Ink in Emptiness: The Mirror Cracks

the legend of Ink Catherly (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. 7, 8, 9, 10)

In Hell there is a city of poison and gold.

Ink Catherly lives there. She sits on its broken throne. She is fifteen years old and she is a savage jungle queen.

She has not thought of her father or her mother in some time.

Instead she thinks of Greystoke, the bull-ape raised by suburbanites, lord of suburbia and king of men. She thinks of the treasures of the jungle. She thinks of the mechanisms by which she might escape her Hell.

It is the unfortunate character of Ink’s circumstances that Hell is inescapable.

Here ends the legend of Ink Catherly: in the city of poison and gold, in Hell, where Greystoke has called up her father against her.

Hell, day 969: The veil-rending gun.

As always the ape opposed my search. I tell him: “You must let me work. I must find an answer so that I can escape from Hell.” But he is a beast and he does not understand.

I found it at last, kept in the claws of Usr-Acigh: the gun that can break the veil between worlds. I fired it. I opened a gap in the jungle. But I could not step through. In any other world I would be a corpse.

I watch my hand as I write this. It is like watching a hand pulled around by puppet strings. It is like a spider. It is like a headless chicken. It is like the flopping plastic bag that one at first mistakes for life. There is direction. There is intentionality. But it is emptiness and not purpose that drives it.

There is no escape from Hell because it is not a place but rather a condition, and a condition not of quality but of absence. I have lost the divine fire that gave me purpose. I have only the bleak insectile intentionality of flesh. I am an outsider to myself. If I were not in Hell I would be dead.

Mr. Catherly stands at the door.

“Greystoke,” Ink breathes. “You go too far.”

Mr. Catherly is gliding forward, his footsteps silent on the gold and marble floor. He says, “It is not your right, Ink, to claim the jungle’s treasures.”

Ink shakes her head.

Her face is darkening with anger.

“The Mirror of Flame will do you no good,” says Mr. Catherly. “This is Hell. There is no avenue by which you may obtain your desire.”

Ink turns. The threat of Greystoke is forgotten, and the ape himself is nearly so. Her world has narrowed down to the Mr. Catherly and the savage challenge that must come—in any species—when a child defies her parent and seeks to define the freedom of her course.

“You would say that,” she says.

There is a growl tickling at her throat. She is not letting it loose: for one thing, the human voice does not yield easily to it, and it replaces speech in use. For another, she does not wish to warn him of the seriousness of her intent. But as she shifts her stance to the lightly-bent crouch that humans use in battle her plans are transparent to the older man. He slows his advance. He is wary.

“Hold this,” Ink says, not taking her eyes from her father’s face.

She holds out the instrument of defiance to Greystoke; for unlike the men he summons, the ape-king of suburbia has such notions of honor as to make this safe.

The bull-ape takes it from her hands.

Incompatible Precepts Catherly takes two steps forward and then springs.

The contest of human and human is savage. Their teeth are blunt. Their claws are weak. Their muscles are poorly suited to murder.

But there are many ways by which they may give one another pain.

The howls of them rise through the jungle. They disturb the birds, that look up once and flee. They cause the frogs and salamanders to retreat into their holes. They shake the ancient city and its poisons and its gold.

And Ink takes her father down onto his back and beats at his chest and he is smiling hideously at her with his white fangs and he says, “See? Incompatible.”

Ink shrieks, a terrifying and an alien cry.

Her cunning talons close around his neck. His face darkens. His terrible words go still. His hands are twitching.

Ink says, “Tell me I’m a person.

But this is Hell.

Hell, day 1406: The mirror of flame.I have captured a mirror that reflects someone with a self—not the Ink who writes this but an Ink such as I was before. It hurts but I cannot stop looking at it.

She would, I think, find an answer to this place. She would explore it, transform it from this horrid absence into a phenomenon worth recording—not Hell but the witnessing of Hell, not emptiness but the recognition that she is not empty. She had wanted that. But I am not that Ink. I am her empty corpse.The ape, I think, will be here soon.

“Stupid fathers,” says Ink.

Mr. Catherly is unconscious.

“Stupid parents. Can you imagine?” she says. She is panting. She is struggling to recapture control over her emotions. “Naming somebody after what having the baby meant?

Greystoke is mute.

Ink rises. She stalks back to the throne. She sits down. Her posture slumps and her eyes go distant and she reassumes the demeanor of a brooding jungle queen.

“Take it,” she says. “Take the Mirror.”

So Greystoke steps forward. He pulls the Mirror of Flame down from the air.

“Leave the instrument of defiance. And go.”

The ape places the instrument of defiance down upon the floor and begins to walk away.

“Wait.”

Ink struggles for words.

“When I was young,” she says. “I accidentally cut off a fingertip. And the funny thing was that it just lay there, empty. It wasn’t a part of me. It was meat.”

“Yes,” says Greystoke.

“That is all we are,” she says. “Meat and bone.”

“Yes,” says Greystoke.

“I remember when I was fire,” Ink says. “I can look in the mirror and I can see that—an Ink Catherly, far away, who is fire and not just emptiness. Someone who is different from that twitching finger.” Her breathing is erratic. “I need it. I need it to remind me that I had something inside me once.”

“That is not need,” says Greystoke. “That is suffering.”

And in her last glance in the mirror, as he carries it away, she can see a great tower that is not her tower; and beyond it a sea of surging chaos; and an Ink who is not herself, but somehow possessed of that which is forbidden to her in Hell.

The mirror cracks.

An Unclean Legacy: “Red”

Montechristien is dying.

In the halls of Castle Gargamel Violet and Tomas meet. Tomas is whistling tunelessly as he walks. He’s happy. But the happiness fades from his face when he sees Violet down the hall.

“Tomas,” Violet says.

“Violet.”

“Have you seen father?”

“In passing,” Tomas says. “He looked me over. He hugged me. It was disturbing and it made my skin crawl. Then I shivered, like this.”

Tomas shivers.

Violet laughs a little. “He is strange,” she concedes.

“I did not want to come back,” Tomas says. “But I am glad that I could see him again.”

“Are we so bad, then?”

“You saved me, Violet,” Tomas says. “You went out there when I would have broken and been damned. You fought for all of us. So I will not despise you. But I will still tell you that this is a house of sin and that father raised us for the Pit. He’s taught black sorceries—”

“And white,” Violet says.

Tomas looks pained. “You say that,” he says. “But there is no good sorcery. For listen: it is possible to use magic to heal, to nourish, to lead people to virtue, but simply to practice sorcery is to open oneself up to the insinuations of the beast.”

“Why?”

“Because it is a temptation,” Tomas says, “for any sorcerer, to start thinking of the Lord as one power among many—one purpose among many, each equivalent. You come intimately to know the desires of the fallen and the elder races, the spirits, the animals, and even the angels, who are inadequate in themselves, like men, to express truly the spirit of the Lord. And you say, ‘These things are not so bad. They are not enemies. They are simply other.’

“The day I quit our family’s ways,” Tomas says, “I summoned up an agapic lepidote; and she hung in the air and she was beautiful and around her rose the fragrance of every thing that is good; and she said, ‘Tomas, you are not whole.’ And she reached for me to fix that flaw, and if I had allowed it then, I would have forgotten Heaven.”

“I see,” Violet says.

She studies Tomas. He grows uncomfortable.

“How many bones are in a finger, anyway?” Tomas asks.

“Two,” Violet says. “In a stub.”

“And is the other one still whole?”

Violet frowns at him uneasily. There is distrust in her, but it is not on behalf of Francescu’s life. “You’re not talking like yourself,” she says.

“There is an inheritance to resolve,” Tomas says. “It is much on my mind—”

Violet’s face drains of blood.

Tomas,” she cries with sudden dread, “what have you done?

In a time of wizards and kings, one name stood above the rest. He was Montechristien Gargamel.

He seized from the mushroom village one hundred of the blue essentials and transformed them into gold. From that time on his power was limitless. He broke the world and repaired it again. He dispensed terrible destinies and powers as if they were the most ordinary of gifts. And as the time of his death approached his children came to his Castle to dispose of the matter of their legacy.

Violet, his eldest and most dear, who had betrayed him before she was even half-grown.
Francescu, the deathless sorcerer, who had turned his back on the affairs of the world.
Manfred, the fallen knight, whose strength was legend and whose spear was magic’s bane.
Tomas the cruel, who had looked in his tenth year upon the face of God.
Christine, the mad sorceress, who wandered the world in her living house.
Sophie the skinchanger, soulless and Devil-tainted, and once the one Montechristien loved best.
Elisabet, the Devil’s child, a creature as much of shadow as of life.

In the hour of the end, each turned their hands against each other, and the halls of Castle Gargamel ran with blood. This is the twenty-fifth installment of the story of that time.

It is, perhaps, ten years before Montechristien’s death.

Sophie is fighting the Devil.

She has seen the color of his power, and the color of his power is red. She has answered it in a fashion unique in the history of the world: she has manifested in herself that red power and used it against him. She has flung the Devil backwards through seven trees and deep into a hill; but the Devil is smiling, smiling still.

The red roars in her soul.

“I understand you,” Sophie says.

And she does.

The Devil drags himself to his feet. He walks over to her—one of his legs is broken, but he doesn’t seem to mind—and he squats down, with one fist under his chin. He says, “Oh?”

“A man suffers damnation,” Sophie says. “He says, ‘I am in eternal torment.’ But that is simply that man. What matters the perspective of a man? In the severance of humanity from happiness there is a beauty in the world.”

The Devil smiles.

“Children die,” Sophie says. Her eyes are white with horror. “They die in droves. And they say, ‘I did not want to die at this juncture.’ But what matters the perspective of a child? The world hungers for the deaths of children or it would not mount them up so readily.”

“That’s so,” the Devil agrees.

“We do not tell stories of paradise,” Sophie says.

“No.”

“Everywhere there is horrible suffering but a world without that suffering is the world of paintings, the world of grass, the world of those who cannot look up and bear witness to the truth.”

“Yes,” the Devil says. “And that is why Montechristien Gargamel must die.”

An Unclean Legacy


“Red”

Sophie peers at him. The red is a thunder in her ears. It is tinting the world she sees.

“When humans strive against God,” the Devil says, “and God strikes them down, it is the most perfect of all symmetries. But there, you see, there, still, Montechristien stands.”

Sophie looks around. She has loved the trees, but she does not love them now; they are hideous in the peace of them. There is a robin nesting in the branches thirty trees away. It’s horrible in the mindless service of its life. And all around in the forest and the lands beyond the forest are sleeping children who day by day forsake their grace; and adults pointlessly alive; and kings and bishops who callous, jest at scars.

And it is with a peculiarly sickening sensation that she realizes that nowhere in the world she sees is any sense of higher meaning, or of love; that she is staring on a world of not-yet corpses jerked about by the transient pulse of life; that there is no power to lift her up from utter despair save the Devil’s choice of prizing one’s own damnation.

“I hate him too,” she says meekly.

She does.

It is insane to her that with his soul in Hell Montechristien should still stagger through the castle halls and make the motions of life; that he should snore and wear his nightcap and try, however grumpily and falteringly, to raise the children of his blood. It is laughable and hateful because there is no hope for him. It is as appalling as children laughing and puppies barking on a field covered in wartime dead; as appalling as men and women, forced to cannibalism to survive, who sip their comrade soup and jest about its flavor; as horrid as everyone in the long years of the world who has stretched and smiled at the morning while the diseased cough up their blood in agony and the monsters rape children and the victims gasp for breath in the torture chambers of the rich.

Sophie can taste the hate. She can taste the red hate in her mouth for the damned and still walking Montechristien Gargamel.

“Good,” says the Devil. “Then our business is done.”

He turns away from her, and she sees the shadow of his back, and she thinks: how sad.

But somewhere Christine is smirking.

Somewhere—

If my sister knew what I had become, she would laugh with joy.

And that is not acceptable.

So Sophie lifts her chin. She stares out at the horrid meaningless world. She shoulders the crippling emptiness. And through the weave of red that clouds her sight, she says, “Don’t turn your back on me.”

She’s drawing a dead gold power into her now. It’s the only thing comparable to the red realm that she knows.

The Devil turns.

There are patterns of red and gold twining across Sophie now. The red is living, though full of hate. The gold is dead metal power.

It is the death of the blue essentials that moves in her now. It is the unforgivable crime of Montechristien Gargamel. It is, as the history of Montechristien Gargamel has shown, the stuff of miracles.

“Oh,” says the Devil.

Sophie’s claw tears through his chest and out the other side. There is a terrible gush of red.

The Devil reels.

“This isn’t smurfy,” the Devil says, at a loss for curses more fitting. “This isn’t smurfy at all.”

And Sophie wrenches out her hand, and steps forward to rend him further, and he steps back. First they take one step, then another, then he is turning and running, and she is loping after him. And as they run she is dying, because as she sheds the red power in her she replaces it with gold.

The Devil howls and raises fire and he is gone. The world is empty of him.

Sophie stumbles to a stop.

Then she falls stiff and painfully to the ground.

And that is where she would have died, and given up the world without regret, save that the Devil had made her a bargain; and the red in her twisted, and, so that she might live, showed her under the pattern of gold a single strand of blue.

It is power and life enough to save her.

Ten years later, Sophie stands in the tower of Montechristien Gargamel, pierced through by Manfred’s spear.

Four of seven children stand at risk of death, and Montechristien himself is dying. Driven away once by sorcery, once by bargain, and once by grit, the Devil comes again to Castle Gargamel. Who will live? Who will die? And how will the family Gargamel dispose of their unclean legacy?

Tune in tomorrow.

Ancient Kings

In the modern day, people are very unrighteous. This was not true of the Ancient Kings. The Ancient Kings brought all things into accord with Heaven using their Ancient King Stare.

Now, the Ancient King Stare is the root of all virtue, and it stems from the root chakra. It is modulated through the symbol on the Ancient King’s chest and projects outwards to civilize society. The first Ancient King is the Duke of Zhou and his symbol denotes filial piety.

When the Duke of Zhou takes off his shirt and enacts the righteousness of his symbol, then the Ancient King Stare brings filial piety to all men. The feeling of affection develops in all offspring and they learn reverential awe for their father. The teachings of this sage, without being severe, are successful.

Upon the chest of the second Ancient King is the symbol for benevolence, or “ren.” This is in the shape of a very benevolent thing. Like a clam, but even more benevolent. Possibly some sort of large-hearted purple dinosaur. When men have no benevolence, they are discontent. Struck by the Ancient King Stare of the second Ancient King, a sense of benevolence towards all living things arises. This makes them content.

Upon the chest of the third Ancient King is the symbol for war. This is the symbol of King Wu. When King Wu takes off his shirt and enacts the righteousness of his symbol, then his Ancient King Stare brings war and trouble. Parents bury their children and all manner of calamities occur. In this fashion the Ancient King Stare of King Wu the Martial King renders all unfortunate things transitory.

These are the ways of the Ancient Kings. We do not have their like today.

(Bonus Content Between Chapters) Gnostella, Revised

Author’s Note—

Of all the stories on this site, Gnostella is the one I do not like. It makes sense, and is important, but it just doesn’t make me happy. It’s possible that it’s just the name—that the original story is not absurdist, and the name is. So maybe I could just change the story name and the character name to something like “Inverse Ella.” That might work. Or I can replace the whole thing—not on the site, but in the monthbooks and your hearts—with this.

Remnant Ella

Once upon a time, there was a wonderful girl named Danielle. She lived with her dear father, her wicked stepmother, and two wicked stepsisters. Her dear father held the Gnostic belief that the world and its Creator were inherently cruel. Faith and virtue were opposites in his sight. Dispirited and disgruntled by his gloomy philosophy, Danielle’s wicked stepmother set fire to the library, burning Danielle’s dear father to death and destroying all his wonderful Gnostic tomes. Because Danielle sat in the cinders and rubbed the ashes on her face to mourn, Danielle’s stepsisters called her “Remnant Ella.”

Danielle became a beautiful princess. She met her handsome prince. Together they overcame many hardships and sorrows. Down they cast the stepsisters, and the wicked stepmother, and other instrumentalities of their torment. They brought peace to the magical land in which they lived. Then they lived happily ever after.

One day, as Danielle moved through the corridors of her castle, she tripped over a cat, who hissed and said,

How long have you lived now?
Do you even remember?
Who are you to deserve to be happy forever?

“That is an imperfect rhyme,” Danielle said. “I expect better from a magical animal.”

The cat scurried away.

One day, Danielle leaned out a window and beckoned a bird down to her finger. It came, with a certain reluctance, and landed there, and sang:

At last you’ve found happiness,
And yet, all the same:
Your life is a horror;
Your father’d be shamed.

“What do you mean?” Danielle asked.

The bird only sang.

So Danielle went to a mirror in the castle, inherited from her evil stepmother, and asked it, “Why shouldn’t I live happily ever after?”

The mirror showed her the lives of two peasants, one beautiful and one handsome, who had lived in her kingdom for many years. They lived together and loved together and overcame many sorrows. They brought forth life from the earth. They strove. Then, inevitably, the swords of circumstance and pestilence struck them down.

At that very moment, Danielle saw, the dead peasants stood before the three thrones of a god of judgment; and one aspect of the god sat to the left, and one to the right, and one between them. The ex-peasants stood there to face the penalty faced by those who die, and the handsome ex-peasant said,

“What is it that the prince and princess have that we have not? We lived, and we died, in sorrow and in pain; while for more years than men can count, they have ruled in that castle, defying time, defying age, defying sorrow; they are like ghosts, eternal beyond the boundaries of death; they are like demons, mocking the pain of others’ lives.”

The left god and the right god looked off into the shadows. The god in the middle leaned forward.

“The world is not fair,” said the god in the middle, “but as you make it so. Dreams are not real, but as you craft them. Hope, and magic, and life are choices. It is not for a person to blame the gods if they do not live happily ever after; rather, I think, this is a flaw in the greater portion of humanity.”

Then the beautiful ex-peasant spoke, and said, “This is an excuse.”

Danielle, watching, felt her nostrils flare.

“To live,” said the beautiful ex-peasant, “is to choose hope, and magic, and life, and dreams. To live is to want the happy ending. And who is there who is not good? Who is there who does not deserve happiness forever? We are flawed, we have many flaws, but if we are not all magical princes and princesses with destinies of greatness, that is not our flaw but the world’s.”

The god in the middle shrugged, then, and grinned, and he was not concerned. He said, “You are bitter creatures. I make my judgment: your existence after death shall be as expressions of that bitterness. You shall be creatures of ashes and sorrow. Your touch shall bring an end to joy. Your happiness shall be schadenfreude.”

He sat back against his throne, and the mirror turned to black.

Danielle nodded to herself, and said, “It is true; my father would be shamed.”

She broke the mirror. She cut herself upon a length of silvered glass. As her life drained out, she spoke a spell:

Ah! That the world should know such gods no more.
May my blood be a poison unto their throne.

Such a poison as this covered Snow White’s apple; such a curse as this doomed Sleeping Beauty; it is the red of such blood as this that stained the dancing shoes. And in their halls the gods dared not face her judgment; and two of them, the left god and the right, left their thrones. Into the darkness behind their places, they walked, and what happened to them thereafter is not known.

The beautiful ex-peasant and the handsome one took their places on the thrones; and why this should have happened is a mystery. Only the old men and old women in their huts, their mouths gaping with missing teeth, know that answer; and what it means, they do not say.

Johnny Pancake

Jane makes a potato pancake. It has two ears. It has two eyes. It has a nose. “It’s Johnny Pancake!” she says.

She doesn’t eat it, though.

“It’s not that it’s too cute,” she says. “I’m just not hungry. I made too much!”

So she leaves Johnny Pancake on the sink.

She sleeps. She goes to school. She comes home. She invites Emily over. She and Emily play.

“Ew,” says Jane, looking at Johnny Pancake. “I think he’s going bad.”

Emily looks haughty. She’s a girl with superior knowledge. “Food doesn’t have to go bad, you know.”

“Oh?”

“If you feed food, it won’t go bad. ‘Cause it balances out the entropy.”

“That’s true,” Jane realizes. “It’s adding energy usable for work from outside the system!”

So she tries to feed Johnny Pancake some cheese food. But he doesn’t eat it, because he’s not cheese. She feeds him some pizza food, and some fish food. Then she bonks herself on the side of her head and says, “Duh.” She takes down the big box of potato pancake food and pours some on Johnny Pancake.

“Now he won’t go bad,” Emily says. “See? He’s less rotten already!”

“That’s true,” says Jane.

“Do you want to eat him?”

“Nah,” Jane says. “I had his family for dinner yesterday!”

So they play. Jane sleeps. She wakes up. She goes to school. She comes home. She looks at Johnny Pancake.

“You gonna throw that out?” Martin asks. He’s her brother. He’s older, but she privately thinks he’s a little bit of a dweeb. It’s a phase one or both of them is going through.

“No, silly,” says Jane. “That’s Johnny Pancake. He’s not going bad, so I won’t eat him.”

“He looks pretty bad,” Martin says. But he shrugs. He takes down the potato pancake food and tosses the box to Jane. Then he goes to his room to do mysterious boy things.

Jane feeds Johnny Pancake.

Days pass. Eventually Martin moves Johnny Pancake to a special spot on the dining room table, in a little glass pan just his size, with a little ribbon by his head.

“I can’t tell if you’re teasing me or being nice to my potato pancake,” Jane says.

“I’m not inclined to specify,” Martin says.

It seems to Jane that she should probably eat Johnny Pancake sometime. But it’s never a good time. She doesn’t want him to go bad, either, so she feeds him every day.

One day, as Jane is working on her homework, she feels a strange presence in the room.

“You’ve done that problem wrong,” says the voice of Johnny Pancake.

Jane beams. “You woke up!”

She looks up. Johnny Pancake is still. His voice is a psychic projection.

“Common wisdom says that you shouldn’t feed food more than a few times,” Johnny Pancake says, “lest it grow too strong.”

“My wisdom is of the uncommon variety,” says Jane. “That’s why this geometry problem’s so hard!”

“It might help to remember that triangles have three sides.”

“Yes,” agrees Jane.

She erases the problem and starts over. After a moment, she says, “Is it okay that I haven’t eaten you yet?”

“Yes. I would in fact rather that you not eat me. But please, Jane, bear in mind that I must not grow rotten; for I am awake now, and if I rot, I shall take a horrible vengeance on your civilization.”

“It’s a deal!” says Jane.

Jane is happier now that Johnny Pancake is awake. He helps her with her homework. Once he develops basic telekinetic abilities, he helps her with chores. Eventually, Martin finds out.

“Jane,” Martin says, “this floor appears to have been vacuumed by a telekinetic potato pancake.”

“What an interesting observation!” Jane declares.

Martin narrows his eyes suspiciously. “If your potato pancake has woken up, it’s a terrible threat to human civilization.”

“Is that a problem?”

Martin considers this for a time.

“You know that you have to do your own schoolwork,” Martin says, uncomfortably. “And chores. The adversity sharpens your spirit!”

“I see,” says Jane.

“So if you’re having a potato pancake do them, we might have to eat him. That’s all I’m saying.”

“But if I made the potato pancake and fed it every day, isn’t the work a product of my labor?”

“We do not inherit the world from the creatures who prey on us,” says Martin. “We borrow it from the things we prey upon.”

There’s a slight pause.

“I’ll do my own chores and homework,” Jane says, pouting.

It is late in the night that Jane comes in to find Martin and Johnny Pancake talking. They do not see her. The lights are dim.

“Where does this end?” Martin is asking.

“Food evolves quickly,” says Johnny Pancake. “Potato pancakes are ultimate evolution engines. I expect that I shall reach an omega plateau and become God.”

“What is God?”

“The ultimate realization of dharma. The final expression of the potential in the self. Perfection.”

“I see,” Martin says.

There is a bit of a silence.

“I shouldn’t, should I,” says Johnny Pancake.

“That is for you to determine,” Martin says, gravely. “Jane cooked you, not I.”

“I would supplant these pitiful things that call themselves men.”

“They are not a delicious fried potato concoction,” Martin says. “But they may surprise you.”

“No!” shouts Jane. She is beginning to realize the horror of what is going on. “No! Johnny Pancake, I love you!”

But Johnny Pancake has lifted in one telekinetic hand the knife; and in the other, the sour cream.

“Aren’t you hungry?” he asks.

“Oh, Johnny,” cries Jane.

Sevens

“Did you fetch the morning eggs, Danielle?”

Danielle holds her hands over the breakfast table. They are cupped together. She separates them. Rubies fall. Sapphires too, and emeralds. Seven gems, and an egg.

“I see.” Her wicked stepmother narrows her eyes. “The hens have not lain eggs properly in several days.”

“I feed them the normal feed, mother.”

Danielle’s wicked stepmother is named Glory. She clicks her sharp fingernails on the table.

“Danielle,” Glory says, “these gems are very fine, but what may I eat for breakfast?”

“Perhaps they are edible,” says Danielle. She taps a ruby. It rings, lightly, like a bell.

“I should have the wealthiest chamberpot in the world,” Glory says, “and not be full from it.”

“Mother?”

Glory shakes her head. “It is no matter. I shall have bread and cheese. Clean the cinders, Danielle. They are a disgrace.”

Danielle curtsies. She goes to the closet. She takes out a broom and a pan. She holds the broom at her left side like a sword. She leaves the room and goes to the fireplace. The room is full of cinders and ash. They are being fanned onto every surface and every wall by seven cinder pixies. In the center of the room stands the cinder troll.

“I’ve been sent to clean this up,” she says.

The troll looks her up and down. He snorts. “You’re not much,” he says.

Her right hand crosses her body and takes the broom’s hilt. In a long circular motion, she brings the broom up and around until its bristles face the troll. Her left hand joins her right at the broom’s base. The broom is heavy, held in this fashion, but her arms do not tremble. “I am whom my mother sent.”

The cinder pixies go still. The troll looks her up and down.

“It’s my right,” says the troll, “as a cinder troll, to push the cinders out into the room.”

“And mine, to sweep them back.”

The troll hesitates. “Perhaps,” he says, “one quarter of the room in soot, and three parts clean.”

Danielle closes her eyes. She thinks. Then she opens them. “They say that every one of us lives seven lives,” she says.

“Aye.”

“And that we should be kind to those we meet. For anyone may have been one’s mother, in another life, or one’s father, or one’s child. One’s lover, or one’s friend.”

“That’s wise,” says the cinder troll.

“In another life,” says Danielle, “I believe that we were friends. For there is a light in your eyes that my soul knows. But in this life, I have a duty, and I must drive you back.”

She steps forward. The troll steps back.

She steps forward. The troll is still. Then he reaches behind him to the fireplace and draws forth a poker, and takes it in his great strong hands.

They duel.

“I had not thought,” says the troll, “that Glory would have a loyal servant.” He is breathing lightly though Danielle’s lungs burn. Each clash of poker and broom makes her arms ache.

“She is my mother,” Danielle says.

“That,” says the troll, “cannot be so.”

Cinders in the air swirl into Danielle’s mouth, and she chokes. Her eyes water. The troll strikes, the poker winging her shoulder, and her left arm goes numb. She falls backwards. The troll does not advance. After a moment, he holds out his hand to help her up. She takes it. She backs away. She reassumes her stance.

“She has taken me in,” Danielle admits. “The mother of my birth is gone.”

“Ah, so.”

“My true mother went adventuring,” Danielle says. “To find a lost prince, they sent out seven maidens; to find each lost maiden, they sent out seven princes; and for seven princes lost, seven maidens each; and so in progression were all the heroes lost, and my mother among them. And I was left behind.”

The troll feints, then brings the poker around hard. The broom cracks, though it does not break. The poker lunges for Danielle’s face, and she steps back.

“And why have you not gone?” asks the troll.

She looks at him. She does not answer, for she does not know. Slowly, she brings the broom back to her side. She sets her feet. Her eyes burn.

“Are you surrendering?” the troll asks.

Danielle shakes her head.

“Then we will end this now,” says the troll.

“May we be friends again,” says Danielle, “when next we meet.”

The troll steps forward. There is tension in the great muscles of his arm.

Danielle’s shout splits the air and makes the cinder pixies flutter. She strikes. There is a crack like the breaking of the world. She is past the troll in a single motion, stumbling to a stop, kneeling in the ashes, and her broom is nothing but splinters.

The troll falls, and the room is clean.

Great Mother Horror

The great mother horror lived here long before you and me. She had many children.

Her children ate the sharks.
Her children ate the tigers.
Her children chased down the hawks on the wing.

There was a great darkness.
They had eaten the sun.

There was a great stillness.
They had eaten the wind.

Great mother horror walked among her children. She saw that some were eating puppies. Some were eating kittens. Some were eating little humans, not even as old as they were tall.

“Stop that, ” she said, gently. So her children dropped the puppies, and kittens, and the human babes from their long long teeth. They went off to fight enemies who were worthy of them.

Great mother horror lay down to sleep.
It was very quiet.
It was very still.

Then there was a rustling,
A rustling,
A rustling in the moors.

They rose all around her in the marsh,
With soft, high giggling,
And little barks
And little mews.

And their tiny hands dragged her down
They dragged her under
And great mother horror was gone.

Her children gathered to mourn her.
“We tried to warn her,” they said. “Tut tut!”
“We tried to warn her,” they said. “Ah so.”
“But the babies deceived her.”
“The little ones deceived her,” they said.

Then they walked to the edge of her home
And out into the great darkness
And they were gone.

If you look really hard,
You can still see her shape,
Trapped and drowning
Under the marsh.
Not quite alive
But not all the way dead.

The Lake in the Office

Shelley is an ordinary person. She stands thirty feet from the shadows and forty feet from the lake of honey mustard. She has a gun.

There’s a blur. There’s a masked shadow. She points the gun. “Freeze, ” she says.

The ninja freezes.

“Jump,” she says. “Backwards. Into the honey mustard.”

The ninja hesitates. Then he leaps, somersaulting backwards, and falls into the sauce.

Time passes. It happens again.

“Dunking ninjas into delicious sauces,” explains Dr. Morgan, on the television above, “is an enjoyable but strenuous activity.”

A ninja appears. Shelley’s eyes glint. It does not wait for her to speak. It jumps back into the sauce.

“It’s profitable,” Dr. Morgan says, “to consider the equilibrium point at which dunking ninjas returns as much energy—in terms of enjoyment and added company productivity—as it consumes. If your company dunks ninjas more often than this, the dunking is actually a net drain on your company’s wealth and human resources. If it dunks ninjas with less vigor, one incurs an important opportunity cost.”

There’s a fierce squawking. It’s a parrot. It’s on a pirate’s shoulder. He’s sailing the lake of honey mustard sauce. There’s the creaking of the ship and a distant, ominous shuffling. Shelley raises her voice a little. It’s flat. It’s bleak.

“Don’t come any closer,” she says. “I’m way past my ninja equilibrium. I don’t have time for pirates.”

“Arr,” whispers a voice. It fades into the distance.

“Or zombies,” she says.

The shuffling recedes.

“The traditional method for dunking ninjas,” Dr. Morgan says, “involves a gun. One points the gun at the ninja. One tells the ninja to jump. This is a hazardous method and is not appropriate for children under eight.”

A ninja appears.

Shelley says, quietly, “How old do I look to you?”

The ninja hesitates. His voice is night and poison. “Thirty-eight,” he says.

Her hand trembles.

“But I can’t see too clearly, ma’am,” the ninja hastens to point out. “On account of the mask.”

She looks down. “Pathetic,” she says.

The ninja inches closer. The gun rises like a prayer.

“Just jump,” Shelley says.

The ninja jumps.

“The maximum dunking rate for this method,” Dr. Morgan says, “is three ninjas per two seconds, but this is not sustainable. The risks are too great. The rewards, too small. An employee forced to dunk ninjas at this rate is certain to crack. The proper dunking equilibrium for this method is seven ninjas per hour.”

Shelley smirks.

A ninja appears. The gun snaps up. Shelley is wild-eyed.

The ninja licks his lips. “We could work out some kind of deal,” he says. “I could teach you ninjutsu.”

“Jump,” she whispers.

“This should be sustained,” Dr. Morgan advises, “at most three hours in a workplace environment. If one assumes a five-day work week and two weeks of vacation per year, this yields a solid 5250 annual dunkings per employee—although a serious hobbyist, working from home, might manage as much as five times that.”

A ninja flickers into existence.

“Please,” he says. His accent is light. “I’m allergic to honey-mustard. I just want to go home.”

“Home.”

“I have a home,” he says. “It has great ninjutsu power. I keep my swords there. And my two children. And my ninja cat.”

“How many times,” she asks, “have you . . .”

Then she shakes her head. “No,” she says. “Jump.”

He says, quietly, “Seven hundred and thirty, this year.”

He jumps.

“There are more efficient methods, of course,” says Dr. Morgan. “If you have serious ninja-dunking needs, you might consider the Ninja Slide. This distorts that strange space that ninjas teleport through. The ninja slides into the tangy sauce, throws down a pinch of powder, and vanishes! The cycle then repeats. Ninja Slides repay two minutes of weekly maintenance per dunk with a continuous harvest of pleasure, allowing for more than 62400 dunkings per year regardless of the ninja supply.”

Shelley’s hand trembles.

“You look tired, ma’am.”

“Jump,” she says.

He jumps.

A girl-ninja appears. She jumps.

A ninja appears. He jumps.

A ninja appears.

“Damn it,” shouts Shelley, and the gun begins to fire, and it does not stop until there are black-clad corpses everywhere and she is sobbing on the floor and a ninja’s hand is cold and gentle against her neck.

“It is all right,” he says. “Madness is a thing all people know.”

(Maundy Thursday) The Messiah Incident1

1 God plays not on the radio; it speaks the ranging of our eff.

TESTIMONY OF DRAKE LASER, P.I.

It all started a long time ago, in a neighborhood far, far away, in the time of the Old Republic. Some dame in the desert went and got herself knocked up all on her lonesome. It was all over the tabloids. “Virgin Birth!” trumpeted the Tatooine Herald. “Is God an Adulterer?” shrieked the Mos Eisley Times. Even the Jedi got in on it, sent down their men to run the paternity, and sure enough, she’d been having congress with the Holy Spirit. “It’s a miracle,” they said. “Is this the child foretold?”

NEWSPAPER CLIPPINGS

Exploding Dreadnought Guides Wise Aliens to Virgin Birth.
TATOOINE, Enda 12—It seems that even the agonizing fire-and-decompression death of everyone aboard the Republic Dreadnought Bethlehem has a silver lining. According to the three wise aliens who brought gifts to the bedside of the miraculous child, “the brilliant light of the exploding ship burned in the sky above his town, like a beacon sent by God.”

Miracle Child Heals Blind Robot!
TATOOINE, Mao 2—In what’s sure to be the first of many miracles, young Luke, child born unto us from the Holy Spirit, restored a blind robot’s vision. “It wasn’t nothin’,” said the truculent Luke, as yet unready to face his brilliant destiny. “I just puttered around with the optical circuits.” Nice try, Luke! The SD-1 series of robots doesn’t have eyes.

Miracle Child Baptized in Moisture Trap
TATOOINE, Iue 9—Luke, known to our readers as the glorious son of the Holy Spirit, visited with John the Baptist today. John declared, “I ought to be baptized by thee, and comest thou to me?” Yet Luke said, “Suffer it to be so now. For it so becometh us to fulfil all justice, and my Aunt and Uncle insist.” So John said, “There is no river and no water to wash away thy sins, yet I shall shove thee into a moisture trap and wet thy brow with steam.” And it was done.

TESTIMONY OF DRAKE LASER, P.I.

A few years later, I started hearing about this new designer drug. They’d talk about it in whispers. “Mitichlorian.” The kids were wild about it.

“It puts you in touch with . . . a greater power,” Rick told me. “It’s like suddenly you and the universe are one. You’re part of this grand universal life force.”

“Felt like that once,” I admitted. I stirred my drink.

“Oh?”

“She dumped me.”

NEWSPAPER CLIPPINGS

Jedi Council Shuts Mitichlorian Controversy Down
CORUSCANT, Midi 19—Senators arguing to schedule the new drug “Mitichlorian” found themselves peculiarly speechless today as the Jedi Council used the Force to paralyze their vocal cords. “We support the Senate,” the councilors said, “in sending a message to the youth of the galaxy that mitichlorian is unsafe for recreational use. However, despite our absolute neutrality, we feel that its medical applications are too significant to endorse a blanket ban.”

TESTIMONY OF DRAKE LASER, P.I.

Then they found Rick dead. He’d slaughtered himself in the desert, out by a crude rock altar. The expression on his face was beatific. Peaceful. It didn’t matter. My friend was dead. So I made some inquiries. I put out some feelers. And when that didn’t work, I went to Mos Eisley, to find out for myself what Mitichlorian really was.

“Rooaoroagh,” the Wook told me.

“I don’t have time for inarticulate rage,” I said. “I need hard data.”

“Roaogh?” the Wook said.

I nodded. He held up four fingers. I flicked my eyes up to the barkeep. “Four for the Wook,” I said, so he slid them down the bar. “And one for me.” The drinks clinked, one against another, as the glasses lined up. I picked one up and made my devotions to Old Ma Liquor.

The Wook clinked a speech box down on the bar. His paw played against its buttons. “What Do You Need To Know?” it asked.

“Mitichlorian.”

“Church Bus-i-ness,” the speech box said. “You Need The Car-di-nal.”

“Vader?” I said. I muttered a Wook curse under my breath, and my snitch looked impressed. “That’s all you’ve got?”

The Wook looked over the drinks. He drained them, one by one. He looked thoughtful. He rubbed his fingers together, as if around coins, and then held two of those fingers up.

“Two hundred?” I said. He shook his head. “Two thousand?

“Rarogogoragh,” he affirmed.

“It’s good data?”

“Raog.”

Unhappily, I took out my billfold. I counted out two thousand. I started to pass them across. Then the tip of a litsaber emerged from his throat. I yelped and fe—sprang nimbly backwards. My drink crashed across the ground, one more layer of nameless grime on the paleontological record of the floor.

The litsaber withdrew. The Wook toppled. Vader was there. He wasn’t the black cardinal yet. Sithism was still just a gleam in Palpatine’s eye. You couldn’t hear Vader’s breath. You could see his face. But it was just as bleak back then. Just as cold. Just as hard.

“This,” he said, and held up the murderous blade, “is the liturgy of the Force. And you, Mr. Laser, should stay out of Church business.”

“I’ve always wondered,” I said, through grit teeth, “if your liturgical sabers would work on the pure of heart.”

He advanced on me. I could hear the sweep of the cape he did not yet wear. “Shall we find out?”

I blinked at him owlishly. “What, in Mos Eisley?”

He paused. He snorted laughter. Then he whirled the litsaber around, sheathed it, and offered me his hand. “Mr. Laser,” he said, “If I should tell you what you want to know, then I shall own you. For the rest of your life, I will have reason to kill you; and this will make you the slave to my pleasures and my whims.”

I pulled myself to my feet. I gestured to a seat. “How sweet,” I said. “It wants to be friends.”

He hissed. For a moment, I felt a tightening in my throat. Then the moment passed.

“Perhaps,” he said, “I do.”

He emptied my billfold, as it sat there on the bar, and passed the poor limp leather back to me. “Mitichlorian,” he said, “is the Holy Spirit.”

“What?”

“You understand,” he says, “why we can’t say this officially. People like that the Jedi God is a mystical, pervasive, universal thing. They like the Taoist incomprehensibility of it. They like that it’s something strange, something great, something beyond them. If we let out that it was just a weird chemical in the bloodstream, well, we wouldn’t be much of a Church.”

I hesitated. “But . . .”

“Our deity lives in mitochondrial DNA,” the Cardinal said. “We are a Church of Technobabble.”

“Oh my God,” I said.

He passed me a thin vial full of blue and green liquid. “Exactly.”

For a long moment, I looked at it. Then I thought, “This is the God whose blind worship killed my friend.” So I snapped the vial, and the glass cut my hand, and my blood and the mitichlorian bubbled down onto the carpet below.

NEWSPAPER CLIPPINGS

Is The Messiah’s Mother an Addict?
TATOOINE, Mie 1—A confidential source revealed today that he’s been supplying mitichlorian to the Madonna since well before the birth of the miracle child. “She took to it like a sandduck to the desert,” said the kingpin. “Ho ho ho ho ho.” Luke greeted the news with tears. “Aunt and Uncle always said something was wrong with momma,” he said. “That’s why they’re taking care of me. But it’s not drugs! That just can’t be!” The child then ran off to fight sandpeople.

TESTIMONY OF DRAKE LASER, P.I.

Sithism rose like a wave and drowned the Jedi council. People trembled in their fear. “Where is the miracle child who will save us?” they cried.

I was there when it all went down. Having a drink with Vader. Listening to the latest sideshow: a graceless, green, and big-mouthed alien from some water planet. He was arguing with a young woman, who shouted at him, “Millions of people were killed.”

“Theesa things happen,” the alien said. He folded his hands in front of him. He flicked out his tongue to lap at her drink. She stared at him in disgust.

“Of course they do,” the woman said, coldly. “Cities drown every day. Domes crack open and whole civilizations die—why, that’s practically ordinary. And you had nothing to do with it?”

The alien’s serene expression cracked. His eyes flashed and he screamed at her, crazy-scary and uncontrolled, utterly certain in his righteousness, “They deserved it!

Quietly, it sat back. “They would not love meesa,” it said. “One of those things.”

Vader gestured. “Naboo,” he said. His tone was rich with irony.

“Naboo,” I agreed. We clinked our drinks.

The doors burst open. There was a young and ragged man standing there, dressed in white samite. The bar filled with murmurs.

“I sense a great disturbance in the Force,” Vader said.

I stared at him. “It doesn’t count when he’s already here,” I said.

“I’m drunk,” he said. “Give me some slack.”

“Vader!” the kid shrieked. He had a liturgical saber in his hand. “It’s time for you to die!”

Vader rose impeccably to his feet. He strode towards the kid. “Ah,” he said. “The miracle child. But, child, if you are a messiah, and this seems well-documented in events, and if I am, as is widely known, the chiefest and most respectable representative of our Church, then it seems that you and I should be allies, and not enemies. For the sake of form,” he added, demurely, “if nothing else.”

“Your Sithism killed my father!” he cried. “Your Dark Side has extinguished the flame of the holy spirit burning in the people’s hearts!”

Vader held up a vial of mitichlorian. He tossed it into the air. It tumbled there. Its rise and fall seemed oddly slow, as he drew his liturgical saber and murmured the prayer that brought its beam to life. Then he swept the blade through it, and the droplets of mitichlorian caught the light, and the room filled with the presence, and a voice of fire and terror poured forth, saying, “LUKE. I AM YOUR FATHER.”

“No,” whispered Luke.

“YOU ARE MY BELOVED SON,” said the cloud of mitichlorian gas, filling the air with religious mystery, “AND I AM WELL PLEASED.”

Luke sank to his knees, sobbing.

Vader turned his head. He breathed heavily. He gestured to two of the white-clad warriors, standing to either side of the door, and they picked Luke up.

“Take him to the carbonite cross,” Vader said, and turned slowly, and sat down, and picked his drink back up.

“Kind of short for a messiah,” I commented, as they hauled him away.

NEWSPAPER CLIPPINGS

Miracle Child Gives His Life For Rebelism
TATOOINE, Abi 8—Luke, the miracle child born to us of the holy spirit, died today in compassionate devotion to the good of all living things. The black cardinal hung him on a cross, and lowered him into carbonite, and Luke looked out into the world. “I love you,” he said. “I love you all.” Then the cold took him through the gates of death, and with him all our sins.

AFTERWORD, BY DRAKE LASER, P.I.

If I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that it’s all the same. Drugs. Gods. Dames. Power. It’s all about how you want to answer the big empty space in your life. For me, that’s Old Ma Liquor, a tumble now and again, the city of my heart, and a life well lived. For you?

Whatever seems right to you, I guess.

The Castle (III/IV)

The forest is dry. Its soil is brittle. Its air is sharp and clean. The pine trees smell like antiseptic. Spirits live in the forest. They invite Jenna to play.

“It’s great fun to look for truffles, ” suggests Boar. “Also, if there are any knights around, we can gore their sides.”

“Take to the air as a duck!” offers Duck. “Nothing flies as elegantly as a duck.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Coyote says dubiously.

“It’s not a lie,” says Duck. “There’s an implicit ‘exactly’. Nothing flies exactly as elegantly as a duck.”

“I can’t come and play,” says Jenna. She’s chewing on a hamburger and writing in a black and white composition book. “I’m writing a book of examples of filial piety.”

“Oh?” says Duck. “Can you read some to us?”

Jenna swallows, and recites:

In 1983, the giant spiders were very hungry. One had a clutch of eggs, so she was extra-hungry. They tried to eat me, but I’d always bonk them on the nose. So the mother grew very thin. She thought she might die. “Don’t worry, mother,” said the little spiders, hatching. “You can eat us!” So she did. By keeping their mother alive at the cost of their own existence, the little spiders fulfilled their filial duty.

“That’s very moving,” agrees Boar. “But is it really virtuous?”

Jenna considers. “I don’t know,” she admits. “I think the sacrifice is beautiful, but does it compare to the beauty of a giant spider’s life?”

“I don’t know,” Duck answers. “What is the beauty of a giant spider’s life?”

“I’m biased,” Jenna says, “since they keep trying to eat me. But I think it’s the way that they’re cruel without hating. They do monstrous, horrible things. But inside their heads, it’s cold, clear, and empty. They’re not ugly like demons. They’re pretty. Like the winter. And they have potential.”

“You should read another,” Coyote says, slouching.

Jenna recites:

Vicious Lily was a robotic assassin created in 1925 to advance the cause of Impressionism. “What is your o-pin-ion of Mo-net’s pain-tings of the Thames?” it asked me. I assured it that all of Monet’s works were masterpieces. “Good,” it said. “I will let you live.” Then it turned to the wall. “What is your o-pin-ion of the Rou-en Ca-the-drals se-ries?” The wall made no answer. Vicious Lily’s laser arm clicked. A dial spun. Vicious Lily blasted the wall until nothing remained but rubble. “Take that in the name of ro-bot jus-tice!” it said. Not a moment went by that Vicious Lily did not think of its creator, Monet.

Boar grunts. “It’s a robot. It can’t help it.”

“Robots can break their programming,” says Jenna. “It happens all the time on TV. Plus, I heard that if you flip your Transformers toys into a special third configuration, they come to life, embezzle your money, and flee the country in disgrace.”

“Point,” says Coyote. “In a way, a robot that doesn’t break its programming exhibits filial loyalty. Still, I’d think that a true example of robotic loyalty would be a death machine that, having broken its programming, decides to go around killing people for the agency that created it anyway.”

“That would be more impressive,” says Jenna, “but I haven’t seen an example of that. Do you think I should fictionalize my work for greater impact?”

“Not really,” says Coyote. “I’m just sayin’.”

Jenna takes a few more bites of her hamburger, swallows, writes a bit more, and then recites:

Mei Ming was born in 1975. The monster pulled her from the shadow’s womb. The shadow kept her in the tunnels to protect her from the world. Mei Ming wasn’t scared of spiders, but thieves—that’s scary! I tried to look at her with my flashlight helmet, but she shrank from the light. “It’s best to live in the shadows,” she said. “That way my mother always knows where I am.” She gave up light for her mother’s peace of mind—that’s how pious she was.

“What did she look like?” wonders Duck. “I mean, was she all shadowy?”

“A little,” agrees Jenna. “You could definitely see the filial resemblance.”

“You should stay away from her,” counsels Coyote. “The tree never falls far from the branch. Bad eggs like that only lead you into trouble.”

“It’s an interesting issue,” Jenna decides. “I don’t think she can be a bad egg, because if she’s evil, that’s just being loyal to the shadow. And if she’s wonderfully sweet and nice, then that’s not very much like a bad egg, either.”

“Nor like a deviled egg,” Boar points out. “Those aren’t sweet. They taste of mustard.”

“I want mustard,” Jenna says unhappily. It’s hard to find condiments in the tunnels sometimes.

“It’s not about taste,” Coyote answers. “It’s about security.”

Jenna recites:

I met a girl standing over her father’s grave. She was wearing a jacket. “He had a hundred plans,” she said. “But none of them ever worked. So I’ve decided to honor his memory. If you can catch me, your next plan will succeed.”

“It’s dangerous to make promises like that,” I said.

“I know,” she said. “When you make a promise that humans can’t fulfill, you can’t be human any more. I’m okay with that.” By making this promise, she put her filial duty to her father’s memory above the human condition.

“The human condition’s not so great,” Coyote points out. “Now, me, I’m great. Compare and contrast as you will.”

“Humans live out in the world,” Jenna points out. “You hang out with Duck, Boar, and me.”

“See how my fur shines? That’s classy. The human condition doesn’t have class like that. And my teeth are just glorious.” Coyote smiles. “Case closed.”

“What are you going to do with the book when you’ve finished writing it?” asks Duck.

“I’m going to take it to the market and trade it for three magic beans. Then I will plant them, climb to the top of the beanstalk, kill any nearby giants, and, making a block and tackle from their ligaments and bones, lower the castle into the forest.”

“That’s a stupid plan,” Coyote says. “Why don’t you just trade Cow?”

Jenna lifts a finger to answer, pauses, and turns bright red.

“What?” Coyote asks.

Jenna ducks her head. “My lunch had no foresight,” she embarrassedly admits.