Gods Greater and Lesser
Capital of the world, gateway of the gods, the most religious city on the face of the Earth. There was a god for every man, a church for every faith, a scripture for every believer. It was said that the New Gods had descended to the changed world here, after the madness of the Cataclysm and the Long Night, and never left.
Skyscrapers reached for the heavens, each of them a steeple dedicated to the dual divinities of commerce and capitalism. Roads and train tracks divided the city down into districts, neighborhoods, parishes. Temples and shrines marked the borders and holdings of gods greater and lesser. Massive billboards advertised movies, computers, makeup, mass-manufactured by megacorporations pledged to or founded by the gods. Drones and gravity vehicles soared through the sky with tech handed down from the New Gods. Down at the street, among the countless millions of anonymous cars and pedestrians, preachers competed to attract the most souls.
Babylon hadn’t changed.
A man could live his entire life in Babylon and never see more than a tenth of it. More than a city, it was a country unto itself, an ever-growing gray sprawl of steel and concrete, holograms and neon, empty promises and broken dreams. Here a man could find everything he was looking for. Power, wealth, fame, immortality, identity, anything a man could ever want, he could find it in Babylon.
If he could pay the price.
There was no avoiding the game of gods. Not in Babylon. Not in the City of Gods. In this city where the miraculous was mundane and where gods walked among men, there were no atheists. Only believers and seculars.
Karim had known this all his life. He’d weighed his options, saw what the gods offered and demanded, saw no sign of the Allah his community insisted on worshiping, and made his choice. For good or ill, he was part of the pack of Galen the White.
And when the pack called, you came running.
Tangling with the cops had cost Karim the better part of the day. They’d locked him in a detention cell overnight and spent the morning interviewing him. Everyone agreed that he’d acted in self-defense and in defense of others. The Highway Patrol, the District Attorney, the witnesses, everyone showed him with praises and congratulations.
Nobody wanted to mess with an Elect.
Still, his privileged position only went so far. He was an Elect, yes, but not an Elect of the New Gods. The police insisted on retaining his weapon as evidence. They’d given him a receipt for it, but until the investigation was complete, they’d hang on to it. He didn’t know if he’d ever see it again, only that he had no other weapons on him.
It was a mistake. On the other hand, after being terminated from the STS, his status as a law enforcement officer had been formally revoked—and with it, the right to carry firearms anywhere in the country. As part of his deal with the government, he had to turn over his entire arsenal, both STS-issue and privately-bought ones. After months of futile legal wrangling to get them back, he’d resigned himself to the inevitable and applied for a civilian permit. That one arrived barely six weeks ago. It’d cost him another two weeks and a thousand dollars to source for an M99 and customize it to his needs.
And just like that, he was unarmed again.
He could pop into a gun store and tool up again. He should do that. But the mandatory background check could take up to three days, and if the PSB didn’t explicitly give the go-ahead, it would take another thirty days before he could pick up his purchase. He’d have to do it at some point, but right now, he had more important things to do.
One of the older neighborhoods in the ever-changing city, Hunter’s Heights was a community of townhouses and apartments surrounded by arcologies and shopping malls. Instead of concrete there was hand-worked brick, instead of corporate-owned chains there were small businesses, instead of New Gods there was only Galen the White.
The Temple of Galen stood alone, sandwiched between a pair of mixed—use apartments, a three-story townhouse painted all in white. A wrought iron fence divided it from its neighbors. A pair of carved stone wolves sat by the entrance, watching the world. The main doors yawned like the jaws of a great wolf, but the closed gate muzzled it. The signboard announced its name to the world in bright gold letters against deep black. Inside the temple, shadows beckoned.
In front of the gate, five toughs hung about, smoking and chatting.
One man took a deep puff and extinguished his cigarette on the head of a stone wolf. Another sat casually on the other wolf, covering its face with his vast rear end. As Karim approached, all five men turned to glare at him.
It was a grave sign of disrespect. Do that to a shrine of the New Gods and it was tantamount to a declaration of war. Karim’s hackles raised, his eyes twitched, his heart thudded. There was only one thing he could do.
He wasn’t here to start any trouble. Just to find out what Galen the White wanted. If the god had ordered him to clear out the louts, he had to obey. But Galen had remained silent.
Instead, Karin touched the Aether, just enough to see the men as they truly were.
Great dark things overlapped their physical bodies, packed with hard muscle, coated in thick fur. Claws like daggers grew from their fingers, teeth like sabers protruded from their lips, eyes like coals burned bright.
These men were the Elect of a god. They wouldn’t deliberately provoke another recognized Power like Galen, not without good reason. The question, of course, was which god.
His first thought was the Court of Shadows. But the Court had more complex energies, and the gods they followed manifested themselves differently. This was a wolf god—a black wolf, one that wasn’t Galen.
The smallest among them, a scrawny man that came up to his eyebrows, jabbed his cigarette at Karim.
“Hey! What the fuck you looking at?”
Karim looked away.
“Sorry. Just had a long day.”
“Yeah, that’s right, keep walking! This is our turf now!”
They were claiming this land? They would start another war between the gods, so soon after the showdown at the BITE? Madness. But no one had ever accused the Powers who walked the land of sanity. At least, sanity according to human norms.
Karim had to report to the temple. Galen would not be denied. He felt the divine compulsion in his blood, a humming that resonated in his bones, in his marrow, in his soul. He had to go. He would go. Nothing could stop him from entering. He himself couldn’t disobey.
He could, however, choose how he carried out his orders.
At the end of the street, around the bend, a narrow alley cut through the block, granting access to the rears of the town houses. He didn’t have to go through the front door. He didn’t need the drama if he could help it.
But as he turned, a flash caught his eye.
A white van, parked kitty-corner to the block, shifted slightly on its suspension. Its tinted windows revealed nothing about its occupants. The rear doors with its wide windows faced the temple. In his Aether sight, a cloud of burnished gold and browns and grays drifted within the vehicle.
Surveillance. These energies were different, diffused, multiple streams mingling together. He knew of only one faction with that signature.
Karim continued his turn. But this time he circled around the block, looking for more signs of surveillance. Cameras, parked vehicles, the glint of lenses, people who didn’t belong. He took his time, slow and steady, taking in the sights and sounds of the streets and looking for what didn’t belong, for the energies that belonged to the New Gods.
He saw no other surveillance teams. Neither in the physical or in the Aether. Which didn’t mean there were only two factions involved, only that at least two were in play.
The Temple Commission had left a huge power vacuum in Babylon. The New Gods had scrambled to gobble up what they could—though held in check by increased scrutiny. That wouldn’t last forever. Once the Temple Commission and the politicians moved on to other things, it would be back to business as usual.
But why challenge a Power like this? Karim expected backroom deals, knives in the dark, actions outside the public eye. This was a naked provocation. There was more going on than he thought he knew.
He still had to report in. There was no working around divine compulsion. But he could choose when to go in. He didn’t have to enter the temple while the thugs were still hanging around. He could call the cops and drive them off. Or get the priest to do it. Without a gun, without backup, direct confrontation was suicide. It was the right thing to do. The tactical thing to do.
But even as he framed that thought, a hue and cry rose from the temple.
The thugs clustered around the gate, jeering and mocking, shouting insults at the top of their lungs. At the entrance of the temple stood the focus of their attentions, a slight man draped in the pelt of a white wolf.
Harold Dahl, Priest of the Temple of Galen the White.
“Get out of here!” Dahl boomed. “The police are on their way!”
“You get out!” a thug retorted. “This is our turf now!”
“This place is an accredited temple under the Babylon Accords! You are trespassing on ecclesiastical property! Leave!”
The thugs laughed.
“We’re not in the temple, old man! The cops can’t touch us!”
“You’re blocking the entrance. That’s more than enough reason for the police to arrest you.”
The men sniggered.
“We’re Street Wolves. We own this patch of Babylon. The cops can’t do shit. You, on the other hand, well… You’re not part of us.”
“Yet,” another thug added.
“I told you before: Galen the White will not side with any Power. His policy has not changed. Now begone!”
“Come on, old man. Galen’s just like us. If you switch over to the Court, we’ll—”
“Karim!” Harold called. “I need your help!”
The thugs spun around. On the other side of the road, Karim tucked his hands into his waistband, as if getting ready to reach for a weapon.
“You… Karim Mustafa?” the speaker of the thugs demanded.
“Who wants to know?”
“Everyone said you left Babylon. What the hell are you doing here?”
“The Protector of the Temple has returned!” Dahl announced. “Leave or suffer the consequences!”
Not helping, old man.
The thugs’ vibes shifted. They fanned out, forming a line. They dropped their cigarettes and drifted their hands close to pockets and waistbands. The leader furrowed his eyebrows.
Karim stood his ground, regarding them all with a cold expression, as if he were a butcher eying fresh meat.
“I asked you a question,” the leader said. “What the hell are you doing back in Babylon?”
“Galen called. I answered.”
“This is none of your business. Get lost!”
“You are harassing the priest of Galen. This makes it my business. You get lost.”
“Not going to happen.”
Karim cracked his knuckles.
“Is that so?”
“There’s five of us, and only one of you. You sure you want to throw down?”
These were poor odds. Even in his wolf form, against superior numbers, against Elect, there was no way it would end well. Even in the STS, this wasn’t a fight he’d willingly pick. But he was pledged to Galen. He had to stand his ground.
Karim dropped his mask. He drew himself to his full height, tall and proud, turning his gaze on the crowd, letting them see him for who—and what—he was.
“Walk away and no one gets hurt,” Karim said.
“You walk away.”
Karim shifted, bringing his right side forward, keeping his hands low and ready for action.
Was it the human who said it? Or the god? Being an agent of a god made it hard to tell the difference. It didn’t matter: the word was spoken. He’d have to back it up. Or die.
Fanning out, the thugs crossed the road, ready to swarm him. The leader locked his gaze on Karim. Karim flickered his eyes left to right, as if in fear, in reality to log the others’ positions.
“Last chance. Leave,” Karim said.
The leader laughed.
The laughter become a deep growl. He threw his head back, baring his teeth and throat. Dark fur burst from his skin, covering his hands and face. Sharp claws lengthened from his fingernails. His teeth lengthened and sharpened, becoming gleaming white knives. His eyes glowed red.
Karim spun around and kicked him in the groin.
Gasping, frozen in mid-transformation, the Elect bent over. Clutching his crotch, the leader looked up, just in time for Karim to jump in and clap his still-human ears with both hands.
The human-wolf hybrid fell, stunned.
Karim leapt back, turning to the crowd.
“Who’s next?” he said calmly.
“Motherfucker!” the scrawny one said. “He dropped Kenny! We gotta—”
With a dramatic flourish, Dahl drew a short-barreled shotgun from under his pelt and worked the pump.
The thugs froze.
“What was it you gotta do again?” Dahl said, a bright smile on his face.
The thugs remained still as statues.
“Take Kenny and leave,” Karim said. “Now.”
The scrawny one glanced at Karim. At the shotgun. Back at Karim. And snarled.
“This ain’t over. Not by a long shot.”
Two men picked up Kenny, wrapping their arms around his shoulders. Together, the wolf pack trudged off, hurling insults at Karim and Dahl. Karim stayed put, keeping an eye on them, watching them head down the block and around a corner. When the last of them disappeared, he allowed himself to visibly relax.
But the Pantheon surveillance team was still there.
“Karim!” Dahl boomed. “Glad you’re here! Galen told me you were coming!”
Galen was a powerful combatant, but his strategy left much to be desired.
You defeated them without firing a shot. That’s still a victory in your eyes, no?
Karim sighed, and chose not to reply to the wolf god.
“Come, come, Karim! We’ve been waiting for you!”
Dahl stowed his weapon and opened the gates. The second Karim crossed the threshold, Karim lifted his finger to his lips.
Dahl nodded gravely, locked the gates behind him, and led Karim into the temple.
A comforting darkness fell over Karim. Candles burned on head-high shelves, lending just enough light to see in the gloom. Four pillars reached from the floor to the ceiling, adorned with the skulls. A long wooden table held a selection of offerings. Burning oil lamps, pots of honey, plates of berries.
Perched atop the altar, a tall statue of a huge wolf, carved from white marble, seated on its haunches, looked down on the world. Its muscles were large and clean and well-defined, its fur detailed and immaculate, its ruby red eyes bright with intelligence and power.
Musk hung thinly in the air, a faint odor that ticked his nose at the very limit of human perception. Warmth caressed him, bringing to mind images of a forest basking in the gentle glow of the afternoon sun, of a comfortable and cozy cave hidden from predators and prey alike. Power, raw and electric, yet calm and certain, radiated from the statue.
“Welcome back, Karim.”
The voice boomed from the head of the wolf. The voice of Galen the White.
“I have returned,” Karim replied.
“You’ve been away for six months. Six months we have heard nothing from you. Most men would have forgotten about you. But I have not. I always watch over those pledged to me.”
“Thank you for your help.”
“I am your god. It is only my duty to my pack. Tell me, have you found what you were looking for on the road?”
“Of course not. Alone, a wolf dies in the cold and in the dark. In a pack, he thrives. You are part of our pack, Karim. You should have turned to us.”
“The New Gods won’t forgive what I’ve done to them. If I’d stayed in Babylon, they’d come after you, too.”
“We understand your motivations, but they are immaterial. They are after us now.”
“What do they want?”
“You saw the gang outside,” Dahl said. “They’re the Street Wolves, a crew affiliated with the Court of Shadows. They’ve been pressing us to join them. When we refused, they started harassing us.”
“There’s a Pantheon surveillance team down the street. The white van.”
“The Pantheon approached us first,” Galen said. “They wished us to enter into an alliance with them. I refused. Soon after, the Street Wolves showed up.”
“Ever since then, the Pantheon and the Street Wolves have been watching us, taking turns to harass us,” Dahl said.
“You turned them down. Why won’t they respect that? Why are they escalating?” Karim asked.
“The Temple Commission severely weakened the New Gods,” Galen replied. “Their cronies in the government and law enforcement have been removed, their puppets in the corporations identified and revealed. There is a power vacuum on the streets, and nature abhors a vacuum.
“The New Gods are scrambling to seize land, wealth, resources, people. Lesser Powers are taking the chance to carve out their own kingdoms. Everyone is attempting to shape the next world order, and to arm themselves for the next great conflict.
“I have chosen independence. I do not care to ally myself with the New Gods, and I do not cooperate with Dark Powers. It is enough for me to live in peace with humanity, those who would live in peace with me, and to protect those who have pledged themselves to me. But recent events prove that it is the most dangerous position of all.
“We are now sandwiched between the territory of the Pantheon and the Street Wolves. Both sides wish to have us, our power and prestige, on their side. Failing that, they cannot let the other claim us. If they cannot secure an alliance with us, then they must deny us to their rivals.”
“In other words, they want to destroy you.”
“Yes. They desire our power, but they also fear it. If either side marches on us, the outcome will not be in doubt. They could destroy us completely if they wish. However, we will wound them so severely that their own position will be compromised, and the other New Gods will take advantage of it. It is the only thing holding them back from a committed assault.”
“What is your will?” Karim asked.
“I desire simply to continue to live in peace, and to protect my people. I will not bow to the Pantheon, nor join the Street Wolves. I charge you with protecting the Temple and the pack.”
“There’s only one of me. Can we recruit more?”
“Alas, you and Harold are the only men with significant combat experience and skills among our pack. The others may be enthusiastic, but they will be hard-pressed to defend their own homes against common criminals, never mind the soldiers of Dark Powers. I cannot send them to their doom. Though I desire to remedy this situation, we only have two combatants at present.”
“This is a security mission, then?”
“The best defense is a good offense,” Dahl said.
“You want me to make war on them?”
“War is coming—but the time for war is not now. Protect my temple and my priest. Start no trouble, but should the Pantheon or the Court escalate, greet them with teeth and claws.”
Karim exhaled sharply.
“I understand what you ask of me, but I don’t think I can do this alone. I need to gather intelligence, obtain supplies, run other jobs. I can’t stay in the temple forever.”
“I’ll protect the place while you’re out,” Dahl said.
“That’s a good start, but it’s not enough. I’d be more comfortable if we could hire armed security. A private military contractor like Dustoff International.”
“Our budget doesn’t run to hiring contractors,” Dahl said sadly. “We barely have enough to support ourselves.”
Galen might be powerful, but he was only a tutelary deity. His domain was sharply bounded by the borders of Hunter’s Heights. He did not press his human neighbors to contribute to him, nor had he attempted to expand his holdings. The temple existed solely on the generosity of those whom he protected.
“This will be… difficult,” Karim said.
“You cannot do this?” Galen said.
“I can, but there is one thing I need to do.”
“I need to call my friends.”
For more of Karim’s earlier missions in Team Black Watch, check out the prequel collection BABYLON BLUES!
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