And Three Points is the Game (II/V)

Now, the Devil had said not to make this a game; but no sooner said than it slipped away. And Vincent’s sipping at his drink, and thinking, I do not want to go to Hell.

And maybe there’s a lesson there, but the lesson’s hard to find.

“You’re meaning things you’re not doing,” Vincent just said. He’s just called out the Devil on how he’s different from most gods.

“Ha!” says the Devil. “That’s a point for you, then, Vincent. And three points will be the game.”

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last

Vincent squints at him.

“Is this a game I can choose not to play?” he says.

“When you’re winning?” the Devil asks.

“I’m not a child,” Vincent says, inaccurately. By this he means that he can see through the Devil’s words to a grim world where there is only losing and continuance—a world of which he would rather have no part.

“Well,” the Devil says, “you can choose not to play, but you’ll probably end up with suffering intrinsic to the condition of your life, followed, after some years, by death.”

Vincent squints again.

“Fine, fine,” the Devil laughs. “Listen, Vincent, I’m here for one reason only, and you’re here for one reason only, and that’s for me to buy your soul; to make you an offer for it, anyway. So tell me. What’s it gonna take? What do you need from me if you’re going to give up Central and its ways and come and work for me instead, in this life and the after?”

“That’s stupid,” Vincent says. “I mean, you’re the Devil, right?”

“Reassurance that it’s the moral path, then?” the Devil says. “Reassurance that it’s doing the world a kindness to side with me instead of the other?”

Vincent hesitates. It’s a lot to ask of a kid.

“Tell you what,” Vincent says. “You gotta make me smart enough to bargain this out with you, free of charge. Smart enough to see through your tricks, smart enough to figure out what you’re really saying, and if it’s just a trick anything I give up to you is out.”

“Oh,” says the Devil. “That’s another point for you, but I can’t do it.”

“Eh?”

“There’s no way I can make you that smart,” the Devil says. “Look at it the other way around: if I’m not tricking you, then I’m practically breaking the rules right there; and if you want me to trick you, but make you so smart that you’re not fooled, and get what you want from it anyway— well. So let me tell you what I can do. I can give you three questions, free, Vincent. Three things you can ask me, to decide what you’d like to do. And I’ll tell you right now that I’ve got a trick worthy of the Enemy himself, which is to say, I can’t promise you that walking away and turning me down is the right and moral thing to do, much less the way to save your soul.”

“Is it?”

“Oh dear,” says the Devil. “That’s point three. I’m afraid, Vincent, that there ain’t no way to save your soul; and as for walking away and turning me down, well, that’ll make you a slimy worm in the end, worth less than a gobbet of my spit.”

Vincent stands up.

“Oh?” the Devil asks.

“Tell me,” Vincent says, “what’d my Dad say for me to do, if he could tell me?”

And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

The Devil shifts from his seat and rises. It’s smooth and natural and Vincent doesn’t even think that it might be a danger until the Devil’s already gone away to tend the fire.

“I figure he’d tell you to ask me a question I can’t answer,” the Devil says. “Don’t know if he’d have a guess what that could be.”

“Seriously?” Vincent asks. The Devil raises an eyebrow at him. “That’s not a question,” Vincent says. “That’s a . . . an interjection.”

“Seriously,” the Devil says. “It’s because—he’d probably say—in all the stories of the Devil, people don’t win by walking away. They win by beating me. Of course, that’s mostly seeing as the stories where I win are the stories they don’t tell— but still. He’d want you to win, and put me in some sort of chains, because that’s what the stories suggest to him and because that’s basically what Central’s fundamental philosophy and methodology is, in re: fiends. Do you want me to suggest a question, Vincent?”

“I should just leave,” Vincent says.

“Really,” the Devil says. “Just throw out all those centuries of tradition, all those stories, Central’s own bleeding methodology, just because I hinted at it in answer to a question that you asked me your own self? You’re a wicked child, Vincent, a wicked child and an unruly one.”

“It’s just,” Vincent says, “that I don’t want to go to Hell. You see. Sir.”

“Ah,” the Devil says.

“It’s all the endless suffering,” Vincent says.

“Yes,” the Devil says. “It would be.”

“I’m glad that you understand.”

“Do you want me to tell you what you’ve won, Vincent?”

Vincent looks down.

“Hey,” he says. “Hey, if I leave now— if I leave, will I grow up to be . . . like my Dad, you know, with magic and gods like Iphigenia and maybe even one day a dharma of my own?”

There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea
And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me.

“Yeah,” says the Devil. “You leave now, and you get everything you’ve ever wanted. Though not, I should say, very much of it; just, you know, some. A little here, a little there, a bit of every dream of brightness, and then you’ll die, if you’re lucky, or you’ll drown forever, if you’re not.”

“Thanks,” Vincent says.

“I’ve got great things to offer you,” the Devil says. “Seriously. Magic carpets. Fire in a bottle. Wealth and treasure. I could probably even swing a bit of dharma, though, to be honest, it’s not like you don’t have one so much as that it isn’t what you’d like.”

“I’m happy,” says Vincent.

The Devil looks away.

“Isn’t that OK?” Vincent says. “To just go back to the simple life, and have a family, and games, and books, and fun, and a purpose, and one day do some good in the world with what I know?”

“I can’t answer that,” the Devil says. “I’ve given you four answers, ‘interjection’ or no, and a prize. You can’t expect me to be your friend.”

Vincent nods. He walks to the door. He turns around. He’s thinking hard.

“Hey,” he says. “Hey.”

“Yeah?”

“Why do we have to suffer?” Vincent asks. “Why do people have to suffer, and hurt, and die?”

The Devil looks at him blankly. For a moment Vincent thinks he’s got him; that at only 13 years old, Vincent’s stumped the Devil, conquered him, beaten him, bound him over to Ii Ma to be immured forever, and that everybody’s going to cheer him on when he gets back.

It’s a passing fantasy.

“Why?” the Devil asks. “You ask me why, Vincent?”

“Yeah.”

And with great calm but fury underneath it, the Devil answers, “Because, Vincent, this is Hell.”

[The Frog and the Thorn — CHAPTER TWO]


September 18, 1987

Vincent wakes up. He clutches at his chest. He’s screaming.

Then he calms.

It’s OK. The sun is bright. His world is good. He is safe at home in Central.

What Do You Do with a One-Winged Cherub? (VII/VII)

It is 1998 and Micah comes home and Melanie’s sitting on the couch.

She’s wearing a suit and she’s wearing shades and she’s got a nametag on.

It says, “Melanie.”

Just Melanie. It doesn’t say anything about being cunning or beloved of the gods.

She lowers her shades.

She looks at him.

Her eyes are evil, they make him flinch, but they’re otherwise identical to his own.

He puts a bag of groceries down by the door. He stands there numbly.

“Hi there,” she says to him. “What’s your name?”

[The Frog and the Thorn — CHAPTER ONE]


October 31, 1998

Liril hasn’t told him what to do.

Without Liril telling him what to do, he’s just a boy. He’s just a boy who wants to protect her from the evils of the world, but not one who necessarily can.

“I might accidentally flay your soul and stretch it on the birch trees,” Micah says. He tries to make it sound casual, like something Liril’s warned him not to do. “I mean, I don’t want to, I wouldn’t defy Central like that, it’s just, you know, something that could accidentally happen if I forget the alchemical equation I’m holding in my head.”

“That’s a fine trick,” Melanie concedes.

“Where is she?” Micah asks.

“You know,” says Melanie, “I could have sworn there was an order out to have you brought in and tortured. As opposed to standing there, all asking questions with your mouth, and things.”

“It was a terrible misunderstanding,” Micah says. “I showed the last visitor my correct report card and the matter resolved in its entirety. Also, you mean ‘re-oriented’ or something. Torture’s too explicit a word.”

He takes off his coat. He hangs it by the door.

“Can I get you anything?” he asks.

His eyes are scanning the house, looking for signs of Liril. But her frankness or her error—he’s not sure which—has reassured him.

“Like, if you really need a sandwich, or a penny, or a knife in your eye, or something,” he says, “I could totally oblige.”

“Really?” she says. She sounds delighted. “You’d do that for me?”

“See a penny, pick it up,” he assures her. “All that day you’ll have good luck. I’ve got . . . like a thousand. If I had a nickel for every penny I had, I’d convert them into pennies and win the economy forever. “

“Your name, then,” she says.

“Micah.”

She tilts her head. “From formica?”

“That’s two prepositions in a row,” Micah says. “I can’t understand your crazy monster language.”

“Melanie,” she says.

“Yes,” he agrees. “It would be.”

She looks down at her nametag. She blushes a little. “Yes.”

“I’m not going with you,” Micah says. “I’ve decided that you’re holding Liril and Priyanka hostage, but that she has a plan that requires me to pretend that you don’t, refuse to deal, and do everything I can think of to oppose you.”

“Bah,” Melanie says. “Your report card recorded an erroneously high decorum.”

“I had a lot of extra credit,” Micah says. “Field work and the like.”

“Does that really work?” Melanie says. Her tone is genuinely curious. “I mean, just deciding what you want to do and assuming that Liril must support it?”

“No,” he says. “It’s completely ridiculous.”

“Oh.”

“It’s just,” he says, “so is listening to anything you say. So it’s kind of a wash. You know?”

“I see!”

He sighs. He looks tired. He trudges over to a couch and he sits down. “What do you want?” he asks.

She smiles briefly.

“You should come work for us,” she says.

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope!”

She tosses him a nametag. It’s blank. He catches it. Then he flinches and throws it from him like it’s caught fire in his hands.

She frowns.

“I’m not interested,” Micah says.

“The monster’s weak,” she says. “He talks like he left you here on purpose. He talks like he’s still got a plan for that girl Jane. But I saw him when he came back from here. He was hurt. He was frayed. You got acid on his heart and soul, my boy, with whatever trick you pulled.”

“I renamed him,” Micah says.

Melanie closes her eyes for a moment. Her face is perfectly still. Then she opens them up again. “Snotgargler?” she suggests.

He shakes his head.

Doctor Snotgargler?”

He looks away.

“The important thing,” she says, “is that he’s weak. I could take him. If I had your help. I could beat him. If I had your help.”

“It’s amazing,” he says. “You’re not even trying to sound like you believe that.”

“What?”

Her voice is wounded.

“That’s ridiculous,” she says. “It’s an awesome plan.”

And as suddenly as that it crashes in on him that she is hollow; that she is broken; that she has a certain shelter in her heart, and cracks therein, that he remembers from years ago. He is looking at a crucible.

He doesn’t want the pity in his face to show. He turns away.

“Oh, don’t you dare,” she says. “Don’t you fucking dare. It was only twice. He’s been used more than that himself.”

He clenches his fist.

A jolt of humor washes through her. He can feel it in the tides of the emotions of the room. It’s slipped from her, whatever is wrong inside her, and she’s laughing at the world instead.

“Hey,” she says. “Hey. How do you separate a monster from his charges?”

He shakes his head.

He ought to tell her, he thinks. Anything that hurts the monster can redound only to his good. But he doesn’t trust any impulse or reason whatsoever that would tell this woman more than she already seems to know.

“Hey,” she repeats. “How do you separate a monster from his charges?”

“No,” he tells her. I won’t.

“You take away his credit card,” she beams.

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea

It’s about an hour later. They’ve had tea. Liril’s almost home from trick-or-treating, so Melanie suspects, and so she rises to her feet.

“The offer is good,” she says, quietly.

He shakes his head.

“It’s just a nametag,” she says. “Pick it up. Put it on. Come with me. We can kill the bastard and live happily ever after without dying even once.”

“I’m not going to Central,” Micah says. “I’d just end up like you.”

“Ouch,” she says. She shakes her hand, pretending that it’s burnt. Then she goes out.

He cleans up the teacups.

He looks at the nametag.

I bet I could use this, he thinks. I bet it could give me some kind of strength.

And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me

Liril gets home and he is rocking, hissing, clutching tight at his inflamed and swollen hand.

[The Frog and the Thorn — END OF CHAPTER ONE]

The Shepherdess (I/VII)

It is March 18, 1995. The light from the sun does not reach us.

In the dark there is a titan and it does not know its name.

The monster drags Micah down to the basements of Central. He binds him there with leather and metal shackles, under the glare of red and burning eyes. Then he leaves.

The titan moves in the darkness.

It is very weak. It is dying. That is the message Micah intuits from its vibrations in the floor.

“I will tell you of Lia,” says Micah. He is opening a conversation with the darkness.

“I will tell you not of her beginnings,” Micah continues, “but of how Lia was at the end. For while she was strong and wise in life, as she came near to dying, she became weak and confused — as you are now. She knew only that she was tired, frightened, and ashamed, and that she was loved by Amiel. For her children were gone from her, left for distant lands, and her grandchildren too, but her sister had never abandoned her, had never left her side.

“It had been different in their youth, I think. Then Amiel had been the weak one. She had the power to speak truth but not the power to speak lies — I think. And so every word she said tore and wriggled in her throat, scraped it raw and made her bleed from it. She was all but mute and she was eternally beautiful. So in their childhood I think it was Lia who was strong.

“But Lia was mortal, and mortal things grow old, and finally she couldn’t even remember her own name. She had to make Amiel tell her. She had to waste her sister’s power, just to find out little things like ‘you are Lia’ or ‘I am Amiel.’ ‘I love you.’ Or ‘You are my treasure. You are my precious jewel. Your children have gone away to distant lands, but I will protect them, I will guard them, I will guard your line and our families be entwined forever.’

“These things she said to reassure her sister, and the cost of them was blood.”

Micah does not have anything to drink. He does not have anything to eat. He cannot move freely and he is terribly afraid.

The first day passes, and the first night. He can feel the titan’s agony through the floor.

“I’m sure,” Micah says, “that the child who made you loved you. I’m sure she — he? — I’m sure that they won’t blame you for the way the monster is so strong.”

He’d like to think that he is being kind from a native kindness, but he knows better in his heart.

He is afraid that the titan can reach him. He is afraid that it will grow some sort of feeding-maw on a tentacle, or stretch its body like a string, and suck the marrow from his bones to keep from dying. He is afraid that it is free as he is not and that it will somehow hate him, perhaps because it is dying and he, at the moment, is not.

He is crying for the creature, but that does not mean that he is speaking out of kindness. Terror supersedes his sadness every time he thinks that it might not understand his words.

The second day passes, and the second night.

“The promise was twisted,” Micah says, on the third day. He is having trouble speaking. He has a terrible headache and his body feels like it’s being torn apart by knives. He beats his head against the floor to make his headache go away, but except in the moment of each contact, it doesn’t seem to work. “It was twisted, and the monsters came of the twisting of that oath. But Amiel never betrayed it. She loved Lia all her life.”

The third day passes, and the third night; and he can hear the titan, somewhere beneath Central, shudder out its life and die.

Maybe it wasn’t a titan, he supposes. It could have been a different god, or a broken child.

“When the monsters slip and become her children,” he says, “they are as loyal as ever she.”

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

On the fourth day the monster visits. Micah doesn’t bother looking up.

“You’re troubling me, Micah,” the monster says.

Micah frowns at this. He mumbles, “Nunh-uh.” It’s not really much of a denial. He can’t seem to find his defiance in the swimming of his head.

It is nevertheless very clear to him that if someone is troubling anyone, it is not Micah who is to blame.

“Liril hasn’t given me a single god since the day that you were born,” the monster says. “It’s like you burnt her out. Like you broke her, simply by existing. That’s why I say you’re a trouble to me. But I’m afraid that if you die here, she’ll be useless to me forever instead of simply hurt.”

Micah considers this. His world wobbles. Finally he grins.

“That won’t happen,” he says. “She’ll be fine.”

His utter powerlessness is freeing. He doesn’t have to cooperate. He doesn’t have to pretend that the monster has found a point of common interest, or deny it for that matter. He doesn’t have to bother lying to the monster, or telling the truth to the monster, or, really, saying anything in particular at all. The monster wins. The monster always wins. In the face of that victory, until the monster explains what it entails, Micah can do anything he wants.

“Micah,” the monster chides.

“Do you want me to say that I don’t want her to die?” Micah says. “I’ll say that. I’ll say that I don’t want her to die. Do you want me to beg? I’ll beg.”

He giggles. He swallows. He chokes. He gags.

For some inexplicable reason, he discovers, he’d had seawater in his mouth.

He vomits, or tries to vomit, on the monster’s floor, but all he can do is spit out a bit of rotten fish.

The monster rises to his feet.

“That’s awful,” he says. “That’s the worst magic power ever.”

It’s not true. It’s not not true. Micah can’t tell what the heck is in the monster’s voice.

Micah hiccups sadly in the dark.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


March 23, 1995
  
This is not survivable, Micah thinks. There is no way that it is survivable. He is going to die of thirst and possibly starvation. He is going to die of muscle cramps and of exposure. The malice and suffering in Central above him condenses and drifts downwards like the snow. It forms in the darkness into terrible and awful things.

It fills him with fear. It twists his hallucinations into evil and sadistic forms. It makes every sound a shock.

He dwells amidst the poisoned runoff of Central’s theological and emotional waste.

Something snuffles towards him in the darkness. Possibly it is his imagination. Possibly it is the titan come back to life, or risen most unholy. Possibly it is a herd, gaggle, or flotilla of half-starved rats. Micah thinks that it will eat him, whatever it is. He thinks that it will rip the flesh from his bones, and then the bones from one another, unless the monster wishes that it should not.

Oh that the monster should allow it.

He cannot see any longer. His eyes are crusted . . . shut. He thinks that they are shut. He can barely hear.

There.

Something is very definitely near him. It is not his imagination. It is a cold and bulky presence in the dark. It is tactile to him. Then it is against his mouth. It is pouring liquid into him. It is . . .

It is feeding him.

His body cannot resist it. He is gulping it down. He is swallowing. He is crying, he thinks, because it is good, because his body has wanted so much to drink.

It is thick and cold and almost tasteless. Inasmuch as it has a taste that taste is lime.

When he starts to choke it leaves him. When he can breathe again it comes back.

He thinks of how Kuras — his favorite of the Kings of the Ancient World — was exposed on a hilltop and suckled by a sheepdog, or perhaps a shepherdess. That happened a lot back then. Should this be a sheepdog he would be embarrassed, but he thinks that he could forgive such a small blow to his pride.

It is probably not a sheepdog. That is his conclusion. He tries to open his eyes. He tries to make sense of it. It will not be a sheepdog, but rather some sort of hallucination, or a broken sewer pipe, or even a freakish shepherdess of the deeps.

It is none of these things.

It is if anything a nameless horror. He cannot put words to it. It is round where it is straight and it is changing where it is still and where his eyes fall upon it they make blisters rise from its flesh that surge up, whiten, and pop. It has the front part of a lion and the rear portion of a gazelle, and a ring of questing tendrils about its face; and from the calf of its front leg it is bleeding, and it is the blood of it that he drinks.

He cannot read its emotions.

Perhaps it is profaning him. Perhaps it is violating him. Perhaps it is committing a generosity immeasurable by reason. He cannot tell, any more than he can tell what it is, or why. It is simply there.

He drinks until he can bear no more with drinking.

When he opens his eyes again the thing is gone.

short post on Friday, then Chibi-Ex on Monday, then part II on Wednesday.

On the Endings of Stories (2 of 3)

“Where were they,” Martin asks, “when we left off, yesterday?”

“It was cold!” Jane says. “And dark! And ominous!”

“That’s a good word,” Martin agrees. “Ominous.”

On Wednesday, the 12th of May, 2004, the basements under Central are cold and dark.

“This is the last place in the world I want to be,” says Jacob.

Jacob walks beside the angel in the basements under Central. He carries the spear that killed him in his hand. In the dark, his foot bumps against his runt. He growls and curses and reaches for it with his free hand but it is not there for his hand to find.

“The last place,” Jacob emphasizes.

“It is generally true that success is best achieved by pursuing the least pleasant course,” the angel says.

“That seems implausible,” Jason notes.

“There is the most progress to be made,” the angel says, “in those directions where we have made the least; that is to say, along the paths we are most loath to travel.”

Jacob nearly stumbles again. “Filthy runt,” he mutters.

He can see the angel’s eyes on him, even in the dark.

“Pardon?” the angel asks.

“I keep tripping on my runt,” Jacob says.

The angel watches.

Jacob gestures indistinctly with one hand. It is the gesture of someone who cannot easily explain.

“It is something the director gave me,” Jacob says. “A . . . thing. A horrid thing. A vessel for my imperfections.”

“Ah,” the angel says.

“I was very young,” says Jacob. “I was very young and I loved it very much. Because it made mistakes for me so I wouldn’t have to. It learned how to do math wrong when I learned how to do it right. It stumbled and crouched and scurried and spilled and I ran like a gazelle. When he kept me awake it was the runt who grew tired and weak. And I forgave it its errors and I kept it close and one day it went mad and began to rot so that I would not have to.”

The angel walks for a time in silence.

“It is a difficult thing,” says the angel, “to be a man; but sometimes it is harder to stand outside humanity and know that you can only grant those wishes that are possible to grant.”

I do not want to be this, Jacob thinks.

“I do not want to be this,” says the runt.

“Did you know,” asks the angel, “that when you were young, I thought you’d be a hero?”

Jacob shakes his head.

“You still have that choice,” the angel says.

Jacob laughs.

“Everyone does,” the angel says. “Everyone has a path to grace. You are never so far fallen that you cannot find the dharma within you, the thing that you can be, the brightness, and give yourself to it in sacrifice and joy and be a thing of beauty in this world. That is why I answered your call, Jacob. That is what I want for you. That is what the door to the right was meant to bring.”

“Then show me,” says Jacob.

The angel holds up the thousand shards of palm and fingers that are her hand and in it is an image of a fire and a light.

“What is that?”

“Coretta’s fire,” says the angel. “Dharma. Dragon’s light. The beacon towards the road that you should walk.”

Down the corridor Jacob sees the maw.

It is a characteristic of angels that their words are most difficult to understand for those who need the most to hear them. Thus one may reasonably say that the message the angel gave him was gibberish; that her words were incomprehensible; that it was not his fault that he could not understand. Still, he sees something in the light she holds, and gropes towards it in his mind.

But Jacob does not have much time.

The maw is like a serpent’s mouth, corded and fanged, but it has no inside or outside. It is not a physical thing. It is a principle of devouring.

Inside the maw,

Of course,

It is empty.

And the maw drives towards Jacob like the hammer of a god.

“Heroes can kill monsters, can’t they?” Jacob asks.

It is a distant, distinct question. He knows that his runt is scrambling and squeaking away. It has probably wet itself; it is certainly ungracious in retreat. But Jacob is perfect by the virtue of its imperfection, and he is simply thinking and gliding back, smooth as silk, his spear rising.

“Yes,” says the angel.

It has been two and a half weeks since Sebastien came to Central. It has been thirty-eight years since Jacob died. But what he is thinking of now is something that came between.

It was only six months back.

Iris was one of the children that Central held. The case review for her was on his desk. Her keepers recommended her release:

“. . . even in severe duress, the child is disinclined to issue supernatural manifestations. It is recommended that she be released and monitored rather than continuing to spend Central resources on her care and training. . . .”

Jacob knew better.

It was obvious for anyone who knew these children, for anyone who’d been one of these children, that Iris was falsifying her duress; that she was presenting as a child broken to fend away the chance that she would break; that she was suitable and strong but clinging to the power to feign weakness. Such gambits cannot last forever.

Release approved, he wanted to write. That’s what his runt was muttering.

But to write that would be a lie. It would be unprofessional. It would be false. It would not be correct for a man in his position. If he wrote that he would be forced to take up arms against the things that Central stood for, against the men who paid him and who’d tortured him and who’d killed him nearly forty years before.

He could not do that. That would be more false. That would put meaning to a world that had none and assert the humanity of an empty, worthless girl.

Jacob watched himself write the letter that condemned her to further pain, and then he went back to the games of Tetris that helped relieve his stress.

The runt was sniffling and crying and mouthing at Jacob’s hand, so he slapped it away and it stuck onto the wall.

Six months passed.

Jacob’s spear, sharp as a thorn, comes down. It pierces the maw and pins it to the floor. Jacob reaches for the fire within him, the waking of his dharma, the path that leads him from that place.

It is with a still small terror that he sees that the runt is caught in maw and spear.

They are thrashing together like the synchronized shuddering of the dead.

“It is hungry for you,” says the angel, “because of your contradictions.”

“Is it?”

“To exalt the sense in which things have no meanings,” says the angel, “is to create a contradiction. It overwrites the rules of meaning with imported context from a world that has none. That contradiction is like a knot: pull and twist at it, and it grows tighter until it resolves down to a single flaring NO at the center of your world. Pragmatically, this leaves you with two choices: accept oblivion, or grant things meanings. My ability to save you is entirely contingent on your doing the latter, and choosing a life in which salvation is coherently defined.”

Jacob struggles to keep the maw pinned down. The floor is writhing and shaking.

I will shoulder this burden, he thinks. But he does not say it.

“Shoulder,” mumbles the runt.

Then it coughs up blood and dies.

Jacob’s vision of the fire blinks out.

The maw bucks him off, and Jacob falls against the wall, and it is with a clockwork grin that he smiles at the angel.

“I’m sorry,” Jacob says. “I wasted your time.”

The angel’s voice is strained but the word she chooses is almost insanely polite. “Pardon?”

“To be perfect is to be unredeemable,” says Jacob. “Eternal. Unchanging.”

Imps eat the soul that you cannot bear to keep.

“When I took my runt,” Jacob says, “I lost the power to be other than what I am.”

The maw rises.

“But thank you for telling me I will not end,” says Jacob.

The maw falls on him.

Jacob feels himself dissolving and

“And?” Jane asks.

“The end,” says Martin. “The justification for eternity has ceased for Jacob to apply.”


See also The Fable of the Lamb,
Tigers in their Cages
Coming Home (a legend about Iris)
Saturday
Priyanka
and Jacob, His Runt, The Angel, and the Maw.

Jacob, His Runt, The Angel, and the Maw (1 of 3)

“Once upon a time,” says Martin, “that is to say, right now, there was a man named Jacob who should have been a hero.”

“Why wasn’t he?” Jane asks.

“Because sometimes things that just should happen, don’t.”

“What I fear,” says Jacob, precisely, “is the emptiness that follows life.”

His runt is down on the floor. It is pushing its face against Jacob’s leg. Jacob kicks it, and it scurries off into the shadows.

“It is unacceptable,” Jacob says, “that my personal story should end.”

The angel is a cloud of wings and faces. He can see her only as pieces. It is like looking through a broken lens.

She is wearing a jacket.

“It doesn’t ever end,” the angel says. “That is a fallacy.”

“Why so?”

Jacob is gray. That is because he died. He must take great care at all times lest he rot. He brushes at his cheek, his fingers checking for flaws or damage. He brushes off the leg of his brown suit pants.

“You cannot have the experience of no-longer-having-experiences,” the angel says.

Jacob hesitates. “That is not reasonable,” he says.

“You impose beginnings and ends on things,” says the angel. “But in this world only the perfect things are finite. In this world there is always an imperfection that leads into the beginning of each story. There are always dangling threads leading out the end. There is no thought that you can have that is a final thought. There is no action you can take that is your final action. There is only the point where you choose to say ‘the end’ and that is not the end.”

There is a clank. Jacob looks over. His runt has upset the coffee mug. It squeaks in horror and scurries away.

“Why are you here?” Jacob asks the angel.

“For you.”

It has been two and a half weeks since death came to Central; since the avenging wind that was Sebastien came; since everyone working in that foul place was given a choice: to speak their words of repentance, or to die.

Jacob stood before the men and women of Central, and he said of his sins, “It was wrong. It was vile. I had no right.”

Then he walked through the door of life, which lay to his right, and Sebastien stayed his hand.

The runt skulked through after him.

Others went left and died. Others repented and they lived.

But Jacob had not repented.

He simply spoke the words.

It is Wednesday, the 12th of May, 2004.

“I know what will happen,” says Jacob.

“Do you?” the angel says.

“I have been dreaming every night of the maw. It is down there.”

Jacob taps the floor with his foot.

“The basement goes ten layers deep. Somewhere in it there is a maw, a devouring god, and it is loose. After Sebastien freed the children we keep here, he freed the gods. And one of them is the maw, and it will hunt us down one by one and devour us, each of us that spoke the words of repentance but did not repent.”

Jacob looks around his office. There is a desk of fake wood. There is a coffee mug, now spilt. There is a narrow window and his rolling chair. Against the doorframe the angel leans.

“I cannot afford to end,” he says. “So I wished with my all heart and then you came.”

The faces of the angel shift and tilt.

“I think,” says the angel, “that if you fear divine punishment for your hubris, that the first step should be curtailing your pride. You suffered in this place. You died because of this place. Is it unworthy of repentance, what you have done in its name?”

Jacob holds out his hands. They are gray.

“It has been almost forty years since the director tore out my heart and shoved a spear through my brain,” Jacob says. “Here is what I learned from the experience: that those who imagine that they are people are wrong. Those who think they are more than mere machines are wrong. We are all horrors. We are all machines. We are a joke. I did not want to die. I lay there with my heart beating in his hand and his face shining with vindication and the pointed end of the spear sticking out from my mouth and I did not want to die. But when I got up again afterwards I knew that I was dead and everything I imagined about my life was false.”

“And yet,” says the angel.

“I cannot repent,” says Jacob. “I do not believe that anything I have done was wrong, for there is no wrong. The world has no deeper purpose and our actions mean nothing and the universe does not care what you or I imagine is unjust. There is only the question of survival: what is the most effective path for staving off the end?”

His runt is amongst Jacob’s papers and reports now. It is evaluating one of the client studies. It is writing down its observations. They are false and wrong and with a growl Jacob seizes it by the neck and hurls it against the wall.

The angel does not seem to see.

“It is regrettable,” says the angel, “that you will be judged by a moral standard that you do not hold.”

“Yes,” agrees Jacob. “But the gods love poetry.”

“It will be elegant,” says the angel. “Elegant and inevitable; something brought on you by the manner of your rejection; an example made of you in fate and blood that realizes the worst of all your nightmares. There are no kind fates for those who refuse their chance at grace. There are few enough for those who choose acceptance.”

“So,” says Jacob. He looks at her and his eyes are open and calm. “Save me.”

I entrust myself to you, he wants to say.

But he does not say it.

The strategy of the game is better played this way, he knows. The weight of his struggle must fall on the angel, and he must not make himself vulnerable before its grace.

“Entrust,” mumbles the runt. “Entrust.”

“Then we must go down,” the angel says.

On Wednesday, the 12th of May, 2004, the basements under Central are very cold and very dark.

Coming Home

In the forest there is a glen. In the glen there is grass and trees and dirt and earthworms and flowers.

Iris is a flower.

One day, she discovers that the ground is hurting her. Her roots are burning. So she pulls them up. The dirt is hurting her. The grass is hurting her.

She pulls her roots up. She pulls up her stalk. She spreads her petals and jumps and she catches the wind, and off she floats away.

The stars say to her at night, “We have lost one of our own.”

“I lost the ground,” she says.

“We have lost one of our own,” say the stars.

She drifts on.

It is hungry, being a flower in the sky. There is no soil to draw nutrients from. She must feed on clouds and the dirt in the wind. It is a lean time. But one day she finds a bag of plant fertilizer that drifts in the wind like she does.

“Did the fertilizer store burn you?” she asks, but bags of plant fertilizer can’t talk.

So she drifts to it, and buries her roots in it, and drifts on.

The wind says to her, one day, “There is a prince who is my son, and he has lost his love. She was stolen away. The chariot is taking her east of the sun and west of the moon, to the palace of a witch.”

“I miss my family,” Iris says.

“Then go back,” the wind suggests.

“The ground hurts,” Iris says.

She drifts on.

After a while, she finds a bathtub in the sky. She’s not very strong, but she’s determined. She empties the fertilizer into the bathtub. She adds dirt collected from the wind and opens the drain just enough that the soil doesn’t get waterlogged in the rain. She catches a picture of a forest that blows past, and in this carriage and with this comfort she rides high above the world.

An angel sits on the edge of the bathtub for a while. He’s wearing a jacket. It’s got holes for his wings. Hair flops in his eyes.

Time passes.

“The ground burns me,” says Iris.

The angel brushes her petals with a gentle hand. “I know what that’s like,” he says.

“That’s why I fly around in a bathtub.”

The angel nods.

“I liked the ground,” Iris says. “I mean, I liked it.”

“If you wish hard enough,” the angel says, “then you can go home.”

“How do you know?”

“I know,” the angel says.

Iris sighs. “I can’t,” she says. “I can’t wish that hard. I’m not that strong.”

The angel nods again. His wings beat, gently. He takes flight.

Iris floats on for a while. Below her, there’s a glinting in the ocean. That night, she calls to the stars, “I think it’s there.”

“We’ve lost one of our own,” say the stars.

“I think he’s there. I think she’s there. I think it’s there,” cries Iris.

There’s a tumult in the heavens. Then a silence. Then a stirring and a rising in the sea.

“We are whole,” say the stars.

Sometimes it rains very hard and lightning strikes the showerpole of the bathtub. Iris does not mind. It is invigorating.

Below her, one day, she sees a princess, in a chariot driven hard, east of the sun and west of the moon.

“Is that her?” she asks the wind.

“Who?”

“Your son’s true love?”

The wind fades out. The bathtub stops with a jarring halt, and falls nearly fifty yards before the wind is back.

“Thank you,” says the wind.

One day the angel comes to sit on the tub again.

“You could go home,” he says.

“I wish I could.”

“I know what it takes,” the angel says. “To help you. To help me. I’m just not very good at doing it. But you could go home. Just because the ground burned you once doesn’t mean it’ll burn you forever. Can’t you believe me?”

“One day I will,” says Iris. “One day I’ll believe you. One day something will happen, something will change, and then I can wish hard enough to find my way home.”

“Promise?” asks the angel.

“I don’t have any pinkies,” says Iris.

The angel smiles. Then he’s aloft again.

He says:

“I wish for you that ‘one day’ is soon.”

Tigers in their Cages (2 of 2)

The core of Central is hollow, like a warehouse. The ceiling is netting, and above that is darkness. There are things that move on the netting, and people too.

In the core, Central’s not a very nice-looking place. There’s a laminated harpoon attached to one wall, or there used to be. There’s sacks of open grain, gnawed on by rats and bugs. There’s fire and red and things always watching.

Below that, there are the cages.

“How many?” the hero asks.

“Seventeen,” the monster says.

Seventeen?

“Nine here. Four with building passes. Four in special environments,” the monster says.

The cages aren’t like dog cages. Some of them are very nice and have pillows and books. Others are small and cramped and made of wire with rotting feathers in the mesh.

“Most of them aren’t like Jane,” the monster says. “That’s rare. Most of them aren’t even really djinn. Just . . . kin. Distant relatives. The unsuccessful byblows of our kind.”

The hero goes from one cage to the next. He looks in. He looks kind of helpless. “I don’t know which to let out first.”

The monster smiles brightly.

“Start at the front,” he says, “and move back.”

So the hero lets out a young boy named Brian. Brian stares at him.

“It’s over,” the hero says. He reaches into the cage. Brian scuttles back.

“It’s funny,” the monster says, “how unequipped the hero actually is for rescuing people.”

The hero glares at him.

“Well, it is,” the monster says. “Somewhere along the way you people got the idea that heroics was about killing evil and not so much about saving people, and I’m sure that’s why the world is in the mess it’s in today.”

This is technically incorrect, but it’s a solid rhetorical point.

“What do I do?” the hero asks.

“Come on, Brian,” the monster says. He grins. “It’s time for one of the good times. You know. When it doesn’t hurt so much.”

So Brian inches out of the cage. He stands. He waits.

The hero goes to the next cage. It has a girl. Her name—she doesn’t even remember her name. It might be Iris. He lets her out. He holds out his hand.

“No,” she says.

The hero stares at her.

“No,” she says, louder. “Don’t want to.”

“Iris,” the monster says. His voice is oozing. But the hero looks at him in horror.

“You can’t . . . you can’t threaten her into coming out—”

“Oh,” says the monster. He looks happy. “I didn’t know.”

“Come on, Iris,” says the hero. He holds out his hand again.

“I live here,” she says. “I make gods for them. Every day, Leonard comes. We play. He closes the cage. He checks the lock. He smiles at me. I like him.”

The hero frowns. He looks at the monster.

“Leonard’s still alive,” the monster says. “You didn’t kill him when you were burying yourself in the corpses of your enemies. He recanted, absolving himself of that whole abusing-children thing.”

“Ah,” the hero says. He looks at Iris. There’s something messed-up in his eyes. Then he shrugs. “Okay,” he says.

He opens the other cages. Some of the kids come out. Some of them don’t.

Then he and the monster go down the stairs, to where they keep the gods, and Iris can’t see them any more.

That night, Leonard comes, and they don’t play—they just make some funny faces at one another—and Leonard closes the cage, and locks it up, and smiles at Iris, and she sleeps.

It’s strange, she thinks, that some people leave.

The Fable of the Lamb (1 of 2)

It is Friday, the 23rd of April, 2004.

Cunning Melanie, beloved of the gods, wears a dark black suit and a nametag with one name. She eats well. She drinks in moderation. She bikes to work every morning. Most people drive, but they don’t get to feel the wind. She feels the wind. Every day, on the way to work, she feels the wind. She knows it’s changed. So she watches. She watches the trees outside her window, and the squares of concrete, and the lawn.

She is the first, of all who work at Central, to know that the hero and the monster have come.

She walks into her lab.

“Stefan, Vincent, Harold,” she says.

They look up from their computers. They are her students, close to her heart.

“The hero and the monster have come,” she says. “This means that Central is not safe.”

“He is only Sebastien,” says Stefan.

“Perhaps.”

“And the monster outranks us,” Stefan points out.

“The hero can kill monsters,” says Melanie. “So I must ask you: have you committed such crimes that you might bear that name?”

“It seems unfair,” Harold grouses. “He exists to kill that monster. He should not branch out to anyone who simply behaves in a monstrous fashion.”

“Alas,” Melanie says. “Harold may not arrange the world!”

“Alas,” Harold phlegmatically confirms.

“We must remove him,” Melanie says. “It shall be Stefan first.”

“Why?”

“Because you have said, ‘he is only Sebastien.'”

“It was my optimistic confidence,” Stefan says. “Don’t punish such a cheery attitude—it will lead you to sorrow! Your subordinates will paste Dilbert comics on their cubicles and mock your management practices.”

“They should regret such actions bitterly,” says Melanie.

“Fah,” declares Stefan, resigned.

Stefan

The hero opens the door. He walks into Central. He has the monster at his side.

There is a security desk at the entrance to the building. Dave is a guard. He’s sitting behind the desk. He nods to the monster. The monster nods back.

“Cheerio, sir,” says Dave. “Good to see you again.”

“Cheerio,” says the monster.

“Does he know what happens here?” the hero asks.

“Oh, yes,” says the monster. “But it’s a living.”

“Ah,” says the hero.

Dave ducks his head.

Upstairs, Stefan takes down a gun. He checks it. Then he practices the swift-step. He is behind the hero. The gun is in his hand. He is firing. The bullet tears through the hero’s chest, piercing right through the heart.

Uh oh, Stefan! There’s just a hollow where the hero’s heart should be.

The hero is staggering back. There’s a lot of blood and trauma in a heart shot, even if your heart’s in a box somewhere far away.

Stefan swift-steps to the armory.

“I need a shotgun,” he says.

There’s a web, or a net, or maybe just a shredded mesh of raw tissue, spread throughout the room. It has eyes suspended in it. They turn on him. They swivel. There are teeth. They chatter.

“It’s an emergency,” Stefan says.

The eyes turn away. A shotgun clatters to the floor at Stefan’s feet. He picks it up. He readies it. Ka-CHUNK.

He thinks about angles. Dave will probably die too, and maybe the monster, but you have to finish what you start. If you don’t, you end up dead.

Stefan practices the swift-step.

The hero’s sword meets his neck. Stefan swift-stumbles backwards to the office, but it’s too late. His head is hanging on a thread of tissue.

“Damn it, Melanie,” he says.

Then his head falls off, and all he can do is blink until he dies.

Vincent

“Vincent,” Melanie says.

“No,” Vincent says.

“Why not?”

“Harold’s invulnerable,” Vincent says.

“You’re more likely to win,” Melanie says.

“He’s invulnerable.

“Technically, I’m vulnerable to Kryptonite,” Harold points out.

“But there’s no such substance.”

“That’s true,” Harold concedes. “It’s a good weakness for Superman, but it’s not very balanced for me.”

Harold

A long time ago, they gave Liril a doll named Latch. They let her keep it for a while. They promised it would be safe if she was good. So she was good. She combed its hair. She hugged it tight. Then they took it from her. She had to watch as bad things happened to it. She didn’t know what she’d done wrong.

But she didn’t let Latch die.

The god of such moments is called an aegis. Harold carries one, because they are the subject of his study. He has charts on his wall of their spiritual anatomy. He has done surgery on his aegis, and other things besides, to stretch the limits of the god.

He feels it gently. It is in his pocket.

Then he walks down to meet the hero.

The Hero

“Are you all right?” Dave asks.

Dave’s hand is under the hero’s elbow. His other hand is behind the hero’s shoulders.

“‘m ff,” the hero says. He’s trying to imply that he’s fine.

“I don’t . . .” Dave looks at the monster. “I don’t understand.”

“All-hands in the main conference room in twenty minutes,” says the monster. “I’ll explain then.”

“He’s really lucky he’s not dead,” Dave says. “I mean, what with the not having a heart and all.”

“Got a heart,” the hero says. “It’s in a box.”

“Oh.”

“The box is in a duck,” the hero says.

“Oh,” Dave says again.

“I need air,” the hero says. He walks back out. He sits down heavily in the square. The monster follows. There’s not a speck of blood on the monster’s outfit.

“What?”

“I don’t kill people often,” the hero says.

“He had a swift-step god. That’s sort of like being an escalator.”

“What’s the point of a bike rack,” the hero says, “with only one bloody bike?”

“It wasn’t bloody before you started leaning on it,” the monster says.

“I’m cranky,” the hero says. “I’ll stab you if you don’t stop it with the humorous commentary.”

The monster flares his nostrils.

“Who was he?” the hero asks.

“Stefan,” says the monster. “Experimental theologian.”

“I ate lunch with him every day,” Harold says, emerging onto the lawn. “He never picked up the check.”

“Ah,” says the hero. “More company with guns.”

Harold fires at the hero’s head. It misses. Most bullets do.

The hero’s sword comes up, right through the bike rack, right through Melanie’s bike, and stabs into Harold’s chest.

“That’s not good,” says Melanie, watching.

“Ow,” says Harold.

He looks down at his chest. He looks at the hero’s chest. Then he giggles.

“Now you and us are even stevens,” he says.

The hero gets to his feet, and drives the sword in deeper. It’s up to its hilt in Harold’s chest. Harold doesn’t seem to mind.

“I took generic ibuprofen before coming out to fight you,” he says. “That’s why the pain’s not so bad.”

Harold aims his gun under the hero’s chin. The hero elbows it out of Harold’s hand. It skitters across the ground and lands in soft verdant grass. Then the hero gets tired from blood loss and exertion and finds himself leaning gently against Harold’s shoulder.

“This is an awkward moment,” observes the monster.

“Why did you bring him here?” Harold asks.

“If you’d held off the assassination attempts until after the all-hands,” the monster says, “you’d probably know.”

Harold sighs. He shoves the hero away. The hero, blearily, refuses to shove. He grips Harold’s arms and holds them tightly against Harold’s body.

“I’ll squeeze,” the hero warns. So he does. The hero is very strong. Then blood comes out and he’s very weak. Then he’s very strong again. Then he falls back against the bike rack. Because it’s neatly cut in two, there are sharp edges pushing against his back.

“I’m invulnerable,” Harold says, apologetically. He starts walking towards his gun.

The hero leaps onto Harold’s back, and Harold falls to the ground. There’s a bike lock wrapped in the hero’s hands, and it’s choking Harold.

“Damn it,” Harold says. He’s not prone to profanity, even when he spills acid on himself or a really good woman dumps him, but he’s just realized that it’s a Kryptonite lock.

Then he’s dead.

All Hands

“Vincent,” Melanie says.

“I have really good hearing,” Vincent says. “That’s my only power. I have a rabbit familiar. I can hop. I can hear things. I’m not going to be able to kill him.”

“Oh.”

“Besides, the monster says that we should save assassination attempts until after the all-hands meeting. That sounds reasonable to me.”

“If you kill him before the all-hands, then there’ll be more seating for everyone else.”

“We can pull in an extra chair,” Vincent says. “It’s okay.”

So they go to the all-hands meeting.

“I bring a message of love,” says the monster, “from a girl named Jane.”

The monster has a laptop. It’s connected to a projector. The first slide in his PowerPoint presentation shows a large picture of a heart. It’s a formal Valentine heart and not a pulsing human heart. It’s labeled as slide one.

The monster clicks to the next slide.

“Jane wants you to redeem yourselves,” he says. The slide shows a picture of the monster, looking very uncomfortable, hugging a puppy. The puppy is licking the monster’s tie. It’s labeled as slide two. “We have committed acts of evil here, and horror unmeasured by morality. It is time to rededicate yourselves and this installation to compassion, love, and the healing of the world.”

Most of the people in the all-hands look uncomfortable. One hand raises. The monster points. “Yes?”

“What’s the threat?”

The monster’s voice is silk. “The threat?”

“What is she holding against you and/or us?”

“Ah,” says the monster. He clicks past several slides. He reaches slide five. It’s a chart of profit over time for 2002, 2003, and first quarter 2004. “In 2003,” he says, “the Earth Division cleared over two hundred million gross, with nearly forty million in profit. We control one of the three most powerful arsenals of theological weaponry in the known world, and have the chance to pioneer an uncharted and illegal science. What’s wrong with this picture?”

He clicks. There’s a picture of a globe. It’s lightly tinged with red—a dusting here, a deepening there, a bit of crimson spotted through the seas.

“This is the sum of our influence,” he says. “We have theoretically unlimited power, but in practice, our profits are penny ante and our influence tiny. The gods we make are isn’ts. They are severed from us. The greatest host of Faerie assembled in our time failed to topple the Nicaraguan government. The unbounded horrors born unto the Federated States of Micronesia are dying at human hands. And we make forty million a year from the ability to circumvent natural law and bend humans and nations alike to our desiring. We are an isn’t.”

The monster clicks to the next slide. There’s a picture of Martin. He’s leaning against the wall, looking away from the camera.

“This is what Jane has. She has a creature that can breach the boundary and make gods real. He can manifest dharma. If he sends to us a killing god, there are none of us safe. Conversely, should he manifest Ii Ma, then we may imprison any man we choose, without recourse, without jurisdiction, without protection. We would simply speak a man’s name, and Ii Ma would take him away. This creature’s contemners could destroy our enemies with near-perfect reliability. His footsoldiers—”

There’s a little giggle in the room. At this point, the footsoldiers are not much more than an in-joke to the Central crowd.

“Well,” says the monster, expressively.

He clicks ahead a few more slides.

“The rules are simple,” the monster says. “She is willing to forgive. Simply come up to this podium, and say, ‘It was wrong. It was vile. I had no right.’ Then turn, and walk through the door on the right, and begin your new life as an employee of a new, brighter, more loving Earth Division. Or walk through the door to the left, and continue your life as normal.”

The rules are displayed on the screen.

A hand raises. The monster points.

This is a Vice-President in Charge of Sales. His name is Miles, for what it matters. “This is a game, right? I mean, you’re not bloody serious. We’re not going to—I mean, it’s fucking crazy.”

The hero kills a Vice-President in Charge of Sales. His name was Miles.

The monster clears his throat.

“It is juvenile,” he says. “In the literal sense. I’ve sold you all out, and that puts each and every one of you at the mercy of a child. She’s about six years old, and each of you has collaborated, directly or ex post facto, in torturing her. If you refuse to play in her little tea party, I won’t save you, because that’s not in my interest. You can repent in jest, treating it as a game, but I imagine that something horrible would come out from under your bed and devour you in the night. It’s up to you. Leave through the left, or leave through the right.”

The monster turns off his laptop. “That’s all.”

The first man stands up. His name is Leonard. He walks to the front. He says, quietly, “It was wrong. It was vile. I had no right.”

He walks out through the door to the right.

The second man stands up. His name is Douglas, not that it matters. He walks to the front. He turns to the left. He walks left. The hero kills him.

“Hey,” says a woman in the back. Her name is Heather. “Hey!”

“What?” the monster asks.

“You can’t redeem people at the point of a sword.”

“Maybe I just had a grudge against that particular guy,” the hero suggests. He turns Douglas over. He reads the nametag. “‘Doug.’ Maybe he killed my cat.”

“It’s not morally correct as a means for gaining contrition!” Heather protests. She’s an armchair ethicist, and gets very vigorous about such things.

“If it’s within you to be redeemed,” says the monster, “then it shouldn’t matter what incentives are applied. If not, then redemption is impossible, even at the point of a flower.”

Heather frowns in frustration. “Did you . . . did you say those things, doctor? About it being wrong and vile?”

The monster smirks. He didn’t have to. Jane’s emotionally entangled with him, Martin needs him, and the hero’s messed up in the head. “It’s not relevant, dear lady,” he says.

Heather’s face pinches. She looks very upset. But she walks to the front. She looks nervously at the hero. “I didn’t collaborate,” she says. “I mean, not really.”

She turns left. She walks left. The hero kills her.

One by one, they go towards the front. Most of them make the speech now, and turn right. Two of them fight the hero. One of them dies normally. The other one dies with a shout and a bitter complaint on his lips, something to the effect of, “He didn’t have a harpoon when I attacked him.” A few others slink forward to die.

The Fable of the Lamb

Melanie takes out the needle and puts a bandaid on Vincent’s arm.

“Go,” says Melanie.

Vincent walks to the front. He turns left. The hero looks at him.

“I grew up here,” Vincent says. “It took me a long time to know that what we did was wrong. And then I couldn’t think of anything that could stop it. There’s nobody to tell, nobody to warn. Half the system is corrupt and the other half wouldn’t believe me. So I help the kids when I can. I try to give them a little bit of light. And I help the staff. Because I work here, because they gave me a place here, because I love them too. So I’m going to go left, and you’re not going to kill me, because heroes can kill monsters, and I’m just a screwed-up guy who never did figure out what to do.”

The hero shrugs. “If you’re right, then I can’t kill you, but it sounds a lot like excuses.”

Vincent walks left. The hero’s sword is in his hands. He is moving, swift and beautiful, a blur of gray and death; but he has lost a lot of blood, and there are many chairs, and he stumbles, and he falls.

Behind Vincent, Melanie walks out left; and one by one, the rest, as the blood beats slowly from the hero’s chest onto the floor.

In the time before the hero overcomes his dizziness and rises, there are only three who say the words and leave to the right.

“Is it really true, then?” Vincent asks, looking back, after he has left the building. “Am I really clean?”

“I extract your sins during the monthly blood test,” Melanie says. “I keep them in a bottle. You never know when you shall need a lamb.”

Rahu (IV/IV)

“A long time ago,” says Tina, “there was a woman named Prajapati, who made two demons named Rahu and Ketu.”

It is 2002, the year of the horse.

“They helped her to accept what was happening to her. But they were very sad.”

Iphigenia listens. She is dressed in a nightgown. Tina is brushing her hair.

“When she took sick, because she’d been hung too long in her monster’s garden, Rahu and Ketu went looking for someone to help her.”

Iphigenia says, “Couldn’t they heal her?”

“Demons are filthy creatures. They aren’t good for very much,” Tina says. “They can plead. But they cannot heal.”

“I see.”

“So they went to the moon,” says Tina. “And they asked the moon, ‘will you heal her?'”

“Is the moon driven by someone like me?” Iphigenia asks.

Tina’s brush pulls on a tangle in Iphigenia’s hair. Iphigenia suppresses a yelp.

“There is no god of the moon today,” Tina says.

“Oh.”

“The moon said, ‘I shine my light on her every night. Isn’t that enough? I won’t help her more than that.'”

Iphigenia frowns. “I think I’m glad that she is gone.”

“And then they went to the sun,” says Tina. “And they asked the sun, ‘will you heal her?’ And what do you think the sun said?”

Iphigenia frets. The brush moves gently through her hair. “I think that—”

“Yes?”

“I think that the sun could not help them,” Iphigenia says, “because demons are filthy creatures, and because the sun had a higher purpose.”

“Yes,” says Tina.

“Yes?”

“Yes,” says Tina. “The sun and moon had a magical elixir that could make Prajapati immortal. But they did not share it with her. Because she did not deserve it. But what were Rahu and Ketu to do?”

Iphigenia thinks. “They had to save her, because they were her demons.”

“They might have just wanted her to accept her death,” says Tina.

“Maybe,” says Iphigenia dubiously.

“But instead they snuck into the houses of the sun and the moon, and they stole the elixir, and they took a sip for themselves and a sip for Prajapati. And when they were gone, the servants in those houses raised such a ruckus as you could not imagine. They cried to every god in all Heaven, even Lord Vishnu, that the elixir had been stolen. So with one cut of his blade, he chopped off their heads. The elixir they wanted to bring Prajapati dribbled out through their necks and was gone. But ever since, whenever they could find the sun and the moon, Rahu and Ketu ate them—just like that! That’s why you have eclipses.”

“That’s a sad story.”

“One day,” Tina says, “Rahu will find you, and he will eat you up, and you will be gone, and I will be alone.”

“Oh.”

“Everyone will wear black,” says Tina, “and they will be very sad for me; but I think that even the monster will be hiding pleasure behind his eyes.”

“I won’t die soon,” says Iphigenia.

“See that you don’t!” says Tina, crisply. She helps Iphigenia stand up. She turns her around. She places a ribbon in Iphigenia’s hair. “There,” she says. “Go to bed.”

Iphigenia sleeps, and dreams of Rahu’s gaping maw.

Iphigenia (II/IV)

“I would like the power to kill,” Tina tells the monster.

It is 1981. The sun is dim and has been growing dimmer.

“Then take it,” says the monster.

The sun is very big, but it is very far away. Four horses pull it around the sky. They belong to Mr. Sun and his daughter Iphigenia.

“These horses always get too hot and sweaty,” says Mr. Sun. “That’s why they have such a high mortality rate! But there aren’t enough left to sustain the breed. Soon we’ll run out!”

“That’s bad,” declares Iphigenia.

“She is available?” Tina asks.

“She is.”

“We could try ice horses,” says Iphigenia.

“Let’s!”

But the ice horses melt. Cold water splashes everywhere. The sun grows a little dimmer.

“I don’t think that worked,” opines Mr. Sun.

So Tina calls Jenna on the telephone. Jenna meets her by the road, with trees arching above. Tina takes her home.

“The sun is dying,” Tina says, in a businesslike fashion. “You have failed to keep it alive.”

It wouldn’t mean anything to Jenna if you called her Nephilim.

She barely remembers or understands that the monster has used her, more than once, to conjure gods. Not on that day, anyway; not on that occasion. The process blurs, sometimes, fades, shudders from your mind, if you can’t put it in a framework suited to your understanding.

Jenna does not know what she has done or what she isn’t for or why she answered Tina’s call;

But she can’t meet Tina’s eyes.

“We could try murderous horses,” says Iphigenia. “Their hearts would be cold as ice, but their bodies wouldn’t be!”

“Let’s!” declares Mr. Sun.

They lock the horses in a room. They kill one another. It’s a locked room mystery!

“It’s not really that mysterious,” says Iphigenia, after a while. “Just sad.”

Today’s pain is sharp and hideous and it lingers, like a burn.

Jenna is aware of screaming, sometimes. Mostly she is aware that she is going to die, that everything in the world is wrong, and that it is her fault. She has failed to keep the sun alive.

“We could try horses made of fire,” says Iphigenia.

“That’d make the sun even hotter,” says Mr. Sun. “We might burn up ourselves!”

“Let’s both do our best,” says Iphigenia.

So they hitch four horses of fire to the sun. They begin to sweat. The horses gallop. It is hard and it is painful and it is terrible. The heat washes back to them in waves, and the effort, and the straining of the horses against the reins. It is a wild and terrible ride, and Iphigenia can scarcely breathe during it.

She is laughing with exultation and victory when she realizes that

Somehow, it is over. Somehow, she has survived.

“That’s very well done,” says Mr. Sun. “I guess you should take over, now.”

The world is strangely cold on Iphigenia’s skin. She looks around. A girl is slumped against the wall. A woman in a white coat is looking at her with a distant air of satisfaction.

“Hello?” says Iphigenia.

There are walls on every side, and nowhere there is the sun.

“Can you kill?” says the woman. Her hair is blond and cut short.

“I am the sun,” says Iphigenia.

The woman walks to the window. She points at a passing car. “Them,” she says.

Iphigenia frowns. She is unsettled, unbalanced. But there is heat and the car is burning.

The woman stares at Iphigenia for a while.

“I understand you,” she says. Her words are flat.

Iphigenia blinks at her.

“I am Tina,” the woman says. “You are my daughter.”