Rainbow Noir: the Mountains and the Sky

It has been a certain interval, dear reader, since I first had the opportunity to speak to you of the magical land of rainbows above the world and the shadowed city that succeeded it. Of how it came to pass that a certain girl, born in shadows and dwelling in shadows, became the rainbow; how she challenged the notorious Nihilism Bear; and, in the end, defeated him. Later, and after the receipt of certain despatches and messages, I was able to speak to you further: of how she sought out Mr. Dismal, whom she falsely suspected of responsibility for her various plights, and, in The Case of Mr. Dismal, made an end to him. But we still did not know the why of it all—whose will it had been that had set itself against the rainbow; that had brought Mr. Dismal to that land; that had dulled the kingdom of every brightness into Shadow City’s noir.

Lately, some of my friends have been struggling. They’re trying to do something good, something amazing, something cool, but they’re working for and with people who’d really much rather it came out a product. There is a corrupt religion of money over worth that has seeded itself in the modern business world; and people I care about, dear reader, are being ground down by the faithful of that religion; by the Mythos cultists of this modern era who would never have believed, who couldn’t have believed, that a place like Shadow City ever had color in it at all.

And I thought, maybe, for them, as a Christmas present; and for you, as a Christmas present—

Even though it wouldn’t help them any, and even though it wouldn’t mean that my dear readers would hear regular tales from me again—

that I would look into the matter a bit. That I would find out a bit more about the thing that turns rainbows into shadows, and ask what kind of answer rainbows make.

Without further ado, and with the hopes that all who read this will trust their hearts and live in brightness, the conclusion and the beginning of a story that started long ago.

Rainbow Noir: The Mountains and the Sky

The girl rides the horse through the sky. It’s the most wonderful and marvelous thing. It’s the most wonderful and marvelous thing, and underneath them there are endless miles of cold air.

Beneath that are the mountains, which we shall name Gray Death.

Her name—the girl’s name, that is—is Wisp. She’s saved the universe once or twice. She’s the kind who you just have to point and shoot, basically, and the universe gets saved. That’s what she is, and why she is, and why there have to be girls like her.

As for the horse—

As for the horse’s name—

There’s an ice crystal bigger than the world. There’s an endless distance, and space. There’s a great and brooding thought that presides over it all,

Like God had forgotten color, hope, and light—

And we could call that “I Am,” or “the All,” or “The Lord that Dwells in Starlight.”

But the horse itself, it doesn’t really have a name.

It’s the most marvelous horse there ever was. A horse like that doesn’t really need its own name. Who could you confuse it with?

It’s just, you know, the horse.

People laugh, talking about magical sky horses and rainbows, sure, they laugh, but if you saw it there, its feet pounding against the nothingness, endless miles of cold air below and below that, Death—

You wouldn’t laugh.

You’d just think, in that moment, that it was the most marvelous and warm and most incredible thing you ever saw.

One day, one day, once upon a time, the girl fell off that horse. She screamed. She’s very brave, but even a brave person can scream when you’re falling and the sky is rushing up around you and there’s only Death below. She screamed, and the world around her burned with its blues and its purples and its brightness, and her life flashed before her eyes in a series of twenty-minute shorts that in the end didn’t add up to very much—

And that time, he saved her.

That time, as she spun and fell and rainbows curled and twisted through the vastness of the void around her, the horse came down and lunged and caught her with his teeth and snapped her away from the touch of great Gray Death, and pulled her up and she twisted and she flung her hands around his neck and she sank her face into his mane and laughed.

She did.

She really did! Even with the awkward angles of it all.

She could, and did, climb up onto his neck and back, because there really isn’t very much gravity when you’re falling, and at that particular moment in time they weren’t really quite done with the falling part of their precipitous descent and back to the flying that the two of them were about to do.

The second time, though, the second time, he didn’t save her when she fell.

She asked—

With her eyes, she asked!

But the second time, when she found herself falling, and the sky was everywhere around her in its blues and purples fading into the shadows of darkness, and grayness was reaching up from the ground as if to seize her up and drown her and shatter her like a teardrop on the stone, the horse, it just stood back.

The ice is bigger than the world, and twice as far as anything.

Her name was Wisp, back then as now, but nobody called her that. Everyone called her things like “the rainbow,” “the rainbow girl,” or “hope.”

She was the one charged with the preservation of love and hope and beauty and power and magic. She was the one responsible for providing all the things that people need to have within their lives, in a world that is sometimes very dark. And the mechanism of this charge was color.

She would find places that were dark and colorless, in the world, in people’s lives, in people’s hearts.

She would walk among the gray shadows and get the feel of them.

Then she would bring the rainbow.

There are a billion places in the worlds that are that needed her special touch. A billion, or even more; so it’s not too surprising that grayness still endures. It took her time to find each spot of darkness. It took her time to find it, and know it, and see its antidote, and make an end to it. It took her time, and there were so many different shadows that needed her to give to them that time.

It probably makes a billion look small, really, the number of those shadows, if you actually could count each of them, and give each one its name. It’s probably laughable to imagine that it’s just a billion, like saying, “well, millipedes have at least one leg”—

But a billion, at least.

So that’s why it took her a while to see what had happened down on Earth.

That’s why she missed the whole of World War I. She was in a flower garden, where the insects had corroded beauty. She was in the Crab Nebula, where monsters were threatening a noble Prince. She was in Kansas, helping a lost child, and in the oceans, healing a dolphin’s heart.

She was polishing one of the stars in the endless sky when the trenches cut the world.

She was in the kingdom of the cats.

She was fixing a broken mountain.

She was painting a butterfly when the Nazis came to power. She was painting a butterfly with vibrant colors, because the butterfly had gone gray.

And she might have missed it;

She might have missed it all;

Save that butterflies can only wear so much paint before their wings will cease to fly. There are only so many stars that lose their glitter. There are only so many monsters, though they spawn eccentrically and at random intervals throughout the cosmos and its worlds; so many broken mountains; so many cats that have never ever been fed.

Before the end of the war—before it had even really gotten started—she saw it. She saw what we were doing. She saw what we had done.

She saw it, and said:

“Here is a darkness. Here are gray shadows. I will walk among them and I will find their antidote, and I will bring the rainbow.”

And tears were falling from her face, great rivers of tears, and breaking on the ground.

“And not just here,” she said.

The war to end all wars, well, hadn’t. But she decided, there and then.

“I will heal this thing,” she said. “I will bring an end to wars.”

Underneath the girl and the horse are endless miles of ice-cold air.

Right now, as you’re reading this story, the horse and the girl are falling. They are a comet. They are a meteor. They are a dying, broken, tumbling leaf, a teardrop, a rainbow chunk of ice and fire, and they are falling towards Gray Death below.

“It’s impossible,” said the horse. “Even for someone like you. Even for someone like me. It’s impossible, rainbow girl, that we could bring an end to war.”

“It’s my quest,” she said.

“It’s wrong,” said Terrence. He was her sprite. “It’s wrong. It’ll destroy us. They’ll find us, if we try to end their wars. They’ll hunt us down. They’ll take Rainbow Land away, make it theirs, make it a part of their earthly kingdom, where only shadows rule.”

“But it’s my quest,” the girl said. “I have to heal this thing. I have to guard the beauty that the people of the Earth deny. I have to make them stop killing each other,

and so cruelly!”

But, oh! The sky was fading.

It was twilight in the rainbow kingdom, the sun was falling to the west, and the horse looked up.

“It will have to wait for morning,” the marvelous horse said. “Dear. You can’t do it today. You can’t do it now. You can’t stop people from fighting wars, forever, if you haven’t gotten any sleep.”

“That’s so,” conceded the girl.

So she went to bed.

She went to bed, to let Earth wait just one last troubled night.

And slept.

And while she slept there were doings in the darkness, and gatherings, and quiet acts of diplomacy and treason; and when she woke, her people did not sing to her, as they had always done, when Rainbow Land was bright.

Rather than sing, instead, they gathered around her, and their voices, they were low.

“We shall show you,” said Terrence.

She looked at him.

“We shall show you,” said Terrence, “why it is that you cannot save the world.”

And they took her down into the depths of the palace, and through the hidden passages to the caves where her servants labored, cutting forth light and hope from the lifeless stone, and to the Great Machine that had made her.

And she said, “It’s made of ice.”

She touched it with her hand.

She said, as if in a trance, “There is a place, so very far from here! And a flake of ice, and oh, it is so very bigger than the world! And God—”

But the horse was brusque.

It bumped her in the back with its nose and made her turn away, and said, “This is where we made you, to save us, to be a girl from nothing and make brightness in our land. We cut you out of ice and dolor and we brought you here, from nothing, to nothing, and filled your heart with fanciful lies. Like, ‘you are charged to save us, wielding light.’ Like, ‘you were made to fill our land with beauty.’”

And she remembered—oh, she remembered, and of a sudden!—how she’d come into existence and out of nothingness as if formed off some great crystal made of ice, and curled about herself in some strange womb, and dreamt of foreign colors as shaved fragments sprinkled by.

She remembered how she’d dreamed, oh! such dreams! of something brighter than the endless hungry void. How she’d conceived a sudden brilliant conception, in that womb of ice, of what the murky and dismal land some call “the world” could be.

And how it had seemed to her that a lady made of light had spoken, had said, “Wisp, will you go forth from this place to my land, my dismal land, that dwells under the hand of shadows, and make it bright?”

The sprites looked down.

In the shadow of the Great Machine, the echo of the work of ice that lives beyond the world, they could not speak; save for Terrence, who cleared his throat, and said:

“You were our doll, lady Wisp. You were our toy. And we are grateful to you, for that you were bright and brilliant and rainbows. But you must not think you are a person. You must not think you are a living girl with breath and heart and hope and rainbows, who can stand against our purpose and our decision, and bring chaos to the land.”

The breath left her.

It was as if he had punched her in the stomach, and all she could breathe in was chunks of ice.

“We had to make you,” he said. “But not the rainbow girl. The rainbow girl was fantasy. You are just a flake of snow.”

She was falling.

She was falling.

The sky was rushing up around her, and she could not breathe, and there was gray and black and white jittering before her eyes, and she could not find the ground.

She clenched around the emptiness in her heart, fell gasping, Gray Death opening below, and cast a glance, a single glance, up at the horse.

He was marvelous, that horse.

He was a wonder.

He caught her, once, when she was falling from the sky, when she was plummeting and she thought that she would die. He caught her, and lifted her up, and brought her back to warmth and hope.

Once, but not again.

As she falls into herself, as she goes black and white, not even gray, within her heart and body, the horse, he does not save her. The horse, he looks away.

And it all spirals away from her, leaving her empty of the rainbow, leaving her cold—

Except that’s wrong.

That isn’t now.

She isn’t falling into herself, now. She isn’t on the floor of a cave under the rainbow kingdom, desperate with pain, broken by impossibilities.

That isn’t now.

That was a very long time ago.

Now, right now, she is in a very real sky, and hope and truth have found her once again, and she is falling.

She is falling because her horse has broken its leg.

Her marvelous flying horse has broken its leg against a stream of ice, and so of course it cannot fly.

As has been told before, the girl who fell became the rainbow once again. She’d been needed. It wasn’t OK, any more, to leave her in her cold sense of soullessness.

A soulless girl couldn’t have saved the world from the death that had been coming.

As has been told before, once she’d been made whole again, she’d refused to transform back.

She’d understood—

Somehow—

That just because people told her she wasn’t a person, just because they’d shown her the womb of ice from which she’d come, and said, “Look, this is how we made you, this is why we made you, can’t you see that’s not how a person’s born?”—

That such a thing can’t end the meanings that lived inside her heart.

She’d spent years and years amongst the grayness there, and had found an end to shadows.

And now she is falling.

She’d gone to the man she’d thought had been behind it all—

A murky, dismal man; a man who had always sought to purge the colors from the world—

And she’d thought that she could save him. That the goddess she’d become, that the endless seven-colored power she had birthed in herself, that the girl named Wisp and sometimes Rainbow would be able to save him from his misery and show him the wonder that was color, light, and hope.

She’d tried, anyway.

And maybe she’d succeeded, in a way.

But it hadn’t done him any good, or her, as has been told; because, in the end, he wasn’t the villain of the piece.

He wasn’t the villain.

He was a villain, but not the villain, just another murky, dismal little man gone lost in shadows. In the end, all the light could buy for him was a single moment of forgiveness.

The villain, if there was a villain, was a thing of ice and distance.

It was something cold and far and cruel.

It whispered this of others: that

“They are not real.”

It was God, perhaps, or a horse, perhaps, or a snowflake larger than the world; and it hung beyond all world and sound, and brooded, saying:

“What there is, there is of me: there is the light I cast, there is the world of my imagining, there are the dreams I dream and the shadows I have made; and nothing else is real.”

And if it thinks that it is the only reality, the only beauty, the only justice, the only right, then it has, perhaps, an excuse of sorts, for it is not merely cold, and it is not merely ice, this king of shadows and winter that dwells beyond the world.

It is beautiful.

It is beautiful, and it is endless, and it is marvelous, and it sheds forth every beauty; and the rainbow is refracted through that ice; and the world is made from the waters when it melts, and the dirt that it sheds, and the light and shadows it casts forth.

It is self-contained.

It is self-complete.

And yet, in some contingency of motion, it has sent forth its avatar, its child, its element to us within the world, and with a spirit of great mercy. It has sent a piece of itself, an image of itself, a mirror of its icy vastness, to be the most marvelous thing, to live in the dreary world of its creation, to redeem it through the presence of the horse.

It has sacrificed for us, the most terrible and deadly sacrifice; it has chosen to become involved.

It is the pinnacle, is it not, the horse?

Is it not the most marvelous thing in all the world?

And did it not already risk itself—risk its perfection-in-itself, daring unimaginably—to descend beneath the darkness of the world and find a part of itself that dreamt of rainbows, and make a girl of it, and shelter her, and raise her against the darkness like a spear, and teach her the power of the rainbow?

So if it thinks it is the only truth; if it thinks it is the only right; if it thinks there is no justice, that is not the justice of the horse; if it thinks there is no beauty, that is not the beauty of the ice; if it thinks that in the end there are nothing but its shadows and its dreams, then it has an excuse of sorts, for in a very real way it is the author of us all, or at the very least its agent and its representative, the mirror-horse of God—

Most marvelous thing in all the worlds that are, and the brightest, and the best.

And so she came, at the end of her journey, the rainbow girl, to the field of grass and flowers at the center of the city, to the last remaining place of color and brightness (before the rainbow had returned), where the horse still lived, and danced, and woke up in the morning to laugh and play and sing; and to turn its eyes on her as she walked up, it seemed, and say, “Oh, Wisp, you have become my rainbow once again.”

And she knew.

His voice was guileless, as it had always been, as if he knew nothing in the world save love for others and self-praise.

His voice was guileless, but still she knew.

In the center of the crumbled world, in that little piece of paradise, he frolicked, and he looked at her with eyes that made her melt, possessed her with a girlhood that overcame the goddess in her, loved her still, with brightness still they shone, and still she knew.

She touched his mouth.

She swung herself up on his back.

She said, “Oh, my love, you have not forgotten me.”

But she knew what he had done.

They rose into the sky, didn’t they? They flew; or ran, at least, on the rainbow once again. They galloped out over blue skies and high above Gray Death.

She knew he meant to throw her.

“It was your lie,” she told him. “Wasn’t it?”

Right into his ear; which flicked, of course, as if to cast a fly away.

And on they rode in silence, far above the world.

It made her breathless with joy and pain.

“It was your idea,” she said, “to show me the Machine that gave me birth; and to tell me, ‘you are just a doll we made from snow, oh Wisp. You are just a toy. Just a toy, and not a person after all.’”

“It was,” said the horse.

The horse’s shoulders rolled. It said: “You are.”

Its voice was distant ice and starlight and it was pale against the sky.

“What else could you be,” mused the horse, “than a reflection of Myself? What else is there to be, than light against the ice? So I realized, when you brought trouble to my heart. That you are the rainbow, or a girl, or a thing I made, or a thing I loved, but in the end, still, you are just a toy, and of my crafting, like all the shining world.”

She wept for him.

“And so,” said the horse, “I tore you down; and buried you in darkness; and then, for reasons elusive even to myself, I must have set you free.”

She wept for him.

She clung to him and wept for him, knowing that he meant to throw her, because he was the most marvelous horse in the world, and yet—

“You do not know,” she said.

And her voice was seven-toned, like the rainbow; and the tears that flowed from her were as a stream of ice; and he meant to throw her, he really did, but it went wrong, he went wrongfooted, and if you were to find a thing to blame for it, you might say, he slipped or struck his leg upon her tears.

And his perfection was distorted.

And his gait was broken.

And suddenly, because a horse can’t exactly fly if it has a broken leg, he fell.

It struck him as ironic that he would not have to throw her; that he was freed, in the end, of the need to cast her from his back to fall screaming to Gray Death. He would fall, and that would be an end to things. He would die, and the world would end, and nevermore a rainbow to trouble him or make turmoil of his heart.

Right now, dear reader.

Right now, they fall—

He falls—

It falls—

Right now, as you’re reading this story, the horse and the girl are falling, spiraling down through endless sky, with Gray Death looming up below.

And because he is a horse of courage, after all, even maimed and broken, he opens one pure and perfect eye.

She is not falling.

It is terribly unfair.

She is not falling.

She is, instead, laying down with a hand outstretched—oh, moving downwards fast enough, and technically perhaps that counts as ‘she is falling,’ but she is descending as a skydiver descends, or a stooping bird, not as a mortal plummeting to her death—

Laying on the rainbow, outstretched beside him in the sky.

Unfairly, she is reaching for him, supported by the rainbow, calling out over and over again for him to live—

He squinches closed both eyes.

The world moves far away, then farther, then farther again, until even Wisp seems to him twice as distant as the sky.

Ice closes about him, and rainbows.

“I’ve broken my leg, you foolish girl,” he says, and casts aside her power, and lets the wind and shadows carry him downwards to his grave.

Flutter,
flutter,
Flutter,

Down to the world below.

And there is a moment where the ice shatters, as he strikes against Gray Death.

There is a moment where the shadows seem to boil and drain away, plunging down through the jagged edges of the mountains to drown some other land.

There is a pure and crystal darkness, and finally, a light.

The rainbow hits the mountains, dances about them for a moment amidst a rain of ice, strives as rainbows strive to lift the broken and the dead.

And then, it flies away.

unknown authorship; part of the “Rainbow Collection” of documents assembled during Congress’ 1954 investigation into various Un-American Activities on the part of Un-American Activities Bear.

Hitherby Annual #2 – Maundy Thursday (I/I)

Where did Sid come from?

Sid is born.

His body is vast. It is not human. It is beads of chaos clinging to a scaffolding of abstract form. It is a cacophony of shape, its endless muscles and organs twisting about aimlessly because the science of anatomy does not yet exist.

It is unapproachable because it is ringed in knives.

Someone tries to speak to Sid: they are cut.

Someone tries to touch Sid: they are cut.

In this fashion he is inaccessible within his riot and chaos of shape. But interwoven among the pieces of him, the gross flesh of him, there is the divine fire.

It gropes for selfhood and finds it.

Sid sorts impressions. He begins to understand the world. In a many-timbred voice he says, “Hey.”

A wind seizes him up.

Claws and hands surround him.

He is cast into a nebulous region, immured in direst bondage.

He is in that place of darkness and of emptiness that will be Siggort Town one day.

How did Max find “Prester Gee and the Ragged Things?”

It is many years later.

There is only once in all the histories of the conversations of Sid and Max when Sid admitted his nature as a burden upon him.

It is in 1992 and the sky is dark with clotted clouds.

Sid is looking after the back of a woman who has come this close to fulfilling the criteria for his destiny, and he says, “I think that the world has no place for siggorts.”

And Max looks at him.

“It’s a really cool world. And we are unworthy of it.”

Max points out, “It’s not like the humans are so great.”

Sid grins.

“Well,” he says, and gestures to show he cannot dispute the point.

And then he goes left, because he’s going to pick up some paint from the hardware store while he’s in town, and Max goes right, to the used bookstore.

Max shops. He finds an old Louis L’amour he hasn’t read. He finds the new Danielle Steel.

He looks at the special shelves next to the counter. He pulls down an odd-sized children’s book. It is called, “Prester Gee and the Ragged Things.”

It is brightly colored.

The proprietor of the used bookstore, one Dannon Cleim, says, “I wouldn’t.”

“Hm?”

“Reading that kind of thing,” says Dannon, “attracts their attention.”

“Oh.”

The cover shows a girl staring at a sign saying, “Wrong Place.” while something emerges from around a corner behind her.

Max finds it oddly fascinating.

“Someday,” says Dannon, “they will come for me. They will come from the air, from beyond the borders of the world where I live. And as they seize me I will hear the whispering of Ii Ma’s voice.”

“Yeah,” Max says, distractedly. “That happened to me once.”

Dannon’s jaw sets. He does not look pleased with Max. He says something truly spiteful, which is, “Well, you can buy it if you’d like.”

And so Max does.

Did Max worry too much about the nature of siggorts?

If Max were to see a vivisected corpse on the street he would fret terribly and wonder if Sid killed it.

Fortunately this never actually happens.

Max has never seen anyone vivisected except for that one time.

But sometimes there’ll be some tarp or something on the road and he’ll think it’s a vivisected body, just laying there.

That can happen when you’re worrying too much about the nature of siggorts.

How did Max find out about the place without recourse?

Max reads.

This is how the book begins:

“Hello!

This is Prester Gee’s book.

I’m Prester Gee!”

There’s a picture of Prester Gee next to it. She’s a cheerful young woman but she is not very photorealistic.

Max turns the page.

“I had a friend named Margerie.

One day the ragged things came in and took her away.”

Max admires the picture. It shows the ragged things taking Margerie away.

Then he begins to read in earnest.

He reads on right to the end.

Prester Gee and the Ragged Things

From the archives at Gibbelins’ tower.

Hello!

This is Prester Gee’s book.

I’m Prester Gee!

I had a friend named Margerie.

One day the ragged things came in and took her away.

She yelled so much!

They took her away through the cracks in the world.

I went right away to the Sheriff. He had a shiny badge. I told him, “Sir, they have taken Margerie.”

But he did not want to talk about it!

“Shoo,” he said.

He waved me away with his shooing gun.

I also talked to the Mayor.

I said, “Mr. Mayor, sir, they have taken Margerie.”

The Mayor said, “This is a city council meeting about dogs. I want to talk about dogs. I do not want to talk about your stinky Margerie!”

There was nothing I could do.

I had to apologize!

I even talked to Margerie’s husband. He’d taken off his wedding ring but you could still see where it was missing.

I said, “It was ragged things. They were big and red and their footsteps were heavy.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Margerie’s husband. “There are no things like that anywhere in the world.”

“Oh,” I said.

This made me very sad and I began to cry and he made me coffee. We did not talk about Margerie. We just drank coffee.

Eventually he cried too.

I guessed that maybe I’d made up Margerie all along. It is hard to believe in your reality when nobody else does.

But I kept seeing cracks in the world.

Sometimes strange things make what you know seem thin. Like a layer of puff pastry. The truth seems so thin you could crunch through it. You start to say, “I can’t trust me.”

You trust other people.

They’re smarter than you.

You say, “They probably know best!”

Everything looked like it was shaking in place, all the time, because I did not believe in myself. Also every shadow looked extra-dark and squirmy with unknown things.

And there were cracks.

They would be here or there. In my cupboard or under my stairs. I found a crack on the sidewalk once. I did not step on it. My mother was already dead but I thought, that could be so rude.

So rude!

She would be in Heaven playing her accordion and then I would step on a crack. Suddenly snap her back would break! All of the other angels would laugh and her accordion would whine, wee-guh, wee-guh, like sad accordions do.

I told a police man about the cracks.

I pointed him at one.

He said, “That’s very bad, ma’am!”

I was very embarrassed.

He blew his whistle. Beep! Beep!

“You have gone mad,” he concluded.

“Oh no!” I said.

I did not want to have gone mad.

I went to the hospital. All of the doctors in their white coats looked at me.

“You are not mad,” they said.

“I’m not?”

“No,” they said.

The doctors all smiled.

“You’re just corrupt!”

This apparently was better vis-a-vis state regulations. If I were mad then I would live in a padded room. But I was corrupt so they let me go back home.

My boss did not like me much. He said, “I heard about you and the hospital. I’m firing you, Prester Gee!”

I made a very sad face but he stuck by his decision with determination!

So I left.

I got another job typing and then a job packing fruit and then I lived on Garden Street with a puppy I found. When people would be mean to me the puppy would shoot them up with lasers.

“That puppy’s defective!” they’d say. “Dogs should hardly ever use lasers!”

It was a bad puppy and should have been killed but I loved him.

One day Margerie’s husband came and sat down next to me.

He said, “I know you didn’t lie.”

It was a wind.

It was a wind that he said those words. Suddenly the world stopped shaking.

He said, “I will pay you a lot of money to go to the ragged things’ academy and ask after my wife.”

The puppy barked and then licked his hand.

My puppy did not shoot him with lasers. So I said, “I trust you.”

The next time I saw a crack, I peeked my head through.

You should tear this page out. I cannot tear it out because my publisher would get mad at me. He would shake his cigar and puff up his cheeks. But you should. You should tear out the pages that have the pictures of the ragged things’ world. You should tear them out and burn them.

I don’t know why I am leaving these pages in.

But it looked like badness.

It looked like the world but nobody had souls. Not even the grass had souls. You could walk on it and squish it and it would not care.

I took many pictures. Sometimes people who look at them throw up! Or their pants get bulgy like there is a mouse in them. Or they yell at me.

I am very sad when people yell at me.

I did not find Margerie in the ragged things’ world.

I think that it is bad to look in the world behind the cracks. If you can see them do not look. Just look away.

Do not tell police men.

Do not tell the Mayor.

Do not tell the doctor.

Do not even tell people’s husbands.

Just look away.

One day they will come for me. I dream of it. They will come for me and Ii Ma will come for me.

Ii Ma will ask me a question I cannot answer.

He will take me away from the world to a place without recourse.

And nothing I do, and nothing I have ever done, will matter again.

How did Max come to understand the nature of the world?

Max puts the book down.

He thinks for a while.

“Huh,” he says.

And he hears in memory the whisper in his mind: How could you betray your wife?

He trembles, there, like a leaf.

He stands on the last vertex of reason with the endless net of unacceptable truths just a step or so outside of his reach.

He is this close to understanding.

He remembers the King that came to Spattle.

His mind throbs with the pictures of Prester Gee.

Shifting in and out of the edge of his consciousness is the image of Ii Ma. He cannot focus on it. He cannot not focus on it. His mental efforts skirl about like water striders on a pond.

Then, suddenly, he understands.

“Mr. McGruder could never have answered it. He would have melted before that question like ice before the sun.”

And thus Max apprehends the fundamental nature of the world. He is afraid and he is horrified but he is also excited.

Rising in him like Frankenstein’s ambition there is a plan.

How did the ragged things catch Max?

It is almost two years before knowing the story of Prester Gee catches up to him.

Max has said nothing to Sid; in fact, for the past six months, he has scarcely called on Sid at all. Instead he has wrestled with the fey understanding that has been rising in him that the ragged things will come for him soon.

That he sees too much; that he knows too much; that in apprehending Ii Ma he suffered apprehension by Ii Ma.

They will come for him.

Dannon Cleim is already gone. Max does not miss him; the man had never mattered to Max’s life.

In his dreams Max sees Ii Ma. He knows what impends.

Ii Ma will come for him.

He will ask Max, a second time, a question that Max cannot answer, and where the first was irrelevant this one will be colder than winter and more devastating than fire.

“Perhaps,” Max theorizes, “He will ask me, ‘what would you do if you could steal people’s noses?'”

That’s a hard one to call in advance because power corrupts.

“Or, ‘you love a guy who tortures people to death.’ That’s not really a question but it might as well be.”

It is neither of these.

He is in the supermarket between aisles 6 and 7—

Where in most supermarkets there is a weak place, a problematic place, a place occult to our reality—

When there is the soft slow pounding of heavy feet.

He looks around.

He thinks about running.

Then he seizes a box of cereal, for the road, and holds it tight against his chest, and waits.

Claws seize him from four directions. They heft him high. And Ii Ma whispers, How can you enter the land of guilt and the distant glebes of suffering and the leeds of the kells of the knowledge of your sins, and walk away unscathed?

There is a cleanup between aisles 6 and 7.

Max is gone.

Why can’t Sid forgive Max?

Max puts on the water for tea. He watches it for a while, but it doesn’t boil.

“Sid,” says Max.

And as suddenly as a dream, Sid is there.

It is 1994 and the sun is this brilliant golden glow and Max is happy—so incredibly happy— because he’s put one over on the world.

He says, “Sid,” again, and it’s this caramel of smugness on the ice cream of his joy.

And Sid blushes and looks from side to side, like maybe Max means the Sid behind him.

“It’s all right now,” Max says.

And Sid frowns.

“It’s been all right,” he says.

“No,” Max says.

He rises. He goes to the glass doors that open out onto the balcony. He opens them. He takes a breath of clean and bracing air.

“I couldn’t tell you,” Max says. “You’d never have let me try it. But it worked.”

He takes a breath.

Max says, “You’ll never kill anybody.”

Sid frowns. He looks around.

“What?”

Max turns. His eyes are brilliant. He says, “This is the dominion of Ii Ma. We have been abstracted from the world by virtue of the questions that we cannot answer. Here, Sid, we mean nothing, do nothing, to no effect. Here the knives of you will not cut; here the hands of you will not hold a knife; here we are severed from substance but, Sid, we are safe from doing harm or becoming anathema to ourselves.”

It pours from Max in a rush, this anodyne and peak to two years of careful silence. It pours from him, the expression of his gift, that sacrifice that he has made of life and sanity, bound over to Ii Ma without resistance to save Sid from murdering. The brilliance and the sacrifice of Max’s plan glimmers there in his sight, lain out—

The perfect solution;

The necessary solution;

The plan to give up everything else so that Sid does not become a thing Max can not love.

And against the look in Sid’s eyes it becomes the ashes of a cruel ambition.

How can you enter the land of guilt and the distant glebes of suffering and the leeds of the kells of the knowledge of your sins, and walk away unscathed?

“Sid,” he says.

And Sid grins, a little.

Sid’s shoulders relax.

“Tell me you are making a virtue of necessity,” Sid says. “Tell me you are scared and alone here and you risked me because you needed me here.”

“No,” says Max. “You don’t understand.”

Distantly, he can hear the kettle whistling.

“Tell me that you did not do this on purpose,” Sid says. “That you did not conspire with the nature of the world to immure me in a place without recourse.”

“I didn’t want you to vivisect anyone,” Max protests.

And here one should stop and observe that for all the naked betrayal in Sid’s voice that Max’s was a reasonable aim.

Yet—

“How could you imagine that you could do such things and have them be okay?” Sid asks.

And the last air leaves Max’s lungs. Bleakness closes in on him. He is drowning.

Until that moment Max did not understand the question of Ii Ma.

Until that moment Max had remained in the place without recourse by virtue of that will that denies itself its options. Until that moment he had stood on a line with a path still open before him, actions still available to him, possibilities to remain a creature of the is and not an isn’t still naked before him. Until that moment he had options because until that moment the question that Ii Ma had given him was one that he did not comprehend.

But Ii Ma is cruel, and with Sid’s words it is no longer so.

Max sees the completeness and the elegance of that truth: he sees the world of emptiness close in about him: he experiences the jangling severance of Max from the places of the world.

In every direction it is the same: every course of action is the same: the place without recourse unfolds around him like an infinite-reflections jewel.

“How beautiful,” Max says.

And to Sid it is like watching a loved one die.

How did Max leave the place without recourse?

It is Maundy Thursday when these events transpire, by some coincidence or design: an anniversary, of a sort, celebrating that day when Jesus said to his companions,

“You will have to devour me to earn eternal life.”

On Maundy Thursday the bells cease to ring. The vestments depart from the table, leaving barrenness.

It is the custom of Ii Ma, on Maundy Thursday, to shift its great bulk in its mud. To wallow. To drip with black blood. To take petitions from its prisoners, which are traditionally not granted.

“How could you imagine that you could do such things,” Sid says, on Maundy Thursday, 1994, “and have them be okay?”

And the fire fades from Max’s eyes and he says, transported by something greater than himself, “How beautiful.”

And with a flash of insight Sid understands why this is so.

“That’s what he asked you,” Sid says. “Isn’t it?”

The kettle is wobbling on the stove; and Sid looks sideways and swears, “Bucking kettle. … That’s what he asked?”

“‘How can you enter the land of guilt and the distant glebes of suffering and the leeds of the kells of the knowledge of your sins, and walk away unscathed?‘” Max quotes. “Or, well, yeah. What you said.”

And Sid laughs.

He can’t help it. It’s worse than when Grouchy Pete shot him because it’s more painful and it’s funnier.

But the laughter passes.

A cold wind blows.

The vast bulk of Ii Ma shifts.

And Sid sighs.

He relaxes, just a bit.

Sid says, gently, “’Walk in like you own the place.’”

It is not clear to Sid, even after all his years of life, whether this answer is abstractly the right one— but it is a pragmatic one.

He has seen it work for monsters, kings, and siggorts;

And it seems to work for Max.

How does Maundy Thursday end?

The night office is celebrated under the name of Tenebrae: the service of darkness.

After the vespers of Maundy Thursday Sid is raw, like a skinless man.

He is raw but he is not given the grace of that pain.

He is taken from the agony of it, without transition, to the morning, to smiling outwards at the beauty of the dawn.

“How beautiful.”

And thus one fond of the liturgy of the holy days must ask:

What manner of thing is Easter, if it comes too soon?

Baggage

“I like the rain,” Sid says.

“It’s nice,” Max says.

“It’s like the corpses of melted snowflakes dripping slowly from some great snowflake graveyard. Don’t you think? A graveyard like elephants have.”

“I miss you,” Max says. “It hurts my heart. Because it’s so very Sid not to know the word ‘cloud.'”

Sid looks down. His eyes are winsome.

“It’s a hard word,” Sid says. “Two vowels in a row, like ‘ouzo’.”

A distant crashing noise intrudes. It is followed by a soft and faraway hum.

“It’s starting,” Max says.

“What is?”

The world vibrates softly. Something new is happening. Something strange. The salt and pepper shakers rattle. The beaded curtain in the doorway shakes.

“The running of the luggage,” Max says.

In Babylon, in 2004, it is the running of the luggage.

Sid listens.

“Is that why we’re here?” Sid asks.

“It’s why I’m here,” Max says. “I don’t know why you’re here.”

“I wanted to go to Sydney,” Sid says. “It has the best name of any Australian city ever. But I drowned in confusion and got on the wrong flight. That’s why I’m in Babylon.”

“Like luggage,” Max says.

“Like lost luggage.”

“My bag came here,” Max says. “A lot of luggage does. The undeliverable. The forgotten. The lost.”

The table shakes with its hidden passion.

(It is its love for the nearby table. It can never be expressed. It can never be spoken. If a table speaks of such things it is the end. But it may tremble.)

The water glasses on the table shiver.

“Every year,” Max says, “Babylon holds the running of the luggage.”

“I met you when I got off the plane,” Sid says. “It was an accident. I wanted never to see you again. I didn’t know it was the running of the luggage.”

“Have a drink,” Max says. “It’s no big deal.”

“It is a big deal,” Sid says. “I have to turn you in to the police.”

“It’s no big deal. We met. We walked to a restaurant. We got our hair wet in the rain. We went through the curtain. We sat down at a table. I ordered a drink. You should too.”

A pack of luggage gallops by outside the door. A damp breeze stirs Sid’s hair. A few thin locks of hair curl against his cheek. They look dead sexy there.

Sid looks pretty good today, for Sid.

“If you get an alcoholic drink,” says Max, “you might forget to turn me in. But if you get something watered down, the local water will make you sick.”

Sid looks sad and lost.

“Have I no third option?” Sid asks.

Max thinks. The cloud of his thoughts grows richer and denser. A suggestion precipitates. “Rum and coke?”

“Okay.”

Sid orders a rum and coke. He sits back.

A carousel of luggage storms by. It turns the street’s puddles into spray.

“Is this festival safe?” Sid asks. “The door is a beaded curtain. It cannot save us from feral Gucci.”

“I don’t know,” Max says. “I guess so. Nobody else is leaving.”

“That’s true.”

A single solitary bag ghosts by. It’s lean and underpacked, like a scavenger. Its hunger is tragic.

“I lost a head,” Max says.

“A head?— oh, thanks,” Sid says. His drink has arrived. He sips it through a straw. Each sip is daringly unabashed.

“I packed it to prove I killed someone. I checked it for Detroit. But it got sent to Babylon.”

Sid sips further.

Max waits.

“Hard luck,” says Sid.

Max nods.

“Sometimes I miss you and my bones ache and my eyes blur,” says Max.

“It’s not a big deal,” Sid says.

Max half-smiles.

Sid looks sad.

“I plan to do this,” says Max. “I’ll have a drink with you. I’ll hang out. Then when I can bear to leave, I’ll sneak out and find my luggage.”

“It’s out there?”

“Out there.”

There’s a scream from somewhere outside. The scream stops, sudden and short. The locals look up from their tables. There’s a silence in the room.

“Tourists,” one man says.

Another man shakes his head.

Then the locals go back to their conversations.

“Don’t go out there,” Sid says.

“Why?”

“It’s dangerous.”

“My bag is mine,” Max says. “It won’t hurt me.”

“It’s running with a bad crowd,” says Sid. “It might go feral.”

“Things like that don’t happen,” Max says. “Not to my luggage. My luggage wouldn’t go feral.”

“Mine bit me once.”

Sid drinks some more. It’s suddenly cold and bitter drinking.

“I caught my finger in the zipper. I had to rip the whole bag apart.”

“Harsh.”

“No,” Sid says. He’s hard-edged now. “Practical.”

“Ah,” says Max.

Sid sips ruthlessly at his straw.

“You know— I mean, that thing— what happened with us—”

“Practical?”

“Yeah.”

“I know,” says Sid. He smiles. His smile has sun and snow and ice in it. “I still have to turn you in. For closure.”

“I understand.”

“But I’ll go to the bathroom first,” says Sid. “I have to pee. So you can run away then, like a terrified puppy.”

“Okay,” says Max.

“I mean, not that you should.”

“Of course.”

“Just, I have to pee.”

“It’s okay.”

Sid gets up. He asks a waitress where the bathroom is. He faces the bathroom hallway with determination and walks in.

Max stands. He slinks to the door.

“It’s not safe,” the waitress says.

“It’s okay,” Max says.

“It’s not safe,” she insists. But he pushes past her, out through the beaded curtain. It rattles like a snake. Like a snake with maracas, preparing to strike.

“Be well,” Max says, to the waitress.

The luggage run is fierce now. It fills most of the streets. It shouts to Heaven like a world in pain. It thunders like the wrath of God. Max jumps up and grabs the fire escape ladder. He drags himself up towards the roof. He needs a lofty height to find his bag.

“I can’t see it,” Max says.

He goes higher. He’s standing on the roof.

“Black,” he says. “Black as pitch. Zippers like dragon’s teeth. My bag, with a teddy bear and some clothes and a poor damned bastard’s head.”

The luggage runs fiercer.

“Where are you?” Max asks the world.

There’s a growling snapping zipper behind him.

The bag is not Sid. It did not love Max long. It did not love him well. And it does not love him now.

Belshazzar (III/IV)

It is 550 years before the common era. In Harran, at the temple of the moon god, Nabonidus binds Mylitta to the altar.

“I’m sorry,” Nabonidus says.

Mylitta is drowning. She cannot breathe. It makes no sense what is happening to her.

There are words for what he does. They are mundane words, words of everyday life, but they are not pleasant ones. But in the end, it is not the things he does to her that hurts. It is that she cannot stop them.

I loved my world,
My world, where I was strong, where I was fair, where I shone bright,
My world, where I was strong, where I was fair, and I would win.

I did not want to leave that world,
My world, where I was strong,
But passage took to me.
And now my world is thin, and dark, and trembling.
And now my world is thin, and dark, and full of storms.

I trembled when I dreamed
Of it,
The passage to a place of storms.
But passage took to me.

— Mylitta’s Lament

In the temple of Sin, at Harran, Nabonidus escorts Mylitta into a world where neither reason nor magic has power, and nor does she.

This act is named eduction.

At the end, there is a god.

People of Salt (IV/IV)

“Father,” asks Eritrea, “why are we a people of salt?”

Her father, Sabin, is an older man, kind of coffee colored, kind of gray. There’s a bit of gray in his hair, too. His eyes are very blue.

“Once upon a time,” he says, and puts Eritrea on his lap, “there was magic in the world. And it is the nature of magic to take two forms: dark and light, and the nature of the dark to eclipse the light.”

Eritrea adjusts herself for comfort, and looks up, and listens.

“We were gods in Babylonia,” he says, “and in a monster’s thrall; and in his hands all terrors and all sorrows. And we raised up one of our number to be a hero, and kill the monster, and free the world, and her name was Mylitta, and she was the mother of our line. And the dark enchantments broke, and following, the dawn; and Allah said to us, ‘No more shall you be gods, for you are needed no longer.'”

Eritrea thinks. “That is not very salty,” she says.

“Have you heard me say,” Sabin asks, “that we are a people defined by our sorrows?”

She nods.

“We did not bring that dawn,” Sabin says. “The hero fell, and the monster triumphed over her. Not our hand but Allah’s broke his tyranny. Not our efforts but Allah’s will saved us from eternal slavery. And, even so, some of our people are still in the monster’s hands.”

“Oh,” she says. “That’s sad.”

“That is one reason,” he says, “that we are a people of salt.”

There is a sword calling to Sabin as he tells this story; and the path of his life is close to ending; so let us look back to its beginning.

It is 715 years into the common era.

In Syria there is a carpenter’s apprentice, and his name is Sabin, a self-effacing young man with startling eyes. The daughter of Caliph Sulayman falls in love with those eyes, so, will he or nill he, Sabin is summoned before Sulayman.

“Tell me,” says Sulayman, “are you worthy of my daughter?”

“No, milord,” says Sabin. He shakes his head, and a shock of hair falls across his eyes.

“I thought as much,” Sulayman agrees. “Yet if I execute you, I shall hear nothing but weeping and wailing for all my days.”

“It must be terribly hard to be caliph.”

“You cannot imagine,” Sulayman assures him. He hesitates. “Very well,” he adds, decisively. “You shall travel to the edge of my domain, where a great scorpion troubles the lives of my people. You shall kill it and prove your heroism, or you shall die trying; and either way, I shall benefit.”

“The caliph is wise,” Sabin says, and does obeisance, and leaves the court. He travels to the edge of the caliphate. He digs a trough and fills it with wine, and waits for the scorpion to come. Eventually, it does, stalking along the earth with sinister intent. It is as long as Sabin is tall, and a sickly brown.

“Respects, mighty scorpion,” Sabin says. He prostrates himself, and the scorpion slows its advance.

“It is rare,” says the scorpion, in a high thin voice, “for someone to greet me in this manner.”

“I have been sent,” Sabin says, “to kill you, or die trying. Since I cannot kill you, I feel that I should make the best of things, and drink wine with you before I die.”

“You are wise,” the scorpion says, and sidles up beside him, and sips from the trough of wine.

“How did you come to be?” Sabin asks, with genuine curiosity. “I had not thought that creatures like you still existed.”

“Here and there,” the scorpion says. “Now and again.”

“And yourself?”

“I was an ordinary scorpion, limited in scope,” the creature explains. “Then I stung the local mullah. As he died in agony, he cried out, ‘Ah! Allah is no merciful God!’ This blasphemy shocked me so terribly that I became . . . as you can see.”

“Does that happen often?”

“I have never seen another of my kind,” the scorpion admits, “but I do not mind; my libido is much smaller than my stature. So I wander this land, stinging and eating humans and cattle, and living as a scorpion must.”

It sips some more from the wine.

“They do not appreciate me,” it broods. “I mean, perhaps I am the only one. Perhaps I am a wonder of the world, the greatest of all scorpions. They should fete me with fine foods and I should have palaces and silks. Instead, they send you out to kill me.” It looks up. “I suppose you are hoping that I will become drunk, and fall into this trough.”

“No,” Sabin admits. “I mean, that would be clever of me, but my thought was this: you are a wonder of the world, the greatest of all scorpions. You’re neat. And I did not want to die as just another unknown bit of prey. I wanted to drink with you through the night and then wrestle drunkenly until one of us met a tragic end.”

The scorpion peers at him blearily. “You are an odd creature.”

“We are a people of salt,” Sabin says.

It thinks for a moment, then sighs and lowers itself into a crouch. “Ah.” It hesitates. “I almost do not want to kill you,” it says. “For the wind spoke the story of your people, and I know that we are kin.”

“It is all right,” Sabin says. “Kinslaying is a tradition.”

“I know,” the scorpion says. “And besides, I am a scorpion. I cannot very well resist my nature; not for kin, not for pleasure, and not for all the riches of the world.”

“It must simplify things.”

“That,” says the scorpion, and lowers its head to sip from the wine, “it doesh.”

“You’re getting drunk,” Sabin says. He’s a bit tipsy himself, so it seems very amusing.

“What of it?” The scorpion’s tone is defensive.

“It’s funny.”

He laughs, and the scorpion joins him in his laughter. Then there is a silence, and then more words, and they talk late into the night. In the morning, they rise, and face off against one another.

“Do you want to win?” the scorpion says.

“Why do you ask?”

“It’s important,” the scorpion says. “I would call you friend, but I have no stance for fighting friends. I must fight you as enemy, or as prey.”

Sabin thinks. “I do not want to win,” he says.

The scorpion thinks about that.

“You are an odd man,” it says.

“No,” Sabin says. “It’s not that. It’s just . . . if I kill monsters, I’ll die.”

The scorpion stops.

“That is a strange statement,” it says.

“The world is full of strangeness,” Sabin says.

“True,” the scorpion says; and they face off; and as the stinger charges down, fear takes hold of Sabin’s throat, and he catches it in flight and drives it down into the scorpion’s brain. The scorpion twitches, twice, and goes still.

“Oh,” says Sabin. “Oh.”

He sits for a while, and travels for a long time, and then he stands, dustily, before the Caliph.

“You killed it,” the Caliph says.

“Sheer luck!” Sabin assures him. He has grown more cheerful as he traveled. “It is not something I could normally do.”

“I heard,” the Caliph says, momentously, “that you got it drunk and it fell into a trough.”

Sabin frowns. “I should not wish to dispute the Caliph’s illustrious sources.”

“Your methodology was clever; but clever enough to earn my daughter’s hand? This is what I must ponder.”

“Great Sulayman,” Sabin pleads, “Your daughter is lovely, and your kingdom great, but I wish only to be a carpenter’s apprentice. I have no wish to perform great deeds. I do not want to marry into wealth. I wish only to labor with my hands and die in obscurity.”

“Perhaps,” the Caliph says, stroking his chin, “I should assign you a more terrible monster.”

“As the Caliph thinks best,” Sabin grumbles.

“In the northern region,” the Caliph says, “there is a beast, or so I am told, with thirteen limbs and seventeen eyes, and great fierce claws, and a rumbling roar, and it is a great disturbance to the peace. Its skin is hard enough to turn aside a soldier’s blade. You shall kill it and prove your heroism, or die trying.”

“Ah!” Sabin says, stricken. “Surely the Caliph’s great beast is a better tool for that than I!”

“My daughter does not wish to marry my great beast,” says the Caliph.

Sabin sighs and lowers his head.

“The caliph is wise,” Sabin says, and does obeisance, and leaves the court. He travels to the north. With the caliph’s funds he buys seven great bolts of silk, fine foods, and the service of a young maiden named Parmys. He goes to the creature’s haunts, and roasts the meats, and waits, and in time the creature comes stalking out. It is huge and grey and powerful and it has many legs and many eyes and many arms and its shape is somewhere between an elephant’s and a bug’s.

“Respects, mighty beast,” Sabin says. He prostrates himself, and the creature stops.

“Hm,” it says. “You show respect.” It looks at him through its seventeen eyes. Five of them blink. “You are unusual.”

“I have brought you gifts, too,” Sabin says. “Fine foods. Silks. A woman for your harem.”

“No sexual services,” Parmys clarifies. She studies the creature, and then nods firmly. “I am strictly a prestige odalisque.”

“You are generous,” the creature says. It strides forward on its muscular legs and regards the silks. It looks up at Sabin. “You are hoping that I shall try on these silks and find myself tangled in them, unable to move while you locate the one weak spot in my armor and pierce it with a blade?”

“The worthy creature misjudges me,” Sabin says. “I wish only to honor you as you deserve.”

“Very unusual,” it sniffs. Then its eyes narrow all at once. “You smell of kin.”

Parmys looks at Sabin. She looks at the creature. She looks back.

“I don’t see a resemblance,” she volunteers.

“I am a god,” it says. “He is a god.”

“No,” Sabin says. “We are gods no longer.”

Parmys looks at him.

“We aren’t,” Sabin says. “At least, I’m not. I don’t even know what he . . . it . . . is.”

The creature lowers itself into the silks, and thinks.

“I do not know myself,” it says. “Once, I was a person. But I . . . don’t know. I don’t remember what I looked like.” Its body ripples, shifts, and sprouts a new limb. “Like this, perhaps,” it says. “I do not know.”

“Ah,” says Sabin.

“I am content,” it says.

Parmys stares at it. “Sometimes I forget what I look like,” she says. “Or even who I am. But I do not look like that.

“No,” the creature agrees. “You are lovely.”

“And you,” Sabin says, “are fortunate.”

He stares at the creature with naked envy in his eyes; and it blinks at him seven times.

“Why do you say that?” it asks.

“Both of you,” he says. “You have no idea. You can afford to forget yourself.”

It hulks closer to him. One foot snags on the silks.

“And you cannot?” it breathes.

“I have a gift,” Sabin says. “I can kill monsters. And it is always nagging at my mind. If I forget myself, then I will kill you, and I will die.”

“I am not a monster,” it offers. It sounds almost offended.

“I use the term loosely,” Sabin admits. “But come: you stalk around on many legs killing people.”

“I also rip out their brains and sup on their memories of self,” the creature admits. “But still. Call me titan. Creature. Beast. Not monster. I have seen monsters in my day.”

Sabin sighs. The creature looms closer. Then it trips on the silks and falls on them both. Parmys screams. Then there are knives in each of Parmys’ hands and she is stabbing at the creature’s eyes. It is roaring. It is kicking out at them with one great foot. Everything is confusion and war. In that chaos Sabin, drowning in indecision, finds himself reaching out his hand and pushing it through the creature’s weak spot and into its brain. It is shrieking and his mind is spinning as he squeezes the pulp therein. Then it twitches, and casts them both aside, and dies.

“Sabin!” Parmys says, and shakes him. “Sabin! Are you all right? Don’t . . . don’t . . . die however it was you thought you were going to die!”

Sabin’s eyes are white and staring, and his hands are twitching. Impulsively, Parmys kisses him, hard; and he gives a horrible jerk and falls back, and his eyes clear.

“I am here,” he says, and his voice is quiet. “I am still here.”

“Good,” she says. “I . . . I have never seen . . .”

“I hired you,” he says. “So I will take you back with me to the court of the Caliph; but you must never say what you have seen and heard.”

“Of course,” she says.

And so they travel back, and the Caliph calls them to his court, and with great honor greets Sabin.

“Sabin,” he says, “you are truly a hero of my land.”

Sabin grits his teeth.

“And,” the Caliph says, “you may marry my daughter, and have a great parcel of land, and six sacks full of gold; and do not think of refusing, for she has set her heart on this.”

“She is beautiful,” Sabin says, “and kind, and she would accept it if I said ‘no’.”

“Perhaps,” the Caliph says, “yet I would be the one to live with her grief, not you; and, in an odd coincidence, I am the Caliph, and you are not. Thus, you shall wed.”

“The Caliph is wise,” Sabin says, and does perfunctory obeisance.

Sabin takes the Caliph’s daughter, and Parmys, and lives in a grand estate. At first he is unhappy and eats every meal in sorrow. As time goes by, his affection for the Caliph’s daughter grows. For she is, as he has said, beautiful and kind, and it is not her fault that her father’s ways are stern. They become more and more in love, and in this all would be well; but a jealousy rises in Parmys’ heart, and she says to the Caliph’s daughter, “Ah, he does not love you much, you know.”

“Oh?” the Princess says, and raises an eyebrow.

“Well,” Parmys says, “when he slew the monster for me, he said, ‘Why, this is the least of the things I would do for the woman of my heart; I like you but scarcely, and still you deserve this death. Ah! If I loved you, then I would pile such beasts before you as to make a kingdom of their meat.'”

The Princess’ nose wrinkles. “That seems unsanitary; and, moreover, difficult, for there are not so many monsters to go around.”

“There is,” Parmys says, “the Caliph’s great beast.”

“Foo!” says the Princess; but the seed was sown. And one day, as she lay with Sabin, she says, “Will you kill the great beast for me?”

And he rises, and glares at her.

“It is as I thought,” she announces. “You love me not! With your eyes and your ways you woo’d me, but you love me not!”

“More than the mountains love the sun,” he says. “More than the deserts love the sand. I would bring you its heart, Princess, but I cannot.”

She snorts. “Men are easy with such words.”

“Yes,” he agrees. “I am hardly the only man unable to slay the Caliph’s great beast.”

She leaps to her feet, and cleans herself, and dresses, and says, “Come. We will go to the palace, and beneath it, and I will show you to the beast, and you will kill it for me.”

“You do not understand,” Sabin says. “If I kill it, I will die.”

“Why?”

“I am a hero,” Sabin says. “It is my nature to kill monsters. But I am also djinn.”

She hesitates, and then sits upon the bed. “I should like to hear such things,” she says, “before the wedding, rather than after.”

“We were gods in Babylonia,” he says. “And in a monster’s thrall. So we rose up a hero from our numbers, to kill the monster and free the world. It was the final battle in centuries of battle. It was the chance that Allah gave us to answer our long pain and end the tyranny of the monster’s power. And the hero met the monster, and they fought, and the monster won.”

She looks him up and down. “You are here. You are alive.”

“We are a people of salt,” he says, “defined by our sorrows.”

“You are alive.”

“As the monster gloated of his victory,” Sabin says, “the hand of Allah struck him down. It obscured the sun. It blotted out the sky. Everything was chaos and terror. But we were not strong enough, you see. We had failed. So he cast us down too. Allah banished us from Heaven. He cast us down to earth, to live in the mud and the muck. He stripped us of our godhead. And without it, we are simply slaves.”

“Allah is merciful,” the Princess protests.

“I am a hero,” Sabin says. “It is the law of my nature. I can kill monsters. That is my slavery, and it is not a harsh one.”

“Then why do you not?”

“It is not a time for heroes,” Sabin says. “That time is ended. And Allah’s judgment on us was harsh. If I succumb to my nature, if I become more than human, if I let myself transcend, then I will die, and it is no clean death. I will become a god stripped of godhead. It means becoming nothingness. Not even the angel of death will come for me.”

“I do not believe you,” she says. Then, with a wisdom uncharacteristic of a Princess, she adds, “but I trust you. You need not kill the beast for me.”

“Thank you,” he says.

And Parmys’ jealousy withers as the days grow long, for she is a practical woman. Sabin’s happiness and the Princess’ happiness grow, but still that conversation nags at his mind and does not give him peace; and only the birth of his daughter Eritrea keeps him there so many years.

“I don’t think,” Eritrea says, “that we should define ourselves by our sorrows.”

“Oh?” Sabin asks.

“Those things are sad,” she says, “but they’re done. Maya’s tears. The monster’s victory. They’re done. We should make things brighter, and not dwell on the bad things.”

“Ah,” Sabin says. “But it is not to dwell that we call ourselves a people of salt.”

“It is not?”

“It is the nature of those who suffer tragedy,” Sabin says, “to say: this is our nature, this is as we deserve, this is part of us.”

Eritrea nods.

“We are a people of salt,” he says, “to remind us that we were worth Mylitta’s sacrifice, and Ella’s before her, and all those after, and most of all of Maya’s tears.”

And it is seven nights thereafter that he rises, and dresses in armor, and takes up a sword, and travels down into the Caliph’s dungeons.

“I am here to kill you, beast,” he says, and there is a hissing and a rumbling and a shining in the dark. And he draws his sword, and for a moment all is light, and then he shreds, like a tissue in a gale, and the angel of death does not find him, nor any place thereafter bear accounting for his soul.

And Eritrea does not forget.

Martin (IV/IV)

There’s a knock at the door. Six-year-old Bethany answers.

Martin’s standing outside. He’s thirteen. He’s wearing a black suit. It’s snazzy. It might be older than he is. He’s also wearing goggles.

“Hi, Bethany, ” Martin says. “Could you take me to your room?”

“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers, ” Bethany explains.

“I’m not a stranger,” Martin says. “I’m the smith. I’m the test. I’m the maker.”

Bethany considers. Then she nods, gravely. She reaches up with her pudgy fingers and takes Martin’s hand. She leads him to her room. He looks over her toy shelf. He takes down a Barbie.

“Her name is Watcher,” Bethany says. “But she’s all weird.”

“Don’t worry,” says Martin. “I’ll fix her.”

**

Edna reads. Martin knocks on Edna’s door. Edna opens the door.

“Hi,” Martin says. “Do you have a Barbie?”

Edna looks Martin over. “Are you the Barbie Inspection Squad, or the Barbie Repossession Unit?”

Martin smiles at her. “Please, ma’am, just answer the question.”

“Yes,” she agrees. “Would you like me to fetch her?”

“That won’t be necessary, ma’am.” He slides past her into the apartment. His eyes scan the room. Finally, he sees it, on top of the VCR.

“Has your Barbie been acting . . . oddly, ma’am?” he asks. He walks closer. He touches it.

“Oddly?”

“In an aberrant fashion, ma’am. Doing things that one would not expect Barbies to do. Changing her appearance. Moving. Engaging in philosophy.”

“No.” Edna looks mildly unnerved.

Martin frowns. He twists the Barbie’s head off and looks inside. He shakes it some. Then he smiles. “Ah,” he says. “It’s stuck.”

He bangs the Barbie sharply against the VCR and something shiny falls out into his hand. Martin replaces its head with one sharp screwing motion. It locks back into place. Martin sets the Barbie back down.

“Thank you, ma’am.”

**

It is 2001. The monster sits in his living room and reads. Martin knocks on the front door. The monster answers. Martin smiles at him. The monster looks uncomfortable.

“Pardon me, sir,” Martin says, “but do you have a Barbie?”

“You can’t come in,” the monster says, then turns. Martin is already browsing the monster’s shelves. After a moment, the monster grinds out, “I have one. But it’s perfectly normal.”

Martin glances around, then spots it. He walks over to it. He holds it to his ear.

“I know why you’re here,” the monster says.

“Barbie Inspection Squad,” Martin says. He takes his goggles off and looks into the monster’s eyes. The monster adjusts his shiny tie. Martin looks away. “A while back, someone thought it’d be a good idea to come out with a new Barbie line that had souls.”

“You can’t just come in here and start taking my stuff,” the monster blusters. “I could have you unmade.

Martin replaces his goggles. He shakes the Barbie. Its eyes begin to shine with a golden glow. He holds it up. “See? Soul.”

“Glowy eyes,” the monster says dismissively.

Martin breathes in the Barbie’s mouth.

“Living with monsters is hard!” the Barbie says.

The monster clenches his jaw. “Mindless babbling.”

“See?” the Barbie says. “He disses me at every opportunity. And we never play dress-up. He likes his spider more than he likes me.”

“The Barbie Inspection Squad,” Martin says, gravely, “tracks these Barbies down and deals with the matter.”

Suddenly, the monster relaxes. “You don’t know what you are.”

Martin smiles lazily. “I’m the smith. I’m the test. I’m the maker. You’re just the dross.”

“Prove it.”

Martin pokes the monster’s chest. “I can touch you.”

“That’s even lamer than bringing my Barbie to life.”

Martin grins. He takes the monster’s hand. He leads the monster down to the basement. Then he lets go. He walks out into the middle of the room.

“It’s funny walking here,” he says. “It’s like the floor is piled high with the bones and wings of angels.”

The monster taps the floor with a foot. It’s stone. It’s dusted. It’s reasonably clean.

“I figure,” Martin says, “that you went through a few dozen before you got to me.” He kicks the air above the floor. “Frederick. Manuel. Steven.” With a tone of wry amusement, he adds, “Lisa.” Then he continues. “Cedric. Clay. Tilly. Basil. Gerard. Earl. Morgan. Thess.” He hesitates.

“The rest weren’t angels,” the monster says.

“Ah,” Martin says.

“So,” the monster says, “you can see names.”

“No,” Martin says. “I can do what it takes. I can kill woglies. I can make myself from nothing. And I can do this.”

He looks around. The room is full of the bones of things that never were. He raises his hand.

The air fills with a storm of becoming. Wings wake and bones straighten. Limbs and fluttering fills the room, and feathers squish into the monster’s mouth. Martin is gone, and the monster realizes, with an odd detached sort of humor, that he is drowning in angels.

The monster turns, choking and gagging, and flounders towards the stairs.

**

“Tell me,” Augusta says. “Why would anyone put a soul in a Barbie?”

“There’s only so much that Heaven can do in the world,” Martin says. “There’s only so much. So evil and horror slips through the cracks. A bunch of souls volunteered to get put inside childrens’ dolls, and come into the world, and help.”

“Oh.” Augusta frowns. “Then why is it bad?”

“I dunno,” Martin says, and shrugs. “It just kinda creeps me out.”

Rainbow Noir

Long ago there was a girl who guarded Rainbow Land. Long ago there were magical bears that lived on clouds up in the sky.

Long ago there was a beautiful and perfect world.

It’s 1952, and Rainbow Land is dead. There’s only Shadow City now. It’s dark and it’s drab but there are glimmers of color here and there around the edges. The shine on the edge of the gang members’ leathers. The shimmer that runs down the length of their guns. The little rainbows you can see in a glass of gin when you hold it up to the light.

Terrence is a sprite. He’s small and cute, covered in gray fur. In another kind of place, it might be a soft and fluffy white. He’s wearing a trenchcoat and a hat. He holds up his glass. He shakes it. Ice cubes clink one against the other. At the edge, the rainbows shine.

“Hey.”

It’s a girl’s voice. He ignores it. Girls are nothing but trouble. But she says it again. “Hey.” A blood-red hand comes to rest on his shoulder. “Terrence.”

“One of my sins,” he asks, “come home to roost?”

“In three hours,” she says, “everyone in Shadow City will die.”

He sets his drink down on the bar and turns. He sees a flare of red and terrible light.

There’s a mansion at the edge of Shadow City. It’s cold white marble, edged in black. In the mornings, the sun casts pale light over its garden and in through its windows. At night, its lights don’t come on. The girl who lives there sits in a chair and looks at the wall, in moonlight or in darkness, and lets her hair grow long.

She hears a bell ring. She rises from her chair. She walks, tall, graceful, and lithe, to the door; and out; and down the garden path to the great black gates.

A man’s standing there. He’s fading away to nothing. He’s drowning in shadows. His face is blurry. “Help me,” he says.

“I don’t have anything for you,” she says.

“Color,” he says. “I need color.”

Her hand comes up to her face. It traces the cold black edge of her chin. It runs across the bleak white of her cheek. It passes across her eyes, two wells of darkness in a perfect face. “I don’t have any,” she says. “I never did.”

She turns and walks away.

“I believe in your rainbow!” he cries.

She walks back to her chair. She sits down. She waits. The man dissolves into darkness.

Terrence wakes, slowly. He looks around. He’s in a car. It’s moving fast. He can make out the driver’s face in the rear-view mirror, but she’s no one he knows.

“Who are you?” he asks.

“Femme Fatale Bear,” she says. “I use sexual forthrightness to unlock the inner desires of men.”

“Sorry, babe,” he says. “Sprites don’t do that kind of thing.”

She smirks.

“Okay,” he admits. “But it’s more ethereal with us. Sprites, we like to get our kids by stork or cabbage, not by knocking up some bear with our star sprinkles, capisce?”

“That’s not what you were moaning in your sleep.”

Terrence frowns in faint memory, then shakes it off. “If this is a kidnapping, you’ve got the wrong sprite. There’s no one left who’d pay a cent for me.”

“You know my kind,” she says.

“Yeah.” He shrugs. His species’ natural deelyboppers wobble. “Magical bears. You live on clouds and ride rainbows around to bestow your gifts on humankind. Am I supposed to be impressed?”

“No,” she says. “There’s no place in the world for that kind of thing any more. It’s a darker time, Twink.”

“Terrence,” he says. “Terrence is the name.”

“It’s a darker time. It calls for a darker bear. All the originals—they shut themselves away back when the rainbows turned monochrome and the stars stopped shining so bright. It’s hard to spread cheer when people’ll kill one another for a little bit of color. It’s hard to spread tender affection when good, honest girls are selling themselves on the streets just so their lips can be red and their hair gold for another few hours of the night. So now there’s just the five of us. Alienation Bear, and Transgression Bear, and Fatalism Bear, and me.”

“That’s four,” Terrence says, and then bites his lip. I’m playing her game, he tells himself. I should know better.

“Nihilism Bear,” she says. “The end-of-everything bear. The bastard bear at the heart of the void. In . . . just under two and a half hours . . . he’s going to stand outside Shadow City and use his Nihilism Bear Stare; and then there won’t be any star sprinkles, or any Shadow City, or any sprites, or even any Earth. Just the great long hungry void.”

“Why’d he wait so long?”

“He wasn’t like this when it started,” she says. “For years, he’s been caring less and less. He’s become a regular grumpy-puss. So last night, he made the decision. ‘Make your goodbyes,’ he said. ‘In the morning, I’ll end the world.'”

Terrence suddenly sits bolt upright. “I can’t help you,” he says. There’s panic in his voice.

“We all pled with him,” she says. “We even tried working together. We all stood next to one another, our bellies bright with the symbols of our aspects and our attributes, and as one we stared. The padlock of alienation, the lipstick of transgression, the hourglass of fatalism, and the broken heart of the femme fatale — our magical bear symbols sprang forth from our stomachs in rays of light and merged into a glorious rainbow of sheer caring. But he only laughed; for he had moved beyond such mortal concerns.”

“No,” Terrence says, vigorously. “I mean, I really can’t help. It’s totally impossible. I can’t do what you think I can. You need to find someone else.”

“You can’t wake the rainbow?”

“She’d never listen to me,” he protests. “Not now.”

Femme Fatale Bear studies him in the mirror. Then she laughs. “You’re afraid, pookie. But you’ll do it for me, won’t you?”

He shakes his head, but the symbol on her stomach is beginning to glow, and the car fills with carmine light. There’s a brilliant beam of energy, the reddest he’s seen in more than a dozen years, and it glances off the mirror to shine full into his eyes.

“Heaven and Earth,” he whimpers.

“You have to help me,” she says, voice almost breaking. “I don’t want to die.”

Terrence closes his eyes and slumps back. “Fine,” he says. “Fine. I’ll talk to her. I’ll talk to her. Please . . . just . . . don’t do that. You’re . . . it’s too much.”

The light fades, and the car pulls up outside the mansion gates.

Wisp looks up as she hears a bell ring. “Twice in one night,” she whispers. “That’s not common.” She rises from her chair. She walks, tall, graceful, and lithe, to the door; and out; and down the garden path to the great black gates.

“Terrence,” she says, to the sprite who waits for her there.

“Rainbow,” he cries. It’s a soft and wounded noise.

“Wisp,” she says.

“Wisp.” He looks up at her, pleading. He trembles. He’s terrified of her. She only looks sad, but he’s shaking like a leaf.

“I don’t have anything for you,” she says.

“Wisp,” he says softly. “Please. Get your magic belt. Put it on. If you don’t harness the power of the rainbow, Nihilism Bear will kill us all.”

She tilts her head to one side. She blinks. “Ask me to move aside a mountain to save a trapped child, and I will stand at its base and push. Ask me to run a thousand miles without stopping, that a starving man might find a meal, and I will set my feet upon that course and run. Ask me to sing to charm the angels, or cut out my tongue to staunch the devil’s hate. Do not ask me this.”

Terrence hesitates. He closes his eyes in pain. Then he says, softly, “I lied to you.”

Wisp’s face is still. Her eyes draw in the moonlight. After a long moment, she says, “Why?”

“It was necessary,” he whispers. Leaves skitter across the road.

“You showed me the machine that made me,” she says. “It wasn’t a lie. I was never a real girl. I was just a thing the sprites put together to save Rainbow Land from darkness. You poured in the star sprinkles and out came a girl.”

“That was true,” Terrence answers.

Wisp’s eyes narrow. There’s a glint in them now that chills. “Then the rest is true,” she says. “I have no heart. I have no life. I have no magic. I’m just a tool. A thing. A vessel for power.”

Behind his back, Terrence crosses his fingers. “That’s true,” he says, “but only when you don’t have sprinkles. Don’t you understand, Wisp? When I put the magic in you, you’re a real person. Your hopes are real hopes. Your dreams are real dreams.”

Fast as a striking whip, she has one hand on each of his shoulders and has him pressed back against the stone arch that holds her gate. She’s grown now. She’s twice her old height and her muscles are strong. She leans into his face. “Why?” she hisses. “Why didn’t you tell me that then?

“You were a threat,” he answers. “Wisp, it wasn’t my idea. You have to believe me. I had orders! You were a threat!”

Her eyes scan his face. “A threat.”

“Don’t you know what it would have done?”

“I could have stopped the war,” she says. “I could have stopped the killing. But I didn’t. Because I’m not a person. You’re telling me I could have been?”

Some strength returns to Terrence’s eyes. His voice is sharp and resonant. “It was not appropriate for Rainbow Land to get involved. Earth would have found us. They would have annexed us. We wouldn’t have Rainbow Land. We wouldn’t have Shadow City. We’d have nothing.

She holds him there for a moment, then drops him. “It doesn’t matter,” she says. “Give me a heart. I’ll fight Nihilism Bear.”

She holds up her hands, and a rainbow-symbol belt slithers through the air from her house to land in them. She buckles it around her waist, exhaling like a cinched horse. Solemnly, Terrence extends to her a handful of colored stars. She takes them. The air around her shimmers and gleams like a soap bubble, thousands of colors livid in the night. She makes a high and maddened keening noise. The paleness and darkness of her drips away like paint washing off of ice. Then there comes silence. When Wisp next speaks, her voice comes in seven tones and strikes into his consciousness like a god’s.

“Where shall I go?” she says.

Mutely, he gestures to the car. She laughs a little. “No budget for a magic horse?” she sings.

“Lady,” he whispers. “Had I the means, I would give you the stars; and the sky; and a magic horse besides. But now, I have a car, and a fuzzy red bear representing sexual empowerment; this only, and my life.”

She opens the door. She climbs in. She gestures, and he climbs over her into the other seat. The bear gets in the front, buckles up, and drives.

“Femme Fatale Bear,” she says.

“Wisp.”

“He’s mine,” the bear clarifies. “My sprite. Now. I won’t let anyone else have him.”

Wisp laughs. “Our contest, Bear, is for another time, and another place.”

The bear slams a foot down on the accelerator and the car screeches away. “We’ll get to the city’s edge before Nihilism Bear,” she says. “Unless we get attacked by random monsters who serve only to prolong the action and suspense.”

Wisp smiles. “It . . . has been some time,” she murmurs, polytonally. “It has been some time since I was randomly attacked by monsters. I almost miss it. Such things do not happen in Shadow City.”

“No,” agrees Femme Fatale Bear. “Yet . . . perhaps times change.” She gestures out the front window towards the strange alien monster that straddles the road, ten miles ahead.

“It’s okay,” Wisp sings. “It will delay us, and nothing more.”

Nihilism Bear’s alarm rings. He stretches sleepily. He pulls himself upright in bed. The sun shines fully upon him. “Huh?” he asks. “It’s 9 o’clock? I was sure I set my alarm for 7.” He stands up and putters about the room. He brushes his teeth. He pulls on a cap to cover his mullet. “Bother. Someone must have changed it. Now I’ll be late to destroy the city.”

He wanders out onto his cloud. “Hello sun!” he cries out. “I’ll be destroying you today. Hello butterfly! Your days are numbered. Hello bird! Life is a pointless parade of misfortune and anguish.” The sun twinkles merrily. The butterfly whirls around his head. The bird tweets, twice.

Nihilism Bear grabs a giant nihilism balloon and floats towards Shadow City. He touches ground at the edge. He yawns. “Huh. I guess no one’s going to try to stop me. All right,” he says, sharply. “Nihilism Bear Stare!”

He huffs. He puffs. He takes a deep breath and the shiny formless shadow that marks his stomach glimmers and glistens. Then a wind rises from beyond, and the air goes chill; and there’s a piping from far away of maddened, mindless flutes. In the alleys of Shadow City, a drunk girl takes out her knife and holds it to her wrist. On its streets, gang members strut and preen. In the high towers, gray bureaucrats push the papers about that allocate the city’s color to the few. The void rises from Nihilism Bear to consume Shadow City, and the void takes breath.

A glimmering rainbow rises to meet it. P’a chao! Color and shadow begin to drizzle from the sky.

Nihilism Bear exhales, startled. The darkness dissolves. “Good morning!” he exclaims. Three figures stride towards him through the chromatic rain. “It’s Femme Fatale Bear! You must introduce me to your friends.”

“These,” she says, softly, “are Wisp, who is the Rainbow, and Terrence, her sprite; and they shall bring your madness to an end.”

Nihilism Bear shakes himself, tummy wiggling. “We’ll see about that. Nihilism Bear Stare!”

The symbol arcs from his chest and strikes Wisp’s heart.

“A lot of people get confused,” he says companionably, as she screams and sinks to her knees. “They start thinking that it’s better to exist than not to exist. That’s why you have Nihilism Bear. I bring the enlightenment of the void. I teach children that it’s all right to set aside the burdens of their life and dance forever in nothingness. My motto is, ‘Stop crying — start dying!’ You look like a girl who needs a fresh dose of nihilism. Have you been imagining that life has a point? That’s a good dream, but all it does in the long run is make you hurt more. When you realize it’s all a futile, endless cavalcade of pain, it makes all that struggling you did kind of stupid. Doesn’t it?”

“I saved the universe once,” she says.

“Tsk, tsk.” He points his fuzzy paw at her. “Bang.”

Wisp slumps.

Nihilism Bear relaxes the black glow, and turns to face the other two. His hand goes out to them, palm up, and he wriggles his fused furry fingers in invitation. “Nihilism Bear is hot today. Who else wants some?”

“Wisp,” whispers Terrence. “You can’t die.”

“What?” asks Nihilism Bear.

“You can’t die, Wisp!” Terrence shouts, hardened demeanor slipping. “Then I wouldn’t see you for days and days! I believe in your rainbow, Wisp!”

“Bah,” Nihilism Bear sneers, and the black glow plays across Terrence and Femme Fatale Bear alike. “Your belief doesn’t matter.”

“It does.” The voice is single-toned.

Nihilism Bear turns back to Wisp, who straightens, slowly and painfully.

“It’s one thing to doubt your purpose when you’re just a lost, tired girl gripped in a miasma of existentialist doubt,” Wisp says. Her voice has two tones now, and rising. “But when a gray fuzzy alien in a trenchcoat declares that you can generate color and possibility out of the magic belt you wore when you were a little girl, then maybe — just maybe — the philosophy behind it all isn’t really that important.”

“Oh, hon,” Nihilism Bear says, moved. “You really do need more nihilism in your life. Do you want me to sing the nihilism song?”

Once again, the black wars with the rainbow, against the sound of flutes; and a long seven-toned scream; and then there’s silence.

In Shadow City, a girl fumbles and drops her knife. A thug pauses, and sniffs the air. A bureaucrat, for the first time in seven years, looks out his window to regard the street.

A bird sings.

Terrence opens his eyes. The air is blindingly bright. It’s full of swirls of color. In the center of it all there hangs a girl, her body limp, her eyes closed, and nothing in her expression that is human.

A symbol shines upon Terrence, falling from far away upon a cloud: the lipstick mark of Transgression Bear. In that spotlight he stands, frozen. This is Transgression Bear’s purpose: to teach children and sinners that they must pay for their crimes.

Wisp’s eyes snap open.

“It’s time,” Terrence croaks. “It’s time to take the belt back off. You’ll run out of star sprinkles soon. You won’t have a heart. But it’s good, right? You saved the world. You proved that you’re a true and glorious rainbow.”

“Oh, Terrence,” murmurs the goddess at the rainbow’s heart. “You have lied to me again.”

She takes off the belt. She drops it. It lands, below her, with a clunk. She smiles at him. It’s fierce. It’s predatory. She does not fall.

“You see?” she says, softly. “You lied to me. I never lacked a soul.” She is silent for a moment. “It is not a thing I deserved,” she adds. “That my fuzzy magical companion should be so cruel.”

A length of rainbow lashes out to stroke under his chin.

Once again, Terrence straightens. He glares at her. “Then kill me. I’ve been waiting more’n ten years for you to wake up and put that rainbow through my heart. I won’t be afraid of you. Make an end to it! Make an end to it, Rainbow!”

“No,” she says, and smiles. The rainbows around her slither faster and faster through the air. He feels his mind drifting away into the shifting colors; and it is beyond Terrence the sprite to speak or move or think now.

“It’s not my job,” she says, softly. “I’m not here for revenge.”

The rainbows merge and twist, and the rope of them plunges endlessly into Terrence’s eyes. He shivers. He opens his mouth to scream, and another rainbow plunges in. The gray fades. The white returns, and his fur burns like a star. The trenchcoat whips in the wind and rips away. His hat flies off. He sinks to the ground. The rainbows withdraw.

“I name you Glorious Servant,” she says.

Glorious bounces happily. “All right, Wisp! Thanks for chasing my gloom away. I bet it’s time to bring some color back to Rainbow Land!”

Wisp smiles.

In the alleys, a girl gropes on hands and knees to find her knife. She’s drunk. It’s hard to find. There are only so many places it could be. So many garbage cans, so much waste-strewn ground. She finds it. She brings it to her wrist. “I can’t stop just because I had a moment’s hope,” she says. “There’s so much more despair.”

In the distance, beyond the city’s edge, a tide rises.

In the high towers, a bureaucrat sees the tide. He chokes on his coffee and staggers back away from the window. “Heaven and Earth.”

The tide crests.

The girl cuts. Her white arm begins to trickle deep black blood. She cuts again.

The wave falls.

Spatters of coffee, sinking into the bureaucrat’s papers, shimmer a bright and wooden brown. The cuts on the girl’s wrist shine; her skin turns flush and pink, her blood a pure wine-red. The shadows and grime of Shadow City fade. The bandanas of the gangs shine a brilliant blue, save for the one that is green; and a gangster realizes with cold terror that he’s been hanging out with his blood enemies for the past ten years.

There’s a wind, and it carries a message from the rainbow girl.

“Hi,” says the wind.

“This is my city now.”

There is no blood that flows but red; and no tears that fall that are not jewels; and for a time, of Rainbow Land, we hear no more.