It is 1981 and Liril is in a terrible place.
She is in a room bulked out with shadows. She is in terror and the dark. She is scratching, desperately scratching, to get her name down on the wall.
In case she forgets.
In case she forgets, or everyone else forgets, and there’s never anything more to show that she exists, just a name written on the wall.
Tomorrow they’ll move her to a different room, and she’ll stare at the place where she scratched her name, and the writing won’t be there.
[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]
May 28, 2004
Now in the Latter Days of the Law the heart may not know the true doctrine; so rightly it may be said that this sunlit afternoon in May is the winter of the world.
Grey clouds shadow the brightness of the sky.
The clouds scuttle in clumps, this way and that, their movements driven by the wind.
It is May 28, 2004, and Liril is in a terrible place, and before it is Melanie’s army.
There are failing-gods and flying-gods. There are great stretchy gods drawn in crayon. There is a terrible black dog. There are twelve humans worth the fearing. There are twenty humans who are not—secretaries, psychologists, a system administrator, and the like, who had collaborated with the monster and survived but gained no measure of his power.
There is a ragged thing.
There are footsoldiers and two contemners. There is a long-legged beast and a scarab bomb. There are remembering gods, and an angel and a half, and fiends in a motley crew.
And then there are four more fearsome than this host: Threnody, whose nametag notes that she wields the lightning; Vincent, whose heart is pure; that crooked tyrant labeled “The Keeper of the Wheel;” and Melanie, cunning Melanie, most frightening of them all.
They are an ungainly force. They are escapees from a disaster and not an organized and deadly host. Still, they are an army, and the bulk of them are gods.
“In this place,” says Melanie to that host, “there is a girl more valuable than gold. She is enough to kill us all, I think, or to make us rich and powerful for all time.”
She is taking Vincent’s backpack off.
She is rummaging around inside.
He is surprised and disgusted to find the thoughtful things that she’s packed him for their journey.
A notebook. An apple. A few texts—Behavioral Psychology, and the like. Half of a ham sandwich. The other half she ate. And most disturbingly Harold’s head.
“If she is strong,” Melanie says, “we are in danger. If she learns strength, we are in danger. But she will not be strong.”
“Melanie,” Vincent says.
She hushes him.
“Hush,” she says.
“When—what—when did you even—“
She glances at him. She says, “When I was recovering my bike.”
Back before they’d been rousted out from Central, Melanie had biked to work every day. It’s normally a healthy and environmentally conscious habit, but in the end it had killed Harold and she’d nearly pulled a muscle leveraging his corpse off of her bike. Then she’d sawed off his head with her broken bike lock and left the rest of him there to rot, so in the end, it wasn’t a very healthy or environmentally conscious habit after all.
Also, she didn’t like to wear her helmet.
Vincent is still staring at her. It’s as if he hasn’t heard her explanation, or hasn’t parsed it.
“Two months ago,” Melanie says, “at the dinner party, he’d said that in an emergency, it was very important to keep his head. You were there.”
She opens the corpse’s mouth. She looks inside it clinically. She pushes on its nose. She rolls open one, and then the other eye, but they just close again.
She shrugs and looks back at the gathered host.
“Liril is broken,” Melanie says. “If she has recovered her will and spine at all, they’ll be no stronger than a twig.
“So we’ll shatter them. We’ll stomp her down. And then we shall rule this rotten world.”
“His head should be rotten,” Vincent protests.
What he wants to say is something about how shattering someone’s will is wrong. But he fails to do so. Harold’s head has distracted him completely.
She breathes into the corpse’s mouth and it jerks opens both its eyes.
That’s Vincent’s voice. He’s terribly glad that it’s his voice. For a moment, he’d thought it would be the corpse’s.
He’s suddenly not sure.
Melanie holds the head up high. She turns it to face the facility on Elm Hill. She says, “Oh, Harold, dear, you’re dead.”
And Harold screams.
The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die
The scream of Harold’s head is like a bird, at first; and then it is a horn; but Melanie has grit her teeth and put behind this deviant act the fullness of her strength, and she sinks that long shout low. It becomes a rumbling. It becomes an organ sound. It becomes a shaking of the earth, a burgeoning and world-completing and a trembling cry, resounding off the world and sound and sky.
There is only so much sound that one ought to be able to make with a single breath. This beyond that by a hundredfold.
There is an additional, secondary limit on the sound one can make.
And so eventually this sound goes still.
She has announced herself, has Melanie, her and the army of her gods; and she does not have long to wait.
There is a balcony on the seventh floor.
Micah comes out to stand on it. He looks down at them. He is pale. He is afraid.
Her heart gives a thump, because Micah’s there, and Liril’s not alone; and then the joy bubbles up inside her, it’s giggling out of her nose and wiggling in her throat, it’s crowing and burbling through her, and then it’s a rising force, how good it is, a rising force in her lungs and chest and heart, and she’s shouted out before she’s thought about it any a great shout of all triumph and sweet success.
He is afraid.
He is afraid.
He isn’t the defiant boy that once she met. He’s gone all pale and all weak. He’s standing there and his mouth is moving and she thinks he must still know her name;
But from the look on his face, he’s the kind of boy right then who only barely remembers his own.