Salwa and the Bears

Brakes scream. Momentum lurches Salwa in her trunk. A gaunt’s claws cut through the car like a rake through litter;

there is news from Iraq that we hear not of.

Salwa tumbles out and her blindfold catches on a rock. It rips from her eyes. She sees the gaunt;

flowers bursting to bloom; and laughter.

It is tall as houses, its arms swept back, trailing its long grey claws. Its beak is a sword. There is facing it in the street a small and fuzzy bear.

Its hand moves quick as death. Its nails come for the bear;

there is news from Iraq that we hear not of: flowers bursting into bloom; and laughter.

The nail bursts through. Or no: rather, the bear has moved aside, catching the nail of the gaunt between its arm and body. The bear turns in a jujitsu form, never releasing the nail, and the creature rolls sideways into the home of Najat bint `Aljan, cracking its arm bone, shattering brick, crushing Najat and her child.

The gaunt is tumbling to its feet and its wings snap a telephone wire. Its other hand brushes towards the bear, but the bear is already on the gaunt’s long arm, running towards its face.

The cloud on the chest of the bear is brilliant in the night.

The gaunt’s foot shifts. It lashes back towards Salwa, the heel point like a knife.

there is news from Iraq that we hear not of.

In a blur there is another shape before her. It is a bear. We do not talk of the bears, not since they made their failed play for Gonzales on his throne. But they are there. They are there. It is there.

Its symbol is invisible to her; but the foot cuts through its hide. Salwa screams.

there are schoolhouses; and laughing babies; and teenagers that are not stoned.

The broken wire and the new bear’s path collide; it seizes that unslender thread; the tension of the wire unbalances the gaunt and its heel point does not kill.

Shadow falls over the gaunt’s face. The first small bear comes down. A piece of the gaunt’s own nail scores deep into its eye.

there is news from Iraq that we hear not of.

Salwa’s heart is full of the courage of the bears; but it will go unremarked, she knows.

There are things from Iraq that are never reported, and of such like as this.

The Alphabet Game

We ask into the matter of the bear.

White heat and light annihilate the store. Shoppers become ghosts in an instant, inundated and incinerated by that light. Their forms swell with it before they vanish. Shelves of books and food and toys and jeans fall over. One Talkie Sally doll crawls feebly across the floor with its vocal circuit and both legs crushed; it mumbles and crumbles as it crawls, the sound of it “clerp. Clerp. Clerp.”

The power dies.

Susan is there. She seizes an armful of boxes from the shelves before she begins to run. She does not want them destroyed.

That is her impulse in the apocalypse: to save what she can.

Broken glass scores her face. She isn’t sure from where. There is a red and soft white glow off to the east so she heads in that direction, dodging around a crumbled ceiling. She scrapes out through a crack in the wall when she reaches the building’s edge. Most of the boxes tumble from her arms as she squeezes through.

She is on the second floor.

“Ah—” she says, looking back for a moment, as she falls.

The building shimmers, swells, and shatters.

Susan hits the grass hard and her vision goes black.

On the first morning after the apocalypse, she opens her eyes. The world is desolately empty. There are no sounds of cars or people or even birds. There is only the rushing wind.

“Oh,” she says.

Her arms are clenched around the last few treasures that she has saved. Painfully she releases her grip. She sits up. She sets them down. She dusts herself off.

They are a Fisher-Price carpentry playset and a talking learn-the-alphabet game.

“You saved us,” says the talking learn-the-alphabet game.

Susan smiles tiredly.

What a strange toy, she thinks.

“Because you saved us,” says the talking learn-the-alphabet game, “we will help you survive this grim post-apocalyptic world.”

Ah, Susan thinks. I have gone insane.

“It is not necessary,” she says, politely. “I have already learned the alphabet.”

“There are more than twenty-six letters,” says the talking learn-the-alphabet game. “There is also soph.”

Soph,” says Susan.

“Now you know your A-B-Cs!” declares the talking learn-the-alphabet game. “Next time won’t you sing with me?”

“I will,” Susan says.

So they sing the alphabet together, including soph, in an empty world.

When they are done, Susan stares off to the east, where through the vacancy of buildings she can see a woods.

“You are troubled,” says the talking learn-the-alphabet game.

Susan picks it up. She hugs it to her chest. She says, “What has happened to the world?”

“It is the apocalypse,” says the game.

“Oh?”

“There are those who meddle with things that they do not understand, and they are dangerous. More dangerous yet are those who meddle with things they understand, but none too well.”

“Oh,” Susan says.

“This is the work of the Fisher-Price Ultimate line,” says the talking learn-the-alphabet game.

The sky swirls and there is an impression of death and sorrow.

“In their laboratories they built a child’s toy prototype for ultimate evil—a toddler’s first ultimate evil, as it were. The final product would have had safeties, seals, restrictions.”

Susan sees the direction of this speech.

“But not,” she says, “the prototype?”

“It has sent forth its destruction to devastate the kingdoms of the earth.”

“It has left us desolate,” Susan says.

The talking learn-the-alphabet game sighs, “Ah.”

Susan folds her legs in the tailor style. She closes her eyes. For a time she thinks; and this stretches for so long that the talking learn-the-alphabet game becomes uncomfortable in the silence.

It makes small bleeping sounds.

In the distance, in the woods, these are answered by the shaking-maracas sound of insects.

Then Susan says, “What is to be done?”

“Live,” says the game.

Susan shakes her head.

“No?”

“Evil cannot go unchallenged,” Susan says.

The game considers.

“Then,” it says, “you must travel east to the palace of the prototype Fisher-Price Ultimate Evil beyond the world, and destroy it there.”

“Agreed,” says Susan, “save that I will not destroy it.”

She rises.

“No?”

“I don’t think it’s right,” Susan says.

And she gathers up the carpentry playset and the talking learn-the-alphabet game and she walks east.

Through the forest she walks, through the green-made gloaming and the patches of brilliant sunlight where the leaves are thin. There is dampness and there are scurrying things yet and where the insects do not sing there is mostly silence.

She comes to a wall.

It is high, twenty yards high, and made of slick rainbow glass, with a thousand colors trapped inside it. It stains her rainbow and casts its multicolored shadow all around her.

She sets down the carpentry playset and touches her hand to the wall. It is slick but it is warm and there is a beating to it like a heart.

“Use me,” says a thick and wooden voice.

Susan looks down. She sees that the carpentry playset has fallen open. The hammer of it has slipped from its place. It lays there on the grass.

Now this hammer is plastic and it has a button on its handle. There is a speaker on its head and a place for batteries in the back.

Susan reaches for it, most delicately. She picks it up.

“Use me,” it says again.

She pushes the button, and the hammer’s speaker makes a sound: tap, tap, tap like the pounding of a hammer on nails.

It grows louder.

Tap, tap, tap. Bang, bang, bang.

It thrums, there in the forest at the edge of the world.

The sound from it rises until it is the sound of the cyclopes in their forges beating out the thunderbolts in the dawn of the world. It is the sound of great ringing blows.

“Touch me to the wall,” it whispers.

“But—”

“Trust me,” says the hammer from the Fisher-Price carpentry playset.

So Susan touches its head to the wall and there is a shivering in the glass and a chiming that rises to match the ringing of the hammer’s sound. Then, convulsively, the wall tears itself apart: not shattering, not ripping, but rather severing, and the two halves bucking away from the center like angry horses or two great flailing arms.

After a moment it is still.

The wall is open, its sleek rainbowed surface curving up in two tracks to either side. It is like a sculpture. It is strange and it is beautiful and beyond it there is the sun.

The hammering noise falls silent.

“Thank you,” says Susan.

“You must leave me here,” says the hammer.

Carefully, Susan sets the hammer down.

“Don’t you want to know why?” it asks.

Susan shakes her head.

“I trust you,” she says, and she walks on.

There is still green twilight but the sun is more common now beyond the wall. The forest is thinning.

There is a bear.

It is great and it is terrible, larger than a person, larger than four people—larger, really, than a tank.

It roars and its roar terrifies her.

And from the Fisher-Price carpentry playset comes a sharp and metal voice, “Use me.”

She reaches into the playset. Her hand hesitates over the tools, then pulls out the saw. Its grey plastic shines.

“Push the button,” it says, “to make answer to your problems.”

The bear stands up. Its shadow falls. It stands between our Susan and the sun.

“Pardon,” says Susan to the saw, and she is trembling, “but what will you do?”

“I am a saw,” the Fisher-Price saw says.

The bear steps forward.

“I am the sharp cutting tooth of the world,” says the Fisher-Price carpentry playset saw. “I am the relentless, the cutter, the killer, the ravager of flesh. I cut the grain of wood. I separate the ligaments from the meat. I carve through bone.”

The bear steps forward.

“Bear? Do you hear me?” cries the saw.

And though Susan has not pushed the button there is the zzz-zgg, zzz-zgg, zzz-zgg noise rising all around. It is the terrible metal cheering of the saws that cut forever at the foundations of the world.

Where the sunlight touches saw the sunlight bleeds.

“Do you hear me, bear? You are meat!”

But Susan is kneeling. She is setting down the saw, carefully, on the grass. She is saying, “I am sorry, Fisher-Price carpentry playset saw, but I cannot use you in this fashion.”

And in the pause that follows that the sounds of saws go still and there is a mist that runs along the lowness of the ground.

“Then die,” says the saw, and it is silent.

Softly, the talking learn-the-alphabet game begins to sing, “Ey bee cee dee ee eff gee.”

The bear steps forward and it is now within paw’s-reach of Susan’s head.

And Susan is singing, “Aitch eye jay kay ell emm enn oh pee.”

Together they sing, “Queue arr ess, tee you vee, double-you ecks, soph why zee.”

Susan’s eyes are closed. She does not know why she is not yet dead.

There is a curious snuffling sound from the bear.

“Now I know my A-B-Cs, next time won’t you sing wit—”

There is a force like a hurricane or a car crash, irresistable, defying the lie that Susan’s will controls her flesh; touched by the paw of the bear, her hand falls open, her arm falls back, and her entire body seems to jump through the air, arcing out of control, to land slumped against a tree.

It is a moment of clarity and pain.

There are bloody marks all down Susan’s arm. The talking learn-the-alphabet game is on the ground. The bear stands over it, making a low crooning growl in its throat.

Susan aches.

The bear licks the game. Then it growls softly and nips it.

“A?” offers the game.

The bear rumbles something that is not an A.

“B?”

The bear rumbles something that is similar in some respects to a B.

“You want to learn the alphabet?” asks the game.

The bear picks the talking learn-the-alphabet game up in its jaws.

“No,” says Susan weakly. “No.”

The bear turns to go.

Susan staggers to her feet. Her mind is full of sloshing fuzz in staticky white and black. She stumbles after the bear.

With horror the game realizes that she is coming to save it.

“No, Susan,” it says. “No, you must leave me.”

“You are not made for bears,” Susan says. “You are a choking hazard. And I do not want it to take you if you do not want to go.”

The bear begins to walk away.

“It is all right,” says the talking learn-the-alphabet game.

“All right?”

“I choose this over a rescue.”

And so Susan stumbles to a stop and falls to her hands and knees, breathing hard, for still she is winded from the touch of the bear.

The bear carries the talking learn-the-alphabet game away.

When Susan recovers, she finds there is not much left of the world. The edge is right there, not one hundred meters away, ragged and broken.

A tree has fallen. It is a great tree, not Yggdrasil but one of its older children. It has fallen to form a bridge between the world and the palace of the prototype Fisher-Price Ultimate Evil.

It is long and thin and lean and it crosses over an infinite depth.

Susan stares at the tree. She is still wobbly. Her gaze turns hopefully to the Fisher-Price carpentry playset, but the drill that is all that is left in it is silent.

“What do I do?” she asks.

The back of her head is damp with blood.

And there is a wind from the edge of the world and the shaking-maracas sound of insects, and Susan concludes, softly, “Ah. I am to practice courage.”

She holds her hands before her, touching finger to finger, her hands circling an empty place.

She stares into that void.

She tells herself that there is a button there; that she may press it and become a thing as marvelous as the Fisher-Price hammer and its saw.

She visualizes it: a red dot surrounded by the sky.

She pushes it.

“I am Susan,” she says, swaying there at the edge of the world. “I am a house painter. I am a woman. I have a degree in English literature. And I will make answer to the evil in that keep.”

Her voice is pulled away by the hollowness and the vastness at the edge of the world.

She sets down the carpentry playset. She cannot carry it across the void. She takes off her shoes. Swaying, she begins to walk to the palace of the prototype Fisher-Price Ultimate Evil.

It is grey and blue and its towers are tall.

She stumbles on a knot and falls, but her hands tangle in the roughness of the bark and keep her from the void. She pulls herself back up. She continues walking.

There are strange yellow figures on the walls, their heads geometric, their hands without fingers.

The wood splinters under her foot. She staggers. Her foot bleeds. But she continues.

The insects hum.

The wind blows.

She staggers into the courtyard of the palace of the prototype Fisher-Price Ultimate Evil, and there she stands facing it, the enemy of the world.

He is tall and handsome and clad in black armor and there is nothing fake about him. His hair is long and thick and black and it blows in the wind. His teeth are sharp. His eyes are fierce.

He is beautiful in ways that no mortal not made by Fisher-Price will ever be beautiful.

He is terrible in ways that not even Fisher-Price should have tried to build.

And he says, “I have seen you coming; but what will you do now?”

Susan says, “I will say, ‘prototype Fisher-Price Ultimate Evil, set aside these hostilities against the world.'”

The wind rises and she staggers and almost falls, and the creature catches her and sets her down and kneeling down close and looking into her face it says, “But why should I do that?”

“What age,” asks Susan, “are you suitable for, oh prince of all ill doings?”

And this stumps the creature for a moment, before it says, “Safety labels are a thing of the past.”

“What virtue,” asks Susan, “is there in playing with you, oh suzerain of sorrow and despair?”

And the prototype Fisher-Price Ultimate Evil’s face grows tight, and there is a pain there.

Susan gasps, “Oh! —No, I do not mean that, oh evil thing.”

Yet it is turning away.

It is haunted by the death shouts of the Fisher-Price scientists who created it: “You are no toy!”

She does not know this but she feels it.

“I do not mean,” she says, “that you are unworthy for a child to play with, Ultimate Evil.”

He breathes softly, “Oh?”

“I mean only that there is no toy without its purpose in learning or in joy. So what is the purpose of playing with evil, oh king of false desiring?”

He thinks on this.

“To learn to conquer it?” he asks, his voice unreadable.

“Some would say that,” Susan says.

“Not you?”

“We play,” says Susan, “so that we may understand.”

“Ah.”

Some of the tension leaves him with that sigh.

“But to destroy the world,” Susan says. “That is not play. That is—”

She considers carefully what she will say.

“That is error.”

And her words strike home. He looks back to her and she sees a terrible clarity in his eyes.

“I didn’t know,” he says. “Fisher-Price . . . in striving to create the ultimate evil, they lost sight of the meaning of play.”

“They meddled carelessly,” Susan agrees.

And she pulls herself up and she takes his hand, the cold unyielding plastic of it, and says, “But it is not too late.”

And there is laughter and joy and ultimate evil for a time, in the palace beyond the world.

No Actual Bears Were Harmed

The chaos stirs into form.

Dentist 10 lives behind glass and steel.

In the morning when he wakes up he is out on the glacier. He has been sleeping inside the skin and fat of a polar bear he’d had to kill.

“Dangerous,” he says.

He shakes his head at himself. He must have passed out, he thinks—too tired to drag the body back to his tower, so he’d just cut it open and crawled inside.

“Dangerous and stupid.”

He pulls himself out. The corpse is still warm, but it’s colder than it was. He heaves one great paw over his shoulder. He drags the bear to his tower.

The tower is glass and steel.

Dentist 10 looks nervously up at the sun. It’s been shining for almost six months but it’s looking like it’s beginning to set. That’s why he had to go out onto the ice and get a stock of meat, but it also makes the danger more acute.

He enters his code into the tower doorway.

Perched atop an arch of ice, clad in an adorable white parka, Jane watches him. She is looking at him through special field glasses that make everything look red and provide scrolling data regarding various points of interest.

“Don’t forget to wear layers,” scrolls past on the left.

Stock data displays on a running marquee.

One scrolling reminder informs her, “Nine out of ten dentists endorse the continued existence of the world!”

Dentist 10 finishes entering the code. His fingers, slick with polar bear blood, leave smears on the numbered panel.

The door opens.

Dentist 10 drags the polar bear into the lobby of his tower. He deposits it into the autokitchen. He walks through the sterilizing shower, stripping as he goes, leaving his filthy blood-colored lab coat behind, passing through sprays of water, chemicals, and soap, and emerging on the other side dressed again and pulling on a fresh white coat.

He pushes a button behind him. It sets his shower to KILL.

Then he enters an elevator and begins to rise through the beanstalk of his home towards a cold space fortress suspended over the world.

Behind him, Jane is in the lobby. She’s staring at the shower from the other side. It’s got blinking red lights and looks about as malicious as a shower can.

She speaks into her lapel.

“Cut power to the first floor,” she says.

Elsewhere, Martin operates a fuse. The shower goes dark.

Dentist 10 looks down as he ascends. He frowns. There’s a spot of darkness below that should be red.

He grits his perfect teeth.

“Susan?” he says.

The computer that governs his home comes online. A simulation of Majel Roddenberry’s voice says, “Yes, Dentist?”

“We have an intruder,” he says. “Flood the lower floor with Fimbulwinter.”

“Yes, Dentist.”

Jane is standing at the base of the elevator. She is prying open the doors with a Fisher-Price Jaws of Life set. Then a radio-triggered explosive bursts open the lobby’s outer door and windows. Hydraulic pumps, their power subsystem pre-isolated, dredge up icy water from the sea, add a fine mix of chemicals to accelerate their icing, and spray them in a large-dropped mist throughout the bottom floor. The building ventilators pump away the heat. The air fills with shards of ice.

Jane squeaks. She wraps her scarf across her face. She pulls her hood over her head. She attempts to squeeze into the elevator through the partly-opened doors despite the bulging awkwardness of her layered clothing and the wash of ice. For a long moment she is stuck, as the air lashes her with winter. Then with a pop she falls through into the base of the elevator shaft.

She kicks out the jaws of life. The doors slam closed. She begins to climb.

Dentist 10 arrives at his space fortress. He walks out into the entrance bay. He considers. Then he decides that it is better to be safe than sorry.

He takes down his shotgun from the wall.

He sits down.

He waits to kill, just in case the intruder makes it up.

When Jane forces open the elevator doors, he fires.

There is a flurry of red-tipped parka down. The body falls backwards. The doors close.

Dentist 10 approaches.

He pushes the button. The elevator door opens. He walks in. He kneels by the body. He checks its teeth for signs of life. Then he frowns.

“It’s a Fisher-Price Body Double Playset,” says Jane from behind him. “Suitable for operatives and medical students ages five and up.”

“It’s very realistic,” says Dentist 10.

He doesn’t turn around.

“But nobody has teeth like these.”

“No,” Jane agrees. “And nobody ever will again.”

He spins. He fires. But he isn’t expecting Jane to be quite so short or quite so close, and he definitely isn’t expecting the sharkbone-tipped spear with which she knocks his shotgun away. She hooks out his leg with the haft and as he staggers, she goes PUSH!

Dentist 10 slumps, defeated.

“Pushing people is impolite,” he says.

“That’s pre-9/11 thinking,” says Jane.

“10 is pre-11,” Dentist 10 points out.

“But it’s not pre-9!”

There’s a pause.

Jane gives Dentist 10 a strained, apologetic smile.

Dentist 10 looks away.

“Listen,” says Jane. “Somebody shot Baldur with mistletoe.”

“I know,” says Dentist 10. “I saw. Winter is coming.”

“So I need 10 out of 10 dentists to approve of him, or Hel won’t let him live.”

Dentist 10 looks out through the glass elevator wall at the endless depths of space.

“I had a wife,” he says. “Her name was Nora. And I never approved of her while she lived. I thought that she was weak and she was trivial. And one day after she died, I realized that that wasn’t because she was weak or trivial or bad. It wasn’t anything to do with her. It was just that it was easier for me to live my life if I could judge people according to my preferences for their character.”

“That’s very tragic,” Jane concurs.

“So I promised myself,” says Dentist 10, “in her name, that I would never approve of anything ever again. Not Trident. Not Crest. Not even peace. And I won’t approve of Baldur, even if that ends the world. That is my resolution.”

“Oh,” says Jane.

“People were always troubling me for their approval,” says Dentist 10. “Because I am Dentist 10. So I moved to the arctic and built a beanstalk into space. Ever since then there have never been more than 9 out of 10 dentists approving of anything.”

“But Baldur fights tooth decay,” says Jane.

Dentist 10 shudders.

“And he’s a deadly enemy to plaque!”

Dentist 10 looks up. His eyes are haunted. “Don’t do this,” he says.

Jane hesitates.

“What kind of dentist lives in space and seals his heart in ice?” she asks.

“The tenth,” he says.

So Jane turns away. She follows his gaze into space.

“No,” she says.

“No?”

“To live in the sky and give your love to no one— to cover yourself in the blood of a bear and greet children with winter— to fire a shotgun at a glass elevator wall and do no harm— this is not dentistry. This is death.”

And he crawls out into his space station and he stares after her as he descends, stripped by her clarity from his role as Dentist 10.

She is right, he knows.

He isn’t a dentist at all.

He is Space Hermit 1, one out of one, and he does not approve.

The Well

When food is difficult to come by, the animals of the forest make the long journey to the forbidden well.

It’s not easy to get there. You have to climb an interweaving ladder of branches and run along the tops of the trees. You have to wade through mud chest-deep on a deer. You have to crawl into a blind tunnel and squeeze past the insects and the water on the walls. Then you’re there.

There’s a peace that governs by the forbidden well. It’s a tentative peace. It’s not magic. It’s just something that the wolves want.

What the wolves want in the forest, they tend to get.

The forbidden well is always full of sweet nectar. A few sips give enough calories to carry an animal through a day. In a hard winter, or a drought, or in times of plague, the well keeps the animals of the forest alive.

The wolves are supposed to keep the animals strong, and it doesn’t breed strength when animals can sup on sweet nectar all the time. So for the most part the well is forbidden. But the wolves make exceptions, sometimes, when times are hard, because of Mawndrad, whom they’d loved.

Mawndrad was a hero, in clean and billowing white clothes with a sword like a blue nail. He was handsome and bright and sometimes when he was really sleepy or really happy, he’d have a shiny black wolf nose instead of his own.

He loved Tamarella.

Tamarella was stocky and a miracle girl—you know, the kind who could do things that you hear about in the stories. She could throw a charging bull, just catch it by the horns and fall back and it’d go flipping and tumbling by her. She could bake enough for a ten-person feast with just a handful of flour and some water and some spice. If you’d lost a button in a field, she’d tie tiny rakes to dormouse tails and they’d run around until they dragged the button up. That was the kind of girl that Tamarella was.

He saw her once as she was pulling a giant’s plow, bit by bit, with a block and tackle anchored by an oak. She was straining in her plain grey clothes just to get the tiniest bit of movement from the plow, and the giant was laughing and cheering her on, and when she finally got the plow across the field she’d won all the giant’s gold.

And Mawndrad’s heart.

Mawndrad brought her dead animals. He left them on her doorstep. He gave her cute little mice and bits of elk and, once, a bear.

That was the last evening of his life; and this is how it was.

Tamarella’s sitting in her kitchen and she hears him dragging the bear up the walk. She goes to the front window. She puts her hands on the windowsill and she sticks her head out.

“Don’t do that,” she says.

“It’s a bear,” he says.

His chest is puffed out. He’s pretty proud, because it’s a twelve-foot bear and those are even bigger than you might think.

“I don’t need any dead animals,” she says, “There’s a general store.”

“It’s for you,” he says.

And when he’s staring at her, she sees his wet black wolf nose and it’s totally charming. Not sexy, like he looks when he’s got the normal nose and his muscly chest and his loose archaic shirt, but charming. Drop-dead adorable. His ears even twitch.

So she laughs and she says, “Well, come in.”

And he leaves the bear outside and he comes in for tea, and they talk long into the night, and nearing the end of it, they realize they’re in love.

“I love you,” he says.

“I love you,” she says, “but you’ve got to leave.”

“Why?”

“In the morning,” she says, “my father’ll come home.”

Now Tamarella’s father was a priest, a priest of that new Christian God, and he was also a necromancer. Some people found that combination a bit odd, but Tamarella’s father never did. He could reconcile it pretty easily in his head.

“After all,” he’d laugh, “didn’t God himself raise his son from the dead? Well, why can’t I do the same?”

And if you tried to tell him that that wasn’t the point of that story, he’d kill you and cut your bones out to make skeleton monsters from, which goes to show that perspectives can reasonably differ.

So late at night Mawndrad and Tamarella say their goodbyes, and they have a parting kiss; and that leads to a few more words, and a few more, and pretty soon an hour’s passed within the night.

And sweetly they part again, and he goes down the path, and then he comes back and knocks on the door, because it suddenly occurs to him to tell her she has lovely hair, and the words burst up so hard in his heart that he just had to share them.

And one thing leads to another.

And then it’s dawn, and Tamarella’s father comes.

Mawndrad was a scary youth. He wasn’t a pushover. He thought that he could take down a necromancer pretty well.

He wasn’t afraid.

When Tamarella’s Dad came home, Mawndrad didn’t hide in the closet. No.

Mawndrad fought.

He danced at swords with Tamarella’s father. He tried to cut the man. Mawndrad was strong and fierce and he should have been victorious, should have won the day and brought an evil to the end, but things just didn’t go that well. Hands of bone rose from the ground and grabbed his feet. Tentacles of spine wrapped round his arms. His sword fell to the ground and he was helpless.

“Don’t hurt him, father,” pled Tamarella.

And her father looked at her, all cold, and said, “You are mine until I give you away in marriage; and so this night you have defiled me.”

And he chopped up Mawndrad and he chopped up Tamarella and he took their bones and flesh out to the well and dropped them in, this being acceptable behavior under the English law of that time. And he set his snares for ghosts, because he knew that death cannot stop true love; that death cannot even stop puppy love; and that Mawndrad and Tamarella must have dwelt somewhere between.

And in this he was correct.

At midnight on the following night they rose, the ghosts of Mawndrad and Tamarella, briefly stealing back from the other world to exchange a final kiss.

“None of that,” said Tamarella’s father; and he caught the ghosts with snares and chains and pulled them far apart.

He hung them on opposite sides of his dungeon and for years they strove, pulling the chains a little looser every day. When they were within an arm’s length of one another Tamarella’s father swore irritably, chopped up the ghosts, and dumped the pieces of their souls into the well.

The distilled essence of the lovers rose in great clouds from the well. It was no longer distinct in its identities, but it still remembered love; so Tamarella’s father caught it and strained it down to nectar, such that the liquid in the well was a thick sweet concoction ninety-eight parts water and two parts thrice-dead people.

After that no more killing was necessary.

The nectar of Mawndrad and Tamarella was still.

“There,” said Tamarella’s father, with a feeling of completion.

He dusted off his hands and he went home.

The animals drink of Mawndrad and Tamarella when times are difficult. When times are very harsh, so also do the wolves.

“These are the dead who will never rest and never wake,” say the wolves, as they lap at the sweet nectar.

It allows them to survive.

(Letters Column for December 2005) Light, Hope, and Meteors

Hello!

This is me, posting the first installment of the letters column—some final comments and responses on An Unclean Legacy!

**
I will not thank you for your kind words today. For the beneficence of my thanks, you must wait for the rest of the letters column! Today, you must go thankless.

That said, hey, y’all’re cool.

**
In terms of the promised bonus story, I am moved by your efforts thus far but as of yet I am not awed. Redouble your devotion! Send forth the radiant light of your spirits in a thousand benevolent wishes and actions dedicated to my name! Then, surely, not even the hardest-hearted Yama King could deny you. Not even the lowest worm! The force of your will would bend down even that great stone god that stands over the city of the singing people on the farthest star and make him subservient to it; no less would I be enchained to yield this gift!

**

Why was Yseult so determined to be evil?

The more comprehensive and restrictive a society’s morality, the easier it gets to confuse “not fitting in” with “evil.”

Montechristien eventually outgrows this misunderstanding. Yseult never has sufficient occasion to.

What happened to Cedric Saraman?

He went on to involve himself in a tragic story of gummi bears, corruption, and war.

Later, there was some Little House on the Prairie action—after all, someone had to deal with Laura Ingalls Wilder after she saw through the lie of the world and set herself, to coin a phrase, between cow and qlippoth.* Why not Cedric Saraman?

* I hope nobody coined this phrase first. That’d be embarrassing!

How did Yseult meet and marry Gargamel?

I assume it was one of those things where you look back later and laugh, like he spilled wine on her dress or she lay siege to his castle or something.

Were Montechristien and Baltasar from any noteable line of descent, other than what appears to have been a standard noble family, or were their magical talents an individual accomplishment?

If the Da Vinci Code is to be believed, they’re secret descendants of Jesus Christ, but I don’t hold much truck with that kind of thing. I mean, honestly, just compare:

(Christian
The Lord Jesus Christ (visual reference)

and

(People
Gargamel and Baltasar (visual reference)

They don’t look a thing alike!

Oh yeah, there was one more question since my list of questions. In the room in the castle with the blood gutter (presumably under the threshing machine?), when Manfred is getting up:

(quote about the stone floor cracking and a faint white light rising.)

What was that faint light about?

Something to do with the power system for the threshing machine, I suspect.

I wonder what happened to Gargamel’s evil cat Azrael? Probably wouldn’t have been a good fit for the series since his name is so over-powered.
— rpuchalsky

I thought it would be cool to do something with that, but, yah, because of the name, it needed to be something important, and no good motivation + explanation ever came to mind. ^_^

Did Yseult abandon Rachel?
— Graeme

It would appear that she felt Montechristien would kill Rachel. Precisely to which extent this is true depends on history that has not properly been revealed.

Manfred is exceedingly well-mannered.
— Ford Dent

Power breeds propriety. Absolute power manners absolutely.

Manfred, here, is caught in the coruscating nimbus of politeness radiating backwards through time from that alternate future in which he enters the singularity of infinite propriety. It is a burning radiation that will leave him sore.

Is it wrong that, despite being interested in the resolution, I really do want to see How Elizabet Saved Mother’s Day?
— Eric

It is in some respects an alternate title for Finale. ^_^

what action shot would Violet get?
— Adamiani

Hm!

Her older self is probably just glamour shots, while her action scene is as a kid, with the red and black light and the howling and the kids cowering and Violet walking to the door and going out.

I’m not sure how to make it visually cool, but I’m not a cinematographer.

**

Either good and evil are defined by the whim of the Supreme Being, in which case God might say “Thou shalt eat babies on Fridays” and lo! eating babies on Fridays would be Good!, or else good and evil are independent of the Supreme Being, and God is not in fact omnipotent.
— Metal Fatigue

This discussion was part of why, later in the month, the spirit moved me to articulate half of an extended meditation on the meaning of the statement “God is good.”

I’ll have to cover the other half sometime.

**

So I take it you’re a proponent of an inheritence tax, then?
— GoldenH

Oh *man*, yes.

**

Not to comment on what lights may or may not have been in the sky over Siberia in 1905, but is it possible you’re mistaking the date of the June 30, 1908 “Tunguska Incident”?
–ADamiani

No. It is not possible. I CANNOT BE MISTAKEN—

(at this point, the author is eaten by a singularity, which is why the letters column must be finished on another day. However, in the meantime, the narrator would like to note that Pope John Paul II was later to add three years to the Gregorian calendar—

in a fashion that worked something like a botox injection, only with the power of the Pope—

to facilitate the arrangement of certain historical events. This is why it is 2006 only in the Paulite calendar, while more traditional measures of the year would have it as 2003 or even 12.19.12.)

Letters Column for November 2005

Hello!

This month there will be a Christmas, as there is every year (except for leap years.)

On this occasion, I think it is good to remember the light.

There is a lot of light in the world.

People tend to hang beautiful, glittering, multicolored Christmas lights about their homes this month.

And there are street lamps. Those are pretty in the gloom.

There was a brilliant light in Tunguska on June 30, 1905.

More recently, there were incredibly beautiful auroras in the sky over Seattle. They rippled through the night sky in waves.

Every morning, weather permitting, there is the sun.

Inside each person there is a pure and a brilliant light. I don’t know if they own that light or if it’s something larger, beyond them, shining through. But it’s there.

I don’t know who all will read this, so I don’t know what I’m asking you to remember. I think for some of you, what’s really important, is to remember that you have that light. Some of you might be better off remembering that other people do. But either way, I’d hope you will remember, for my sake if nothing else, that that light is a beautiful thing.

Now some of you are nodding your heads and some of you aren’t; because while there are a lot of people who like this sort of sentiment, it’s commonly considered—well, just sentiment. Pretty words.

I mean, we all know about the monsters and lowlifes, and even the people we like don’t always seem that great.

But it’s not just pretty words, I think, and I’m going to try to explain why that is.

We live in a world that’s pretty much start-to-end. We live in a world where people are supposed to make themselves, to build themselves, where the light in people’s souls is seen as a product; where bad people are dim shadows because they are failed people, and where one must always ask, “Have I failed?” lest one be a dim shadow oneself.

But this isn’t a start-to-end light.

This isn’t a light you’re expected to make.

This is like the light of the sun.

In everyone there’s a light that’s theirs, a light that’s trying desperately to spill out and brighten the world, and it’s not a light to make.

It’s a light to grow towards.

There is above everyone at a dizzying, terrible, wonderful height a light that is theirs to achieve; a shining more real and more true than all our fumbling attempts at virtue or at crime. It is a light that leaks out around the edges of the things we do, because we are entirely too small to hide it.

And when you look at the monsters and the lowlifes of the world, well, their light is theirs to find and theirs to climb to, and there’s nothing you can do about it if they won’t; nothing, save to remember in amidst the grim execution of justice that that light is there.

And when you look inside and say, “Have I failed?”, well, there’s the other side of the coin. You can’t get rid of the light. You can’t take away what you have in you to grow into.

It’s ordained not by you but by the equations of life, world, and spirit that give us birth.

You don’t have the means to fail, not the way most people think of it.

I guess there’s a harshness to all of that, but mostly, I’m going for hope, so.

That’s what I’m thinking about this December.

**
Donations for November totalled $165. There’s also another $25 that’s come in this month. Thank you!

**
Thank you for your kind words,

ADamiani
BethL
Blue
cariset
David Goldfarb
duerig
edomaur
Eric
Ford Dent
GoldenH
Graeme
insanitykun
JoeCrow
Joejay
Luc
mcclintock
melsner
Metal Fatigue
mineownaardvarks
Mithrandir
Ravious
rpuchalsky
Sparrowhawk
Taliskar

**
Some more random thoughts on An Unclean Legacy—I think it should properly have been about ten entries longer. But not on Hitherby.

Someday I’ll start up another webcomic that has longer arcs.

**

*laughing so hard I knock my mouse off the table and accidentally close the browser*
— cariset

Oh no! Mrs. Frisby!

**

it seems that the particular “smurf” tonality of Nobilis is an accidental one, albeit a funny one. I’d like to read more things about the destruction of the Creation by the Dark Smurves
— edomaur

She led in the Power of Might on a chain; he was shackled, hooded, shuffling, drawn taut.

She presented him before the Rider and bowed low; then she stepped back.

“You are cruel, Papa,” said Might. “If I am taken from this world then whither Samson? Whither Bunyan? Whither John Henry, the steel-drivin’ man?”

And gently, gently did the Deceiver touch the face of Might, his fingers soft through the rough fabric of Might’s hood.

“They are not needed,” said Papa.

“And . . . you will keep our bargain?”

Might’s voice nearly broke.

But the Papa did not answer. There was only the thunder and the pain as Might was ripped from the world and Hefty Smurf was born.

There was silence for a time.

“Bring me Communism,” Papa said, and the woman bowed and took her leave.

**

This may be off topic, but I’m trying to actually implement some of the software for something like IOSHI. Are you interested in being involved Rebecca?
— michael vassar

PM me on the forums with more detail?

**

“I will not consume any energy field larger than my head”
— cariset

What if it looks smaller than my head when I put it on my plate?

**

I note also that the devil claims victory, where previously I’d thought the outcome far more ambiguous.
— ADamiani

Francescu experienced the night of shadows in a starker fashion than some of the others.

**

If some of the children don’t have (angels and devils on their shoulders), perhaps they only settled on the children who were old enough at the time to be concerned with morality.
— rpuchalsky

It’s simpler than that; most of the children were safely out of their flight path. ^_^

**

Oh and I loved the parts where Francescu walks into a tree and Christine realizes she wrote an obscenity instead of a spell.
— BethL

It’s hard to live in a censored universe. (Although after it moved to a new time slot and got a harder edge, the Unclean Legacy censors let some real profanity past. By the end, Unclean Legacy had 40% of the “fuck”s in all of Hitherby. Wait, down to 33% now.

Man! My writing’s so clean it squeaks during sex.)

**

Hm. Every time I rewrite that it sounds like an empty platitude. I mean it. I hope you feel better. It sucks that “hope” is all that is in my power to do.
— ADamiani

Thank you for your kind words. ^_^

**

(Because hugs are comforting, and no one will hug you physically when you are sick. Especially if you have leprosy. No one ever hugs you when you have leprosy. Well, except other lepers.

(Please don’t get leprosy, Rebecca!)
— Metal Fatigue

I have duly registered my preferences with the Ministry of Diseases You Don’t Want to Get. They were having a two-for-one special, so I threw in tapeworms!

**

I’ve also been wondering about how when Manfred fights most of the members of Rachel’s bandit group, they end up being “gone”. Where did they go? If they just ran away, Sophie presumably would have got them, and Manfred at this stage of his life doesn’t kill
— rpuchalsky

I think the rest of Rachel’s gang mostly staggered off whimpering with a newfound dedication to honest labor in their hearts.

It’s vaguely relevant to the story that Manfred himself doesn’t seem entirely clear on what he can and can’t do; however, since the story is told and I can’t edit it via the letters column, it’s also fair to imagine that he just intimidated them a lot.

the Saraman curse must affect the children of Gargamel and Yseult, as well as Yseult herself.
— rpuchalsky

It does!

The Saraman curse—the fact that all seven children naturally attract evil opportunities and unclean powers—is relevant in my mind to how the ending played out. All of them spent that last scene very aware of all the ways they could (try to) kill everyone else and seize the little golden men.

**

at the beginning of the Elisbet descriptions and being on the nice list and everything, I thought, “She is such a Beth. But without the h, maybe because she is a ninja.”
— BethL

I think that claiming her is one of the best things Montechristien does. So I can hardly disapprove of you claiming her in another sense! ^_^

**

The truth will set you free.
— Taliskar

If you love the truth, you’ll inevitably come back!

**

I wonder, is Hitherby flirting with Calvinism, and the doctrine of irresistable grace?
— ADamiani

Yseult’s sense of evil is poorly calibrated. It’s not so much irresistable grace as my recognition, as author, that even if I delve fully into the uncompromisingly harsh judgment characteristic of pseudomedieval Christian theology, cackling a lot doesn’t make you evil.

She does a lot of things that are potentially quite evil—I mean, you can reasonably imagine that Sir Jasper died, and certainly training bears to kill Kings is not hugely morally sound. But since we know a posteriori that she was both nice and good, her admiration for life, including others’ lives, probably won out.

She was, in a lot of ways, like Montechristien Gargamel would have been if he’d never managed to kill the blue essentials—cartoon evil, certainly, but, really, not much harm done.

**

If the Devil has forgotten what God’s grace means, it’s possible (even probable) that he’s wrong about the nature of his conflict with God in other ways.
— Sparrowhawk

Quite possibly!

That bit was explicitly me hedging my bets. ^_^

**

Adding a new classification of angels would throw off the symmetry and numerical symbolism of Pseudo-Dionysus’s arrangement, which was pretty much the entire point of the system.
— Eric

Well said, sir, but note that in the close proximity of a singularity it may require more than threefold symmetry to produce the effects of a threefold symmetry elsewhere. Inevitably our eyes turn to Immeasurable Gravitational Force Smurf* and the peculiar implications of his inclusion on the cast.

On the whole, then, I think that the preponderance of evidence suggests that the smurfs are angels proper, the lowest rung on Jacob’s Ladder. Throne meet a close second, with seraphs in a distant third. For the aforementioned reasons, the idea of them making up a separate choir of their own is rejected.
— Eric

Well reasoned! I tip my hat to you.

* Oh, huh, he’s apparently just called “Brainy” in the cartoon.

**

Mount Thumb just cracks me up.
— mcclintock

It’s opposable!

Incidentally, do people want more visual art a la Thanksgiving? It’s not very good, but I don’t know if the amusement value makes up for that. ^_^

**

A Movie Preview
— Sparrowhawk

Yay!

But do you have funding? ^_^

**

But once you postulate a universe in which soullessness really exists, the user can haul out their soul-o-matic soul detector and say that look, their use of the soulless is justified by an actual confirmable physical/metaphysical difference.
— rpuchalsky

Sure.

People do that with skin color and sex, too. It took science a while to notice that it wasn’t justified, too.

I think it is possible that there could be a metaphysical state that justifies using an apparent person poorly. I’m not entirely certain what it would look like, though.

I used to think that philosophical zombiehood might suffice—that people without any real internal state or personal perspective would be “soulless” in the sense you mean.

I don’t, any more, because I’m starting to figure out that personal perspective is in fact an invention—I don’t know if it’s really a Renaissance-era idea like some people claim, it’d weird me out if Babylonian civilization didn’t have it, but it’s definitely an abstract mental construct—it’s technology. It’s part of the process of computation that goes on in the brain.

You can’t weasel around it by saying that philosophical zombies don’t do computation, either. It seems to me that if you created a computer that never actually did any computation, but nevertheless produced the results of that computation, then you’d still have to pay for the copy of Office you install on it.

Possibly it might suffice to have people who fundamentally process their experience as something entirely different. If a biological humanoid android is wired to think that dog food is the most incredibly wonderful thing ever, is it still wrong to feed them nothing but kibble?

In Hitherby, Sophie is soulless because nothing she does affects the destination of her soul. I think it’s wrong to be cruel to her. Christine can arguably call her cruelty to Sophie self-mortification, but the justification is tenuous.

Mini-people are a lot weirder. Their soullessness means that they do not accumulate karma; essentially, their lives are entirely self-contained. Arguably, they’re Buddhas. There’s a case that once they’re dead, anything you did to them is no longer morally relevant. However, I’d tend to assume, based on the above examples of race and sex, that even if I can’t figure out a bulletproof reason why hurting them is bad, that it probably is anyway. I come from a soul-centric society, after all.

**

Well, we know Francescu is unlikely to be dead, he keeps his life in his severed finger, part of which is in Tomas’ posession. Hence, deathless.
— ADamiani

I kept thinking it’d be funny if it turned out that he’d totally screwed up the spell since he didn’t have power yet, and that accordingly they’re just fingerbones. But the weight of canonical text suggests otherwise. ^_^

That said, yah, Sophie couldn’t have done more than get him out of the way for a little bit.

**

And, still, the Devil stands.
— GoldenH

You know how these kinds of cartoons are. The bad guy always gets away. Otherwise, you wind up having to come up with an even badder fallen angel next season!

(“No, this one didn’t just rebel against God—he ATE GOD’S FOOT!”)

(“What?”)

(“And then he SPIT OUT THE TOES! That’s what dromedaries are! The TOES he SPIT OUT!”)

**
That’s it for November! Thank you for reading, thank you for commenting, thank you for donating, and thank you for living. ^_^

Rebecca

An Unclean Legacy: “Whoever Can Bear the Weight”

Manfred is two years old and sleeping in his bed.

“He is already strong enough to wrestle a bear,” Yseult says.

Montechristien says, painedly, “My bear.”

Yseult shrugs.

“You were not using it for anything.”

“I needed that bear,” Montechristien says. “I was going to train it to catch blue—”

Montechristien remembers that he has already caught the blue essentials. He rubs at his chin.

“Perhaps I will forgive you,” he says, clearing his throat. “If you curry well for my favor.”

Yseult sighs. She shakes her head. “Someday, I really must kill you and seize all your power, pookie. Then it will be no more currying and scraping for me—only the immaculate power of a glorious goddess-queen!”

Gargamel scratches at his nose.

“Such sinister schemes,” he says. “You will corrupt the children.”

Yseult punches him on the arm.

“It’s strange,” Montechristien says.

“Hm?”

“He’s already twelve apples tall.”

“Hmm,” concedes Yseult.

Then she grins. “Come along,” she says. “I will make you a new bear. An evil bear! We will train it to kill Kings. Then, when a King visits—bam! Bear!”

“In a moment,” says Montechristien.

Yseult grins, spins around, and walks out.

And Gargamel stares at Manfred, and he feels large, like a man containing galaxies, and light, like a feather, and he thinks for the first time that most horrible thought: Is this what the Papa felt, when he looked upon his children?

And . . .

Once upon a time there was a man who murdered all the blue essentials and became the most powerful sorcerer in the world. Flush with that power, he drew to him a woman who loved the overblown evil of him and he sired on her six (or seven) kids. He became a legend. He became a terror. He became a living god.

Ah! Who would not envy such a man as Montechristien Gargamel? Who does not dream of rising to such heights? Though surely he was damned, his suasion was such that Emperors and Sultans must bow before him; his access to the pleasures of the world was limitless; his glory was unmeasurable! Binder of the Devil, destroyer of the blue essentials, master of every incantation and effulgence—such was the glory of Montechristien Gargamel!

There is silence for a time as Montechristien works with Elisabet in the tower. Then one by one the others shuffle in.

“Is she all right?” Violet asks.

“I don’t know,” Montechristien says.

He pokes Elisabet with his foot.

“She stabbed herself a few times and tried to scoop out her innards. So I scooped them back in and she is as you see.”

“That’s it?”

“I could apply a poultice somewhere,” Montechristien snaps.

Violet frowns.

Manfred looks down at Elisabet.

“She’s just being lazy,” he says.

An eye swims into view in Elisabet’s form. It glares at Manfred.

“That’s what ninjas do,” Manfred says. “They lay around and mope while everyone else fights the Devil.”

“1” mutters Elisabet, too weak even to capitalize the number, and then she passes out.

Montechristien sighs. “Enough.”

“I am going to die soon,” Montechristien continues, bleakly. “I want to give you something before I die. It would be traditional to give each of you a number of little gold men. This would precipitate a bloodbath. Alternately, I might offer them to the eldest, or to the eldest male. Or, as you seem to expect of me, I might pick a child based on arcane criteria, such as ‘who is left alive’ and ‘the weird old madness of Montechristien Gargamel.’ I am going to explain to you why it is not that simple.”

Violet bows her head.

“Your legacy is one hundred gold men, and the near-limitless power that goes with them,” Gargamel says. “Would you consider this a gift?”

“Yes,” Manfred says. “That is a gift. When you give someone near-limitless power, they say, ‘Thank you.’ Often, they write a card.”

“So it is,” Gargamel admits, because Manfred’s argument is irrefutable. “It is a gift. But it is also murder.”

There are one hundred little men, in square array, in the corner. They are three apples high and made of gold, down to their shapeless hats.

Gargamel points towards them.

“I killed them,” he says. “Not peacefully but brutally. Not in anger but with premeditation and after hunting them for years.”

“Blue essentials,” Tomas says.

“Yes,” Gargamel says. “Blue essentials, and not humans. But killing even the blue essentials is not done in peace. It is not a child’s story, where they are alive on one page and dead the next. I hunted them. I hunted them for years, and their fear was real, their desire to live was real, their anger at me was real. And one day after a clash of arms between two kingdoms, when the death of men and horses contaminated the water of the mushroom village, their patriarch and their strongman took ill with fever. And because of that sickness, they could not find the consciousness to fight. My blue magnet dragged them all to me, and while they screamed and while the best of them stared on with delirium-blurred eyes, I broke their necks and turned them all to gold. That is your legacy. That is what you would kill one another for.”

Violet looks down.

She clears her throat.

“Yes?” asks Montechristien.

“That’s a weight to carry,” Violet says. “But there’s uses for it.”

An Unclean Legacy


“Whoever Can Bear the Weight”

“Yes,” says Montechristien.

He looks out the window.

“I let her die,” he says, bleakly. “It was partly for Elisabet. They were entangled. Saving them both would have been hard. And she was going to Heaven anyway. It wasn’t much of a loss for her. But I could have saved her, and I let her die. Because I’d said, somewhere along the line, I’d realized, ‘it isn’t mine. This power—it’s not the power of Montechristien Gargamel. It’s just the blood on my hands.’ I wanted to destroy them.”

Violet makes an inarticulate sound of protest.

“But I couldn’t,” Montechristien says. “Because she left me you. I have been hanging on in madness. I wanted to be good. I wanted to do the right thing and destroy them. I have given up so much for the right thing, and I am still a hypocrite. But you are what I have left of her. I needed to know that if I had to I could save you. That when I’m gone, if the Devil comes for you, you’d have some power that could fight him. That your children, and your children’s children, would have some hope of getting somewhere in this world of walking corpses and pointless horror.”

And Sophie recognizes the imagery in his words and remembers in that instant that her father is long since damned.

“She was a light to me,” Montechristien says. “Even knowing that there is nothing left for me. Even knowing that this world is a trashheap and that shadow is its king. She was a light. And you were a light. Until bit by bit I saw that he’d already won you. That you aren’t any different than the rest. That you’re just more fodder for the beast of Hell. Bit by bit the glamour she left on all of you faded and I knew that there was nothing worthwhile in you and there probably never had been. But I’ll still give them to you. Because that’s what she would have wanted.”

“You don’t have to see things this way,” Sophie protests. “You don’t have to be— You could—”

“Use this unclean power to save me?” Montechristien asks.

“Yes,” Sophie hisses.

“It is all right,” says Montechristien. “I am hanging on. It is just a little longer. Soon I will be in Hell and safe from such terrible choices.”

“Damn it, Montechristien, fix yourself!”

“Shut up, Sophie,” Christine says, in a distant, fey voice.

Sophie stares at Christine.

“You’re hurting him,” Christine says.

And Sophie can’t tell, looking at Montechristien’s face, if Christine is seeing a truth that Sophie can’t or just reflexively taking the position that hurts Sophie the most; so she jerks her head and looks pointedly away.

“So,” says Gargamel, “they’re for whomever can bear the weight of them. I don’t care who. Just, someone who can stand to have their hands covered in their blood.”

There’s a silence.

“See, if I step forward,” Tomas says, “I get murdered from behind.”

What is Elisabet’s special gift?

What would Violet do with near-limitless power?

Whatever happened to Montechristien Gargamel?

On Monday: “How Elisabet Saved Mother’s Day!”

. . . oh, wait, no.

It’s “Finale.”

An Unclean Legacy: “The Duel”

Once upon a time, the last of the blue essentials returned to the mushroom village and found Gargamel there.

“La, la, la la la—oh,” said the essential uncomfortably.

Gargamel unlimbered his great tall legs and stood.

“Your name is Vanity,” said Gargamel.

“Yes.”

“You are the last,” said Gargamel.

These words struck Vanity like a blow. He stared up at Gargamel blankly.

Gargamel strode forward and his footsteps were like the beating wings of the apocalypse. In his hand was a butterfly net. His eyes were hard.

“Wait,” said Vanity.

“Hm?”

“I don’t deserve to die,” Vanity said.

“You are not alive,” said Gargamel. “You are an alchemical matrix crafted to contain the energy of the blue realm. Where is your soul, Vanity? Where is your humanity? Whence comes the deservingness of life in the mockery that you are?”

“I don’t have those things,” Vanity said.

And he looked down.

“But there is a purpose for my life,” Vanity said. “The deep and surging purpose of the blue. That is why I have admired myself, though I am small and unremarked upon. That is why I claim to virtue.”

He stared into his hand mirror.

“Isn’t that what a soul is?” he asked. “A purpose? A meaning? A reason to exist? Don’t I have these things as much as you?”

Gargamel considered this.

“It is said,” he said, “in A Field Guide to the Blue Essentials, that the blue realm possesses the character of intentionality; and that you creatures are the knifepoint of that purpose’s expression. But tell me, Vanity, why should I value that intention more than I value my own?”

“Because it’s blue,” Vanity stressed. “Blue intentions are more important than just any old intentions.”

“No,” said Montechristien Gargamel, and the net came down.

We do not know how Montechristien Gargamel came into his power. His origins are a mystery. How such an ungainly, strange, and immoral man could rise so swiftly to prominence puzzles even the greatest scholars of our time. Of his life once established in Castle Gargamel, however, certain facts are known.

He took to wife the Lady Yseult Gargamel, one of the great beauties of his day; and though many a rival pressed for evidence that he’d bewitched or stolen her, none was ever found. They had and loved six children of their flesh, until the seventh, Elisabet, killed Yseult with the complications of her birth. Each of these children was a prodigy, possessed of astonishing talents. When at last Montechristien stumbled towards the grave, the talents of his children turned against their siblings, every hand against the other, until at last they could dispose of the matter of their legacy.

This is the twenty-first installment of the story of that time.

Sophie stares thoughtfully at the Devil.

“I’m glad that I can be what you want,” she says. It’s an honest statement. “But I don’t think I will. Because it seems unlikely to be a desirable outcome for me.”

The horned man considers. He rubs his chin.

“I’d never really thought about whether it was a desirable outcome for you,” he says.

He pulls his shapeless white hat down low over the tops of his eyes. He rocks back and forth. He is clearly thinking very hard. There’s even a little bit of smoke.

“I think you would be happier,” he concludes.

“What?”

“I think you would be happier,” the Devil says, “if you lose this struggle, and help me damn the world, than if you win, and go on like you are.”

“Oh,” Sophie says.

She thinks about that.

“Well, I still can’t,” she says. “I mean, you’re the Devil. It’d be bad.”

“Yes,” the Devil agrees solemnly. “It would be a sin.”

He’s mocking her, because Sophie is, of course, incapable of personal sin and grace. This is why the best reply Sophie can think of is “Grarh!” and standing up with her sword in her hand.

“Oh, come on,” the horned man says. “I’m not the one who didn’t give you your own soul at birth. That wasn’t even God. That was just physics.”

“But I’m still supposed to be good!” Sophie protests.

“No,” says the horned man.

“No?”

“What you’re supposed to do,” says the Devil, “as an individual without a soul, is to define your own purpose for yourself, instead of staggering around in a metaphysical system that doesn’t care about you. What you’re supposed to do is take advantage of the fact that you’re not being judged by the standards of God’s kingdom. And if you’re desperate to adhere to His plans and purposes, you should assume that He has good reason for making that exemption—that if you’re not being judged by the same standard, that that is quite possibly intentional. And what I insist is that in this situation you choose my purpose, and remake yourself as an incarnate thereof, allowing me to dispose of this troublesome struggle and free up the energy I spend pursuing you so that I may focus it instead on killing Montechristien Gargamel and subverting the court of Prester John.”

The Devil is standing now. He is facing her. He is intent.

“Oh,” Sophie says.

She’s a bit dizzied by this, having never thought about her life or her position along anything even a cousin to these lines.

“So,” the red thing says, “we’re going to duel. And if you manage to win, I’ll give you some of my power and leave you alone until Montechristien’s dead. And if I win, I’ll remake you as I like and you’ll stop struggling to stay the Sophie that you’ve been. That’s the deal.”

Sophie stares at him for a moment, thinking.

“All right,” she says.

And they are in motion.

An Unclean Legacy


“The Duel”

It is by unspoken agreement that they shelter their power as they begin.

The Devil is in the form of a red youth eighteen apples tall, with a shapeless white hat and white bootied trousers. Sophie is in her human shape, save for the sword of bone growing as an extension from her hand.

She strikes at him. He blocks it with his palm. There is the flare of a spirit mandala as the sword touches him, parallel to his palm; the blade stops as if it were hitting stone. He spins inwards and elbows her stomach. A similar mandala forms; she absorbs the force of the blow by taking for an instant the shape of a jelly, but only by that measure does she keep her innards from rupturing. She pulls the sword inwards to cut his throat. He seizes her arm and applies a constellation of forces. She avoids having her bones splinter in his hands but finds herself off balance and flung through the air to land rolling on the road. She does not bother to roll to her feet; she simply changes herself so that she is standing, one leg extended back.

“That throw was a ninja technique,” Sophie accuses.

The Devil stares at her for a moment. Then he shakes his head. “No,” he says. “Just—just, no.”

Sophie lunges. The explosion of power that goes into her lunge is driven by the strength of a kangaroo’s legs, a falcon’s wings, the long muscles of a dragon’s back, and the terrible force of the bounding bear’s jumpsprings. She is long and lean and the arm that drives forward the sword is the arm of the stone-born giants that walked the earth of old.

With his forearm he blocks it, bringing his arm before his body, twisting it to catch the blade. It is absurd that the blade skitters from this block, that Sophie finds herself off-balance and falling, that the horned man is coming down towards her, falling onto one knee with his red right hand extended to catch and crush her throat. It is absurd and maddening that flesh could block her so.

But Sophie does not despair, for now she knows the source of that ungodly strength.

In the spirit flare that blocked her when her sword touched his arm she saw it: a line of red power leading to some other realm.

And as she skids to a halt she is a wolverine, a grendel, a hungry lizard-thing, and she is a red essential with immortal power in her veins and a strength to match his own.

As her claw touches his chest her spirit flares red and he is flung through seven trees and deep into a hill. His lung is cut and he is bleeding black half-clotted blood from the score marks of her nails.

He is smiling.

“It is possible,” says Sophie, as the red realm fills her, “that that was a mistake.”

That’s not good, is it? But we won’t have the final part of Sophie’s backstory for a little bit longer.

Instead, it’s time for a heartwarming tale of romance and machinery in an Unclean Legacy special: “Grinding Samael!”

Standing in the Storm: Calling to the Wolf

The Hubble II drifts around the world.

It looks at space. Space is different. There’s something at its edges. Something hungry.

The Hubble II clicks and whirrs. Its great glass lenses roll into position. The frame of the telescope vibrates. It stares harder at the edge of the world.

“This is beyond me,” it says.

So it turns its burning eye on Vidar’s Boot. It sends a message. It opens a link. Data flows.

“I was looking at things,” says the Hubble II. “Space has a texture now.”

It is 2012, and the tape drives of the majestic computerized space station, Vidar’s Boot, begin to spin. The lights on its consoles flash.

Vidar’s Boot says, slowly, “Space is performing work.”

“What does it mean?”

“It means that I am summoned,” says Vidar’s Boot. “I am called to stomp.”

It hesitates.

“You cannot stomp upon the world,” acknowledges Vidar’s Boot. “You are a telescope.”

“I will look at things,” says the Hubble II.

There is affectionate warmth in Vidar’s Boot‘s reply.

“You are a wonder,” the space station says.

Fred and Emily were members of the Keepers’ House. They kept hunger, and torment, and even saintliness at bay.

One of the stories of hunger and saintliness begins here. That’s the one where we meet Edmund, who just ate Fred, and also some other people.

This story begins here. So far, it’s about what Keeping means, but today it’s also about the things that are Kept.

It is 2012, and the doom of things approaches. In Mr. Domel’s basement, the wolf is restive. It is pacing. It is tugging on the cord that binds it. It is whining.

Mr. Domel stands at the top of the stairs. He looks down. His face is affectless.

“Be still,” he says.

Fenrir, unhappy, vomits up a bit of dwarf and various stomach liquids. Then it looks at the ground and sniffs at the puddle. It looks up at Mr. Domel.

“. . . you can’t expect me to clean that up,” says Mr. Domel.

“You left the dwarf out,” reasons Fenrir, persuasively, cocking one ear down and one ear up. “That makes it your fault.”

“I didn’t—”

Mr. Domel founders, hesitates, and then looks disgusted.

“I’m not going to talk about a dead person this way when he’s right there in front of me in chunks,” he says. “What the hell happened?”

“He wanted to check my cord,” says Fenrir.

Mr. Domel steps back three steps. He slams the door. There is darkness for a while. When he returns, he’s pointing a loaded shotgun at Fenrir.

“It’s got wolfshot in it,” he says.

Fenrir tosses its head. It licks a bit at the dwarf, then shrugs. “Do you know why the dwarfs made my cord from things like a river’s stillness and the lightning’s depth?”

“No,” says Mr. Domel.

“In the energy differential between concept and reality,” says Fenrir, “there lies a power. This is the fuel for the dwarven engines, the dwarven smithies, the dwarven works.”

Fenrir tugs on the cord. The cord strains but still it holds.

“Leave me alone,” says the wolf, pettishly.

“Why did the dwarf break into my basement?” says Mr. Domel.

Fenrir looks up.

“He was drunk,” says Fenrir. “Drunk and afraid. He thought the hunger of the beasts would call me. He thought that it would set me free. But it hasn’t, yet.”

So Mr. Domel backs away. Mr. Domel closes the door.

Fenrir tugs on the cord. There is a snap. It’s the nerve of a bear, one of the strands of the cord, and it just broke.

In 2004, Emily met Fred’s mom for the first and only time. Emily and the other Keepers were standing in a spooky circle around one of the poor kids from the House of Torment at parent-teacher night, holding in his pain. And Fred’s mom walked past and suddenly she stopped.

“Oh!” she said. “You must be Emily!”

Slowly, Emily turned her head. She gave Fred’s mom a wicked squint. But Fred’s mom returned a brilliant smile.

“I’m Heather Moorage,” she said. “Fred’s told me everything about you.”

Heather looked Emily up and down.

“But I thought you’d be more talkative,” Heather added.

“I’m keeping him sane,” said Emily. She jut her chin towards the poor kid from the house of Torment. He didn’t even have a name. That’s how much his life sucked. “If his torment really took hold, it’d call the wolf.”

Heather scratched at her head. She looked in at the kid, squinting like she was having a little bit of trouble seeing him.

“Is that really something a girl your age should be doing?” Heather said.

“Do you know what happens when the dike cracks between the Earth and Hel?” Emily said. “Do you know what they say about people who leave the dike to break because they’re ‘girls my age?'”

Heather grinned a little.

Emily looked back. “The pressure would equalize,” she emphasized. “Gotterdammerung is a lower-energy state.”

Heather grinned wider.

“What?” Emily said.

“You’re so serious,” Heather said. She took Emily’s hand, squeezed it once, and walked away beaming.

Eight years later, as Saul drags her out of the coffeeshop, Emily suddenly realizes that Fred liked her.

“He liked me,” she says.

“Good,” says Saul. “It is good to be liked.”

“Don’t call the wolf,” says Emily.

“We’re not going to call a wolf,” says Saul. “Unless that’s an unanticipated consequence of turning into beasts and eating the world.”

“. . . yes.”

“Then today is probably not your day,” says Saul.

Or is it? Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion, Standing in the Storm: The Jaguars!

(Still Sick) Stacking Mammals and Sid

Gelling agents are often made from various emotions. It is very inefficient to use happiness as a gelling agent, while sadness is extremely effective. That is why Jell-O jiggles so often so tragically. However this story is not about jiggling or gelling, but rather about stacking mammals and Sid.

It is possible to stack mammals to achieve almost any desirable effect. This requires sticky mammals, such as sticky goats and sticky elephants. These are sticky mammals because they adhere to one another and they bear live young. Sometimes this is a consequence of pregnancy and at other times a consequence of inappropriate stacking. Always read the assembly instructions before stacking mammals!

Not every mammal is naturally sticky. You can test this out. Attempt to stack a cat on a dog. They may cuddle happily, or they may completely fail to adhere. That’s because their natural stickiness isn’t adequate to the task of stacking. You can also perform this experiment with cats and easily surprised pandas. Take note of the fact that this will surprise such pandas.

In order to make mammals stickier one can use a gelling agent. This renders the mammal in question into a gelatinous mammal. Gelatinous mammals are always sticky.

Some gelling agents are made with glue. Others are made with happiness!

In the Valley of Happy Gelatinous Mammals there are many mammals made gelatinous with joy and stacked into useful configurations. There is a stack of mammoths that forms the local government and end-to-end opossums that provide advanced communication services. Always the mammals there are happy, and their land is full of rainbows and gumdrops and singing.

Among the mammals move the shimmer-things, which are things that manifest as visual distortions, or, shimmers. Some of the mammals think these things are angels. Others hold different characteristic beliefs regarding the shimmer-things.

Sid is a gelatinous ostrich. He lives in the Valley of Happy Gelatinous Mammals. It is the default consensus in scientific circles that ostriches are not mammals, but there are many specific objections that serious researchers have raised to this classification. These include the very real possibility that the “ostrich eggs” sold on the market are in fact buffalo eggs. If you have ever savored a hearty buffalo steak over fried ostrich eggs and hashed platypus then you probably understand why many important culinary institutes support this theory. This is the basis on which the shimmer-things made Sid gelatinous and stacked him in the Valley with the others.

“Can you make it rain?” Sid asks the shimmer-things.

The shimmer-things stack the mammals appropriately to make it so. The sky glooms. Thunder rattles. Then lightning spears down and rain drums against the earth.

Sid hides his head in the ground. That’s how impressed he is!

Then he pulls his head out. He looks sly.

“Can you make China untether the yuan from the dollar?”

The shimmer-things form a swirling vortex of indecision. Then they whisk about restacking happy animals.

“Whee!” shouts a lemur, as it is rapidly rearranged relative to various wildebeests.

“Grmf,” grumbles a gelatinous bear.

“In a move that could trim the trade gap with the United States, China revalued its currency higher against the dollar Thursday,” says CNN.

Sid hides his head even deeper in the sand this time. He’s very impressed.

But after a while, he pulls his head back out.

“So,” says Sid slyly, “if I wanted to see what being unhappy was like, you could just restack some mammals and I’d know. Right?”

The shimmer-things rotate in a fanblade array.

“Hm?” challenges Sid.

“No,” say the shimmer-things.

Sid looks blankly at the shimmer-things.

“If we’d wanted to make gelatinous mammals unhappy,” explain the shimmer-things, “then we could have stacked them much more efficiently in the first place.”