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I


The Goddess Mel sat in lotus, meditating, callused brown feet tucked up on lean sinewy brown thighs. The goddess of the mountain winds did not focus on the Wheel of Life, the vibrant Nepalese tapestry hanging on the wall in front of her. She did not focus on the solid gold statue of the dancing Kali on the floor below the Wheel, a nude portrait of her done four centuries ago that gleamed in the faint down-lights of her meditation room -- a silent bare room of austere white walls and ceiling and dark varnished hardwood floor.

The Goddess Mel, currently known as Melissa el Hajj, retired lieutenant of the city arson squad, meditated on the long knife laid bare on the antique Kazakh rug in front of her. Hand-forged steel, double-edged and straight, the patterns of its making rippled as she breathed in and out and in and out. The God Al, Albert Johannson and once known as Alberich, had forged that blade and balanced it to her grip and arm, a blade to kill a god. Or a goddess.

Which it had done, by her hand.

In and out, in and out, her breathing quieted as the blade grew in her eyes -- the watered-silk pattern of exquisite fold-welding, razor-keen edges with the faint scallops left by hammer and anvil, gleaming, gleaming. A faint six-pointed star glowed on the steel just above the guard. The Seal pulsed and expanded until it filled her vision. That remembered the source of the blade's iron, a Solomon's Seal old and old and forged by the wizard Solomon himself, a spell-trap to draw and weaken the powers and the memories of all gods and goddesses but his own.

A Seal tracked down and broken after centuries, millennia, by Balkis, Goddess of Sa'aba, and then reforged into the steel of this blade. Which Mel had driven through the heart of that treacherous goddess, who had claimed to be Al's mother. Liar . . .

Her blade had not unleashed blood that time, but fire, explosion, destruction, the power of a goddess released at her death. But Al had called demons to make the world whole again. Not like so many other times, so much blood she'd spilled -- the artist who had sculpted and cast the statue and so many before and after. She was the Goddess Mel, swift and dark and cold and deadly as her winds, avatar of Kali, protecting the brief lives of her tribe in a nasty world.

The blade edges glowed faint blue, a tinge Al said lay between the molecules of the steel itself. It had drunk of the power of Balkis and had grown even beyond his forging. It could drink again. It wanted to. She could pick it up and drive it into her own heart and end her endless ride on that Great Wheel.

The thought comforted her.

In and out. In and out. Her breath shallowed and slowed until some viewer might think that she was dead. Finally, the blade shrank back to its true length and breadth, still lying on the intricate geometric patterns of the Kazakh rug, fine silver chain of the grip gleaming in a pool of light. She blinked and shook herself out of meditation and breathed deep again. She did not want to kill herself today. She did not need to kill herself today. She had reasons to live.

For one thing, she had braised lamb shanks simmering on the stove and Al due any moment, for dinner and . . . other entertainments. She listened to her winds. Yes, he was just coming down the street. She hadn't been able to track him -- a god outside of her goddess sight -- until they'd shared blood. And other fluids.

The Goddess Mel sheathed her blade, feeling or half-hearing as always the silence the sheath brought with its copper lining, something of a psychic hum or buzz more noticed when it went away. She knew, Al knew, when anyone touched the hilt or when the steel felt open air. No idea how or why . . .

Whatever. She unfolded herself from the lotus and stood, showing no sign of the two extra arms the portrait statue gave her, taller than an average woman and well more than a head taller than Al, body lean and stringy-muscled like the mountain warrior she was, brown and hawk-faced after the manner of those dry deadly South Asian mountains. She stirred her muscles in a loosening ritual of shoulder and hip rolls -- being next thing to immortal didn't bar her from stiffness or aches or the rest of the questionable joys of flesh.

Or the real ones . . . She pulled on loose silk pants, royal blue and clinging, emphasizing her body, and a teal-green velvet top that did the same. She usually did her yoga and meditation nude, out of ancient habit. She wasn't getting dressed because she felt self-conscious about nudity, especially around Al, or thought that it would shock him, but shedding those items later would do things to both of them that starting out nude did not. And Al was something of a god in bed. Or anywhere else the notion took them.

He hadn't known he was a god until Balkis cracked that Seal and the spell it worked. He'd thought he was an almost-man with a mystical bond to iron and steel, who had lived a long, long time and had forgotten many things. She'd always known she was a goddess because she had a tribe of humans who remembered for her. And they told their sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, who told her again, defeating Solomon's magic. Al, loner blacksmith that he was, didn't have that backup system.

And Balkis hadn't told him, Balkis, who remembered because Solomon had weakened his magic on her name, so she wouldn't know of his treachery soon enough to stop him.

Something nagged at Mel, and she listened to her winds again. Something . . . missing.

Yes. She found it, across the street -- a doorway alcove off the sidewalk sat dark in the evening shadows. Her winds didn't go there.

They always had, before.

Mel shrugged. She had other things needing her attention. Such as those lamb shanks. Good food ranked high on both their lists of things that made life worthwhile. He probably qualified as a kitchen god as well, able to turn something as simple and cheap as dried beans or lentils into gourmet fare. They alternated his cooking and hers, his apartment and hers. Funny how living a long, long time had focused both of them on mindfulness, on the moment, on the "be here now" of Buddhist practice. Food was now, another focus for meditation. As such, it had damn well better be good. Same with sex.

And music was now, a peculiar passion of Al's. She cued up Bach, "Suites for Unaccompanied Cello", the Casals recordings. Al had known Bach, alive. That composition entranced him. She'd asked him why he didn't play an instrument himself, and he got vague. Got grumpy. That was one of many things out of his past she never pushed. As he never asked her about her remembered pains.

For sure she wasn't going to push it, tonight. Good food, good beer, good music, good bed play after -- Mel wanted him softened up good for some news.

She stepped into her kitchen, the austere monastery kitchen of white walls and cabinets and appliances, kept severely neat. She lifted the lid on the simmering pot and breathed deep of lamb broth and basil and tomato and exuberant largess of garlic, a touch of rosemary ground to powder because she hated picking pine needles out of her teeth, with a base of earthy potatoes. She poked one of those. It split around her fork. Potatoes always remained an enigma. After centuries of practice, she still never knew for sure how long they'd take to cook. One might hold firm like a rock for much longer than its appointed time, or collapse into mush . . .

She felt Al's hand on the building's outer door, his key in the lock. Her winds told her of such things. That meant she could dish out bowls of the lamb and crack open two bottles of the sharp Shipyard ale she'd selected to complement the savory mélange and cleanse their palates. That drew a snort of amusement. Halal lamb and beer -- people always assumed from her name and face that she was Muslim. She was sure the halal butcher thought so, as she haggled quality and price with him in Pashto. Even Al had thought so, when they first clashed. Back when she thought he was an enemy.

She was not Muslim. She never had been Muslim. She predated the Prophet, blessed be He, by unknown centuries. Her people weren't Muslim or Hindu, either, no matter what their names might imply. They worshipped the Goddess Mel. She'd lived, they'd lived, in this land for well over a century, other lands for other centuries, and adopted those customs that they found good. Including beer. As a wise man once said, beer and wine were proof of God's love.

Besides, Islam meant "submission" and that wasn't in her nature. Except now and then in bed, when the notion fitted her passion. Even then, she knew that she left bruises and claw-marks on her partner. Which, with Al, healed overnight. Him being a god and all.

Her winds told her that he had unlocked the stairwell door and was headed up to her fourth floor apartment in an old building without elevator and therefore cheap, the second and third floors home to members of her tribe. As were apartments in the buildings to either side. They guarded her as she guarded them, and no one outside her secret could learn enough to ask questions. Something touched the building door. She couldn't, her winds couldn't see it. But it was there. It jiggled the lock, tried the lever handle. Testing. People in this neighborhood did that -- leave something unlocked, they'd find it in an hour or less. Be so careless as to leave your keys in your car, it might vanish before your seat cooled. She had not wanted a good neighborhood when she moved her tribe. Most of the people here lived by petty theft and drug deals, but some of them were dangerous. None of that danger touched her, or her people because of her. And they didn't pose any threat to Al, who was far more deadly than he looked.

But she could, her winds could, see them.

And they were good neighbors, from a certain point of view. They never asked questions. They never told anyone what they saw or heard. That was safer, for all concerned. Al pushed the lever on her door. It opened for him. He didn't need a key, for her door. She had locks, yes, but they only answered to people rather than to keys. Her locks knew him. She had a contract with locks and doors -- that mountain wind thing again. Nothing kept the mountain wind out of a place it wanted to go. Locks and doors didn't stop her, and in return she didn't break them.

That had been a useful trick, when she was a cop. And there he was, leaning against the door frame of her kitchen, a short broad man or a dwarf, pale skin and blond hair and blue eyes of his northern tribe and a permanent limp from one leg an inch shorter than the other, hard smith-muscles and so little fat on his body that if she tossed him in a pond, he'd sink. He closed his eyes, folded both hands on the grip of the blued-steel cane that was much more weapon than support, sniffed the rich aroma of lamb and garlic, and smiled.

He opened his eyes. He frowned. "I wish you'd keep that blade sheathed. I felt it two miles away, like a magnet, pulling at me. You have any idea how many gods humans have worshiped, through the centuries? And what's left of Solomon's magic draws them to that . . . thing. Gods are bad for the neighborhood."

And he wouldn't exempt himself from that statement. But his words jogged her memory.

"Did you see anything in the doorway across the street? The pawn-shop door, not the stair entry?"

He noticed things. Like any true warrior, his eyes kept searching, up and down, the sides, behind, ahead, always alert. He would have fit in with "Gideon's Band" in the Hebrew scripture, who dipped up water in cupped hands so they could drink while still watching for any threat.

She could see him thinking, sorting images.

"Guy, sitting huddled back in the corner, looked brown but the light was bad. Some kind of wrap over his shoulders, poncho or serape or just a blanket, maybe homeless. Face looked Central American, Guatemalan or something, lot of Indian blood if not pure Indian." He paused. "Looked surprised that I noticed him. Homeless people are invisible." Her winds could find homeless people.

A loud short Snap! echoed outside, a blue-white flash strobe-lighting the buildings across from her kitchen window, and the lights blinked out. Thunder rolled back from the evening darkness. "What the fuck . . ."

She heard Al move, clothing rustled, and sparks lit flame on his butane lighter in the darkness. He didn't smoke, but both of them always carried stuff like that, basic emergency things -- her guns, his knives and sword-cane. He lit the candles she had set out on the kitchen table for whimsical atmosphere, a romantic dinner for two. "Clear sky out there, stars, waxing crescent moon. No thunder-clouds."

She felt that ghost touch on the outer door again. This time, the door opened. It shouldn't have -- no sense of force or the guile of a lock-pick. It just . . . opened. What she could do, another god or goddess could do.

She brushed past Al, muscle-memory finding the closet in the darkness by her apartment door and the latch and the police shotgun ready to her hand inside, and racked a shell ka-chink ka-chunk into the chamber before stepping out onto the stair landing outside her door. The emergency lights glowed dim and yellow, far dimmer than their batteries should provide, as if they fought something sucking power from them. She felt the stairwell door open, again no resistance from her locks.

She clicked the pump-gun's safety off. She waited.

Even her ears, goddess ears, couldn't hear footsteps, but a shadow rounded the stairwell turn below, man-sized, a hint of glimmering eyes looking up. She centered her sights on the shadow's chest and waited, not bothering with threats or warnings.

Two steps up, three, four, she judged her shotgun's pattern and pulled the trigger. The muzzle flashed bright, the boom in the tight stairwell more pressure than sound. The shadow fell back, and she heard clattering thumping groans through the ringing in her ears. Emergency lights brightened, then clicked off as the regular stairwell lights returned.

The man-shape lay on the lower landing. It twitched. It forced itself up to sitting. She had enough light now to make sense of the shadows. What Al had called a cape or poncho seemed to be a cascade of small emerald feathers, with jade plates and gold ornament around the neck.

Gaudy. Not someone who had spent centuries avoiding calling attention to himself.

"Al, the knife, please."

She knew he stood behind her and knew what weapon he would be holding. Reliable Al. Good to have someone like that at her back.

They swapped shotgun for knife, and she heard him work the action to crank a fresh shell into the chamber. She hadn't bothered. Careless. You'd almost think she wanted to die. He followed her down the stairs, close so he could keep the muzzle of the shotgun beyond her elbow for a clear field of fire. She knelt in front of the man-god on the landing. She drew her blade from its sheath.

"I don't know who you are. I know what you are. Do you know what I am?" He didn't try to speak, not with his chest full of birdshot. He gave her a slight nod. "You won't die from those shotgun pellets."

Which hadn't spread beyond his chest. That pleased her -- less damage to patch up. Not much blood, either. That feathered cape seemed to soak it up.

"A shotgun won't kill you." She raised her knife. "This could. You see it. You know what it is. You know why it drew you here. That lure is the bait of a trap."

His eyes were focused on the point of the blade. He nodded again, horror on his dark face, his Indian face, First People face, Mayan or some such. Al had been right.

"It wants to kill you. It's hungry. I think that if I let go of it, it would slit your throat by itself."

He nodded again, still focused on the point.

"I don't want to have to clean up the mess that would cause. You will leave. Now that you know what pulled you here, you won't come back."

That drew a third nod, slow and painful. And she didn't trust it. She knew what she felt from the knife, and Al had forged it to love her and protect her and obey her. He too could draw it from its magical sheath and use it. No human could. She didn't know about other gods. But it was her knife, an extension of her hand and arm and will. If she thought a move, it twitched. Fresh blood had stopped seeping through the feathered cape. A wound like that -- close-range birdshot blast to the chest -- a human would have lost a quart or more of blood by now. For that matter, the cape was healing also. Should be a hole a foot wide, at that range.

For her or Al, that would take days or weeks to heal. Even gods have limits.

But the knife . . .

He still cringed away from the blade. He knew.

She should kill him. Otherwise, he'd just come back. But "mess" didn't cover it. When she'd killed Balkis, the explosion would have taken out four city blocks, killed dozens or hundreds of people. Humans. Wouldn't have touched her or Al. The wrath of god.

She couldn't do that to her people, her tribe.

Mel sheathed her blade and tucked it into the waist of her pants, those loose clinging revealing harem pants she'd worn as bait for Al. "Help me haul him downstairs." "Goddess, let us do it. You have good food waiting. And the god Al."

Mel blinked. She'd tossed her comment over her shoulder, to Al. But that was a woman's voice.

She shook herself. Lakshmi. Third floor. Broad and strong and even darker-skinned than Mel, the woman stood in her doorway off the stair landing with the shadow of her husband Bismillah behind her. Neither looked at all surprised to have thunder and lightning and shotguns blasting away outside their apartment, or to find a body waiting for her to haul away. Mel couldn't remember having needed such services in this generation. Lakshmi's ancestors, now, that was a different question.

And Lakshmi approved of Al, was pleased that Mel at last had found a partner to make the floor thump overhead from enthusiastic sex. Mel's people held a rather . . . earthy view of life. And death.

So many bodies. So much blood.

All in protecting her people.

Mel set her winds to seek a paradox -- find things they couldn't see, places where they couldn't go. She set them looking for holes in the world that might hide threats to her people. They found one. Two.

More.

Mel shook her head, strictly to herself, adding two and two and coming up with much more than four. This had been growing on her, as she understood her knife and what it meant. They now lived in a world full of gods who remembered what they were. Some gods were nice guys. A few. Most weren't.

"Treat him with care and honor. He is a god."

Lakshmi nodded. Bismillah behind her nodded. Up the stairs from their second floor apartment, Ravi and Desa nodded, more of her tribe. They would do what needed to be done. But first, she had a duty to those lamb shanks, and Al.

II


Albert Johannson grumbled under his breath as he scanned shadows and the sharp black edges of roof parapets overhead against a narrow slot of stars and faint moon-glow. As much as he liked Mel, he wished she was a little less Warrior Goddess. She could walk down dark alleys at midnight and even people who couldn't see her would sense danger and get out of her way. But she had gone ahead to draw threats away from her people, while he went back to his apartment to arm himself and get his bug-out pack of emergency gear.

Yeah, humans had a hard time seeing gods and goddesses. He preferred to stay out of this kind of neighborhood, anyway. He stopped at the next corner of the maze and listened, sniffed, scanned, leaning on his cane that was rather more than a cane and which he didn't need for support. The faint cool breeze brought him the scuttling of rats, the stink of piss and rotting cardboard and wet brick, a touch of musky bitterness he couldn't identify. A couple of slinking cat-sized shadows might have been those rats. Moonlight flooded this alley, making the contrasting shadows even darker and more threatening.

Mel is up to something. I've only known her a few months, but I can tell when she's playing secret games. She knows how I feel about good food, good ale, most of all about good music. Playing Bach for dinner music -- she knows how I feel about Bach and those cello suites in particular.

The Warrior Goddess was pushing his buttons, softening him up. She wouldn't bother unless the "something" was something she thought he didn't want to do.

Warrior Goddess, yes, but he had to admit she showed rather more worry about . . . "collateral damage" . . . than the average of that species. Which was why he was supposed to meet her at the metaphorical crossroads at midnight, celebrated in song and story. After all, that was where you met the Devil and made bargains.

She wanted to lead the wolves away from her flock. Wars between gods, between demons, could get messy -- like the near-nuclear explosion when Mel had killed Balkis. Mel worried about her people.

Not that she'd put it that way. No, she wanted to use the god-killer as bait to lure those wolves into a trap, a place she'd scouted once without him, beyond the House of Doors. Although why she called it a "House" escaped him. Nobody lived there. But she used a word that sounded like Q'ans'qet and said that's what it meant. She couldn't remember what language.

As far as he could tell, he'd repaired Solomon's magic enough that it was back to screwing with their memories. But now a certain idiot smith-god had not only fixed it but had given it point and edge for knife-work.

He sniffed again and listened, silent in the shadows. His nose and ears could analyze heated metals in the forge, tell him the percent of carbon in his steel and whether the alloy had nickel and chromium and how much, silicon and sulfur. Now, it added the sweetish perfume of burnt smokeless gunpowder to the back-alley mix. Faint -- a human wouldn't notice it -- but fresh.

That was not good. If Mel had been forced to cut loose with her .45s or the shotgun, he could expect a swarm of cops. Even here.

He eased into the wider service alley that ran along these backs of old storefronts. People kept this clean enough for deliveries to the mostly-defunct shops, no snowdrifts of trash-built shelter for the homeless. All the shadows looked square or angular, doors and dumpsters, and none of them moved.

And then one did. Rustling, clicking, a long low shape scuttled out from behind a dumpster and stopped in the moonlight. He saw too many legs. It thinned and curled upward at one end, tipped with glistening sharpness -- stinger.

A scorpion.

Al froze. That thing wasn't possible. It stood head-high to him, a dwarf by modern human standards, five feet tall plus an inch or so. Eight feet, ten feet long, at least five feet at the thorax without counting the stinger or the claws held high. He knew something of the physical laws that governed critters. You couldn't build something that size with chitin and an exoskeleton, couldn't move oxygen to the muscles inside it if you did.

And you couldn't hang what looked like a human head at the front end, between the claws. Almost human head -- faceted eyes glinted in the moonlight.

Scorpion god.

That damned magic was pulling gods from civilizations halfway across the continent. From across the sea. It had been pulling them for years. Centuries. That was how he and Mel had collided, one night very much like this a few months back.

Guess we ought to be grateful to skip the shark gods and kraken, here on dry land . . . . Just, don't go too near the river. It's tidal, even this far inland.

And he knew humans had worshipped some strange and nasty gods, down through the ages. He was beginning to think that they'd all been . . . real.

And now they were remembering what they were.

God. Or goddess. Damned if he could tell sex in a scorpion, by moonlight. It turned slightly, aiming at him, must have heard his breathing or heartbeat.

Shit. Shit shit shit.

It carried built-in armor. He carried a pistol, but that chitin probably would stop bullets. And besides, he'd just been worrying about Mel and gunshots stirring up the cops. He'd rather not have to explain himself to cops, with the stuff he carried.

Beyond that, his power lay in other weapons.

He raised his hands. "I do not seek blood-feud with you or your kin."

And what weregild would a god-slayer have to pay?

And gods have this bad habit of not staying dead. Mel carries the true god-killer.

The scorpion god scuttled forward, three feet, six feet closer. It still focused on him. That bitter musky smell strengthened, reminding him of cockroaches. Poisonous cockroaches -- venom glinted star-bright at the tip of its stinger.

He gave the mental twist that loosened his sword-cane in its steel sheath, bared the blade, let the discarded shaft fall clanging on the asphalt, and transferred the cane to his left hand for stabbing. With his right, he reached back over his shoulder for the grip of the wakizashi he'd tied into loops on his backpack that were originally intended for an ice axe. Eighteen inches of Japanese-style short sword blade whispered from its sheath, steel of his forging that could split air molecules in its passing. He backed up against a brick wall and glared at the scorpion.

"Again, I do not seek blood-feud with you or your kin. Pass in peace!"

Shadows blurred and he stepped sideways, blade flashing in the moonlight, and he felt a slight jerk as his edge cut the claw straight through. The god screamed, inhuman power that should have exploded every window within a hundred yards, but he turned the momentum of his sword-cut into a spinning dervish-dance along the monster's side slashing through leg after leg and then the stinger-tip and poison sac on the darting tail. The scorpion flopped on one side, still screaming, and he drove his sword-cane straight through that armor into the thorax, no idea where a bug kept its heart or whatever a bug-god used for one, but most things aren't comfortable with steel deep inside their core. And then he spun up the other side, slashing as he went, and carved the other claw and the head from the body.

He stood well clear, panting, as the corpse thrashed. At least it wasn't screaming any more.

And it isn't a corpse, he reminded himself. Long odds, I'll be seeing you again. In a worse mood.

It stank, acrid goo and a taint of carrion or bowels. Glistening fluid spread from the wounds, steaming faintly in the moonlight chill, and Al grimaced as he jerked his sword-cane blade from the carcass. If that mess etched or stained his steel . . .

He wiped both blades with a wad of toilet paper from his pack, damned careful not to let the liquid touch his skin, and then tossed the mess into one of the spreading puddles. He was littering, but that wasn't going back into his pocket or pack, no way. And then he retrieved his cane shaft and married it to his blade, sheathed the wakizashi behind his right shoulder, melted into a shadow, and scanned both alleys for any further surprises hiding in other shadows.

Nothing moved, nothing made a sound. He couldn't sense any sign that anyone but him had heard the scream. That didn't mean he was alone. But maybe he'd scared the rest into leaving him in peace.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil. For I am the evilest son-of-a-bitch in the whole mother-fucking valley . . . That wasn't his own phrase -- something he'd learned from some kind of "special forces" long before they became part of national armies. Probably mercenaries, maybe outright brigands. Or maybe older. That sounded like something Atli might have said. Translated. Paraphrased.

Would Attila have known the Hebrew Psalms? Would I have ever met Attila?

Still nothing moved.

Sagas tied Atli or Etzel, Attila, to the Nibelungs. Married him to Gudrun. Maybe. She killed him, revenge for her brothers. Maybe. After feeding him the roasted hearts of their sons. Maybe.

Some American poet played with the story. Robinson Jeffers?

Why would I know that?

Damned memory.

At least Jeffers and the Sagas hadn't butchered the story as bad as Wagner did. Wagner flat-out lied, and slandered with his lies. Albert Johannson, once known as Alberich the Nibelung, did not like Wagner. But, like most humans Al had known, Wagner was long dead.

Still nothing moving.

He eased out of shadow and along one of the brick walls facing the alley, past one rear entrance and another, reaching a door much like the others. This one showed stile-and-panel wood rather than rusty steel, no hardware of any kind, and seemed to be invisible to any eyes not belonging to a god. It was never locked, not even latched, but the street people didn't enter. He sniffed once more -- the gunpowder smell hung stronger here. He drew the wakizashi again and pushed the door inward with the tip of his cane. The door swung away, silent as if someone had just oiled the hinges, and showed him a sunlit courtyard with a fountain in the center of stone paving, surrounded by galleries rising along each wall. Skin prickled on the back of his neck -- sunlight did not spill out through the door. He'd never come to this place at night, before.

No reason why the sunlight should obey the laws of common physics. Nothing else about the place does.

He stood still, waiting and studying what he saw even though the light left him silhouetted and a clear target to any . . . thing . . . behind him in the alley. Two low dark shapes sprawled on the stone paving, leaking blood. He could pick out bright sparkles of brass shell casings and touches of cylindrical green that looked rather like spent shotgun shells. Ah, dear Mel. Avatars of Kali can be rough on the landscape. Bide with me, you are so fair . . .

But nothing moved, inside as well. He assumed that those dark shapes weren't dead, and then wondered if the illusion would still stand if she had actually killed them. The whole space was illusion, after all, a metaphor his brain manufactured to make sense of gates between worlds and realities. It might be indestructible.

He stepped through the doorway and swung his sword to the right, the latch side, slashing down even as he looked and saw empty space and then flicked his gaze back to the left in case of any threat lurking behind the door. He hooked the door closed with the crook of his cane, still not finding any threat. Then his gaze swept on, up and around, searching for anything that moved, anything trying to kill him. Just as he remembered, he saw the ground floor and three galleries above with one stairway up on his right, doors off the galleries to either side, three per side and there had been three overhead on the end wall where he entered. One door in, twenty-seven doors out. Three to the third power, mystical number, it probably meant something but damned if he knew what. The far wall had one "window" on each level, but each showed a different world than the one that he'd just left.

Bullet pocks marked several of the marble columns supporting the galleries, and something, maybe buckshot, had punched a hole through one of the carved marble screens that served as railings along the galleries. He shook his head at the thought of Mel missing a target, and then reminded himself that those targets had been gods. And maybe one of them had been behind that screen. Or maybe they had been illusions. He walked over to one of the scarred columns and ran his finger over the bullet-pock. His touch found no hole there, just smooth cold marble.

Other than that and the bodies, the place looked unchanged. He hadn't been back. He wasn't Mel, Kali incarnate, getting her kicks out of exploring strange new worlds with blazing Colt automatics in both fists.

Although he probably should drop the "Kali" label. A real Kali probably stalked the earth somewhere. He pitied that "somewhere."

Anyhow. He hadn't spotted any threats. That gave him time to look closer at the two bodies on the pavement. Neither moved. One was clad in glossy feathers, deep sea-green back and wings and white belly, not a cloak like the god Mel had shot in her stairwell but feathers grown in place. Raptor talons showed under one sprawled wing. He couldn't tell what kind of head or beak it had carried -- head was a pulped mass from buckshot. Hawk god, Horus or the like? It could have flown here.

The other wore obsidian black fur, panther or jaguar. He didn't see anything strange about its shape, just a big hunting cat with blood still leaking from a heart-shot and another wound that must have cut the spine. "Big" wasn't adequate -- the body stretched six feet if it was an inch. It stayed lean and swift in shape, not the heavyweight power-build of a tiger or lion of that size. Like the scorpion outside, the body-type didn't scale up with the rules of real biology.

Its eyes were open, but they weren't fixed and glazed in death. They moved and followed Al. And then the hawk moved one wing, slightly, drawing it in towards its body. No, these gods weren't dead.

He thought for a moment of a quick sword-slash, both mercy-stroke and protecting his back, but realized that it wouldn't work for either. Not against gods. He didn't need more enemies. He scouted, up the stairs, around the galleries, studying the doors he passed, wooden doors with old dark peeling varnish, much like the one to the alley. He didn't find more bodies. Two doors had blood-trails leading into them, one from behind that hole blasted in the marble screen-work, and he caught an image of Mel with the god-killer blade out, forcing wounded . . . things . . . to retreat from certain death, out of this space and into other worlds.

I'm sure the people living there are giving thanks for the new and angry incarnations.

He dipped his fingers into fresh blood and sniffed it, tasted it. No, not Mel. He knew her smell and taste.

That smell led him back to one door on the third level, one just like all the rest. He smelled her passage and felt the blade beyond it. Even before he'd taken Solomon's broken Seal and forged it into a blade with his own power, he'd been able to follow that ancient iron. It had bonded to Al's soul the first time he'd touched it. That was, if gods had souls. He sniffed at the door again and found bitter air, an unfriendly place, dry and dusty. Livable, though. He did carry food and water in his pack, his "jump bag" for emergencies. Mel's own pack had the same. Plus, little added toys like enough ammunition for a small war, and he had to assume she'd replaced the explosives. Avatar of Kali.

He pulled the door open, showing the gray nothing he remembered from his last time in this place, not flat but no depth either. Staring at it made his eyes hurt from failed focus. Remembering that other time, he hung his cane on his pack and pulled out a flashlight to pair with the wakizashi. He'd stepped into a pitch-black cave, before.

A blood-day, a sword-day, Fenris-wolf howling. A fire-day, an ice-day, Song of world ending. And then he followed Mel.
III


Mel crouched low against the damaged brickwork of a roof parapet, inching her head out into a gap as slow as she could so that it kept looking like just another jagged lump of dirty yellowish brick. People here seemed much too ready to shoot at anything that moved.

Getting shot hurt. She'd tried it before. Yeah, she was likely carrying the only weapon that could kill her, Al's demon blade. Some ways, the fact that bullets couldn't kill her was worse than if they could. Death was an end -- this much, and no more. For her, healing could go on and on and on, weeks or months of agony for a bad wound that would be over for humans in an instant of shock and flashing darkness. Like the humans her winds told her lurked beyond the parapet.

And they shouldn't be here. She'd chosen this world for its lack of innocent bystanders . . .

There they are. Three floors down and across an empty rubble-strewn plaza, movement in the ruins. She couldn't tell which side. Damned humans didn't wear uniforms.

Judging by who shot at who, this place offered a choice of at least three different sides. They fought over territory that reminded her of Berlin or Nagasaki after the humans' so-called Second World War, or maybe Carthage after the Romans got done with the place. What the hell did they want with this wreckage? The last time she'd been here, it had been empty. It still smelled empty -- dust, musty almost-dust of broken concrete and masonry, dry pungent desert weeds growing in the middle of pavement, no diesel exhaust or cook-fire smoke or cigarettes or even the stink of shit and piss in sheltered corners where a person could take the time for such acts without getting killed. Hell, that plaza hadn't seen traffic for so long that small trees had sprouted through the cracks. And then they'd died, or went dormant in what looked like doomsday drought.

More telling, she hadn't found any sign or smell of rats. No rats meant no food, no people.

Empty. That would have made it a perfect place for her to kill gods without worrying about the civilians. What was that euphemism that Al had picked up in his wanderings? Collateral damage? Twice the syllables of "we fucked up."

And she wasn't going to pick a side to help -- or curse -- with her divine presence until she knew who the hell they were and what they were fighting over. For now, she just wanted to keep out of the crossfire. And wait close to the House of Doors for Al, who should be able to home in on her, or at least the blade.

Her winds brought her the rustle of cloth and stealthy boots, someone climbing stairs toward the pile of rubble that had replaced the last flight of stairs to this roof. The clink of metal told her the someone probably carried weapons. It had to be human rather than god, or her winds wouldn't have known. This would be a good spot for a sniper.

She belly-crawled across the dusty tar and broken roof and dried, brittle weeds and faded into a corner where a chimney had collapsed -- instant foxhole. Mel trained her shotgun on the edge nearest those sounds and waited. Not that she expected to need the shotgun -- humans had a hard time seeing gods.

A head poked up. Not a helmet or glove on a rifle muzzle, trying to draw fire, but a man's head, stubbly black hair and beard, brownish skin, broad nose, dark eyes. No helmet. He didn't snatch a glance and jerk back to safety. Didn't even look around. Suicidal? The rest of him followed, crouching, tan shirt and blue pants and scuffed brown boots but no backpack, automatic rifle but no belt or bandolier of magazine pouches. Mel shook her head, just mentally, no movement to catch his eye.

He scuttled, crouching rather than crawling, across the roof to the parapet gap she'd used, met a rattle of shots, and collapsed. Damned amateurs. War is messy enough, even when left to professionals.

She checked her winds again. They didn't find anyone following Mr. Corpse. And she wanted a look at that rifle. Warrior goddess or not, she didn't like bringing pistols and a shotgun to a conversation held with rifles.

Another belly-squirm brought her to the side of the corpse, face shattered by a couple of head-shots. They might be amateurs, but at least one side had enough ammo for target practice. One glance and she rejected his rifle -- rust under caked dirt, dented magazine, cracked stock. It looked like an analog of the AK-47, stamped metal and loose tolerances that would laugh at rough use and bad weapons-care, but she still couldn't trust it without a thorough clean-up and test. Particularly not with just a single magazine of cartridges. She'd need that much ammo, just to sight it in. Judging by his actions, he wouldn't have bothered.

Amateurs, again. What kind of warrior wouldn't care for his weapon? A dead one.

She wrinkled her nose -- the corpse hadn't bathed in a few weeks or months and had pissed himself when he died -- but she patted it down in a quick search. He hadn't even carried any loose cartridges. That belt knife, Al wouldn't even save it for scrap metal -- cheap stamped steel again that looked like the guy had sharpened it on a brick. Pants pocket held a lump of some kind of pressed dried plant, tobacco or hemp or such, smoke or chew, she wasn't interested.

One shirt pocket held something like a rosary, but with a star instead of a cross -- a six-pointed star, but not a Solomon's Seal, not interlocking equilaterals. This had acute triangles sticking out from the central hexagon. Mel weighed it in her palm, studied what seemed to be actual silver mountings and chain, beads of agate, and then tucked it back in the pocket where she'd found it.

No food. Pitiful weapons. No ID or papers of any kind.

What the hell were these people doing here?

And what would they do next? She knew, from centuries of combat, there was a good chance that someone from one of the various sides, various tribes, would check this rooftop and that corpse. She would really prefer to miss that, or any mortar bombs or wandering rocket-grenades that wanted to make sure of the kill. She checked her winds again.

They found nothing close. She slithered down the pile of rubble, eyes and ears and nose scouting for threats. Empty shadowy corridors greeted her, cratered masonry walls and concrete floor and ceiling from earlier firefights and from scavengers ripping out pipes and wires. This place had had electricity and running water, once, years ago.

Her nose tickled, and she managed to pinch it in time to stifle the sneeze. Damned dust. She wondered if it was radioactive. That would fit some of the other evidence. Not that she would end up glowing in the dark -- she'd walked the streets of Nagasaki while the fires still raged, couldn't remember why. No radiation poisoning.

Maybe that was where she'd learned naginata forms and how to handle a katana?

Memories. Dreams. Dreams that might be memories, memories that might have been dreams. Just living a few thousand years could get confusing enough, and then there was Suleiman bin Daoud screwing around with that damned Seal of his.

Crouching low at shattered windows, testing door openings before trusting them, avoiding plaster shards and broken glass and anything else that would crunch underfoot, she worked her silent wraith-way down through the ruin to the ground floor. She found another corpse, one that hadn't been there when she climbed to the roof. Mel grimaced -- she was getting careless, that she hadn't sensed death this close.

This one had been a woman, throat cut from behind and as much fresh blood sprayed around as you'd expect from that. Brown skin again, but different brown than the other, lighter, with the hawk nose of North Africa or the Arabian Desert or the South Asia hills, black hair straight and cut short. Looked sort of like Mel herself in that generic description.

Red smears darkened her shirt where the killer had wiped his blade. That clothing reversed the bearded guy's, faded blue shirt and tan pants, not uniform as such but maybe a clue. Mel didn't find a rifle, but the corpse had two full magazines in cargo pockets of her pants, probably would fit the rifle lying up on the roof. That still didn't make it worth the trouble of fetching, cleaning, testing.

Mel did the same quick search. She didn't find papers or ID, not even the wad of dried leaves this time. The belt knife showed better quality but nothing like Al-grade, machine forged, maybe military issue with leather grip and dull gray finish.

The woman had also carried a rosary, or something like it, this one a gold chain and jade beads with a pendant star of four narrow points, top and bottom long, sides short. Mel stared at it, lying in her hand.

That might mean nothing, esthetic choice, but human "Christians" had killed each other over which way they crossed themselves, right to left or left to right.

And she wondered why the man had taken the rifle but not the spare magazines, not the better knife. He expected to die before he could use them? Would gain heaven by dying? She didn't like martyrs.

Like amateurs, they made war even messier. They didn't even do much for your cause, whatever that might be. Some general once said, he didn't want his soldiers to die for their country. He wanted them to make those poor bastards on the other side of the barbed wire die for theirs.

The guy on the roof hadn't even fired a round before he died. The woman had been an amateur, too, letting some untrained idiot take her from behind, in daylight, skulking around in ruins like this alone.

Mel weighed the rosary in her hand.

"Many pray. None listen for answers."

The voice came out of nowhere. Space blinked and Mel found her back against a wall, shotgun lying in the dust at her feet, with the demon knife out in her hand, point angled up for a slash or belly-stab. Reflex. She couldn't remember moving.

And that same reflex had identified the threat. Knife, not gun, against the blue shape across the litter-strewn alley. It had to be a god. Or goddess. Or a sexless demon, like Legion? Legion had also feared that blade.

It wore dark blue desert robes and head-wrap that veiled the face and swathed any body-shape, but she knew plenty of places where that garb could mean either sex. And the voice had been . . . indeterminate. Neither male nor female.

"A thousand years and more, they pray but they will not listen." The enigmatic shape spoke. Then, "You do not need that knife."

Better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it. Mel kept the point between them.

And then a shiver ran down her spine. She could understand that . . . person. The upper level doors of the House, scouting around the worlds behind those doors, she hadn't found many languages she understood. This, she could. And her brain played the words back, found a mix of Hebrew and Greek and Arabic. Not a pidgin, she knew a dozen or more pidgins and creoles, not "Danger no him kumbaya," but a mélange, with grammar and syntax of a living language centered on the eastern Mediterranean.

That didn't mean she trusted it.

"Who the hell are you?"

The form shrugged. "They call me God. All of them. If I ever had another name, they've been afraid to speak or write it for so long that I've forgotten it." And it used the Arabic word. Allah. Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians used that word, as well as Muslims.

"Why are these people killing each other?"

Shoulders slumped, under the robe, and Mel read the body-language of sadness across the alley separating them.

"This is my holy city. Each side wants to hold it, and all sides believe they gain paradise if they die fighting for it."

The warrior goddess took over Mel's tongue. "Why the hell don't you stop them?"

That drew a gesture, arms wide. "They do not listen. What do you think caused all this ruin? I took away my favor from all of them. Now they fight over holy dust." Something caught Mel's eye, to the left, and then blackness smashed into her face. She caught glimpses of light as wings beat her, feathers bent and separated, talons scratched fire across her forehead and cheeks. Some other thing grabbed and stabbed her right wrist and pounded it until her hand spasmed open and she dropped the knife.

The knife!

She swiped something heavy away from her face, drawing a squawk. Blinked. Focused through blood.

Two large birds, dark, broad-winged, dodged away down the alley, she couldn't tell what species. Eagle, raven, owl? One of them carried the demon knife, the god-killer, in its talons. Oh, SHIT.

She grabbed the shotgun, split-second move again, and had just laid her sights on the bird with the knife when both of them flew into a sudden dust-devil, vanished, and did not come out the other side. As if she'd needed proof that those were not natural birds.

The dust-devil also vanished. She scanned her sights up and down the alley -- empty. She found no sign of the blue-robed god, not even footprints in the dust.

Had it commanded the birds?

Mel stared at her wrist, at the blood oozing from talon or beak wounds. She felt more blood trickling down her face from scratches on her cheeks and forehead.

Damn good thing that one didn't get at my eyes.

As she watched, the bleeding stopped. Raw red closed the wounds on wrist and hand. She knew hours would follow that with pinkish flesh spreading across from the edges and sealing. Another day, two, she'd have to look hard to find new scars among the old.

Gods healed. Based on what she could remember of her centuries, she probably could have her head blown off and her body would grow a new one. That didn't stop the pain, for the years while it went on. Now the itching started, stunned nerves waking up and reconnecting, turning into ache and then pain and then blazing fire. And nothing she did could stop it. Gods healed, except for ones killed by that knife.

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