Long ago there was a girl who guarded Rainbow Land. Long ago there were magical bears that lived on clouds up in the sky.
Long ago there was a beautiful and perfect world.
It’s 1952, and Rainbow Land is dead. There’s only Shadow City now. It’s dark and it’s drab but there are glimmers of color here and there around the edges. The shine on the edge of the gang members’ leathers. The shimmer that runs down the length of their guns. The little rainbows you can see in a glass of gin when you hold it up to the light.
Terrence is a sprite. He’s small and cute, covered in gray fur. In another kind of place, it might be a soft and fluffy white. He’s wearing a trenchcoat and a hat. He holds up his glass. He shakes it. Ice cubes clink one against the other. At the edge, the rainbows shine.
It’s a girl’s voice. He ignores it. Girls are nothing but trouble. But she says it again. “Hey.” A blood-red hand comes to rest on his shoulder. “Terrence.”
“One of my sins,” he asks, “come home to roost?”
“In three hours,” she says, “everyone in Shadow City will die.”
He sets his drink down on the bar and turns. He sees a flare of red and terrible light.
There’s a mansion at the edge of Shadow City. It’s cold white marble, edged in black. In the mornings, the sun casts pale light over its garden and in through its windows. At night, its lights don’t come on. The girl who lives there sits in a chair and looks at the wall, in moonlight or in darkness, and lets her hair grow long.
She hears a bell ring. She rises from her chair. She walks, tall, graceful, and lithe, to the door; and out; and down the garden path to the great black gates.
A man’s standing there. He’s fading away to nothing. He’s drowning in shadows. His face is blurry. “Help me,” he says.
“I don’t have anything for you,” she says.
“Color,” he says. “I need color.”
Her hand comes up to her face. It traces the cold black edge of her chin. It runs across the bleak white of her cheek. It passes across her eyes, two wells of darkness in a perfect face. “I don’t have any,” she says. “I never did.”
She turns and walks away.
“I believe in your rainbow!” he cries.
She walks back to her chair. She sits down. She waits. The man dissolves into darkness.
Terrence wakes, slowly. He looks around. He’s in a car. It’s moving fast. He can make out the driver’s face in the rear-view mirror, but she’s no one he knows.
“Who are you?” he asks.
“Femme Fatale Bear,” she says. “I use sexual forthrightness to unlock the inner desires of men.”
“Sorry, babe,” he says. “Sprites don’t do that kind of thing.”
“Okay,” he admits. “But it’s more ethereal with us. Sprites, we like to get our kids by stork or cabbage, not by knocking up some bear with our star sprinkles, capisce?”
“That’s not what you were moaning in your sleep.”
Terrence frowns in faint memory, then shakes it off. “If this is a kidnapping, you’ve got the wrong sprite. There’s no one left who’d pay a cent for me.”
“You know my kind,” she says.
“Yeah.” He shrugs. His species’ natural deelyboppers wobble. “Magical bears. You live on clouds and ride rainbows around to bestow your gifts on humankind. Am I supposed to be impressed?”
“No,” she says. “There’s no place in the world for that kind of thing any more. It’s a darker time, Twink.”
“Terrence,” he says. “Terrence is the name.”
“It’s a darker time. It calls for a darker bear. All the originals—they shut themselves away back when the rainbows turned monochrome and the stars stopped shining so bright. It’s hard to spread cheer when people’ll kill one another for a little bit of color. It’s hard to spread tender affection when good, honest girls are selling themselves on the streets just so their lips can be red and their hair gold for another few hours of the night. So now there’s just the five of us. Alienation Bear, and Transgression Bear, and Fatalism Bear, and me.”
“That’s four,” Terrence says, and then bites his lip. I’m playing her game, he tells himself. I should know better.
“Nihilism Bear,” she says. “The end-of-everything bear. The bastard bear at the heart of the void. In . . . just under two and a half hours . . . he’s going to stand outside Shadow City and use his Nihilism Bear Stare; and then there won’t be any star sprinkles, or any Shadow City, or any sprites, or even any Earth. Just the great long hungry void.”
“Why’d he wait so long?”
“He wasn’t like this when it started,” she says. “For years, he’s been caring less and less. He’s become a regular grumpy-puss. So last night, he made the decision. ‘Make your goodbyes,’ he said. ‘In the morning, I’ll end the world.’”
Terrence suddenly sits bolt upright. “I can’t help you,” he says. There’s panic in his voice.
“We all pled with him,” she says. “We even tried working together. We all stood next to one another, our bellies bright with the symbols of our aspects and our attributes, and as one we stared. The padlock of alienation, the lipstick of transgression, the hourglass of fatalism, and the broken heart of the femme fatale — our magical bear symbols sprang forth from our stomachs in rays of light and merged into a glorious rainbow of sheer caring. But he only laughed; for he had moved beyond such mortal concerns.”
“No,” Terrence says, vigorously. “I mean, I really can’t help. It’s totally impossible. I can’t do what you think I can. You need to find someone else.”
“You can’t wake the rainbow?”
“She’d never listen to me,” he protests. “Not now.”
Femme Fatale Bear studies him in the mirror. Then she laughs. “You’re afraid, pookie. But you’ll do it for me, won’t you?”
He shakes his head, but the symbol on her stomach is beginning to glow, and the car fills with carmine light. There’s a brilliant beam of energy, the reddest he’s seen in more than a dozen years, and it glances off the mirror to shine full into his eyes.
“Heaven and Earth,” he whimpers.
“You have to help me,” she says, voice almost breaking. “I don’t want to die.”
Terrence closes his eyes and slumps back. “Fine,” he says. “Fine. I’ll talk to her. I’ll talk to her. Please . . . just . . . don’t do that. You’re . . . it’s too much.”
The light fades, and the car pulls up outside the mansion gates.
Wisp looks up as she hears a bell ring. “Twice in one night,” she whispers. “That’s not common.” She rises from her chair. She walks, tall, graceful, and lithe, to the door; and out; and down the garden path to the great black gates.
“Terrence,” she says, to the sprite who waits for her there.
“Rainbow,” he cries. It’s a soft and wounded noise.
“Wisp,” she says.
“Wisp.” He looks up at her, pleading. He trembles. He’s terrified of her. She only looks sad, but he’s shaking like a leaf.
“I don’t have anything for you,” she says.
“Wisp,” he says softly. “Please. Get your magic belt. Put it on. If you don’t harness the power of the rainbow, Nihilism Bear will kill us all.”
She tilts her head to one side. She blinks. “Ask me to move aside a mountain to save a trapped child, and I will stand at its base and push. Ask me to run a thousand miles without stopping, that a starving man might find a meal, and I will set my feet upon that course and run. Ask me to sing to charm the angels, or cut out my tongue to staunch the devil’s hate. Do not ask me this.”
Terrence hesitates. He closes his eyes in pain. Then he says, softly, “I lied to you.”
Wisp’s face is still. Her eyes draw in the moonlight. After a long moment, she says, “Why?”
“It was necessary,” he whispers. Leaves skitter across the road.
“You showed me the machine that made me,” she says. “It wasn’t a lie. I was never a real girl. I was just a thing the sprites put together to save Rainbow Land from darkness. You poured in the star sprinkles and out came a girl.”
“That was true,” Terrence answers.
Wisp’s eyes narrow. There’s a glint in them now that chills. “Then the rest is true,” she says. “I have no heart. I have no life. I have no magic. I’m just a tool. A thing. A vessel for power.”
Behind his back, Terrence crosses his fingers. “That’s true,” he says, “but only when you don’t have sprinkles. Don’t you understand, Wisp? When I put the magic in you, you’re a real person. Your hopes are real hopes. Your dreams are real dreams.”
Fast as a striking whip, she has one hand on each of his shoulders and has him pressed back against the stone arch that holds her gate. She’s grown now. She’s twice her old height and her muscles are strong. She leans into his face. “Why?” she hisses. “Why didn’t you tell me that then?”
“You were a threat,” he answers. “Wisp, it wasn’t my idea. You have to believe me. I had orders! You were a threat!”
Her eyes scan his face. “A threat.”
“Don’t you know what it would have done?”
“I could have stopped the war,” she says. “I could have stopped the killing. But I didn’t. Because I’m not a person. You’re telling me I could have been?”
Some strength returns to Terrence’s eyes. His voice is sharp and resonant. “It was not appropriate for Rainbow Land to get involved. Earth would have found us. They would have annexed us. We wouldn’t have Rainbow Land. We wouldn’t have Shadow City. We’d have nothing.”
She holds him there for a moment, then drops him. “It doesn’t matter,” she says. “Give me a heart. I’ll fight Nihilism Bear.”
She holds up her hands, and a rainbow-symbol belt slithers through the air from her house to land in them. She buckles it around her waist, exhaling like a cinched horse. Solemnly, Terrence extends to her a handful of colored stars. She takes them. The air around her shimmers and gleams like a soap bubble, thousands of colors livid in the night. She makes a high and maddened keening noise. The paleness and darkness of her drips away like paint washing off of ice. Then there comes silence. When Wisp next speaks, her voice comes in seven tones and strikes into his consciousness like a god’s.
“Where shall I go?” she says.
Mutely, he gestures to the car. She laughs a little. “No budget for a magic horse?” she sings.
“Lady,” he whispers. “Had I the means, I would give you the stars; and the sky; and a magic horse besides. But now, I have a car, and a fuzzy red bear representing sexual empowerment; this only, and my life.”
She opens the door. She climbs in. She gestures, and he climbs over her into the other seat. The bear gets in the front, buckles up, and drives.
“Femme Fatale Bear,” she says.
“He’s mine,” the bear clarifies. “My sprite. Now. I won’t let anyone else have him.”
Wisp laughs. “Our contest, Bear, is for another time, and another place.”
The bear slams a foot down on the accelerator and the car screeches away. “We’ll get to the city’s edge before Nihilism Bear,” she says. “Unless we get attacked by random monsters who serve only to prolong the action and suspense.”
Wisp smiles. “It . . . has been some time,” she murmurs, polytonally. “It has been some time since I was randomly attacked by monsters. I almost miss it. Such things do not happen in Shadow City.”
“No,” agrees Femme Fatale Bear. “Yet . . . perhaps times change.” She gestures out the front window towards the strange alien monster that straddles the road, ten miles ahead.
“It’s okay,” Wisp sings. “It will delay us, and nothing more.”
Nihilism Bear’s alarm rings. He stretches sleepily. He pulls himself upright in bed. The sun shines fully upon him. “Huh?” he asks. “It’s 9 o’clock? I was sure I set my alarm for 7.” He stands up and putters about the room. He brushes his teeth. He pulls on a cap to cover his mullet. “Bother. Someone must have changed it. Now I’ll be late to destroy the city.”
He wanders out onto his cloud. “Hello sun!” he cries out. “I’ll be destroying you today. Hello butterfly! Your days are numbered. Hello bird! Life is a pointless parade of misfortune and anguish.” The sun twinkles merrily. The butterfly whirls around his head. The bird tweets, twice.
Nihilism Bear grabs a giant nihilism balloon and floats towards Shadow City. He touches ground at the edge. He yawns. “Huh. I guess no one’s going to try to stop me. All right,” he says, sharply. “Nihilism Bear Stare!”
He huffs. He puffs. He takes a deep breath and the shiny formless shadow that marks his stomach glimmers and glistens. Then a wind rises from beyond, and the air goes chill; and there’s a piping from far away of maddened, mindless flutes. In the alleys of Shadow City, a drunk girl takes out her knife and holds it to her wrist. On its streets, gang members strut and preen. In the high towers, gray bureaucrats push the papers about that allocate the city’s color to the few. The void rises from Nihilism Bear to consume Shadow City, and the void takes breath.
A glimmering rainbow rises to meet it. P’a chao! Color and shadow begin to drizzle from the sky.
Nihilism Bear exhales, startled. The darkness dissolves. “Good morning!” he exclaims. Three figures stride towards him through the chromatic rain. “It’s Femme Fatale Bear! You must introduce me to your friends.”
“These,” she says, softly, “are Wisp, who is the Rainbow, and Terrence, her sprite; and they shall bring your madness to an end.”
Nihilism Bear shakes himself, tummy wiggling. “We’ll see about that. Nihilism Bear Stare!”
The symbol arcs from his chest and strikes Wisp’s heart.
“A lot of people get confused,” he says companionably, as she screams and sinks to her knees. “They start thinking that it’s better to exist than not to exist. That’s why you have Nihilism Bear. I bring the enlightenment of the void. I teach children that it’s all right to set aside the burdens of their life and dance forever in nothingness. My motto is, ‘Stop crying — start dying!’ You look like a girl who needs a fresh dose of nihilism. Have you been imagining that life has a point? That’s a good dream, but all it does in the long run is make you hurt more. When you realize it’s all a futile, endless cavalcade of pain, it makes all that struggling you did kind of stupid. Doesn’t it?”
“I saved the universe once,” she says.
“Tsk, tsk.” He points his fuzzy paw at her. “Bang.”
Nihilism Bear relaxes the black glow, and turns to face the other two. His hand goes out to them, palm up, and he wriggles his fused furry fingers in invitation. “Nihilism Bear is hot today. Who else wants some?”
“Wisp,” whispers Terrence. “You can’t die.”
“What?” asks Nihilism Bear.
“You can’t die, Wisp!” Terrence shouts, hardened demeanor slipping. “Then I wouldn’t see you for days and days! I believe in your rainbow, Wisp!”
“Bah,” Nihilism Bear sneers, and the black glow plays across Terrence and Femme Fatale Bear alike. “Your belief doesn’t matter.”
“It does.” The voice is single-toned.
Nihilism Bear turns back to Wisp, who straightens, slowly and painfully.
“It’s one thing to doubt your purpose when you’re just a lost, tired girl gripped in a miasma of existentialist doubt,” Wisp says. Her voice has two tones now, and rising. “But when a gray fuzzy alien in a trenchcoat declares that you can generate color and possibility out of the magic belt you wore when you were a little girl, then maybe — just maybe — the philosophy behind it all isn’t really that important.”
“Oh, hon,” Nihilism Bear says, moved. “You really do need more nihilism in your life. Do you want me to sing the nihilism song?”
Once again, the black wars with the rainbow, against the sound of flutes; and a long seven-toned scream; and then there’s silence.
In Shadow City, a girl fumbles and drops her knife. A thug pauses, and sniffs the air. A bureaucrat, for the first time in seven years, looks out his window to regard the street.
A bird sings.
Terrence opens his eyes. The air is blindingly bright. It’s full of swirls of color. In the center of it all there hangs a girl, her body limp, her eyes closed, and nothing in her expression that is human.
A symbol shines upon Terrence, falling from far away upon a cloud: the lipstick mark of Transgression Bear. In that spotlight he stands, frozen. This is Transgression Bear’s purpose: to teach children and sinners that they must pay for their crimes.
Wisp’s eyes snap open.
“It’s time,” Terrence croaks. “It’s time to take the belt back off. You’ll run out of star sprinkles soon. You won’t have a heart. But it’s good, right? You saved the world. You proved that you’re a true and glorious rainbow.”
“Oh, Terrence,” murmurs the goddess at the rainbow’s heart. “You have lied to me again.”
She takes off the belt. She drops it. It lands, below her, with a clunk. She smiles at him. It’s fierce. It’s predatory. She does not fall.
“You see?” she says, softly. “You lied to me. I never lacked a soul.” She is silent for a moment. “It is not a thing I deserved,” she adds. “That my fuzzy magical companion should be so cruel.”
A length of rainbow lashes out to stroke under his chin.
Once again, Terrence straightens. He glares at her. “Then kill me. I’ve been waiting more’n ten years for you to wake up and put that rainbow through my heart. I won’t be afraid of you. Make an end to it! Make an end to it, Rainbow!”
“No,” she says, and smiles. The rainbows around her slither faster and faster through the air. He feels his mind drifting away into the shifting colors; and it is beyond Terrence the sprite to speak or move or think now.
“It’s not my job,” she says, softly. “I’m not here for revenge.”
The rainbows merge and twist, and the rope of them plunges endlessly into Terrence’s eyes. He shivers. He opens his mouth to scream, and another rainbow plunges in. The gray fades. The white returns, and his fur burns like a star. The trenchcoat whips in the wind and rips away. His hat flies off. He sinks to the ground. The rainbows withdraw.
“I name you Glorious Servant,” she says.
Glorious bounces happily. “All right, Wisp! Thanks for chasing my gloom away. I bet it’s time to bring some color back to Rainbow Land!”
In the alleys, a girl gropes on hands and knees to find her knife. She’s drunk. It’s hard to find. There are only so many places it could be. So many garbage cans, so much waste-strewn ground. She finds it. She brings it to her wrist. “I can’t stop just because I had a moment’s hope,” she says. “There’s so much more despair.”
In the distance, beyond the city’s edge, a tide rises.
In the high towers, a bureaucrat sees the tide. He chokes on his coffee and staggers back away from the window. “Heaven and Earth.”
The tide crests.
The girl cuts. Her white arm begins to trickle deep black blood. She cuts again.
The wave falls.
Spatters of coffee, sinking into the bureaucrat’s papers, shimmer a bright and wooden brown. The cuts on the girl’s wrist shine; her skin turns flush and pink, her blood a pure wine-red. The shadows and grime of Shadow City fade. The bandanas of the gangs shine a brilliant blue, save for the one that is green; and a gangster realizes with cold terror that he’s been hanging out with his blood enemies for the past ten years.
There’s a wind, and it carries a message from the rainbow girl.
“Hi,” says the wind.
“This is my city now.”
There is no blood that flows but red; and no tears that fall that are not jewels; and for a time, of Rainbow Land, we hear no more.