The Lion (V/VII)

It is May 13 in the year of our Lord 1981 and there is a Dominion that bends itself down upon the Earth. And where the Dominion goes there is a singing, and the world itself is moved to join the chorus, and there is a trembling in the houses of the unjust. And where it moves the eyes and faces and wings that are within it turn to see. Shimmering auroras move around its surface, like a cloak, like halos, like a glorious night sky.

Let us not imagine that it is a thing of safety or of sanity. It is a creature out of legend. It kills birds where it passes, for it does not share the skies. It withers trees as it passes them, leaches the world’s life from the soil, it makes good earth to fallow ground. These things it does not from malice but by its nature: it understands no life that is not its own.

I will nevertheless call it good.

If it is a blind and foolish god, if it is harmful, then still, I will say it is well-intentioned. If it has done harm, then still it is high-minded.

It is not its fault, at any rate, what happened at Elm Hill.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


May 13, 1981

Listen, and I will tell you the truth of the monster’s wings.

They are brilliant and they are reflective. When you look upon them you will see the inside of your own eyes. You will see the process by which you form yourself laid bare.

When he has spread his wings through the construction of the world, when he has become a parasite on creation and made the truth a captive to his will, the monster will not give you the luxury of seeing that it is so. Instead you will see yourself. And in that moment he will describe you. He will tell you who you are.

Reason will not help you. This is because the monster is aware of reason. He exists outside it, like the classical God outside of time and space. The tools of your mind are limited. They rely on receiving truthful feedback from the world — all save pure math, perhaps, and even that depends on truth for its relevance. In a position where the monster can reward error, frustrate correctness, and demonstrate as folly whatever might otherwise be wise, you cannot expect to win over him with reason. To imagine that you can do so is unreasonable. It is an idealistic attachment to the happy ending at the end of a fairy tale, where one reasonable person, refusing to give in, triumphs magically at the last.

If you had infinite time, of course, that would be so. Give yourself forever to fight the monster in and his lies, as they are lies, would fray one day and come apart. But we are mortal creatures, bound by time; to us the monster is simply truth.

Reason will not help you. Strength will not help you. Strength is as useless in the monster’s presence as is reason. Where you build walls of your strength he will dig out the ground. Where you hold a position he will encircle it, undermine it, turn the purpose of your holding it to sand. The more you fight him, the more you will lose. To expect any differently is to hew unto a fairy tale; and the fairies, well, they’re isn’ts yet.

Strength will not help you. Reason will not help you. Nor will it help you in the least to know that, theoretically, there is some real truth, somewhere, somewhere outside the monster’s steading.

Depending on what you imagine truth to be, that might not even be the case.

In his unfurled wings the monster is an absolute creature. He is not deniable. He is no longer a person. He is no longer a man, or a god, or whatever the hell monsters are, in a lab coat, with a name tag, with a tie. He is I AM THAT I AM, as much as any burning bush has ever been.

It is as if, to gain his power, he had slaughtered God, had ripped out the bones and organs of Him, and made from Him a coat. He usurps God as he does reason; to seek God in his presence is therefore to seek the monster out.

Look for love, if you’d rather. Look for hate. Look for hope. Look for anything you like.

You’ll be caught up in the maze of him. You’ll find it only where he wills.

The reason I’m explaining this is that I can’t really tell you what happened in places where the monster’s wings spread wide. It’s like I’ve said. He becomes truth. He becomes the authoritative source on the matter, and what he is saying is always — it’s never, “On thus and such time, at thus and such a date, this happened, and then this.”

It’s always just him.

All I can tell you is what someone told me later happened at Elm Hill. All I can tell you is a story. It’s pretty much made up, because if it were true, it would be the monster, just as the monster, at that time, was truth.

The Dominion bent down to meet him. He was standing on the roof.

You probably think you wouldn’t give in to him. Of course you wouldn’t. Of course you’d stand up to him. The man’s a filthy bit of work, isn’t he? Worse’n the Devil, some would say. There’s no way you’d look at those wings and think that what the monster does to children could be right.

Please do believe that. You should. It costs him something, every time he spreads those wings. There’s no point in giving in to him for free.

But I tell you that the Dominion bent down to meet him, and he was standing on the roof, and the monster spread his wings. And from that point forward, he was Axiom. He was Correctness. He was as righteous as the stars.

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 monster said, “This world is no place for you. If you stay here you will die.”

That’s what I’ve heard. That’s what I’ve heard he said.

“If you stay here,” the monster said, “you’ll die.”

And the creature, its words were the fluttering of ten thousand wings. The creature, its words were ten thousand hands and eyes and wings opening and closing, all modulated into voice.

It said: I will exalt you. I will lift you up. I will make you as God, and no more to depend upon the suffering of your prey.

The monster spat onto the roof, and in that spittle seethed ten thousand tiny living things.

“I will make you death and suffering,” he said. “I will make you anguish and violation. You will be hideous, horrible, and despised. Or you may go.”

The creature rotated in its form. It turned, and the pieces of its turning came into alignment, and you who looked upon it would see: ah, here is its face. Then it would turn further, the previous face dissolving, a new one forming, and you would realize: no, that was not so: its face is this.

The creature said: Can you really say that you are happy with your life?

The monster laughed.

You will die, it told him. And before that death, you will sorrow. You will know the damnation of your line.

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

It’s May 13, 1981, and we can see again, and the monster is giving the Dominion this beautiful grin.

It’s like the sun.

It’s been telling him he’s damned, only —

For a moment, you might almost think: wait. That’s not bravado. He is actually having fun.

It’s pure and clear as the monster isn’t pure and clear. It’s bright and beautiful as the monster isn’t bright and beautiful. It’s the best thing in the world, that laugh, that grin, that enemy of damnation. Then, however, the monster is moving, and there is a thorn in his hand, and it pierces the Dominion, and it is suddenly clear that everything in the world is wrong.

The Dominion staggers. Its form becomes imprecise. Where there was glory there is now a great disruptive seething, as of slime.

It is shattered. It is raining down, upon Elm Hill.

It is twisted. There is within it a great and horrible soullessness of life.

It is wounded. It gapes at him, this thing that has never before been wounded, and which cannot really understand what its hurting means.

“I will kill you,” it cries, and its voice is a great storm. But it does not.

Children, sure, it kills, those that don’t get evacuated in time. There is a price to be paid for the defiling of Elm Hill. Children it kills, and workers, and the place itself: Elm Hill’s no good place for the monster’s work any longer.

But the monster it doesn’t kill.

The monster he just serves it as any other fiend is served, until it limps and staggers howling away beyond the boundaries of the world, a broken lion, and in its paw a thorn.

Eliza and the Frog (II/VII)

Liril is terrified the day she is going to begin to want things again.

It is spiraling in on her.

She wakes up and she hears the sharp screech of the timing frog — it’s trying very hard to screech up the dawn — and she knows that today is going to be the worst of all possible days.

Not even a joke about elephants will let her find forgiveness in her heart for Melanie, today.

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

Not, she thinks bitterly, that Melanie is going to bother making jokes today about elephants.

Her eyes close for just a moment. It is an involuntary reflex. Sleep looms close.

The screech of the frog drags her back into the world.

“Shut up,” Liril says.

The frog glowers balefully at her. Its belly is made of brass. Its skin is covered in fanciful ornamentation. It is most likely an entirely inorganic frog, but it affects to personhood like she does and it draws back from the dresser at the side of her cage with an offended scrape.

“If there is not a person to call the dawn,” the frog says, “it will not come.”

Liril opens the door of her cage. She drops down to the floor. She pads over to the dresser and selects a dress.

“That is why I screech,” the frog explains.

“That is not why you screech,” she says.

It frowns at her.

“You screech because it is your mechanism,” she says.

“I converse,” it says.

She finds a bracelet made of small colored chunks of laminate. She slips it on.

“I pass the Turing test,” it says.

“Why do you think you pass the Turing test?” she asks it.

“You perceive me as sentient,” it answers.

She hits it on the head. She would like to hit it very hard indeed but in fact it is a gentle tap. She is not sure if that is because Liril is a soft-hearted phenomenon or because at some point the monster asked her not to injure things save as his instrument.

Nevertheless it rings, deeply, like a bell, from the motion of her hand.

“I don’t perceive you as sentient,” she denies. “I don’t perceive anything at all. You are anthropomorphizing me in an unwarranted fashion.”

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


March 18, 1995

“That is a loophole in the Turing test,” the frog concedes.

let’s try Wednesdays and Fridays for a bit, with Mondays going to Chibi-Ex.

Fire on the Tongue

Before the sun. Before the moon. Mammoth, she brings fire from the sky.

In the darkness the Three Lords dance.

Mammoth steps forward. The Three Lords meet her.

Darkness devours Mammoth and her bones.

Now the fire, it lives quite far away, alone and quiet in its palace in the stars. It cannot see the earth, nor yet be seen. Its floor and its basement conspire to occlude.

Dinosaur enters, stomp stomp stomp.

He seizes up the fire. He descends to earth.

Dinosaur brings the fire from the sky.

In the darkness the Three Lords dance. Dinosaur howls. Dinosaur fights.

Around Dinosaur the Three Lords close.

They are cold. They are dark. They are humanity’s Lords. They close around Dinosaur and they tear him up.

As they tear him up he tries to swallow the flame.

They rip his neck. Fire leaks out. Panicked, he holds it beneath his tongue.

His head—

The head of Dinosaur—

Burns for a while with a pumpkin flame. Then the Three Lords darken him and Dinosaur goes out.

Frog comes now to the palace in the stars.

She finds the lingering remnant of the flame. She takes it up. She descends to earth.

Frog, she brings the fire from the sky.

Now the Three Lords close on Frog. Now they close, but Frog fights back. She kicks with her feet. She shoves with her hands. For a moment they hold her, then she is free: under the waters, over the lands, swimming and leaping and running away.

Now the Third Lord seizes her leg.

Frog kicks free but he breaks her bone. It snaps in her leg. She is wounded now.

And as she runs and as she fights the fire that she carries gleams. The fire is glittering. It’s flashing and shining. It’s warring with the darkness that had been.

She is never more dangerous, Frog our Frog, than when she is desperate and full of fear.

If you have ever fought a frog—

Not a tiny frog, but one your size—

Then this is most likely a thing you know.

She is never more dangerous than when things look worst. The Third Lord grabs her once again. She twists like a beast and paws his throat and the Third Lord staggers and the Third Lord chokes.

He gags out bile onto the earth and Frog kicks his head and leaves him there.

She leaves him behind and she runs and runs.

The Second Lord, he looms ahead.

He’s at a crossroads. That’s where he’s strong. But Frog just shrugs and gives him a look. “I am Frog the Invincible,” is what she says.

The Second Lord, he makes no sound. He does not hear the challenge in her voice. He only raises a terrible dark that swallows Frog who brought down fire.

In that darkness the two now fight.

For a time it seems that Frog might win. Then the First Lord joins them at that place. Frog burns the First Lord with fire from her hand and Burns and Marring are born into the world. The First Lord howls and he staggers back. But the fight is hard and Frog cannot endure.

Disaster comes.

The Third Lord finds them.

He is not dead, though weaker now. He is not dead, but strong enough.

They take up places. They pin down Frog. They chill her struggles and they make her weak.

They hold her down but she will not die. She is Frog the Invincible. Frog the Immortal. They cannot kill her, though they rip her flesh. They cannot kill her, though they break her bones.

They cannot kill her, so they do not kill her.

They only force darkness into her, bit by bit, until it bleeds out from her skin.

And Frog cries out, “I am becoming shadow, but the fire was bright.”

Behind them and around them a moaning rises. Behind and around there is the shuffling of feet.

It is humanity.

Humanity is white like maggots—white like blindfish, for these are the days before the sun. Humanity is white like maggots and mute like zombies and cold like the living dead. But it has seen the glittering and gleaming of the fire and it has heard the struggling cries of Frog.

So it masses around the Three Lords and it begins to pull them down.

Ohh!

The Three Lords are terrible. Their touch corrodes. Their wrath is great. Even the littlest twitchings of their feet can cut a wake of destruction through the world.

But they cannot tend to the wading hunger of humanity while still they pin down Frog. They dare not turn and deal with what devours them—while still they pin down Frog.

Bit by bit they force their darkness into her. Bit by bit they inch towards their salvation, towards the moment when Frog is broken and they may turn attention to humanity behind.

It is taking them too long.

The Three Lords are dying.

The fire gutters. It goes out.

Frog’s feeble struggles grow feebler yet. Her eyes bulge out. Her skin is moist.

Humanity devours its Three Lords and it leaves behind no bones.

It clusters around the remaining warmth and the afterimage that was fire. It wails softly as that fades away.

Frog, broken, maddened, crawls off to the swamps. She leaves a trail of slime behind.

Then there is silence where she had been and humanity departs.

Now there is darkness on the world but in the darkness no one dances. Now humanity mourns for there is none to be its god.

So Chameleon comes to the palace in the stars.

Chameleon, he hunts for a lingering spark of fire. Chameleon finds one, in the corner of a drawer. It’s under a sock but it’s burning bright.

Chameleon, he takes that fire on his tongue.

It hurts him! It burns him! But he takes the fire and he carries it down on the tip of his long tongue.

Chameleon descends to earth.

Now there is a glittering and gleaming once again, and once again humanity draws near. It is hungry for the fire now.

It makes Chameleon its god.

And Chameleon says, “Lo! I have brought you fire, and I shall be your god. I shall lead you in light all the days of the world.”

Or so at least he meant to say. But his tongue has burnt and he cannot speak. He has become a muted god. And the pain of it lingers, and begins to drive him mad, so that everywhere he goes he tries to rub away the fire.

And the fire burns things, but it won’t come off.

The forests burn.

Deep fires in the oceans flare.

Flame sweeps across the open plains and humans claim some from the lingering ash.

And finally Chameleon retreats again to space, oh, burning yet, but in the soothing dark; and he goes not far, not too far anyway, for still in the madness of his mind the intention lingers to love humanity and serve it as its god.

There he is, if you look up—not so very far away.

You can’t see his body.

He’s Chameleon.

You can’t see his body. He looks just like the space.

You can’t see his body, but you can see the burning flame that hangs above us, warms us, lights us, at the tip of his great long tongue.

Frognarok

First, evil frogs talk. Then they kill.

“So,” says the evil frog.

It kicks its legs.

It’s sitting next to Marilyn on a branch overlooking the swamp. She looks a little green, but not so green as the evil frog.

“So,” she says.

The evil frog inflates the bladders by his head, as if an idea were coming to him, then lets them deflate and shakes his head.

“It’s not your fault,” Marilyn says. “Communities project their sins onto evil frogs, producing your blood thirst and various mutations.”

“That is good of you to say,” he concedes, “but I must make my own meaning.”

He emits a noise, burrup, which for all we know is his meaning; nothing further is said, for in the next moment, he is turning, webbed fingers opening around his palm, and the sigil of Carcaon (which was his name and his aspect) is burning like a coal therein.

They dance the great circle. Her wrist strikes his aside. Then there is only red and green.

She lands, lightly, in the swamp.

She leaves footprints, behind her, as she goes.

Later she hangs out in a hot spring with another frog.

“I loved once,” Marilyn says. “I loved so brightly. But the people of the town, they would not have me. They said, ‘frog hunters are green.'”

“It isn’t easy,” the frog admits.

This one is poisonous. Vapors waft off of it. If they talk too long she will die and won’t even get to fight it first. But it has a very approachable air that makes her want to talk longer than frog hunters usually talk with evil frogs.

“Did you know that we absorb it?” she says. “The green?”

“I did not.”

“We kill the frogs and take in their color, to remedy the fallen condition of humanity.”

“So in a way,” the frog says, “we are the same.”

“Always,” Marilyn says passionately. “I would so be insulting you if I did not feel empathy as I killed.”

The frog has no response to that.

It wants to complain or criticize—to observe that it is more concerned with killing than propriety—except that it has never particularly tried to feel as its victims must.

So he just sits, stewing in his poisonous vapors, and thinks, and after a while says, “I too have been a’ courting.”

“Oh?”

“I thought that I would marry a lovely woman,” he says. “And poison her in the process of our love. But then a dove swept me up and carried me off to a distant land.”

It is wearing a dove feather in its baldness.

“That must have been a miracle,” Marilyn says. “Some kind of miracle bird.”

“Or a bird enemy of marriage.”

Marilyn nods. She drags herself out of the water. She sways. She is an ugly color, yellow brown.

“Time to kill?” the frog says politely.

Marilyn’s vision blurs.

“No,” she says. “It’s already done.”

She staggers away, two steps, three, then five.

The frog nods wisely.

“My poison mixes with the steam,” he says. “That’s why it’s hard to see.”

“Not me,” she says.

And she dunks her face once, twice, and three times in the swamp, before taking a few more steps away and vomiting noisily against a startled thrush until she looks a bit more green.

“You’ve boiled,” she says, at last.

Days pass.

“I wish I weren’t green,” she says.

She’s hunting for a third frog. She’s heard it’s drawn to sorrow. And indeed, no sooner has she spoken the words than it eddies up, like ichor on the marsh.

It is transparent, practically invisible. Its hand clasps over her mouth, dripping with slime, and it tries to draw her down.

She bites down, sucking in a mouthful of horrid frog, and gives a muffled scream.

It pulls.

She fumbles at her belt. She pulls out a frog hunter micro-dynamite. She slams it into the side of the frog and twists and pulls and breaks free as it bangs.

They separate.

She gasps and shudders. It pulls back and wraps around a tree, sucking out the life force of the tree to heal its wound.

“Evil frogs talk,” Marilyn says, “then they fight.”

It hisses.

“There are rules,” Marilyn says.

Finally, it sighs.

“I have nothing to say to you, human,” it says. “I am frog. You are frog hunter. There is no point in conversation.”

“We have to make connections with the things we kill,” Marilyn says.

“That is your scruple.”

It is alien. She has never fought an evil frog so alien and cold.

“Why are you like this?” she protests.

It is silent. Ripples pass through it, this way, that way. Finally, as if the words are torn from it, it says, “I was the first. I was the frog of finding words. I was the frog of assumption of mastery of death. I sucked death into my air bladders. I rattled his bones. I spat him out and took power from him. Then he slunk away to live at the outskirts of the world. But I was green.”

She looks at him.

“It isn’t ea—” she starts.

“Shut up!” it howls.

So she falls silent.

Behind it the sky is full of the aurora; and it makes red and blue light to flicker in its skin.

“I was cursed with green,” it says. “It was my testing. And I could not bear it. And I said, ‘Lord, take this burden from me.’ And it was granted to me, my wish.”

“Colorless,” she says.

“It is better!” it says. “Better, this. I need no color. I live alone. I kill humans that come into my realm. Women, men, frog hunters, even the little girls and little boys and their hungry soul-devouring swords. Colorless I am supreme. But you trouble me with your words and make them itch inside my head.”

She looks down, briefly.

“I didn’t mean—” she says.

It hisses. It gives her no time to finish. It leaps into the air, spreading out like some great smothering tarp, and she is falling back and hoisting a twisted branch as if it were a spear.

Its ichor covers her as she emerges from the swamp. She is dripping with it.

Underneath it her face is the color of a peach, and the ichor trail behind her is wet and green.

It’s like it’s sucked the sin from her, she thinks, but something unaccountable’s been lost.

Pasta

You can make miracle pasta by stirring together flour, miracles, milk, salt, and butter. Then you cut the mix into long strands, air, and cook. The biggest difficulty is in finding the miracles. Once you have done that the stirring, cutting, airing, and cooking is easy.

Miracle pasta is good with a spicy red sauce and shrimp.

It is also good with despair as it is the function of miracles to alleviate despair.

A long time ago seven miracle pasta wheels fell to Earth, one of them landing on a frog.

It was like this:

Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump! Squish! Thump!

“We will guide these people, and guard them, and shepherd them,” say the miracle pasta wheels.

Then they roll around and make all kinds of havoc.

“Oh, look!” says a hungry child in Germany. She points at a pasta wheel. Then she eats it. This alleviates her hunger and her despair!

Six pasta wheels remain.

“The simplest way to rid our planet of the troublesome infinite-weight stone would be to launch it into space via rocket,” decide Atlantean alchemists.

Whoosh! Sploosh! It is a typical Atlantean disaster.

Two pasta wheels are on Atlantis when it sinks. They grow weak and soggy in water and eventually drown.

A mammoth in North America stumbles across a pasta wheel. “At last,” it says, “the power of miracles is mine!”

Three blind sages stumble across the pasta wheel at that same exact moment.

“No!” cries the first blind sage. “Pasta is a human treasure!”

“A tasty meal!” cries the second.

“An ineffable symbol of hope and endurance!” explains the third.

“I’ll show you my terrible tusks,” trumpets the mammoth. But only one of the blind sages is even aware of the mammoth’s tusks! He runs away and two sages remain.

“I’ll stomp you with my terrible feet!” the mammoth declares. But only one of the blind sages is even aware of the mammoth’s feet! He runs away, leaving one blind sage.

“I’ll defeat you with my mammoth philosophy of nonviolence!”

There’s a pause.

“Yoink!” says the last blind sage, grabbing half of the pasta wheel. The mammoth seizes the other half. They each run away, treating the pasta in ill manner.

Later, Arthur Pendragon falls.

He bleeds from many wounds.

“Oh, Arthur,” says a wheel of miraculous pasta. “You were the best of England.”

This is in fact not true. The best of England was probably the curry. But pasta does not know such things.

“So hungry,” murmurs the dying king.

“Partake of my flesh, my liege,” the pasta wheel says. “You will never die.”

Two pasta wheels remain.

They roll around the world causing all kinds of havoc.

One meets a man.

They fall in love.

It is the forbidden love. It is the love between man and pasta: that slippery, boiling love that slowly stiffens as it cools, eventually becoming dry and tasteless.

Heaven frowns upon this love.

The man is chastised.

The pasta is cast up into the sky, where it becomes a new constellation.

Thus in these days there is only one wheel of miracle pasta left upon the Earth.

There is only one miracle left to guide us, to guard us, to shepherd us, and to bring us hope.

Treasure it while ye may; the world progresses swift.

Should Siggorts? (I/I)

The doom of Spattle approaches.

It is like this.

Sid and Max are talking. It is 1989, and Max is an adult now, a breaker of horses, and he lives in Spattle. They are sitting on the balcony of Max’s one-room apartment, looking east towards the desert.

And Max is saying, “We are a corrupt people.”

The wind blows softly.

“I think that if God came down, like in the gospels; that if he sent his angels among us to collect all who cause others to sin and all evildoers, and to throw them into the fiery furnace, that we would rise against him in our hosts and our armies and we would be like the rebels of the angels, saying, ‘no, those are Americans; they are not for your furnaces.’ I think that we would turn our nuclear weapons against the Lord.”

Sid considers that. “Well,” he says, “why not?”

“Because it’d be God,” Max says.

“Ah.”

“Is it all right to fight God?”

“It’s not all right or not all right,” Sid says. “It depends on why.”

There is a breath of time.

“Why?” Sid asks.

“I have been dreaming of a judgment,” says Max.

And Sid frowns.

He rises to his feet. He looks around. He says, “Ah.”

“Ah?”

Sid points out east.

“Do you see that?”

And Max frowns, and he narrows his eyes, and he squints out into the desert. And he can see it.

There’s something rippling, twisting, strangely purple beyond the horizon.

He shakes his head, once, twice. He tries to focus.

He sees—

And that is when the sick hook of horror catches in his stomach and twists everything around.

It is 1989. The sun hides behind a caul of clouds. A cold wind blows.

Max blacks out.

We remember Spattle, though few do: In California, near Palm Springs, it was, touched once by chaos and then by death.

Its streets were littered with the corpses of the birds when its ending came.

When he wakes Max is unsteady on his feet and Sid is holding him upright.

Max says, “It is the coming of a King.”

The city is under a pall.

“A King?” Sid says.

“A King of an Unforgivable Dominion,” says Max.

He stares out east.

“There is a King,” says Max, “of the old countries that came before the world. He is bloated with a clotting of life. It moves damply and uncomfortably within him. As if a man had swallowed ten other men, or a fish the ocean.”

“Ah,” says Sid.

“He is coming to Spattle,” Max says. “He will drown this place. It will be forgotten, and the people here will suffer torment.”

The frogs croak, distant in the desert: ke-kax.

“Will you leave?” Sid asks.

Max shakes his head.

“No,” he says.

And the doom of Spattle nears.

These are the signs of the coming of a King: dreams and portents. Death. Trouble between friends.

The progress of the King is slow.

Max has time to think; to worry; to consider.

He buys fairy-traps. They are horrid things with clappers, teeth, and bells, designed to take the magic that lights upon them and swallow it up.

He takes them out east. He stands before the line of it: the great rim of the King. It is like a wall of a distortion across the world. Cars drive through it, unheeding. Birds fly across it, unknowing. But it infects them as they pass, and their lungs grow thick with mold.

Max has seen those birds in town, dead and fallen on the streets.

Max sets the fairy-traps down along the King’s great rim. He sets them on the sand and on the road.

A car drives past.

Its wheel strikes a fairy-trap. The fairy-trap skitters and jangles with the ringing of its bells. The people who pass over it, Max thinks, are insignificantly and indescribably less.

And Max watches.

The rim of the King shifts inwards, twisting, ever-so-slowly, ever-so-slightly. It passes onto the fairy-traps with a great jangling of bells. The clappers close. The traps bite into the lip of the King.

It might have helped. Then again, it might not have.

Max does not know.

The King in vestments of indigo and green is the King of bloated life. He is a tide that washes into the world. He pools. He gathers. Then he withdraws, and pulls a bit of our world with him, growing in himself more bloated yet.

“Sid,” Max says.

As suddenly as a dream the siggort is there.

“There’s a man in town,” Max says.

“A man?”

“He sells charms against the gods,” Max says. “The kind that are forbidden; the kind that are cruel.”

“I see,” Sid says.

“I need more than fairy-traps,” Max says, “to fight the King. But I can’t afford his rates.”

And suddenly Sid looks wry.

“You want me to threaten him,” he says.

“Yes.”

Tension flares up between them. Humor becomes outrage.

“You don’t like what I am,” Sid says. “You don’t like that I’m a siggort. Except when it’s useful. Then suddenly it’s good that I have a wheel of knives; that I have feathers in my hair; that I’m older than this mortal world.”

And Max flushes. Shame coils in him like a dragon around its nest. But he doesn’t flinch.

“A King in vestments of indigo and green,” he says. “A King of bloated life. He’s coming to Spattle. And I can’t get the tools I need to try to stop him.”

Sid hesitates.

“We should just leave,” he says. “Warn as many people as will listen, and leave.”

“This is my line, Sid.”

And by that Max means that he is standing at a place with only one recourse: that he is backed against the lines inside his soul and has only one direction in which to move, and that is against the coming tide.

And Sid looks at Max.

And Sid can see that it is so.

Sid sighs.

“Fine.”

These are the signs of the coming of a King: memories. Helplessness. Abandonment of principle.

Peter Sorgen lives in Spattle and deals in arms against the gods.

For a profit, he will sell them.

For a fee, he will employ them, using the tools and armaments of his trade to remove angels, fiends, fairies, devils, and other gods.

He survives in this trade because he is careful of his karma; because he asks gods honest questions and listens to the answers that they give; because he hates the things he hunts and shows appropriate fear when faced with those too great to kill.

That, and the lion’s share of gods he meets are figments of mortal imagination, which he may kill with a placebo, and the bulk of those remaining are born from weak and impure emptiness.

Peter Sorgen lives on the second floor of a rented house. He is thick and balding. He is a killer of gods.

Sid enters, pursuant to their appointment.

Peter looks up and smiles.

Then he frowns.

“Wait,” he says. “I know you.”

—“I know you,” says Grouchy Pete.

Sid stares at him, and matches up the facial features, and suddenly he laughs.

“You were that bully,” he says. “You’d chew gum and spit it out, ptui, like that!”

And now, as he faces the siggort in his home, Peter’s face contorts with fear and hatred.

He pulls a gun.

He fires, just like that.

Just like that! And he’s shot Sid, and the bullet sticks in him.

Sid looks down. He makes the horrible face that people make when someone makes them eat horrible icky vegetables or hot lead.

Pete fires again— again, and again, and again, until the gun is empty and eight bullets are lodged in the wall, and two in Sid.

Sid has his hand pressed against a bullet wound. His fingers are covered in blood.

“Geez, Pete,” he says.

He sways.

And he falls down.

The King has drowned Spattle; it is in the substance of him, in the distance of him, and it is no longer remembered in this world.

“I never found a formal technique to use for wheel-of-knives gods,” Pete says. “I never even found out what you’re called. I looked. But I never did.”

Sid has woken up.

“I can see,” Sid says, blearily, “that I should have backed a Presidential candidate who was stronger on gun control.”

“I figure,” Pete says, “that if I take you apart, though, that’ll work.”

Sid is handcuffed to a radiator. Pete doesn’t actually have much of a budget for this kind of thing. But he does have a knife.

“You’re going to cut me to pieces?” Sid asks.

“Yes.”

Sid begins to laugh again.

It’s funny to imagine Grouchy Pete, such an earnest kid, vivisecting the siggort. It’s funny, even if Grouchy Pete has grown.

Pete watches him laugh. He waits for Sid to wind down. Pete is a man with great experience with gods.

Finally, Sid recovers. His wounds are leaking badly, but he doesn’t seem that hurt.

“It won’t work,” Sid says.

“Why not?”

“A long time ago,” Sid says, “I was in a place of terrible durance, and moving in the fashion that one moves, and where there was light I was in darkness, and where there was substance I was in emptiness, and where there was heat I dwelled inside a terrible cold. And on occasion I would catch sight of myself against a place of reflection and I would recoil, thinking, ‘Hideous; hideous; unspeakable.'”

Pete studies Sid.

“You look okay,” he says.

Sid looks at him.

“I mean, if you like Sids,” Pete says.

“I am a terrible comprehension,” says Sid.

“Oh.”

“And one day,” says Sid, “An insight pierced me, like a javelin from the mind of God. And I said, in the language of my kind, ‘I am not alone.’

“Then, for thirteen hundred years, I waited for Max Lamner to be born.”

Pete is hesitant.

“Can you tell me,” he asks, “whether I should begin cutting you apart now, or wait until the completion of your story?”

Sid looks at him.

“What kind of a question is that?”

Pete shrugs.

“It doesn’t matter,” Sid says, shaking his head, looking appalled. “It’s just—

“This is a body I made of mud and clay and feathers and blood. If you cut it up, you’ll probably go mad.”

“Thank you,” Pete says.

He draws back slightly. He thinks.

“How can I kill you?” he asks.

Pete is, of course, a man well-versed in gods, and one who therefore expects a shocking honesty and openness of them. Sid, however, stares at him like he’s daft.

After a moment, Pete blushes.

And suddenly Sid has the power in the room. Suddenly, because of Peter’s repeated misestimations of him, it does not matter that Sid is bound and Pete is free.

The wheel of knives spins.

Sid straightens against the radiator.

Sid says, “I need everything you have. I don’t care if it’s for curing warts. There’s a King coming to Spattle in vestments of indigo and green, and if we don’t stop him, you’ll be drowning forever.”

Pete stares at Sid.

“Damn it!” Pete says. “Damn it. I should get to kill you.”

And because Sid is starting to understand the ways in which Peter Sorgen expects a Sid to act, he answers thus: “That would lead you to a horrid end.”

And Peter sighs.

And he lets Sid go.

These are the signs of the coming of a King: corrupt actions. Fear and hatred. The pollution of the groundwater, so that sinks run with green water and with black.

They stand out at the edge, before the rim of the King.

They lay out talismans of oak and rowan, curses, and nasty bits of iron.

With the chalks of amterise they work— Sid and Max, as Grouchy Pete has abandoned the town and fled—

With the chalks of amterise and the sigils of Rao they work to hold back the tide.

It is a horrid tangle that they build, a monstrous thing made to devour gods—

But when the rim of the King moves past, they cannot even tell if it is hurt.

“Is it hurt?” Max asks.

“I can’t tell,” Sid says.

And Max squints and stares into the body of the King, and the nature of it assaults his mind, and madness sweeps over him and he is retching and for a long time he knows nothing but loathing, hatred, and fear.

His reasons are not specific.

It is simply that in apprehending the King he feels a disconnection with the substance of the world and a futility of the striving of humankind, and this makes him sick, like an animal, with fear.

Is it right to kill a King?

We ask ourselves this because it is essentially our purpose. To change the world is to drive forth the shadows that dwelt upon it and change is always accompanied by blood. We look upon the King and he is a sickness upon our mind, but is it right?

If we could ask the people of Spattle, they would give us license, no doubt; they would say from the belly of that beast that we should strike. But their voices are not heard within the world. We may not use their witness.

That night Sid and Max camp out in the desert and watch the doom of Spattle come.

And some of the nature of the King is still twisting in Max’s mind, so he says, “Here’s a thing I’ve been thinking.”

“Hm?”

“Vivisecting people is wrong,” Max says. “Like, you walk up to someone and they’re happy, right? And then you vivisect them. And they’re all, ‘Hey, I liked those organs. Now I’m in hideous pain and dying!’”

“True,” Sid says.

“So . . . how can any moral person— god— THING, how can anyone, you know?”

Sid considers that.

“We were ugly,” Sid says.

“Hm?”

“When we were made,” Sid says. “We were so ugly that our father would not let us walk upon the Earth under the sun. Instead he cast us into deepnesses where we dwelt.”

Max studies Sid.

“You look okay,” he says.

Sid shrugs.

“It is like the tide, I think,” he says. “The reason that siggorts vivisect. One day there shall be a man, and inside him I shall see something like . . . a gleaming jewel. And I will take him apart and lay him out piece by piece to find it, but I will not find it. And this will be a good thing, an honest thing, a thing that will end something of my shame. It will put me back in harmony with the world, with what I am, with the nature of things. It will be right; and I, of course, will be a murderer, and foul.”

“Oh,” says Max.

“It won’t be a moral thing,” says Sid. “If it were, then I’d be all conflicted. I mean,” he adds, honestly, “more so than I am. It’s not a moral thing. It is simply a thing that happens. I am astonished, in truth, that it has not happened yet.”

He grins a little, sadly, like a Sid.

“My brothers say I am slacking, but I do not think that this is so. I think that I am selective and I simply have not found the person I will kill.”

And it is not to these words but to Sid’s eyes that Max says: “Jesus, Sid.”

Sid rises.

He says, “I will shed this body, I think, and fight the King. Do not call me again. If I am as I was . . . I will fear to answer such a call.”

The Kings of the Unforgivable Dominions break the covenant that holds together the pieces of the world.

And Max is on his feet.

Max is hugging Sid.

And Max says, fiercely, “Do not make yourself a thing I cannot love.”

There is a breath of time.

And suddenly Max blushes, and turns away, and flails, because Max does not want Sid to misunderstand.

And the thunder of Sid’s heart comes close to cracking the mud of him; the distance and silence in his head comes close to aerating the clay of him; and he doesn’t say anything, but rather is still.

“Tell me,” Max says.

“Hm?”

“It is all right to kill the King that comes to Spattle, in vestments of indigo and green?”

“Is it . . .”

“Yes.”

Sid can’t find words. He stares out at the King.

“No,” he says.

He lays his hand on the surface of the King. He feels its ichorous and corruptive membrane.

“It’s not all right or not all right,” he says. “It depends on why.”

“Then leave it be,” Max says.

And they leave it be, and go;

And doom comes to Spattle.

How Meredith Ran from the Chaos (II/II)

Meredith runs from the chaos.

She runs away on foot.

This proves peculiarly ineffectual. Everywhere she goes there is already chaos.

She breaks into Mrs. Scoggins’ kitchen. There is chaos there.

“I’d hoped for a peaceful life,” Meredith explains.

“Don’t break into my kitchen, then,” advises Mrs. Scoggins.

Meredith buys a car. She drives east. But everywhere she goes there is already chaos.

“What do you want on your burger?” crackles a speaker as she pulls into the drive-thru of a Socialist Burger Sovereign.

“I’d hoped to find a place where everything is pre-defined,” Meredith says.

“I’m sorry,” crackles the speaker apologetically. “We embrace the Marxist condiment dialectic.”

“That’s somewhat creepy,” Meredith says.

The severed head of the Socialist Burger Sovereign mascot waggles back and forth on its springs, as if to say it understands.

Meredith drives faster. She sets her foot to the pedal and races to the east and she does not look back at the following storm.

It is 1987.

The sun is lost behind the edge of the world.

Meredith arrives in Spattle.

“And you were in a funk!” Jane says, pleasedly.

This is her first insight into the reasoning behind the Frog and the Thorn.

Meredith looks at Jane sideways.

She is considering saying something like, “I almost died that night. Or worse.”

But Jane’s grin is too bright. So Meredith just shakes her head. “Yes,” Meredith says. “I came to Spattle, and I was in a funk.”

Another car has been chasing her for some hours now.

Its occupants are Luther and Desmond: one god, one man. For this reason an errant theologian might consider their vehicle analogous to the Christ, a single flesh holding within itself two natures— but as it is a Hyundai, we will not assert this analogy at this time.

Luther had been driving when a fey impulse came to him. He said: “Let us follow this woman ahead, and chase her down, and say to her, ‘You are a fool to believe in boundaries.'”

And Desmond was drunk enough and venal enough to make no dispute.

And there was the chaos in the car with them, its tendrils brushing against them, but they did not see it, and they did not know it, and they thought themselves rather instruments of order.

And they chase Meredith down.

She is afraid. What else should she be? She knows that this is the price of an individual nature: that in forsaking the limitlessness of her godhood and assuming simple flesh she has opened herself up to all manner of terror and sorrow.

There are many who would not even grant her the dignity of blamelessness, but say, “Ah, such is what she has earned, for choosing not to be a god.”

So Meredith watches them warily in the mirror as they approach, and she sweats in fear, and she says, in the cold blank tones of prophecy, “Someone is going to suffer.”

Because someone is.

The information is not useful to her, any more than prophecy is ever really useful to the gods. The words are an index of the future, as her headlights are an index of the present, caught out of the corner of her mental eye.

Someone will suffer.

And she feels the chaos closing in behind her, and she says, “Fine.”

She pulls over in front of a coffee shop. She leaves the lights on. She gets out. She stands there and she waits.

The frogs of the desert croak: ke-kax, ke-kax.

And the car pulls in: vroom, vroom.

And the door cracks open, and the door slams shut, and in between those moments Luther has gotten out.

And the other door cracks open, and the other door slams shut, and in between those moments Desmond follows him to the lot.

And Meredith looks at them and her mouth is dry.

She wants to tell them: “Do not make me tarry here, or the chaos will rise from the sea and pour across the state to get to me, and you will drown.”

She cannot make herself speak.

Softly, sinfully, Luther walks to her, and says, “Lady, you should not believe in boundaries.”

She is wearing a blouse, and a sweater, and jeans, and a pin depicting the principle Akosmia—

A minor hypocrisy in her ideals which she, being Meredith, does not consider—

And she shivers because he is too close.

“We can have no sympathy for boundaries,” Luther says, in that place and at that time, “because of the philosophical incompleteness of the notion. There is no firm line that one may draw between bodies, between minds, between souls. In this sense it is clear that the rights that each of us has to another are similar if not identical to the rights that each of us has towards ourselves; that the capacities of the individual must as a matter of basic morality be yielded towards the common good.”

“And in this respect,” Meredith asks, “the will of yourself and Desmond there must dominate?”

This checks Desmond’s approach, as if he had come up upon a leash. She knows his name, and she should not know his name.

“We are two,” says Luther.

He pushes back the sleeve of her blazer. He takes her arm. Something squirms at the point of contact between them.

“You are one. And forsaken of your dharma.”

His other hand turns her face upwards for a kiss, but she is laughing. It is insane, it is ridiculous, it is horrible, but she is laughing, she is unable to hold herself upright, she cannot stand and she is sagging supported by his hands and her car behind her, she is laughing because she has recognized the sensation upon her arm.

“Shut up,” Luther says, and stiffens his grip on her until she is not sagging, but Meredith gasps out:

“You’re a starfish man.”

And he goes still.

“What?” Luther asks.

“Five fingers,” she says. “Five limbs. Is it not so?”

And he stands there, still and trembling, because she has caught him out. Five fingers; five limbs; in fivefold symmetry: a starfish man, and not a person at all.

“I’m not—” he says.

“Five fingers; five limbs; in fivefold symmetry,” she laughs. “A starfish man, and not a person at all.”

He calms himself. He straightens. He looks away from her. He says, with stiff dignity, “My head does not in any fashion resemble my other limbs.”

“Oh?”

“It differs in both shape and function,” Luther says.

“Uh—” says Desmond, who is quite confused.

“Look,” Meredith says. She turns Luther’s hand over. She exposes to Desmond the ragged mouth that is within its palm.

“Dude,” says Desmond. “You have a mouth in your hand.”

“He’ll probably eat you with it,” Meredith laughs, merrily, and Luther hits her, hard. Her mind goes white and her ears sound with thunder and she falls, because she is not a resilient god, but it is too late.

Desmond is running.

And she lays there, bleeding a bit from her ankle where she scraped it in the fall, and Luther looks down and he says, in a pitch of sorrow, “You have lured me here to no purpose and cost me someone I called friend.”

“I have no sympathy,” Meredith gasps out.

And the chaos is all around them then. There are tendrils of it in the mist of night, soft and wet, and in the croak of the frogs: ke-kax; and the scream of the birds overhead: kea; and the skittering noises of small scorpions on the ground, where no scorpions should be: kittle-ik.

And in his face.

And in her own.

It is stifling, a humid thickness of chaos in which anything could happen.

And he asks, “Why was I drawn away? Why did I come here?”

And it is clear in his eyes that he will make her pay the price for his confusion.

So she says, “Did you know, I am a surging, threshing power, like the sea? I am vast. It is hard to be vast and to be without boundaries. In such a sea the ego is like a drop of water, a single concept of delusion scattered through the endlessness. And the sea batters always against that drop with all the force of it.”

His fists clench on her arms and the suckers of them seal against her skin.

“I’m sorry,” she says, not to him, but to herself, because she’d really intended to remain herself through these events, and now she’s realized that she can’t.

He shakes her.

Her boundaries collapse.

Suddenly he is storm-tossed, suddenly he is flailing, drowning, suddenly it is raining snails and bursts of fire down upon his back.

And Meredith is falling lost into the immensity that is her former nature, and she says, “I will ride it, I will ride the storm,” much as Luther tries to do.

This is the wrong answer, but not entirely so.

Her mind singing and seething with the chaos, she turns away from Luther.

Luther is somewhere distant and dark and trying very hard to regenerate, but all he can think of is how very incomprehensible the world can be.

She abandons him there, him and his fivefold symmetry.

She gets into her car.

She drives away.

“I will make a genre of self-referential fiction about this,” Meredith says. “Someday.”

This information is not useful to her. Prophecy is rarely useful to the gods. It is simply an index of the future, as Luther is an index of the present, a sign and signal of the times in which she lives, a drying-up horrid drowning starfish man.

“I will call it Spattlefunk,” Meredith says.

And there, finally, is a prophecy of which she is glad.

Meredith would have had no idea what to call stories inspired by this encounter, there in the desert, between chaos and constraint; between the fear of rape and the fear of her own power.

She would have fretted at this lack of definition, poked at it like a tongue against a rotting tooth.

It is a relief, however unfortunate the word “Spattlefunk” might be, to know.

“It’ll be just like this,” she says.

And, pushed by the waves of chaos at her back, she runs.

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: “Sophie and the Devil”

That night as the questing shadow comes Sophie does not run.

She stands there and the moonlight is behind her so she shines.

There is a sword of bone in her hand.

So dead old Baltasar stops and he stares at her through his ruined eyes. She does not move.

Slowly, taut with the pain of moving his broken body, he steps forward.

“Tonight,” says Sophie, in a clear and ringing voice, “I will destroy you. Or I will make you my slave. Or I will force you to leave me alone for all of the days of the world. Or, should I be vindictive, should I be angry for these past seven years, I will strip you of your throne as King of Hell and assign it instead to some lesser evil, such as a malevolent frog or Francescu’s shoulder demon. Then you will have to bow and simper and cower to it for all the days of your existence.”

There is a pause.

“And should I fail,” Sophie adds, in a concession to realism, “then I will try again tomorrow night, and the night after, and each night that follows until I succeed, and I will make you suffer more strongly for each night I have suffered before then. You have tested me and I have not broken. You may hunt me again each night between now and forever and it will only give me another chance to win.”

There is moonlight in her hair.

You are mine, and you will be mine, says the shadow.

But the shadow is hesitating, and it is more than just the ruination of the corpse.

Sophie lowers her sword. She points it at the shadow.

“Do we begin?”

And . . .

Once upon a time there was a seraph who had a different vision for the world than God’s.

He rejected the drive that would lead the world to grace. And God said to him, “Then I shall cast you from Heaven into the blue realm, whence you may strive against me to bring harmony and fellowship into the world even when it opposes the fabric of the greater design.”

“No,” said that seraph.

“Is it the purple realm, then, that calls you? Are you to be a servant of the life?”

“I am indifferent to life,” said that seraph.

“Then you may choose the onyx realm, though it sorrows me, the realm of Saraman and Santrieste; the realm that dreams of silence and the dark.”

“There is a realm of burning red,” that seraph said.

And God hardened his heart against that seraph and cast him down into the fire of the pit; and everlasting damnation decreed against him; and shattered in him forever the understanding of God’s grace.

Now that fallen creature seeks to turn men and women from the path of righteousness. Now he seeks the damnation of the world. As the serpent he broke the Garden of Eden. As the reveler in white he brought the flood. As the red giant he fought with Montechristien Gargamel. As old dead Baltasar he hunted Sophie down the road.

He will not rest while grace exists within this world. He is the architect of sin.

The shadow forces words from dead Baltasar’s lungs. “We will not start yet.”

Suddenly there is a chill in Sophie. Every sense is telling her that behind her there are eyes. Her hackles rise. She casts about with her mind, but there is no physical location sourcing this unease; it is “behind” her in the realm of spirit. The attention grows more strict; more fierce; more painful. There is a flare of red and black in her mind.

Her legs go nerveless and she sits.

The thing in dead old Baltasar sits down opposite her. It writhes inside the corpse. Then it abandons it. The corpse dissolves. Body parts black and blue and rotten fall to every side. Shadow dissipates.

Sophie glimpses a portal to another realm in the Devil’s shapelessness. It is a horror too great for her mind to comprehend. She squints, trying to filter it down to pieces she can grasp, but by that time it is too late. The enemy has chosen its new form.

It has become a lean and elfin man, four feet tall. He has horns. They are simple, curved, and short.

He is shirtless, though trousers hide his shame.

He is red, red, red, and his shapeless cap is white.

“I do not wish to engage you on those terms,” says the horned man.

Sophie forces out these words: “It is beyond your power to change.”

“I am a coward,” says the horned man casually. “It is because I have so much to lose. So we will converse, you and I, and find another way to settle our affair.”

“This is not a conversation,” Sophie points out, struggling even to speak.

“Ah.”

The sense of a predator’s gaze vanishes away. Feeling returns to Sophie’s limbs. She curls in on herself, gasping in breath, shivering, recovering, restoring order to her mind.

“It is not my specific intention to hurt you, though I am perfectly willing to see you in agony,” the horned man says. “You do not find my attentions enjoyable because change is distressing, and I must change you.”

Sophie half-looks up, squinting. “Why?”

An Unclean Legacy


“Sophie and the Devil”

The horned man tilts his head to the side. “Will I gain points with you, Sophie, for answering that question?”

“If the answer doesn’t suck.”

“I disagree with God as to the proper purpose for this world,” the horned man says. He stands up. Sophie notices for the first time that his trousers include pointed booties for his feet, and it is only because she is exhausted and terrified and wounded that she is successful in smothering her laughter. “He directs it like a symphony towards a kingdom of eternal grace. But I find it more interesting to develop its potential for drama and tragedy.”

Sophie is staring at him.

“What?” the Devil asks, irritably.

“You’re still trying to oppose him?”

The red thing laughs. “I would think you of all people would understand that, Sophie.”

Sophie blushes a little. “Yes,” she says, “I mean, sure, but still?

The red thing frowns, just a little.

“In truth,” he says. “I am winning. It is the nature of humanity to count as my victories their sins and their sorrows, these petty things that win one soul at a time away from God’s eternal kingdom. Then they see sorrow and tragedy in the world and they cry out, ‘Lord, why are you cruel?’

“The former may be my work, but the latter is my pride. When God is cruel, I am victorious. When God makes people suffer. When he tests. When he punishes. When he turns a blind eye to pain. Those are the points of my victory. Those are the compromises that he makes with my red purpose to achieve his eventual kingdom.”

“. . . I am not theologically prepared to debate the problem of pain with you at this time,” Sophie says, a little dazed.

The Devil grins.

“That’s so,” he says. “In truth, you are probably best served by listening to nothing that I say. But if you did not, we could not talk, and then I would continue troubling your life.”

“So what do you want?”

“You can be anything I want,” the red thing says. “That is the gift your father gave you, that he never had reason to explain. It is your most marvelous quality: that you alone in all the world can be anything that anybody wants.”

“Anything?”

“The damnation of the world,” says the Devil. “The destruction of Montechristien. You can be everything that I desire. And yet you prefer to be a bunch of animals at once or a girl with a sword growing out of her hand.”

“Oh.”

“It is vexing,” says the Devil, “and we will resolve the matter tonight.”

Time for theology! Can you minimally adjust Pseudo-Dionysus’ hierarchy of angels to include matrices of blue energy in human shape, three apples high, wearing shapeless white caps?

Can proper Biblical exegesis reveal more about these strange creatures? Are there oblique references in Ezekiel 15 to the doom ‘Handy’ worked on Israel? Did ‘Batty’ save Zipporah and Moses from a giant snake?

Make sure to read the first nineteen installments of this story, and tune in Friday for a special Unclean Legacy: “The Duel!”

An Unclean Legacy: “The Saraman Destiny”

When Rachel was seven and living in a swamp the destiny of the Saraman attracted to her an evil frog.

“Ribbit,” the frog said.

Rachel went to pick up the frog. It spoke in a demon’s tongue, warty, old, and black:

Take me not unto your bosom,
Princess fair,
I am an evil creature in my way
And they are horrid boons I bear.

“You’re a frog!” declared Rachel.

She picked up the frog. She hugged it to her chest. It was not really a bosom, because Rachel was seven.

The frog croaked.

“How can a frog be evil?” Rachel said.

“Because I shall tell you to go to Castle Gargamel,” said the frog.

“Mom said that if I went to Castle Gargamel, Montechristien would kill me. That he’d take the skin off me, bit by bit, and use my ears as razors.”

Rachel holds the frog out. “Is that true?” she demanded.

“It is not,” said the frog. “Such a chin is Montechristien Gargamel’s that he scarcely needs to shave. And what good is the skin of a half-elder child to one who commands the hundred golden men?”

“I thought not,” said Rachel.

She sat down cross-legged on a lilypad, demonstrating her attainments. She reflected.

“But why should I go, when he’s such a fearsome man?”

“To claim your mother’s legacy,” said the evil frog.

“Ha!” said Rachel.

The frog looked startled.

“Too boring!” declared Rachel. She threw the evil frog back into the swamp.

Splish! splished the frog.

“Next time,” Rachel asserted, “I want an evil swamp-dwelling hermit!”

We do not know how Montechristien Gargamel came into his power. His origins are a mystery. How such an ungainly, strange, and immoral man could rise so swiftly to prominence puzzles even the greatest scholars of our time. Of his life once established in Castle Gargamel, however, certain facts are known.

He took to wife the Lady Yseult Gargamel, one of the great beauties of his day; and though many a rival pressed for evidence that he’d bewitched or stolen her, none was ever found. They had and loved six children of their flesh, until the seventh, Elisabet, killed Yseult with the complications of her birth. Each of these children was a prodigy, possessed of astonishing talents. When at last Montechristien stumbled towards the grave, the talents of his children turned against their siblings, every hand against the other, until at last they could dispose of the matter of their legacy.

This is the thirteenth installment of the story of that time.

“So tell me,” says Manfred. “Why do you speak so blackly of the Saraman?”

Rachel looks from Manfred to Sophie. She frowns at the blankness of their faces.

“You honestly don’t know?” she says.

They are sitting in Manfred’s cottage, sharing out bread and jam, and the conversation has turned to Rachel’s cursing of her line.

Sophie shakes her head.

“It’s strange that the Lady Yseult never told you,” Rachel says.

“She died while we were young,” says Manfred.

“And Montechristien is not the most talkative of fathers,” Sophie adds.

“Huh,” Rachel says.

She gestures broadly with her bread, causing a bit of jam to fall off onto Manfred’s bedspread.

“It is like this,” says Rachel. “Cedric Saraman, the founder of our line, was betrayed by his sons. So he cursed the black blood that runs in our veins and now we find ourselves possessed of evil opportunities.”

Sophie carefully spread orange peel and marmalade upon her bread.

“If I wanted to betray you,” says Rachel, “and seize your stock, Manfred, of fine jams and jellies, then I should only need to wait. The chance will come. Should I wish to sell my soul, or betray my country? These things are as trivial. The flies of the Pit are drawn to me as to uncertain priests; they buzz around me, and I will always feel their presence in the air.”

“But I have put great effort into my jams!” answers Manfred.

There is a burst of thunder from outside; the jams and jellies in Manfred’s pantry rattle, lids against glass, and then subside.

Rachel looks at Manfred, and her eyes are soft.

“I do not wish to betray you,” Rachel says.

An Unclean Legacy


The Saraman Destiny

Rachel has left for the night, to the gardener’s cottage wherein she stays.

Sophie stirs the embers of the fire.

“Am I evil?” Manfred asks. “For wanting her?”

“I think evil is more complex than that,” says Sophie. “It’s more like when shadows tell you things that hurt to hear, or frogs start rhyming.”

“Santrieste hates her,” Manfred says.

He goes to the wall that his cottage shares with Santrieste’s stable. He taps on the wall, ever so gently. There is an angry whuff in reply and a hoof thudding against the wall.

“You see,” Manfred says.

“That’s equine for ‘I was having a marvelous dream about an apple,'” Sophie opines.

“It means that he’s angry,” Manfred says.

“Ah,” Sophie says.

“I don’t need her,” Manfred says. “I have my brassards and my unicorn and my family. I won’t be alone.”

Sophie looks in the direction of the window. The red and black that walks the night shows right through the curtains. It is livid. It is horrible.

Sophie looks down.

“Manfred,” she says. “Are you happy?”

“I have hated this,” says Manfred. “And I have loved this. I do not know where I have landed.”

“I won’t be able to help you,” Sophie says.

“Eh?” Manfred says.

“I think that you should love her, if you can.”

Manfred takes Sophie’s hands. He hugs them gently.

“Thank you,” he says.

“It does not make you an evil thing,” Sophie says, “drawn to the destiny of the Saraman. It just makes you Manfred.”

“Ah,” says Manfred.

It is not a truth he often hears.

What kind of jam would you want to eat?

And who would you believe: your sister, or your unicorn?

Tune in tomorrow for an exciting Unclean Legacy exclusive: “Rachel’s Blood!”