“You said that Horus healed Jillian. And a lot of other people?”
“Not entirely odd,” said Bastet, leaning back. “Any god can heal. It is simply very, very costly. Add in taking them into their demesne…“
“Domain?” I asked, tilting my head.
“Demesne,” said Bastet. “A place where a god is very powerful. Your House Lar had one, for example, within the confines of the apartment. Part of why she could keep up with Randall for as long as she could. I don’t bother with them. They can be very useful, but they leave you so… bound to them.” She shook her head. “In such a place, a god’s power would be nearly absolute. It is supposed to be very difficult to draw someone into it against their will. For Horus to do something like that…” She shook her head. “He must have already been lost.”
“Well, that makes me feel a lot better,” I said. “I thought I fucked things up royally.”
“He mentioned Ur. Have I heard that before?” asked Horace, frowning.
“The First City. The first attempt by gods to seal themselves away from the world, to create a place where they wouldn’t decay. The path in was known to only a handful.” She sighed. “Stupid plan. You can’t live apart from humans. It drives you mad.”
The howl of mourning was so sharp, so piercing, that tears came to every human’s eye. It was the most utterly bereft sound I had ever heard, the suffering in it more monumental, more utter, than anything I had ever heard before. In that sound was two thousand years of solitude. Two thousand years of abandonment.
I couldn’t really sympathize, to be honest. I was a pigeon.
“You abandoned me!”
“So what?” I said, narrowing my eyes. “People forget when you disappear on them for two thousand years.”
“It was the blink of an eye-“ began the god.
“It was a hundred generations. Where were you?”
“In mourning. For my empire.”
“And you expected them to keep worshipping you? For all of that time? After you abandoned them-“
The god turned his furious eyes towards me. I met his gaze. “Who are you to question me, gutter bird?” he asked, his eyes as hard to meet as the sun. “What have you done to judge me?”
“I’ve spent this war saving lives. And I was far less powerful than you.”
The god looked away. Emotions warred on his perfect face for a few long seconds, before he breathed in, and out. “I must have my worshippers again. I must have my power.” He looked out across us, his expression cold. “You must lay down your lives for me. Be mine. Kneel.”
The command echoed out among the people. It spread like a wave, visible as people fell to their knees. I felt nothing, not being human- I supposed he didn’t care whether I worshipped him or not. I saw the people falling to their knees.
Most of them. As the ring expanded, I saw some had not fallen to their knees. Not many- Maybe one in ten, in round numbers. Of those, half had collapsed to the ground bonelessly, sobbing, shaking. Most of those remaining looked confused, looking among their fellows, wondering why they hadn’t done the same.
One in a hundred were staring at the god with the most unsettling expression.
“So many,” said Horus, his eyes narrowed. “You have forgotten your place. Forgotten your fear, forgotten your awe. Have you grown proud? Or is this simply a consequence of the herd going without culling?” He shook his head. “Let it begin now, then. Those who stand, step forward and kneel if you wish to be spared. If you bend knee to me, swear your allegiance to me, then I will spare you. For your strength, your will, I can even see myself rewarding you. To truly have a choice to submit, and to do so… That is a rare and beautiful thing.”
Patton was still standing. So was Otto, and Jillian, and John. I wondered about that. They were, to be certain, fairly strong-willed people. But looking at all of the others- There wasn’t anything that united them. Somewhat more men than women, but considering how many of those here were soldiers, and thus only men, not strange. The same for race, physical build. Rank, even, from what few I could see. There were majors sobbing on the ground, and ancient Tunisian grannies who looked ready to throttle the god.
“If I might ask,” said Otto, smiling pleasantly. “How do you intend to kill us?”
“I will leave this place with my true followers,” said Horus. “I will let you die here, of starvation. Slow. Painful. I am the only path in, and out of this place. In truth, I do not wish to kill anyone,” he said, softly. “I will only allow you to reap the consequences of your actions.”
“Well,” said Otto, smiling, as he stepped forward. “I would do a great deal to avoid a death like that.”
“Nazi fuck,” said Patton, his expression terribly vicious.
“Come now, George. You must see which way the winds are blowing,” said Otto, approaching Horus while gesturing back towards Patton with his left hand. “And you personally know what I am willing to do to sur-“
The words ended in a blur of movement, which ended with Otto bringing his right hand around in a fine arc which would have plunged a wickedly sharp knife into the hollow of Horus’ throat and through his heart, had it not been for the unfortunate fact that his hand and the knife passed entirely through Horus without cutting a goddamn thing. Otto was left stumbling forward, through Horus, looking quite embarrassed. Horus simply sighed, and shook his head.
“Pathetic. Do any of the rest of you wish to surrender, now that you know resistance is hopeless?”
Say this to their credit. Not a single one of the humans who still remained bent their knee. They watched him, some with fear, some with trepidation, some with blind hate, as he let his gaze run across the crowd.
“So be it. I shall end the war.”
And then he was gone.
“Well,” said Patton, as he sat down, and sighed. “This is not how I expected to die.”
“Really?” said Otto, glaring. “How did you envision yourself going?”
“I don’t know. Grand last stand, some incredible feat of heroism, maybe even just an unlucky shot fired on a battlefield. I thought I’d get a chance to spit in the eye of the man who killed me, at least.”
John frowned, and took out a pair of binoculars, staring into the distance.
“See anything?” asked Patton.
“Quite a lot of black desert. Don’t think we’re going to cross that thing, sir.”
“Shit,” said Patton, glaring. “So, what the fuck do we do?”
“We surrender,” said the eagle, softly.
“Not going to happen,” said Patton.
“We surrender, and hope that my plan works. If it does- If it does, we will all die here. But he will be trapped within this place, unable to escape, for as long as my will holds out.”
“And how long is that?” asked Patton, an eyebrow raised.
“I do not know. Years. Decades. Centuries, perhaps. I am old, and capable. I can hold my own against a god, for a time, in such a battlefield. All I will be doing, after all, is lulling him back to sleep.”
“That’s…” I shivered. “That sounds nightmarish.”
“Yes. I am given to understand that in those occasions where someone has managed it, it consumes their soul. Slowly, painfully. It takes a very certain mindset to do such a thing.”
“What’s your plan?”
“I cannot speak it out loud. Not here, in the center of his power. I can only ask you to trust me.”
“This plan,” I said, my head tilted. “Does the Order of Set use it a lot?”
“No,” she said, softly.
“The Order of Set,” said Patton, his eyes narrowed. “So. You were the one who talked with the Captain, eh?” He looked over at me. “I thought you couldn’t lie.”
“Lying is a funny thing, general. There’s a lot of things you can do that aren’t lying, but are still misleading.” I shrugged my wings. “So. You have a plan. And you need us to trust you. Why can’t we get home?”
“Because if this works, Horus will no longer be himself. The only being capable of shifting anyone from here to there will have become… incapacitated. The veil between worlds is impossible to open, without the power of a god.”
“Well,” said John, “It sounds a great deal better than allowing a mad god to strike out and conquer the Earth.”
“He said he was going to end the war,” I said. “What does that tell you?”
“That he’s a megalomaniac who’s going to open up another front,” said Patton, growling. “I don’t think that he’s going to be satisfied with just telling everyone to sit down. You heard him. He’s got empire-building on his mind. He’s not going to make peace. He’s just going to start another war.”
“It is not in the nature of gods to bring peace,” said the eagle, softly.
I wondered, for a moment, if it would be so bad for the world to have peace. Even if it was under a god.
I paused. Horace tilted his head. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” I said, gruffly.
“It’s clearly not nothing.” He frowned. “What’s the matter?”
“I didn’t agree to it because I thought Horus was doing the wrong thing,” I said, softly. “I thought, maybe, he could bring some peace to the world. Stop the war. Stop people from being at risk of dying. But the thing was… I didn’t want the war to stop.”
“You couldn’t have known-“
“It didn’t matter to me whether he could have stopped the war. The war was beautiful. The war was where I mattered. The war was where I was a hero, where I saved lives, where I mattered. Without the war- Who was I? What was I worth?” I looked down. “Just a gutterbird. That’s why I agreed. That’s why I let her sacrifice herself. Because I didn’t want the war to end.”
“I’ve heard a lot about you, Rock. But I don’t believe that for a second.”
“You wanted to help people. To save them. Maybe you did it for the glory, although from what I’ve heard, you were willing to die to give everyone a chance to live out from under the heel of a god. No one would have ever known what you did. No one would have given you any glory for what you all did. That was something admirable.” He looked away for a moment. “You sound like the kind of person I wish I was.”
I was quiet for a moment. Then I fluttered over onto Horace’s shoulder, and cooed softly, rubbing my head against his cheek. He smiled a bit. “Hey, kid. You gave a homeless vet a warm place to stay for the night and a good meal. That means a lot to me.” I fluttered back down to the table, and saw that Bastet was watching me, less with a hungry look, more with an appraising one. Perhaps even something approaching gratitude, a truly alien expression on a cat’s face. “So. Her plan. It was simple enough, really.”
“Swallow the power,” said Horace, softly. “Make the god manifest. And… trap it? In a fight?”
Horus appeared, a smile on his face. Cocky. Arrogant. I’m not sure how the eagle knew which eye to go for- She’d been doing this for longer than me. She knew things I never would. She hit his face at high speed, and her claws seized around the eye, passing through the rest of his body as though it wasn’t there, because it wasn’t. She took the eye as Horus screamed in pain, a high, birdlike scream that shattered the air around us. And before he could strike her down, she swallowed the eye whole.
She flopped to the ground, retching, twisting, her body arching, wings flapping loosely, as though trying to gain altitude, driving her skidding across the barque. Jillian reached down, quickly, grabbed the eagle gently, pinning her wings against her sides, and whispered something soft, hushing the bird. I watched as the eagle twisted in Jillian’s grip, the fight slowly going out of her.
“I can feel it,” she whispered, softly. “Horus. Fighting. Struggling. He does not want to sleep. He does not want to be… calm.”
“You can’t win?” I said, softly, feeling the pain in my chest. Watching her slowly fade, the fire and the light going out of her eyes, replaced by something… else.
“Of course not,” she said, softly. “We are not gods, gutter bird. We cannot beat them. All we can do is… fight them.” She smiled. “Lean closer, gutter bird. I have something I want to tell you.”
I leaned my head a little bit closer, nervously, as that beak still looked awfully sharp. I leaned in until our feathers brushed. And she told me her name.
Horace, Bastet, and the pale girl all stared, eyes wide. “What was it?” asked Bastet. “Her name, I mean.”
“I don’t know,” I said, softly. “I can’t remember. She died in war, and the memories just… faded. Never knew what her story was. Never knew how she joined the Order of Set. I made up a lot of explanations for it in my life, but it just went… untold. I thought for a long time that I might end up the same way.” I looked to the side. “Nice to know that I won’t.”
“How did you get out of the place?” Horace asked, tenting his fingers, leaning forward, looking very intent.
“Well… That’s the funny thing.”
“No supplies. The water’s fresh, so we won’t die of thirst. There’s quite a lot of people here,” said Otto, observationally.
“Lots of guns, too. We could just shoot ourselves,” said Patton, gruffly. “No one is coming to rescue us. I’d rather not spend my last days recreating the Donner Party when we have no hope of escape.”
John got out his bagpipes. He took a deep breath. Patton cocked one of the revolvers.
“John, I respect you like I respect few men in this world. But don’t you dare play those bagpipes where I cannot easily escape them.”
“If we’re going to die, it’s best to die to the strains of a bagpipe,” said John, looking completely unphased by the gun.
“Is our situation not hopeless and desperate enough without adding in the strains of bagpipe music?” asked Otto, sighing softly.
“Well, I changed my mind. Play on, John. Auld Lang Syne, if you will.”
“Christ, sir. Must I?” said John, frowning. “That song always brings a tear to my eye.”
“We’re all dead men. The war’s over. Nothing left for it but to get it over with. If there are any tears left in you, this is the time to cry them.” Patton crossed his arms as John began to play the song.
The English soldiers caught the song quick enough. The Americans only moments after them. The Germans and the Tunisians were a bit slower to catch onto it, but they began to sing it. Finally, Jillian started the chorus, her soft voice filling the air.
They all wanted to go home. They wanted to escape from this. They wanted to find their way back.
“Don’t,” croaked the eagle. Her eyes opened, dull. “Don’t. Not again. Don’t make my sacrifice in vain, gutter bird.”
“I can’t,” I said, softly. “I can’t leave them here.”
“What?” asked Jillian, her eyes furrowed.
I opened my wings, and flew into the air, flapping wildly, back and forth.
“It’s no damn good,” said Otto, shaking his head. “You’re a petty demon. This is the domain of a god. What do you think you can do?”
“There’s got to be a way out. I can always find a way home. That’s what the war is to me!”
“War is death!” said Otto, his eyes hard as he looked up at me. “It is the end of civilization, it is the madness and the horror, it is the final cleansing fire that executes all those who are unworthy, and as we have failed-“
His statement was cut off as I cut through the world, into Tunisia. I laughed wildly, and dove back into the air above the barque.
“No!” screamed the eagle. “After all I gave! After all I did-“
“I’m sorry,” I said, and dove once more.
It was a strain. I felt the weight of everyone there. Every human, dragging me down as I beat my wings, pulling them through from the darkness. And back home.
I hit the ground, hard, spun, landed hard. I sat on the dusty ground. Around me, the people began to appear, as though pushing their way past a veil. I felt my head spinning. The sheer effort of it left me reeling. Even the cheers couldn’t seem to fill the hole deep inside of me, yawning open, in the face of all that had happened. I let myself sink into the hands of Jillian as he held me.
“Fuck,” said Patton, as he stared up at the sky.
There, the falcon spun in a widening gyre, the sun blazing behind its back. It screamed, and the sound filled the air.
“He’s physical,” I said. “We can hurt him.”
“Not from down here, we most certainly can’t. Where the hell is the fucking RAF?”
“Sir. I have an idea,” said John. He took out a flare.
“Artillery? In the middle of a city? Even landing a hit on the damned bird is going to be nearly impossible.”
I ruffled my feathers, and stood up. “Give it to me. I’ll tangle him up. Pin him down. Distract him long enough. We just need one lucky hit, right?”
“Christ. Get the field guns. Jillian! You’re with me, girl!” said Patton, grabbing the flare from John, and handing it to me.
“That is suicide, Capitaine,” said Jillian, her brows knit, her eyes fit on her hand.
“For a human? Definitely. For me?” I grinned. “I just have to be faster.”
One last time, I rose into the air, and flew like the devil was chasing me. I snapped open the flare with a tug of my talons, and it began to burn and smoke, the red light filling the air.
I could see the flash of Aldis lamps below, and semaphore flags- signalers watching me, sending word back to the artillery corps on the edge of town as I lunged past the falcon. It let out a high, enraged scream at me, winging its way after me. Maybe it was Horus, looking for the one who had defied it. Maybe it was the Setite Eagle, enraged that I had made her sacrifice worthless. Maybe it was just a hungry hawk, spotting its prey.
Whichever one was chasing me, it was stupid. It followed me heedlessly, its cries piercing the air as it followed me.
I danced out onto the outskirts of town, where the people had fled, and out into the open hilltops. I danced and flew through the air, tracing tight curves around the bigger, clumsier, deadlier opponent, never letting Horus draw a bead on me. A dogfight to match the greatest aces. As it went on, I could hear the distant thumps.
Artillery shells began to fall around us. Scattered, at first, and then growing thicker. They struck the ground, sending spray and dirt flying up, blinding both of us, smoke and the scent of gunpowder filling the air with confusion.
It was a suicide mission. I could feel my reserves of energy dwindling so quickly. I had barely anything left in the tank after the day I’d had, and here I was, far from anyone to see me. All I could feel was a single glimmer of hope, someone watching, praying for me. It wasn’t enough. I felt the falcon’s talons as they pierced into my sides.
Horus screeched with triumph. Dumb bastard, the artillery was falling faster by the second, and it was only a matter of time until a shell pancaked us against the ground. Guns might not be any good for wanting a human dead, but artillery managed the argument through sheer weight of power. We’d die together. That was probably alright.
People would forget about me, too.
Fire exploded in my wing. Pain unlike anything I could imagine, and seemed to spread out, ripping across my back, a pain that left my mind reeling. Horus spun away. I realized then that my perspective was wrong. I was flying away from Horus, pulled by the weight of some terrible thing. There was a thump, and I struck the ground. I stared at my right wing, perforated by a massive arrow. On its end was a pigeon feather. I looked up, and saw a shell catch Horus right in the center of the back. Eighty pounds of heavy steel and gunpowder drove the falcon down into the earth, out of sight.
“Son of a bitch,” I groaned, and passed out.
When I came to, I was in the aviary. I’d been bandaged heavily. Jillian sat over me, tears running down her cheeks. John and Patton were there too, and of all people, the smoking man, who had a cigarette in one hand. The smoking man puffed once at the cigarette, and frowned. “Is he alright?”
“Tough as brass,” said John, shaking his head. “I’d worried the arrow would do more damage than the eagle’s claws.”
“It was a clean shot. Veterinarian said he’d be up and flying in a month or two. In the meantime, Otto’s on his way home. Poor bastard, Hitler doesn’t cotton much to failure. Probably going to have the man shot or something like that.” Patton shook his head. “Saved the lives of everyone in that company, everyone in the II Corps, and then very possibly everyone in the world, Captain. You may have either an honorable discharge, or a shot of bourbon.”
“Bourbon, sir, please,” I said, hoarsely.
“Thatta boy. I wouldn’t have made the offer if I weren’t sure which one you’d chosen.” Patton took out a flask, and unscrewed the top, pouring a generous double.
“He is quite injured and convalescing, General,” said Jillian, her French accent thickening as it always did when she was in a chastising mood.
“All the more important that he get a shot.”
“General,” I said, hoarsely. “Horus. The eye. What happened to them?”
“Horus caught an artillery shell. Pinned and barraged for the better part of half an hour. The only part of him we found was the eye, petrified and unbroken,” said the smoking man. “We’ve sent it back to the States. We’ve got top men working on it now.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Fellow by the name of Oppenheimer.”
“Never heard of him,” said Patton.
“As I said.” The smoking man smiled. “Top men. Now, gentlemen, madam… We have known for some time that the Nazis were interested in the artifacts of the Order of Set. Now we have seen that they are beginning to gather them. The world is full of strangeness. Full of terror, and intrigue. This war has been a gruesome, bloody affair, but it has been fought by men. That is on the verge of changing, and if it does…” He slowly puffed on the cigarette, and blew a great cloud into the air. “The consequences may be dire.”
“Yes,” I said. “What do you expect us to do about it?”
He smiled, as smoke curled up from his nostrils.
“So, you kept fighting monsters.”
“Sure. Tons of them. Otto came back, as you can probably guess. Fought that Nazi fuck until the end of the war, and ran into him more than a few times after that. The others…” I shook my head slowly. “It was a hell of a time. A lot of people died. A lot more didn’t, because I saved them. It was a beautiful time. Terrible, and vicious, and bloody, but I meant something. Then I came back, and found that everything I’d done, all I was, it was… outdated.” I hung my head.
“You fought enough-“
“I can still fight. I can still fly! I can still be useful. All I ever wanted was to save humans, and… Eventually, they stopped needing me. It felt like they forgot about me.” I waved a wing out the window. “All my brothers and sisters out there, we’re nothing but vermin now. People forgot about us. They can’t help it, but I know, I guess… A little… about how Horus felt.”
Horace reached out, and scratched gently behind my head. It wasn’t something I really enjoyed, but it was his attempt to do something kind, so I accepted it with good grace. “I’m sorry people treated you like that. You deserved more.”
There was something about that kid. Something about the way he spoke, something about the way his words felt. It was like being around the whole gang again. Being around everyone who cared about me once more. “You really think so?” I asked, and chuckled. “I don’t regret it. I don’t regret a moment of it.”
“Yeah. But people deserve to know.” He put down the notes. “I’ve got a friend. Harold Schmooli.”
“What, that crazy conspiracy theory guy?”
Horace looked at me. He looked at Bastet. “You know about Betty. Right? And you fought actual demon-summoning Nazis.”
“Yeah, but… I don’t know, Atlanteans, they sound like a hoax to me. Fish people? In New York?”
“There’s an Atlantean mission- right down the street, it’s /right by here/-“ He shook his head. “He’d heard about you, apparently. It’s part of what inspired me to track you down. He wants to write down your stories. He’s really fascinated by the idea of making them into a kind of pulp series. He suggested- and I don’t know how serious he was- that there could be a movie deal.”
“Could Tom Cruise play me?”
Horace paused, looking slightly bewildered. “I… guess? I mean- You could probably play you. Or at least provide the voice.”
“Nah, nah, I always wanted Tom Cruise to play me if I ever got a movie.” I puffed up my chest, feeling a warm little sensation in my heart. “You really think people would be interested to hear about my story, huh?”
“Of course. People love heroic animals. They’re a lot more noble than humans.” He smiled.
“Why did you want to know about all this, anyway, kid? You seem to know a lot more about what’s going on here than you let on.”
“Not quite. Just… Some experiences I’ve had. You ever learn who that smoking guy worked for? What his name was?”
“Nope. Never did.”
He nodded, and stared down at the paper. “Oppenheimer. Top men.” He seemed very angry about something, suddenly.
“Don’t worry about it.” The anger vanished like a breeze. It was a little unsettling to watch it disappear so smoothly, to be honest, but the kid genuinely didn’t seem angry anymore. “Yeah. I want to see you share your stories. You thought of a title for this one?”
“Of course. Captain Rock Dove and the Nazi War Hawks in the Skies of Tunisia!”
“Well,” said Horace, not making eye contact, “we’ll see if we can come up with anything better.”
But there was obviously no way that they could.