The Stone (IV/IV)

When the Thorn That Does Not Kill went into Liril’s neck, she found a small round stone in her mouth. She spat it out and into the monster’s hand. The monster tossed it aside, and from that time to this, Liril has been still and quiet.

And yet.

It is not so very long ago that Micah, in the schoolyard, found that stone, and picked it up, and named it Liril. He chose that stone not by coincidence or by design, but by necessity. The world works as it does; and there is no other stone that would have been appropriate. So he drew legs on it, and a head, and two hands, and rolled it off into the woods.

Neither Liril or Micah saw where it stopped; but it stopped, of course. It came to a peaceful place, in the shadow of the trees, and waited, still and quiet and without volition, like any other stone.

The shadows grow long, and the wind rustles in the trees, and on its great long legs the namecatcher wasp stalks in. It’s as big as a human hand, which makes it much bigger than the rock.

“Pretty thing,” it says. “Has a name, does it?”

It pokes the rock with a leg. The rock stirs.

“Yes,” the rock admits. “Liril.”

The wasp smiles. Or perhaps it’s more of a leer.

“I’ll take that name,” it says. “Won’t I?”

It scuttles forward a little. Its stinger comes forward, gently, to tap against the stone.

“It’s undecided,” the rock says.

The wasp cocks its head to one side. “Stones tell many things,” it says, “but what a strange thing for a rock to say.”

“Listen,” the rock says, and the namecatcher wasp listens. There’s a soft and faraway drumbeat in the woods.

“They’re coming,” the rock says. “For Liril. And if you take the name, then I won’t be anything at all; but you’ll have her name, and they’ll find you.”

The wasp hesitates. Its antennae twitch. It touches the stone with a leg and rocks it back and forth.

“Then I do not know what to do,” it says.

The rock is still. The wasp is cunning.

“If you can tell me my name,” the wasp says, “then I will let you go.”

“Why?”

“Because I am a namecatcher wasp, and that is the law of my nature.”

“You are Safety,” says the rock.

“I am not.”

“You are Peace,” the rock says.

“I am not.”

The wasp’s wings beat, agitated. Its stinger comes forward, then hesitates. It is wrestling with itself.

“You are Surrender,” the rock says.

“Ah,” says the wasp, as a burden lifts from it. It ascends into the air in a storm, and its wings give rise to a wind that cuts across the winds of the world. As the wasp rises, it blows the rock from its place, and it rolls once, twice, thrice.

There is a drumbeat in the woods, and the rock fears it. So it does not stop. It is even now rolling. It is driven by the changing of the wind.

Surrender (1 of 2)

“Sometimes, things just are,” Micah says.

He’s sitting in front of his house. He’s waiting. It’s been about two hours.

“There used to be gibbelins,” he says. “They lived outside the world. They ate people. And to lure people to them, they had a cellar of emeralds, and a cellar of sapphires, and a cellar of gold.”

He has surrendered, and so he has no power. His mother has phoned the monster. The nightmares will come for him, and take him away. The air is very cold.

“And a man carved down into their cellar,” he says, “from under a river, and flooded it, to raid their emeralds without going to their door. And he emerged from the water with a sack full of emeralds, and there were the gibbelins, and without saying a word, or even smiling, they killed him. It didn’t make anyone happy. He died, and the gibbelins weren’t even particularly pleased. But sometimes things just are.”

A car pulls up. A man gets out. His nametag reads “Thysiazo,” and below that, “Acceptance.”

“Micah,” he says.

“Why?” Micah asks him. “Why do I have to do this?”

Thysiazo blinks. Then he shrugs, and gives an honest answer. “Power,” he says. “For a monster, power is defined as the point where they no longer need to create gods of their own—when they can conjure them forth from others. The monster has desired to break you to his will from the moment that Liril made you; and only certain failings on our part prevented it thus far. It is generally a benign process,” he adds, “although there are unfortunate circumstances at present.”

“Oh.”

Micah hesitates at the door, thinking about something else to say, but Thysiazo casts him an inquiring look, and Micah bitterly climbs in. Thysiazo sits in the driver’s seat and starts the car. There’s a long and quiet drive.

“What are you?” Micah asks.

“A demon,” Thysiazo says.

“No horns,” Micah points out. “Also, not red or ugly.”

“No,” Thysiazo admits. “I’m more of an easy-on-the-eye evil.”

Micah frowns.

“Not as a person,” Thysiazo clarifies. “In my own person, I’m capable of both goodness and hypocrisy, and through one road or another I find myself a morally acceptable creature. But it would be a mistake for a demon to deny the fundamental evil of his nature. Folly has no merits.”

“How are you evil, then?”

“We’re going to Tina’s home,” Thysiazo says. “Do you remember her?”

There’s a long pause. “Vaguely.”

“Are you all right with going there?”

Micah is silent.

“There’s a little place in you that’s terrified,” Thysiazo says. He turns the wheel gently as the road curves. “You won’t admit it, but it’s there, in your heart, and it’s casting out a radiance of emptiness. It’s asking the rest of your mind for help. It’s asking the world for help. It’s calling out to the gods. And this is my answer: that you should sit, and wait, and accept what comes. You have to, Micah. You surrendered of your own free will. To protect others. It’s just a necessary sacrifice, something that you have to live with, something that’s part of your world now. I can’t help giving that answer. It’s what demons do. We teach you to accept whatever is necessary to bear. And our answers go straight into your soul.”

“Oh,” Micah says.

“See,” says Thysiazo, “if I started pretending that that was a good answer, then I wouldn’t be a demon. I’d just be a dork.”

“Please let me go,” Micah says.

Thysiazo drives.

“I’ll make you finger sandwiches?”

“Yum,” Thysiazo says. “But, no.”

After a while, they pull up in front of a house. It’s white. It’s got big brooding windows and a little fence out front. Its roof is painted a light blue. It’s got a small grassy yard. Thysiazo leads Micah to the door, and knocks, and then leads him inside to a small fuzzy brown-green-gold couch.

“Sit,” Thysiazo says, and then fades away to lean against the wall.

Micah can hear someone washing their hands in the other room. There’s a swish of fabric. Then she comes out: Tina, a woman with pale blond hair and a white lab coat.

“Hi,” he says.

She tilts her head to one side. She stares at him for a few moments. Then she looks up at Thysiazo. “He spoke.”

Thysiazo shrugs.

She looks down at Micah. “Don’t speak,” she says. “Not without being asked. You’ve gotten ill-trained.”

Micah chews on his lip.

“Why did we leave him alone for so long?” she asks Thysiazo.

“Liril,” Thysiazo says.

She tilts her head to the other side.

Thysiazo shrugs. “It was cheaper to farm her for gods than to use the kind of pressure we’d need to get her or Micah away. We tried, but . . .”

“Ah.”

She looked at Micah. “You defended her?” she says.

“Yes.”

“How?”

“When I tried to fight,” Micah says, “it usually worked. Liril helped a lot.”

She nods towards the wall. There are shackles dangling from it.

“You’ll want to put your wrists in those,” she says. “So you don’t fall down.”

Micah blanches. “I thought . . . there’d be the monster,” he says.

Thysiazo drifts away from the wall to stand by the couch. He offers Micah his hand. Micah takes it, and Thysiazo helps him rise. Leaning on Thysiazo, Micah goes over to the wall.

“He’s supposed to be here,” Micah insists.

“He’s gone,” Thysiazo says, comfortingly. He locks Micah’s wrists to the wall, one by one. “He went to a show a few weeks ago, and he hasn’t come back.”

“He’s supposed to be here,” Micah says. “I was going to denounce him. Wait.”

Tina disappears into the next room. Micah can hear a metallic ringing as she drops something and it skitters across the floor.

“Please,” Micah says.

“Would you like me to save you?” Thysiazo says.

“What?” Micah does not hesitate for long. “Yes!”

Thysiazo nods, and sets his hand on Micah’s forehead. “Peace,” he says.

The world goes out of focus, and the air shivers, and Micah cannot think. Then there is fire, and a blond woman smiling, and he thinks his limbs are tensing in great convulsive unity, and lightning dancing in his mind. He tries to fight, but when he reaches for his power, Thysiazo speaks a word, and it all spins away.

Then there is fire, and a blond woman smiling, and he thinks his limbs are tensing in great convulsive unity, and lightning dancing in his mind. He tries to fight, but when he reaches for his power, Thysiazo speaks a word, and it all spins away.

Then there is fire, and a blond woman smiling, and he thinks his limbs are tensing in great convulsive unity, and lightning dancing in his mind. He tries to fight, but when he reaches for his power, Thysiazo speaks a word, and it all spins away.

In the end, he wakes, and Thysiazo is there.

Thysiazo reaches for him, and Micah cringes away.

“Peace,” Thysiazo says, and Micah relaxes. Thysiazo strokes his hair.

“It had to happen,” Thysiazo explains. “You’re a threat, as long as you know how to fight us. But I can keep you from feeling the pain while it’s happening.”

“I know,” Micah says.

Thysiazo unshackles Micah, and picks him up in his arms, and carries him down to the basement. It’s concrete and bare, with a couple of mattresses on the floor and a few old bloodstains on the walls. It’s dark, and it has a door, and Liril and Tainted John are there; and they are still and quiet and dressed in grey, and for a moment Thysiazo does not process their presence. He sets Micah down, and says, “We’ll take you to Central soon, and then it’ll get a little better.”

Then he looks up, and frowns. Tainted John has no eyes, only wells of blood, luminescent in the darkness. Without saying a word, or even smiling, he cuts Thysiazo apart; and when a third of Thysiazo falls to land on Micah’s side, there is a moment of peace, and Micah does not scream.

(See also The Hoard of the Gibbelins, by Lord Dunsany)

Sunday (2 of 2)

It’s Sunday, the 18th of April, 2004.

Micah comes home. The sun swelters overhead. All the lights in the house are on. The front door isn’t locked. He goes to the room he shares with Liril, but she’s not there. So he knocks on the door of his mother’s room; and she opens it; and her eyes are haunted.

“Liril?” he asks.

“In the basement,” she says. “Locked in. With what’s left of John.”

He takes a step back. The toes of his left foot wiggle in his shoe. He wants to run to his sister. But he hasn’t a key.

“Why?”

“She put out his eyes,” Micah’s mother says. “She changed him into something inhuman. Some sort of ghoul.”

“And you locked her in with him?

Micah’s voice rises at the end of the sentence. He’s trembling.

“What was I supposed to do?” Her tone drops soft. “I can’t punish her. I can’t call the police. I can’t call him. But I can’t let her leave. Not either of them. Not now.”

Micah’s tongue works in his mouth for a moment. He can’t find words. Then he says, softly, “It’s all right. We’re going to go. It’s not your problem any more.”

She bites her lip. She’s thinking. Then she gestures him out towards the living room. She pours two glasses of water and waves him towards the couch. He’s not happy, but he sits.

“She’s okay,” his mother says. “I saw him. He’s tame.” She passes him one of the glasses of water. She drains half of her own. “Micah,” she says quietly, “it’s exactly my problem.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know if you know the price that I paid so that I could have you,” she says. “And I guess it doesn’t matter much if you do. But I’m responsible. You have to stay here. You have to grow up as normal children. Both of you. And you have to be broken.”

Micah looks at his glass. “Liril hasn’t really explained much,” he admits.

“If I let you go,” she says, “the monster will know. He’ll know that I still have something in me that resists him. He’ll know that I let her go. That I didn’t hurt her and I didn’t stop her and I just let her go. Then I’ll lose the last bit of me and he’ll find you both anyway.”

He looks up at her. He takes a long moment. Then he sighs. “I need her,” he says. “She’s the one who knows what to do.”

Her smile is thin and sallow. “I don’t want you to know what to do,” she says. “If you did, you’d leave me with nothing but dust.”

“Mom—”

“I know that she made you to fight things for her,” she says. “And right now I’m the enemy.”

Micah looks down. “True,” he admits.

“I’m going to sacrifice you to the monster,” she says. “It’s the only thing that works. If I give you to him, then I can let Liril go, and he’ll make you answer for her freedom. He won’t hurt you. Not the same way he’d hurt her or me. You’re not a person.”

“You want me to cooperate,” Micah says.

“Yes.” She shrugs a little. “I would have drugged the water or something, but I don’t have any drugs. So I have to ask, instead.”

“I can’t,” he says.

Her eyes narrow.

“I have to save you,” he explains, hesitantly. “Because it’s what Liril would do.”

She stands. Her face is cold. “You are nothing to me,” she says. “I loved you. I tried. But you are expendable, Micah.”

“You have to come with me to the basement,” he says. “You have to let her out.”

“No.”

“Listen,” Micah says. “You know what he did to her.”

Her eyes flicker. “Yes.”

“And you,” he says.

“Yes.”

“And your mother, or maybe your father, or both.”

“Yes.”

“Back all the generations, of your line and his.”

“We are a people of salt,” she says.

“Salt,” he says. He’s confused. He wasn’t expecting those words.

“There were dozens,” she says. “Hundreds. Of us. And they all died, save two. And so Lot’s wife looked back; and seeing it, cried; and her tears did not stop; and in the end, there was nothing left of her but salt drying in the sun. And since that time, we have been hunted, and we have been a people of salt.”

“You can’t cry yourself to death,” Micah says.

“You couldn’t,” his mother says. “I don’t think. But I could. I could answer two hundred generations with my tears.”

“I can’t pity you,” he says. “You’re selling out your children.”

“That’s not the point,” she says. “In all that time, it never got better. Do you understand? I’ll hang on to a little. I’ll teach her a little. That’s all I can do. I can’t save you. I can’t really save her. You have to be pragmatic. You have to live in the world you’ve got.”

“I’ll go,” he says.

“What?”

“I’ll go to him.”

“And what will you say?”

“I will say, ‘Should you know not justice?’”

She looks at him oddly.

Micah shrugs. “Micah 3,” he says. “‘Should you know not justice? You who hate good and love evil; who tear the skin from my people and the flesh from their bones; who eat my people’s flesh, strip off their skin and break their bones in pieces; who chop them up like meat for the pan, like flesh for the pot?’ It always makes me think of him.”

“Oh.”

He looks a little embarrassed. “If there was a Bible chapter with your name, you’d have learnt it too.”

“That’s true.” She looks at him quietly, then stands. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m going to call him now, though.”

He rises. He steps forward. There’s a flash of fear on her face, but he only hugs her fiercely.

“I’ll be okay,” he says.

She’s starting to cry.

The sun is high, and the birds are singing, and the town is quiet under the heat. The horses are stabled, and the cars in their garages, and the lurkunder is waiting in silence and peace. The spider of the sky weaves its delicate web. The river god flirts with the woman of the reeds. There’s a phone ringing, far and distant away; and in Micah’s house, the basement is empty, for there is no mortal lock nor shackle that can still hold Tainted John.

Saturday (1 of 2)

Liril opens her eyes into drowsy awareness of the plaster-popcorn ceiling above her. It is a rich mosaic, webbed with tiny cracks and falling kernels. Its color is not so much pure white as eggshell, samite, cream. The people of the Meddir Plains, whose histories have long been lost to all the nations of the world, would have read prophecies and portents in that ceiling, would have traced its intricate and mazy contours as if they were the entrails of bleeding slaves, and would have spoken long scriptures on the sacred mysteries of the world. She is Liril. She does not do this. She simply says, in a short small voice, “Of all the nights and days to come, I think this is the strangest.”

“I don’t like leaving you,” Micah says. He’s wearing jeans. He’s wearing a shirt. It’s the faded color of a dying emerald.

“You have errands to run,” Liril says.

And so he does.

In the musty, sweaty home of their friend Matthew, where the curtains drape darkly over yellowing windows, he gathers a cage and a long-legged tarantula. He croons to it, speaking the words and invocations that only a few rare boys know; not known to him, they were, not before that week, but Micah has studied the arts of his enemies. The spider moves with languid, heat-borne sloth across the bottom of its cage, and he thinks it has agreed.

To the great tall grocery with its echoing aisles he goes, and in the chill exhaled by its vents and casements picks out his supplies; and counts his change; and when he finds he does not have enough, he steals, and leaves the store chased by the sonorous ringing of its bells. It is more within his conscience to steal from such a hoard than permit Liril to go hungry on the days ahead.

He goes into the basement and takes down from the wall the Thorn That Does Not Kill, and shudders at its touch. He brings the Thorn and spider to Liril, and sets them down, and says, “My hands feel slimy.”

“Go,” Liril says.

“It’s late,” Micah says, and Liril nods. So he goes to his mother and says, “I have a sleepover.”

“I’m going out tonight,” she says. “I can’t leave Liril alone.”

“I know,” he says. “She says she wants John.”

His mother looks him over. “I thought you didn’t like him?” she says. Her voice is light and airy and suspicious.

“She says she wants John,” Micah says, voice clipped, and leaves; and she stands there, wondering, for a moment, staring after his shadow.

John! The foul, Micah’d called him once, and Tarnish John, though Green John was his name before. A neighbor’s child, once much admired, but now around him an unrighteous air; for he’d watch them when they were younger, and once had come to Liril’s bed; and though no harm had come of it—a shrieking Micah had fallen on his back, and set his knee upon John’s spine, and pulled hard his green-dyed hair—there was none of them as had forgotten. So one must understand, when he found himself called back, and heard that Micah was away, he took it as an invitation; and in the darkest hours of the night, when Liril had put herself to bed, John takes himself again to Liril’s room. She rests, her blue eyes open wide, in the darkness; and a black splotch is on her pillow, next to her silver hair; so he brings himself through the door, and says, “We should play a game,” and, at her nod, he pulls himself atop the bed, his weight on hers, and there he freezes still.

“There is a tarantula,” he said, quietly, “on your other pillow.”

“I am very afraid of spiders,” Liril says.

“Then why are you sleeping with one?”

Fighting his weight, she wriggles to the side, and out the spiderless side of her bed, and stands. He is still. He does not move.

“I don’t like cages,” she says. “So I let it out. And it crawled there, and waited for you, like Micah asked. If you get up, it will crawl after you, and onto your skin, and up onto your face, and into your mouth.”

“I see,” he says.

“I’m not good at defending myself,” Liril says. “Not without Micah. But I knew you wouldn’t come back if he was here. And even if you did, he’d have to kill you.”

“It’s not a bad thing,” John says. “What I would do. It’s a good thing. It’s a game.”

“I know,” Liril says. She sits down in her chair. She puts Latch on her lap. She brushes Latch’s hair. She looks nervous. “I believe you.”

“Then . . .”

John moves, slightly. The spider takes a hesitant, whisper-soft step. Then another. John makes a muffled noise.

“I am leaving,” Liril says. “But it made me sad to leave you.”

“Why?”

“Because when you look at people,” she says, “your eyes don’t focus quite. And your movements end sharply, like they’ve been cut off by a knife. And you play games, and I’m not ready for them yet, but you shouldn’t be ready for them either. And because I used to like you, Green John.”

“My hair isn’t green any more,” he says. “It’s black.”

“So I want to change you,” she says. “But you have to agree.”

There’s an indefinable tension in his form, but he shakes his head. “No way.”

“Ah,” she says. She puts Latch down. She stands up. She goes to her dresser. She opens the drawer. She reaches in. “I’m sorry,” she says.

“No,” he says. “No way. I am fine,” and then he is on his feet, and he is on her, and the spider moves like exquisite treacle, taking one step at a time along the long bed towards the two. But Liril has the Thorn That Does Not Kill in her hand, and has turned as he came towards her, and now its point protrudes from his back and his eyes are hollow wells full of pain, and the thick clear substance of his heart is oozing out through back and chest.

“When I was young,” Liril says, “a monster put this through the right side of my neck, and it came out my mouth, and pushed my tongue to the side, and my volition went still and quiet, and I have been at peace.”

She pushes him back, and he sits on the bed. The spider draws closer. Liril pulls out the Thorn.

“Your heart is damaged,” she says. “I can leave you this way, or I can finish.”

“I didn’t consent,” he says.

“You want me to fix you?” Liril says. She tilts her head to one side. Her eyes itch, and she rubs them in distraction. “You want me to make you what you were, so you can hurt me more?”

John puts his hand over his chest, trying to hold in the liquid of his heart. “Your moral standing,” he says, “is not clear.”

The spider reaches the butt of his pants. It hesitates, there, waving one leg with a dozen tentative intents.

“That’s true,” she says. Her hand wavers on the Thorn.

The spider crawls around and takes its first, tentative step onto his leg. John hesitates. “So we compromise,” he says. His voice is strange; in it, she recognizes first terror, then resignation, and finally a rusty and piquant generosity. It falls on her like a weight, for she knows with that third emotion that he recognizes the balance of power in the room, and that not all of it is hers.

“One year,” she answers.

There’s a creaking, elsewhere in the house. Liril’s face goes white.

“Done,” he says.

Liril strikes, twice, with the swift and jerky movements of panic, and the thorn breaks both John’s eyes. Then there’s a rush of strangeness in the room, and the spider—terrified despite the knowledge of superiority bred carapace-deep into that eight-legged kind—scurries with swift resolution away.

For the first time, he screams, a rough and terrible sound, like the taking flight of crows; and there’s a pause; and then Liril’s mother flings wide the door.

Liril (2 of 2)

It’s recess. Liril sits against a tree. The tree is at the schoolyard’s edge. Liril’s hair runs down the bark.

Sandy approaches her, and Liril opens her eyes.

“I wondered if you’d come,” Liril says.

Sandy’s face is tight. “I want to be prettier.”

“Why?”

“If I were prettier, then people would have to love me,” she says.

“You are pretty.”

Sandy shrugs. “Not enough.”

Liril reaches out her hand. She puts it on Sandy’s elbow. “You are like the sun,” she says.

“No,” Sandy says. “Make me prettier.”

Liril makes a sad face. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

Liril nods. “Tomorrow,” she says, “you have to wear your ugliest dress, and your hair all a mess, and carry a hand mirror; and when people who don’t love you say mean things about you, you have to look at the mirror. Then bring me the mirror and I’ll break it, and you’ll be pretty.”

A day passes; and another; and there’s Sandy with the mirror. She shows it to Liril. Liril spits on it and rubs it dry. Then she shatters it against a rock.

“I feel funny,” Sandy says. She’s beginning to glow.

“You’re becoming a merin,” Liril says.

“Is that something pretty?”

Liril thinks. “Merins help make sense of the world,” she says. “They can be ugly or pretty or somewhere in between. You will be pretty.”

“Oh.”

Sandy sits down. The glow brightens; then fades. Sandy looks at her hands. “I can see myself,” she says.

“Why would you be invisible?”

“. . . I don’t know.” Sandy looks up. “I’m pretty now?”

“Yes.”

A day passes; and another; and there’s Micah by the tree. “You’re crying,” he says.

“They took her,” Liril says.

“Hm?”

“Sandy,” Liril says. “I changed her. And they came. And they took her. And she’s gone.”

“Will they hurt her?” Micah asks.

Liril shakes her head. “She’s pretty. So they’ll love her. That’s the law of her nature.”

“Then why are you sad?”

“She was like the sun.”

Micah sits down.

“Seven times,” Liril says. “Seven times I’ve lost the sun. I wonder when I shall run out.”

“When you look up in the sky,” Micah says, “and it isn’t there.”

“I can’t fight for them.”

Micah looks at his feet. He picks up a stone. “If you wanted to fight,” he says, “what would you do?”

“I’d name that stone Liril,” she says. “Then I’d draw legs on it, and a head, and two hands; and I’d roll it off into the woods.”

Micah takes out his crayons. He draws legs on the stone. And a head. And two hands. “What about a neck?”

Liril looks at him.

“Right,” Micah says, grumpily. He rolls the stone off into the forest, then peers into the distance. “I’m not sure where it landed.”

“Why did you do that?” Liril asks.

Micah doesn’t say things like “You’re like the sun.”

“You’re Liril,” he says.

Micah (1 of 2)

Liril draws a picture in crayon. It looks like a person. But it has no neck. It has no real torso. It has no arms. She hangs it on the refrigerator.

“Who’s that?” Micah asks.

“It’s a picture of you,” she says. “See? Micah!”

He snorts. “I have a neck,” he says. “I have a torso. I have arms.” He takes the picture down. He draws them in. “See?”

Liril sighs. “It’s a better picture,” she says. “But it’s not Micah any more. You should chop it up into little bits and feed it to demons.”

“It’s good art,” he says.

“It’s wonderful,” she says. “But it doesn’t have a soul.”

“Can’t one have both a soul and a neck?”

Liril frowns dubiously. “I guess.” She brightens. “It’s sunny. I’m going to go outside and play.”

“I am going to make finger sandwiches and tea,” Micah says.

Liril goes outside. She plays near the front door. A car pulls up. She watches it. Three men get out. They’re wearing suits. They have sunglasses. They walk up to the door.

“I can see what’s inside you,” she says quietly. “You’re not people.”

One of them turns to her. His name tag reads “Anakopto.” Below that, it says, “Cessation.”

“Stop,” he says.

She stops. She does not move. She stands there, frozen, as they enter her house.

Micah’s in the kitchen. He’s making finger sandwiches and tea. He does not seem surprised when the three things enter the house.

“Michael,” they say.

He turns. “Would you like sandwiches?” he says. “Or tea?”

Anakopto blinks. Then he smiles. “How gracious,” he says. “What a well-behaved child.”

“I’ll bring them out,” Micah says. “One moment.”

They sit down. Micah brings out the sandwiches. He brings out the tea. They eat. They drink. Micah looks at their name tags.

“Arpazo, Anakopto, Kyrievo,” he says. “Collection, Cessation, and Love. Would it be rude if I said that these do not match?”

Kyrievo smiles at him. Micah’s face goes white and his teeth grit together.

“Child,” Arpazo says. “Michael. Tell us a story while we eat. Then we must take you back.”

“I’ll tell you of the House of Atreus,” he says. “It begins with Tantalus. The gods came to his house to feast. To test their omniscience, he served them his own son, Pelops.”

Arpazo regards his sandwich.

“It’s tuna,” Micah says. “It doesn’t have my son in it. I’m pre-pubescent.”

Arpazo takes another bite. “Good,” he agrees. “I should not like it if you played tricks on us, Michael.”

“I’m surprised,” Micah says. “I’d think you’d know the taste of Tantalus’ meal.”

“We are nearly gods,” Kyrievo says. Again, as he speaks, Micah’s face whitens. “But,” Kyrievo finishes, “we are not gods yet.”

“The gods restored Pelops to life, and punished Tantalus to live without meat or drink in the land of greatest plenty. Pelops chose Hippodamia for his wife, and, to claim her, murdered her father. They had two sons, Thyestes and Atreus. Atreus took the throne of Mycenae, so Thyestes seduced his wife, stole his golden fleece, and fled.”

Anakopto finishes his sandwich. He drains his tea. He sets down his tea. He looks up. “Stop.”

Micah stops, midword.

“Do you know why we are taking you, and not the girl?” he asks.

“I’m the one who defies you.”

“Yes,” agrees Arpazo.

“Could I have a nametag with that?” Micah asks. “Micah. Defiant?”

“The problem, Michael, is that you have no power to do so. I hold out my hand, and you stumble towards me. Anakopto speaks, and you stop. And Kyrievo—you love him, do you not?”

“More than I’d expected,” Micah says. It’s a minimal answer.

“You understand what must be done. Come outside. Get in the car. We’ll take you home.”

“Why do you call me Michael?” Micah asks.

“In renaming you,” Anakopto says, “we remake you.”

“I see,” Micah says.

The four of them rise; and Arpazo, Anakopto, and Kyrievo proceed to the car; and they drive away; and after a time, Liril recovers herself, and enters, and sees Micah slumped upon the floor.

“Micah!” she says.

He looks up.

“What happened?” she asks.

“I chopped up the picture,” he says, “and fed it to demons.”

“Oh,” she says.

“I think its name was Michael.”

“You’re ruthless,” she says, and goes to look out the window.

In the car, on the road, Anakopto asks, “What happened to Thyestes?”

There’s a shape huddled in the back seat. He’s indistinct. His name is Michael. “Thyestes returned home, thinking himself forgiven, and Atreus ordered Thyestes’ children slain, and fed them to his brother on the welcoming feast.”

“Ah,” Anakopto says.

“Stop,” Michael says, and Anakopto’s hands freeze on the wheel, and the car drives into a mountain, and is still.

In the living room, Liril helps Micah up. There’s a salt scent in the air, but they do not know its reasons.

“I feel sorry for him,” Liril says.

“He was just someone they made up with their expectations,” Micah says. “He was what the monster would want me to be. He probably won’t even manifest outside their heads.”

Liril folds a paper crane. She writes “Michael” on its wings. She takes it to the window.

“Go,” she says. “Be his soul. Help him be more. Help him get free.”

She looks at Micah. He scowls at her. He looks away.

“Do it,” he says.

She throws the crane into the wind; and for a moment, the wind catches it; and then it falls to the garden, to the footprint of Arpazo in the flowers and the grass.

“Huh.”

“See?” Micah says.

Liril stands on her tiptoes and looks out the window at the crane. Then she shrugs, and turns away.

The Stone

a story in two parts

This is not something that happened before. This is not a legend that we are showing you to help you understand the world. This is not the cloud of understanding.

This is happening.

It is happening now.

Maybe when you encounter this story it will already be the past again. There is nothing immortal about this moment.

But because it is happening now it is something that we cannot change.

The past is easy to change and the future is like pushing rocks but the present we can only watch. That is what it means to be a mortal creature, bound by time.

Liril and Micah

And oh! Oh! Something was not clear. It was not clear and maybe it seemed like the show about Liril and Micah was just another made-up thing like with the anemones or the dancing of the Popes. But that’s not what it was.

The fight was just a show. That was like anything else on Hitherby Dragons. The fight with that made-up buggy-eyed monster-thingie there—

It wasn’t real.

But Liril and Micah are not made up.

They are as real as anybody.

Monsters

Liril is in bed. She hugs her doll. It’s named Latch.

Micah walks up to his bed. He hesitates. He lingers. He waits too long. The sniggly, snatchy hand of the horror grabs his ankle. He sucks in breath. The room is still. But Liril is ready.

Liril tumbles out of bed. She draws a gun. It’s not a real gun. It’s made of plastic. But it’s got a string wrapped around its handle that she found in a mean dog’s yard. It’s got mud on its barrel from the shores of the scary lake. It’s been blessed by that weird lady from the house down the road and cursed by that guy who stands around near the grocery store. She fires. There’s an explosion and everything happens at once.

There’s blood and there’s skittering and Micah’s desperately hacking at the monster’s arm with the knife edge of his hand. The creature’s out in the room now, and it’s screaming, and its great floppy feet crush the Lego Man. A cuff of its squirmy arm sends Liril staggering back, and Latch’s head cracks. Then it shrieks; and wriggles, bleeding, between the slats of the venetian blinds; and it’s out the window and into the night and they shall not see its like again.

Liril slumps against her bed, and Micah against the wall.

Micah says, quietly, “It’s gone.”

Liril looks at the Lego Man and Latch. She touches the welt on the side of her face. She looks at the creature’s blood. “Screams. Lots.”

“We can’t surrender our room, Liril. It’s part of being people. We have to be able to stop things like that. To cleanse them with fire and the sword. If we can’t, then we don’t have any power, and when the nightmares come, they’ll just take us. So I have to have priorities. If there’s a monster under my bed, I kill it! It’s grabby. I have to.”

“You were scared.”

“It had a buggy face!”

“. . . I’m sorry.”

“You used the gun. You shot it. How about you justify it?”

“Dead Lego Man? Latch? The blood?”

Micah nods firmly.

Liril says, “I woke up. I got dressed. I went outside. I looked at the dawn. It was pretty. I told it, ‘You are pretty.’ I had cereal. I had toast. Then I said, ‘Good morning, Micah!’ You said, ‘We’ll kill it today.’ I said, ‘Okay.’”

“So you’re just going along with me?”

“You’re my friend. I know you’re right. I just think it’s awful.”

Micah frowns. “What if I told you to shoot yourself?”

Liril thinks. “I would be surprised. But you’d probably have a good reason.”

Micah peers at her. “Do it, then.”

Liril puts the gun to her head and pulls the trigger. There’s a click. Nothing happens. She smiles wanly. “I don’t have a real gun.”

“Ah.” Micah slumps. “You’re smart.”

Liril shrugs. “I think that it’s bad,” she says. “Killing is bad. People are supposed to live. That’s why the sun shines so brightly.”

“Is that what the sun’s for?”

“Uh huh. Most things have reasons.”

“Then why is there so much blood?”

Liril’s mouth quirks up a little at one side. “Maybe we forgot to try talking to it.”

“I talked to it,” Micah says.

“Oh?”

Micah nods firmly. “It said it only wanted my leg. I could have the rest of me. It would even grant me a magical kingdom and lots of gold. But I’d have to hop.”

Liril giggles. “Really?”

“I said no,” Micah says. “I don’t trust monsters.”

“Do you ever think,” Liril says, “that we’re the monsters? I mean, to it?”

Micah shrugs. “We are,” he says, “but it doesn’t matter. It came to our house, and we didn’t ask it to, and now the Lego Man is dead.”

“I can put his head back on,” Liril offers.

“And the creature’s off somewhere bleeding.”

Liril smiles a little. “It’s okay,” she says.

“It is?”

Liril nods.

Outside the window, the creature under the bed staggers in the night. The moonlight presses sharp against its skin, like a blade. Its nostrils flare. It smells something. It’s a magic road. Its drawn in crayon. The creature slithers and stumbles to the road, and down its path; and onto a piece of paper, nailed to the garden, fluttering in the wind. There’s a palace drawn there for the monster to live in, and it’s full of legs; and it’s signed Liril.

“Everything will be okay,” she says.

The horror snuffles and snorts and staggers to the sidewalk. There’s another house down the road. There are kids there. They have legs.

It doesn’t choose the palace.