“I won’t be thwarted by a bluff,” says Melanie, cunning Melanie. “Go through.”
Vincent is too old to say, no you.
So he just shakes his head, instead.
She can’t afford to stand there. She can’t let the others see her hesitate. She certainly can’t look weak or indecisive in front of the army of her gods.
The first of you to set foot past this gate will die.
“Harold, then,” she decides. That’s the severed head of one of her assistants, sealed and surrounded by a divine aegis, which she had happened to bring along.
She throws Harold’s head through the gates. It lands upon the soft black earth. She shrugs. Then she walks through.
She turns around.
She looks at Vincent.
“Well?” she asks.
There is a challenge in her eyes.
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
It is May 28, 2004, and the shadows are deep around the facility at Elm Hill.
Tainted John crouches on top of a tombstone. He’s mostly invisible there, in the gloom that surrounds the place, but now and again, from the right angles, some light will catch upon the cold bloody pools that are his eyes.
He’s not very worried about that.
He’s not a stealth predator. He’s not an ambush predator. He doesn’t need his prey to be ignorant of him, not really. He just likes to have an edge.
The wind brushes past him. It’s cold. It’s damp, just a bit, with the ichor of a King.
He’s put on a greatcoat. He’s pleased with that. He’d insisted on it, insisted that they take a moment to get presentable before they went to war. He’d put on a greatcoat—well, technically speaking, a greatcoat god—and he’d straightened Micah’s hair and clothing, and he’d popped this little zit that Micah had gotten and licked a bit of Micah’s blood off of his fingers, and then, in a moment of strange generosity, he’d bolstered up the boy.
He’s not a fool.
He doesn’t think that they look good, or anything. John’s a hideous ghoul and his coat has eyes and it’d take more time than they had to make dirty, sweaty, tired Micah into something presentable again.
It just pleases him. It makes him happy. It makes him feel cool.
He’s ready, now that he has a greatcoat. Ready to achieve his destiny. Ready to have the wounds in him have a point.
He can smell rabbit on the air, and ozone, and the ichor of a King.
There’s a fence around Elm Hill, and iron gates, and Micah has told the army that waits outside them that the first of them to set foot past those gates will die. It’s a crazy thing to say but when your sister is a prophet people will give anything sounding prophetic an awful lot of slack.
It’s a lie, most likely. A half-truth at best. Maybe Liril told him that, at some point, and he was passing it along, but it isn’t, Tainted John thinks, an accurate description of what is about to be going down.
The first person to set foot past the gates will die. And the second too, if Tainted John has his way. And the third. The fourth. The fifth. The sixth. Them all.
He is ready.
Something lands on the soft black earth.
Hidden there, waiting, ready to kill and eat the whole damned bloody banquet of Central’s host, is Tainted John.
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.
It is ridiculous.
It is folly.
Even Vincent knows that it is folly. Harold may be just a head, but that doesn’t make his neck his feet. It’s like Melanie has taken leave entirely of her senses, has lost for the first time in his experience the game of prophesies and gods.
He is moving forward, fast as a shaming, fast as laughter, fast as the wishes in his heart. He is thinking:
She is dead. She is dead. And if I am the one to kill her now, I can make peace with the gods inside. If I kill her now it is possible that I can be forgiven.
He is already past the gate, in one great bound, when he sees that her feet do not touch the ground.
She is held above it, her shoes suspended in the air, by the protective aegis that is dead Harold’s god.
[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]
May 28, 2004
Vincent’s mouth is open.
He is shouting his betrayal.
One foot comes down against the yielding earth and it is suddenly too late.