Wicked Children (I/I)

Now squat sits the facility upon Elm Hill, like some great and bulbous beast, and wrapped around it its tangled fences have the look of chains, and its windows of great sad eyes, and when the sun sinks down behind the facility at Elm Hill the children of the neighborhoods beneath imagine it whimpering and muttering to itself, bound down onto the earth, and resentful of humanity that can roam free—

Not that those children, tucked down for the night, bound by their quilts and their blankets and their parents’ rules, were free.

But the wicked ones, well—

If they were wicked children, why, they could loose themselves from their bindings and creep out from their beds. They could walk on their bootied feet to the darkened windows, and there to stare out at the facility and the moon.

Some, like Sam did, like Bird did, could grow up later and go in.

Others were to live and die and sometimes even live again before they ever dared to test its gates.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]


May 28, 2004

The facility at Elm Hill is not active, not now. It has been years since children screamed there. It has been years since the monster worked there, in the fashion of his kind, and Tina, and the rest.

And to look at the green on the facility’s roof and its lawn all specked up with graves, and the dead black gates and the crooked doors, is to suspect that here was an awful mistake. That this was the monster’s Chernobyl. That here had been his Leipzig and his Agincourt.

Here had nearly ended the monster’s ambitions, at the facility at Elm Hill.

It has gone sick, this facility, root and branch.

It has gone wrong.

There is something organic in it now, something dreadful and alive, and in its basement are pipes, and stagnant water in those pipes; and the walls are lightly overgrown with a strange slick substance that is neither mold nor moss; and a bleak karma dwells within those walls that longs to expunge the suffering that gave it birth and revenge itself on those who within its boundaries do harm.

It is a bad house.

It is an evil house.

But as horrid as the facility can be, it is kinder to innocents than to monsters.

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

It is May 28, 2004 and the grangler is dead.

As for Liril, she’s down in the room where they used to keep her. She’s touching the place where she’d once scratched LIRIL on the wall.

“I don’t know,” she says.

It’s too big for her.

She’s trying to wrap her mind around it but she can’t. It’s not the letters, even though they’re capitalized and the part of her name after the L usually isn’t. It’s everything.

It’s just too big.

“I don’t know,” she says. “Do you?”

Tainted John is somewhere. She’s not sure where. Micah’s on his way upstairs. He’s hoping to find out what happened to a great dead bird; that, or to fall down, to rest, because some sleep would be OK.

The thing that’s behind her in the room isn’t one of Liril’s gods.

It’s the last remnant of the grangler.

Now Liril is young but Liril is wise and she knows that the grangler must be dead—for no living grangler could have gotten to her, not past Micah and Tainted John. And she knows that it must long for nothing less than to seize her and never let her go—to have one last thing of its holding before it is given over to the grave.

There was a time when it had held her in its claws. There was a Halloween when it had lunged out of nowhere amidst the screaming of the goblins and the ghouls and seized her up—

It hadn’t liked to let her go.

And Liril does not know whether, by this token, it will drag her down from the halls of life into the Underworld, there to be its prisoner in death, or simply cling to her ankle and succumb there, a new and permanent attachment until decay consumes its flesh.

But still she says, “C’mon, then.”

It comes over by her. It hunches down. It shakes its head.

“Oh?”

And she is crying a little, and she doesn’t really know why, except that she can. It’s all bound up with Melanie. Crying in front of it shouldn’t be allowed.

Except, she can.

So she hugs it first. She cries, and she holds the grangler before it can hold her, and she says, “You’re a grangler, grangler. You’ve gotta.”

It’s still shaking its head.

She doesn’t even see how that can be. She’s been held by ghosts before—not just the grangler, but the monster’s too—and she knows them.

The grangler is a god of hanging on.

It’s just the tiniest bit of broken and lingering soul, at this point, but that part doesn’t change.

But it doesn’t hang on to her. It’s not there to hang on to her. She can feel its ichor where she hugged it and the slime of it is on her and in the openness of her soul and after the very long seconds of her confusion she manages to understand.

Of course it won’t grab her. Of course.

It’s been touched by a growing god.

Her eyes untangle the grangler now. She is alive and fierce with an alien interest now. She sees along the knots and cords of karma—of one thing, which leads to another, which is continued to the next—in search of the pattern that has brought it here.

She sees how to save it. She sees how to bind it. She sees how to reunite its soul. She moves a hand—

Gravity fails. She is disoriented. Everything is white, then black.

There is a scream.

She has lost her connection to the land.

She is flying and the ringing that is Liril smashing into metal pipes is like a shout; is like a horn; is like a great trembling, rumbling, shaking cry dividing the Heavens from the Earth.

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

Where is Liril?

Liril is against a wall.

Is the monster there?

The monster is not there.

Good.

The monster is not there.

Where is Liril?

Liril is in her room. No. It is not Liril’s room. It is the old room. It is not her room. It is not her room not any more.

Where is Liril’s hand?

Liril cannot find her hand.

Wait.

No.

It is there. It is on the end of her arm. How silly!

She opens her mouth. Her tongue is thick.

What is Liril going to say?

“Is she—is Melanie OK?”

Is that what volition sounds like? Is that the kind of question that a person, who has volition, and a will, would ask?

Liril is not sure.

She closes her eyes.

Her world is going black.

Liril’s world is going black.

She thinks she saw the strangest thing, the strangest thing was written on the wall.

It’s like the grangler has unraveled, but before it died, it scrawled an X upon the wall. Like it had marked a spot—

Is that Liril’s thought?

Or. No.

Like it hadn’t known its name. Hadn’t remembered it, couldn’t write it, or maybe had never known it—

How very strange, someone thinks. It is probably Liril. How very strange.

Doesn’t a person have to have a name?

The Rabbit and the Wolf (I/I)

“I said no kids,” Vincent tells her.

“Hm?” Melanie says.

He’s such a strange and innocent young man.

“No torturing kids. No making gods. We work with the gods we have. We don’t do this any longer, Melanie. We don’t have to be the monster.”

She blinks at him.

He’s right, of course. She doesn’t have to be the monster. She doesn’t even have to be a monster. She could just turn around and—

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


May 28, 2004

She can’t help giggling at the serious expression on his face.

“Vincent,” she says. “If you want to negotiate with them, you’re welcome to try. You can just walk in and say, ‘Kids, I know you don’t mean any harm, but you’re trespassing on a Central-owned facility, so please vamoose immediately and we’ll move in.’”

“I wouldn’t say vamoose,” Vincent says, even though the word, like his name, begins with V.

“Whatever,” Melanie says. “Or make a deal where she makes gods for us, in exchange for a share of the profits and someone to turn the electricity on.”

Melanie can’t actually order the electricity turned on at the facility at Elm Hill, since the property isn’t in her name, but she can point Threnody at the problem, and that’s practically as good.

Vincent is glaring at her.

“I’m serious,” he says.

“It’s impossible?”

He licks his lips. He glances down at Harold’s head. She’s lowered her arm to her side but the head’s still dangling from her hand.

“Like that,” he says, “it’s impossible. But we could— we could help them. Hide them. We could help them hide.”

“Well, go ask him, then.”

“What?”

She’s gesturing towards the gates.

Micah has come out again.

He’s walking, pale and blood-soaked, from the doors of the facility and down the path to its iron gates. He is standing in front of them, on the other side of those gates, and he is looking at them and he is swaying like the ground beneath his feet has lost the trick of keeping still.

His shirt is different.

It isn’t the same as it was when he was watching from the balcony. There is something different.

He is pulling the gates closed.

She almost laughs at him, at his determination, at the stupidity of it, to close a gate of ordinary metal against Melanie and all her gods.

But she must not laugh.

Not for all the laughter that is filling her, she must not laugh. Not with him so close. She must take him seriously. Micah is weak and pale and shaped into the image of a boy, but Micah is a god.

So she takes Vincent’s arm and she walks towards the gates, and they get close, and he says, “The first of you to set foot past this gate will die.”

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

“The first of you to set foot past this gate will die.”

The gate closes with a click.

He’s just a boy. He’s not more than twelve. More likely, he is ten. He looks tireder than she has ever been.

“She said it,” Micah emphasizes. “Liril said that it would happen. So it’s true.”

Melanie steps towards him.

He flinches.

Metal and death between the two of them, and he flinches.

“That’s a fine trick,” she says.

His poker face is bad.

“But she didn’t say that, did she?” Melanie asks. “She couldn’t have. Because it’s not my fate to die. So why don’t you tell me what she really said?”

“It was that!” Micah protests.

But it’s a bluff.

“We can talk,” Vincent says. “We don’t have to hurt you. We’re not him. We can . . . don’t make this a war, Micah. I don’t want to hurt anybody else. Don’t make this a fight.”

It’s like there’s a curse on Vincent’s tongue.

It’s the exact wrong thing to say.

Melanie takes another step, and Micah’s strength breaks, and he runs; but he stops before the doors. He stands there, frozen, because that’s as far as he can run, with Liril still inside, and he hears the gate creak open, and he knows that Melanie is looking in.

“After you,” she says, to Vincent.

Vincent tries to find the word “no.” He tries really hard. But he’s lost it somewhere along the way. Instead, his mouth works for a moment, and to his own horror, he comes out with, “But I wanted to be good.”

Melanie grins at him. She grins wide. She looks at Micah, her eyes brilliant and alive, as if daring him to get the joke; but Micah doesn’t smile.

And Melanie is thinking:

Such a strange and innocent young man.

See also: The Cautionary Tale of Abermund Plain

Oh, Harold Dear (I/I)

It is 1981 and Liril is in a terrible place.

She is in a room bulked out with shadows. She is in terror and the dark. She is scratching, desperately scratching, to get her name down on the wall.

In case she forgets.

In case she forgets, or everyone else forgets, and there’s never anything more to show that she exists, just a name written on the wall.

LIRIL.

Tomorrow they’ll move her to a different room, and she’ll stare at the place where she scratched her name, and the writing won’t be there.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


May 28, 2004

Now in the Latter Days of the Law the heart may not know the true doctrine; so rightly it may be said that this sunlit afternoon in May is the winter of the world.

Grey clouds shadow the brightness of the sky.

The clouds scuttle in clumps, this way and that, their movements driven by the wind.

It is May 28, 2004, and Liril is in a terrible place, and before it is Melanie’s army.

There are failing-gods and flying-gods. There are great stretchy gods drawn in crayon. There is a terrible black dog. There are twelve humans worth the fearing. There are twenty humans who are not—secretaries, psychologists, a system administrator, and the like, who had collaborated with the monster and survived but gained no measure of his power.

There is a ragged thing.

There are footsoldiers and two contemners. There is a long-legged beast and a scarab bomb. There are remembering gods, and an angel and a half, and fiends in a motley crew.

And then there are four more fearsome than this host: Threnody, whose nametag notes that she wields the lightning; Vincent, whose heart is pure; that crooked tyrant labeled “The Keeper of the Wheel;” and Melanie, cunning Melanie, most frightening of them all.

They are an ungainly force. They are escapees from a disaster and not an organized and deadly host. Still, they are an army, and the bulk of them are gods.

“In this place,” says Melanie to that host, “there is a girl more valuable than gold. She is enough to kill us all, I think, or to make us rich and powerful for all time.”

She is taking Vincent’s backpack off.

She is rummaging around inside.

He is surprised and disgusted to find the thoughtful things that she’s packed him for their journey.

A notebook. An apple. A few texts—Behavioral Psychology, and the like. Half of a ham sandwich. The other half she ate. And most disturbingly Harold’s head.

“If she is strong,” Melanie says, “we are in danger. If she learns strength, we are in danger. But she will not be strong.”

“Melanie,” Vincent says.

She hushes him.

“Hush,” she says.

“When—what—when did you even—“

She glances at him. She says, “When I was recovering my bike.”

Back before they’d been rousted out from Central, Melanie had biked to work every day. It’s normally a healthy and environmentally conscious habit, but in the end it had killed Harold and she’d nearly pulled a muscle leveraging his corpse off of her bike. Then she’d sawed off his head with her broken bike lock and left the rest of him there to rot, so in the end, it wasn’t a very healthy or environmentally conscious habit after all.

Also, she didn’t like to wear her helmet.

Vincent is still staring at her. It’s as if he hasn’t heard her explanation, or hasn’t parsed it.

“Two months ago,” Melanie says, “at the dinner party, he’d said that in an emergency, it was very important to keep his head. You were there.”

She opens the corpse’s mouth. She looks inside it clinically. She pushes on its nose. She rolls open one, and then the other eye, but they just close again.

She shrugs and looks back at the gathered host.

“Liril is broken,” Melanie says. “If she has recovered her will and spine at all, they’ll be no stronger than a twig.

“So we’ll shatter them. We’ll stomp her down. And then we shall rule this rotten world.”

“His head should be rotten,” Vincent protests.

What he wants to say is something about how shattering someone’s will is wrong. But he fails to do so. Harold’s head has distracted him completely.

Melanie shrugs.

She breathes into the corpse’s mouth and it jerks opens both its eyes.

“What—“

That’s Vincent’s voice. He’s terribly glad that it’s his voice. For a moment, he’d thought it would be the corpse’s.

Wasn’t it?

He’s suddenly not sure.

Melanie holds the head up high. She turns it to face the facility on Elm Hill. She says, “Oh, Harold, dear, you’re dead.”

And Harold screams.

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

The scream of Harold’s head is like a bird, at first; and then it is a horn; but Melanie has grit her teeth and put behind this deviant act the fullness of her strength, and she sinks that long shout low. It becomes a rumbling. It becomes an organ sound. It becomes a shaking of the earth, a burgeoning and world-completing and a trembling cry, resounding off the world and sound and sky.

There is only so much sound that one ought to be able to make with a single breath. This beyond that by a hundredfold.

There is an additional, secondary limit on the sound one can make.

And so eventually this sound goes still.

She has announced herself, has Melanie, her and the army of her gods; and she does not have long to wait.

There is a balcony on the seventh floor.

Micah comes out to stand on it. He looks down at them. He is pale. He is afraid.

Her heart gives a thump, because Micah’s there, and Liril’s not alone; and then the joy bubbles up inside her, it’s giggling out of her nose and wiggling in her throat, it’s crowing and burbling through her, and then it’s a rising force, how good it is, a rising force in her lungs and chest and heart, and she’s shouted out before she’s thought about it any a great shout of all triumph and sweet success.

He is afraid.

He is afraid.

He isn’t the defiant boy that once she met. He’s gone all pale and all weak. He’s standing there and his mouth is moving and she thinks he must still know her name;

But from the look on his face, he’s the kind of boy right then who only barely remembers his own.

The No-Good Bird (I/I)

Sing, muse, of Melanie, beloved of the gods, and how she came at last, and with her army, to Elm Hill. Tell us how she led unto that place a tattered host of women and of men; of humans, and of gods; and among that host a black dog and a flying god and the Keeper of the Wheel; and Threnody, who held the thunderbolt in this degenerate and broken age; and, for now, and for the shortest time to come, the grangler. Tell us how the footfalls of her soldiers beat down on the asphalt way. Tell us how the wind blew all around them and grey the storm clouds came. Tell us of the laughing joy that filled her, despite the darkness of that day; and tell us of the grangler, that old ghost, and how it died.

At Elm Hill there is a building old and rank, and in its basement many cages, and it is abandoned now, but once—not so many years ago—it was a place of suffering for Liril and for Jane.

At Elm Hill is a facility.

As Cunning Melanie leads her army to that place, she sees an omen, and it comes upon her thus. From a copse of trees by the building’s gates there flies a bird, and the bird flies out over her host, and the number of its wings is four, and it is growing larger as it comes, and it holds the grangler in its claws, and the grangler holds it, and the bird—to all appearances—is dead.

She stares at it as it flies.

The omen is elaborate. It takes her a long moment’s stare to decide that she is seeing a real thing and not a vision sent her by the gods.

“Threnody,” she says.

Threnody looks up. Her eyes seethe with the whiteness of the storm. The bird is struck by lightning, from clear sky.

It shrieks.

It does not fall.

Threnody’s expression grows tight with anger. “Dead things ought not shriek,” she says.

She stands in a javelin-thrower’s stance. Her hand begins to burn with light. Then it is as if the sky has hurled the fire of the sun directly to her hand; the thunder roars across the hill; and the bird is shattering, splaying out and sundering into bits, falling like a gross and gobbet rain, and the metal chains with which Threnody weights down her hair do her no longer any good, for it has fluffed out like a cloud.

A chunk of bird hits the ground between them, rolls like the debris from an explosion, bounces from a rock, and jumps past Melanie’s right leg.

A drop of filth would have touched her cheek, but doesn’t.

Before the end of its trajectory it decides to swerve, instead. For she is Melanie, cunning Melanie, beloved of the gods.

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

They gather around the ruin.

The creature’s heart is beating. It’s stuttering in its fear. It will continue to beat—this is Melanie’s guess—for three more darknesses and three dawns.

Where the chunks of the bird have struck the ground the earth is bursting forth in life—grass and grains and trees are exploding upwards, and new elms are already building-height.

As for the grangler, he’s broken.

He oughtn’t really be able to be broken, since he’s a ghost and all, but the thunderbolt passed too close to him before he fell.

She squats down beside it.

“So,” she says.

It reaches for her leg. She shakes her head, and its hand falls back.

“Now it came to pass,” Melanie says, “after the death of Moses, that the Lord spake unto Joshua, the son of Nun, saying, ‘Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, thou, and all this people, unto the land which I do give them, even to the children of Israel.’”

“It’s so,” the grangler concedes.

“And to Jericho he sent two men to spy secretly, and determine the nature of its readiness; and they took shelter with the harlot Rahab; and when the King of Jericho learned of the spies’ presence and their purpose, she preserved them, kept them safe, if only they would promise that Israel would spare her family and their possessions when Jericho’s walls came tumbling down.”

And the story is a pleasantry amidst the grangler’s great pain, a coolth inside its fire, and it says, “It’s so.”

“And they said: tie a scarlet cord, a grangler, to the window when we come; and by that bond of blood shall we be held to you and yours, and you to we, and never to let go.”

It occurs to the grangler that it is dying.

It is impossible to imagine it—to die, and after so very many years.

“And it tangled you up in that red, red cord, and bound to a sacred trust; but—oh, grangler. Oh, grangler. Look upon you now.”

He is a very old ghost, is the grangler. He’s a god of hanging on. But the edges of the world are fraying for him, just like the untwisting of a rope, and her words have loosened a string wound round his heart.

She lets him touch her, then, though he cannot hold her.

He rests his claw upon her hand.

“It was a no-good bird,” the grangler says.

“Was it?”

It is struggling to rise, but it cannot rise. It is struggling to look at her, but her eyes are far too kind. It is desperate with a sudden need of justification, and it pulls its claw back to its chest and hugs it there and says, “It was a Liril-bird, milady, it was a bird-god made by Liril, oh, milady, she is there, she unleashed a growing god.”

Melanie blinks at the grangler.

Its words confound her. She cannot quite grasp them.

“Liril,” she says.

“She is encamped there, I could smell it, I could taste it on the bird.”

“Liril,” Melanie says again.

“She is.”

There is no reason for it that Melanie can possibly imagine. She knows where Liril is. Liril is in Santa Ynez, guarded by her brother Micah, protected by him from humans and gods alike.

Liril is not in the cages beneath Elm Hill.

That was before, Melanie thinks, clearly. That was back then. The facility is abandoned. The cages are empty. Liril cannot possibly be there.

She looks up.

She stares blankly at the facility at Elm Hill.

She is not here for Liril. She is here for a temporary base of operations. She is here because she has no other place to go, her and her ragged army, driven from their homes—

“More valuable than frankincense,” she says.

It’s from a song the monster sang to her, a long, long time ago.

“More valuable than gold.”

Children like Liril are the source of granglers and thunderbolts, of flying carpets, angels, fiends, and killing gods, after all.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


May 28, 2004

Does she know we’re here?” Melanie asks.

She is angry at herself.

The question is wasteful. She discards it. She asks the only question that has relevance.

Is she afraid?

But the grangler is dead.

And Sometimes You Just Slip (III/III)

And one day in 1988 they are talking and Liril tells her about the monster.

It’s like they’ve been avoiding this conversation for most of seven years.

“I screamed,” Liril says, factually. “It was really awful. I started thinking that I was going to forget who I was and I wrote LIRIL on the wall. But then I looked at it and it didn’t even make sense to me, like it was just some palindrome.”

“Oh,” says Melanie.

Seven years, of course, is exactly how old Liril is right then, though she’d been rather more like eight or nine when the two had met, and Melanie’s turned sixteen.

“He made gods from me,” Liril says.

“He did?”

Liril nods. “They were born because I hurt. And he took them. Like—“

She makes vague motions with her hand. She has no real idea what this is like. There’s nothing to compare it to. Pulling birds out of your brain and then using them as firewood might be a good analogy if it were something that ever happened. Stealing your hope for freedom and forging it to a chain.

“Like an awful thing,” she says.

Melanie stares at her.

“You’re so calm,” she says.

Liril’s mouth twitches. It’s like a smile. “You told me to stop crying. Anyway, he kept me caged, and this kind of thing went on and on, and—“

Melanie interrupts her.

It might have been different, what happened later, if Melanie had heard the rest—if she’d learned back then what had happened at Elm Hill.

But she doesn’t.

She’s desperate to say anything to escape the implications of You told me to stop crying.

“I’ll stop him,” she says.

And Liril laughs, great peals like sobs. “You won’t.”

“I will,” Melanie says.

She’s begging.

She’s begging, suddenly, with those words: let me help with this. But this Liril cannot do.

Melanie is running. She has been running.

Melanie doesn’t know when it started. She missed the part where she stumbled to her feet and ran, and knocked open Liril’s door. Did she knock down Liril? . . . no.

She doesn’t think so.

She thinks Liril was to the left.

She’s missed the first block and a half from there, so she can’t be sure; but even so she doesn’t stop.

If she could be a hero—

If she could be a hero, be an angel, be an anything, an anything that could help—

Anything but a fallible, mortal girl, or the most terrible of gods—

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1988

There is a web around Santa Ynez, in those days. It is meant to keep things in.

Melanie does not care.

She reaches it, and she can’t pass through, so she just starts tearing at the web.

And if she were a human, then this would have been ignored; and if she were a god, then the matter would be clear: the spider must attack.

She is not a human and she is not a god.

The spider does not know what to do with her; it descends, uneasy, from the sky, on a single strand of web.

She tastes of the monster—of Amiel’s twisted, empty get, save younger and not so sure.

It looks at her.

She glares at it. It flinches from her eyes.

“What are you?” it whispers.

She has ripped free strands of its subtle web. She has knotted them together to make a cord. She has stretched them between her hands.

And because it is between Melanie and freedom, and because it’s the monster’s slave, and because it’s everything wrong in young Melanie’s world, she says a terrible thing.

“I am the fate which rules you.”

Its eight eyes glint.

Then the cord is a bit ‘neath the spider’s jaw, and she’s leapt onto its back.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


1988

It is bloody and tired when it gives in at last.

It is lolling on the sky.

And she climbs down from its back on a silken thread and she tells it, “You are mine.”

This it concedes.

“You will seal this place no more forever.”

She has strung it between the will of the monster, and her own; and finally it snaps.

“As you like.”

And from that day forth it is in the heights that it spins its delicate web.

There is a King (Ia/III)

Q: What’s the difference between a firvuli and a King?
A: The King wears vestments of indigo and green.

Q: What did Tarzan say when he saw the firvuli?
A: “Me Tarzan. You firvuli.”

Q: What did Jane say when she saw the firvuli?
A: “It is a King of bloated life.” (Jane is color-blind.)

Q: Is Jane color-blind?
A: You have caught me. This series of jokes is inaccurate. I am so ashamed.

Q: Do you know who else tells inaccurate jokes?
A: It is the elephant.

— from Melanie’s journal, recovered after the siege of Elm Hill.

(Canon: Boedromion 14) The Growing God

This continues the main Hitherby storyline.

The grangler’s an old ghost. He’s a god of holding on.

His hands are claws, like this—like withered bone with leathery tendons holding it together, cold, damp, and very sure.

He’s the third god to approach Elm Hill in quite some time.

He’s the first that isn’t friendly.

Ahead of him, behind him, all around him dead birds are rising from their graves. They are tearing forth from the rotting earth. They are rising towards the sky.

That’s the sign of the grangler.

“I should never,” the grangler says, “have let her go.”

It is May 28, 2004.

On May 28 in history, an eclipse ended Kuras’ great-grandfather’s war. The Pope married James IV. Scotland and England signed their treaty of everlasting peace. The Chrysler building opened. Liril buried a god in a box—a dead and broken god—and hid it under Elm Hill. An earthquake killed Neftegorsk. Mount Cameroon erupted. People all over the world were born and died.

On May 28, 2004, a shadow lays across the sea; and because he is following that shadow, Truth Daniels is not lost.

He’s thirsty.

It’s been four days since he’s found water. It’s been eight days since the last real bit of land. He’s got legs tight as knots.

He’s really thirsty.

But he’s not lost, because he’s following something, and you can’t be lost when you’re doing that.

“We are following the shadow on the sea,” says Deva.

“Yes,” Truth says.

“We have followed it for eight thirsty days,” says Deva.

“Yes,” says Truth ruefully.

“We should stop following this shadow,” says Deva. “It is not working well for us.”

Truth laughs.

“If we don’t suffer,” he says, “how will we grow?”

Deva considers that.

“Water weight,” he says.

The woman is on the deck now. She has her hand up to shield her eyes from the sun. She says, “I don’t want to be taller.”

Truth frowns.

“You could reach higher up in the rigging,” he points out. “Or, if there were a very low star—”

“When I was a little girl,” says the woman, “I wanted to be taller, but I didn’t want to suffer. Now I’m suffering but I’m as tall as I want to be.”

Her tone changes.

“Truth, where are we going?”

“I’m not lost,” says Truth, defensively.

“It’s hard to be lost when there’s a trail to follow.”

Truth frowns. She’s anticipated his next statement, so now he can’t make it.

“It’s like this,” he says. “I think we’re getting closer to a really horrible place.”

The woman raises an eyebrow. Truth can’t see this, but he knows her well enough to guess.

“With anthropophagy,” Truth clarifies.

“Ah,” says the woman.

So she goes and helps with the rigging, and Deva works the wheel.

She’s not the kind of woman who can just ignore the chance to go somewhere where people might get eaten.

A deadwind rises to fill their sails. It drives them eastwards, towards Elm Hill.

In the facility at Elm Hill, Liril screams.

Micah is bloody and battered. He looks just awful. Haggard, really. But he’s still alert enough to stagger in the direction of the scream.

Liril, Micah, and Tainted John arrived at Elm Hill three days ago.

They were ready to fight, then.

Micah, in particular, was feeling actively enthused, back then, about killing humans and gods until the facility at Elm Hill was nothing but an empty charnel house.

He stood outside the gates of the facility, practically shaking with weariness, and he said, “Okay. Do we get to do it now? Do we get to kill them now? Because this running thing? It’s hard.”

Liril looked at him and her lips were sealed tightly. She walked to the gate. She pushed it open.

The facility was dark.

Everywhere they went in it, it was dark.

And after a while, Liril said, “No.”

It was a plaintive noise.

“They’re all gone and I don’t know where,” she said. “So no killing.”

Then she made the tragic face that all little girls make, when they don’t get the chance to kill.

And three days passed in the darkness while Micah got wearier and the blood that he’d shed getting her there grew cold and gelatinous on his face and arms.

It felt cold and gelatinous even after he found water and washed it off.

His whole body has chills now. But there is still enough in him to run when he hears her scream.

He finds her in the basement in a little crawlspace cradling a dead bird.

There’s a discarded box nearby.

It looks really gross inside, like there’s been a bird buried in it for years.

So Micah figures that she found the box in the crawlspace, and took out the bird, and that’s why she screamed; but he can’t figure out why she’s holding it.

So he looks at the bird. He looks at Tainted John. Tainted John just grins.

“Huh?” says Micah, decisively.

Liril looks up at him.

“I buried it,” Liril says. “I declared the box a time capsule and I buried it. So that it would get younger and younger until it wasn’t dead any more. But I think I did not understand how time capsules worked.”

“Oh,” says Micah.

He looks at the bird again.

“I remember that,” he says. “Sort of.”

The bird is sticky and smelly but it’s really pretty amazing that it’s still around at all.

“The problem isn’t with you,” rasps Tainted John. “It’s with time.”

Micah hesitates.

“Can I fix it?” he says.

He holds out his hands. Liril, gently, reluctantly, passes him the bird.

“What do I do?” Micah asks.

But Liril shakes her head. She crawls out. She stands up. She shakes her head again. She looks sad.

“No,” she says. “It’s okay. You don’t have to do anything.”

The bird has four wings and a really long tail. And maybe a bit more in the way of liver than it should.

It’s twitching, ever so slightly, in his hands.

Here is some of the geography that surrounds them.

To the south there is the road. It curves west and runs through a valley before connecting onto the interstate. That is the direction from which Tina will approach.

To the north and west there is a cliff.

There should not be a cliff. The Elm Hill facility is on level ground in the middle of the city; but there is a cliff, and beyond it the still white waters of the sea.

The ground falls away amidst the graves of children and the swaying elm, down a steep black rocky slope, into the sea.

And the facility at Elm Hill casts its shadow out across the waves.

“Birds,” says Deva.

He takes Truth’s hand and he points it towards the birds.

Truth smiles.

“Good,” he says.

There are birds. There are hundreds of them. They are flying out over the sea.

“They think we might have food,” says Truth.

“They’re dead,” says Deva.

He’s wrinkling his nose. Deva has a bad history with birds, and reanimated ghost birds that smell of ancient graves just aren’t his favorite kind.

“Oh,” says Truth. “Then they might think that we are food.”

“Heh,” says Deva.

The grangler lopes towards the facility at Elm Hill.

Melanie is not that far behind him. She’s discussing things with Vincent.

“It’s the logical place,” she says.

“Is it?”

“We can’t stay at Central,” she says. “But the Elm Hill facility still has most of what we need.”

“No kids,” says Vincent.

“Yet,” says Melanie.

“I meant that as an injunction, not an observation.”

Melanie blinks. Then she laughs.

“Well,” she says. “Let’s start with a temporary operating headquarters and see where things go from there.”

“Death and ruin,” proposes the grangler.

Melanie snorts.

“Nine days of death and ruin, then possibly some sort of delicious cereal,” the grangler says.

It is pleased. It has a fey feeling. It likes fey feelings.

“Git,” says Melanie.

So the grangler lopes off ahead, through the facility gates.

And behind them there are others; walking down the road from the various places where they parked their cars, and some are on two feet, some on four, and others ride the wind.

Down in the basement, in Micah’s hands, the bird-thing is stirring. Micah makes a horrified noise. He lets go of the bird. It’s still stinking. It’s still dead. But it’s stirring, rising, breathing, flying.

It’s whirling around the hall, still smelling of decay.

“Oh my God,” says Micah.

“Hi,” says Liril, to the bird, in a soft pleased voice.

But the bird does not hear her. It is whirling around. It is flying past them. It is flying up the stairs and away.

“What kind of god was it?” Micah asks.

“A growing god,” says Liril.

And it is gone.

The grangler is there when it emerges from the building’s broken door. The bird is raven-sized now, where it was sparrow-sized before. It barely squeezes through the gap in the door; and on the other side, the grangler is waiting. The grangler catches it in his clawed dead hands.

“You’re no good bird,” he says.

The four-winged bird chirps desultorily.

“You’re from someone I let go,” he says. “But no one’s here to make me let you go now.”

The bird twists and shudders in his grip.

The grangler looks behind him. Melanie is not too far away. So he skulks off. He skulks to the cliff. He skulks behind the trees, where he may curl around the bird that is his prize.

He slavers.

“I will eat you slowly,” he says.

The bird is larger now. It’s bucking and twisting in his hands. It has two spare wings to beat at his face with. But the grangler holds tight.

“Wake up,” he says, and certain other words, so that it can appreciate what he’s going to do.

And its mind stumbles back to it from the grave, and Liril’s growing god, killed more than a decade before, wakes to the eyes of an enemy.

And it cannot break free.

There is a ship, the Anna Maria, sailing distantly through the sea.

On it, Deva is frowning, and saying, “You can’t drink the water of a dead bird.”

But Truth is laughing at him, and saying, “Deva, even dead birds mean land and land means water.”

And on the land, above, the grangler is feeling a certain mild concern; because the bird is nearly his size now, and it has two wings for flight, and there is no one there to make him let it go.

DST Nocturne

Each year they made Daylight Savings Time longer, until one day it lasted the whole year round. Then it was spring forward, always spring forward, and never fall back, until noon was where midnight used to be and midnight lost in noon.

In the end it did no good.

The world grew darker, and darker, and darker still.

Now there is no sun and there is no daylight left to save. Now the day is darker than night used to be, in the days when days were bright. Now there are colors darker than black in the sky. Their names are fuligin, imbero, and fhjul.

People used to say that the sun was a phoenix child, born anew every seven years. It has not been born again of late. People used to say that the sun was a fox, fleeing the hunters and their hounds. It has not escaped those hounds of late. People used to say that the sun was a gift of the gods, drawn by horses through the sky. The reins of those horses have lain slack of late, for many dark long years.

The moon is dim now.

The sea is dark now.

The stars are a distant drowning light in the thickness of the sky.

Nocturne

April 6, 2031

Jaime walks across the hills.

The hills are green when he shines a flashlight on them. They are otherwise a subtle gray.

He is wearing jeans and a thick warm shirt. His hair is loose about his head. He carries a set of rags and there is an oil bottle roped to his waist. He is walking towards Old Forest and Big Hill, where the earth is closest to the sky.

The wind is blowing, and a playful wind-sprite stands beside him, saying, “Jaime, where are you going? Why are you traveling towards Big Hill?”

And Jaime says, “It’s Daylight Savings Time.”

The sprite is the size of a cat and the shape of a girl and the texture of a bit of fluff. It keeps easy pace with him, swirling on the wind, as Jaime trudges along.

“No, no,” it says. “It’s not a good day for that.”

“Every year at this time,” says Jaime. “It’s Daylight Savings Time. It’s time to spring forward another hour.”

“But I’ll miss you,” the sprite says.

Jaime stops. He peers at the sprite. “I’m not an hour,” he says. He holds out his arm. He flexes. “See? That didn’t accelerate time.”

“True,” concedes the sprite. “But it’s not a good day to go to the Big Hill. Today is a good day to stay home in your village. You can bake cookies and drink tea and tell stories to your friends by the fire.”

Jaime resumes walking.

“It would be wasteful, fair sprite.”

“Should the decadence concern you,” says the sprite, “you may leave several of the cookies outside for the wind-sprites to devour. Generosity has salutary effects on the spirit; your net moral development for the day would be positive.”

“I’m sorry,” says Jaime.

“I do not wish to see your ribs torn open and your skin turned to ashes and your skull made a toy for the trolls of Old Forest,” says the sprite. “This would be a glum end for any person and glummer yet for you; I understand you hold a specific disdain for the trolls.”

“Is this an imminent danger?” Jaime asks.

“Not at present.”

“If it should immine,” Jaime says, “please warn me. I assure you I will divert appropriately from my course.”

“Unlikely,” says the sprite in a dour fashion. Then it tumbles upwards to a level with Jaime’s head and races in broad erratic ellipses around Jaime as he walks.

“Do you remember the sun?” asks Jaime.

“I am the wind,” says the sprite. “Memory is not a characteristic I possess.”

“Ah,” says Jaime.

Jaime hikes up Big Hill. He reaches the place where the sky is closest to the earth. He climbs up the tree and pokes a finger at the sky. It ripples in rainbow patterns, and Jaime’s finger is now black with oil.

“It is easiest to collect,” says Jaime, “on this day, when the pressure of compressing time causes the oil to well up in the sky.”

“In the distant east,” says the sprite, “where they cling more to the old ways than does Santa Ynez, there are great drilling platforms in the sky. The oil falls constantly like a black river and the people feast on the meat they grow in vats.”

“Their population is doubtless higher,” says Jaime.

“And in the north,” says the sprite, “they send up needle bombs produced in their alchemical laboratories to pop the surface of the sky. The oil splatters down like rain. Old men and women walk in the streets, complaining of the ineffectiveness of their parasols, while the young toil by great burning flames inventing radical chemical formulae.”

“I dip rags into the sky,” says Jaime. He does so. “Then I squeeze them out into the bottle. That is the preferred technique of Santa Ynez.”

“In the west,” says the sprite, “there are great warty boar-birds trained to fetch the oil down.”

“And to the south?”

“To the south,” says the sprite, “there is no wind. —Danger is imminent, Jaime; you must make haste.”

Jaime studies the oil bottle. It is far from full.

“To what extent?” he asks, soaking another rag and squeezing it out.

“It is difficult to gauge,” says the sprite. “Events flow in one unceasing river. Each is intertwined with the next. How may I pick one moment from the flow and say, ‘here is where your fate begins?'”

Jaime considers that.

“Assume that I am capable of defying the weird you have seen upon me,” he says. “For if I am not, then the discussion is of no relevance. Then choose the last moment where it is within my normal capacities to do so.”

“Your reasoning is peculiar,” says the sprite. “Yet I assay to answer as you have asked: you have two minutes left.”

Jaime nods. He dips a rag. He squeezes it out. After a moment, he says, “I am hesitant to defy the workings of destiny. I fear that by doing so I will break the world.”

“It is unlikely that you are so important as all that,” says the sprite.

Jaime nods. He closes the bottle tightly. He drops from the tree. He begins to walk away.

“See?” he says. “I avoid my fate.”

The sprite is watching him with thin lips and an unhappy face.

Jaime reaches the trees. There, for a moment, he has the chance to save himself; but he looks back, and he is lost.

The hunters in the sky wear black. They are chasing a small thing, a small unruly creature with long pale limbs and eyes like saucers. The hunters are mounted on horses and they have oil-black hunting horns at their sides. Each of them has a gem, carved like an eye, set into the center of his forehead. Each has thick hair on his legs, three fingers on each hand, and a thick sharp thumbnail like a claw. These are things terrible and feared: the Petroleum Men of Old Forest.

“Your pardon!” cries Jaime.

He is down on his knees. He has cast his hand before his face. He is not looking at them.

These words and this gesture are what the people of Santa Ynez know to do, when confronted by the Petroleum Men. Sometimes it does not help them. Sometimes the Petroleum Men still kill. But sometimes if the formula is followed they will pass a penitent human by, or seize the human from the Earth to ride beside them on the hunt, or pause to bestow an arcane and horrifying gift.

“Your pardon,” murmurs Jaime, and he is still, and he does not look.

But he can hear.

The creature that the Petroleum Men chase is making gasping, squealing noises. They are the sounds of fear and the sounds of lungs pushed too hard.

The creature is very afraid and very small.

And Jaime cannot help thinking of friends he has known.

There is a crunching and a skidding noise. The hoof of a Petroleum Man’s horse has caught the creature in the head, and it has flown sideways to crash among the leaves and through the leaves and skid down the hill past Jaime.

There is a burbling noise. The creature is trying to stand.

There is the thumping, pounding of hoofbeats in the sky as the horses circle around.

And Jaime cannot help thinking of friends he has known, so he opens his eyes. He takes his hand from his face. He turns to the creature, and he half-scrambles, half-falls down the hill. He takes it into his arms. He begins to run towards the village.

The Petroleum Men will not follow him past the village gate. They fear the fires set along Santa Ynez’ walls. But Jaime has no hope of reaching them. The village is very far away.

Jaime simply runs.

“It’s all right,” says Jaime, to the creature. The creature is bald like an egg, like a baby, like a stone. “It’s all right.”

The creature squeals and Jaime notices its claws for the first time as it digs them into his chest.

Jaime stumbles.

“Don’t,” he says. “Don’t do that.”

The creature does not stop. Its claws are sinking deeper. The Petroleum Men are hard at Jaime’s heels and there is thick blood flowing down his chest. It hurts horribly.

Then the creature peels back Jaime’s ribs and there is a moment of pain and of brightness such as Jaime had not expected to encounter that day or any other day.

Jaime blacks out, and the night in his mind is darker than fuligin or fhjul.

The Weird

April 7, 2031

“Jaime,” says the wind-sprite. “Jaime. Wake up.”

Jaime opens his eyes.

“I survived,” he says, with a thick dry tongue.

“Your words are very fuzzy. I do not think they are technically comprehensible,” says the wind-sprite. “But technically I am incapable of comprehension, so there is symmetry.”

“Why did I survive?”

“You broke a lucky toe when you fell,” says the wind-sprite. “If you break your lucky toe, the Petroleum Men can’t hurt you. But you also can’t walk very well so it is a tradeoff.”

“Ah. That’s why my foot is so big,” says Jaime. He struggles into a sitting position. Intending to compliment the sprite on giving him sufficient warning, he says, “Your augury was correct.”

“Yes,” says the wind-sprite. Its voice is distant and sad.

“Did it . . . did it get away?”

“Did what?”

“The . . .” Jaime gestures vaguely. “The thing. The creature. It was . . . I wanted to help it. Did it get away?”

“Ah,” says the wind-sprite. “Yes. It did. It is now safely inside your chest consuming your internal organs.”

“Oh,” says Jaime.

He’s not sure what to add to that, besides passing out again.

The imbero silence in his head is disturbed many times by the distant words of the sprite before he lets himself hear them again.

“Jaime?”

“I like my internal organs,” Jaime says.

“So does the creature.”

“At least we’re in accord,” Jaime says. Then he laughs. He laughs and he chokes and he coughs and he laughs some more and then he pokes at his chest. His ribcage has been bent back together from the inside. Jaime closes his shirt over the sight. His hands wander the nearby soil until he finds a thick long fallen branch. He uses it as a support and pulls himself to his feet. After a moment, intending a rueful admission of his own fallibility, he says, “Your augury was correct.”

“Yes,” says the sprite.

“How long do I have?”

“Years.”

The sprite flutters beside him as he walks back towards Santa Ynez.

“It will grow inside you until you are little more than a hollow shell with the creature within,” says the sprite. “It will eat your heart and your kidneys and your lungs. It is fortuitous that you have a strong constitution or this would surely kill you. But in seven years it will burst forth and your skin will turn to ashes and your death will be assured.”

Jaime walks.

“I feel a surprising fatalism,” he says. “I think it is the pain and the shock and the sheer stupidity of my own actions.”

“I counsel you to consider it a blessing,” says the sprite. “Organs are troublesome and prone to disease; you shall not experience these disadvantages! In addition you shall die in your prime and will never know the troubles of old age. Further, seven years is longer than the wind will blow; the tragedy is the years you’ve lost, not the years you’ll have remaining.”

“This discussion is morbid and is cracking at the edges of my carefully maintained resignation,” says Jaime. “If we continue, I will begin screaming ineffectually and may flail in your general direction.”

“Then let us instead discuss our favorite flavors of pastry,” the sprite advises. “It is a long way home and such jolly discourse can only prove inspiring.”

So Jaime walks home, with the sprite swirling about him; but he does not get to bake it cookies or pastries, for the wind sputters out and the wind-sprite dies before Jaime makes it to the village gate.

The Day

April 4, 2038

Jaime walks across the hills.

The hills are green when he shines a flashlight on them. They are otherwise a subtle gray.

He is wearing jeans and a thick warm shirt. His hair is loose about his head. He is tired and walks slowly, but his eyes are clear. He is walking towards Old Forest and Big Hill, where the earth is closest to the sky.

The wind is blowing, and a playful wind-sprite stands beside him, saying, “Jaime, where are you going? Why are you traveling towards Big Hill?”

And Jaime says, “It’s Daylight Savings Time.”

The sprite is the size of a rabbit and the shape of a tall man and the texture of a bit of fluff. It keeps easy pace with him, swirling on the wind, as Jaime trudges along.

“This course of action has served you poorly in the past,” the sprite observes.

“I have thought on it for some time,” says Jaime. “I do not like the trolls, but feel that it’s unmannerly to make them walk all the way down to the village to collect my skull.”

The sprite waves a hand dismissively. “This burning desire to assist fate in its workings is incomprehensible to me; if such assistance were necessary, be sure it would demand it.”

Jaime walks.

“I have wondered,” says Jaime. “I have seen you as a girl, a man, a giant, and a drake. Sometimes you are large and at other times tiny. You are different on each occasion but you speak to me in familiar terms and with a recognizable tone.”

“Yes?”

“Is the wind always the same, then,” Jaime asks, “or is it always different?”

“It is the wind,” says the sprite. It flies about him in great arcs.

So Jaime walks up Big Hill to where the earth is closest to the sky, and he leans against a tree, and he waits, and then he dies.

The thing that rips out of him with a fire that burns away his skin is not a creature or a sprite. It is not the pale little thing that once he took into his arms.

It is the sun, that comes now and again to Big Hill to be born, and has of late before its birth been slain by the riding of the Petroleum Men.

It is a creature long and short, great and small, and in every wise a burning fire, and it rises through the fuligin and the black, the imbero and the fhjul, and its touch sets fire to the sky.

The Petroleum Men catch fire, screaming in the sky, on April 4. The world is given to sunshine again on April 4. And it is Daylight Savings Time again, on April 4, 2038—an hour later, an hour shorter, an hour is given over in sacrifice on the altar of Time, that the sun may brighter burn.

Not Unrecorded

Susan’s leaning against a tree looking at the sky when the star falls down.

He’s got bright gray hair, like it’s lit up inside, and there’s a spike in his lower lip. He’s wearing enough leather to apoplecticize six PETA warriors and a pair of fuck-you shades. He lands hard, but he lands rolling, and when the dust settles, he cracks his neck and looks pretty much okay.

“I’m late,” he says.

He looks around.

There’s a freeway not too far. There’s Susan’s bike parked on a bed of gravel. There’s a tree and dead withered grass. There’s Susan. There’s the cigarette that Susan dropped.

“Hey,” he says. “Do I know you?”

Susan shakes her head.

“No,” he says. “I’m sure I know you. Names are hard. Sharon? Siffer?”

“Nobody’s named Siffer,” she says. “I mean, hardly anybody.”

“That’s fair,” he agrees.

He stares at her for a moment longer. Then he grins. “Susan,” he says. “That’s right. I flared in the sky over Corner Road to celebrate your birth.”

“What?”

“Like with Bethlehem,” he says. “Only, you know, for you, rather than for a messiah.”

“Oh.”

“Glad that’s settled,” he says. “It’d be nagging me all day.”

He walks over to her bike. He gets on it. He grips the handles. Somewhat to Susan’s surprise, the engine turns on.

“Um . . .”

He kicks up the kickstand.

“Um, that’s my bike,” Susan says. “And this is the middle of nowhere. And it’s getting cold.”

“There’s a sparrow that’s going to die of malnutrition thataways in about thirty-seven minutes,” the star says, “and I’m on watching-sparrow-die duty.”

She lurches forward, but she’s slow and clumsy compared to the movements of the star.

The bike roars out, and there’s a bit of gravel on her face, and blood slowly trickling down from it, and he’s gone.

Daphne and Her Dog

There are a lot of eyes on her, as Daphne walks into the little coffee shop in the little town.

She doesn’t like what the thoughts behind those eyes seem to be.

Daphne’s footsteps click across the tiles of the floor. The shadows of her heels are next to the glaring reflections of the overhead lights. She reaches the counter. She has the waitress’ full attention. She says, “I can’t seem to find the exit to this town.”

“Ain’t none,” says the waitress.

Her nametag says LILY.

Daphne opens her mouth. Daphne closes her mouth. Daphne starts over.

“I’m sorry,” Daphne says, “but I must have misheard. I turned off the freeway into Nesiston a few hours ago to get gasoline for my van. Now I want to get back to the highway. But I can’t seem to find the right road. Could you tell me where it is?”

The waitress shakes her head. “Ain’t no road out. You’re in Nesiston fore’er. Damned like the rest of us in this l’il suburb of Hell.”

“Oh,” says Daphne.

A harsh masculine voice interrupts.

“Does she have anything?”

The question’s come from a man who’s sitting in one of the booths near the door, nursing a cup of coffee. He’s grim and grizzled and wearing a blue shirt. For a moment no one answers.

“Lord,” mutters the waitress, under her breath. “Hank’s demon-taken again.”

“I said,” Hank says, rising to his feet and assuming a bellicose stance, “Does she have anything?”

Daphne turns to face him.

“You’re drunk,” she says, voice low and cool. “I don’t want any trouble.”

“Drunk.” Hank looks back at his coffee. He sneers. Then he looks at her. “You’re new. You came from outside. You have stuff. Books? Parts? Food?”

He’s walking forward now. He’s grabbing at her purse. She tries to stop him, but his hand is on her wrist, much bigger than her wrist, and twisting it away; and she shouts. Hank’s other hand rises to hit her face; and then there is a delicate ringing of the bell at the door, and the noise.

It is low. It is terrible. It is a growling.

Daphne’s dog has pushed open the door of the shop, and is standing there, four feet splayed, mouth slightly open, and growling.

It is not a sane noise.

“I didn’t mean nothing,” says Hank. His hand is lowering to his side again. His eyes are full of white. “I didn’t mean nothing. It was the demons. The demons had me.”

“Back away,” says Daphne. “Sit down, against the counter. I’m leaving.”

Hank takes two steps back and a few steps around to the side. He sits down. He slumps back against the counter.

He looks very small.

Daphne goes. She stands by her dog.

“It’s just the demons,” says the waitress. She looks at Daphne. “Can’t blame Hank. There’s no liquor in the coffee. You’ll understand.”

“Come on,” says Daphne, and turns. The growling stops, as if she’d turned it off with a switch. Daphne walks away.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Daphne says.

There are cracks in the sidewalk. The asphalt’s worn down. She opens the door of her van and gets inside. Her dog scrambles over her and into the passenger’s seat.

“Come on,” Daphne says. “We’ll find a hotel.”

There’s a compass in the glove compartment. She fishes it out. It’s spinning.

There’s clouds overhead. They’re not like normal clouds, though. They’re like clouds spun up in an ice cream maker, streaks of cumulus all twisted and thinned.

Daphne drives around for a while before she finds the White Ice Hotel. She parks. She gets out. Her dog hops down. She goes in.

The lobby is empty, until she rings the bell.

After a while, a tall lean man skulks out. His name tag reads MAYHEW.

“Ah,” says Mayhew. “Ah. You are . . . new. New, yes?”

“I am passing through,” says Daphne.

“This is the Nesiston Hospitality Center,” says Mayhew. “It used to be a hotel. But now it is a hospitality center. It is a place for you to stay until you can settle into this town. You will need a job, of course. And a home. There are many homes. They are abandoned but in serviceable shape. It would be best, hm, if you found yourself a bachelor, but it is not necessary; there is not any real point, not in Nesiston, not where there are no children. I will assign you a room. You look like you would like a view. I will assign you a higher room. Is there anything I can explain? Are you familiar with your situation?”

He approaches her. He is holding out a pamphlet. He is a bit too close, a bit too far into her space, and there is the slightest hint of a growl.

Mayhew backs away, ever so marginally, still holding out the pamphlet. He looks down. His eyes widen slightly.

“You have one of those.”

Daphne says, “I have a dog. He is a good dog.”

Mayhew squats down. He looks into the dog’s eyes.

“He will need a pamphlet too,” says Mayhew. “Will he not?”

The dog’s throat works. It is clearly difficult. But with great effort, it manages a harsh whisper of words. “. . . I ruh-pose.”

Mayhew straightens, briskly. He walks back behind the counter and collects another pamphlet. He returns and offers them both to Daphne.

“I will give the two of you room 35. It is in, ah, adequate shape, given the exigencies, you understand. It is convenient to the stairs for walkies. I hope that the two of you shall settle well into Nesiston.”

He is leading them towards the elevator.

“Most people,” says Daphne. She licks her lips. “Most people are afraid.”

“Hm, yes,” agrees Mayhew. He presses the button. “I am afraid. He is a very frightening boy, isn’t he? Isn’t he?”

His hand is caressing the dog’s ear. The dog’s mouth opens in a pant.

“It is so typical,” says Mayhew. “That they should make such things, that they should train enhanced dogs as soldiers, that they should simply abandon them when the experiment did not succeed. But he has a conscience, hm? Don’t you? Good boy.”

“Rhycopath,” whispers the dog. But the dog does not press the point.

The elevator opens. Mayhew gestures Daphne and her dog in. She stands in the elevator. Mayhew presses a keycard into her palm.

“It does not matter,” says Mayhew. “So what if he is a killer? We are all killers, here.”

Daphne blinks at him.

The door closes and the elevator begins to rise.

“It’s weird, Scooby,” says Daphne.

“Weird?”

“Everything,” she says. She walks to their room. She opens the door. She leads the dog in and she flops on the bed and she looks at the pamphlet. “Welcome to Nesiston.”

“Resiston,” whispers the dog. He pads over to the window. He puts his front paws on the window ledge and looks out at the sky.

“Nesiston used to be normal,” Daphne says. “Apparently. It used to have roads in and out. But then one day, suddenly, you’d be driving down the road out of town and you’d come out on main street again; or in some back alley; or, once, out of a child’s closet and right over her sleeping body. It didn’t work any better to walk. There just wasn’t any way out any more.”

Daphne goes silent for a while. She’s flipping through the pamphlet as if searching for something. Then she frowns.

“It doesn’t say where the food comes from,” she says. “Or the electricity. Or where the sewage goes. Just that Dexter Greene down at the TAE Research Center was nice enough to share some of his stockpiled supplies.”

“‘Not ruh-posed to ask questions,'” mumbles the dog. There’s old pain in his voice.

“Yeah,” says Daphne. “It’s just like that.”

She stands up. She goes to him. She scratches at his ears and he leans into her hand.

“It’s okay,” she says. “We’ll solve the mystery.”

The dog’s tail wags.

“Anyway,” says Daphne, “people started getting weird after a while. Their minds would be overwhelmed by demons, and they’d do horrible things. They’d kill. Or hurt. Or steal. And eventually everyone learned to live with it, ’cause if you didn’t forgive and forget when someone else was demon-ridden, what’d they do when you were?”

The dog’s eyes close.

“But no one’s going to do anything horrible to us, right, Scooby?”

“Right.”

Daphne looks at the sky. She yawns. “I’m going to nap,” she says. “Then we’ll get to the bottom of all this stuff.”

The dog looks languidly over at her as she rises; and it is one of those times when the look in those eyes terrifies her, and she must use all the control she has to keep her hands steady and her words kind and remember that the dog is usually safe for those he loves.

She is sleeping, tossing and turning, when a bark rings like a peal of thunder in the confines of the room. She is on her feet. She is looking around. She half-expects that there will be men with guns.

There are not.

But there is a violet light twisting in the eastern sky.

“There,” says the dog.

Daphne looks at the map of town in her pamphlet. “The TAE Research Center,” she says. “I should have known it would be at the bottom of this.”

“Ret’s ro.”

They race out, down the stairs, and out the door.

Behind them, in the shadows, Mayhew looks regretful. He lifts the receiver of the phone. He places a call.

Daphne drives her van to the gravel lot in front of TAE Research Center. She parks. She and her dog get out. She marches to the front door and knocks.

The door, as if of its own volition, creaks open.

“Uh oh,” Daphne says.

They sneak forward, into the building’s main hall. They have not made it ten steps when the door, without obvious agency, slams closed.

“Bad,” says the dog.

There is a high groaning sound in the air. The building shakes.

Before them, strange and sudden, there is a man — no, not a man, but a thing like a man, without definite shape or form, blurring and twisting in the air.

“A demon,” whispers Daphne.

“You have come,” says the shape, “into Hell.”

Daphne can hear hissing. She feels strangely faint.

“Run,” she says.

They are running, but it is futile. The corridors twist and turn on themselves. Whichever way they run, they find themselves returning once again to the hall, and the colorless gas that even Daphne can smell, and the demon. Windows lead them into filing cabinets. Doorways that should open to the front open, instead, to the back of the hall. Once, Daphne emerges from a gap between two pillars to find her own hand shivering and blurring like the demon’s; and the scream that rips from her throat then is no human scream; and the dog reacts, and his teeth close on her arm, and they are still on her arm, set very gently into the bone, when she falls back and finds herself human again.

“Oh, oh, Scooby,” she says.

The dog opens his mouth. He backs away. He says, “Your blood. I taste your blood, Daphne.”

It is a lost sound, and she kneels and hugs him.

Then he is lunging, and she is falling, twisted by the sudden movement, and he is on the demon’s chest, having knocked it back from where it was standing right behind her, and his teeth are snapping and his claws are flailing at the demon’s chest, and suddenly, the demon in a voice like a man’s shouts, “Stop! Please stop!”

And the gas is no longer hissing out into the hall, and the demon is not blurred but is a man in a white coat, and Daphne realizes that the cold distant feeling in her mind is most likely shock.

“What . . . who . . .”

She looks at the man. She recognizes him from his photo in the pamphlet. “It’s Dexter Greene. You’re not a demon at all! You were just trying to scare us away.”

“Yes. Yes, yes. Please, call him off. Call off the dog.”

“Scooby.”

The dog begins to growl. But he backs away. His legs are stiff. His body is stiff. But he backs away.

“What he?” asks the dog.

“I don’t — wait,” says Daphne. “I understand. You did this, didn’t you? You turned space on the town in on itself. Just like you did to keep us from getting away, and to make yourself look so strange. You must be the one providing supplies and electricity. But why?”

“It is twisted space,” says Dexter Greene. “It is my greatest invention.”

“It is . . .”

“Rerverse,” says the dog. Then it coughs. “Puh. Puh. Puh-rerverse.”

“They were going to steal my invention,” says Dexter Greene. “The people I worked for. It was in my contract. They were going to steal my greatest invention, I would never have seen one dime over my salary, and they would have put it to use. But no. I showed them. I stole the laboratory. I stole the town. I made it my kind of place. Don’t you understand? I made myself a demon! I showed them what they deserved! I taught the people of Nesiston that they were in Hell! And they still loved me! They loved me as their savior and as their demon god!”

“Pathetic,” says Daphne.

Then she pauses.

“But what about the demons?” she says. “The possessions? The horrible crimes?”

Dexter looks small.

“They made that part up themselves,” he says.

It is hours later. They are driving away from Nesiston. The dog nudges Daphne.

“Stress,” he says.

So she pulls over and opens her medicine kit and takes out one of the dwindling supply of pills that helps her dog stay sane; and she tosses it to him; and he bites it from the air.

“There you are, Scooby,” she says.

And they drive on.