The Heaps (III/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]

Once upon a time, Simon wandered in the high mountains under Mluna, near Sa Fel.

Five bandits assailed him.

They cut off his limbs. They took his purse. They cut under his eyes. They hung his head on a hastily assembled construct of twigs and glue and those tiny lego connectors that people generally find difficult to use for any other purpose.

Simon sighed with happiness.

That was his last breath: a smile, and ahhh.

“Why are you so happy?” the bandits asked him.

Simon, being dead, said nothing.

Some would say that a man when killed by bandits in the mountains under Mluna by Sa Fel should take no action to provoke the bandits further.

Cooperate, they would say.

You’re already dead.

Don’t make things worse.

But Simon sat there mute as a stone. His dead eyes did not flicker. A tiny smile played around his mouth, leftover from what he’d smiled before, and proof against all their curses and shouts to him.

The bandits acted.

The chief among the bandits, one Harrison Morne, held Simon’s head aloft by the queue of his hair.

He spake a curse.

Now we do not know where Harrison Morne learned this curse. Some say that he learned it from his father, and him from his father, who had it from the statue that stands over the doorway of the house of Hath: that statue, Ill Tidings by name, with its leonine head, its spider’s limbs, its shaven fur that leaves it bare against the cold, and standing improbably suspended and peculiarly balanced above the doorstep of the house. Many a malevolence the storytellers have ascribed to this statue, more in quantity than the venom in its heart could sire, so all such stories fall under a certain cloud of doubt — but still, we have no more plausible theory to advance regarding the curse of Harrison Morne.

In any event he spake a curse.

The wind blew cold. The mist billowed, much as it bellows here. Shrieks rang out through the mountains under Mluna, at Sa Fel. The eyes of the beheaded Simon gleamed red and his jaw fell loose and he said, “Ah.”

“Now,” said Harrison Morne.

“Ah,” sighed Simon.

“As to the matter of your joy.”

“It is this,” confessed Simon’s head. “I had feared that you were heaps.”

“Heaps?”

“It is good to be killed by bandits,” said Simon’s head, “when the alternative is heaps.”

Harrison looked in helplessness to the bandits of his pack; but they shrugged, and one—the youngest, the smallest, one Lillek by name, said, “Some kind of horror native to these peaks, perhaps.”

So Harrison looked sourly at Simon and said, “Well, you know better now.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” says Simon.

“Now you shall know eternal suffering,” Harrison says. “Thus we the bandits have served you worse than even might the heaps, and hopefully this has spoiled your last quixotic joy.”

“Ah, well,” says Simon.

“Ah, well?”

“Don’t we all suffer eternally anyway?”

And with a growl Harrison slung Simon over his back, still holding to his queue, and with the head bouncing and bumping against the cured hides of his shirt Harrison walked away.

And Simon said, in tones of some regret, “Ah, there they are.”

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

Max sets out in his coracle to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime but he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.

It is the Latter Days of the Law.
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.

The Island of the Centipede

And Harrison Morne looked back, and all around the bandits, emerging from the mist, he thought he saw the heaps. And that was the day, it is said, that the heaps did learn the fashion of carrying heads slung o’er their shoulders; but they never got it quite right, because the faces on the heads they carry are not the faces of the men they killed, but rather and always so the face of Harrison Morne.

In gratitude that horrors did not come to pass, and in prayer that they shall not, either, in any near and meaningful measure of time.

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.

What Wistful Sally Says

Immortal Ken never has to die!

That’s why he’s packaged differently from Mortal Ken. Mortal Ken dies every time you press the button on his back! That’s his special mortality action. It’s easy to kill as many Mortal Kens as you want, and it’s a great opportunity for kids to learn the ins and outs of serial killing.

Reviving Stacy is a special Stacy who can bring Ken back from the dead. This changes the underlying morality of killing Ken. If Ken can never come back, then killing him is wrong. But if you can revive Ken with a Reviving Stacy doll, then who knows what moral rules apply? It’s like with Tickle Me Cthulhu—his life and death are meaningless and the human condition doesn’t apply!

If Mortal Ken has an Immortal Soul, which you can buy with the Immortal Soul Play Kit, then reviving Ken ensures that he’ll never go on to his glorious afterlife. He won’t have a harp like in Christian Heaven or many sloe-eyed virgins like in the Great Church of Sloe Heaven. He won’t shuffle emptily in Hades. He won’t earn his way into the Elysian fields. (Admittedly, that wasn’t really going to happen anyway except to Greek Hero Ken, that barrel-bodied Ken of legend that strides through the battlefields of Siege-Time Ilium.) In short, reviving a Mortal Ken renders the Immortal Soul meaningless and chains him immanently and externally to the cycles of the Earth.

Immortal Ken differs because it is the nature of Immortal Ken’s existence that he does not have to die. His purpose and definition transcend time, negating the moral argument for evolution, death, and change. No matter how hard you push the button on Immortal Ken’s back, he just won’t end! Philosophers suggest that Immortal Ken expresses a certain Zeist-Geist of denial popularized by evangelical toy companies and the makers of Highlander 2.

People in backwards regions have taken to eating parts of Immortal Ken dolls in the hopes of longevity or sexual prowess. In general manufacturers provide a heavily diluted shaving of plastic taken from the outer epidermis of a Ken doll, sometimes mixed with bits of the sea and the sky, which customers drink down to become homeopathically immortal themselves. Many young children deplore this practice as it is disturbing to try to play with dolls when there are always practitioners of homeopathic medicine lingering about.

More forward-thinking people do not consume Immortal Ken in any concentration. It is better, assert the monks, the priests, the intellectuals, and the old women in their huts, to hold tight Wistful Sally to one’s chest. Shunning Ken, shunning Stacy, they pull the string, and listen to her words.

She says, “Let’s go shopping!”

Or “Math is hard!”

Or “No one should ever have to die.”

Sometimes, but rarely, she says, “Yo Joe!”

Martin and Lisa (I/III)

It is 1995. There is no sun in the Underworld.

Martin finds it creepy that there are portraits along the stairs.

One of them is a picture of Frederick. He looks a lot more like the hero than Martin does. But Martin knows him. He was Jane’s brother before Martin was.

“I wonder why you failed,” Martin says.

Then he takes out a bit of charcoal and scribbles a moustache on Frederick’s face.

“Now you’re an Archduke!”

Archduke Frederick, presumably of Austria, looks out impassively at the world.

The next portrait is a picture of Tad. Tad was Jane’s brother after Frederick but before Martin. Tad’s got a smooth smile. He’s pretty cool. Martin isn’t cool yet, so Tad’s coolness annoys him. He turns Tad’s picture around. He writes ‘kick me’ on its back.

Martin descends. He reaches the bottom of the stairs, and a land of mud and darkness.

“I have no idea where to go,” he says.

Nothing happens.

He clears his throat. He says, loudly, “I have no idea where to go! If only there were someone who could help me!”

The world shivers.

Light condenses from the darkness, and ten thousand miles of shadows grow deeper. The light is a girl. She’s carrying a jacket, and her name is Lisa.

“Hey,” she says.

“Hey.”

He looks her up and down. They could be siblings. They could be twins. She’s his height exactly, and she’s got his hair, and she’s got his smile, and she’s got his eyes.

“You’re kidding,” Martin says.

“What?”

Martin looks hesitant.

“She made me,” Lisa says, “a long time ago, to be her older sister. I was an answer to her suffering. I said, ‘maybe it’s for the best. Maybe suffering is transformative. Maybe if I leave her there to suffer, she’ll become something grander, something better, something new.‘”

“Yes,” agrees Martin.

Lisa grins at him. “It makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s a perfect answer. People die in droves, children lay in piles with their arms twitching, dogs starve, and it could all be part of a glorious purpose. The engine that drives the growth of the world. The answer to the Dukkha Call. And I was part of it.”

Lisa turns. She looks out at the mud. She slings her jacket over her shoulder and begins walking.

Martin follows.

“I, um.”

Martin clears his throat.

“That’s why I’m letting her suffer,” he says, “too.”

“Redundancy’s good,” Lisa says, cheerfully. “Hey, do you have a wish?”

Martin looks down. His eyes are in shadow. “I want to win,” he says.

Lisa grins at him. “That’s a good wish,” she says.

“Can you grant it?”

“Maybe!” Lisa grins at him. Her teeth are very white. “If nothing else, I can raise your hopes.”

Martin is not entirely sure how to take that. He retreats in the general direction of sarcasm, but doesn’t quite make it there.

“Yay,” he says.

In the distance, he hears a cry. “Help me!” it says.

“Ignore those,” Lisa says.

“Illusions to lead me off the path?”

“Dead angels,” Lisa says. “Probably some other gods too. They’re steeping in mud and failure until they become something grander, something better, something new.”

“Yay.”

“Do you know the rules of the Underworld?” Lisa asks.

“No,” Martin says.

“They’re like this,” Lisa says. “It’s easy to get into the Underworld. There is no body that does not have its personal gate of death; no soul, without its gate of emptiness; no mind, without its gate of deepness. That’s three whole gates per person, and girls have a fourth, so you can see how easy it is. Getting out, on the other hand, is hard. You can’t leave unless you’re the child of a god, beloved by the one who sits on the throne of the world, or a person inherently good.”

Martin looks wry.

Lisa grins at him. It’s a charming expression. “I know,” she says.

He snorts.

“I do,” she says. “I had the same dream you did. But then I got stuck.”

“I’m inherently good,” Martin bluffs. “Unlike some people.”

“Nice trick,” Lisa says.

They walk on for a bit.

“I mean,” Lisa says, “considering.”

Martin looks up, sharply. For a moment, there’s a force in his eyes. Then it fades, and he bursts out with a question that’s been nagging at him.

“Why are you a girl?”

“The monster isn’t as fond of boys,” the angel Lisa says.

“Oh.”

They walk on.

“People who don’t suffer,” Martin justifies, “remain small. They’re weak. They’re isn’ts. They’re shadows. They’re firewood people.”

“That’s true,” says Lisa.

Then the most remarkably clever and cruel expression comes on her face, and she leans close to him, and she whispers, “So are people who suffer, mostly.”

Martin makes himself walk on.

“Maybe you’re a stillborn thing,” Lisa says. “Like a fire made of wind, like a voice crying in the emptiness, like a dream in the mind of an uncaring man. Maybe you’re down here because you died. It’s the path most people take.”

“Maybe,” Martin says.

Lisa stops.

“Anyway,” she says. “This is your place.”

She gestures ahead of them, where the mud stirs in unseen currents.

“You’ll spend eternity drowning,” she says. “You won’t be able to breathe. Your struggles will be muted. You’ll never know what happened to anyone else you care about. There’ll be no boundary between yourself and the pain. Like with her.”

Martin looks at her.

“It’s not what I’m here for,” he says.

“It’s nicer than being a light spread through ten thousand miles of darkness,” Lisa argues.

“But is it right?”

“I hope so,” Lisa says.

Martin hunches his shoulders a bit. He looks out at the mud.

“I don’t want to drown in mud forever.”

“Enh.”

Lisa shrugs.

“None save the monster,” she says, “may choose the circumstances of their lives.”

Martin looks at the mud. He looks at Lisa. He looks at the mud. He looks at Lisa.

“Don’t ever tell her I did this?” he says.

She looks at his eyes. Then she grins to him, even as she tries to brace herself for war. “All right,” she promises.

PUSH!

Martin pushes Lisa. She falls backwards into the mud behind them. Then Martin runs.

There’s something on his hands. It might be dust. Or it might be Lisa-cooties. Martin can’t tell. So he scrubs his hands vigorously on his legs as he runs.

Jane’s Terrifying Story of Near-Halloween Horror

Two girls meet at the gates of the dead. They’re mirrored, those gates. One girl steps into the mirrors. The other steps through the gates.

Mr. Schiff is on a plane. He’s going to go skydiving.

Jane and Martin are on a green, green hill. They’re eating a picnic. It involves bread, pickles, and cheese. There’s a girl sitting with them. She’s quiet, since she’s dead, but she still munches on bread and cheese when Jane offers.

“Her name’s Iffy,” Jane says.

“Where’d you meet her?” Martin asks.

“She was over there,” Jane says. Jane points at the grass. “She was eating ice cream. So I invited her to a picnic.”

“Hi,” Iffy says.

Martin smiles a little. “Hey.”

“Your turn!” Jane says. “Tell me a story.”

Martin ponders. “A scary story? It’s almost Halloween.”

“Okay,” Jane agrees.

“A long time ago,” Martin says, “the luminiferous ether and the atmosphere were sisters, and the best of friends.”

Iffy frowns at Martin.

“They did everything together,” Martin says. “They played. They worked. They laughed. But sometimes things go bad.”

“Like mayonnaise!” Jane suggests.

“Mistakes were made,” Martin says. “Recriminations issued. Regrettable events were insufficiently regretted. And one day, while they were arguing with one another in the shape of two little girls, the atmosphere stabbed the luminiferous ether right through the heart, and through both eyes, and to the death.”

“With a pickle?” Jane asks.

“With a knife,” Martin says.

Jane frowns at him severely. At first Martin looks suave. Then he caves.

“Fine,” he says. “With a knife carved from the deadliest of Vlassic pickles, dripping with its horrid brine.”

“Yay!” Jane says. She takes a pickle out of the picnic pickle jar and bites it happily.

“Which of them do you identify with?” Martin asks, curiously.

“I’m the horrified onlooker,” Jane says. “Gasp! This one little girl has killed the other! We must fetch a doctor immediately!”

“It wasn’t like that,” Iffy says. Jane hands her a bit of bread and cheese. “It was more about how scientific concepts evolve.”

“I’ve always thought,” Martin says, “that if scientists could establish their theories by stabbing one another with pickles, they probably would.”

“Some kind of peer review thing?” Iffy asks.

“Yah.”

Iffy considers.

Martin shrugs.

“They did fetch a doctor,” Martin says. “But it didn’t help, because, you know, the luminiferous ether was dead. And the atmosphere wasn’t even one little bit sorry, either.”

Jane frowns. “Not even a little?”

“Well,” Martin confesses, “maybe a little.”

“Just a little?” Jane says.

“Well,” Martin admits, “after a while, the atmosphere felt really bad about it. But what could she do? The luminiferous ether was already dead.”

“She could go to the other side,” Jane says. “And bring her sister back!”

“It’s not that easy,” Iffy says.

“It’s hard to revive someone killed with a pickle,” Martin agrees. “You have to make an especial appeal to the King of the Dead.”

Jane waves a hand airily. “Being the atmosphere opens a lot of doors.”

“That’s true,” Martin admits. “But it closes others.”

Jane thinks. “I’ve seen that happen,” she concedes.

“So what would the King of the Dead do?”

Jane frowns. “You’re telling this story,” she says, severely. “But I guess that he’d probably make some kind of deal with her. Like, maybe, she has to do three incredible tasks to get her sister back.”

“Or maybe,” Martin says, “she can get her back, but not all the way.”

Suddenly, Iffy frowns. “Ack,” she says. She pushes upwards at the air as if trying to hold something up.

“You okay?” Jane asks.

Iffy shakes her head. “It’s too hard!” she says. “I can’t provide enough friction!”

“See,” Martin says, gesturing around broadly, “the King of the Dead was willing to let the luminiferous ether back. It can play. It can touch the world. It can run in the grass and eat ice cream. But it can never see its sister again. Because when the luminiferous ether is here, conducting light and providing a breathable environment, the atmosphere must hide from the world, behind mirrors and under the glass. That’s the bargain that the King of the Dead made. And today, just a few weeks from Halloween, is one of the days when the luminiferous ether is here, and the atmosphere is gone.”

Mr. Schiff hits the ground, hard, next to them.

“It makes it a bad day to sky dive,” Martin admits. “The ether has low resistance and doesn’t hold parachutes up very well.”

Iffy sags. “I did my best,” she says.

Jane stares at Mr. Schiff in horror. “Is he dead?”

Martin takes a pickle from the jar. He pokes Mr. Schiff with it. “Dunno,” he says.

Jane straightens her spine. She looks firm. “I don’t believe in dead people,” she says.

“What?” Martin asks.

“I’m hoping he’ll hear me,” Jane says.

“Why?”

“Every time a child says that,” Jane says, “a dead person comes back to life.”

“Just like that?”

Jane nods. “It used to be that there was one dead person for every living person. But children stopped believing in death, and dead people started coming back to life, and now the world’s all overpopulated. I don’t believe in dead people.”

Martin frowns. “He’s not responding,” he says.

“I don’t believe in dead people! I don’t! I don’t!” Jane shouts.

There’s a pause.

Martin sighs.

“I don’t believe in dead people,” he whispers.

“I don’t believe in dead people,” Jane says.

“I don’t believe in dead people,” Iffy concedes.

“I don’t believe in dead people,” Jane demands.

There’s a silence. Slowly, Mr. Schiff drags himself upright.

“I don’t believe in dead people,” Jane says, again.

“I can fly,” Mr. Schiff says, “you know.”

“That’s good!” Jane says encouragingly. “I don’t believe in dead people.”

“You can stop now,” Martin says.

“Oh,” Jane says.

“You know,” Martin says, “we should go to the graveyard on Halloween, and do that.”

“That would be mean,” Jane says. “Most of those people are done.”

It is the end of that day. One girl waits behind the mirrors for her freedom. The other walks down to the gates of the dead.

“You can’t go through,” says the King. “Not today.”

Iffy pauses. “Why not?”

“You can’t be dead,” says the King, “if people don’t believe in it.”

Ink in the Wrong Allegory

Floor 93-AI, page 2: This was not my Hell.

Meredith’s perhaps, hanging on the wall.
Or the lion’s.
Or the Queen’s.

It was not mine.

I am still descending.

On a hill there is a house.

In the day, it is a golden house, and it gleams in the light of the sun. At night, it is a white house, pale like the moon. Its windows glimmer.

It is high on the hill, and the hill is grassy, and on that hill the wind does blow. The lights of other houses are far away.

In that house, the Professor’s house, it is kind and clean. There are many floors and many rooms. There is a palpable radiance of safety. And there is a wardrobe. Standing in that wardrobe is a twelve-year-old girl. She sweeps the coats aside. As she expected, the wardrobe has no back. It extends ever onwards into infinity.

“Ha,” she says. “That’s fishy!”

Her name is Ink Catherly. She has been in the Professor’s house for all of thirteen hours and seventeen minutes. It took her thirteen hours and ten minutes to recover her nerve. It took her three minutes to pack her backpack full of odds and ends and a delicious lunch. It took her four minutes to go straight to where the trouble was.

Ink’s short for Incorrigible, or so she’d like you to believe.

Floor 93-AB: There are monks here, standing on a deep deep stair. “You cannot descend,” they said, “without embracing our doctrine.”

“What must I do?” I asked.

“At the first landing,” they said, “we sorrow for ten years.”

“I’m twelve,” I pointed out.

“You may continue.”

So I went down.

“At the second landing,” the monks said, “we must laugh until we understand that we know nothing.” They giggled as they said it. It was a harsh and artificial sound. Their voices pained them, but they did not stop laughing.

“I’m an explorer,” I said. And they gestured me down, and down I went.

“On the third landing,” the monks said, “we spend ten years feeling mildly nostalgic for the previous two landings.”

“Good times,” I said. “Good times.”

Then I bolted, cheating! past them and away.

Ink peers dubiously at the wardrobe. “This looks like something that needs a hero,” she says. “And that’s not my job.”

She takes off her backpack. She sorts through it. She doesn’t have a hero. So she goes to the Professor.

“Excuse me, sir,” she says. “But do you happen to have a hero? Or a heroine? I’m not picky.”

He gives her a sharp man’s look. “Dear me,” he says. “Dear me. Child, there’s no man or woman born who can’t be a hero. You just have to find your courage.”

Ink looks down. She gathers her thoughts. She looks up. She tries again. “Professor, you’ve been very kind. But there’s a magic kingdom in your wardrobe. I know how this works. If I go in there I’ll wind up saving it. And then I’ll be a magical queen. And then I’ll have so much red tape I’ll never have a chance to explore.”

“. . . that might be true,” the Professor allows.

“So I would prefer,” she says, “if there were another little girl or boy around, so I could use them as a dupe. I am happy to dispense any gnomic advice you want me to give them, and even help out if I must. But I don’t want to do it myself.”

The Professor hesitates. “This place is very close to the Underworld,” he says. “That’s why I can afford this house on a Professor’s salary. But it means that children are in short supply.”

Ink looks at him severely.

“There’s Meredith,” he offers. “She was the girl who helped you put away your things.”

“She’ll do!” Ink declares.

Ink leads Meredith to the wardrobe. “Hm,” Ink says. “This wardrobe seems oddly deep.”

“Oh!” says Meredith. “We could go on an adventure!”

“Do you think so?” Ink asks.

“We simply must,” Meredith declares.

Floor 93-AC: This was written on the wall:

We have amended our laws of physics.
Between the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force,
we have added a law of universal fairness.
The strong nuclear force can still, of course, override justice.
But it apologizes, when it does so.

It is only natural that we should reap what we have sown.

If you should read these words,
Oh, remember us!

Meredith proceeds inwards. Then she pauses. “Wait,” she says. “We’re in a wardrobe! We should play dress-up!”

“I reserve judgment,” Ink says.

Meredith looks around. She takes a crown from a dusty shelf and puts it on. She hangs beads of lapis lazuli around her neck. She pins sparkling rhinestones to her teddy-bear top. She winds a gold ring around her waist. She puts on a rich ermine coat and takes a measuring rod in her hand. Then she feels around in her pockets.

“Oh, cool,” she says. “An ancient Babylonian clay tablet!”

She reads it.

“It says: ‘on this tablet are fourteen me, great blessings of power. They are truth, the descent into the underworld, the ascent back, the art of lovema—‘”

Meredith covers her mouth with one hand and giggles. She also blushes. “Oh my God.”

“Let me see that,” Ink says.

Meredith clutches the tablet close to her chest. Ink rolls her eyes. After twelve seconds, Meredith shows it to Ink. Ink skims down. She grits her teeth. There’s a pause.

“Um,” Ink says. “Well, the ‘making of decisions’ bit is probably good.”

Meredith giggles. Ink stomps her foot.

“This is a serious journey!” she says. “If you make me start giggling, I’ll be very vexed.”

Meredith puts the tablet back in her pocket. She walks onwards. Occasionally, she giggles again. Finally, Ink giggles too; and, horrified, fishes her cynicism goggles out of her backpack and puts them on.

“The Professor’s intentions are not so pure as I’d imagined,” Ink cynically concludes.

“Or the ancient Babylonians’ weren’t!”

“What?”

“They might have had impure intentions!”

Meredith thinks.

“But besides,” Meredith says, “the tablet isn’t his. Didn’t you see, at the bottom? It’s signed with a pawprint! So I know it belongs to the lion of the wardrobe.”

“Oh.” They walk along for a bit. Then Ink frowns. “Wait, what?”

Meredith beams at Ink. “He is the great wise one,” she says. “He is the son of the king of the universe. He has been gone from us for some time, no doubt drinking again, but when he sets foot in the world, he brings the secrets of lore and wisdom. When he shakes his mane, civilization grows and spreads. When he roars, it means the end to ignorance! Even his pawprint brings wisdom.”

“Oh.”

And at the end of the wardrobe, there is a gate, and outside it, pacing, there is a lion. And while Ink stares at the lion in dismay, Meredith runs forward and casts her arms around his neck, saying, “Oh! Isn’t he beautiful?” And the lion rumbles, deep in his chest.

“I suppose,” Ink says.

“Child,” the lion says, “I have ordained a difficult duty for you, who carries my sacred me.

“Anything,” Meredith says.

“You must descend into the Underworld,” the lion says. He licks Meredith’s ears with his great raspy tongue. “Lo! I have opened your ears. You may hear the wailing of the Queen.”

“Oh!” Meredith says. “It’s so . . . it wrenches my heart.”

“Then listen well,” the lion says, “for I shall give you gifts.”

Shaking Meredith gently off his neck, he stalks to a sack of gifts and opens it with a paw. He struggles somewhat with the sack, and Ink senses that at times even the lion of the wardrobe would appreciate opposable thumbs.

“This key,” the lion says, “will give you entrance. With this dagger and this sword, you shall know the arts of war. Drape this standard about you, and understand the arts of the sacred prostitutes. Take this holy miniature shrine and learn the arts of song, and wisdom, and power, and treachery, and the plundering of cities, and lamentations, and joy, and deceit, and kindness. Take this certificate of training and learn the arts of copper and writing and wood. At that,” he says, “take it all, save this.”

He noses a small stuffed lion. “This is for Ink,” he says. “Because I did not know what else to get her.”

So Meredith takes the sacred objects and adorns herself further; and she walks to the gate, and she turns the key.

“Stay here,” she says to Ink. “If I’m not back in a few hours, I’m probably in trouble!”

The lion lays himself down, gently, in the sun. Meredith is gone.

Floor 93-AG: There was a spider here, or perhaps it was an angel. It was a thing of aurora borealis, a glittering and beauty hanging in the air. It shimmered. It shone. As it crawled upon its web, the strands played symphonies.

There were people in its web. Mummified people. Soldiers. Drummers. Generals. It seemed like some great army had marched this way; and stopped; and tried to parlay with a thing that does not understand either mercy or fear.

I picked up a gun from the ground. It had been loaded but not fired. I checked, afterwards. None of them had been.

It only took one shot.

“I don’t want a stuffed lion,” Ink says.

The lion of the wardrobe stands. He pads over to her. Ink shrinks back. With his terrible mouth, he bites her cynicism goggles and lifts them off her head.

“Oh, it’s cute!” Ink says.

“But ultimately hopeless,” the lion admits.

He drops the cynicism goggles on the ground and returns to his spot of sun.

“Why do you say that? I mean, besides cynicism?”

“I have given her everything,” the lion says, “but there is a deeper magic than the magic of the me.

“Of the I,” Ink corrects.

“. . . there’s really no proper grammar for this situation,” the lion concludes.

“A deeper magic?” Ink asks.

“The gateway to the Underworld is but a crack,” the lion says. “Thin, like a knife. So even now Meredith sets aside her key, for she needs it not. And her sword. And her dagger. Her shrine. Her certificate. Her standard. Now she sheds the coat, and the ruler, and the crown, and the jewels. She must enter the Underworld naked, like a child, and thus, you see, I have played her false. That is the deeper magic.”

Ink waits.

“And Meredith says,” the lion rumbles, “‘Oh pale Queen of bone and death, I come to bring you surcease.’

“And the Queen touches her with the wand of death, and Meredith becomes a rotten corpse, and the Queen hangs her on the wall.”

The lion rises. He pads away. “We are done,” he says. “You may proceed to the next floor; the exit is in the Professor’s study.”

“Wait,” Ink says, in confusion.

“What?”

“She was nice.”

“Without the symbols of adulthood,” the lion says, softly, “she is just a dead girl, of no particular import, hanging on a wall. Move on.”

The lion pads away.

Ink looks down. She hesitates. Then she picks up the small stuffed lion. She hugs it close. She touches her free hand to one of the lion’s pawprints. She pushes her hand around in the dirt, trying to find magical inspiration. Her fingernails get dirty. She scratches behind her ear. Now the spot behind her ear is dirty too. She won’t wash it any time soon. She’s twelve!

Ink walks to the gate. She walks inwards. She walks deep. She’s thinner than Meredith, so she can just squeeze through while dressed, with her backpack and the lion held by her side.

In the caverns of the Underworld, there dwells a Queen. She is in agony. As Ink draws closer, Ink can hear the wailing and the gnashing of teeth. But she cannot quite make out words until she enters the room; and there is the pale Queen, naked and unkempt, upon the floor.

“Oh!” screams the Queen. “My inside!”

At a loss, Ink takes a note.

“Oh!” she screamed. “My inside!”

“Oh!” screams the Queen. “My outside!”

“Oh!” she screamed. “My outside!”

And the long litany of pain continues.

“Oh!” screams the Queen. “My gallbladder!”

“Oh!” she screamed. “My gallbladder!”

Ink hesitates. “Where is that?” she asks. “I mean, I’ve always wondered.”

The Queen looks up.

“I’ve been taking notes,” Ink says. “It was all I could think to do.”

The Queen rises and looks at Ink through narrowed eyes. “All this time?”

“Pain matters,” Ink says.

“Ah,” says the Queen. Then she tilts her head to one side. “It pleases me,” she says, “to be heard.”

Ink nods mutely.

“But—you are here to challenge me?”

“I can’t,” Ink says, uncomfortably. “I . . . just wanted to say something gnomic to Meredith. You know. ‘Buck up!’ or something. It’s not much, since she’s dead, but . . .”

Ink smiles crookedly. She looks a bit overwhelmed.

“Ah,” says the Queen. Then she smiles. “You are a gracious creature. Tell her the words of life; and she shall be restored; and you may take her from this place.”

“The words of life?”

“It is a secret of the Underworld,” the Queen says. “Whisper to a corpse’s ear, ‘Be not ashamed to live.’ And it shall rise.”

Ink is silent for a time. Then, hesitantly, with one eye always on the murderous wand of the Queen, she walks to the wall, and whispers in Meredith’s ear.

“This is the deepest magic,” says the Queen, “from before the dawn of time.”

The halls are filled with a sound like the roaring of lions, or the wakening of the world.

Progression and Regression

It’s the beginning.

“Are you a tiger?” the child asks.

“I’m not, ” says Dehlai.

The child frowns. “A Spice Girl?”

“I’m a prince,” Dehlai says. “I’m the seventh prince of this forest land.”

“You’d be easily mistaken for a tiger.”

“I know.”

“Or a Spice Girl. But then you’d have to fight their rival ninja clan.”

Dehlai nods. “Occasionally,” he says, “a shuriken wings by, and I say: ‘Was that really meant for me?’ And it’s probably the resemblance.”

“That’s tough,” the child says.

Dehlai sighs. The child sighs with him. Then the child wanders off.

Dehlai goes to his mirror and peers at his reflection within. “I’m easily mistaken for anything,” he says, unhappily. “Shoes. Socks. A mobile death platform. A princess. Even, that one time, gum. It’s very embarrassing.”

The drum beats. The mirror shows its words:

I liked it when people thought you were a death platform.

It was funny watching them fall over, dead. Then they’d realize they were okay and try to pretend it was all a deliberate jest.

“I should go to the five lords,” Dehlai says. “And make myself unmistakable.”

The drum beats. The mirror shows its words:

Aww. But I love you, Dehlai!

Dehlai picks up the drum. He puts it under his arm. He walks out into the world. He goes in quest of the lord of the taste skandha.

“I want to taste unmistakable,” he says.

The Skandha Lord of Taste looks Dehlai up and down. Then he licks him. That’s how the Skandha Lord of Taste figures things out. He licks them. Even quantum theory! But Dehlai’s a bit of a puzzle.

“Are you an omelette?” he asks.

“Prince,” Dehlai says.

“Ah,” says the Skandha Lord. “You’d be easily mistaken for an omelette. It’s the rich eggy taste of your skin.”

The drum beats. There’s no mirror, but Dehlai thinks it sounds amused.

The tongue flicks out. There’s an annoyed rat-a-tat.

“That,” says the Skandha Lord, “is a drum.”

“I know,” Dehlai agrees.

“You’re already unmistakable,” says the Skandha Lord, “because you taste like an omelette, which has a drum. But I’ll give you a new taste.”

“Thank you.”

“I’ll make you taste like the sky,” says the Skandha Lord, “and iced raspberries, and the rain. That cold, crisp taste that goes right to the back of the throat. It’s a new blend. It should be irresistible.”

“I didn’t really want to taste irresistible,” Dehlai says. “I mean, it’s all right that you licked me because you’re the Skandha Lord, but I can’t have people stopping me on the street because they want a taste.”

“That’s the advantage of taste,” the Skandha Lord says. “It’s secret. No one will know. Even if word gets around, who’s going to taste the Prince just to see?”

“You have a high opinion of humanity,” says Dehlai.

The Skandha Lord considers. “Well,” he says, “of their desire to avoid being embarrassed. I had a human here once who wouldn’t let me lick it at all!”

The Lord of Taste putters around, brewing up the new taste for Dehlai.

“I still don’t know who it was,” he confides. “I’m thinking Mr. A——-, but it might have been Ms. R—.”

He touches Dehlai again with his tongue, and thinks. “Okay,” he says. “Taste yourself.”

Dehlai tastes himself. “Why,” he said, “I’m unmistakable!”

The drum plays.

Dehlai goes in quest of the lord of the hearing skandha—known here and there as ‘the lord of the terrible ears.’

“I want to sound unmistakable,” he says.

“Record yourself playing kazoo,” the Skandha Lord says. “Play it backwards and keep harmony with yourself; no one will misidentify you.”

“I don’t know the kazoo.”

“You’re not the legendary kazoo master?”

“I’m sorry,” Dehlai says.

“That’s too bad,” says the Skandha Lord. “He’s hot.”

“I’m Dehlai,” the prince explains. “And this is my drum.”

The drum plays a few introductory noises.

“I can make you sound unmistakable,” agrees the Skandha Lord, after a moment. “Like the world’s an old pipe organ, and somewhere far away on a plains, its keys are rattling. And some deepness, and some sharpness, and some darkness, like a burden rising away.”

“That’d be nice,” Dehlai says.

The drum plays, interrogatively.

“I can’t fix the drum,” the Skandha Lord says. “I don’t meddle with the sounds of sentient instruments. But I could give you a magic interpretation stick.”

“It’d be trouble,” answers Dehlai, shaking his head. “Most often, I’m just as glad not to know what it’s saying.”

The drum beats flatly.

The Skandha Lord putters about. “It’s good to have a chance to work on this kind of thing,” he says. “These days, there are people who are quiet as a ghost—they won’t make a noise even if you push them! That’s not a fine way for the world to be.”

“I’m not very quiet,” says Dehlai. “Though I try to practice brevity.”

Then the prince blinks.

“Hey,” he says. “I sound unmistakable. Thanks!”

“You’re welcome.”

So Dehlai goes to the Skandha Lord of Sight. In the waiting room, he meets a man.

“You,” he says. “You’re Ninja Maitreya. You’re practically my hero!”

Ninja Maitreya peers at him. “You sound like a prince, but you look like a still life depicting numerous cheeses.”

“I could probably be mistaken for that,” Dehlai agrees. “But I’m a prince.”

“Ah,” Ninja Maitreya says.

“I’m here to get it fixed,” Dehlai says. “More skandhas of sight for me!”

“The Skandha Lord giveth; the Skandha Lord taketh away. I’m here to dump my skandhas on him as part of my long progression towards enlightenment.”

“Pardon?”

“Well,” Ninja Maitreya says, “part of enlightenment is realizing that, basically, all of our senses are lying to us. What we see—it’s not the world. It’s our own ignorance. So I blind myself to the skandhas of the five senses, and thereby open myself to Ninja Nirvana. A true Buddha is indistinguishable from all things. That’s the simplified version, used in the Ninja Enlightenment Trick.”

“Huh.”

“You’d be a good Buddha,” Ninja Maitreya says, “except for that taste of yours. It’s too delicious. You’d be like a Secret Buddha Spice.”

“Like Sporty and Posh?”

Ninja Maitreya sighs and shakes his head.

“Once, they were the best of us,” he says. “but they’ve turned from the way.”