Houses zipped past in a blur, and the many traffic-lights between my place and Cass Park didn’t even slow Bast down. Along the way we passed a number of shimmering contact points floating above the streets and sidewalks. With a gasp I saw one of them split open, creating a portal to another world. Colorful little creatures resembling parrots poked their heads through curiously and several of them fluttered through chirping and squawking. I shouted to Bast and pointed in their direction, but her only reply was, “Don’t worry about them, they’re harmless.”
We bounded across the bridge leading out of town, and then came the worst part of the trip. Instead of running to the end of the bridge and turning the corner, Bast simply leapt over the side to land on the walking trail below. Touch-down was a bone-jarring impact that slammed the wind out of me and left me wheezing as I tried to hang onto the charging lioness. Trees and rain gardens zoomed by on the left in the dimness, while on our right the dark water of the Cayuga inlet stretched out before us like a great ribbon. Only a few minutes passed before the lake came into view, but I already knew I was going to be feeling this tomorrow.
Bast stopped at the boat launch in the marine park near the end of the walking trail and allowed me to shakily dismount. I staggered around the parking lot for a few seconds, re-accustoming myself to solid ground as Bast changed back to humanoid form. I looked around. The marine park looks peaceful tonight. I stood at the head of the concrete ramp that sloped down into the southern tip of Cayuga Lake and took in the racks of canoes, the pavilions and picnic tables, the serene-looking sailboats moored up for the night. To the north the lake widened and curved out of view behind a stand of trees. Everything appeared just as it should be; it was hard to imagine we were about to engage some dangerous beastie here.
Bast walked up to the ramp and flipped open her satchel. She reached in, and I watched in amazement as he pulled out an entire deer. Without ceremony Bast plopped the carcass onto the ground. “Gah!” I gasped, scuttling away from it.
“How was there an entire deer in your bag!?” I demanded. “That doesn’t make any sense!”
Bast looked at me and shrugged. “It’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.” It’s a Tardis bag… She dug around in her satchel again. “Stay well behind me, and don’t come close to the water until I give the all-clear, hear me?” I tip-toed backward away from the deer, a little freaked out. “Um, Bast,” I said uncertainly. “What exactly are we trying to catch out here? And how is this going to help us?”
Bast lifted a glass vial that glowed bright yellow-orange, like flames, and when she pulled out the glass stopper and tipped the vial over a cascade of fire poured out and instantly caused the carcass to ignite. Within seconds the deer was engulfed in the strange flames and the smell of roasting venison filled the night.
She looked at me over the fire, her features painted in dramatic contrasts of light and shadow by the flames. “In a nutshell, an each uisge is a meat-eating water-horse. It lives in large bodies of water like ponds and lakes and it’s dangerous as hell.”
I swallowed. “Oh, that’s great.” But then I remembered something. “Wait, I think I read a story once about a creature like this. It was called a kelpie or something. Aren’t they only supposed to be dangerous if you try to ride them?”
Bast shook her head as she turned to scan the water line. “Other kinds of water-horses, like kelpies, will settle for trying to lure you onto their backs. But not this one; an each uisge will grab you by the throat and drag you to the bottom of its lake.”
I looked around nervously. “Hey, you can take this thing right?”
She shot me an irritated look. “Of course I can.” Then she flicked a wrist in my direction. “Now go over there somewhere. I can’t get this bastard and worry about you at the same time.”
I turned with a huff and shuffled up to the parking lot, hating the feeling of being ordered around but acknowledging that it was indeed the best place to be. From the sound of it this monster wasn’t anything I wanted to deal with.
The smell of the fire wafted up to me and I coughed a little, pulling my jacket up to cover my nose. It was true that this part of the country had a serious deer overpopulation problem, and I understood that most people didn’t see anything wrong with eating meat. In fact, I did my best to avoid the stereotype of the obnoxious vegan, living by my beliefs without preaching them. But all that aside, even by an omnivore’s standards this seemed primitive. The setup looked like nothing so much as a burnt offering to the spirit of the lake, and it bothered me that the poor animal had to die when it wasn’t even going to be eaten.
“Hey Bast, I have a question.”
She answered me without turning around. “If you’re about to ask if you can go home and go back to sleep until the each uisge makes its appearance the answer is no.”
Crap, that was what I was about to ask…
“Uh…” I thought for a second. Actually, there was something I was curious about. I glanced at the blackening deer and said, “No, it’s not that. I was going to ask you about your job. Why do you send these creatures back? It seems like a lot of trouble for you to subdue these things long enough to shove them through a portal. Wouldn’t it be easier to just kill them?”
She turned to look at me briefly, studying me with those golden eyes before bringing her attention back to the water. “Yes, it would be easier. Honestly I could cut my workload almost in half if I just killed every threatening creature I came across.” She crossed her arms in front of her. “But that’s not who we are. We’re not senseless killers; we are the agents of Kemet. Our purpose is to maintain order in the cosmos, and killing sentient creatures causes an increase in disorder.”
I put my hands in my pockets and considered this, and for the next few hours Bast and I just stood in the night, waiting. Eventually the flames died down to just a few smoldering points of orange heat here and there on the remains, the smell of seared meat hanging heavy in the air. A silver moon came out from behind the clouds and slowly drifted lower in the sky, until I started to wonder if I was dragged out of bed for nothing. I yawned and hugged my jacket to myself, shivering in the chilly night air. Then, just as the eastern horizon was beginning to lighten and I was dreading the thought of going to work exhausted, quiet footsteps behind me caught my attention. I started at the sight of a dark shape moving in my direction, but after a moment calmed down. Easy Erin, it’s just a man. Probably out for an early morning stroll or something. But this presented another problem. How was I going to explain a fire in the middle of a city park, especially one with an animal burning in it?
“Good evening,” I began carefully.
The man stopped in front of me, peering past curiously at the charred pile. I wondered if this guy was homeless. Or had recently fallen into the lake. His clothes were dark and rumpled, and in the pale moonlight I could see that his shaggy hair had mud and seaweed dripping from it. He was of medium build and was young and clean-shaven, but so smeared with grime that it almost completely hid his handsome features. He sniffed at the air gently. “Whatever is cooking smells nice,” he said appreciatively, before turning his dark eyes on me. “But not as nice as you.”
I backed away, alarm bells blaring in my head. “Hey, Bast…” The man smiled wide, revealing a mouth full of shark-like teeth. I turned and sprinted for the boat launch, screaming, “BAST!!!” Behind me a thunderous whinny and the clattering of hooves shattered the peaceful pre-dawn silence. I looked back and saw that Bast wasn’t kidding about how bad this thing was.
The each uisge was completely black except for its gleaming white teeth. It stood as high at the shoulder as I was tall, and it was almost on top of me. Murder gleamed in its black eyes as it bore down on me, maw open to tear into whatever part of me it got a hold of first. Desperately I veered to the left, and felt an impact against my back as its shoulder barreled into me. But instead of bouncing off the nightmare horse’s side to be trampled underfoot, I stuck to it! My back was freaking stuck to the thing’s side like flypaper. I thrashed around trying to break free, but only managed to get more stuck as the lake shore raced up to meet me.
Bast dashed toward us, roaring a challenge. In response the nightmare horse charged, bellowing a battle cry of its own with me bouncing along on its side, screaming. The two powers collided about thirty feet from the head of the ramp, Bast’s fist connecting with the each uisge’s jaw with a wet snapping noise. Bast grinned as it let out a whinny of pain, but then the each uisge pivoted sharply to the right, and with a shocked look on her face Bast was swept along for the ride. You’ve gotta be kidding me! What is this thing made of, superglue!?
The beast spun with all its might, one, two, three times, causing Bast to sail through the air. I’m gonna throw up… At the arc of its third spin, either the each uisge released Bast or the force of the spin caused Bast to break free and go crashing into a rack of colorful canoes. With nothing left to stop it, the horse plunged into the lake, dragging me down with it.
Cold, murky water rushed over me, instantly saturating my clothes, again, and cutting off the sound of Bast screaming my name. We were sinking, down, down, the each uisge galloping to the deepest part of the lake. Pressure built up in my head and total darkness closed around me as I watched the surface recede higher and higher above me. It was then, floating in the lake that I realized the only part of me stuck to the monster was my jacket. Wiggling out of it would cost me the dagger, but I could live with that. Bast would get over it.
Squirming frantically, I pulled my arms out of the sleeves and kicked off the horse’s side, losing my shoes on its sticky flank, and swam for my life toward the surface. The moon was dimly visible from beneath the muddy lake, and just now it shone like a beacon. I clawed toward it, kicked with all my might, saw the rippling surface edge closer. But then pain like nothing I had ever experienced erupted in my right calf like a starburst and I screamed, sending a stream of bubbles floating to the surface.
The each uisge clamped down on my leg and worried at it like a dog, sending waves of agony through my body. I’d never been injured this badly before, not even close, and the pain paralyzed me. Tendrils of darkness snaked across my vision, and it began to sink in that I could really die right now. Darkness expanded to fill my whole vision and I despaired, knowing that this was the end. And then the horse released me.
I didn’t know why and I didn’t care. I took the moment to fight my way upward, until I realized I couldn’t tell which way was up. Oh my god, where’d the moon go!? There was no sense of direction down here. Everything was just inky blackness everywhere I looked. My chest spasmed. I thrashed about, my entire body crying out for air. Stars exploded across my vision, and finally my breath gave out. Bubbles erupted from my mouth and I sucked in the dark water. Oh, the pain! The water burned the inside of my nose and lungs; it stung badly enough that I almost forgot about the throbbing in my leg. My body stopped struggling, and I felt myself floating, floating away…
Soft lips touched mine, and a gentle warmth spread down into my chest. My eyes snapped open as I gasped and spluttered. And realized that I was still underwater, but somehow breathing? I looked around. In every direction was total darkness as far as I could see. There was nothing in the featureless dark except for a small mass of bubbles floating around my head. That’s not possible… Bubbles always rose to the surface, but somehow these ones bobbed in place, stationary. Are these bubbles the ones I made? I reached out to touch one, then looked down at my hand, realizing that I could see it. In fact, I could see my entire body, including a red cloud of blood coming from my leg.
What the hell is going on? Am I dead? But then my leg cramped up and caused a nauseating wave of agony. I curled up on myself, grimacing. Ok, probably not dead. I hurt too much to be dead. Which leaves me with the question; where am I? I felt a ripple brush against me, and turning toward it I saw a man floating nearby. He looked like he’d just popped out of an ancient Egyptian wall painting. His black hair was invisible against the darkness, serving only to frame a narrow face with large, dark eyes and a wide, full mouth. He wore a sleeveless blue shirt with rippling wave patterns and a white, knee-length kilt. Decorating his body were bracelets, armlets, and a pectoral collar that tended toward silver and various shades of blue stones.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I am the waters beyond the edge of the cosmos.” He smiled gently. “But you can call me Nun.” He had a soft voice, a mellow baritone that was spoken quietly but still carried across the distance between us easily.
An enraged whinny came from the darkness nearby. Out of the abyss the each uisge roared at us, only its teeth and the whites of its eyes visible in the blackness. I gasped and back-pedaled, but Nun looked side-long at it disdainfully. “I would not advise attacking me. This is my domain. You have no power here. You remain here until I release you, and all of your roaring and posturing will not make a difference.”
From somewhere I couldn’t see Nun produced my jacket and shoes. I slipped them on gratefully, and then with a gesture he turned and opened a portal. The world on the other side was also underwater, but rippling moonlight danced along a silty bottom covered in waving seaweed. Suddenly, a powerful current came from nowhere and swept the struggling water-horse through before the window to that other watery world closed silently, leaving all still again.
Nun turned to look at me and held out his hand. “Now that that’s out of the way, if you could come with me please. There’s something you need to see.”
The strangeness of this day was already dialed up to eleven and beyond, even before this guy saved me. Screw it. Why not? Let’s go look at the thing in the dark with the water man. I took his hand and let him pull me through the endless abyss. “So…” I started. “What is it that you need me to see?” I half-expected to find Kingdom Hearts down here.
Nun looked back at me, looking bleak, and opened his mouth as if to say something.
“Hello, Nun,” a smooth, cool voice crooned from the void.
My hair stood on end. There was something about that voice. Something terrible. I have no rational explanation for my reaction to that voice in the darkness, or the sudden impression it gave me. Somehow I just knew that this was a cruel voice amused by the most horrifying things, a voice that delighted in others’ suffering and cried for joy as entire civilizations fell.
A cloud of grey smoke billowed in front of us and began to morph and solidify into the shape of a person. I never got a good look at it though, because Nun moved between me and it. His expression was one of resignation, but deep in his eyes I thought I saw something else. Anger maybe? He smiled at me sadly and said, “Take care Ms. Renwick. I hope we meet again.”
Tendrils of darkness obscured my vision once more, and when they cleared I was back in cold murky water. I looked up and saw a fading moon glowing weakly above. Little lights appeared around me. They moved and lengthened into wispy masses of pale luminescence with translucent tails that glided silently through the dimness. The wisps circled around me, the suspended sediment in the water scattering the light eerily. It was peaceful down here, and surreal. I watched the ethereal lights perform their slow, graceful dance, like a sky full of comets streaking through the night. They held me transfixed until a yellow glint in the distance caught my attention.
A figure with golden eyes swam into view. The faerie lights lit part-human, part-feline features that were strained with anxiety. Bast gripped my arm and paddled for the surface. My scuffle with the each uisge had moved us considerably north; we scrambled up a low stone wall to see the park manager’s station and the benches placed at the very end of the waterfront trail.
I knelt on the grass and spat up two lungs-full of water while Bast fussed hysterically and slapped my back hard enough to bruise. “Bast!” I spluttered between her sledge-hammer blows. “Bast, knock it off, I can breathe!” She pulled me up by the shoulders and frantically started looking me over.
“Are you hurt!? Did he injure you!? Is anything broken!?” She turned me this way and that, handling me as easily as she would a rag-doll. Finally, Bast saw the tear in my pant leg and the blood seeping through it. I watched as she sliced the fabric and tore off the pant leg just under my knee and I almost threw up. My leg was a mess. It looked more like something you would see behind the glass case at a butcher shop than a living limb attached to a human being. I looked away, pretty sure I was going to pass out.
“Easy, Erin.” Bast stroked a hand down my back and rubbed at my shoulders. “It looks worse than it is. Come on; I’ll take you home, we’ll get you cleaned up, and I have a healing salve that’ll have you back on your feet by lunch time.” Bast shifted back into lion form and I struggled onto her back. As we started back toward town I asked her, “Hey Bast?”
“Who is Nun?” Bast’s pace slowed to a walk. “Is that how you got away from the each uisge? Because Nun helped you?”
I nodded, even though I knew she couldn’t see it. “Yeah, he took us to his world and sent the water-horse somewhere.” I thought back to my time under the lake. “But the funny thing is I didn’t see a contact point down there. How did he open a portal between our worlds without one?”
“He didn’t open a portal between worlds,” Bast replied.
I frowned, wincing as my leg throbbed. “I don’t understand.”
“Nun is not a world,” Bast said slowly, as if she were trying to figure out how to word this. “Nun is nothing. It’s the waters that existed before the beginning. The waters of Nun is a void that fills the spaces surrounding the universes. You didn’t see a contact point because the contact points are places where two or more worlds touch.”
“And Nun is just an abyss separating the worlds,” I said, checking to see if I understood.
“Exactly.” She turned her great tawny head to look at me. “And you say he helped you?”
“Yes, is that unusual?” She looked forward and picked up the pace. “No one has seen Nun in some time. It’s been years since he emerged from the void. We’ve wondered what he has been doing down there.”
“If you’re so curious, why not just go to the edge of a universe and ask him?” Bast chuckled. “Nothing’s that simple. We can’t go to Nun; we have to wait for Nun to come to us.” I shook my head. “Why?” I asked.
“It’s the nature of what we are,” Bast replied. “The people of Kemet, the people of my world, draw our power from creation. Our power, the very energy that sustains us comes from channeling a world’s magic or chi or prana or whatever you want to call it. We are beings made more of energy than matter. A place like Nun, a place that is nothing and has no magic for us to draw on, can’t support us. The moment anyone from my world went there they would become too weak to move or even to stay conscious. It’s a completely inhospitable place where we can hardly even exist.”
“With the exception of Nun.”
Bast nodded. “With the exception of Nun. He is the abyss personified. The realm between the worlds is his domain.”
“Then why wasn’t I affected? I was in the abyss for a while there, but I seem to be alright.”
“You are human. Humans are mostly physical beings. Which makes sense, since your world is mostly physical and has little magic relative to most others. Humans don’t rely on the magic in a world to sustain you and you don’t work spells by channeling the world’s power like we do; your power comes from within not without. Think of it like running on battery power rather than plugging into an outlet. Humans have a smaller reserve to draw from, but since you don’t rely on an external power source you can use your gifts even in places like Nun.”
This is a lot to take in. “You say you need magic around you to function,” I said thoughtfully. “And that there isn’t a lot of magic in this world. Does that mean you’re weak here?”
“Relatively speaking, yes,” Bast replied stiffly. “Magical beings tend to be at their strongest when in their own worlds. After a people have lived in a world generation after generation, their race becomes most efficient at channeling the power of that world. I can use the energy generated by other worlds as well, but not as well as my own. There is a significant home-field advantage element there.”
“Fascinating,” I muttered. This all gave me plenty to mull over during our trip home. Getting back to town took considerably longer than it took to get to the park, probably because Bast took it easy this time. Her gate was much steadier, and she avoided jumps and sharp turns, but even so my leg was killing me by the time we trotted up my street.
We were facing east, and I saw with a groan that the sun was peaking up over the horizon. I looked lovingly at my building as it came into view, grateful beyond words that I was alive to see my tiny apartment again. It was then I saw there was something waiting for us. A pale shape stalked out from between the houses in the early morning light. I practically screamed in frustration. “Does this never freaking end!? Come on, enough already!”
Bast stopped a few yards away. “It’s alright Erin,” she sighed, but I could tell from the way her head slumped and her ears folded back that she wasn’t happy. “She’s not here to hurt us, she’s just here to nag about something.” Bast raised her head and said tiredly, “Good morning, Sekhmet, what brings you to this part of the world?”
A lioness padded onto the sidewalk in front of my house, facing us. Now don’t get me wrong, Bast’s lioness form was impressive. It was a great golden shape of fluid grace and rippling muscle. But this other lioness was something else entirely. She was massive, nearly twice Bast’s size, and muscles visibly bulged from her huge frame. I felt like I was looking at the Hulk version of Bast.
The larger lioness sniffed the air. “I smell blood.” Then she turned to look at me sharply before snarling at Bast. “You allowed your human to be injured!? After just two days!? Of all the reckless, irresponsible…” She reared up on her hind legs and her form shrunk down to reveal a woman in red.
Everything about this woman’s look screamed ‘not to be fucked with’. Her features were a blend of human and lioness, and thick locks of black hair cascaded around her face like a mane. Her skin was several shades darker than Bast’s, browned by the sun. Like Bast, Sekhmet’s outfit tended toward leather, but the similarities ended there. Instead of a cool-looking jacket Sekhmet wore armor. It was a mail shirt made of leather scales that covered her torso and her impressive shoulders. Golden wings criss-crossed over the front of the shirt and a wide golden collar protected her neck. Heavy golden cuffs accentuated her forearms and brought attention to the wicked claws at the ends of her hands. Below the waist she wore an ankle-length red gown split at the sides up to mid-thigh, showing off muscular legs and vicious-looking lion’s paws.
Sekhmet strode toward us, growling, and I felt more than a little intimidated. “You just found her and she is already wounded! How could you let this happen?”
“It wasn’t my fault!” Bast snapped, bristling. “Besides, she’s going to be fine. I have a healing salve…”
Sekhmet stopped directly beside me, towering over me. At this distance I could see that even her eyes were a little different from Bast’s. From down the sidewalk I had thought they were the same golden color, but now I could see there was a drop of red mixed in. “Don’t bother.” She reached out one clawed hand and grabbed my leg. Shock and pain shot through me and for a second I thought she was going to rip my leg off. But then the pain faded away, leaving me dizzy and slumped over Bast’s back. When Sekhmet released me I saw that my leg was healed. The flesh was still pink and tender, but the throbbing was gone.
She grabbed my hand and pressed two pale blue, faintly-glowing crystals into them. “Healing crystals,” she muttered. “It looks like you are going to need them.” Sekhmet turned to Bast. “This is unacceptable. We cannot afford to spare even one Opener of the Ways.” She tilted her chin upward, eyes narrowing. “She would be better off paired with someone else. Maybe if you spent less time dancing and chasing men and more time training you would be able to keep your human safe.”
“Oh, you’re one to talk about keeping people safe,” Bast shot back. “Heard you had an episode in Turkey last month. Really, Sekhmet, how could you let a ghoul get under your skin like that? Their insults totally lack imagination. Good thing there was no one around but your partner and a few goats to see you lose your shit; I heard everything in the area was leveled by the time you were finished.”
Sekhmet roared and I saw with terror that the inside of her mouth was glowing, but then she snapped her jaws shut and steam came out from between her teeth and out her nose. “I may lose my temper on occasion,” she growled. “But I serve our queen wholeheartedly and with no ulterior motive. Unlike some people I could mention, little sister.”
Bast snorted. “Please, the only reason you’re in this business is to satisfy your own battle-lust. Now why don’t you tell me why you came here, unless it was just to annoy me?”
Sekhmet’s hands balled into fists and there was a moment I thought things were going to turn violent. But then she appeared to get herself under control and spat, “Fine. I came to tell you that intelligence has found evidence of Order activity in the immediate area.”
Bast groaned. “Already? That was quick.”
Sekhmet crossed her arms over her chest. “Yes, it is the humans’ new devices that are to blame. They share everything with each other to the point where the Order learns of a damaged area almost before we do.”
“Yeah, social media isn’t just for posting cat-videos anymore,” Bast sighed.
“Take this seriously, Bast. We can’t send any other agents here to back you up right now, and to make things worse Asgard has recalled all of their people from the field.”
Bast looked up. “Why would they do that?”
Sekhmet’s long tail trashed in irritation. “Apparently Loki has broken free of the rock he was bound to.” She sighed. “The Aesir have flown into a frenzy; they think that because one trouble-maker escaped them the end of days is nigh.”
“Tch, wonderful,” Bast snorted. “Strange though, how Loki escapes just two years after Set found a way out of his cell.” An uncomfortable silence stretched through the early morning air. “Anyway, thanks for the heads-up, Sekhmet. I’ll watch myself.”
Sekhmet nodded and turned away from us. “Take care.”
Bast carried me around the side of the building and up the stairs, where she let me off and shifted back. “Are you alright?” she asked.
I handed her the crystals, which she slipped into her bag. “I’m ok,” I said quietly, but really I felt like I was drowning. Things were so much further over my head than I’d realized. It was completely overwhelming. I had so many questions, but decided to start with the one that sounded closest to home. “What is the Order?”
Bast nodded toward my door. “It could take a while to explain. Mind if I come in?”
I pushed open the door and peeled off my shoes and socks and slipped into a pair of sandals. “I’ll make tea,” I mumbled as I went into the kitchen and put a pot of water on the stove. While the water was heating I grabbed my pajamas off my bed and took a quick shower. By the time I got out the water was boiling, so I scooped some tea leaves into my French press and poured the water over them.
I grabbed my sugar bowl off the microwave and two mugs from the cabinet and carried everything into the main room. Bast was lounging on the loveseat with Cloe curled up in her lap, running her fingers over the cat’s fur with one hand and examining the stone I’d gotten in the swamp world in the other. “Is there something interesting about that stone?” I asked. She sniffed as I set the tea on the coffee table and pulled one of the kitchen chairs over to face the loveseat. “Earl Grey? Not bad,” she said approvingly.
Bast reached over and poured the tea, lifting it to her lips without adding any sugar. I added a teaspoon to mine and stirred it. After a moment Bast answered me. “Yes, there is. These stones form in the bodies of the race of beings you met last night. They’re of no use to them; the stones are basically waste products that they produce once in a while. I guess the closest analogy would be pearls forming inside oysters. But they’re cool, because they contain a little of their telepathic power. You can use this to form a mental link with someone else through physical contact.”
“So it’s a Vulcan mind-meld crystal?” I asked, amazed. That was cool.
Bast raised one eyebrow. “Um, sure? Anyway, it may be something you want to hang onto. Here.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a needle and a thin chain, then bored a hole through the crystal and threaded the chain through it before handing it to me.
“Thanks,” I said, setting it next to the bead necklace and dagger. “So, what about-“
“The Holy Order of Constantine,” Bast began.
I took a sip of tea and looked across the coffee table at her. “That’s what they’re called? Who are they?”
Bast scratched Cloe between the ears. “Long story short, they’re bad news. Stay away from them.”
“Why? What’s their deal?”
“They’re a group that was formed under Constantine, around seventeen hundred years ago. Constantine was the first Roman emperor who thought the newfangled religion called Christianity was a good idea, and he decided he wanted to spread it across the world. So he formed his Holy Order. At first it was meant to protect churches and Christians from persecution. Fairly benign stuff. Traditional polytheistic religions still predominated during that time period and early Christians were not popular people. Eventually, though, the Order started taking on a more martial role. Their purpose evolved into attacking and undermining the other religions, looting and destroying temples, killing priests, et cetera.”
Bast drained the last of her tea, set the mug in front of her, and continued. “When the Catholic Church rose to prominence, the Church folded the Order into their organization and repurposed it to seek out and destroy heretics, evil spirits, and witches.” Her eyes rose to meet mine. “Including people who could travel to other worlds.”
I swallowed. “So they killed everyone like me?”
“Not everyone.” She leaned back and stretched an arm along the back of the love seat. “When they found someone with the gift, they gave them a choice; join the Order or burn at the stake. They didn’t want people like you living outside the Church’s control for fear that they might try to resurrect the old religions. People who could communicate with the gods directly were highly valued in the pre-Christian world and often became priests or shamans or druids, and were thus seen as threatening by the Church.
On the flip side, though, the Church wanted people with your ability on their team. As we saw tonight, once in a while something nasty really does come through to this world. The Church wanted people around who could handle those kinds of things. Especially after the rips started forming.”
I looked up from my mug, surprised. “Wait, you mean they weren’t always a thing?”
Bast shook her head. “No, they only started appearing around three hundred years ago, and only once in a while. At first you might see one every few years. It used to be that hearing about an area of reality that had become unstable was big news, but as time went on they started popping up everywhere. In the last decade or so there’ve been so many that we can barely keep up with them, even with only one of us at each.”
I chewed this over for a second. “So, your people and the Order…It kind of sounds like you have similar goals in mind, keeping the peace and protecting people and whatnot, but you don’t get along? Why?”
“We have differing views on other worlds,” Bast said sourly. “The Order believes that this world is the only one. A typically human trait, believing themselves to be the center of the universe.” She smirked at me and I rolled my eyes. “According to them,” she continued, “all the other worlds are really just regions of Hell, and their inhabitants are imps and demons and such. Especially us, the more badass races humans think of as ‘gods’. The Order really hates us because they can’t do anything about us. We’re way too powerful for them to do much but buzz around and be distracting.
Anyway, the Order’s general policy upon learning of a rip in reality is to go in and kill every other-worlder they can find, dangerous or not. Since, you know, they’re minions of the Devil and they have it coming.” Bast rubbed the area between her eyes. “This creates a lot of headaches for us because, not only do we fail to protect people, we also get a lot of incidences of people coming to this world seeking revenge. And when they hurt humans it further motivates the Order to keep killing, and on and on the cycle perpetuates.
Minimizing the murdering wasn’t as much of a problem years back. We have ways of detecting rips that the Order doesn’t, so it used to be that we could get there and stabilize the area so that things would already be winding down by the time they caught wind of it. But with technology today being what it is, the Order learns of rips almost as fast as we do, so we’ve increasingly been in conflict with them.”
I sent my empty mug down, feeling ill. “I take it your people and the Order fight each other?”
“Well, I wouldn’t so much call it fighting. Gifted or not, they are only human and are no match for us. More like they pop up, kill the critters we’re trying to send home, and disappear again. It’s highly aggravating and keeps reality destabilized for longer periods of time. If we’re running around trying to keep other-worlders from getting Ordered we’re not laying down stabilization spells.
“So why don’t you do something about them?”
Bast’s eyes widened. “Wow, that’s a great idea! Why didn’t we ever think of that?”
I sighed. Smartass.
“But seriously, we have tried to take out their organization before. My people have done everything short of nuking them: We’ve sent in humans to act as double agents, destroyed known bases, disrupted their sources of funding, but they always seem to be a step ahead of us. Like they know what we’re going to do in advance. It’s creepy.”
I cupped my face in my hand. This was all so much, and I was so tired. I yawned. Bast looked over at the window and seemed to notice the sunlight streaming in for the first time. She stood and stretched, then looked down at me and said, “You look like you’re crashing. Get some rest; I’m heading out.” She walked across the apartment, gently running a hand over my head as she passed, and pulled open the door, revealing a mild morning. “I should be able to finish stabilizing the rip today, so things will start to quiet down after this. There will still be the occasional portal opening up in the next few months, but it won’t be anything like the last few days.”
“This spell you’re working on,” I said tiredly, twisting around to face her and leaning my elbow on the back of the chair. “Is this something you need me to help with too?”
“No,” Bast said. She puffed out her chest. “Sekhmet needs her human to help her, but I have enough ability to handle it myself. Besides, your skill level isn’t high enough yet to craft a spell that intricate.”
Bast stepped out onto the porch. “Have a good sleep, Erin. Solid effort today. I’ll come and check on you later.” She pulled the door shut, and just like that she was gone.