Being dormant is nothing. Being dormant, for a god, is a long, dreamless sleep. You blink and a century has passed. You blink again, and BLAMMO!—moveable type! Next thing you know, mortals are riding around inside big metal cows, shooting invisible info-rays across the sky, and worshipping the Shiny Box of Mysteries That Devours Flaccid Bread And Gives Back Mighty Toast. No, it’s that twilight state of being not-quite-dormant, not-quite-awake that’s the problem. It wasn’t blackness that surrounded us. I wish it were. Black is a color. It implies bats, and gnarled trees eating the moon, and clouds filling the sky with treasure maps so fleeting that only lunatics dare follow. What surrounded us was nothing, an utter absence of color, and it hurt the eyes to look at.
Three cards came sliding over the surface of the golden death ferry. Six, four and three. The only way I’d get money out of them would be to paper-cut the other players into submission, grab the pot, and run away laughing. So a pessimist might say, but I took it as an invitation to bluff. Imposing my will on the universe! Forcing reality to conform to my desires! I grinned indecently, fanning myself with my cards. Let them wonder.
“She’s bluffing again,” said the tangled knot of colored air to my left.
“I’m far too inscrutable to dignify that with a response,” I said, trying to impose my godly might on the cards. Something stirred deep inside me—a power long dormant, or indigestion?—and I was startled to see my own face grinning back at me from the cards. Too bad the numbers were still the same. “Anyway, how late to the party do you have to be if your power is making echoes?”
“First, it’s more of a supervisory position. Second, is it my fault the ancient Greeks were sexist?” Echo shot back. “Heck, I could’ve handled volcanoes, or the sun, or—”
Echo sighed. “For the last time. There wasn’t a Greek god of dinosaurs.”
“What about Dino-nysus? Get it?” I laughed crazily. “Oh, come on! That was funny!”
“Full house,” she announced, chiming burgundy and grey.
“Grock have five of a kind!” boomed the giant norseman to my right.
I sighed. “Grock, honey, they’re not the same.”
“This one—card!” he said, tapping it with a giant hammer. “This one—card! Both same thing! ALL same thing! Five of a kind!”
“Full house beats five of a kind,” I said smoothly.
Grock grimaced. “Sometimes Grock, God of Thunder, wish he Grock, God of Straight Flush.”
“Did someone say ‘wish’?” asked Zaram al-Abjun, his doglike ears pricking up.
“I wish I had five aces,” Echo said promptly.
“I wish I had six aces,” I shot back.
“All your wishes are granted,” the djinni said magnanimously, “which is why it’s too bad we’re now playing dominoes!”
Sure enough, spotted black tiles littered the death ferry. It was a little hard to tell, given his steaming reddish skin and canine muzzle, but I think he was laughing at us.
“Are you even a god?” I asked. “People didn’t worship you, did they?”
“They told stories about me,” he said proudly. “Why, I once seduced three entire harems in one day! Which, thanks to the near-sightedness of three brother Sultans, was just one woman with a lot of outfits, but still!”
“Let me show you how impressed I am,” I said, and yawned.
“Go ahead, try me!” the djinni insisted. “I can do anything!”
“I wish…” I faltered, a plaintive note entering my voice. “…I wish I knew what was going on.”
For thousands of years I’d slept, unknowing and dormant, until a sudden influx of power had drawn me into this in-between place. It didn’t make sense. Did any mortal alive still know my name? Who on earth would bother worshipping me now? Weirdest of all, when I’d reached out to kindred souls—sharing my power, waking them along with me—I hadn’t gotten fellow Egyptians but a hodge-podge ranging from Persia to Europe. In a nutshell: What the hell?
Zaram nodded gravely. “You wish to know what is going on?” he said importantly.
“Molecules bump into each other,” he declaimed, “as molecules are wont to do. Certain aggregations of molecules waste time trying to attach universal Meaning to what, after all, is a dance of accidental collisions that began at the first stroke of time and will not end until a million aeons after the last living heart has beat its last.”
“I meant at a slightly more local level,” I said.
Zaram shrugged. “Sorry. Out of wishes.
“What about you, Sakma… Sarco…” Echo paused. “Samantha. What’s your power?”
“Power?” I snorted, smoothing out long white robes crossed by a diagonal band of chunky, squared-off gold plates. “I was an Egyptian princess of brief and minor divinity. You think I got something as cool as a power?”
“Sammy is big!” Grock insisted, electricity crawling through his hair. “Sammy is mighty!”
I smiled. “Okay, fine,” I said. “You know the pyramids? If you dug out all the sand, you’d find out what they really are—hats. On mega-titanic statues of me. I always was ahead of my time, stylistically.”
“Ahead of what?” Echo snickered, “frogs wearing suspenders?”
“Prove I don’t exist!” I insisted. “You can’t! Therefore, God! Bam! Gotcha!”
I turned back to the game. It wobbled dementedly from one frame of reference to another, occasional spates of ill-phrased wishes changing it from dominoes to go-fish to pick-up-sticks to—at Grock’s insistence—Candyland. We just told him it was called “Eternal Resting Place Of The Heroic Dead, With Candy.”
“We honor the fallen,” Grock intoned, his massive hand blessing a cherubic cardboard child.
A gentle tug at my foot made me look down. I’d been idly kicking at the Nothingness beneath us: Spurred by some odd combination of Power and Will, something had formed there—a vertiginous, twisting tunnel to the mortal realm, about big enough for a mouse. It meant escape… a chance to return to full wakefulness. I casually put my foot across it and pressed, willing it to close.
“Sammy?” Grock, damn it all, was tall enough to see what I was doing. He tried to scratch his head and nearly brained himself with his hammer. “Why not go to mortal realm? Why not wake up?”
“Who needs the real world?” I said bitterly. “There’s nothing for me there.”
Silence fell. I stared straight ahead. Grock ostentatiously looked the other way, and with all the subtlety of a landslide pushed several of his game pieces over to me. Zaram waved his hand and turned them to chocolate.
“I promise not to explain depression to Grock,” Echo whispered, chiming sunrise orange.
“Oh goody. Because…?”
“He’s sworn to crush anything that makes you sad under his mighty and sundering hammer. What if he realizes it’s your own brain making you sad?”
“Wha?” Grock asked around a mouthful of cardboard children.
“Nothing!” Echo hastily said. “Hey, look, a penguin dressed as a platypus!”
I sat up a little straighter. After all this, after so very long, yes—I had friends. I couldn’t see what it would help, telling them, but then, I couldn’t see what it would hurt, either.
“Do you know what it’s like, being royalty?” I asked. “Neither do I. I can’t remember, it was so long ago. But I remember the end. There was a drought. Since I’d failed my people as a living god…” My breath caught in my throat. “…the high priests decided to relieve me of the encumbrance of flesh, to see if I’d be more effective in a more, well, spiritual state.”
“Such beautiful names mortals invent for murder,” Zaram murmured.
“I was dragged through the streets, past tens of thousands of joyful citizens. I still remember the relief on their faces. They were going to be saved. I remember that I stopped screaming halfway there, because only the children listened, and they were too young to deserve such terror. I remember… the altar…” I looked up. “If it’s people like that giving me power, I don’t want it.”
“You were mortal, once?” Echo said quietly.
“She was a stupid, silly girl, and she died a very long time ago.” I drew a ragged breath. “Mortals. Look at them. So much potential, so much humor and grace—and they reduce their lives to a pathetic grey nothing, filled with rules and duty and hate. They don’t deserve to adore me.”
Grock set down his hammer and thumped his chest with a fist the size of a ham. “Grock thanks the mighty all-father for his new friends Zaram and Echo and Sammy,” he said gravely, “who like Grock for being Grock, and not banish him to the frozen darkness just for wanting to fill his hands with precious, precious salt, and tripping, and breaking his father’s sampo, and tripping even harder, and kind of maybe dropping the pieces.” He coughed. “Into the ocean.”
Zaram doubled over in silent laughter. Fortunately, Grock didn’t see it. “Aww,” I said, exchanging baffled looks with Echo. “Poor guy. There there. We’ll get you a six-pack of sampos. All the sampos you want, I promise.”
The giant norseman grabbed me in hug that would have jellied a boar.
“No enemy will hurt you!” he swore. “If he wants to reach Sammy, he gets face full of Grock, first!”
“Whoof!” I said, colored stars dancing before my eyes. “I’m touched,” I said, struggling to escape. “Maybe a bit more than I wanted.”
“Me, I can’t wait to get out of here,” Echo said. “I’m going to visit a movie set. All those sound guys with their big, sexy microphones, devoting their whole lives to echo and reverb and all that. They’d get me, I just know it.”
“Too little, too late,” Zaram al-Abjun said. “If I get out, I’m going to make the first intriguing young woman I meet choose the manner of her own dying, see if I don’t.”
“What if she wishes to die at a ripe old age, surrounded by friends and loved ones?” I asked.
“Can’t be helped!” Zaram said with a sly grin. “Those are the rules. And if my ‘victim’ happened to have laughter in her soul and a risque wink in her eye, and she looked knowingly at me and wished to die of sexual exhaustion at the end of a long and happy life… what choice would I have but to begin granting her wish immediately!” He paused, smile fading as he examined his smoky hands. “Who wants a body, anyway? Sex is in the mind. Bodies are for chumps and people who enjoy falling down wells.”
Drumming my fingers on the golden death ferry, I suddenly noticed tiny holes forming beneath my fingertips, little tunnels to the mortal realm. I put my hand over them, but then my eyes fell on Grock, Zaram, Echo. Maybe I wasn’t ready… but didn’t they deserve the chance to live again? Impulsively, I stuck my fingers into the holes and worked them back and forth, enlarging and merging them into one bigger hole. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but as long as it was working…
“Sammy?” Zaram asked, brow furrowing in concern, his ruddy skin steaming more than usual. “You’re turning see-through, and believe me, that’s not a good look on a woman.”
“Oh? And how do you like your women?” Echo demanded.
“Eight feet tall, six arms, and really good at dancing,” Zaram said promptly.
The tunnel was getting bigger. I plunged both arms into it, trying to open it wider. I found myself sliding inside without any effort on my part. “Grab my robes!” I shouted. “Hurry! I think I’m about to—”
The universe turned upside-down and inside-out, bloomed into itself and gave birth to Reality. Well, that’s what it felt like. I tumbled across a hard stone floor, astonished by how quickly and easily I’d crossed back into The World. A curious corner of it, too, huge and dark, some abandoned temple or towering warehouse. A resounding crash told me that Grock had arrived, too.
“Shhh!” I hissed.
Echo arrived, tried to stop, and ended up actually overlapping me. My hiss echoed out of control, turning into the sort of thing that would make a family of hydras nod in approval. Then Zaram arrived, overlapping us both, which took an ungodly amount of time (trust me) to sort out. I can’t prove he kept stepping the same way as me on purpose, but I got irked enough to smite him, or try to. A very startled vole popped into being just over his shoulder, coursing with holy flame, and then vanished. He didn’t notice.
Grock held his hammer high overhead, casting a dim light over our surroundings. Relics of Egypt’s lost power surrounded me: Stone sarcophagi, painted totems, jade statues peering at me from all-too-knowing eyes. I shivered. These were no dead things—they were the remnants of gods, faded but not gone, dormant but not dead. A gold-and-lapis mask caught my gaze and held it, heat hammering into my brain in a wordless howl of hate. With great difficulty, I wrenched my eyes away. Oh yes, there was power here!
“Look!” Echo whispered. A little farther on, shelves rose high into the dusty air, packed with an exuberant variety of coagulated Greek deities. “What’s with all the plain white stone?” she demanded, scandalized. “Graceful, elegant, minimalist—blegh! Talk about boring! Someone get me some finger paints, I have to fix this.”
“Over here!” Zaram flapped his hand excitedly. Past another edge of the Egyptian area lay the Persian: Golden statues, painted icons, brass bottles, gleaming jewelry. I have to admit, I was entranced by an ostrich egg whose entire surface was inscribed with bizarre and spectacular tales, describing the exploits of she who was bound within. “One of my old gang,” Zaram said fondly.
“She caught an island fish?” Echo asked skeptically, examining one of the etchings.
“Perhaps she did, perhaps she didn’t. Certainly it was a magic fish, since it kept getting bigger in the retelling. Ah, how we sang and danced and drank until the stars fell from the sky! As big as an island? Pah! The whole ocean was but a tear in its eye!”
I concentrated, letting all the knowledge I’d absorbed during my long slumber sort itself out. “We’re in a museum,” I said slowly, “in a university of the New World, in the land of Beer and Cheese.”
“Valhalla!” Grock cried rapturously. “Chunky sweet nectar of heaven!”
“We’re not in Greece?” Echo asked plaintively, “or Hollywood?”
“College students, eh?” Zaram al-Abjun said reflectively. “I wonder how many cute girls have studied the Arabian Nights? I mean the real ones, the gloriously stupid and randy ones, before various religious authorities shackled everything to the ill-fitting manacles of their idiotic morality…”
“Wait.” Cocking my head, I held up my hands for silence. “Did you hear that?”
The others exchanged puzzled glances. Something skittered away, an arrhythmic five-legged gait. While that may have been all kinds of disturbing, it wasn’t what I’d heard. Echo started to speak, but I raised my hands higher. There. Not far away, quick footsteps crossed the museum floor. I followed the sound, ducking between shelves packed with fossilized gods. Leering idols watched me, but offered no advice. Petrified saints proudly displayed their agonies, but did not bless me. Coalesced blobs of metaphysics shimmered patiently, but offered no secrets.
Peering around a corner, I finally spotted my quarry: A black-cloaked figure creeping down one of the aisles. It seemed to know exactly where it was going, which made its furtiveness all the stranger. If it knew this place, if it belonged here, why be so secretive? I sniffed the air: It was oddly easy to tell I was looking at a mortal, here in this place of broken gods. I only had to feel for an absence of weirdness, a cessation of power, like a chill current in a lake. This was mortal’s business, then. Just ignore the whole thing and wait for it to go away (which it would, inevitably; sleep just a little, and no mortal left alive will remember the mightiest triumph or most terrible sin of the age when your eyes first closed). There was only one problem: I was curious. I know, I know. Curiosity is a weakness, final proof that one isn’t nearly as omniscient as she’s been letting on to her friends. I self-consciously adjusted my robes as Echo swooshed up at my side.
“I already know what he’s up to,” I said defensively. “Pretending that I don’t and want to find out is just… being ineffable. I’m a god! I get to do that!”
“You think he’s murdering someone?” Echo asked. “Mortals are so fragile, I don’t see how they can keep from constantly murdering everything they touch!”
“It’s probably a sex thing,” I said vaguely. “It usually is with mortals.”
I stalked the mysterious figure. It was getting easier to see, and now I realized why: The sun was rising. Fingers of light streamed in through dusty windows, revealing the boxy two-story structure of the museum. Smack in the middle, stairs rose to a U-shaped balcony that wrapped around the museum’s open center. My quarry was already climbing the stairs; I ducked down, trying not to be seen. I should have focused harder on not getting lost. Sinuous deities, many-armed and animal-headed, beckoned me toward the India gallery, while fierce African masks seemed to bore into my mind with their blank and staring eyes. I wound through a forest of totem poles, scrambled over fallen stone heads and around tumbled monoliths, and was utterly surprised when I actually reached my destination.
I cautiously climbed the stairs, pausing a short distance from the top. Standing on tip-toe, I could see the inhabitants of the second floor, and they were weird. If the second floor had a theme, it was the bizarre, the unclassifiable, the dangerous. The gods that slept there were not so innocent. Ancient slabs of stone waited patiently, many marred by horrible, discolored stains. Others bore carved symbols that seemed to crawl in the dim light, catching my mind with a whispered promise—look just a little longer and you’ll understand! With an effort, I wrenched my eyes away. Jump down a rabbit hole and you get rabbit: Don’t be surprised, then, when chasing madness drives you mad.
A loud crack shattered the silence, like a huge slab of stone breaking in half. The black-cloaked figure charged past me, cloak flaring as he thundered down the stairs and vanished into the gloom. I stared. Spots of fresh blood marked his path. Had a rogue deity tried to eat him… or had he made a voluntary offering? Up on the second floor, something moved, scraping ponderously toward me. A choking growl split the air, blasting out a stinking fetor that chilled me at a spiritual level. Maybe I couldn’t die. Maybe I was a god. But so was It—and the thought of being digested for a few million years wasn’t exactly cheerful.
Being indestructible, I simply went limp and let gravity do the work, bouncing and tumbling wildly down the stairs. I hit the bottom howling for Grock, but I didn’t get him; instead, an astonished mortal dashed out of the European collection. He was young, gaunt, and his dark hair was so wild it looked like he’d tried to comb it with a hurricane.
“Who are you?” he demanded, eyes wide.
“I’m not running away!” I panted. “I’m being ineffable!”
Something growled at the top of the stairs, making the very air throb with its cry. The mortal backed away, blood draining from his face—and then spun on his heel and fled.
“Coward!” I shouted at his retreating back.
Grock strode out of the shadows, hammer in hand. Whatever was coming didn’t growl again—it shrieked, a noise to curl metal and curdle souls. I should have been able to see it by now, but something seemed to bend my eyes from that section of stairs. Legs braced, hair flowing in a wind that didn’t exist, Grock raised a massive hand—and thunder boomed grandly throughout the museum. The unseen horror delivered another choking growl and jumped to the bottom of the stairs.
“Good start,” I said encouragingly, trying to pull Grock away, “but this time, how about some lightning?”
“Grock god of thunder,” he said, hurt.
“Oh, for the love of…” The Thing From Beyond stalked toward us. Fifteen feet. Ten. It could have sprung by now. It was taking its time, I somehow knew, savoring our fear. Think!, I told myself. I didn’t have any powers worth a damn—so who did?
“Echo!” I cried. “Make Grock’s thunder reverberate ten times as loud! Zaram! I wish both their powers were ten times mightier than normal! All right… get ready…” I tried to lend Grock whatever strength I could. Not that I knew what I was doing, but dancing around poking him in the side couldn’t hurt, right?
Grock braced himself once again. “When we win, and celebrate the mighty Feast of Heroes, Grock will squeeze fish to provide Sammy with delicious, delicious caviar—I swear it will be so!” His face clouded. “Why do fish hate Grock?” he said pensively. “Why do fish explode under littlest pressure?”
Looking startled, he raised his hammer. I plugged my ears. It wasn’t enough. Sound ripped into me, bucking like a living thing. I fell to the ground, stunned. As I lay there, I saw that the museum—amazingly—was unaffected save for a few drifts of snowy plaster falling from the ceiling. The sound had been that focused. I slowly sat up, ears ringing. A creature like six hundred braided ropes of eyeballs lay at the base of the stairs; horrible sets of paired teeth wound across it like parted zippers, drooling yellowy ropes of slime that stank of acid, blood, and ichor.
The mortal I’d seen before dashed back into view, and he wasn’t alone. He was accompanied by the biggest man I’d ever seen, a huge one-eyed hunter whose easy grin brimmed with humor and bluff confidence. His arms were stacked with guns, which seemed particularly idiotic. I mean, what kind of moron would shoot at a god?
“Who the blazes are you?” the big one asked Grock.
“Me Grock,” he insisted. “Me, uhhh, graduate student.”
The smaller one tried to hide a smile. “A meteorologist, then?” he suggested.
“Yes! Grock demands that he is meaty!”
“Quite. I’m Walter Hittenmiller, graduate student in Necro, temporarily assigned to Gods. This is Anthony Eagleton, former chief-of-extractions for…”
“Don’t waste your breath explaining,” Eagleton said, sorting through the guns in his arms. “They’re not alive, not really. A pack of ignoramuses believed in some lie for a few short years, and lo, a new god was aborted into the universe, ready to stomp around telling everyone what to do.”
“Who says we’re gods?” I said slyly. “We could be mortals.”
“Really?” Eagleton looked me up and down. “Mortals that glow just a little, and whose feet don’t touch the ground, and who have sparkling curtains of gold forever falling behind their eyes?”
“You’re making them angry,” Walter said nervously, ducking behind his larger companion.
“Bat shit. They may appear to express human emotion, but then, so does a painting. They’re just as inanimate and just as much a human creation.”
I crossed my arms, eyes narrowing. “Just to make it absolutely clear how tiny and insignificant you are, I’m not even going to tell you my name. I need no name. Names are for things that are smaller than the universe, and less important.”
“Samantha?” Grock tapped my arm, puzzled when I didn’t acknowledge him. “Sammy? Sammy? Sammy?”
“Me in heaven,” I groaned.
Eagleton dropped most of his weapons with a clatter, leaving one huge rifle in his arms. Walter scurried off—not fleeing, as I initially thought, but running to a window for better reception on his phone.
“Hello—police? Yes, there’s going to be gunfire from Gods again. No, please don’t send anyone, it’s really quite routine maintenance, thank you.”
It was easily the weirdest gun I’d ever seen, covered with elaborate scrollwork in gold and ivory that incorporated the blessings of a hundred faiths. A goofy little pope-hat stuck up over the cross-guard (a gun with a cross-guard?), and the barrels were ridiculously huge. “Enlarged to fire the bones of saints with absolute authority,” Eagleton explained, sitting down to load it. As he did so, yet a third mortal wandered into sight, wearing a rumpled bathrobe. He was unprepossessing physically, being older, basically round, and with a dense fringe of curly black hair around his balding head—but something deep in his eyes whispered of authority earned and practiced through long, hard experience. He glanced at the prostrate eyeball-thing, then at me. I winked; he shook his head and turned to Eagleton.
“Looks like you have things under control, as usual. What did Walter do this time?”
Walter hurried back from the window. “Professor Harrington! A horror-exapted ur-deity achieved sigma-level focal stimuli and—”
“I did not ask you.”
“Oh, it’s over,” Eagleton said, amused. “Unless someone’s stupid enough to tie that thing into moebius-knots and split it into two smaller gods, it won’t be eating any souls tonight.”
Professor Harrington glanced at Grock and me before turning back to the more obvious threat. “How do you mean to finish it?”
“Pope-gun ought to do it.”
“Mm, I suppose, though it seems like overkill. Proceed.”
Eagleton raised the rifle to his shoulder and fired. The eyeball-thing shuddered, its stench disappearing instantly. I looked at the strange gun with new respect as Eagleton sat down to reload. Walter ran over to the fallen god, producing silvery metallic cords that he looped around various sticky-outy bits. The stunned god seemed surprisingly light, and he easily hauled it back up the stairs: Professor Harrington followed, presumably to return it to the entombing stone from whence it came. Shortly after they’d gone, Eagleton looked up at me, and there was something about his smile that I didn’t like at all.
“Thought you could distract me by setting ol’ Tesseract-Face free, eh?”
“Don’t think I’m obligated to speak to you, morsel. Anyway, it wasn’t me. It was a man in a cloak—a mortal.”
“I live here,” he said, pulling the weird rifle’s hammer back with a snap, “Walter keeps hours that would make a coven beg for mercy, and Harrington sleeps over whenever he conducts a midnight ritual. It wasn’t any of us, and with all three of us here, no one else could have gotten in unnoticed. Which brings it down to you, pretty-pretty.”
“I’m a god, idiot,” I said scathingly. “Think you can kill me?”
“This is the pope-gun,” he said levelly. “Think you’ll be doing a lot of running once your legs are fifty yards away?”
“NO ONE HURTS SAMMY!” Grock bellowed, sprinting toward him. Eagleton’s reflexes were almost inhuman. Grock’s were inhuman. The hammer came down. The pope-gun swung up. Two kinds of thunder exploded and Grock spun across the floor, blood sparking and hissing as it gushed from his leg, his face white with pain. Eagleton tossed the spent rifle aside, looking disgusted. He pulled a smaller gun from its holster and pointed it at me…
A tangle of colored air rushed at him. “Stop it!” cried an echoing voice, “or the impassioned moans of every ex-girlfriend you’ve ever had will echo in your ears forevermore!”
Eagleton looked astonished, but had the presence of mind to rifle through his many pockets as Echo swooped around him. He pulled out a prism, smashed it over her, and broke her into a dozen colorful shards.
“Hey!” I shouted as he stuffed the stunned pieces of Echo into a child-proof medicine bottle. “Stop that!”
Dust spun on the floor, caught fire, and turned into a swirling vortex of smouldering ash. Zaram al-Abjun rose from the smoke, eyes and beard glowing with lambent flame. He’d never looked so powerful, or so sinister. I felt like cheering.
“What, another one?” Eagleton demanded.
“Behold, mortal, I give you my finest gift—choosing the manner of your own dying! Flee, little one, flee before I impose my gift on you whether you like it or not!”
Eagleton stomped his foot, making a wand pop out of his boot. He caught the wand and slashed the air, severing Zaram from his fire and leaving him startled and translucent. Eagleton tossed the wand in the air, spun to shoot a rising Grock in the chest three times, caught the wand on the way down and stabbed an astounded Zaram between the eyes. The djinni vanished. Grock struggled to rise, then slumped in the corner. He’d shrunk by about half, and steaming and sparking blood was everywhere. Much as I hated myself for it, I had to confess a grudging admiration for the man. He’d taken us out so fast. Eagleton glanced at me, decided I wasn’t a threat, and took aim at Grock…
“NO!” I screamed, launching myself at his arm. The impact didn’t move him—but then again, neither did he shoot.
“No?” he asked evenly. “Why not?”
“What have we ever done to you?” I shouted. “Look at him! Look! He likes cake and games and squeezing fish! He loves his friends and wants to make them happy! He could be the Prince of Peace and the Lord of Really Fun Playground Slides for all you know, yet you attack him anyway. That makes you a murderer. A plain, flat-out murderer.”
“He wouldn’t die,” Eagleton said reasonably. “Just… go to sleep for a while.”
“Is that better? Sentencing him to a thousand life sentences, knowing he’ll live long enough to serve them all? Leave him alone!”
“Anthony?” Professor Harrington hurried down the stairs. “What are you doing?”
“Tying up a few loose ends,” he said casually.
“We do not attack non-inimical deities! Stand down—now!”
Eagleton scowled. I was still hanging from his arm, which hadn’t budged an inch. Me above, but he was strong. Grock’s face was a rictus of pain, and he’d shrunk to the size of a small dog.
“Fine,” Eagleton said shortly. “I’ll wait until she proves she’s inimical. Which, being a god, she will do, as sure as vampiric slugs are the reason cabbages have no souls. And when it happens…”
He tapped Echo’s bottle three times and she came tumbling out, her colors somehow mussed and disordered. He slashed his wand through the air and Zaram reappeared, extremely faint and with his parts scrambled around. Glancing at Grock, Eagleton reached into a pocket and tossed down some steel wool. I was at Grock’s side in an instant, stuffing the metal into his wounds. It didn’t plug them so much as it underwent an extremely powerful chemical reaction, soldering his wounds shut with glowing, molten metal. I glanced up at Eagleton.
“I hate you,” I said.
“You’re a god: Riding roughshod over mortals, heedless of their needs or desires, is pretty much your defining trait. And when you do…” He drew a finger across his throat, then hefted the pope-gun to his shoulder and walked away, whistling merrily. He didn’t bother looking back.
“You will be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams,” I told the professor. “Specifically, the dream with all the green pancakes. I think I can do better.”
Professor Harrington shook his head. “Leave me out of this. You are an embarrassment to this institution. I refuse to give you the attention you crave: I cannot see you, I cannot hear you. If you truly wish to reward me, save me some trouble and go dormant.”
“Chicks dig scars,” I told Grock. The tiny norseman smiled wanly. Professor Harrington strode off, disappearing into the museum. “He’s overcompensating,” I assured Echo, “fighting off an overwhelming desire to worship me.” Carefully lifting Grock in my arms, Echo on one side and Zaram on the other, I looked for a place where we could rest.
Morning was getting serious about dawning, although certain statues boasted far more shadows than seemed strictly necessary. I headed for the Egyptian collection, took a wrong turn, and somehow ended up wandering through a choice slice of Japanese mythology. Then, just to make things extra-special, the main doors boomed grandly open, admitting who knew how many students. Like I needed a bunch of gangly kids gawking at Grock’s suffering. I doubled back—and found myself somewhere in the North American collection. It was sheer madness. Nothing connected the way it was supposed to, or the way it had connected just moments before.
“That’s it!” I cried.
“A sudden revelation?” Echo said snidely. “Figuring stuff out is lame. If you were really omniscient, you’d have known the answers all along.”
“It’s called non-obligate omniscience,” I shot back. “I know when it would be more fun NOT to know something, whereupon I automatically forget it—see?”
“What number am I thinking of?” Echo taunted me.
“Don’t think I’m obligated to play your—” I paused. What was that symphony she never shut up about? “Nine,” I guessed.
A little more searching brought us to a sparse, dark little collection tucked back behind the stairs. “It’ll do,” I said, taking in the giant stone heads, reed-woven masks and gently glowing spears of the South Pacific collection. Closing my eyes, I bowed my head in deep concentration. The passages of the museum didn’t make sense, I knew that. “Unanticipated reality drift” could cut in at any moment. All I needed to do was turn it outward, make sure that every path led away from us. No mortal would find us, even if they wanted to. Fixing the changes took power I wasn’t sure I had, but by digging deep and pushing hard—
—and as I bounded through the flowers toward the brawny, bare-chested fireman, I felt the flames of my passion leap like a controlled back-burn destined to combine with the flank-fire of his blazing lust in a mutually annihilating pyre of—
“BLARG!” I shouted, nearly falling over. I was in the museum, my friends chatting with one another as if nothing had happened. None of them seemed to have noticed my little fit, or episode, or whatever it was. Gods don’t sleep, don’t dream, and most certainly don’t hallucinate unless they mean to. Losing control like that… it was embarrassing.
“So, ah… what do you think?” I asked, my gesture taking in the whole of the South Pacific collection.
“I like it!” Echo said, her voice reverberating from the oddly-shaped space.
Grock shifted in my arms, smiling tiredly. “Darkness is good. Yes. Maybe it Grock’s time. Maybe Grock belongs in Resting Place of the Heroic Dead, With Candy. Maybe candy-cane mountains and chocolate swamps be Grock’s reward for life of battle!”
“You ran fifteen feet and got shot,” Echo pointed out. “Then you tried to stand up and got shot again. You’ve earned a gumdrop stuck to the bottom of your foot, tops.”
“Still candy,” he said sullenly.
“Grock, honey, just hold on—okay?” I asked. “I wish Grock had some bright, cheerful pillows to rest on,” I hazarded.
Zaram al-Abjun gazed into the darkness, facing away, his ruddy skin steaming. “I pointed at an antique sun and commanded it not to rise, and it did not,” he said quietly. “I refused to walk down to the Euphrates, so it overflowed its banks and came to me. I granted mortals wishes, not because they controlled me, but because it was hilarious to see how short their meager imaginations fell of my vasty power. And now… after five thousand years… when I actually care, when I actually want to do something… I find that I haven’t the strength.”
I took his hand, or the space it overlapped. I almost thought I felt his fingers. His body cleared and strengthened, his skin becoming redder. I couldn’t explain it: I’d been exhausted just moments before, but now I somehow had power to spare. Zaram suddenly laughed, a confident, joyful sound. He snapped his fingers. I opened my mouth to comment, and promptly gagged on a tiny pillow. Pillows of every imaginable shape and color suddenly filled the area, and the ceiling above was obscured by enough lights to choke a dolphin. The Chinese paper lanterns were a nice touch, as were the candles, glow-sticks, and Christmas lights. The erotic lanterns, well, I could live with. As for the disco balls…
“Like it?” Zaram said eagerly.
“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen,” I admitted.
I got Grock settled on a bed of pillows. He was about the size of a cat, bruise-lines radiating from his wounds like river systems branching out from a delta. It didn’t look like they were getting better—more like they were seeking an alternate exit so they could start bleeding all over again.
“I guess we wait,” Echo said uncertainly.
“Yes… I suppose…” I said thoughtfully. “But these mortals, they study gods, don’t they? Take Harrington. The insignificant spark of his life has been marshalled toward the sole purpose of understanding us. If we asked his advice on how to help Grock…”
“Mortal problems,” Echo said wisely. “Blink and he’ll vanish.”
“That’s just it!” I argued. “Mortals are advancing so quickly, if we blink they’ll all be disembodied brains floating around pondering hyper-advanced topics like Egyptology-ology, ‘The Study of History’s Most Intriguing Fascination With Its Past’. This is the one moment in time when they’re neither too primitive nor too advanced to help us!”
“Gods do not beg for help,” Echo said crisply.
“I know!! That’s what makes it such a crazy, naughty thing to do!”
“Zaram?” Echo pleaded.
The djinni’s muzzle split into a grin. “Perhaps only a fool would ask a mortal for help, but then, wisdom has never been a prerequisite for my friendship.”
I turned to Grock, taking his hand. “What do you think?”
“Grock is fine,” he said determinedly. “Grock laughs at danger. Listen as Grock smites the world with thunder!” He made a face and there was a muted zwish-zwish sound, like a fat man wearing corduroy pants. I tried to look impressed. “Sammy do what make Sammy happy. Grock fine. Grock almost sure he fought well enough to earn Eternity inside giant cupcake.”
I pondered. I had three mortals to choose from—well, two, once I figured out how to turn Eagleton into a pillar of salt—plus an unknown black-cloaked figure that went around releasing terror-gods for no adequately explained reason. Come to think of it, I’d better ask soon, before all these fragile mortals accidentally murdered each other. That was something they did, wasn’t it? Plus, there was that little clicky thing they used to turn lights on and off. I wanted to get a better look at the Holy Lever Of Light Relinquished and Darkness Triumphant, to see if it would grant wishes.
“I’m going,” I said suddenly.
Echo sighed. “I suppose everyone is allowed one mistake. Did I tell you about the guy I thought was Edison and the fifteen years I spent trapped on a wax cylinder?”
“You’re a good friend,” Zaram told me, “which is very, very strange in a god. There has to be a way to exploit this!”
“Grock will smite any who impugn Sammy’s honor!” Grock insisted, brandishing his minuscule hammer. “They will know by their tiny, circular bruises who they have faced!”
“I’ll be back soon,” I promised. I strode confidently into the museum, and in moments was completely and totally lost.
* * *
The museum looked very different by late morning’s light, and sounded different, too, with teams of students calling back and forth, trying to keep from getting lost, going mad, or getting parasitic gods stuck to their heads. Along the west wall of the museum, I found a library of sorts, a laboratory whose huge inside window allowed museum-goers to watch god-restorations in progress, and—finally—a compact little office.
The walls were completely covered by dusty old photographs, and the floor was stacked high with the miscellany of a life spent hunting and studying gods. I glanced appreciatively at the piles of banned, apocryphal and heretical books. A huge desk dominated the center of the office, and behind that—
“You again?” Professor Harrington demanded, waving his hand as if to shoo a gnat. “Get! Stop infesting me!”
“Be careful what tone you take with a god,” I warned him.
Professor Harrington tapped his fingers and stared at the ceiling, as if trying to convince himself that ignoring me would be the nobler option. Sadly, his love of making grandiose speeches prevailed.
“So you’re a god. Big deal. You were born to power through no effort or merit of your own, and given authority over, say, making people burp. Impressive, I admit. Whereas I, merely, understand gods, which encompass every aspect of human endeavor. If you think about it, that makes me professor of Everything! In a proper world, you would be genuflecting before me. My students would, too, but Administration takes issue with that part of my curriculum for some reason.”
I cocked my head, fascinated. “You are a very weird man. Do you actually have a sense of humor, or are you really that arrogant?”
“It isn’t arrogance if it’s true,” Harrington pointed out. “Chasing kachina-spirits in the American southwest, trying to bottle them in dolls before the coyotes could mass to attack, that was a challenge,” he said. “Baiting an angry hippo so I could collect the Golden Tic-Bird of Naraiba riding in its mouth, that was science. Carefully arranging ropes to let three hundred natives simultaneously open Chirontep’s tomb and dilute the death-curse to a mere three-hundredth strength head cold, that was intellect. I assure you, whatever gifts were sneezed all over you, I’ve done ten times as much.”
I jumped atop a file cabinet, which was about the only clear space available, and curled up to watch him through narrowed eyes.
“Fine. You’re a million times better than me,” I said slyly. “How about you prove it by curing Grock?”
“What?” he said, taken aback.
“Cure Grock. I am Samantha, your God, and you will obey me!”
“I am Professor Edmund Harrington, and a good friend of mine has fifty caliber’s worth of cures for your delusions.”
“No, really. I’m God. I mean, I’m here, aren’t I? I’m real! Therefore, God. Bam—proved!”
Professor Harrington shot me a lugubrious look. “Truly, your logic is inescapable. If I pray hard enough, will you leave?”
“Oh, come on! Sammy-worship is spreading like an especially fun disease! Catch the fever! Seriously, my adherents have been known to throw up at unpredictable moments.”
“I’m beginning to suspect that you have a sense of humor,” he noted. “Admittedly, it would explain an awful lot about the universe if it were controlled by infinite power, subject to an infantile sense of humor.”
“Come on. What do you have to lose by worshipping me? If I’m not God, no harm done… but if I am, BLAMMO, rewards a-plenty!”
“As much as I’m enjoying this master class in week one freshman philosophy, I must respectfully ask you to leave.”
“Ha! You don’t have an answer! I knew it!”
Professor Harrington raised his eyes to the heavens in a silent appeal. “Fine. You say you’re God. If you’re not, then I was right not to believe in you. If you’re a good and loving god, you’ll cherish me anyway for having the intellectual courage to admit my disbelief. There’s a third possibility—you’re powerful but not good.” He pointed his finger at me, and the power in his gaze was electric: “If you’d truly damn seven billion people, sight unseen, for leading good and loving lives—but not chanting your name loud enough—then I will never stop hunting you until your severed head is mounted on my wall.”
I tried smiting him, just a little. From the surprised and pleased look on his face, I think I might have accidentally warmed his seat.
“See? My believers are rewarded!” I promised him. “Eternal bliss! Plus, bobble-head Sammy dolls. Rewards here and in the hereafter! You won’t get an offer like that from one of those measly judeo-christian faiths.”
“And if I accepted?” Harrington shot back. “I’d only be proving that I can be bribed—and that I consider you dumb enough to be fooled by my fake, bought-and-paid-for, pretend ‘worship’. Consider my refusal to believe in you a compliment.”
“Hey! Enough with the logic, already! We’re talking religion here!”
“My deepest apologies.”
I paused, enjoying the hunt, eyes dancing as I chose my next attack. “I’ll admit it—I’m a vengeful, jealous god. That means that, one—I’m not NOT God. Two—I’m not some serene schmuck who doesn’t care whether you worship her. Three—but I’m also not a selfish, self-absorbed dick of a God. Which means there must be a fourth possibility. Obviously, I’m God AND Good, but my actions are so far beyond you that they’re utterly inscrutable to your inferior meat-mind. Just as a cat squished into two dimensions looks really stupid, my sixty-dimensional godly motivations, squished into your slack-jawed incomprehension, look like a jealous demand that you worship only me. But I’m good! Because I said so.” I beamed proudly at him. “And if it seems like I’m actually losing these arguments, consider it a compliment that I’ve refrained from exploding your head with the Unbearable Perfection of Ultimate Trueness.”
“Thank you,” he said drily.
“You’re welcome. Now, cure Grock. Come on, I bet the answer’s in your lightning-powered thinky-box.”
“It’s called a computer.”
“My name is better and you know it. The answer’s in there, it has to be! Summon it with an ecstatic ritual of fingers writhing wantonly against wayward keys!”
Professor Harrington turned back to his desk, opened a book, and did his level best to ignore me. I stuck my tongue out, though I’m not sure he saw me. So I tried to appear to him as a mold spot in his book. I don’t know, maybe I should have been curing world hunger or something, but some tasks are just too important to leave undone.
Time passed. I drummed my fingers against the top of the file cabinet. Professor Harrington licked his finger and turned the page. I was a god. I had all the time in the world. I could wait him out. Professor Harrington turned the page again. I groaned, slumping in a haze of profound boredom. I found myself studying the photographs on the wall. There was Professor Harrington, looking much younger, his foot on a malachite-armored war rhino… exchanging bows with a long-clawed Japanese cat-maiden… proudly holding up a string of gutted leprechauns… shaking hands with a mummy…
“You didn’t kill them all,” I mused.
“Not hardly,” Professor Harrington said. “True, I cut quite a swath when I was younger… but youth is a form of brain damage, isn’t it? With time, I learned. Gods too far gone to know or care where they were could be collected. Ones that were actively hurting people had to be collected. But those that were doing no harm…”
I sat up, looking around the office. On the opposite wall, a sole photograph was free of dust, meticulously clean. I slid down from my perch and walked over to it. At first I thought it was just snowy forest and frost-rimed pines, but no, there were eyes there, deep and haunting and beautiful. This one picture, this one, he had looked after and cared for, even after all these years.
“The Snow of Her Tears,” he said quietly, remembering. “Good god! It was thirty years ago I met her. Worshipped by a small tribe way up near the arctic circle. Cruelest thing I ever saw. She wanted nothing but to love and be loved, and what did she have? A heart made of ice. A heart made of ice! If ever she loved, her heart would melt and leave her empty forever. If ever she was loved, her man would die of frostbite. Terrible sad.” He looked at his hands, troubled. “She was the only god I ever met who wanted to be put down, who wanted to go dormant. It was a mercy.”
“You did what you had to,” I said quietly.
“Ah… yes.” He seemed to find something deeply fascinating with his fingernails. “Eventually. Neoprene is wonderful stuff… and don’t ask how I lost those two toes!”
He sat back, seeing another place, another time. I looked away, hastily rubbing my eyes.
“See, this is the problem with mortals,” I complained. “They’re sticky.”
“It’s nothing. Just because I went a little, well, crazy during my first few centuries of godhood…”
I started to shake my head, but my eyes fell on The Snow of Her Tears. He’d given me something. Perhaps, just maybe, he deserved something in return.
“There was a boy,” I said quietly. “Later a man. A tailor’s son. Later a tailor. I… thought I loved him. No. I did love him. And he loved me. But a fever came, and he died.” I bowed my head, remembering. “I would have gone dormant, if I could, or insane—anything to escape the pain. Maybe I did. I realized that infinite time multiplied by infinite souls meant he would come back, if only I waited long enough! Eventually, a young man would be raised with his exact appearance and voice, mind and disposition. If my love was true, I would find him. I couldn’t physically leave my tomb, but every night I cast my mind forth, appearing to one startled youth after another, endlessly searching. I never did find him. Some things are lost forever. It just isn’t fair.”
“There are worse things than going mad for love,” Harrington said gently.
“Bah,” I said, wiping my eyes. “Love is for dumb babies. But… I do find mortals stickier that I should. Liking mortals is a loser’s game—a moment’s fun for an eternity of loss. Oh, hell. What do I know?”
Professor Harrington turned his computer on, then rummaged in a drawer while it whirred and beeped to itself. “Cooky?” he offered. “Wait, wait, that’s a sandpaper decoy cooky.”
“You know. To collect Santa scrapings.” The computer beeped again, and he started tapping at the keys. “Perhaps you should come back tomorrow. This may take a while.”
“Finding a cure for your friend. It’s nothing I’ve ever done before.”
“You’d do that… for me?”
He smiled ruefully. “It seems you’re not the only one in the grip of insanity.”
“I’ll say!” I agreed. “Let me reply with something no sane god has ever said: Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. In the meantime, you might ask Anthony for help. He’s better at practicalities than I am.”
“Ugh!” I said, with feeling. “Unless it’s the relative susceptibility of his testicles to godly wrath, I don’t want anything from him.”
I’d nearly left his office when Professor Harrington moved some books, uncovering a dusty little window. For five thousand years I’d dwelled in sarcophagi, tombs, and caves. I hadn’t been outside since before the Elder Gods even existed. And now, out there, I could see trees! And grass! And those big metal cows that mortals liked to ride around in! I staggered toward the window, staring wide-eyed at trees gone all weird with colors I’d never seen in Egypt. Yellowy-golden, smouldering orange, bloodfire red—had the world gone mad, or just my eyes? A shuddering desire filled my whole body, a desperate need to escape this stifling tomb—
An invisible force jerked me to a halt. I scrabbled desperately at the floor, but got nowhere. My mortal remains. My gods-be-damned mortal remains. I was bound to them as surely as if I were wearing manacles. I stretched forward, reaching, but I couldn’t even touch the window.
“Nothing,” I said bleakly. “It’s nothing. I… I have to go.”
Squeezing my eyes almost shut, I left the office, forcing myself to turn my back on that one last glimpse of freedom.
* * *
The museum was oddly quiet. The students had gone to lunch, I suppose, in the continuing cycle of futility that was mortal life—namely, (and as I understood it), eat-poop-sleep-poop-eat-poop-die. They’d be back, in time. Maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. With a little salesmanship on my part…
“All right, all right, you can stop chanting my name!” I said to an imaginary audience. “If I got any more gigantic and golden, you’d burst into flames just beholding my divine beauty! Oh, all right, just a little more chanting—but take some precautions, will you? Something fire-retardant. Spit on each other, maybe.”
Behind me, a foot scraped across stone. I whirled to find Walter gazing at me with those strangely intense eyes: I fascinated him, yes, but not as though he wanted a god to worship. More like he wanted one to dissect.
“Get lost,” I said.
“May I ask you a question?”
“No. Which makes the fact that you just did especially awkward.”
“One, what powers do you have? Two, are there any material comforts you desire? Three, would you be willing to deal with mortals to get what you want?”
“Really? You think you can just walk up to me and start making wishes?” I said laconically. “As it happens, I lust for sweet, delicious zinc and will give back eternal life, eternal health, true love and limitless wealth, all for the price of a single…” I bent, picking up a grotty penny. “Sorry! Too late.”
“This isn’t about wishes! This is… research.”
“Sure it is.” I looked him up and down. He didn’t look any more impressive the second time, more’s the pity. “You’re a graduate student?”
“In Necro,” he mumbled, apparently to his feet. “I wanted to join Gods, but Professor Harrington deemed me… inadequate. I’m temporarily on loan to Gods, and…”
“Gah!” I gasped. “Mortals are so tedious! Who else could answer a yes-or-no question with a seven-volume disquisition on his incredibly boring personal history? Let’s make this simple: Can you help my friend Grock?”
“I…” Walter’s brows drew together. “…maybe?”
Something on Walter chimed, deep and resonant like the grandest of church bells heard from many miles away. He pulled a weird golden pocketwatch-type device from his pocket, a lovely madness of clicking gears and altogether too many hands.
“Celestiomachy,” he explained. “It’s time for my rounds. Past time.”
Walter gestured for me to join him. Reluctantly, I did. Until he’d been enslaved to my will and forced to help Grock, I had work to do.
After a cursory pass around the museum (I was pleased to see that Walter looked as lost as I felt), we climbed the stairs to the second level. We turned left, passing obsidian obelisks and stones so worn that their carvings were illegible. At the very end of the gallery, a dark slab of rock was split right down the middle. Candle wax had been dripped in several places along the crack, and Walter inspected the seals minutely.
“That’s the god we fought this morning?”
“What would you do if the seals were broken?” I asked.
“It might be considered impolite to throw you at it, first,” he said reasonably, “but yes, on the balance, I think I’d run.”
“I dislike having my face eaten. Peculiar, I know.” Walter paused, examining several brown spots on the floor. He glanced at me, looking worried. “This… this is worrying. Gods don’t have blood.”
“It depends. You’d be amazed, some of the things mortals will insist on offering us. Gee, the severed heads of your enemies, thanks. You couldn’t have maybe offered up some ice cream?”
“This was no accident. Someone released this thing on purpose.” Walter frowned. “But there aren’t any bindings. Whoever did it, he didn’t try to control it.”
“He wanted a distraction while he stole the museum’s stash of gold,” I hazarded.
“We don’t have any gold.”
“Then it’s the perfect crime! Oh, come on,” I said, nudging him with my elbow. “You could laugh a little.”
Walter shook his head. “I don’t get it. If he wanted chaos and destruction, why waste time on a lesser god? Why not go straight for the big dog?”
“Wait… it gets worse?” I asked, a nasty feeling prickling the nape of my neck.
Walter wordlessly led me back the other way. Around to the right, we encountered a nondescript stone bier. It was plain, muddy brown, with none of the weird stains or symbols of the others. The ripples on its surface might have been the faintest hint of tentacles, but then, they might not. It was contained within a self-crossing star of linen strips covered with bizarre symbols. They were containing the god, I realized, imprisoning it.
“What’s that?” I asked eagerly, examining the strange and blasphemous writing, “a language so evil, the last speaker voluntarily stabbed it out of her own tongue?”
“It’s my doctoral thesis,” Walter admitted. “I know it scares the crap out of me.”
I started to reach toward the stone bier but stopped well short. Whatever it was, it was powerful, twisted… and wrong.
“This,” Walter said, “is Mhurban-Zchtbir.”
“Really?” I said. “It can conquer the damn universe, but it can’t appropriate a vowel for its name?”
“Mhurban-Zchtbir has been… problematic. I’ll show you.”
He led me to the back wall of the museum, where a battered metal door awaited us. Walter sorted through a packed keyring and finally opened it: Beyond lay a tight spiral staircase leading up.
“There’s a third floor?” I said dubiously.
We went around once, twice, three times, and a second door let us out onto the roof. I couldn’t see a damned thing thanks to the labyrinth of gigantic, tinfoil-covered tetrahedrons that surrounded us, but I could smell trees (trees!) and leaves (leaves!). The sky, maddeningly, was a uniform, joyless grey.
“Do you feel it?” Walter asked.
“What?” I snapped. And then, at that moment, I did feel it. Chanting without words, prayer without devotion, belief without faith. It was the weirdest thing I’d ever felt. “I don’t understand.”
Walter hauled on one of the foil-covered shapes, pulling it into a new position. “It’s that damned Author’s fault, writing about creeping horrors and elder gods—and using their True Names in his stories!” he said bitterly. “Think about it: Thousands of minds all focused on the same thing, suspending disbelief, pouring uncritical faith into the story. Literary pseudo-worship, that’s what it is. We use these baffles to deflect as much as we can, but some of it always gets through. Mhurban-Zchtbir is stirring.”
“Tell the Author you’ll break his fingers if he doesn’t shut up,” I said promptly.
“We can’t risk it. If he went public, a news story would focus even more attention just where we don’t want it. We have to wait, and hope. And send politely worded letters asking, please, for happier stories.” Walter sighed. “Mhurban-Zchtbir might have been a rustic little cow-herder deity, once. We’ll probably never know. Literary pseudo-worship doesn’t just wake gods, it also taints them. If its worshippers only believe in slime-dripping, insanity-inducing horrors, why, that’s what they’ll get.”
“I don’t care what kind of worshippers I had, I’d never turn evil,” I said confidently.
“Maybe not. But what if power flowed only into the most aggressive, vindictive, whacked-out aspects of your personality, engorging them until they swallowed everything else? I’m sure there’s a version of you that’s a horror-god.”
“Rawwwr!” I said, making clawing gestures at his face. Walter snorted and headed back inside. Taking one last breath of that wonderful, intoxicating free air, I reluctantly followed. In moments, we were back amidst a hundred thousand flavors of contained madness. Same old, same old.
“Maybe you’d be right to run,” I said dubiously.
“I’m not immortal like you,” Walter said reasonably, “nor athletic like Eagleton, nor arrogant to the point of being delusional like Harrington. True, the brave man does what he must even when he’s afraid, but the craven coward gets to stay alive. Is that such a terrible thing?”
“Eh. Being alive is overrated.”
We reached the ground floor of the museum. Walter gave me a long, searching look, then glanced both ways as if to be sure no one was listening in.
“I shouldn’t be doing this,” he murmured, “but I’ll do everything I can to help your friend… if you honestly answer three questions.”
“What powers do you have?”
“Lots. None. That is, I have the power to retroactively give all gods every power they’ve ever had, which I used, once, when I set up the universe, thus making me the mightiest god of all. Go on!” I said defensively, “prove that I didn’t!”
“What do you want?”
“Chocolate. Plus, punishing squirrels for their many transgressions.”
“Finally. This morning, when you and I defeated a ravening horror-god together… that counted as a date, wouldn’t you say?”
“One-seventeenth, tops,” I corrected him.
“Two-thirds,” he shot back.
“And you think, if you fill up your punch-card, you can redeem it for a kiss?” I said, eyes narrowing. “It doesn’t work that way, my friend. But I can be generous. I’ll make you a deal.” I had a pair of dice in my pocket (what can I say—poker gets weird around Zaram), and I slapped them down in front of him. “Roll a seven, and you can have that kiss right now.”
“Deal!” Walter cried. He eagerly rolled; I closed my eyes in momentary concentration; the dice rattled to a stop. Hearing Walter’s pained intake of breath, I opened my eyes.
“Why does that one have thirty-seven spots?” he asked plaintively.
“Better luck next time!” I said. Grabbing them, I ran off to check on Grock.
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