One by one the monster’s forces fail him.
The city that once he bound by his own will has become a stronghold for his enemy. It is mazed away, sympathetically estranged, in the keep of a labyrinthine god.
The men he sends for Micah cannot venture very far into that place. The gods he sends do not return.
“It’s a rather unfortunate incident,” Melanie informs him.
The monster looks at her speculatively.
“I don’t know how to say this,” Melanie says. “You’re terrifying, so I don’t want to upset you, but you’re also not impressing me with the successes of your organization. It makes me worry that you’ll think: what if she thinks I can’t handle this place and decides to take over? I’d better start hurting her immediately. But this very line of thought makes me potentially more disloyal! It’s like a vicious cycle operating entirely outside causality.”
“I see,” the monster says.
Melanie rubs at her nose. “It’s like, I get here, and you’re all ‘look upon my greatness, king of kings, and know despair.’ And I buy it, and I get myself a nice little lab, and I start doing some nice little research on some serious, important questions, like just how does this world work, anyway? and hey, can fairy gold be created in the lab? and then wham.”
The monster pulls himself up to sit on her desk. She rolls her chair a little ways away.
“You know,” says the monster, “how Amiel never really stopped talking?”
Her ancestress Amiel is inside her, wound through her, so long ago and so very far away and yet burning in her blood. I will guard your line, Amiel is promising, as she has always been promising. I will guard your line, and our families be entwined forever.
“Yes,” Melanie says.
“Resist the habit,” the monster says. He puts his hand on hers. He smiles.
She is quiet for a long time.
“And are there others who have expressed suchlike concerns?” the monster wonders.
Melanie shakes her head. When he doesn’t follow that up with another question, she says, “I don’t think most of the people who work here really get that it’s for real. Not the stuff we do. Not the stuff that happens. It’s all isn’ts to them.”
The monster straightens.
“It’s all right,” he says. It’s kind of soothing. He squints a bit at the wall, thinking. “Dad told me once, ‘the thing about this job, the terrible part of this job, is that you can’t just force it. You’ve got to live with the frustration of standing in a land of plenty and having nothing to eat or drink. With the world fighting you at every turn, with a terrible weight hanging every moment right above your head, no matter how much you turn yourself this way or that. And the better you do, the closer you come, the worse it gets. Just imagine how bad it’ll be, my child, if you ever make it to the throne.’”
Melanie looks blankly at him. She’s used to things that she can’t just force but not to the idea that it’d be the worst at the very end.
“People,” the monster summarizes, “are pretty weird.”
He hops down from the desk. He gives her a twisted smile. “I’m gonna go sort this out,” he says. “You can call anyone you have in there back.”
I will guard your line, whispers Amiel.
“You will,” she says, “bring him back?”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you,” he says. He grins. He leaves.
Melanie stares at the wall for a while. Her hand closes around her nametag. She thinks for a good long while.
[The Frog and the Thorn — CHAPTER ONE]
October 17, 1995
The monster drives up to Liril’s house. He gets out of the car. He walks up the way. He gives a glance to Priyanka and to Liril. He looks around the house.
Micah is toying with a pad of sticky notes. Judging by the notes on the television, bookcase, and couch, he’s been in a frenzy of labeling things with their proper names, to what end the monster cannot determine.
For a moment the monster considers interacting with the sticky notes. Then he discards the notion.
He focuses the fullness of his attention on Micah.
“I’m disappointed,” he says.
“So am I,” Micah concedes. “I’d hoped that you wouldn’t be able to get past a properly-labeled door.”
The monster glances at the door. It’s in fact labeled “Door. 100% effective against monsters.”
It arrests his attention for a long moment. It challenges his earlier decision.
“I could have wounded you terribly, then,” Micah says. “While you were looking at that. If I’d had a knife. That was three full seconds of distraction. But Liril said that afterwards you’d have done that thing you would do and I’d have hated my foolish actions for forever.”
“You’ll have to content yourself with hypothetical harm,” says the monster, “I suppose.”
“Yeah,” agrees Micah.
“You always win,” Micah says. It’s bleak. “That’s obvious. That’s waiting down every path that opens up in front of us. All I can do is decide among the little tiny things I can get from that victory, and know that one day you’ll figure out, or ask me, what those were, and take them away again, just to make sure that even with all of that, I didn’t get a thing.”
“That’s a healthy attitude,” the monster says. “Yet, I can’t help notice that you’ve missed an appointment, killed a number of my servants, and estranged Santa Ynez from the normal processes of space and time. What if I just asked you right now what you hoped to gain, and immediately took that thing away?”
“I thought about that,” Micah says. “I figure it’s probably best if I don’t know what I’m going to win, myself.”
The monster glances at Liril. It’s a question.
She shakes her head. She doesn’t know either.
“Come on, then,” the monster says.
“Just because you hand someone a riddle,” the monster says, “doesn’t mean that they have to answer it. I’m kind enough to permit you the hope that there is some sort of hope.”
Micah frowns. He works his mouth.
“You’re supposed to care,” he says. It’s stubborn.
“Come on,” says the monster. “Out to the car. I’ve been thinking about pulling out some kind of cure for cancer.”
Micah brushes past the monster. The monster frowns. Micah walks out the door. He touches the door.
“You know,” he says. “I could close this door, and then you’d be sealed in.”
The monster takes the post-it off the door. He holds it in his palm for a moment. Then he sticks it on Micah’s forehead.
“That’s pretty gutsy,” Micah says, “but if you really didn’t think it could do anything, you’d have stuck it on Liril.”
He walks to the car. He’s just a little bit too confident. He’s peeling the top couple of entries off his pad of notes. It’s like he’s looking for something. It’s a matter of academic interest at best; sticks and stones can break the monster’s bones, but words on paper — well.
The monster steps outside. It would be best, he thinks, to settle this now; to break him here, rather than allow him to attempt something while I am driving.
Gently, he closes the house door.
He lets out a breath. He traces with his thoughts the power that is within him. He turns —
Micah is holding the Thorn That Does Not Kill at the monster’s throat.
Micah is turned to the side. He is trembling. He is horribly afraid. The fear is bone-deep, soul-deep, it’s making him cold and hot and cold again, and pale. He is standing as far as he could possibly stand away from the monster, his left arm in full extension with the weapon in it, and the hand that holds the Thorn’s thick end is slippery with sweat.
Whatever the monster was doing, though, he stops.
“You shouldn’t have that,” the monster says.
“I am not going with you,” Micah tells him. Sweat is pouring down his face, his arms, and his sides. “I swear to you on everything that is holy, on Jesus, Good, and Buddha, on my own bloody fucking name, I am not going to get in that car, and if you try, I will break you and I will leave you broken and I will walk back into Central like the new King of the fucking World.”
“Language,” cautions the monster. He moves very slowly and cautiously. He reaches for the wrist of the hand that holds the Thorn.
“Just try me,” Micah says. “Just try me. I will hurt you like you have never been hurt. I will make you cry.”
“No,” says the monster. “You won’t.”
And the monster spreads its wings.
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
I have told you that in such moments he is inevitable. That he may become Truth; or Axiom; or Victory; that when his wings have spread he is not such a thing as you may deny.
He will make you say as much, if he wants to.
He will make you admit to it, while hating him; or to admit it while loving him; or to come through strenuous paths of reason or of faith to the conclusion that you should. And if you think that’s impossible, then you’re lucky, because you’ve never seen the monster’s wings.
Maybe you can keep one thing. One thought. One bit of choice.
If there’s two, he can make you choose between them. If you want to be a good person and to hate him, for instance. If you want to remember your name and who you are. If you want to fight him and not just become him.
Two things would be far too much. It’s not very many things to have, in your life, particularly when we’re talking about thoughts and feelings and bits of self. But it’s still far too much. Try to hang on to two things and your divided mind will shatter against the truth the monster brings to bear.
You get one.
And that’s at best.
So Micah, he doesn’t hang on to the Thorn. He doesn’t even try to hang on to the Thorn. To be utterly honest, he’s never even thought it possible that he could.
And he doesn’t hang on to himself.
He doesn’t even hang on to being Liril’s shield.
He just lets his right hand follow a little twitchy reflex that he’s practiced, when the monster’s coat looms in. It’s reaching forward. He’s practically forgotten what it’s for.
Just a bit of gummed paper for the monster’s nametag, and on it, written, “Amiel.”
As undeniable, in that moment, as any other monster’s truth.
There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea
And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me
You can’t put too much stock in labels.
You have to understand that. Just because you stick a name on something that doesn’t make it true. Words aren’t like that. Even the monster is only like that under certain worldviews’ truth models.
Micah’s not a door. For instance. He’s like a door, but he isn’t actually a door.
And in the end, despite his label, he is 20-30% effective against the monster, at best.