Five of Emily’s friends, and one acquaintance, are dead.
“Come on,” says Saul. He rises. He takes Emily’s arm. He leads her out onto the street. They begin walking towards the school where it all started.
“They’re dead!” Emily shrieks. “You killed them! You monster!”
Saul doesn’t seem to have noticed her outburst. After a moment she realizes that that’s because she didn’t outburst aloud. She outburst silently, inside herself.
The moment has passed. She can’t shriek at him now. It would seem artificial.
“He liked me,” she says.
She means Fred. He’s one of the dead ones.
“Good,” says Saul.
This is a story about jaguars. Emily loves them.
It’s also a story about death. Emily doesn’t want to be eaten. She wants to live a long time and then die in a beautiful place, surrounded by something wonderful.
This isn’t a story about Vladimir or Edmund. If it helps, Vladimir meets a horrifying fate and Edmund lives happily ever after. Edmund would have died, except that Saul sends him to safety shortly after this story ends.
Just in case you really wanted to know.
“There are tiny scales on your skin,” says Emily. She’s looking at Saul’s hands. She’s looking at his fingers.
Saul looks at his fingers.
Saul bites at one of his fingers. It’s a thinking gesture. But pretty soon it turns into a chewing gesture, and then a flesh-tearing gesture. He stops himself with a wrenching shudder.
“Listen,” Emily says. “When people look at other people, they don’t see what’s really there. They see something else. They see reality, but distorted. Like it’s through a lens. The lens is flawed. The shape of that flaw is Gotterdammerung.”
“The apocalypse,” says Saul.
“People kept predicting it,” says Emily. “But it didn’t happen. Because it was something in the world we see. Not in the world that is.”
Saul tilts his head to one side.
“You know how primitive people would see lightning and think of gods?” she says. “It’s like that. We’d look at other people and see these alien things. Heroes and villains and trash for the killing. That’s the world we saw. A world where the apocalypse drew ever closer, driven by the marching drumbeats of the heralds of oblivion.”
There is a distant drumbeat in the wind, and the bleat from far Bifrost of Heimdall on the tuba.
“It’s actually a lower-energy state for the world,” Emily says. “Gotterdammerung worlds are easier. The kind of thing God could have done on a lazy Sunday afternoon, after finishing up here. But he didn’t. Your purpose didn’t come from God. Instead, Vladimir made a hat, and it sorted you into his vision for the world.”
Emily might have had more to say. But she doesn’t say it.
Instead, she hisses in air. She bites her lip. She stares.
They’ve just rounded the corner and she can see the Lethal Magnet School for Wayward Youth.
It has, at last, lived up to its name.
All through it the ivy grows and the students are dead, save where the surviving beasts of Hunger run.
Saul isn’t taken aback by the sight. He’s still thinking about their conversation.
“Hats don’t lie about moral issues,” says Saul, uneasily.
But Emily is staring at the dead.
The Edmund-beast snarls. Then it yowls. It’s the kind of noise that reminds you that if the gnostics are right there’s a blind idiot God somewhere in the universe burning popcorn in the microwave before settling in to watch the suffering of your life.
It is answered by howls.
All through the school there is howling. It is a rising voice. The beasts give praise to hunger and to death.
“It’s obscene,” explains Saul, who still hasn’t noticed her horror. “I see a purpose. It is high. It is holy. It is noble. We must develop the hunger until it consumes the world. This purpose is inherent in the universe. The hat opened my eyes to that purpose. It can’t have created it.”
And Emily wrenches herself from the sight. She lowers her eyes. She looks at the shadows on the ground.
“It’s not your fault,” she says.
“But how can I know?” says Saul. “By what yardstick? How can I tell if what I see is universal or delusion?”
“It’s not your fault,” Emily stresses. “It’s too late. You’ve already been assigned. You can’t tell. It was always nothing more than a question of how long we could contain the damage.”
“Oh,” says Saul.
The hunger is rising in the beasts of the school. To Saul, it is the great surging of an endless sea. To Emily it is a concert for xylophone and tuba. It fills the air with the power of it.
And the Keepers’ House is there.
“We’ll hold it back,” Emily says, “for as long as we can.”
Edmund’s broken away from Saul and Emily. He’s loping over towards the remaining Keepers. He’s looking into their faces.
“Don’t eat me,” says the foppish Englebert. “My family has the ear of the Queen.”
“Wow,” says Edmund. “Really?”
“No,” admits Englebert. He slumps. Then he dissolves into a spray of various parts.
“I’ll give you Keeper cooties,” protests Isobel.
“I’ve got some,” says the Edmund-beast.
“I hope the wolf steps on you,” Isobel mopes.
There aren’t enough of them left to hold Edmund’s hunger back.
It surges out from the Lethal Magnet School for Wayward Youth. The breaking of the Keepers’ lives is a gap in the dike, and the hunger pours down into the world.
“What’s going to happen?” Saul asks.
Emily looks at him bleakly.
“No reason not to say,” says Saul.
“The wolf will come,” says Emily. “You’ll turn into beasts. The boot, no doubt, will fall. The world we’ve dreamed of will force its way in. And I guess I don’t get the death I wanted.”
Saul nods. The hunger rises in him. It is like a flame. It is like a cold and terrible sea. Saul does not hold it back. He opens his fanged mouth. He rears back like a serpent. The Saul-beast’s eyes burn red and its hat is green like a snake’s.
Like a snake’s scales.
And just before he eats her, three things happen.
The first thing is that a great wolf wanders in. Its binding cord has broken; where the hunger is, the dwarves have no power. Fenrir is curious. The hunger calls it. So it has come.
The second thing is that the House of Hunger sloughs off more of its humanity.
And suddenly Emily is cheerful. She is pointing at Edmund. She is laughing, like a child, like a bright clear bell. “You have spots,” she says.
This causes Saul to pause and Edmund to blush.
“They’re good spots,” the Edmund-beast mutters.
Saul’s eyes are narrowed.
“You’re oddly bubbly,” says Saul, “for someone who’s about to die.”
Emily’s shoulders sink as she relaxes. She looks at him peacefully. “Jaguars are my favorite part of Gotterdammerung,” she sighs.
The third thing is that the great space station, Vidar’s Boot, comes down; for there is something in a boot that loves to stomp, and nothing is quite so stompable as one’s alma mater.
“The wolf’ll eat most of you before it dies,” says Emily, peacefully. It’s not a threat. It’s a gift. She’s giving Saul a chance to react.
The station strikes the ground.
The station strikes the ground again.
The shockwave of the boot’s impact throws the House of Hunger into the air.
Now it’s raining men. Well, jaguars. Well, jaguar-men.
“It’s like Christmas came early!” Emily says, happily.
The boot clips the wolf, and suddenly it is looking for a place to run, and there are howling and yowling and clucking and chittering beasts in its path.
Down fall the jaguars like a gentle rain; and it is there, standing in the storm, surrounded by something wonderful, that Emily dies.