The Looming Cloud (III/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]

There’s red in the sunlight and gold in the sky. The damp leaves that pile up beside the bridge are a muddy brown. There’s a cold wind blowing by Sid. His black hair is wet from a shower and a lock of it clumps against his forehead.

He stands on an island of grass and trees and behind him there is Gibbelins’ Tower.

All around him there is the chaos.

The aspect of the chaos today is like water and trout scales. The chaos surges like a sea. It crests and foams. It is low, with the tower and the island and bridge above it. The surface of each wave is covered in tiny scales. Its color is pale and silver and red and brown.

Sometimes the surface will divide and part of it will jump forth like a fish, then fade back into the water when it touches the surface once again.

And Iphigenia watches from a high tower window and looking at Sid’s back she cannot see that he is afraid.

But from the front you can see it.

His face is torn with fear, and it is not the fear of a man confronting a tiger but the fear of a man putting down a dog; that is to say, the fear of a terrible and necessary loss.

He is holding himself there by grit, a substance he has little of, as Rahu walks across the bridge.

Continuing the history of Iphigenia (1, 2, 3).
See also this discussion of the nature of demons.

The air smells of dead things.

It’s hot.

It’s June 1, 2004, and Rahu is coming to the tower.

He is wearing a white shirt. He’s wearing a vest and pants of red fur. He’s got a ponytail and a collar. The ponytail’s tied to an iron screw ring screwed into his spine at the base of his neck.

If it weren’t for the ponytail and the collar his head would fall off.

Rahu sniffs as he walks. His nostrils are wide and black.

He’s smelling out the sun. He doesn’t even look up to see Sid until he’s almost there.

“The sun must be tasty,” Sid says.

Rahu’s irises are the color of almonds. His eyebrows are the color of teak. His skin is warm.

“Because,” says Sid. “So many people want to eat it. You; Sukaynah; the wolves—”

“No,” says Rahu.

Sid’s eyes, in contrast, are dark.

“The sun is intolerably bland,” says Rahu. “It burns going down. It is not a pleasure meal. It is an expiation. For me, and for her.”

“She doesn’t want to expiate,” Sid says.

Rahu’s shoulders roll like a boat on the sea. “Who does?”

Then he is punching Sid.

His fist hits Sid’s stomach.

A grey and brown feeling spreads through Sid. The skin over his stomach cracks and bleeds. But Rahu does not have time to do more damage. The wheel of knives comes down in front of Sid and Rahu is jumping back and Rahu’s arm is bleeding fresh red blood.

Sid feels a wrenching, sickening pain in his stomach.

He causes the pain to vanish.

Sid feels a distant physical panic and something is making his vision all wobbly.

He causes the restoration of his equilibrium.

Before he has quite begun to double over, he straightens his back, and he looks at Rahu.

“Don’t make me shed this body,” he says.

Like a frisbee the wheel of knives arcs out towards Rahu. The demon does not leap back again. Instead he rushes in, towards Sid, on the inside of the path of the wheel’s motion.

His hand breaks Sid’s jaw.

The knives are tracking Rahu. They turn back towards Sid. Rahu has time for a second punch, sending Sid up into the air; then Rahu hears the knives at his back and perforce must, with a knee-twisting effort, throw himself flat.

Sid lands.

Red pain spreads through Sid. He causes it to vanish.

The knives hover above him.

Slowly, Sid pulls himself to his feet. Rahu is already up. Rahu is grinning like a puppy.

“You are interesting,” he says. “You’re not like a god at all.”

Continuing the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)

Sid realigns his neck.

He frowns.

“Iphigenia said you’re a demon,” Sid says.

“Yes.”

Rahu nods. This is a mistake. His head falls off, showing gruesome neck-innards. This forces him to replace his head and readjust his collar.

“Yes,” he repeats, after recovering his composure. “I am a demon of Prajapati.”

“Can you help me accept something?”

“If you like,” says Rahu.

Sid is breathing heavily, though he doesn’t notice. His lungs are a little out of order.

“There is a man,” says Sid. “Named Max. And he said, ‘Sid, you’re so unworthy of the world. I’d go to Hell myself if I could just be sure of dragging you with me.'”

Rahu’s eyes are bright.

“Is that so?” he says.

“How do you forgive that?” Sid asks.

“I had a stepbrother like that,” Rahu says.

“Did you?”

“I did.”

“Did you forgive him?”

“Eventually,” says Rahu. “Because you see, he was just a man. He had tonsils and hair and an appendix and big ears and blood that ran in his veins. He considered himself very lofty and had an important dharma but he was just an ordinary man and ordinary men do things like that.”

“Ah,” says Sid.

“The world teems with them,” Rahu says.

“Does it?”

“Billions of them now,” says Rahu. “Awkward and fleshy and stupid and meaningless men.”

Here is a funny thing.

As Rahu talks to Sid, he is sweating.

His body is hot and there is tension in him.

It’s like it’s harder to talk to Sid than it is to fight him.

And “They’re just people,” Rahu says. “They hurt people. It’s what they do.”

The power of those words peaks in Sid and breaks and everything is clear and Sid sighs release.

It is strangely peaceful, that moment.

“I’d wanted him to be better than that,” Sid says.

But he’s just a man.

“So badly. So much. I’d wanted him to be better than that.”

Rahu watches Sid.

But he’s just a man.

And Sid’s eyes close and he is smiling at Rahu with genuine gratitude and then he hears a noise and opens his eyes and widens his eyes because Rahu is charging.

How could I ever have expected anything else?

Sid is still smiling.

He unlimbers a single spike of siggort from the body he’s built of mud and clay and feathers and blood. It sweeps upwards through Rahu. It hooks under Rahu’s ribcage and holds the demon suspended off the ground.

“I don’t want to kill you,” Sid says. “But you can’t have Iphigenia.”

Rahu utters a short, sharp cry and his eyes roll back and his arms and legs dangle limply, like a sleeping cat’s.

After a moment, he shudders twice and his head falls off.

Sid blinks like a man coming out of a trance. He pulls back into himself and Rahu falls.

“. . . are you okay?”

Rahu is still breathing.

The power of the demon is receding. The peace in Sid is fading.

A wild rage is rising in him; a terrible anger and betrayal; a sense of loathsomeness and the helpless awe of love.

Emotions surge through Sid.

He causes them to vanish.

Then he picks the demon up and, for lack of anywhere else to take him, carries him towards the tower.

12 thoughts on “The Looming Cloud (III/IV)

  1. Dr. Borgstrom is good at a great many things.

    This entry included. Someone needs to make a jaw-drop smiley, like… :( ) or something, for times like these.

  2. Yeah, I love her action scenes. Especially in the Nobilis book…good stuff that.

  3. “There is a man,” says Sid. “Named Max. And he said, ‘Sid, you’re so unworthy of the world. I’d go to Hell myself if I could just be sure of dragging you with me.’”

    Hmm, that’s not what Max said at all. It’s a bit disappointing, because it puts the situation back into Unclean Legacy people-mistaking-each-other’s-intentions territory rather than actual conflict. I understood Max to be sacrificing himself both so that Sid would never vivisect anyone and so that Sid would never have to feel guilty about vivisecting anyone (as well as so that Max wouldn’t have to feel guilty about having Sid as a friend, of course). Bad judgement, yes, but it wasn’t really a kind of flawed motive typical of ordinary humanity. (Then again, what does Sid know about ordinary humanity?)

    Sid is really slumming, isn’t he? First he asks Ii Ma for help with his question, then he asks a demon to help him accept the situation. And he knows that however bad the answers that these gods give to humans, their answers can’t really affect him for long. It’s like trying out a drug that you somehow know that you can’t become addicted to.

  4. On the other hand, while Sid has many virtues and talents, perfectly understanding others has not, to date, been one of them.

    And Sid is a siggort. I think the case might be made that preventing Sid from vivisecting someone would be a flawed motive from his point of view. Siggorts don’t vivisect people guiltily, after all!

  5. I don’t know if Sid is really slumming, here. Ii Ma, perhaps, although I’m not entirely certain of that.

    But Rahu… he wants to eat the sun, and the sun is Iphigenia. In that sense, this makes him a bad guy, insomuch as he intends hard on a likable character. And he is a demon.

    But on the other hand, from what we know of him, it seems that his motives may be good, if misapplied.

    Some of the people who intend harm to the main characters are cruel and debased, to pretty much the upper reachers of the extent that someone can be and still be considered a person. But I don’t think Rahu falls into that category, regardless of which sort of god he is.

    -Eric

  6. The people one meets while slumming aren’t generally *bad* people, per se. They’re lower class. (Metaphorically, in this case, but the metaphor works because Sid is presented as pretty clearly able to win out in a conflict with almost any god.) And part of it is the air of dangerousness that the person slumming always knows that they can escape. Finally, the drug bit — demon answers, in Hitherby, are almost always bad answers. They get you to accept a bad situation without doing anything about it, or even hoping that something better will happen. Sid is in pain and hunting for any answer, and he can experiment with a demon’s answer without apparent long-term harm, while other entities can’t. So it’s like having a few shots of absinthe, knowing at some level that you’re not an alcoholic.

    Aliasi, I’d have to read over prior entries to be sure, but it was my impression that Sid was uncharacteristically (for a siggort) concerned about vivisection, even somewhat guilty that it was what he was seeming destined to do, and that Max knew about this.

  7. Still, I’m not sure that Sid getting a demon’s answer is a bad thing here. I don’t think he wants an answer that’ll explain everything. What he wants is an answer that’ll make it possible for him to spend time with his dear friend in a way that’ll keep the past from constantly ruining their closeness.

    In real life, this sort of thing usually isn’t possible. But to some degree it is in Hitherby, as this sort of situation is what demons are for, and they’re about as well suited for it as angels are at supporting hope.

    (Also, on a side note, I’d argue that “knowing at some level that you’re not an alcoholic,” is arguably one of the hallmarks of actually being an alcoholic, at least, given a certain definition of “knowing.”)

    -Eric

  8. I was looking through the archives and was interested to find this. It’s from Maundy Thursday (I/I).

    Sid is looking after the back of a woman who has come this close to fulfilling the criteria for his destiny, and he says, “I think that the world has no place for siggorts.”

    And Max looks at him.

    “It’s a really cool world. And we are unworthy of it.”

    And here in this story Sid accuses Max of thinking that Sid is unworthy of the world. I suspect that Sid is hung up on this accusation at least in part because it resonates with what Sid himself believes or fears.

  9. “There is a man,” says Sid. “Named Max. And he said, ‘Sid, you’re so unworthy of the world. I’d go to Hell myself if I could just be sure of dragging you with me.’”

    I’m a few months late but I feel like pointing this out, because I saw it discussed above. Max didn’t say this – he did it. The reason I feel obligated to point this out is because I just didn’t grasp before why Max would voluntarily go to the place without solace, and now it’s kind of a “Oh, duh” sort of thing.

    (Don’t mind my lateness; I’m still catching up. And it’s been so long since I started that I’m probably going to have to read it all again once I get to present day just to make sure I grasp it. Of course, I’m kind of looking forward to that, so hey.)

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