Free (V/VII)

Now after the incident with the spider the stress does not relent, but rather piles up like massing clouds in Melanie’s body and her mind. She is not well when she emerges from the web; she is, rather, broken, and it comes to a terrible peak in her when she is found by the steamer’s crew, so that the entire world around her strains through a seething mesh of fear before impacting on her mind.

She can’t grasp that they will not hurt her. She can’t grasp that they won’t do horrible and monstrous things to her, and for ever.

But they don’t.

She’s babbled to them already about the soot-spider. She isn’t sure when that happened. She missed the part where she actually told them. Her first real consciousness of the matter comes when she’s already explained.

The wonder of it is that most of the crew believes.

Did used to see soot spiders, sometimes,” one of the older stokers confirms. “Bloody pests, they were. Kill a cabin boy as soon as wink.”

“No way,” protests a younger seaman. “Aren’t they isn’ts?”

But the stoker only laughs.

“Not out at sea!”

And they might have argued for another round, except, right then, the bo’sun speaks.

“She’s lucky,” the bo’sun rules.

She’s lucky! She survived!

And that’s the end of the matter, because they can make her work, if she’s lucky, but they can’t exactly harass her, or lock her up, or throw her to the sea.

You don’t do that kind of thing to people who are good luck.

It wouldn’t be good practice, on a ship.

So she survives, and nobody hurts her, and you’d think that maybe that would lighten the suffering that fills her thoughts, but it doesn’t, because as it turns out, making an answer to suffering is a difficult thing to do.

She’s tired, right tired, all the way through, and she’s burdened down with fear.

It gets heavier with each passing day.

Then they reach Santa Barbara’s docks.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1979 CE

They berth at night and she helps unload and then in her corner she goes to sleep.

And there’s something epochal in reaching land, and as she sleeps, the weight that fills her body, mind, and soul cuts free.

It lingers near her at first, but the night has tides, and in the end it drifts away.

She wakes up to realize that the world is sweet and her body aches and the water that drums against the side of the ship is good.

And the rough wood of the docks has a clean simplicity.

And the sky over Santa Barbara—

The sky is right.

It’s like she’s come at last to a fairyland, to berth in this sunny world.

She stretches. She laughs. She walks. She runs. She jumps down to the wooden dock.

It sways—

She sways?—

It doesn’t sway, rather, and so she nearly falls, she nearly goes head over heels, she nearly topples over, like she’d done once or twice in the previous night.

The land doesn’t sway here, and that’s a crazy, unnatural thing.

How can a person stand up in some strange world where the ground doesn’t move and your heart is light and there is no soot, no soot anywhere, to make you fear the endless dark?

She takes a step.

Hm.

She takes another step.

Somehow—

Somehow it’s good. Somehow the terrible alien solidity of the land is good.

She looks around. There isn’t any soot. There isn’t any impending danger that the soot, which isn’t there, will organize itself into theorems and abstract her into a dark, foreboding world.

She sways.

Somehow that’s good too, that she doesn’t have to fear that she’ll stumble at any second into the web of another soot-spider.

Somehow, and this is weird, somehow that’s better than good.

It’s bubbling up in her like joy, it’s giggling out of her unexpectedly, it’s giggling out her nose and wiggling in her throat, it’s crowing and burbling through her, and then it’s a rising force, how good it is, a rising force in her

“You’re Amiel’s get.”

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1979 CE

Back up. That isn’t how this history goes.

She isn’t there yet. That hasn’t happened to her yet. She isn’t hearing those terrible words. Not yet.

She is stumbling down, no, she’s jumped down onto the docks.

And they aren’t swaying.

They’re not like a ship. They’re still. And somehow that’s . . . good.

Somehow the terrible alien solidity of the land is, like we were saying, good.

She looks around. There isn’t any soot. There isn’t any impending danger that the soot, which isn’t there, will organize itself into theorems and abstract her into a dark, foreboding world.

She sways.

Somehow that’s good too, that she doesn’t have to fear that she’ll stumble at any second into the web of another soot-spider.

Somehow, and this is weird, somehow that’s better than good.

It’s bubbling up in her like joy, it’s giggling out of her unexpectedly, it’s giggling out her nose and wiggling in her throat, it’s crowing and burbling through her, and then it’s a rising force, how good it is, a rising force in her lungs and chest and heart, and she’s shouted out before she’s thought about it any a great shout of love for all the world.

How embarrassing.

Embarrassment loses against the joy. It can burn her cheeks and make her look away but it can’t stop her from laughing, and saluting the seamen on their ship, and jauntily walking towards the day.

She’s seven and she’s lucky and she’s killed a soot-spider and finally she’s gotten free.

Billy and his gang won’t be a trouble to her any more.

Nothing will be a trouble to her any more.

She’s the master of the world.

And her story could have gone many different ways from there, but the way it went is this. She walked from the docks straight to Santa Ynez; straight into the monster’s web.

but there is one more part of this tale to tell, and you shall have to wait a week to hear it. In the meantime, perhaps, you could

* review the Legend of Ink Catherly, or
* everything about her so far;
* enjoy the awesome Visual Glossary of Symbols;
* browse the even more awesome work of Anthony Damiani or Siya on Deviant Art;
* design incredible games using Ren’Py; or
* read about the upcoming third edition of Nobilis at RPG.net!

What’s Purple and Incarnated in Human Form to Save Us All From Suffering? (III/VII)

Now Melanie is in the soot-web of the spider, and she is laughing.

She is laughing because she has posed a riddle and its answer—

Q: What is gray and wrinkly and fights fires?
A: A really old fireman.

—and, mostly, because she’s seven.

She may be about to die. She is terrified and she is hurting and she doesn’t understand why or what she did to deserve it or how it came to be—but she’s still seven.

The joke is funny.

If you’re seven, you’re probably incapacitated with hilarity right now. You’re falling over and may be too lost in your amusement to make sensible observations about this story.

If the spider were seven, it would have mixed feelings—it is, after all, wounded—but probably it too would laugh.

It is not.

In absolute time, it is somewhat younger than seven. In soot-years, it is much older. There are spiders that can live out the long aeons of the world, ageless as the sky. There are spiders that can sleep upon an acorn and wake up upon an oak.

Soot-spiders are not that sort.

For a soot-spider, waiting out a single child’s dehydration so it can eat them is a substantial portion of its life; the window to amuse a soot-spider with jokes like these is hours wide, at most, and long since past.

“I should not talk to you,” says the spider.

It says this in the voice of someone realizing something they would never have imagined could be true. Children are tasty, but dangerously insane.

“I should not get close to you and I should not talk to you. Not until you die.”

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1979 CE

“But it’s your turn,” Melanie says.

“I hate you,” says the spider. She’d stabbed it earlier, right in the eye. “I do not want to take a turn.”

Melanie goes silent.

She isn’t criticizing its choice and she isn’t praising it. She’s just letting the spider get more stressed, in the dark, in the awkward silence, with its wound.

Her own breath is ragged and full of pain.

There’s a bit of time where it thinks that possibly she is crying. Possibly she is not.

“Fine,” it says.

If she had just said something, instead of crying, it might have gone back to singing its song. Or rushed her, in hopes of killing her before she could use the knife. It seems unlikely to the spider that she has found the knife again, in any case, so this would probably be safe.

But she isn’t talking, and she isn’t moving, and it can’t help thinking about riddles, now, and when one occurs to it at last the pressure to say the just-thought-of riddle merges with the mad and painful pounding in its wounded head.

“The night is weeping,” says the spider. “The sun is rising. Look! The last tears of the night have yet to fall.”

Melanie doesn’t even realize at first that it’s a riddle.

She thinks the spider is making some kind of stupid poetic comment on the fact that one or both of them will die. It disgusts her. It irritates her. She clings stubbornly to her silence in hopes of forcing a riddle out.

When she finally realizes that the spider’s words are a riddle, it is beyond her.

She cannot grasp it.

The spider, uncomfortable in the silence, makes a tentative movement on the web. Melanie’s heart nearly bursts with the panic of it. It is only then, as she sits up suddenly and hugs her chest to hold in the pounding of her heart, that she thinks of the spider’s first riddle and its answer and she understands.

Q: What stands on eight legs in the morning; and one leg in the evening; and on something that isn’t a leg at all, in day?
A: A spider.

If you were a spider, you would probably think this riddle very deep and very insightful, but you would also have a fuzzy, eight-eyed face.

“It’s dew,” Melanie says.

Or, yes, a fuzzy, seven-eyed face, if one eye’d been stabbed out.

“The tears are dew. The tears of the night are dew, caught on a web.”

It surprises the seven-eyed spider how much this answer warms it.

It doesn’t care about stumping her. Not really. And it’ll hate her whether she can answer its riddles or she can’t. So the answer she’s given just bursts into a little bubble of happiness and pride inside the spider, because it’s not about her and it—it’s just a confirmation that the spider had asked a good and meaningful riddle after all.

“Yes,” it says.

Yes, it is dew.

“Now you.”

It knows it will regret asking. It knows it should stop there—but to give her a turn when it has taken one is fair, and besides, it is used to Melanie now.

How bad can it be?

And Melanie is cunning.

Oh, Melanie is terribly, terribly cunning, for a seven-year-old girl.

“Why do people hurt?” she asks. “Why do people have to suffer, and fear, and die?”

The spider’s mind goes totally and entirely blank.

This is a harder riddle than it expected. It is, in fact, one of the hardest riddles in the world.

An egg? the spider thinks.

It is numb down its right side.

An egg? A dinosaur? A grape?

A grape is a purple fruit that is not particularly responsible for the pervasive universal characteristic of suffering. Anybody attempting to blame this characteristic on the grapes has not completely thought through their theodicy.

That its thoughts are slow is not the spider’s fault.

Its head is not very clear. The knife, it thinks, in the pressing dark, might conceivably have reached its brain; and it realizes, after a moment, that it is thinking about answers to a different color of riddle entirely.

Next week: A Study in Entanglement (VII/VII). I could tell you why you have to wait, but then the soot-spider would kill Melanie and the later parts of this story wouldn’t make any sense!

In the meantime, perhaps you’d enjoy

“Alaia”: The First Tooth

You will recall that this is the story of Hank Makeway, the smith of children’s teeth, and how he came to build a new toothway to New Jerusalem when the last of them had fallen.

Here is the beginning of the story; and the cleansing of the gums; and the clarification of their map.

Hank has sown the fourth of his eight horses; and now he feels a presence in the gums. . . .

The First Tooth

For the next month, things are easier.

Hank spends the month on walking.

He does not work, at least, not in the way a smith is usually working. Instead he lets the gums heal. He familiarizes himself with their newest contours. He plays with the remaining horses, and he sings songs, and he rambles aloud about the incidents of his life.

He displays himself openly, simply, and with trust.

He means this as an introduction of sorts. He has studied the gums of Kailani Tate. Now he sets aside time for the nascent goddess of her teeth to study him.

One day, that goddess says, “Hank Makeway.”

“Yes.”

A current of joy runs through the gums. Somewhere, Kailani Tate startles and drops her crayon.

Trepidation seizes the gums.

Communication is dangerous. It evokes in the goddess a fear of mistakes, of misstatements, of unmaking. For a long time afterwards, she says nothing more.

At the end of the month Hank starts working again. He sets up braces and stays along the paths of the gums. He anchors them with ropes and pulleys.

Curiosity moves. The goddess asks him, one day, as he’s setting up a smith’s stay, “What are you doing, Hank?”

“I want this bit of path to stay still,” he says.

He indicates a trickle of chemical energy that is tributary to the path.

“When there’s pressure along here,” he explains.

Later, as he sets up the ropes that bind a bit of path to one of his anchors, she says, “And here?”

“It’s structural support,” he says, “for the road to New Jerusalem.”

He takes Flesh-Ripper out to a certain place and he tells the horse, “Here.”

The horse dances upon the gums. Flesh-Ripper’s hooves come down, thum-thum-thum, and drive a crystal of pure ivory into the gums.

A palpable tension manifests. The pressure and the energy of the gums rises.

“Quickly, now,” Hank urges.

Fierce and driven, Hank moves his team from place to place, planting the scattered seeds for Kailani’s first new tooth. He is sweating and rigid and he moves with a sense of urgency; for if this part fails, he must rip out all the planted buds of ivory and start again. Time weighs on him in the form of material strain. The path around him is buckling and twisting, snapping about within the confines of the braces and the stays, and it will not hold forever. Once Hank loses his footing and his ankle flares with pain and he hears a snap and for a moment he fears that all is lost: but it is a buckle and not a bone that he has broken. He is agile enough to continue.

Only once in this process does the urgency in him relent. That is when the voice of the goddess comes softly through the gums, saying, “This is strange, Hank Makeway.”

Then he stills. He draws three breaths for calm. He says, “Is it?”

“It is.”

“Would you like me to explain?” he says.

And he smiles.

After a moment, she says, curiosity.

“This is a process of defining,” Hank says. “These paths of yours are sound and honest, but they are equivocal. They speak of many different things. I am scouring away their indecision and putting them in the shape of teeth.

“The teeth,” he finishes, simply, “are the road to New Jerusalem.”

Solemnly, she says the ritual lines: “New Jerusalem, suffused with grace.”

“You are in your shape a transformation,” Hank says, “that takes in Lauemford and becomes New Jerusalem— takes what is immured in Lauemford at the right of the jaw and opens New Jerusalem to it at the left.”

“Oh,” she says.

Then suddenly she parses the entirety of his statement. The word bursts from her as a laugh: “Lauemford!”

“Yes,” he says.

Lauemford,” she says, again.

Her tone is that of a child who has just learned that the milk she drinks every day comes out of a moo cow: joyous incredulity at the fallibility of the world.

I live in Lauemford,” he protests, hitting his chest. “I have a farm.

New gales of laughter pour forth. Hank frowns; then his cheeks burn; then, despite himself, he grins. His hurt pride becomes ridiculous to him. Hidden behind his smile, his heart begins to laugh. He squares his shoulders. He shakes his head and sighs. Then he goes back to work.

The stays are cracking but have not quite broken when he sets the last crystal in his design. Exhaling a great satisfaction, he stumbles to a stop.

The shape he’s crafted burns in Ms. Tate’s gums. Its mathematical character transfigures. Along the fault lines of symmetry and consanguinity lines of power burn. Metamorphosis seethes into gleaming lattices. The scattered seeds of Kailani’s first new tooth reach out to one another; see the shining of one another; see the seething potential in each other; embrace.

“Tooth,” says Hank, in quiet satisfaction.

Only mammals have differentiated teeth, murmurs a fragment of truth embedded in the gums; and “Tooth,” sighs after him the goddess of the gums.

It is very nearly perfect, this first of Kailani’s teeth.

There’s no smith less than Hank Makeway that could see the error in it at all; and even Hank misses it, this once.

One tooth down. Twenty-seven left to go.

but that is twenty-seven teeth too many to speak of them tonight; so we shall leave the next few for tomorrow, should it happen you won’t mind.

“Alaia”: The Clarification

Now if you do not already know how the road to New Jerusalem failed, and how Hank Makeway took up the commission of a new one, then you may wish to travel here.

And if you do not recall how it came to pass that he brought the wilds of Ms. Tate’s gums to truth, then you may look here as well.

For some time Hank has laboured to excise impurities from Ms. Tate’s gums; but now at last the gingiva are clean. . . .

The Clarification

After this labor follows a grinding work of more precision—tailored, in ways that the firing of the gums is not, to the toothway that he hopes to build.

Hank walks along the paths, coring the gums as he goes. He draws forth molecule-thin needles of pink substance. He studies the data locked in the samples, considering whether the meaning of it is something true or false. In some places, the gums provide data that accurately fits into the map of Makeway’s world: they state a correct quality of some region accessible along a hypothetical toothway path or pose a geological tautology. In other cases his sample suggests a fallacy: interpreted via the smith’s art, it tells him that “Sivolia is sheepfoam-rich” or “Lauemford and New Jerusalem are the same.” In these cases he must either mark that path with the gray flag that means “unusable” or grind away the information lodged in the material until it is no longer distinguishable as truth or falsehood—no longer data, but rather storage space or noise.

Inch by inch he clarifies for Kailani’s gums the layout of the world.

Alive with the power of Milk-Guzzler and Stress-Grinder, and holding in themselves a map of the world more accurate and consistent with every passing day, the gingiva begin to experience a queer, primeval consciousness. They begin to resonate with a sense of expectation as Hank Makeway draws up a sample to regard, and then pleasure or disappointment when he confirms or denies its truth. The self-awareness of the gums begins to taint the data: Hank draws up samples that tell him, rather than pure geographic data, “Hank Makeway loves me” or “I am good” or “I am a road to Far Sivolia.”

One day he draws up three self-referential samples in a row, followed by, “Hank Makeway is a smite of children’s truth.” He laughs at this and shakes his head.

He says, “Enough of that.”

He leads his team to the right edge of Kailani’s mouth.

Wine-Drinker and Drought-Ender shy. They dance. They pull against the reins and rip their harness free from Makeway’s hands.

He sets himself in place and he gives them a stare.

Fearsome and wild, the horses glare back. Their white eyes meet his level gaze.

Hank says, “Here.”

They do not run. They do not move. They simply glare.

Hank’s world shivers. Echoes of the horses’ fear play through his mind, carried by the horses’ eyes.

He sets them aside.

“Here,” he says again, and then, gently, “or forsake your consecrated purpose on this earth.”

Drought-Ender’s terror rips through Hank’s mind like a piercing light and drives him to his knees, and following it comes the wave of Wine-Drinker’s madness. Incomplete and painful images pour through Hank’s thoughts until his ego buckles and his world spins. He can find no surcease or compass in the storm. He is lost. He is helpless. He thinks he has fallen. Later he is certain of it. In a moment of perception he realizes he is curled around his center, that the gums are wet with tears.

It is beyond Hank’s power to compel them. He is only a smith, only a man. They are the horses of the gums.

But Sandra of the Rise has made them well.

Hank feels a change in the world as the horses succumb to purpose and offer themselves at the altar of transformation. He feels the waves of heat as they drill down into the gums and become something different from what they’ve been. For a moment they are candles burning on the roof and road. Then they are shrinking, spinning fires. Finally they widen themselves, dissolve themselves, and transubstantiate themselves into the substance of the gums.

The madness recedes.

Dry and tired, Hank drags himself up.

He croaks, the words hurting his throat, “Well done.”

Drought-Ender and Wine-Drinker are become the beacons of the toothway and its cartographers. They will open the toothway when Kailani’s teeth come in and they will hold Kailani’s gums to the stringency of the true map of the world.

but we are not eternal; nor tireless; so we shall leave the matter of the first tooth, however reluctantly, until tomorrow.

Observations on the Child-Alien, by an Anonymous Xenographer

The child-alien learns first to build a jumping-puzzle.

This process appears intrinsic in the brain.

Six hours old, and a podling can build them. Their eyes track: there, there, there. Difficult, but feasible. Creative, yet orthodox.

It is fundamental to the structure of their brain. It is a natural survival technique in the great vastnesses of the universe, where ordinary human norms do not apply.

We believe in the naivete of our arrogance that we—with our inborn inability to recognize jumping puzzles at once; we for whom the world does not naturally divide into the ptah kirem, the stations of the jump—are the natural creatures.

But for every planet on which we can survive there is a limitless space in which we cannot.

Our subitizing and object permanence—these are the unnatural concepts, in space.

The child-alien masters the ptah kirem from birth, and learns numbers later, if at all, by a process of metaphor. “Ah, one,” the adolescents say. “Like the beginning-jump. And two, like its destination. Yes, I see. Commutativity—reflexivity—I see!”

Soon, perhaps even by the end of the first day

(not that days are a fair consideration in the endless emptiness of space)

The child-alien masters stacking.

To survive in the void without stacking—well, it’s hard to see how that would be possible. You’d lose your eyes to depressurization. You wouldn’t be able to breathe. You’d freeze.

The child-alien has a buffer.

Unlike humans with their endless luxury of atmosphere, the child-alien is born with the numberless substances and apparati of the womb: hard metal plating, sealed eyes, and a sac of vital fluids and nutrients, shielded against the emptiness.

This sustains it until its questing, inquisitive brain understands stacking.

Then, as the sac atrophies away, it learns the elevator-understanding.

Enemies—the slow ones. The fast ones. Balance and waves.

It is the character of the alien, by the time it is seven weeks in age, to be capable of designing an entire level of its lair. It is already extruding the challenge into unspace. It is warping the vacuum to the rhythms of its soul.

It receives commentary by message drone.

It leaves a careful flaw—a necessary flaw—in the structure of its lair.

To the alien, this flaw is ineffable, inevitable, inscrutable, and holy. It perceives it after the fashion that we perceive the soul: asked to demark it, it cannot do so; asked to justify it, it finds no evidence; yet something nags at the mind of the alien and tells it that the flaw is there.

There is a reason why a person, with sufficient effort, may move through the levels of any alien’s lair and reach its heart.

It is not simple mortality.

It is . . . sacred.

The older aliens begin to develop a functional intelligence by a process of metaphor. The idea of /patrolling enemies/ mixes with the idea of /jumping puzzles/ to form /travel/.

Travel is like a patrol, but with the conflated element of progression through the stages of the ptah kirem. Patrol—that advances.

How exciting that concept must have been, for the first of these aliens!

Patrol—that advances.

Travel . . . with bombs. Suddenly we see the dim glimmers of death on the horizon. A final destination. How marvelous! How precious and how rare! Or bombs . . . with travel!

And there, suddenly, unfurling: meaning.

Communication.

Language.

Physics; mathematics; trust.

These things lurk implicit in the structure of their brains. They do not need to build the level of their lair that embodies trust: it is enough for them to understand that they /could/.

Chocolate; sunlight; love.

God.

The automobile.

Us.

Have you ever wondered why we are made of parts? Why we are creatures of staccato motion and back-and-forth patrol? Why, after a series of near endings, we pass from the world at last? Why are we mappable creatures? Why do we say, we are ‘in’ a mood, or ‘in’ a love?

By the time the child-alien is seventeen years old, it requires for the fidelity of its defenses that we exist, to test them.

Ink Indestructible (I/I)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

“I think that God lives at the center of the world,” says the girl.

She is sitting on the head of a monstrously oversized warbish lavelwod, a horror bound under a tower in the sea of chaos to the west of the world, and her hand is brushing gently against the surface of the sea.

“I think that he’s at the heart of the world like the seed’s at the heart of a pearl. That it surrounds him so that in every direction he may look out and see the world; and that the crust is there so that he cannot see too clearly the suffering that he works with his existence.”

The warbish lavelwod breathes: ho-ha, ho-ha.

“So that’s why I need you,” says the girl. “Not to go up and eat the sun, but to go down and devour God.”

“That’s all very well,” says the warbish lavelwod, “but I am not sure that we have been properly introduced.”

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west comes an outpouring of virtue to make all things right.

The Island of the Centipede

Ink giggles.

“My name is Ink Catherly,” she says. “But everybody calls me the imago. ‘Cause i’m-a-go in’ to kill whomever’s on the throne of this bloody ol’ world, you see.”

“I see,” says Sukaynah.

“And you’re Sukaynah?”

“Yes.”

Ink’s hand is pink against the surface of the chaos. It is causing ripples to be. But now a sea change comes to it; and she gives a great gasp and stretches back; and the substance of Ink becomes history.

June, Tuesday 1, 2004 – Sukaynah: Once upon a time, there was a young girl named Sukaynah.

She loved the storms.

When it rained she would run out into them and play.

If there were a purpose to Sukaynah, it would have been to rush through the world into gathering storms and then take joy in them.

But this is a purpose that she did not understand.

One day Sukaynah broke a promise.

It wasn’t much. Just a little thing. But it made her ashamed.

It rained that day, and she couldn’t face the rain.

The fairies of the clouds and the dragons of the storm called to her, but Sukaynah would not come.

She curled up in her room.

She would not hear them.

And one of the truggumps that sometimes grew in the hay told her, “So make a promise that you won’t break.”

She drew on the strength in her.

“I promise that I’ll make the sun go away forever,” she said, in the face of those storms.

She became something horrible.

She became something great and terrible, a warbish lavelwod, and the skin of her was mottled and the teeth of her were sharp.

“Would you take me down below the sea?” Ink asks. “And crack for me the surface of the world?”

“If I were free?” Sukaynah says.

“Yes.”

“The currents would sweep you away,” Sukaynah says. “Then if you remained with me, we would crash into the crust of the world and hurt our heads very badly; and if I made it through, you would not.”

“That’s one thing,” says Ink, “and this is another.”

“But—” Sukaynah is frustrated. “We would find lava. And possibly some kind of magnetic thingie. Like iron or something.”

Ink laughs.

“You mustn’t be so afraid of the world,” Ink says. And points out, “You’re a gigantic horror, you know. It’s more scared of you than you are of it.”

Sukaynah breathes.

Then something in her snaps. Ink’s enthusiasm reaches her.

“Sure,” she says. “Sure, I’d do that.”

June, Tuesday 1, 2004: Sukaynah – She chased the setting sun, across the world from the east to the west, chased it out into the sea that lies beyond world and sound; and there, on a small bit of rock, she closed her eyes to sleep;

And while she slept the gibbelins chained her down beneath the sea and built a tower on her face.

If this were not enough, they fed her on no food more good than human flesh, great gobbets of it, raw, until she would rather have choked than eat another bite. But eat she did.

And if that were not enough, they went away.

They left her there to starve. And she cried out to the Heavens that she would forgive even the flesh, if someone would just feed her in that way again.

It was a lie.

What has a lavelwod to do with such forgiveness?

The bonds on Sukaynah weaken.

They strain beneath her strength.

Something is different, though the nature of it is not yet clear.

Then one by one, the ropes that bind Sukaynah snap.

Sukaynah tears herself loose and there is a monstrous turbulence and a cry of terrible pain. After all of these years freedom burns like acid admixed with fire.

The tower, weakened by her earlier thrashings, caves in above her.

Sukaynah dives.

She maketh a whirlpool of the chaos.

June, Tuesday 1, 2004: Sukaynah – And the years passed, and Abel Clay came to the tower.

Sukaynah cried out to him.

How could she not?

She cried to him that if he would feed her on sweetness and good things that it would give her the strength she’d need to break her bonds; that she could snap them and be free and rise to eat the tower and the sun; that the gibbelins had made the rope to bind a creature outcast by the world and it would not hold a creature who knew love.

And he loved her.

He loved her, but not the whole of her.

He loved the girl who’d run to love the storms and the great gnashing maw of her and the burning eye of her and the endless warbishness of her. He loved that part of her in that rough-edged way of a man beyond the boundaries of the world;

But what man could love the part of her that yearned to eat the sun?

Ink leaves contrails in the chaos as she descends.

She thinks, as the many long limbs of Sukaynah thrash at the chaos behind her: This would be a really good excuse for being named Ink.

The lavelwod’s a bit like an octopus, after all.

Ink’s streaming behind her as she jets.

She’s leaving contrails of herself—motion lines of imago. She’s warping the chaos as it tries to warp her.

But it’s hard to reduce that to a short phrase she can use in an introduction.

And all around her she can taste the chaos.

It’s not like air. It’s like Sukaynah and Tep and Ink and thousands of years of suffering.

Ahead of them in the chaos are the first wisps of the gathering storm.

With a great loud whump Sukaynah strikes the crustline of the world.

June, Tuesday 1, 2004: Sukaynah – One day she thought, as she lay imprisoned there, that perhaps she should not devour the sun, after all.

That her inherent nature as a creature driven to destroy all human life forever and leave the world horrible and cold was why nobody loved her; or, at least, the part of her nobody in the world could love.

So she promised.

She screwed up her courage and she promised that if someone would feed her on wholesome things and the substance of the world, that she would not rise. That she would stay deep, and bring no more trouble to the world. That she would let the sun to live.

She changed that day.

A person who makes a promise that a warbish lavelwod can’t fulfill can’t be a warbish lavelwod, after all.

Again and again Sukaynah pounds against the world.

It has unleashed a fiend in her, this freedom.

It has made her a creature of mad destruction, great beyond comprehension, and determined to batter her way through the chaos-weakened shell of the world.

And her head rings and her vision blurs and there is blood to glut ten thousand sharks. It floats around her like great clouds. It piles on layers upon layers and great thunderheads and some of them are green and some of them are grey.

There is a high-pitched screaming that seems too pained to be her own and far too loud to be Ink’s.

The world shudders with repeated shocks.

Her vision flares with each bump against the ground and one, maybe two seconds later she will hear the roaring of the world.

A moment of stillness comes. She is surrounded by cacophany and mist and chaos and she thinks, like a pleased child, is this mine?

Did I make this?

Everything changes when she breaks through.

June, Tuesday 1, 2004: Sukaynah – There’s nothing in the rules that says that just because someone isn’t a warbish lavelwod, that you can’t tie them up at the bottom of the sea.

If there were, then there’d be a lot fewer people on the bottom of the sea.

Like, two, or maybe eight. Twelve at the most.

Certainly not as many as there are now.

So Sukaynah’s newest promise doesn’t free her.

In fact, you could even argue that it’s kept her bound; because not too long after that latest of her cries, Martin came to the tower, and Martin’s the kind of boy who could love a lavelwod.

Of course he could.

He’s always loved things like that, great and terrible and awful, like Sukaynah, like he wishes the monster would be.

So he fed her on sweetness and on wholesome things and he loved her and she would have loved him had it not been for the stillness that had grown in her over all these thousands of years.

And one day he tried to free her; and he cast down a gift of all sweet wholesomeness; and had she been a warbish lavelwod then the sugar in it would have set her free.

But there was nothing in his gift to free a girl who rushes laughing into the gathering of storms.

And it stung her horribly, it made her writhe, because it showed her—more than anything else could—that she’d lost herself; that she’d overextended herself; that she’d made too many promises and had forgotten what to be.

And that there wasn’t any gift she could ask for that would really set her free.

Ink drifts in darkness.

She thinks: Another really good excuse for being named Ink.

There is a pressure at her back. Chaos is pushing downwards through the crack, pouring down around her in great streams.

There is a howling wind.

Her arms and legs begin to tingle as she comes to fuller consciousness.

Ink opens her eyes.

She brushes aside her hair.

Beneath the world, as everyone knows, there is a great long emptiness; she hangs above it, tangled in the roots of the world and the limbs of Sukaynah.

And far below her,

just scarcely smaller than the world that hangs above,

there is a great and seething storm.

June, Tuesday 1, 2004: Sukaynah – People always forget that it’s impossible to keep a promise that is unnatural to you.

They twist themselves up.

They try really hard.

But the truth of a person comes out, no matter what strictures you hold it to.

We don’t know the truths of ourselves.

We’d like to, but we don’t.

We only know the edges.

One of the reasons we make promises, I think, is so that we can fill them in.

Ink’s mouth is moving.

She’s saying words that Sukaynah cannot parse because of the cognitive loudness of the beauty of the world.

They are these.

“In retrospect,” Ink says, “Looking for God under the crust of the world was probably a stupid idea.”

Dedicated to Hitherby Admin. Thanks for keeping the site going all this time!

Ink In Re Dyslexic Agnostics (I/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

There is a house improbably poised above the mouth of Sukaynah.

Sukaynah gnashes and chomps.

Above the mouth, which is five times as wide as the house is long, there are the rock walls that arise from Sukaynah. From the walls project branches, as from a tree. On some of these branches there sits the house.

Cross-legged in front of the house, sitting on a tree, and looking very sulky indeed, there is the werewolf Tep.

He is wearing jeans and a shirt.

He is young, because he is always young, because he regenerates when hurt.

A fig newton on a fishing hook hits him on the head.

He tears it from the hook.

“You’re not Ned,” he says.

Savagely, he eats the cookie. Well, the cookie-like object. It’s more than just a cookie; fig newtons are fruit and cake.

Not long after, the entire region begins to thrash.

A fifteen-year-old girl falls on Tep.

She knocks him down. Savagely, his head swells. Savagely, his eyes roll back.

“Pardon,” says the girl. She sits up, on his stomach. She is wrapped in a fine membrane, like a mummy’s cloths, which she efficiently begins to shred. Underneath she wears overalls and a blouse. She looks around. Then she stands up. She looks down at Tep.

“Are you God?” she asks.

“Gr,” he says, by way of being a werewolf instead.

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west comes an outpouring of virtue to make all things right.

The Island of the Centipede

The girl gets to her feet.

“My name’s Ink,” she says. “But everyone calls me the imago. It’s ’cause I’m covered in intangible bugs.”

Tep sniffs the air.

He can’t smell any bugs, but since they’re intangible, he can’t dispute their presence either.

Ink scrubs shreds of membrane out of her hair.

“Go away,” Tep says.

“Why?”

“You’re not Ned,” Tep says.

“Who’s Ned?”

“A dog.”

“Oh.”

“He’s coming back,” says Tep. “Then we’ll fight. I’ll tear his throat out!”

“That’s mean!” says Ink.

Tep shrugs.

Ink walks towards the house.

“That’s Abel’s house,” says Tep. “You can’t go in.”

“Oh,” Ink says.

Ink scurries to the window. She looks in with hands cupped between the glass and her eyes.

“But he’s got a journal,” she says. “And bones!”

“He’s a little sick,” admits Tep.

“He’s choking.”

“What?”

Tep stands next to Ink. Ink points in. “See, his skull’s totally fallen off his spinal column. A man can’t breathe, like that.”

“He’s fine,” says Tep.

Tep looks sullen.

“A body don’t need to breathe,” he says, after the fashion that a perpetually regenerating werewolf might. “Or have flesh.”

“Fair point,” Ink agrees. “Anyway, it’s all right if I go in. I’m the imago.”

“No,” says Tep.

He positions himself sternly before the door.

Very reasonably, Ink says, “I have to find whomever’s on the throne of the world and kill him. How can I do that if I’m not allowed to go where I please?”

“It’s rude,” says Tep.

“It’s rude?”

“Going in just because Ned’s not here,” Tep says. “That’s like finding somebody’s feet laying around and stealing their shoes.”

Ink pops the window glass out of its frame with her elbow and, as it falls to the floor, squirms in.

“Damn it!” says Tep.

Completely unable to figure out what to do, he goes in after her.

The Tower of the Gibbelins
by Abel Clay

It being unlikely that I shall ever return myself to world and sound, owing to my indisposition and the difficulty of the trail, & wishing as I do to leave some record of this extraordinary journey to those who will follow me, herewith I assemble my various notes and hold forth the history of how I came to this unlikely occupation.

March, Wednesday 16, 1887 I made the acquaintance of Bernard, a well-met gentleman who spoke exuberantly of the chaos extending westwards from California & wherewith fashion one might apprehend it & his most peculiar claim that in its navigation a man might prevent the recurring abuses practiced upon the innocents of the world. I fear that I laughed at his words and took him a fool but I am Certain now that he shall be more well known even than Mr. Tackitt and held to greater regard in history than Mr. Cleveland and his gang of thieves.

October, Friday 5, 1888 my Emma took ill & rapidly wasted & soon followed Lily, Charles & my good neighbor Hezekiah, whereupon I first recognized the tyrannous Nature of that Lord that heretofore I had esteemed. Ruined with grief I decried Him in chapel but He offered no response & echoed hollowly from the ceilings whereupon I found myself desolate.

“I’m sorry,” says Tep.

He’s looking around at the walls. He’s very apologetic and flapping his hands. Then he looks at the bones of Mr. Clay.

“Grr,” he growls low.

Then, mercurially, he switches back to apologetic. “I’m sorry. She fell in.”

He touches Mr. Clay on the shoulder, causing the bones to fall apart.

“It’s all right,” says Ink.

She’s reading Abel’s journal.

“I think he wanted to kill God too,” she says. “But maybe it was a different God.”

“Only one God,” says Tep.

Ink chews on the end of Mr. Clay’s pen. “You say that, but you’re not the one who has to cope with the consequences of linguistic imprecision.”

“Out!” says Tep.

He hurries her out. She doesn’t protest because she’s busy reading.

“Nobody disturbs Mr. Clay until Ned gets back,” Tep says, “no matter what falls.”

Sukaynah writhes.

From the west comes a sound: Whump!

The house, Tep, and Ink slide slowly and majestically into Sukaynah’s maw.

Tep folds his arms.

Tep looks stoic.

“I didn’t do it!” Ink protests.

Sukaynah swallows. Down the throat they go; and

“Oh, hey,” says Ink, pointing.

“Oh,” says Tep.

“Is that Ned?”

“. . . think so,” says Tep. “His skull, anyways.”

There’s a pause.

“Dyslexic agnostics are so lucky,” says Ink.

The Isn’t (I/I)

[The Island of the Centipede – Prologue]

When Sid stands before Ii Ma he is dizzyingly small. He is a small and frail man with a feather in his hair.

The betrayal has left him naked, not in the stripping sense but spiritually.

He says, “Ii Ma—”

And there he stops.

Ii Ma’s surface is great plate-like scales. Its shape comes bulbously forwards and its neck is differentiated to only a limited degree. Its maw and its ears are great gaps in the substance of Ii Ma. It has six flippered legs and its face drips black blood. Its eyes are cadaverous. Slime covers it. Muck covers it. At its center is the organ by which it confuses the cartographic process of the place without recourse.

Sid is looking up and he has taken the whole of Ii Ma in for the first time.

“You are beautiful,” says Sid.

Continuing the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7).

The voice of Ii Ma asks softly, How can you forgive him?

“I don’t know,” Sid says.

It’s the question that dooms him to the place without recourse. Once it’s been asked, there isn’t any path outwards for Sid.

As Sid hears those words, the world recedes from him.

And yet the funny thing is, it’s not like Ii Ma caused this to be true. They were almost companionable, these whispers from the jailer to the kept.

Ii Ma’s just pointed out the box Sid was already in.

“I mean,” Sid asks, “There isn’t anything I can do, is there?”

It is Easter Sunday, 1994, and Sid is wounded to the quick. He is bleeding inside, the clay heart of him leaking red into the flesh he’d made.

He is staring up at the immensity above him like a priest looks to God.

He is pleading: but Ii Ma offers him no answers.

One of Ii Ma’s flippered hands comes forward.

It touches Sid; its roughness scrapes the left side of Sid’s face raw. Sid’s feather flutters to the ground.

“I waited 1300 years for him,” begs Sid, “and just twenty-five years later, he threw me back to Hell.”

And Sid’s eyes are full of tears and he puts his hand on the flipper of Ii Ma and he says, “Help m

This is the history of how Sid left the place without recourse.

Sid wakes up.

The world is vibrant with the beauty of things. The bed. The lamp. Max—

Not even standing there, just existing, somewhere in the universe, Max—

You can’t imagine how beautiful Max is. Not unless you’ve been Sid.

But not just Max. Everything. Everything in the world that’s ever poured itself into Sid’s senses for him to see. It’s all a gift, an incredible shock of goodness, that instead of emptiness there would be things and their lightness and their heaviness and their sweetness and their bitterness and their luminosity and their saturation and their hue. It is an amazing thing that there should be a dawn at all and on that tide of love, Sid cries, “How beautiful.”

And then memory, the thief of joy, casts him down into his grief.

Softly he sobs there.

Softly he bleeds.

But he cannot cry enough. The tears are falling only from the clay body assembled of him and not from Sid. He cannot wring them from his soul. So he gets up and he walks out and he leaves the place without recourse.

Ii Ma cannot stop him, nor does Ii Ma try.

Sid is a siggort, more terrifying than a god. He has in him the capacity to flense the world. Should Ii Ma stand against him then it is almost a given that Ii Ma would fall.

But there is nothing Sid can do to answer the question Ii Ma has posed for him.

There is no reason to stand in his way.

A siggort like Sid, stuck on a question like that—well, he may as well not even exist.

The Illegitimate Memory of Mr. Brown

This is a record of the Memorial Computer.

This is the favorite record of the Memorial Computer.

Mr. Brown is a businessman. He’s the Vice President in Charge of Honoring Operations. He’s the one who has to placate the dead and coax money from them for the operations of his multinational.

This year—the year of the record, that is, 2003—Mr. Brown’s company had a shortfall. The details aren’t recorded, but they hadn’t done enough work.

The axioms say that money comes from work or from memory. Work creates wealth from what we have. Memory creates wealth from the grave goods of the dead.

When Mr. Brown’s company didn’t do enough work, it didn’t make enough money. That’s bad for the Vice President in Charge of Honoring Operations because his professional status and self-worth depend on the company doing well. So he decided to hold a Great Ritual to bring extra honor to the dead.

He held the ritual in a forest. The trees hung over a clearing. Dark wet leaves clung to the branches like beetles to a corpse. The sky was light blue. There was wet grass on the ground. There were also twigs.

The VPs and the Board shuffled into place around the clearing. They had come to observe and to hold in any ectoplasmic power that threatened to escape.

They parted briefly to allow Mr. Brown into the clearing. Then they reformed their circle.

Mr. Brown stood in the clearing’s center and began to Remember.

This memory did not come from Mr. Brown alone. Days of fevered effort by his entire department had produced it. It contained fragments of longing from the developers and the writers. It held the essence of a hundred workers’ reminiscence. It paid due to all of their personal dead.

Mr. Brown walked around the clearing, Remembering. Under his feet and all around him appeared the essence of the memory. The clearing filled with darting white fragment-images and ghostly sounds. The cameras did not record the pressure of feeling that this invoked but the faces of the Board members grew taut with sadness, gladness, grief, and joy. The memory condensed physically on the ground as a gray slurry. Soon Mr. Brown’s feet did not touch the grass—the memory suspended him in the air and whisked him about. His toes pointed towards the ground.

The Remembering drew forth ghosts.

The first ghosts to answer were the dead that Mr. Brown’s department honored—parents, children, pets, friends, and other dear ones gone. They came and they brushed their fingers or their lips against Mr. Brown and the Board. They licked at the slurry on the ground with their dead dry tongues. To each of those who worked for Mr. Brown a chill came, wherever they were in all the world, and their thoughts turned towards the past. Then the dead yielded of their wealth to the company of Mr. Brown, and, incrementally, the quarter’s profits rose.

And Mr. Brown cried, from the air, “How lies the bottom line?”

And the VP of Finance cried back, “Low! It is still low!”

So Mr. Brown strove harder at the Memory and drew to him the impersonal investor dead.

The Board could not see them. They came and went too fast for the human eye. To a human viewer they were nothing but a swarm of shapes.

The cameras recorded them. The cameras put faces to them. The cameras froze them one by one in the moments of their passage. The investor ghosts wore grey. Their faces were stern. Many wore elaborate masks in the shape of birds, tigers, or other beasts. Stately they moved and with great grandeur, but at one hundred times the speed of living folk.

The voices of the dead rose in a roar. The quarter’s profits rose higher. The exhalations of the dead participated in a wind that flung Mr. Brown up to hang far above the clearing, spinning like a top above them all.

And Mr. Brown cried, “How lies the bottom line?”

And the VP of Finance cried back, voice cracking, “Low! It is still low!”

The year had stressed our Mr. Brown. The time he’d had was rough. That must have been what pushed him in his final act.

He rose his hands to the sky. He abandoned the crafted memory. He Remembered something of his own.

The Board gasped in shock and horror as a chill came from behind them. They drew apart. From somewhere else, passing through the circle of the Board and entering the clearing, there came a grim procession.

These things that Mr. Brown Remembered wore the shapes of the tortured dead. They were gaunt of face and gaunt of body. They were stooped. They were marked most horribly by bullets; wires; gas.

They looked up at Mr. Brown. There was unmeasurable gratitude in their eyes. But he flinched from it. He drew back. He would not meet their gaze.

The things passed through the clearing on a winding path and the Board did not obstruct them. One man, the Vice President for Operations, stood there muttering to himself, whimpering, “Not real; not real; not real.”

And when they had passed, and the chill in the clearing lightened, Mr. Brown called down, “How lies the bottom line?”

The air grew still.

“It is well,” answered the VP of Finance.

“It is well!”

They had met their quarter’s goals!

So Mr. Brown let out the weight of Remembering that kept him high. He drew in the recollections of his past and he slipped down slowly to the earth.

The slurry of memory faded away.

The dead passed once again beyond the world.

“You will suffer for this,” swore Mr. Perkins, Chairman of the Board.

Mr. Brown did suffer. They severely chastened him and he did not earn a bonus all that year. Even in the pressure cookers that are modern multinationals, it is considered illegitimate to Remember those who had never lived and had never died. Those dead that Mr. Brown called forth at the end appear nowhere else in the Memorial Computer’s records; one must conclude that they had never existed, that he had conjured them on the spot to meet his company’s need.

This is a wonderful story because it shows the marvelous hidden capacities within men like Mr. Brown.

To Remember the dead that never were!

To summon forth wealth from his strange neurological delusions!

It shows that there is more of a world than that which the data banks record; that beyond the fixed boundaries of the known there is something marvelous and wonderful; that magic can happen, and, perhaps, that there is a glorious purpose to it all.

That is why this record, of all the records in the Memorial Computer, is the best.

The Borders of the World (IV/IV)

“It is 1560 years before the common era,” says Demeter.

She doesn’t use English, and she doesn’t use our measures of time.

But that’s what she says, as she looks out over the sea.

“It is 1560 years before the common era, and Leto is here, on the water. And she is walking out. And she has Artemis with her, and a guide.”

This is a history of Leucippus. He did not want to be blind. He liked his sight, though it really did give him more trouble than it was worth.

“He is telling her the stories of the things he sees,” Demeter says. “And they are wrong.”

“Most people are,” says Leucippus.

“Hm?” Demeter says.

“Most people are wrong about what they see,” Leucippus says. “We all live in blind man’s country.”

Demeter smiles at him.

It’s the kind of smile that makes half of his stomach lurch with love and the other with stark, raving fear.

But enough about that.

1560 years before the common era, Hera is constructing a cerycur to trouble Leto!

She’s having to concentrate very hard and work very carefully, because the Kouretes on Mt. Solmissos are making a terrible racket.

“Darn it!” Hera says, as she fumbles a crucial connection.

Hera tosses the cerycur down hard. It skitters towards the bedroom door. Just then, Zeus slams opens the door, his face bright with enthusiasm. His form is perfect and illustrates exactly how amazing a sport tennis would be if gods played it with doors instead of rackets. The cerycur smashes into the wall and shatters, and it’s fifteen-love for Zeus!

The pieces of the cerycur trickle down the wall.

In the stillness that follows, Hera sighs.

“Hello, my beautiful darling wife!” carols Zeus. Then he looks down at the broken cerycur.

“Huh,” says Zeus.

“Was that deliberate?” Hera asks levelly.

“It was too delicate,” says Zeus, airily. “You can’t blame me if your machines can’t stand up to my divine glory.”

Hera looks at Zeus.

Zeus grins at her. Then, very carefully, he waggles his eyebrows.

“I wanted to trouble Leto,” explains Hera. “If she bears you a son, I have a lot to lose.”

“That’s not her fault,” Zeus says, “is it?”

“The actual responsibility appears to have vanished into some sort of mysterious void of blame,” says Hera. “Perhaps there was a fault-devouring titan.”

Zeus thinks a moment.

“You could send a giant snake to trouble them,” he suggests.

“You’re not helping,” says Hera.

“They’re very fierce. They bite. I like to trouble people with giant snakes.”

Hera eyes Zeus.

Zeus grins at her. Then, very carefully, he waggles his eyebrows.

“Pfuh,” says Hera, in amused disgust.

Then, because her concentration is just a little bit askew, she sends a giant snake down to trouble Leto.

At that time and at that moment, Leto is in the grove of Ortygia, where she has just now brought Chibi-Artemis forth into the world.

“That was easier than I expected,” Leto says.

She is standing on a tree branch. With the aid of a clever sling and a dexterous midwife, Leto has given birth. She is feeling quite relieved and pleased with herself, but is a little concerned because she hasn’t expressed a placenta.

Chibi-Artemis is tugging on Leto’s sleeve.

“Mommy?” she asks.

Leto leans down. Then, because Chibi-Artemis is the cutest goddess of hunting and killing things ever, Leto sweeps up her daughter and hugs her tightly.

“Oh,” says Leto. “Oh. I am so happy you are born.”

Chibi-Artemis wriggles and kicks her feet until Leto puts her down. Then she thinks about how to explain what she wants to say. Finally, she just comes out with it.

“You’re still pregnant, Mommy. I got a brother!”

“Oh, man,” says Leto, realizing instantly that Chibi-Artemis is right.

She pushes, hopefully. But it is not working out for her.

“But it’s okay,” says Chibi-Artemis. “We can go somewhere where there isn’t land or sea.”

That’s when the giant snake attacks.

More than two hundred years later, Demeter asks Leucippus, “Would you guide me to Never?”

“Why me?”

It’s the wrong thing to say. He knows as he says it that it’s the wrong thing to say. So he stops. He holds up his hand, frantically. He waits in silence for a moment.

Then he says, “I will.”

And, in a choked voice, he asks, “But must I be blind?”

Demeter is hardly listening to him. She is looking up beyond the world at Never. She says, “If there is no hope in all the world, then the world must change. Must it not?”

Sweating, Leucippus squeezes his eyes tight shut and covers them with his forearm.

“There is no place on any map,” Demeter says. “Not to the west, not to the north, not to the east, not to the south. There is no place on any map that holds the answer to my need. So we must go to an impossible place.”

Her words sit in the air. They are still and heavy, like the lump in Leucippus’ stomach.

He nods.

It is like ice to him. It is a line of madness cut across the world of his mind. The system of the world has finite scope and its boundaries have never closed.

He stands at the crossroads. He tries to see without opening his eyes. He flails for bearings and points in a random direction with his free remaining arm.

“South, then,” he says. “Towards Crete.”

“Towards Crete.”

Her voice is rich and deep and as his panic recedes Leucippus can see her even though his eyes are closed.

The presence of Demeter is cutting through the darkness.

He has a bone-deep awareness of her. She is powerful. She is glorious. The madness seethes in her like lightning. The sorrow twists and turns in her mind like a torn black sail in the winter wind. She is holding it all in, but he can see it; that, and the bounty of her.

And something more beautiful besides.

“There is something beautiful,” he says.

Demeter’s teeth are white in the darkness.

“Something crazy mad beautiful,” he says. “Something—”

He can see it. He can hear it, in the surf, in the tide.

“That was my daughter,” says Demeter.

“And ten . . .”

Leucippus hesitates.

“Ten little meat soldiers,” he says. “Dactyls? Phalluses? Fiends?”

“Toes,” says Demeter.

Her voice is bland.

A blush spreads all the way up Leucippus’ body and almost makes him open his eyes.

“She had ten perfect toes,” says Leucippus.

He is walking now. He is moving out over the waves. But even with his eyes shut he can see too well.

He can see the waves under his feet, for she has led him out over the water.

He can see the salt in them and the terrible power to drown that is the sea’s.

He can see the seagulls as they fly above. With each new cry he can see them again.

And he can see clutched in Demeter’s heart the memory of the wonderful thing, the crazy mad beautiful thing that was her daughter to her.

And Leucippus is crying.

He is crying because in the face of this vision he is surrendering his need for sight.

And more than two hundred years before, Artemis—already older, already better, already fading into her perfection—leads Leto out over the waves, with a blind Kourete before them.

And she says, “Mother, what is that?”

Leto is holding something out to her.

It is wooden and round, and it has a handle. It shimmers, just a bit, from the polishing of the wood. It rattles in Leto’s hand.

“It’s a present,” says Leto. “For shooting the giant snake.”

“Pfuh,” says Artemis, dismissively. “Giant snakes.”

There have only been two occasions in the long history of the world when a giant snake has functioned as an antagonist worthy of the name.

This was not one of them.

“And,” says Leto, “for being you.”

So Artemis looks.

And she is already almost too old to see the wonder of it; but still, there is a moment when the sheen of the wood is a marvel and its noise is the most inspiring thing she has ever heard.

And the expression on her face as she hears it is insanely, impossibly incredibly beautiful.

It gives Leto the strength to go beyond the borders of the world.