Vincent stumbles to a halt.
His heart thunders. He tried to go against Melanie and he lost. His foot’s touched down on the hungry earth. He is doomed. He is doomed. He is dead.
There is something crouched upon a tombstone. There is something, and its eyes are pools of blood, and they are luminescent in the shadows, and Vincent realizes with a horrible realignment of his perceptions that this creature is or was a boy.
It’s looking right at Vincent.
Vincent twitches backwards.
It’s too fast for his conscious mind to follow. It’s all in the reflexes. He twitches back, and the boy lands in front of him. He skips back a step, and the boy blurs towards him. Vincent is already in the air again, his body convulsing like a liquid stream to turn him around to face the thing before he lands.
“Rabbit,” whispers the boy.
The boy’s face is suddenly too near his own. Vincent lashes out. It’s a rough blow, and it knocks the boy down onto the hungry earth, and Vincent’s body shakes all over before he skitters back.
His hand is numb where it touched the boy. He is terrified. He is terrified of the boy, and he is terrified of the world, and he is terrified of many other things right then; so many things, in fact, that his recent loss of health insurance has fallen entirely off the list.
The boy looks up. It’s enough to make you wince, you know, the way he bends his neck like that, like his spine isn’t any longer proper bone.
Then he’s on his feet.
“Gonna eat you, rabbit,” says the boy, and secures a firm fourth-most-terrifying thing that is happening to him right that instant place for himself on Vincent’s list.
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
Here’s the third most terrifying thing.
Melanie had told him that she’d extracted his sins during the monthly blood test. She’d said, “you never know when you shall need a lamb.”
Vincent tries to punch the boy. It’s a mistake. The boy moves forward. Vincent flinches back. The boy is faster. Vincent falls over. The boy jumps at him. His feet leave the ground. In that moment when Tainted John has no leverage, when they’re both falling, both flying, both rolling towards the ground behind Vincent, Vincent shoves the boy aside.
The boy is rolling along the ground. Vincent is on his feet.
The boy’s degloved him.
The pain is appalling. There is no skin on Vincent’s right hand or wrist. There is hardly any meat. He blinks stupidly.
You never know when you shall need a lamb.
He’d thought at the time, oh, of course, you’ll never know when you need someone sinless, someone spotless, someone whom a hero like Sebastien will not kill.
You never know when you need someone pure. Someone innocent.
It just keeps going around and around in his head, because it’s suddenly struck him that when you work with gods day in and day out, another reference point for “lamb” is sacrifice.
“It’s all right,” Kaela is whispering to him.
His heart. His familiar. His salvation. She is wise, his little rabbit god. She is smart. She is fast. She is clever.
She is kicking his feet, bounding him away, one step ahead of the horrid, hungry boy.
“It’s all right,” she is whispering. “Don’t be ridiculous. Melanie isn’t like that. She wouldn’t sacrifice you to a ghoul.”
Vincent’s arm is wailing. Maybe it’s his throat. Maybe it’s him.
Kaela’s kept him ahead of the boy these seven deadly seconds past, but he doesn’t know where to go. There’s an army one way and Micah one way and Melanie another, and he’d like to think that none of them would want to kill him but he’s divided his loyalties a bit too thoroughly trying to belong to Central and be good.
I could lead him to Melanie, he thinks.
He can feel a flash of Kaela’s anger and sadness. They stumble. They slow down for just a moment and the boy rips a chunk out of Vincent’s arm.
Vincent catches a glimpse of Melanie’s smile.
The boy’s gotten cleverer. He’s gotten faster. He’s gotten worse and gotten scarier in the less than fifteen seconds of their fight.
He’s still at number four, though.
Opposing Melanie, cunning Melanie, is the third most terrifying thing that is happening to Vincent just right then.
“We can run,” Kaela proposes. It’s alluring. It’s a dizzying temptation. “Forget fighting. Forget killing. We can run. To the gate, over the gate, and out. He won’t catch us. She won’t catch us. Not God himself can catch us, if we really run.”
Melanie had sent Vincent to kill Sebastien once, but Vincent hadn’t gone.
He’s just a student. He’s a student of a hateful practice, he’s a student of hollowing children out and educing gods from them and molding those gods into the theological weaponry of Central, but he’s just a student. He isn’t really cut out for fighting Melanie or Tainted John.
“OK,” he whispers.
That’s what a lamb would do, isn’t it? he thinks. It would try to run.
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.
He can hear it whispering all around him. Something terrible, something horrible, something evil is in this place.
It is the remnants of the wounding of a King.
As Kaela is whispering to Vincent, the shadow at Elm Hill is whispering to Tainted John. It is saying, “I am like you and you are like me and we are we.”
It is slowing the movements of the boy back down again.
The boy is distracted. It is hard for him to listen to the whispering of the wound and eat Vincent at the same time; plus, he’s got to keep one eye, at least, on the army of approaching gods.
It could be an opportunity to strike back, if Vincent had any way to strike back; and there’s a hint of something like that tugging at the sleeve of Vincent’s mind.
He ignores it. It’s not what he needs. He needs a direction to run.
Here’s the second most terrifying thing that’s on his mind right now. It’s a prophecy. Micah had delivered him a prophecy, that the first of Melanie’s army to set foot past the facility’s gates would die. That turned out to be Vincent—not his fault, his foot was pulled onto the earth by gravity—and that means that he is going to die here.
Micah could be bluffing. Vincent’s heard that. Micah lies. It’s really quite astonishing, for a god. He could be bluffing, but Vincent can’t afford to take that chance. If the prophecy is valid, then figuring out a loophole is even more important than dealing with Melanie and Tainted John. He isn’t the best student Melanie’s ever trained but he knows at least that much.
If it’s a valid prophecy, then he has to run it backwards in his mind.
“Sublimate into me,” whispers the ichorous consciousness at Elm Hill to Tainted John. It is like unto the fluid that leaks from his broken heart and his broken eyes.
If it’s a valid prophecy, Vincent thinks, then it means that one of those who dies today can be construed as the first of us to set foot past the gates.
He could recruit somebody from inside. Weak, but it could work. He could hope that one of the army had been here before—the grangler, maybe. Hadn’t it gotten inside?
He could sacrifice Kaela. Probably.
Isn’t there a kind of god who gets there before you, anywhere you step? Isn’t there a kind of god whom you can run from all your life, but then you turn around, and it’s standing there?
He can’t sacrifice his nametag in his place. It doesn’t have feet.
“You don’t have to be afraid,” Melanie told him once. He can’t remember why or when. His thoughts are vague and disassociated. They are a scrambled sphere of forms.
It’s right now.
He’s reached her, by accident, as part of running away, and she’s put her hands on his shoulders, and she’s looking into his eyes. It’s like she’s drinking in his soul.
“You don’t have to be afraid,” she says. “It’s just Micah, and some ghoul.”
Shadows, he thinks with sudden clarity. Shadows are the gods that set their feet before you on the ground.
It’s not useful information.
Melanie’s let him go, laughing, and Tainted John has landed on his back.
[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]
May 28, 2004
Vincent howls. His limbs twitch aimlessly, three of them at any rate.
Then Melanie has acted. Then she’s swept her arm aside, and Kaela’s twitched within him, and the ghoul flies sideways to slam against and through the metal gates.
For a moment Vincent thinks Melanie’s forgiven him.
Then he thinks, maybe an arm is enough to pay.
Tainted John is back on his feet. The army of gods is past them. Melanie makes a little twitching gesture with her fingers, and Tainted John kicks into the air, out of control of his own limbs, whimpering, and falls over sideways to the ground.
Vincent’s own nerve impulses are misfiring. He is flailing. He can’t tell yet if it’s what Melanie is doing or if the boy was quick enough to do damage to his spine.
“See?” Melanie says.
He can hear her heart racing. She is terrified, or exalted. She is nowhere near as calm as she presents herself right then.
He can hear Micah—
Kaela kicks her feet. Vincent’s world dissolves momentarily into confusion. He can see Tainted John flailing, like a puppet dancing on a string.
It’s Melanie, he concludes.
“Shouldn’t have eaten that,” Melanie is crooning, too soft for anyone but them to hear. “That was a mistake, my pretty little god. Gets inside you, doesn’t it? You shouldn’t have tried to eat what’s mine.”
And she makes Kaela to dance, and through her both Tainted John and Vincent as her toys; and that’s pretty awful, pretty scary, pretty wrong, but, really, it’s just a subtle refinement of the third most terrifying thing.
Here’s the thing that’s actually scaring Vincent the most, right then.
“Arise,” whispers the voice of the wounding of a King, to Tainted John. “Arise, and be as God, and no more to depend upon the suffering of your prey.”
No. Not that. Not quite.
It’s that he’s lost himself somewhere.
He’s lost his understanding of what being good would even mean.
He’s lost himself, and he’d hardly even really ever known himself.
More than anything he’s terrified that there is a God, and He will look at Vincent and He will find him small.