dropped slightly. “Until another Otto finds it.”
“Let’s assume for a second that I believe that you’re actually trying to do anything, anything here, except help the fuckin’ Krauts win their war and bring on a reign of terror unlike anything the world has seen for a long time. Why the hell can’t this power be used for good? If it could be used to end the war-“
“The power of the gods can never be used for good,” she said, her voice firm. “Do you know how many men have stood where you are, ready to consume the power of a god, ready to bring the world to happiness, to stop tyrants, to save lives, to do all that is good?”
“I’m guessing a lot.”
“Hundreds. Thousands, in the annals of the Order. Do you know how many succeeded?”
I looked aside. “Probably not many.”
“None. The noblest and best have tried. Devout monks. Great heroes. Brilliant fighters. Geniuses beyond compare. When you grasp the power of a god, you, and everything you are, dies. All that is left is a mad god, who wants nothing more but to rip the heart out of the world. It never works, gutter bird.”
“Rock,” I said, sharply. “And what’s your name?”
She let out a soft little cackle. “That is for the people who are closest to me. Those who I trust. If we succeed at this… Perhaps I’ll share it with you, handsome.”
“Sorry, lady. I’m only into humans.”
She winked, a distinctly unsettling thing for an eagle to do. “Well, I’m sure I can fake it. Now. Fly. Otto will push his men hard. The next time we meet, we will have to be enemies. Please, be faster next time.” She chuckled softly- And then winged away, leaving me standing on the desert rock, my head spinning with the new information.
The men of Captain Steinberg’s company would be safe, at least. I could focus on finishing my mission, on getting this to the city. And there…
The miles passed with shocking speed. Before I knew it, I hovered above the city, looking down at the men there.
The world was strange. Huge. Full of wonder and terror alike. Me, I was just a goddamned pigeon. I didn’t know how to deal with gods and ancient conspiracies and the fate of the world. I had always been proud just to carry messages that could save a few lives.
The pouch around my ankle felt as heavy as the world. My wings ached. I wanted, more desperately than anything, to see Jillian. To be by her side, for just a little bit. I’d flown to hell and back; I needed some birdseed and a shot of whiskey.
But there was something to take care of, first. I had my mission to complete, after all.
I flew in through the open window, landing on the desk. Patton looked up from requisition orders, and a map of the area. “General.”
“What’s the news, Captain?”
I reached down, and loosened the pouch’s opening with my beak. “Successfully retrieved the eye. But I’ve got to warn you, the Krauts are fucking likely to try to retrieve this thing. I managed to catch their attention, hopefully saving Steinberg’s company, but I don’t know if it worked.”
“Good job, Captain. Damn good work.” He stood up, and walked over to the liquor cabinet, taking out two glasses. “I was worried when you hadn’t shown up. The Krauts had surrounded Steinberg’s company?”
“Completely. Better part of a battalion, at least.”
“Well, they’d be damned fools to try a direct attack. But a man who can sneak a battalion past me is not to be underestimated. I’ll have everyone on high alert. Well done, Captain. You’ve more than earned a drink. Bourbon?”
“Please.” He set down the glass in front of me, filled to the brim, and sat down with his. I leaned in and drank half the glass, savoring the burning, smoky flavor, before lifting my head. “General. Have you ever heard of the Order of Set?”
It is said that when you die, and go before Saint Peter, you are held upside down and dipped in a barrel of all the whiskey you have ever spilled. If you drown, you are sent to hell. The general, therefore, did not spit out his drink, but he did have a few moments brief trouble getting it down. “Who the hell did you talk to out there?”
“Just a name I heard, General,” I said, with all the caginess of a soldier who knows his superior officer is readying a court martial.
“The Order of Set,” he growled. “You met that government spook. I’ll presume he dropped the name.” Patton glared into the distance. “The Order of fucking Set. Those arrogant sons of bitches.” He looked over his shoulder at me. “You know they were the ones who were guarding the goddamned eye? Kept things a secret. Didn’t even let us know that the Nazis were sneaking around, sniffing it out. They tried to keep us from finding out they’d lost the goddamn thing. The Order of Goddamned Set are traitors, one and all.”
“Don’t really, sir me, Captain. The Order of Set believes that the gods are too powerful, too dangerous, for humanity to be able to grasp their power. They hide those things. They say we’re playing with fire.” He shook his head, glaring out the window. “If mankind hadn’t started playing with fire, we’d still be huddling in the savannas, hooting at the night. This war is a desperate one, Captain. The boffins think that this,” he said, tapping the eye gently, “could change the course of it. Could save a lot of our men from dying as we fight through the Pacific.”
“I heard people have tried before,” I said, probing the waters of Patton’s temper carefully.
“Really? And how did you hear about that?”
“A little bird told me, sir.”
He was quiet for a moment, and shook his head. “Smart-ass. Yeah. People have tried and failed a lot. Before the Wright brothers got off the ground, history was full of cranks who’d tried to do what they did, and a lot of those cranks had died in the attempt. All greatness was born in desperation, captain.” He tossed back his bourbon, and shook his head. “The British can go fuck themselves on a fair number of subjects, but Churchill had it right. Between Hitler and the Devil, I’ll take the Devil every time.”
“Yes, sir. Permission to be dismissed?”
“Permission granted. Go get some rest, Captain. You’ve earned it.”
I fluttered away, back to the roost. As I entered, I saw Jillian, smiling sweetly, reading from Les Miserables to the pigeons. I didn’t have a fucking clue what the story was about, because she insisted on reading it in French, but it always sounded beautiful.
“C’est la souris qui a pris le chat.” She looked up, and her eyes brightened. “Capitaine! You are home, safe! What news? How are the others?”
“Not good,” I said, looking to the side. “The company was mangled badly. Lot of men died, I can only hope the rest escaped safely.”
“And the pigeons? Your fellows?”
I didn’t answer. Jillian looked down slowly, at the book in her lap. The girl had been through so much in her life, so much pain and suffering, to find herself where she was today. I knew what had happened to her family, what had happened to the man she’d been betrothed to. The world had shattered for her, and you’d think she’d have cried enough tears for a lifetime.
But she cried a few more, now, for the sake of a handful of gutter birds dying forgotten and alone on the sand, dying because they’d tried to save the humans who’d cared for them.
That was the reason I kept fighting. That was the reason I pushed, that was the reason I tried to save them. Humans could treat us viciously, they could kill us and scorn us and eat us and all of that was natural and in the nature of the world, which was cold and bloody and full of hate and demanded people do horrible things. It wasn’t shocking that humans could treat pigeons so badly.
No, this was the shocking thing. That a human could cry tears for the bravery and nobility of pigeons, that she could feel her heart ache for us. And how could my heart not ache for her, in turn?
I fluttered onto her shoulder, my talons very carefully not digging into her pale skin, and cooed softly. I put a wing around her head, rubbing my downy chest lightly against her cheek. She let out a soft little cough of laughter, and smiled. “I am sorry.”
“Don’t be. You’re pretty when you cry.”
She laughed a bit more, the sound like bells. She smiled warmly at me. “Such a long trip you have taken. You must be feeling terribly stressed. Perhaps you need a little… relaxation? Some unwinding?”
I grinned. There was something about the release of tension that did bring out certain instincts. “Well-“
“Wait,” said Horace. “Are you going to tell me you had sex with her?”
“Well, I was going to put it a bit more gently than that. What?”
“I mean- Did you take on a human form?”
“I never do that. Not my style.”
“So you- As a pigeon?”
“Well, I mean, it took some imagination, but we had a very healthy-“
“Please don’t elaborate,” said Horace, covering his eyes, looking rather horrified.
“Oh, please!” I waved my wing. “She’s a damn snake. She’s a cat.”
“I don’t have sex with them!” said Horace.
“Not for lack of trying,” said the pale girl, as Bastet snickered.
“Well- I mean- It’s not so much about the whole fact that you are a pigeon. It’s that you were shaped like one. I mean- Jillian-“
“She was experimental, I gathered-“ I started, and Horace closed his eyes tightly again.
“I never much cared for that sort of thing,” said Bastet. “Sex as a cat isn’t very fun. Lots of sharp things, humans have a much more enjoyable time of things. You never even considered experimenting?”
“Well, I considered-“
“Nazis! Fighting Nazis and ancient gods!” said Horace, looking tremendously uncomfortable.
“You can’t get so worked up about this stuff. A good action story can still have a little sexual content, you know,” I said, shaking my head. “Besides, we were both sapient, consenting adults-“
“Please!” pleaded Horace.
“Ah, my darling Capitaine,” purred Jillian, her robe hanging loosely around her shoulders, her hair plastered to her shoulders. She’d taken a brief shower with the aid of a bucket of water and a secluded area, and smiled, smelling of perfume, and under that, certain other, earthier scents-
I noticed Horace glaring. “Hey, look, kid, just because you have trouble embracing your libido and appreciating a fine lady doesn’t mean I have to.”
Bastet grinned. “Let him go on, Horace. It’s very romantic.”
“Birdseed?” she asked, smiling as she held out the small saucer of birdseed. I deigned to take a few bites, relaxing as I roosted on the desk, wings folded at my sides.
“Thanks.” I nibbled a bit at the birdseed, and then looked up at Jillian, my head tilted to one side. “Jillian, you’ve got a pretty broad education. You know a lot of stuff that you shouldn’t.”
“Guilty as charged,” she said, fluttering her eyelashes.
“Not that. I mean… Hell. You ever heard of the Order of Set?”
She was quiet for a moment, her brows knitting. “Yes,” she said, finally. I waited for a moment. She didn’t elaborate.
“What about it?”
“There are many such groups in the world. Those who deal with the supernatural. Almost always secretive. Some of them are organized with governments. I was vaguely aware of one in Europe, a joint operation between France and Germany, though they have remained apart from the war. The Order of Set… They date back to the beginning of human civilization, so far as anyone knows. They are… Well, complicated.” She frowned at me. “What, precisely, are you interested in about them?”
“I’m not sure, exactly. Trying to figure out if I should trust them in something. If I’m even in a position to make a decision, there.” I sighed. “There’s a good chance we’re going to find ourselves under attack again, Jillian. If there is, I want you somewhere safe. It’ll be a targeted attack. Don’t go looking for trouble.”
“Why, Capitaine, have you ever known me to go looking for trouble?” she asked, with all the innocence of a fox.
“Promise me, Jillian. There’s some nasty business going on.”
“I promise, Capitaine,” she said, and leaned forward, giving me a gentle kiss on the cheek. She took out a comb, and rested a hand on my wings, gently stroking them as she began to comb my feathers, removing the sand and loose feathers from the fight. I was lucky they didn’t all fall out from the stress, but it was a pleasant moment to relax, and let her groom me. The simple sharing of a bit of physical contact, and the warm sensation of being close to her. I could, for a short time at least, forget about gods and Nazis and conspiracies and all of the madness that surrounded us.
It wouldn’t last forever, obviously. It would end in a short few hours with the confusion and the colonel’s arrival, with the raid, and the terror and confusion that would follow. For now, I could enjoy this. “Jill? Why do you read to the pigeons?”
“Why?” She smiled softly. “Well, I always thought of the way you described your awakening. That the care and attention given to you is what allowed you to become what you are. A hero. A champion of those who have been forgotten, bringing messages and leading soldiers home. I thought, well…” She nodded her head at the cages. “They deserve the same chance. The chance to understand how much they mean to the people they save, to be able to enjoy the fruits of victory. They deserve what you have, as well. They deserve to know how beloved they are.”
“You don’t think that it’d be painful?” I asked, head tilted, amused. “I mean, a lot of humans are pretty miserable.”
“Perhaps. Pain is part of being human. But I think that I would like to give them the choice to decide, at any rate.”
I nodded, and rustled my feathers, settling myself to roost, eyes closing as I enjoyed her gentle hands grooming me.
It ended all too soon, with black smoke rising into the sky.
The smoking man had stolen a motorcycle, apparently. He’d ridden it hard, escaping from the German encampment. He didn’t look good- There was a bullet in his shoulder, and he was barely staunching the bleeding with a large bandage. He was quite pale, and it wasn’t entirely because of the blood loss. And despite all that, he was giving his report to Patton.
“I am afraid that they are on the verge of assault. It was not clear to me how, precisely, they would attack, but it will be with a targeted strike, knowing the enemy commander. Where is the artifact? We need to remove it from the city, as quickly as possible.”
“Safely contained.” Patton patted a small strongbox beneath his desk. I stood on a small coathook, watching the two of them. Something wasn’t quite right. I listened, and could hear the distant sound of gunfire. Not entirely unknown- It could be someone on a training range- but there was also distant shouting.
“May I see it? We should put it in a lead container- I’ve heard some theorizing that the material may block the aura of divinity that may give it away.”
“Hrn,” said Patton, nodding, as he crouched down, working the strongbox. “Lucky you got away from the Krauts. Especially after they put a bullet in your shoulder.”
“Very fortunate,” agreed the smoking man, watching intently. His expression as the strongbox clicked open was almost hungry.
“So, you Kraut bastard, what happened to Analyst Jones?”
The smoking man tilted his head quizzically.
“I knew the man a long time. Your eyes are wrong. You know, wearing an enemy’s uniform during an attack is a war crime.”
The smoking man chuckled. His body shifted, suddenly, violently, with a crunching of bones, as though he’d stopped hunching over, a scar appearing on his lips, his face changing, a grin spreading across those lips, gruesome and fierce. “Quite so. But we do what we must, in war.”
“Nice,” growled Patton. “Guards!” He looked around, and frowned. There was a distinct lack of guards rushing into the room. Otto held out his palm, a number of sharp gray objects visible.
“Dragon’s Teeth. I sowed a few on my way in. Your guards are quite engaged. My force has penetrated the southern side of the city, and is attacking the civilians there to provide a proper distraction for my extraction. Hand over the eye, General. I would not want to kill such a talent; You will be quite useful when we storm the gods.”
Patton sighed, and stood up, holding what he’d taken from the strongbox. An ivory-handled Single Action Army was cocked. “Any last words, you Kraut son of a bitch?”
“I rather think not,” said Otto, drawing a long dueling rapier from his side, grinning widely.
The gun barked. Otto swept the sword through the air, and completely failed to fall dead to the ground. Patton glared down at the gun, and back up at Otto, firing several more times. Otto’s sword continued to leap and dance.
“A thing you learn in this line of work, general. Guns are so rarely useful against the supernatural. Against gods, not at all. To kill, you must want them dead, and the whole purpose of a gun is to make killing so easy that it means nothing.” Otto smiled, and kicked at the ground. A bullet rolled from his feet, and then fell apart into two perfect halves.
“That’s fucking impossible,” said Patton, rather bluntly.
“Isn’t it just? Hand over the eye.”
“Damn,” said Patton, looking to the side. “Shooting was never my strong suit.” His hand blurred across the desk, and he grabbed the blade sitting on top of it. Four pounds of Pittsburgh steel flashed like the sun as he lunged forward, and thrust the blade forward. Otto dodged to one side, bringing his sword up to sweep Patton’s saber sideways.
“I read about you, George,” said the Kraut, grinning. “Quite a storied life. A swordsmaster. But the United States has never been a place of swordsmanship. You fight like a Frenchman.”
“Thank you,” said Patton, moving quickly, catching one of Otto’s blows on his sword, and lunging, never quite making contact.
“But your age is showing. You are an old man now, and the old, they so often fear death, don’t they?” Otto locked his blade to Patton’s grinning as he pushed forward. Patton was a tall man; Otto was taller, and younger, and stronger. He ran a hand along the scar. “Do you see this? German men do not fear death, Patton. They do not withdraw from it. They welcome the touch of the blade.”
“Yeah? Sounds like you should have been better at dodging,” Patton said, grinning. “And you know, we have a saying. Youth and exuberance are fine tools, but they can never beat old age, and treachery.”
I struck Otto in the side of the head, as hard as I could manage. He grunted, and it was enough. Patton’s blade lashed out, and went straight through Otto’s heart, skewering the man. The Kraut nut stared for a moment, and then sank to his knees. Patton let the sword go with him, breathing hard, wiping his forehead. “You alright, General?”
“Stubborn goddamned bastard. Reminds me of some of the shit that I saw down in Mexico.” Patton spat, and took the eye from the strongbox. “Get this out of here, Captain-“
“Ah, you did have it,” said Otto, grinning as he stood up. Patton stared. “Treachery, George. Always treachery.” Otto smiled, tapping the sword in his chest. “And, dear me. You without a weapon.”
The door slammed open. Two skeletally thin figures, holding bronze weapons and looking only barely human, tumbled forward with it, falling in half. John stood in the doorway. His bagpipe was under his shoulder, and his broadsword was out. He was bloodied in half a dozen places, looking like the Devil come for a stroll out of hell.
“Captain,” said George, gritting his teeth. “Get out of here.”
“I really want to see this, sir.”
I grabbed the eye, and flew, hard, out the window. I swung to one side at a sharp angle, as the eagle swept down from above, barely avoiding her strike as she screamed in outrage. She followed me, sharply, as the two of us winged out across the city. Everywhere was the smell of smoke, and blood. Otto’s company had made good their element of surprise, sowing confusion among the people. I could see the civilians, the soldiers, mixing indiscriminately. The violence and the scent of blood.
“Captain!” shouted the eagle. “We must escape with the eye!”
“So it can be forgotten, again, until some madman decides to use it?!” I shouted back. “It could help people! Save lives!”
“It can do nothing but bring terror and pain, Captain!” shouted the Eagle. “Even now, it begins to wake! The fear, the desire, the emotions, the horror, the belief! Men scream for gods in the midst of war, and they are screaming now! We must get it away!”
I could feel something, I thought. A tingling running up my leg as I clutched the eye tightly against my body. A little pulse of energy.
Then I heard her. A gasp of pain, from a voice that I’d always recognize. My eyes flickered down to the melee. Jillian, a knife in one hand, a German soldier holding her hair. Another three stood around her, a fourth lying bleeding from a wound across his throat, a group of civilians running from the scene, terrified and grateful. She’d always been compassionate. I could figure out she’d been helping, and gotten caught.
I winged down, as quickly as I could. I saw the Kraut raising the gun. God, I tried to reach her. The gun rang out, and she dropped to the ground.
Maybe it wasn’t my fault. There were a lot of people sobbing for friends, loved ones, comrades. But I was the one carrying the eye. I was the one who cried out for someone, anyone, to be able to help.
The sun god winked into life, and the world seemed to fall still. He was handsome, dark-skinned, with long hair that hung around his shoulders, his features perfect. One of the Germans lifted his weapon, and then dropped it as the god met his eyes. He sank to his knees, mouth open, shocked, terrified, as Horus bent forward, and blew life back into Jillian.
“Come,” he said, and there was little me, Jillian, or the Eagle could do to deny him, as he walked through the city. Gunfire slowed, then stopped as he approached, people staring in awe. Soon, there was a regular little parade going through town, people unsure what to do besides follow him as he approached.
John, Patton, and Otto were still locked in a fight. The swords fell to the ground as the God entered the room, and smiled.
“My children,” he said, softly. “You have fought for so long. In confusion, and terror. I am sorry to have left you bereft. I shall protect you. Come.”
“Protect us?” asked Otto, an eyebrow raised. “We summoned you to fight a war.”
“And so I shall.” Horus smiled. “Do not worry. I have not been corrupted. I could feel your fear, your trepidation, as you carried my power. Wondering whether I would punish you, whether I would be mad and terrible. But not I. Never I.” He laughed softly. “Come. Atet awaits us. Let me heal your wounds. Let us be free of this pain and cruelty. This is the work of my uncle.” He shook his head, and then breathed out.
The transition was instant. We stood, suddenly, aboard a ship so large it made the Titanic look like a rowboat. Tens of thousands- The civilians, the soldiers, all of us aboard the ship. Many of them standing up, shocked to still be alive. Horus stood at the head of the barge, smiling. Slowly, his smile seemed to fade.
The ship, I realized, was in quite bad shape. Listing slightly to one side on the tremendous, endless river we found ourselves on. The sands around us were well lit, but black as night, as though obsidian had been powdered. Vines and river algae grew up the sides of the barge, covering it in thick vines. Here and there, ancient bones sat, nearly reduced to dust by age. The wood of the barge was cracked and warped, and the sky was as dark as the sands around us, despite the light that seemed to suffuse everything.
“This barge. Those aboard it. They were immortal,” said Horus, his voice soft, empty, the warm confidence vanished from it. “What happened? I knew that the empire, my kingdom, it would change over the years, but… This?” He looked at Patton quite sadly. “Did you forget me? Forget what I did? Did I not matter?” He looked down again. “How long has it been?”
“What’s the last thing you remember?” asked Jillian, softly, her eyes soft, her expression pained.
“Do not,” said the Eagle. “Do not tell him. Do not.”
“I remember… Cleopatra. The fall of Egypt. Retreating to Ur. And…” He shook his head. “Something happened. How long has it been?”
“About two thousand years,” said Jillian, softly, gently.
“Two thousand. Only a lifetime. And you… forgot about me?”
Instead, everything went terribly wrong.