Sing, O muse, of the siege of Illidium,
That opened up the tower to the moon
And left fair Helen’s plans in ruin
And nearly unleashed destruction on the world.
Hippolyta has made her child out of clay.
The girl stands there, frozen, lifeless, shaped with that surprising finesse that mothers have upon the potter’s wheel.
“It’s all in the fingerwork,” Hippolyta says.
But soon her pride gives way to tears, and she says, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Oh, Diana, don’t wake up.”
For Hippolyta is one who knows the secrets of the world.
She’d wanted to stop the pottery partway through. Sometime during the creation of the girl Hippolyta had realized how damnable and evil her work might be; that the curse of this girl would bind her to the pagan gods, to the dark and horrid gods who’d held sway in these lands those long cold centuries before the preachers came.
So she’d wanted to stop.
But her husband hadn’t let her, and the law was on his side.
She’d shaped the girl as best as she could over the grueling months at the potter’s wheel. She’d made Diana to resist the lure of darkness. She’d made the girl to have some good in her. She’d tried, as was mandated by the law, to care.
But now the pottery is complete and the law leaves Hippolyta to her mourning.
She turns away.
She goes to her bed and she sleeps, and there she has a dream.
“We will gift her,” say the pagan gods, the ancient gods, the accursed gods. “We will gift her with our powers.”
And there is the road runner who gives unto the girl that terrible speed with which it flees the judgment of the angels.
And the coyote, part beast, part man, who gives to her that reforming, rebuilding, sanity-defying cellular regeneration that sustains him against the ceaseless wrath of God.
And the pig-beast, dwelling now in some fell sty within the Pit, who gives to her his “power of conclusion.”
And the rabbit with its cunning; and the duck with its madness; and the sheepdog; and the slovenly Fudd; and the swan.
They give the girl their gifts, one by one, and that is the dream of Hippolyta on that night.
And she wakes with a cry and she fears the curse of Galatea and she rushes to her child’s side; and she sees that beneath her husband’s ministrations her generative power has marshalled life to clay.
And her daughter, whose name is thus Diana, she takes into her arms, and she weeps, and she prays, “Let you be sacred. Let you be sacred. Let you not be damned.”
But in the girl’s eyes there is the madness of the gods.
It is some twelve years later.
Mars burns red in the night.
“Please,” whispers Helen.
She is an astronaut. She has earned her place on the first manned Mars mission by being approximately 40% better than any man. Yet still there is the fear.
She knows, as she has always known, from the moment her mother shaped her out of clay, that she is cursed.
“At the moment that you should achieve your greatest ambition,” say the words woven into the clay of her, the weave and weft of her, “you shall fall instead into unimaginable pain.”
She has coped in the only fashion she knows how: by intending ever greater things. From the moment success seems possible, she is setting the stage for a greater ambition; and so far, this plan has served her well.
She holds two doctorates.
She has several world records in marathon and track events.
She has played professional football; been one bad referee ruling away from a Super Bowl victory; cured cancer by developing a new kind of cell; and now she is on the first manned mission to Mars.
“Don’t let this be the one,” she says.
And she plans how she might become President, after, or scale the heights of the Omphalos; or break into the Garden that was Lost.
The ship shudders.
And then the ship is gone, the spacesuit is gone, the air is gone; these things are stripped from her, and she hangs in nothingness before the great red face of Mars.
“Helen Alexandros,” says the voice of Mars.
She is dying. She cannot breathe. Her eyes hurt most terribly, and she is cold.
“Helen Alexandros, I will give you power. I will make you immortal. I will give you wings. But it is God’s will that you should destroy the Earth.”
Her lips are cracked. She speaks her last breath: “Illudium.”
What this means even Helen does not know.
“You must accept, Helen. You must accept the power of Mars or you shall die, and God shall cast you down into the Pit.”
Forgive me, she thinks.
And she accepts.
Down into the world she plummets, burning, screaming, coated in silver.
For a very long time, she rests upon the earth and heals.
There is a tower wherein Pandora dwells.
She is locked there forever. She must never walk free. That is the doom worked into her—
For it is impossible, as all men know, to shape a girl from the clay who hath not her own and personal doom, in furtherance to the sin of Eve—
That she should never leave.
Inside her flesh there boil demons of all kinds.
If she is freed then they shall be freed to swarm over the world. Then shall God turn his burning eye aside and send down Heavenly waters and the world shall drown in sorrow and in pain.
She is fragile, Pandora.
She is easily crushed.
The law would not allow her firing.
Outside of her tower, at this very moment, the great black red-eyed dogs look up, because Helen Alexandros comes.
Her footfalls are like a distant thunder.
Her shadow is black like a pool of pitch.
“You will let me through,” she says.
She is dressed not as an astronaut but as a masked supervillain: Illudium, The Swan.
And she says, “You will let me through;” and when the dogs do not yield, but rather bark, Illudium shrieks, and such is the modulation of space held in that cry that the closest dogs explode and the remaining dogs fly back, land broken.
And casually she tears the wire fence aside, and knocks from their posts the cameras, and with one shriek as from a thousand lips bursts topless the tower; and Illudium—
Sweet Helen, to tear the world asunder with her kiss—
Strides forward to take Pandora.
“Beep beep!” beeps Diana, racing up from some distant region and stopping there, quivering, before Illudium;
And she is young, still, not yet the hero she will become, but something in her heart responded when the tower of Pandora fell, and so she came;
And there is something about her that gives Illudium concern.
“Hmph,” snorts Illudium, the Swan.
She opens her mouth. She lets forth a lick of sound, just enough to make a person’s head explode; and Diana’s face grows crisp and frizzed with black and her eyes are horrified and startled in it. But as Illudium turns away she knows that something is terribly, obscenely wrong.
Diana is not dead. She is merely holding up a sign that says, “Ow!”
Slowly, Illudium turns back.
Illudium says: “Art thou what the world has raised up as champion to me?”
“I am the urn that holds the ashes of the gods,” Diana says.
Her face is scarcely burnt at all, now. Her ears have healed.
“Then I will scatter them,” says Illudium, “and no more this world will know the presence of such gods.”
And as she conceives this intention and opens her mouth wider to kill Diana with a roar, Illudium feels a cold knife of horror twist inside her, as if she were standing in the presence of a blasphemy.
And winged words flow through Diana like a wind, and Diana says:
“They were here before your God, and they will be here after. They are the filthy things, the horrid things, the gambolers in dark places, the cold, cruel, evil lustful things, the piping praisers of the darkness at the heart of the cosmos. They are eternal and they do not yield.”
And it is in that moment, and strangely, not before, that Illudium sees—
With a sharpness, like the cracking of a pot—
That all that which she has valued in her life is false. That the structures of the world that should sustain her are nothing more than waypoints of purity thrust into an abyssal darkness that even the burning eye of God does not illumine. That reality is madness; and life, as malleable as clay.
And the thin black line that is Diana’s smile grows larger, and darker, and it consumes the world like the very opposite of a Cheshire cat, and for all the explosive modulation of the space inside her there is no haven for Helen Alexandros’ soul;
And “Th-th-th-that’s all, folks,” says Diana;
And of Illudium, we do not speak.