I Think She’s Maybe a Courier?

The jungle was savage, crawling with strange insects and uncatalogued monsters, vast trees and dense undergrowth, and the spiky metal cell phone towers that the cannibalistic Verizon-men would raise.

“Please,” said Claire, fending off a gigantic crab-thing with a branch, cell phone gripped between her shoulder and her ear. “Please. I have to reach Mr. Dunborough immediately.”

“He’s not available, Ms. Williams.”

“This . . .”

She grunted. The crab had taken the branch in its pincers now and was pushing her backwards; she was braced against it, standing at a lean.

“This cannot be the right location,” Claire explained.

“I understand, Ms. Williams,” said the voice at the other end of the line, “but Mr. Dunborough is not available. We’ve been unable to reach him all morning.”

The crab’s claws sheared through the branch. Claire staggered, then smacked it in the eyestalk. It gave a horrible, polytonal hiss and reeled away.

“There’s not very good reception up where he’s staying,” the voice explained.

“Maeve, you’ve sent me out to the middle of a goddamned jungle,” Claire said.

“Satellite imaging says that you’re close,” the voice said, chipper. “Practically on top of the customer’s location.”

“Fine,” Claire said. She glowered at the crab monster. “I’ll get an aerial view and call you back. Get in touch with Mr. Dunborough.”

“I’ll do what I can, ma’am, but—”

Claire hung up, juggled the phone into her free hand, and tucked it away in the slim handbag at her side. “Come on, then,” she said, to the crab-thing.

It charged.


The trees were full of spiders. Some of them, she thought gloomily, were probably venomous. Maybe even the ones that had bit her; or, of course, possibly not.

She pulled herself exhaustedly up onto a branch. She lay over it for a moment before dragging herself to her feet, unsteady on the wooden limb. She glared around.

“Practically on top of it,” she said. “Why can’t I see it?”

Convulsively she dragged her phone out again. She rang the office. “I need Dunborough,” she said, without even introducing herself. “He’s the only one who knows where the client is.

“Satellite imaging says north,” Maeve said.

“I can’t go north,” Claire said. “North is a screaming plummet into what appears to be some sort of gigantic ant-lion pit.”

“Well,” Maeve said, hedging a little bit, “Northish.

“That’s very helpful.”

“Mr. Dunborough’s location is out of service.”

“He can’t be out of service,” Claire said. “He’s just in Wales. Wales has cell phone reception.”

“Not where he’s staying, Ms. Williams. It’s kind of in the middle of nowhere.”

“No,” Claire said. “Listen. The animals here don’t even recognize humanity as dangerous. You want the middle of nowhere? I’m staring straight at a tree goat, and I’ve got bars out the wazoo.”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Maeve said. “Maybe he’s stuck in a tunnel?”

“I’ll have to call you back,” said Claire. “Goat’s getting feisty.”

“Understood—” Maeve responded, but the line was already dead.


She found it eventually—though she could have stumbled around in the jungle for days, she thought, and not seen it, save for the stroke of luck that was a moment of sunlight glinting off of its glass. Even then she’d almost—almost—dismissed it as one of the baelbeasts, the glowing lizards that had bulled her car off the road, before she understood what she’d seen.

Then it was as if a burden dropped from her.

Then she was staggering gladly to the customer’s door, hammering on it, and finally bursting in through it when he did not respond—with fortuitous timing, as it happened, as he was currently engaged in wrestling for his life with a strangling tumbleweed that had gotten in through the vents.

Working together, they peeled it off of him; stuffed it into the incinerator chute; and collapsed backwards into two of his sitting room’s wooden chairs.

“This place is impossible to find,” she told him, when she’d gotten her breath back.

“Ah,” he said, apologetically. “Sorry.”

“No,” she said. “It’s OK. Just . . . seriously. A little out of the way here. Y’know? I mean, why would you—why would anybody even choose to live here?”

“It’s a bit hard on my allergies,” he admitted.

“Oh, God,” she said, “don’t remind me.”

“And a little far from the road.”

“And it’s overrun with monsters,” she pointed out.

“But seriously!” he said. “You get such great cell phone reception!”


His face was rapturous; his eyes turned upwards towards Heaven. “It’s all the cannibals,” he said. “They make it clear as a bell!”

Better Than None

Nevillea Chesterton had lost the inspiration for her life, and her half a dog was dying. At least she figured it was probably dying, that it had to be dying . . . didn’t it?

Though nobody seemed to have informed the half a dog.

There was a flag outside, and seventeen stars upon that flag, which didn’t seem quite right to her—one for each State in the union, only, that was somehow wrong, too. In fact, she posted, it is quite clear that there ought to be more States than this; somehow President Obama has misplaced them, and I hope he is ashamed.

To this post the White House failed to reply.

“I’ve lost the inspiration for my life,” she explained, cogently, to her best friend Chalcedony. Chalcedony nodded.

“I told you things would get better,” Chalcedony said. “. . . sorry.”

“It’s not that they’re worse,” Nevillea said, and then hesitated. It was possible that having half of a dog wandering around one’s apartment bumping into things did count as “worse.” She just couldn’t remember what it was actually like to have a whole one. “It’s just . . . I have absolutely no idea what I’m supposed to be doing.”

“Don’t look at me,” Chalcedony said, which was ironic, because by any possible measure Chalcedony was succeeding at her life.

It wasn’t just Nevillea, of course, who was having trouble. There were widespread concerns just about everywhere about the apparent absence of part of the constructive fabric of the world. Pieces that people were pretty sure ought to have been there weren’t, and the world was widely understood to be undergoing a mysterious process of decay.

Chalcedony’s functional life was an aberration, as such things went.

“Already we have lost our proud eighteenth State,” one pundit said, “and tomorrow we may well wake up to have lost another one; we will forget that there ever was Wisconsin, and count sixteen stars on the American flag, and wonder at its strange and dairy absence to the world.”

This was existentially terrifying to Nevillea, on account of how she hardly ever remembered Wisconsin in the first place.

She’d wake up in the morning and rush to the news and check the status of the States, only to be certain, absolutely certain, that they’d lost one; that the seventeen that they currently had was one fewer than there’d been before. She monitored her half-a-dog carefully for signs of thirding and worried every day that her lamps might be one fewer than they had been before, or her arms and legs, or brain—

Which worries were misplaced, of course, but Chalcedony could not relieve her on them in any fashion; they were wrong, but every bit as likely as they were not.

“I don’t think there’s really room for another hemisphere in your brain,” Chalcedony did say. “I mean, by definition. So you don’t have to worry too much on that account.”

“Not a hemisphere,” Nevillea said. “A brain.

“You think you might have had two brains,” Chalcedony said, “in a proper world?”

“For redundancy,” Nevillea said. “You need redundancy for a good design.”

Indeed other brains were hard at work; and they were not Nevillea’s.

By a process of pure reason it was deduced that the great State of Virginia ought to exist, for all that it didn’t and it never had; a team of explorers found the ragged edges of the map and ventured out beyond it. There in the darkness of the absence of Virginia they were harried by knife-winged creatures and slithering creatures in the muck; but still they returned triumphant, carrying some vague enlightenment on the nature of what had come to pass.

“It’s data,” Professor Lethiwick said. “We found that we could perceive it directly—immanently—when we got out far enough past the tattered bound. Data, meaning that the world is a simulation: and the errors we’ve encountered are the signs of it coming undone or shutting down.”

Nevillea was not alone in blaming the President for this; his approval ratings spiked violently downwards before leveling off at the “what does it really matter, anyway?” plateau.

Solutions were enumerated and discarded.

Troops massed in the “Virginian Interdict,” pacifying the ur-life of the border region; an Institute was established at the tattered bound to study the border region and the lands beyond it to see if the ontological decay could be reversed. Maps of the hypothetical United States became popular, some listing as many as 45 distinct States and territories, including such refined potenstates as Puerto Rico, Arizona, Madison, and Mars. As for the rest of the world, it intruded on Nevillea’s television mostly in the form of episodic horror—

If Sweden were more or less in one piece, the networks did not show it, preferring to focus on the Italian revolution or on the refugees from Lost Beijing.

She’d watch, glued to her screen, petting half a dog—

But twenty minutes later, they’d be back to endless rounds of punditry and speculation on the Institute, on the missing regions, and on just why we seemed to be missing more than half of the world.

“I think the worst part of it,” Nevillea said, “of losing my inspiration, I mean, is that it’s not even an interesting lack of inspiration; I mean, it’d be one thing if I were suffering, but I’m just . . . kind of dead.”

“Tell me about it,” said Chalcedony.

Nevillea turned off the television as it cycled into its seventy-ninth discussion of the day of how it was probably premature to speculate on whether the “active primitives” the Institute had unearthed were actually data in the process of being executed.

“I just think my life was probably better than this,” Nevillea said, “when there were all thirty States.”

“What are you going to do about it?” Chalcedony asked.

Nevillea stared blankly at her. Then she shrugged. “There’s nothing I can do,” she said. “That’s rather the point.”

“Hm,” Chalcedony said.

She pet the half a dog. Its tail thumped against the couch.

“It’s only going to get worse,” Chalcedony pointed out.

“—Yeah,” Nevillea agreed.

It was called the Vigil—the thing that people took to, of waiting for the next thing to be lost. . . . not that you could ever really tell.

Nevillea kept the Vigil.

She kept it for days and days.

“I think I just lost my spark today,” Nevillea told Chalcedony—by instant message—but it was too early in the day for Chalcedony to read it, and the message never got a reply.

Later she discovered that her bathroom didn’t have a little thing to clean the toilet with, and, in fact, neither did the store. She got extremely confused attempting to explain what it was or what it did to the customer service technician and finally came home with a feather duster, which she propped up, for lack of any better ideas, in the general vicinity of the porcelain throne.

“It’s got to be a new hole,” she concluded. “It’s got to have just vanished. I know I clean my toilet with some regularity and would have previously noticed its absence.”

“It’s hard,” Chalcedony said. “I get what you’re saying, but I’m not sure how often one actually thinks about the fact that little things to clean the toilet with have never actually existed.”

“Or stop lights!”

“Stop lights exist, Nevillea.”

“. . . I can only think of examples of things that exist,” Nevillea admitted. “Except for Virginia and Beijing. And go lights, I guess.”

“. . . go lights exist, too.”


“They’re the green ones, Nevillea.”

Time passed.

It was eventually confirmed that yes, the Institute had observed data in the process of execution—data that was not merely static elements disjoined from the process of existence, but active elements that were doing something in the great void beyond the tattered bound.

“There is no formal divergence,” Dean Lethiwick explained, “between data that simply is and data that does; the fabric of the . . . thing . . . is identical. But we have confirmed that there exists an immanence interpreting some of the data that lies beyond the tattered bound as procedural instructions.”

This immanence Dean Lethiwick preferred to interpret as a sort of cosmic computer, but it became more popularly known as “the eye of God.”

The eye of God looks upon data, people would write, and it becomes truth.


The eye of God looks upon that which had been still, and it burns with the fire of motion.

“Our own brains,” Dean Lethiwick said, “possess an elemental division between the understanding of data as passive declarative information and active procedural information; although it is surprisingly difficult to maintain a more than superficial grasp of this, because grasping is something we do to declarative information alone.”

“But what does it mean,” the interviewer asked, “that this particular data is being executed?”

“Well,” Dean Lethiwick said, “the negative perspective is that there’s a memory leak somewhere that’s causing stuff that should just be, like Virginia, to become instructions for action instead; but I think it’s a far more interesting notion that, just possibly, the simulation itself, our baseline existence, isn’t just a passive thing, but a doing. That the reason that there’s stray procedural data beyond the tattered bound is that there’s procedural data here; not just a Wisconsin but a Wisconsoning, if you know what I mean.”

“Thank you,” the interviewer said, and “This has been a discussion with Dean Lethiwick, of the Institute at the tattered bound . . .”

The religious commentators won Nevillea over; their interpretation superseded Lethiwick’s for her; in understanding the active data breakthrough, she preferred to imagine not a cosmic computer but a divine eye that could look upon stuck, still, grey things and make them move. She daydreamed of that eye looking upon her and it making a moving thing of her; it seemed to her that it would be like being set on fire, only painless, and she resolved that if Chalcedony should question this description she would airily dismiss her concerns by claiming that Chalcedony’s declarative memory couldn’t grasp the true and essential experience of procedural divinity.

“I see,” Chalcedony said, when this actually came up; and, “. . . I suppose that’s true.”

There were still seventeen stars at the end of that week, and at the end of the week after; although, for all Nevillea knew, it had been twenty the day before. There was still half a dog, not a third of a dog; though, again, for all she knew, it had been recently whole. It seemed almost tragic that after losing so much she couldn’t tell if she had actually lost any more, or if there was any point in the Vigil that she kept.

“It’ll never get better,” she said, to Chalcedony, but Chalcedony waved her to silence. Chalcedony un-muted the television, which had been running silently in the background. She leaned forward.

Breaking News was running along the bottom of the screen.

There was the familiar face of Dean Lethiwick, and one of the thousand interchangeable interviewers; this one, Stacy Glenn.

“. . . what lesson should we take away from the discovery of this ‘initialization incident?’” the interviewer was asking.

“It’s really too soon to be making hypotheses,” Dean Lethiwick said. “But it’s brought a lot of weight to the formerly-disregarded Expansion Interpretation, wherein the missing pieces of the world are from our future rather than the past. What we seem to have witnessed in the ‘initialization incident’ was the formation or re-formation of a piece of the world that was always supposed to have been there; and now, it always actually has.”

“Fascinating stuff, Dean Lethiwick. We’re with Dean Lethiwick, whose team recently caught what appears to have been a retroactive rectification of one of the missing pieces of the world . . .”

The screen blanks out.

Nevillea comes to the realization that she has seized the remote control; that she has clicked the television off; that she is trembling.

“Nevillea?” Chalcedony asks.

It is terror.

And she thinks for a long moment that her terror is the terror of being forgotten—that if they have gotten the progression backwards, and one day at the end of her Vigil she wakes up to a world with all the States, and all the dog, and all the rest, always and forever, then the Nevillea of today will be lost; that the world will be back, and whole, but the Nevillea who kept the Vigil, the Nevillea of the world of missing pieces, will be gone and unremembered—

Only, that isn’t it.

That could be terrifying her—but that isn’t it.

“It’s just,” she says, aimlessly and unsure, “that that means—”

She imagines the eye of God turning to stare at her; imagines herself as wax, burning under the awful fire of that gaze.

“That things could turn out right.

And Chalcedony doesn’t even blink at the idea that that would terrify her; that the possibility of waking up one day to discover herself a Nevillea who hasn’t lost the inspiration for her life would frighten her;

Just: “In fairness,” Chalcedony says, “Nevillea, it’s probably really rather a good thing, for the dog.”

Respawn Star

The two hundred and sixty-eighth alien invader I killed dropped the decoder for their language and I could finally understand what they were saying as I killed them.

“This is a misunderstanding,” a tall mantis-creature protested. “We are here on entirely legitimate authority.”

I had the option to explore that, but I didn’t.

Instead I found cover over by Paul, ducked behind it, and looked out from behind it long enough to pick the monsters off.

“They’re here on entirely legitimate authority,” I told him.

“I’d heard that,” he agreed. “Some sort of feral species management division. If we can prove that we’ve overcome our violent past, they’ll escort us out into a broader galactic community.”

There was another of their war-beasts in the distance; I put a laser through its head, and a pocketwatch tumbled from its corpse.

I remember how I used to find stuff like that funny, when I was a kid, killing ladybugs and house spiders for loot and XP; “where were they even keeping it?” I’d ask myself. Or “why would they even have that?”

But it wasn’t funny now.

“War,” I said. “War never changes.”

“You get better loot when you’re higher level,” Paul pointed out. “And you get to fight tougher aliens back at their landing point.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But other than that.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “Other than that.”

There was the chance to advance, after a while. We took a new vantage. It reeked; the scent of bonfires, burnt aliens, and death.

“You hoping for anything in particular?” he asked me.

“Something for charm,” I said.

“They’re not very charming,” Paul pointed out.

I peeked up out of cover and nearly lost an ear. I fired a wild shot, ducked back down, and scowled. “They’re not,” I agreed. “But they’ll drop a charm item eventually. And it’s not like I’d do any better anywhere else.”

“I’m hoping for an armband of medicine,” Paul said.

“You want to be a doctor?”

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s . . . I want to make things better, you know? But med school’s pricy as hell.”

“Good luck,” I told him.


There was a prickling at the back of my neck. I turned, but I wasn’t fast enough. There was one of them, behind us. It had us dead to rights, and I heard the incomprehensible clicking and chittering of it translate into a confident, “Stand down.”

“I’ve heard bad things about what you do with prisoners,” I said.

It wasn’t what I wanted to say. It was just the best I could do with the dialogue wheel I had. I wanted to point out that I’d just respawn if it shot me, but—

You don’t get to talk about things like that. Not with hostiles. That’s strictly for free chat with your allies in war.

“The rumors are ill-founded,” the creature maintained. “Our camp provides . . . rehabilitation.”

I tried to find a way to ask what I really wanted. Do you have any quests there that provide charm items? Or, well, medical training, I guess?

The best I could do was: “Let’s talk about this.”

“Drop the gun,” it told me. “Kick it away. Then we can talk.”

I flailed mentally, looking for something, anything, I could say. “Do you really rip your mate’s heads off during sex?”

“That is an intensely personal question,” it said. “Drop the gun. Now.”

“It just seems like you’re a bit hypocritical calling us savage—”

It fired.

Paul blurred into a cut-scene. He shoved me out of the way. The wall behind me cracked. He had his gun in his hand. He nailed it between the eyes just as I landed a center-body shot. The alien fell back.

Even after months of farming, I expected it to de-rez, to return to its spawn point; expected it, somehow, to act human—

But of course it didn’t. They don’t do that. Their corpses don’t fade away.

“Nice,” I said.

“It was just scripted,” he said.

I think it counts,” I said.

He seemed a little uncomfortable. Not everybody gets along well with cut-scenes. “. . . thanks,” he said.

I looted the corpse. Nothing of interest. I slipped back into cover.

“Have to watch our flanks, I guess.”


After a while, he said, “’Rip their mate’s heads off,’ huh?”

“You understood that?”

He tapped his ear. “Party member,” he said.


“But, seriously?”

“I was trying to ask about quests,” I said. “My options were limited. This is why I need a charm item.”

“So you can find better things to ask your enemies about than their sexual habits?”

“. . . yeah,” I said.

“It’s probably ridiculously hard to get anywhere with them,” Paul said. “I mean, seriously. This is endgame level stuff.”

“I wasn’t really expecting to be able to make peace,” I said. “I just want to be less inane.”


“I can’t even talk to my own mother,” I said. “You know?”


“I call her up,” I said. “And she answers. And I have nothing but passive-aggressive bullshit, greyed-out options, and ‘goodbye.’ So I hang up again. Every damn time.”

“Sucks,” he said.

“I don’t want her to be my enemy,” I said. “It just kind of happened, and I can’t get it back.”

“Have you tried adjusting your family options?” he asked me.

There was a flurry of laser fire. I popped my head up, brought the gun around, and took out a mantis commander. Time slowed down as it exploded in light.

It was still moving slowly as I dropped back down, put my back to the wall, and turned to look at Paul.

“. . . there are options?”

And the aliens charged us, and died, but they did not return.

Objective Magical Sources

The evil queen disguised herself as an old apple seller. She took a poisoned apple to the cottage of the dwarves. But the dwarves were gone. They had delved too greedily and too deep; they had awakened something in the darkness.

Now only Snow White remained.

“He went chasing the glitter of it,” she said, “some jewel he dreamed of finding, ‘fairest of all the things under Heaven and beneath the Earth;’ but he found something else instead, and heat belched out of the tunnel that he’d been digging and fire flickered in the caverns beneath the mountain and there shall be no body in his tomb.”

“That’s terrible,” said the evil queen.

“’And I alone am returned to tell thee,’” Snow White said. She shook her head. “That’s what he said to me, and sneezed. ‘And I alone am returned to tell thee.’ Seven left, and just one returning, and even he returned not long.

“A weird remained upon him, a dreadful calling.

“’It was a thing of fire and shadows,’ he said. ‘But its eyes were jewels,’ and not three days back before . . .”

She trailed off.

“Before he’s gone.”

“Would an apple make you feel better?” offered the evil queen.

“They smell too sweet,” scoffed Snow White. “They shine too red. They are too beautiful; and I have learned the price of avarice.”

“It isn’t really avarice—” the evil queen started, but the princess interrupted.

“What’s the point in it?” Snow White demanded. “What’s the point in any of it? Of pretty things? Of apples and of jewels? Of gold all glittering? What makes even the fairest of all the jewels beneath the Earth worth seven dwarven lives?”

“It’s — it’s a really fair jewel?” the evil queen suggested.

“And what good would it have even done them?”

“There’s an intrinsic value,” argued the evil queen, “to being beautiful. Particularly the most beautiful.”

“I don’t want an apple,” the princess said. “I want justice. . . . but I will not have it.”

Her head lowered.

“It is a wraith of shade and fire,” she said, “And I am just Snow White.”

“You could,” the evil queen proposed, “go and . . . fight it . . .”

Intended as wicked, twisted advice, it came out from her mouth as sheer stupidity instead; she flushed red behind her mask. As for the princess, she did not even dignify the words with a reply.

“Or use magic,” said the evil queen.

“Ha!” said Snow White.

“It’s perfectly doable,” said the evil queen. “Dark secrets from before the age of humankind. You may command them, if you’d dare to risk your soul.”

“The superstitions of a senile old apple seller,” the princess scoffed. “I’m sure you feel quite the daring witch, but nobody actually cares about your soul. Or even mine.”

“. . . I’m not personally a witch,” the evil queen said, carefully, “as I have said. But it is not just superstition either. For instance, there are magical mirrors—”

“Oh, yes,” Snow White said. “’Magic mirrors.’ My own stepmother thinks she has one of those.”

“ ‘Thinks?’”

“It’s a shameful and degrading affair,” said Snow White.

“It’s a real magic mirror,” the evil queen protested.

“I think we all have things we like to imagine speak to us,” the princess said. “Sometimes I imagine that I hear Doc’s voice—but I don’t. You see.”

“Doubt me if you like,” said the evil queen peevishly, “but you could at least eat a damned apple.”

The princess took the poisoned apple from the basket. She held it up for a moment. Then she gave it a disgusted look and tossed it aside.

“It is red,” she said.

“Red like your lips,” the evil queen pointed out. “One of your finer attributes.”

“Why the hell are you going on about the color of my lips?”

“Well,” said the evil queen, “they’re the color of blood. That’s considered very attractive by objective magical sources.”

“Get out,” the princess said. She pushed the evil queen. “Just . . . get out.” And the evil queen found herself outside the cottage, door slammed against her, and the basket of miscellaneous apples in her hand.

After a long while, she sighed.

“What am I even doing?” she asked herself. “Why does it matter?”

And she could not help the errant thought:

For I have delved too greedily, and too deep.

The Gate of No Returning

The god of evil is dead, and therefore evil itself is dead.

I do not believe in the heresy that says that a god may be slain, so I do not know how these events came to pass. Perhaps the eye of the universe opened, and looked upon evil, and passed through it into awakening. Perhaps evil was always an aberration, a thing that emerged from nothing, strove against its own contradictions, and descended into nothing. Certainly there was not, as some would have it, an “edition change;” nor did adventurers descend into the deepest Hells and murder evil with sword and spell, replacing it in the end with some misunderstood hero from their number—these things are not the way of Heaven and of Earth.


“The bite of a werewolf,” the werewolf hunter explained, “causes a contagion that infects one with the qualities of a werewolf; one becomes cursed upon the full moon to transform, vulnerable only to holy things and silver, and unless one uses potent magic to hold it back, one’s alignment will inevitably shift to—”

Here he hesitated.

“Well, at one time, to ‘evil.’”

“Evil has become murky to me,” I said.


“It seems to me,” I said, “that at one time it made sense to me; the concept that a person, remaining that person, could undergo a radical shift in their nature and become ‘evil,’ but now—”

“Children born today,” he said, “will grow up their whole lives without even the faintest inkling of what evil was; they will read the word in old books, and come up with the most fanciful theories, but they will not understand.”

I snorted a laugh.

He stirred the fire. “You were,” he said, to confirm, “not bitten— though?”

“I screamed,” I said. “I hid. I wriggled myself deep into a crevice between the cow-fence and the wall. I smelt its stink and I heard it killing the animals and I think that it drew close to me, but it left before it bit.”

I hesitated.

“I think it savored my fear,” I said, “perhaps. I mean, more than it would savor biting me.”

“Doubtless,” he said.

“If you had not come—”

“I did nothing,” said the werewolf hunter. “It was already gone by the time I arrived.”

There were scratches on his shining mail. There was a warrior’s look in his eyes. I knew him as my savior when he found me. But I pretended to believe.

“It will return for you,” he said, still poking at the fire. “Though. I know this because I do not believe it to be true.”


He looked away. He stared up at the moon.

The night, I think, was very cold.

“It is the nature of a werewolf,” he said, after a while, “to be fundamentally misunderstood. Thus the longer I pursue them, the more acutely wrong I find my instincts to be.”

I laughed, but he was very serious.

“He will return,” he said. “I cannot say why, or, rather, my reasoning is flawed. Not to hurt you, certainly. Not to taunt me. Those occur to me, so they are wrong. But he will return, because I believe that he has fled from here. That is why I am still here, and why I will watch over you for the night.”

I put my hands together. “We are bound to the world by our ignorance,” I said.

That is what the priest had told me.

She set her hands on my mother’s brow and took the fever from her, and she made the crops that were failing grow, and she told us of desire and ignorance and of the path by which these things may be rectified—

Then she moved on.

“Escape our ignorance, and we shall fly from the prison of our lives.”

“It is harder than that,” he said.

I tilted my head.

“You are level one,” he said. “Two? Three, maybe, at the most. You are yet rich in your ignorance, so it is natural that you say, ‘it is ignorance that is binding me to the world.’

“But when you have slain monsters and unearthed forbidden treasures, you will learn the true face of our existence: that it is an endless wheel, and we are held into it by the momentum of its turning.

“Slay one beast and you have guaranteed that you will face another. Find one lost treasure and open the path to searching for a thousand more. The world is a cycle of gaining power only to face more powerful opposition, and there is no escaping it save for martyrdom, in the name of the holy gods.”

“Or,” I said, “you say that because you are ignorant.”

He laughed.

“Perhaps one day you will open your eyes,” I said, “and realize, ‘I am forging this life for myself. It is not the turning of the wheel but rather my own feet as they run.’”

“And in that moment,” he said, “I shall suspire into Nirvana, and no more the slaying of monsters, the delving for treasures, and the gods’ service for me?”

“Well,” I said, “you may still slay the werewolf— when it returns.”

He laughed. He shook his head. “There is no respite,” he said. “None.”

“I don’t have any silver,” I pointed out.

“Of course not.”

“So it’s not as if I can fight it.”

“It’s not as if you could fight it anyway,” he said. “It is a Hell-beast, evil inca— the ‘fundamentally misunderstood,’ incarnate. It is a brooding, sorrowful monster. It has claws like iron and a mouth like the gates of Hell.”

“Namu amida butsu,” I prayed.

Then I hesitated. A thought struck me.

“But what would happen,” I asked him, “if we fought?”


“If it attacked me,” I said, “and I could not fight back, and my understanding is that it would savage me; or infect me—that it is . . . what evil has become, only, isn’t that also a misunderstanding?”

“Heh,” he said.


“They asked My Lady Helena,” he said, “’what is the nature of enlightenment?’ And she said, ‘it is like a blanket. It is like the stars. It is like the snow.’ But they did not comprehend, save for her disciple Aveditta, who exclaimed, ‘It is like the rain.’”

“I see,” I said, though I did not.

“’That which is not evil cannot comprehend the ways of evil, or it would become evil; that which is not good cannot comprehend the ways of good, or it would become good’—it was written, back when there was evil. The bite of a werewolf therefore is a mystery; it is a gate of no return. In the end, can we even say that a werewolf exists at all?”

“That’s going a little far,” I told him.

He shrugged.

“When it comes,” he said, “I will fight it, because that is what I know. And I will win, because that is how the wheel keeps on turning. But you cannot expect me to understand such mysteries.”

The wind was blowing colder now, and I heard a sound—

Or didn’t hear, perhaps. Perhaps it was some other sense, some other cue; or perhaps it was only that I didn’t hear it, and I misunderstood.

Let us say that I heard a sound, and that it was my only warning.

I was on my feet. He was on his feet, and the great wolf-spear in his hand, and his armor was bright in the light of the fire, and the forest was dark and the moon was bright and the wind was cold and it—

It was a thing beyond our understanding.

It was like a wolf, but it was not a wolf. It stood in the light of the moon, and it was not in the light of the moon. It moved, or rather, it was a thing like motion; and as it came in at us, as it gave a great bound and its muscles shifted and its claws moved like blades of iron through the air, I understood something, or rather, did not understand something; my mind gave a great gasp and was released from its ignorance; in that moment my mind’s eye passed through what seemed like a tunnel and unraveled itself into emptiness, and I exclaimed:

It is like the stars. It is like the snow. It is like the rain.

Its teeth were upon me; its weight in passing, and it leapt onwards; I passed through the gate of no returning, and I fell.