Forsaken of their Gods (II/III)

Now it was always Billy’s conception that he should be as God to Melanie: that she should know him as a person knows their God, absolute, primal, preceding all other things in his authority, and at every moment witness to the secret movements of her heart. It was always Billy’s conception that Melanie should fear him and his red right hand, not as one fears a mortal tyrant or an older brother and his fists, but rather with the nakedness and openness that characterizes a fear of God: of that against which there is no recourse, and from which every punishment arises in the end from the workings-out of one’s own weaknesses and shames.

That she should fear him as that which is just by decree of the universe. That she should recognize the only alternative to that fear as having been better in the past, remaining though that past remains a bitterly unalterable country. That she should greet him only with the full humility and helplessness of one who has nothing not given her by the hands and whims of God.

In this conception Billy failed.

Like the seed of some black apple rotting in her stomach Melanie acquired freedom. She in some strange fashion learned unruly petulance, a quirk which he extinguished only with brute force, and never for all time. And finally he took that step which is every bit as much forbidden to the monsters as to God, which is to say, coming to accept as writ that which he could not change; coming to despise her for her weaknesses, rather than to cultivate them; and giving her a license, in that doing, to take that unsightliness that lived within her and grow it into strength.

He was, in the end, not so very terrible a monster, and he never grew his wings.

He’d gotten the idea, somehow, of what he was meant to be, understood that great awfulness of his nature, but nobody ever showed him how to get there, the unraveling of the riddles of it, the ways to open it up and live with it, so he lived in pettiness, instead.

His sister was afraid of his fists.

Nabonidus would have eaten Billy alive. 1968’s monster would have ground him down for jam. Mylitta would have cut him open. Even Prajapati could have beaten him, not even a hero or a monster, just a girl, but even she could have beaten him, brought out gods and the weapons of her good character to defeat him, triumphed, surpassed him, and broken him, left him gasping out his life like a fish might do on land.

It never even occurred to Billy to stake his sister out with the ropes of her own tendons and let the birds feed upon her flesh. It never even occurred to him as a threat, much less as an actual thing to do. It never occurred to him to winkle out every last bit of herself that she loved and take it from her, returning it if ever in bits and pieces imprinted with his name. It didn’t seem necessary to him. Not when she loved him. Not when she feared him. Not when he had his fists.

He even let her run.

He had Melanie for five years plus, the most vulnerable years that she would ever have, and he didn’t break her. At best he imprinted himself on her, just a little, made her like him, gave her a bit of that clumsiest monster’s nature and overlaid it on her own.

If you had any idea what running from a real monster is like, you’d know how utterly miserable a failure it makes him, that she’d gotten on a boat and run.

He was God to her; but such a God as to make her doubt — such a God as to make her think, as early as 1977, age 5, “is it so bad to be a Lucifer under him, and raise my hand against the Lord?”

And at that moment, when she first had that thought, she caught sight of something rippling, twisting, something strangely purple and terrible beyond the horizon of her life.

She couldn’t help herself.

She shook her head, once, twice. She tried to focus.

And she saw —

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

“There is a King.”

It is worse than she imagined. It’s not the worst words she’s ever heard. It can’t top never you not you. But it’s worse than that time when Billy showed her Papa’s head.

“There is a King of the old countries,” the woman is saying, “that came before the Round Man’s world. And he is bloated with a clotted mass of life. It moves damply and uncomfortably within him, as if a man had swallowed ten other men, or a fish had drunk the ocean.”

The woman’s voice is like the wind.

“These are the signs of his coming: dreams and portents. Death. Trouble between friends.”

Melanie is in a great and wild and empty space and there are words like silver wire cutting channels in her soul.

“He is wearing rotten vestments and they are indigo and green. He is heralded by helplessness, and memories, and principles that are left aside. There shall be corruption, fear, and hatred, and polluted water, and tainted colors, green and black.”

Melanie makes a sound.

“The Kings of the Unforgivable Dominions,” Liril’s mother says, “break the covenants of the world.”

There is silence for a while. Liril’s mother gets up. She walks around, tidying up the room.

Melanie’s eyes focus once again.

“What?” she asks.

I thought you said you didn’t hate me.

“You will drown in him forever,” Liril’s mother says. “You will never die. This is the fate I see for you, Melanie, whom my daughter has befriended.”

“No,” Melanie protests.

Not me.

Liril’s mother can’t help grinning. It’s ghoulish. It’s mean. It slips out onto her face until she bites her lip to hold it in.

“My,” she says.

She thinks.

Then, carefully, she releases the little happiness that she has in her, to see one of Amiel’s line disturbed so. The smile fades. There is only careful awareness of the world.

“There’s nothing I can do about it,” Liril’s mother says, “or I’d blackmail you, or help you, or something of the like. But I can only tell you: this is a thing that comes to pass. Will you leave us alone now, Melanie? Will you let me and my daughter be?”

Melanie twitches.

She wants to run.

She’s run before. It works. It works. But she’s caught in the web of a spider.

So she sighs, instead.

She shakes her head.

“So be it,” Liril’s mother says. “No stealing. No loud music. Her bedtime is ten o’clock exactly. No bringing trouble to this house.”

And Melanie goes up to Liril’s room to talk; and to these two children thus forsaken of their gods it is given to be childhood friends.

Anatman (I/VII)

Anatman’s the god of a godless world.

He’s stood against the Devil himself and said, “You don’t exist.”

(And oh! how the Devil laughed; but that’s a story for another time.)

He’s stood against the demons and the fiends, and fought them back; and the angels and the fetches too. He’s won ten thousand different battles against ten thousand different gods.

He’s the man who stands at the boundary of the world and keeps theology at bay.

Here’s how it goes.

801 years into the common era, an octopus-bodied snake-headed bird-beaked hydra god of unspeakable and abominable torments tries to break into the world.

Anatman puts an end to that.

“Those are some pretty abominable torments,” concedes Anatman, “but they’re totally speakable.”

The hydra glares at him.

“You know I’m right,” Anatman says.

It’s not easy to talk about the torments of the octopus-bodied snake-headed bird-beaked hydra god. You have to put yourself through a mental wringer just to figure out where the bird’s beak goes, and that’s before you even get into the torments.

But you can.

And if they’re not unspeakable, then it’s not the kind of octopus-bodied snake-headed bird-beaked hydra god-abomination that it thought it was, and so it doesn’t break into the world.

Later, in 816, the wolf of space comes down to eat the Earth.

It takes Anatman himself to go out there and stop it. Alchemy doesn’t work and people don’t have nuclear weapons yet and longbows are notoriously ineffectual in space, but Anatman, he goes out to where the wolf is ravening towards the world and he says, “The Earth is bigger than your head.”

This brings embarrassment to the wolf.

The wolf says, “It is sometimes difficult to correctly judge perspective when you are in space.”

“See that you’ve learned better, then!” Anatman laughs.

And that’s the resolution for the matter of the wolf.

Finally, there is a firvuli.

To become a firvuli is the destiny born into a girl named Halldis, the purpose seething in the flesh and fire of her, 981 years into the common era and under the Icelandic sun. She is born for no other reason, and to no other purpose, than to one day decide it is better to be a firvuli and cast aside her mortal flesh and ascend to become a great grey god-mountain firvuli that is winter and death and the substance of THE END.

Right now, of course, she’s still a baby girl, because she’s just finished being born.

Anatman slips into the room while the midwives are distracted. They probably couldn’t have seen him anyway, since he’s the person of there-aren’t-really-any-people as much as he’s the god of there-aren’t-really-any-gods, but he isn’t taking chances.

He slips into the room, and he looks down at the baby, and he stares into her fire.

“You’re gonna be a firvuli,” he says, “little girl. And that’s no good.”

It turns on him.

It’s shocking. It’s terrifying. It’s not even technically or literarily possible. It’s like suddenly reading a book that the writer hasn’t even started writing yet—that’s how unexpected the rising of a firvuli can be. It fumes up from her soul like the steam from a fresh corpse’s blood and it looks at him, it looks at him, and suddenly instead of a baby girl or a firvuli he’s looking at THE END.

His senses desert him.

He flails in emptiness.

He remembers suddenly forward to the moment of his death.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


981 CE

“Why, you rotten old Anatman,” he hears future-Anatman say. “You’re a no-person man!”

A no-person man!

A philosophical conceit!

Not a god, not a person, not really anything at all!

And under the power of those words, just like he’s going to do one day, later, on the day Anatman dies, he finds himself unfolding, unraveling, dissolving and stopping being, because you can’t very well be a god of godlessness or a person of no-persons, after all.

Today, though—

Today, he shakes it off. Today, he laughs. Today, he scruffs the baby’s head, and he plucks the firvuli from her soul, and he kisses it lightly on its brow.

“It’s OK,” he tells it, cheerfully, and hugs it close against his heart. “It’s OK. You don’t have to fight me. You don’t have to be afraid of not existing. I do it all the time, and it’s really not so bad.”

So he carries the firvuli away, off to the lands of fable, to live estranged from the humans and the good earth and the wind. He carries it off to the borderlands of the world, to live in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, in the corner-of-the-eye, in the hypothesis, the supposition, and the edges-of-the-map. He takes it away from the earth to the fairy regions, where hydras and great wolves and firvuli were still allowed to be, and he tells it the secret that cuts it off forever from the world and sound: that nothing ever ends.

That everything’s always ending.

That nothing’s ever even really started.

And that might sound like more than one secret, or even a contradictory passel of secrets, if you’re someone like you or me; but if you’re a no-person man like Anatman, all those secrets are the same.

And Anatman and the firvuli become great friends; but as for Halldis, she is empty, she is desolate, she is born to know great suffering, for she is a girl who should be a firvuli, who should become a firvuli, anyway, a great grey god-mountain of THE END, and who can never be a firvuli at all.

Well, that wasn’t the noble truth we were expecting! Still, you’ll probably have to wait another week before we allude vaguely to a different noble truth instead.

In the meantime, you could

The Devil and His Daughter

When the Devil showed up to troll Tanith’s blog, he hadn’t planned to read it.

It was his goal to speak his point, succinctly, and block it in with obstacles to dispute. He said,

“Everybody knows if you sell your soul
You’ll be loaded down with treasure.
Just what kind of wickedness is in your heart
You don’t want a life of pleasure?

“A man’s got to live and a dog’s got to die,
When you’re scrounging in the gutter
It makes Jesus cry
So take care of yourself and
Sell your soul for treasure.”

The Devil knew, when he wrote that down, that even if she left it someone else would take a swing. And he knew that that’s what matters—getting people thinking about whether or not to sell their souls.

He got two birds with one stone, too.

The more people talk about the Devil, after all, the less they talk about Tanith.

And it would have stayed that way, too, if the Devil hadn’t gotten bored one night.

He doesn’t have to read replies.

He’s the Devil.

But one night, you see, he got bored. And he went back to Tanith’s blog to see what people had said.

Now it’s the oldest lie that the Devil does tell that your words can reach him down in his Hell, but he’d forgotten that one of Tanith’s regular readers was his daughter.

And she said, “I’ve gone Red,
I’m a Commie now,
Just call me Comrade Mara
And tell me how
You can sell your soul
Without controlling the means of production?”

The Devil got mad, and a little bit sad, and he regretted not insisting on homeschooling his daughter. Nevertheless he made a game effort to reply.

“lol …” he said. “I’d just requisition it from the Party.”

Now, you might think that other readers would hesitate to jump in on a conversation between the Devil and a communist, but only if you’ve never read a blog.

There was Margot with the telling point: “Yeah, and wait in line for seventy years only to find out that all the souls were shipped to a different afterlife.”

And Steve and Ginger, who hashed out in a twenty-post thread that the communists, being atheist, had probably never formally regulated the soul.

And after a while, Mara herself, who inaccurately characterized his argument as “ad hominem.”

So the Devil tried again, a bit more formally now. He said:

“You can say what you will, but it’s a human right,
Unarbitrated by the law
To give up what you’ve got when it’s Devil-sought
In exchange for wealth and pleasure.

“Innate to the body, innate to the soul,
It’s always been that way
And I’m not a troll.
Don’t tell me you don’t know
That it’s right to hunt for treasure.”

And the argument went on long into the night. People mostly took the Devil’s side, for a couple of reasons. First, they thought it was kind of daring and counterculture to do so. They’d never sell their soul themselves, but they liked to think that other people should. Second, Mara was a communist demoness, and nobody in America takes communist demonesses seriously. We like our demons to be larger versions of ourselves, here in America. We want our ultimate capitalist democratic Christian devil, more ruthless than our tycoons, more corrupt than our politicians, living his life every day by scripture and by damn having the demons vote on rigged machines to back it up, in America. So a communist demoness is a little bit like a Prohibition demoness or a Nixon apologist demoness.

Not a bit respectable.

We’ll still fight someone like that. But we’re Americans. We can’t very well respect a devil backing a stupid idea.

So, anyway.

Tanith didn’t post much when this happened.

Some of that was a frisson of supernatural awe. It’s not every blogger who gets comments from the Devil. Most bloggers only get comments from the Devil’s payroll, or from those automatic spammers that from time to time he shits.

But most of it was just—

That kind of “what do I say?” sense that can trouble a person, on those nights.

And because she hadn’t said anything, the Devil kept on reading her blog, intermittently, over the next few months.

Sometimes he’d post, and a bunch of the regulars would jump on him. Or sometimes Mara would post, and he’d make sure to bring up her many inadequacies as a person and a demoness.

And one day, Tanith wrote this.

“The word we have for someone who buys the intangible—the traitless, the ill-defined, the ephemeral sensation of satisfaction carried by the inconsistent belief that we have obtained a thing that we cannot define—is ‘fool.’

“I find myself wondering if the Devil hasn’t trapped himself in a pyramid scheme set forth by his Creator.

“I find myself wondering if it’s anything more than a confidence game, this business of buying souls. If it isn’t all backed by the dubious goodwill of the various divine and temporal institutions that have chosen, for the nonce, to pretend that that concept has value—

“A value that is fundamentally unsustainable, a spiritual tulip market, relying on the metricization of our own unquestioned assumptions.

“So I’d like to ask the Devil
If he’s sure it’s on the level
And just what he thinks he’s buying
If the Devil don’t mind.”

Some people say that that actually reached him. Others think he just got distracted by the pressures of being buried in ice at the bottom level of Hell and decided to stick to more generally pro-Devil blogs.

But he didn’t argue, and in the end that killed him.

The Devil can’t live if he doesn’t keep posting.

If you get to make your point—

Even just once!—

He withers away.

So there’s a new Devil now, just like there always is, just the same as the one before him. He’s red and he’s mean. He’s been as cold as ice from the day that his mother bore him.

But there’s one thing changed.

He doesn’t buy souls.

Not this one.

Not any more.

You’re supposed to give this Devil your soul. He doesn’t buy: he asks. You’re supposed to give it to him; and a lot of people do.

Freely, freely, and with brightness; so they say.

The Matter of Zheng’s Son (3 of 5)

Mr. Kong is steeping tea. He hears a rustle of silk.

He looks up.

It is a winter evening. His house is cold. He can see his snowy yard. No one is visible, but he can hear motion. No one has announced themselves, but he can hear the shifting of metal against leather and the soft hissing of someone’s breath.

His eyes narrow.

There is a stool inside the entryway, where there was none before, and a staff leaning against the wall. There is a dusting of snow.

He can hear, distantly, the jingling of a bell.

It is 501 years before the common era. The sun hides behind the clouds. An assassin has come.

This is a history of Mr. Kong.

It is the Latter Days of the Law
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.

“In these degenerate days,” says Mr. Kong politely, “it is good to have an assassin who is observant of the rites and practices. Will you take tea with an old man before you kill me?”

Mr. Kong breathes in the air of the room.

It is probable, he thinks, that the assassin has unwound a length of garrote. It gleams between the man’s fingers—behind Mr. Kong, no doubt, and to the left, and three steps back: the honorable place for an assassin, according to the Book of Rites.

But the man does not move.

He is like a statue, frozen by Mr. Kong’s question.

“It would make me happy,” says Mr. Kong.

The assassin reaches his decision. There is a snap as the garrote retracts. He walks seven quick paces and now he stands before Mr. Kong. He lowers himself, with great decorum, to sit opposite Mr. Kong, and Mr. Kong pours the tea.

“It is unusual for an assassin to attend diligently to the rites,” says Mr. Kong. “The requirements of attending to giving and repaying are the principal matter of contention.”

“Yes,” says the assassin.

Mr. Kong studies the assassin. The man is dressed in white; his hair is tied back; he has features of grave discernment and etched with terrible sorrow.

“If I may ask,” he says. “Whom?”

Whom are you mourning, that you would seek to kill a humble scholar in his home?

“My son.”

“Ah.”

“We sparred,” says the assassin. “With sticks of wood. I struck him. The mark was red on the paleness of his skin. He skipped back. He laughed. He blurred to the side, and came forward to attack. But I caught his stick and twisted it from his hand and I struck him again; and this time his eyes opened very wide and he cried out, ‘It is thus!'”

Mr. Kong sighs.

They sit there. They drink.

“In the days of the Zhou,” says Mr. Kong, “it did not matter how many times you hit a man with a stick; still, he would retain his false conceptions and his attachment to material existence. But the world has changed.”

The assassin’s voice is choked.

“You deny your responsibility?” he says.

Mr. Kong thinks on that.

“I do?” he asks.

“The men of old,” says the assassin— “they lived with unhesitating purpose and they loved virtue. The nature of them prevailed, and they could not hesitate to act. Is it not so?”

“I have said as much,” says Mr. Kong.

“Our ancestors exceeded us.”

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong.

“Heaven is distant from the world; it acts through mortal men, who must struggle to hew to the spirit of goodness—is it not so?”

Mr. Kong says, “You are in mourning for the days of antiquity, when humans possessed the character of uprightness that allowed them to perform miracles, and we did not suffer the plague of spiritual enlightenment.”

“You speak of it,” says the assassin, “as if these days were centuries ago; but they were not.”

Mr. Kong smiles over his tea.

“It has been less than forty years,” he says, “since last I witnessed magic in the world—you mean? But I have told my disciples, I do not discuss magic.”

“So,” says the assassin.

“I am not dissembling,” says Mr. Kong, in tones of gentle protest. “It is not the matter of spirits, or ghosts, or devils that concerns me. When I look upon the past, it is not the flying brooms and wishing boys and Heaven-Defying Lightbringing Yama Kings that draw my eye, but the spirit of humaneness that pervaded the ancients even in the face of all these wonders.”

“You are a man,” says the assassin, “who spoke unto the world words that changed it. You told Heaven and Earth: we are not like the ancient men. And thus it was. You told Heaven and Earth: we are empty; we are in disorder; we are the only channel by which Heaven may affect the world—and thus it was. You teach a disregard for spirits, and they flee from us—or so I must conclude.”

He sets down his teacup.

He folds his hands in his lap. His face is very bleak.

“My name is Zheng,” he says.

He hesitates.

“Please tell me that when I have killed you, my son shall return; and magic; and purpose; and the will of Heaven manifest on Earth; and things will be as once they were.”

Outside the wind toys with flakes of snow.

It is not Mr. Kong’s way to deny an accusation when doing so will only heighten the wound in another man’s heart; so he searches in him for an answer that is courteous, honest, and humane.

A sadness rises.

“It is the character of humanity,” Mr. Kong says softly, “to be wrong.”

A sound comes from Zheng. It is like the peal of a bell, and it comes from his throat as if it were ripped from it.

“Once,” says Mr. Kong, “I imagined that I had the power in me to make all things correct. That I could right all the practices of the world. That I would do these things because I am Kong. And when I understood that it was not so, I cried out: Heaven, Heaven, why have you abandoned me?”

Zheng does not respond.

“But I’m glad,” says Mr. Kong.

Zheng looks up.

He sees that Mr. Kong is smiling.

“Do you understand? It is because we are not as the ancients were that we may look up to them. Were we as gods, we would spend our lives in the affairs of gods; but because we are human, we may practice humaneness.”

“Why?”

Mr. Kong tilts his head.

“Why,” says hoarse-voiced Zheng, “should we practice humaneness, when Heaven denies us righteousness? Why should we strive for good, when we are always wrong? What is this world we live in, where a man may burn out his own son’s soul?”

But Mr. Kong ignores the last of these questions, and answers only the second.

“Love.”

And Zheng let him to live, and went away, and in the mountains he taught his students that it was not so important to kill as to kill with good character as a righteous assassin; and Mr. Kong found himself a limited employment in government service; and the world went on for many years, severed from its gods.

The knife of the legend of Mr. Kong
Reflects his answer:
“We must try to be good.”

In the darkness of the sea, Max slices through Sid. The knife glitters darkly in his hand.

A wire snaps.

Like all the wires of Sid, it is under high tension. It scissors through the world and cuts the sea and causes a great turbulence in the mechanisms of Sid. His thoughts become deranged, disordered, and unbalanced.

It is June 3, 2004.

Sid is furious and maddened, under the staring eye of Good.

Since cutting does not work, he slams Max down into the silt floor of the sea. He smashes Max against the shell of the world; but the human—

The heap he reminds himself; not Max, it cannot be Max—

slips aside and the blow only widens the crack at the base of the rising Good.

Max is thinking something wry about learning from the lessons of history. Sid can taste it; it amplifies in the jangling of his thoughts. The man is going to stab him again. The opening in the world through which Good rises is nearly critical mass: much larger, and the Good will transform the shell that holds it back and all the stories of the world shall end.

Sid conceives a plan.

His plan is mad, like the siggort himself.

He anchors himself. He hooks himself with shivering cutting lines into the sea. He insinuates himself into sea and sky and the shadow of the sun. He hopes for time—

Not so very much; just a little bit—

To finish cutting away the heart of the Good. But if he does not have it—well, very well.

Max cuts at a great bundle of the mind of Sid and Sid’s memory of 1955 and his knowledge of differential equations and his power to taste snow all snap and the tangling spinning power of it progresses inevitably through the system of him and a great spinning wire hits Max’s chest and, because Max will not cut, drives him into the Good; and a great heaving convulsion in the world slams together the elements of the crust and makes an island of stone and sky where once there was a crack beneath the sea.

In the aftermath, there is blindness to match the silence of his world.

He drifts there, free of attachment to things.

Max loved him, he thinks.

Certainly, so did the Good.

He wonders why.

Ink Entomological (XIV/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

The stickbug general could hide from death against a giant tree.

The ragged things would pass, looking for his wicked soul.

“He’s meant to die,” they’d say. “There’s a torment waiting.”

But they wouldn’t find him.

The ragged things wouldn’t find him. The angel of death wouldn’t find him. The God-Defying Lightbringing Yama King himself, rot his hide, wouldn’t find the stickbug general if he were hiding there against a giant tree.

He looks like a stick, you see.

He looks like a great big stick.

He loves that.

He loves that trick.

There are only three things that the stickbug general loves. One is stickbug sex. One is hiding against a giant tree. And the third is gorging himself on the flesh of children.

If there were a giant tree here, he could probably leave the girl be.

Or a female stickbug.

A known female stickbug, that is. Some of his soldiers are probably female. The larger ones, or the smaller ones, or something. It’s really hard to tell, since they all look like sticks, and he’s forgotten which of his soldiers are the best candidates.

If he knew which of his soldiers were female, why, then, he could probably leave the girl be.

But he doesn’t.

He doesn’t have a tree, and he can’t have sex, and he’s hungry.

There’s a girl on a road high above the ground, and she looks like food, and he’s hungry.

So he orders his soldiers to attack.

Undoubtedly dozens of his soldiers will die. Undoubtedly the girl will flail and the doctor behind her will flail and dozens or even hundreds of stickbugs will fall to their death.

He can live with that.

The fewer stickbugs survive, the fewer will share his feast.

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west there comes an outpouring of good to make all things right.

Max sets out in his catamaran to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime but he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.

It is the Latter Days of the Law.
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.

The knife of the legend of Mr. Kong
Reflects his answer:
“We must try to be good.”

But people always fight the things they love.

The Island of the Centipede

Everything is movement. The girl does not understand what has happened.

Why am I dangling from a road with anthropophagous stickbugs falling on me?

Sometimes in a fight things happen very fast and you can wind up in these positions without really understanding how they came to pass. Often it has a very simple explanation, like, “You rode a giant horror down to the bottom of the sea, where she cracked open the crust of the world and you fell through. Afterwards you decided to go back up through the crust of the world but got delayed by a wormy Minister, a rat with a sword and a doctor-King intent on human sacrifice. Then an orderly pulled a road out of his stomach and you jumped on to keep a crumbling ziggurat’s stone blocks from crushing you. Finally, giant stickbugs attacked you and you flailed and lost your balance, but managed to catch hold of the road with a hand and an elbow rather than fall all the way down and crack your head. So that’s why.” But that is a lot of data and the mind is very bad at organizing that much data while hanging from a sky-road with stickbugs falling on you. It is much cheaper in terms of cognitive resources not to understand—to ask the question, shrug, and just move on.

Why am I dangling from a road with anthropophagous stickbugs falling on me?

Answer: Because.

The rain of stickbugs slows.

June, Thursday 3, 2004 – Cronos: When the history begins Cronos is proud.

He should be.

He’s just cut off his father’s genitals and ascended to the throne of the world. And he’s righteous. Oh, how he’s righteous.

He’s got that smirk.

That “I am totally in the right here” smirk, like the one the monster wears.

But the smirk fades.

It fades, because the sky is so very big and the silence so very deep and the sin so hot, then cold, upon his hands.

The history begins.

Cronos stood naked beneath the stars.

“You are struggling,” says the general of the stickbugs.

He looks down on the girl.

“Why are you struggling, food?”

“I’m Ink Catherly,” says the girl.

“Consider,” says the general of the stickbugs. “The longer you struggle the more lives are lost.”

“I’m a destroyer,” says Ink.

“Why are the stickbugs ignoring me?” asks Dr. Sarous.

The general flicks an eye towards Dr. Sarous.

He shrugs.

“They’re terrible child-eating stickbugs of the deeps,” says Ink.

“Oh,” says Dr. Sarous.

“Why are you ignoring me?” she asks, quite properly, since she’s dangling.

“I’m a terrible child-ignoring doctor,” he says.

It is a sudden bursting insight in Ink’s mind. She suddenly understands. Dr. Sarous doesn’t like her very much.

“Is it even a crime,” he asks, “to eat a terrible God-defying imago, converting her into pious proteins, fats, and bones?”

“I’ll show you the cure for stepladder syndrome,” says the girl, and when he’s looking at her hand with involuntary attention she gives Dr. Sarous the finger.

Cronos stood naked beneath the stars.

There is so much fire, he thought. So much power.

The sky looked down.

“I am rendered impotent,” said the voice of his father. “Now there shall be nothing brought forth in all this world that does not know suffering, nor grow from the accursed ground; thistles and thorns and dust shall be your lot for all the generations of the world.”

It was not judging him.

Its words were flat and simple.

It was as if Uri were completing a syllogism; nothing more.

“You will rule this world,” said the sky. “But your son will take it from you.”

It was not even a curse.

“He will punish you for this deed, and you will bear the burden of that punishment until the end of time.”

Cronos licked his lips.

Defiantly, he said, “Is that the price, then, that even the least of us should know joy?”

The stars laughed at him.

It was the most withering of all experiences, Cronos thought, to have the entirety of Heaven laughing at one’s shame.

Ink struggles. She tries to pull herself up onto the road.

“Struggle is futile,” says the general of the stickbugs.

He is content to wait, just a bit longer. If the girl falls, some cavern-bottom creature might eat her first.

“I have a theory,” says Ink, gasping, “that I can manage something a little better than being stickbug food.”

“We waste energy opposing one another,” says the general. “It bleeds off into the environment as disorder. Dharma recedes; entropy prevails. Why cling to purpose in such a case as this?”

“We can certainly agree,” says Ink, dragging herself half onto the road and panting for ten seconds before the clause, “that it would much improve the world if, in a sudden burst of comity, all parties were to align themselves behind a single cause.”

“Debate is inconclusive; exhaustion will wear you to my preference,” the stickbug general decides.

He gestures; once again, the stickbugs leap.

“You accuse me of impropriety,” said the sky.

“They deserved better,” said Cronos. “The woglies; the siggorts; Ophion; they deserved better. To punish them so cruelly: that is the nature of your crime.”

“Beyond the boundaries of the world,” said Uri, who was the sky, “there is no ‘deserving’. Who may say whether the character of a man outside the world is good or bad? Who may say what should befall them for the deeds that they have done? There may be beauty there. There may be wonder, and hearts to give you joy, and creatures in whom I could find such virtues as your own. I do not know. I know only that there are horrors there beyond imagining, and insidious treason, and things that will corrupt this world; and you have given to them rein.”

“And they will know joy?”

“No,” the sky said, flatly.

“No?”

“A world with only the good may bring only the good to all within it. A world that is only perfection may bring perfection to all within it. But to permit the ungainly and the imperfect into paradise does not lift them up. It drags us down.”

Ink looks up.

She smiles.

It’s madness. But she smiles.

“Such marvelous mimesis,” she says.

She’s seen right through the stickbug general to his ability to hide against a giant tree. And he is almost, but not quite, tempted then to preen.

But there are two of them holding her now, and a third whose teeth close in: and rather than being eaten or captured for eating later, Ink shoves off against the road and falls.

  • Tune in on WEDNESDAY for the next exciting history of Minister Jof:
    MINISTER JOF AND THE FAILURE OF OTHERS TO MEET HIS STANDARDS.
    It’s a bone-chilling tale of terror!

“The Lord of Misrule” – From the Journals of Ink Catherly (V/XVI)

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Cronos: When Riffle’s sword touched my neck, I saw a bit more of Cronos’ history. It was from earlier than before, again. The Titanomachy hadn’t happened yet. Zeus was free but the others were still engulleted.

It made me angry.

I scolded it.

I said, No, world! I do not need the history of Cronos right now. If anything, I need the history of Riffle!

This was actually a mistake on my part. I should have blamed myself because it is, after all, my very own power that gave me, perversely, this insight. But blaming oneself is very hard. I’m not sure it’s something people can do.

So I scolded, instead, the world.

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west there comes an outpouring of good to make all things right.

Max sets out in his catamaran to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime but he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.

It is the Latter Days of the Law.
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.

The knife of the legend of Mr. Kong
Reflects his answer:
“We must try to be good.”

The Island of the Centipede

Cronos slouched on the throne of the world.

He was contemplating a sickle. It was a really big flint sickle and it was grey.

Zeus entered.

“Son,” said Cronos. O my love.

That was the weird thing about Cronos. When you’d hear him talk, the world would echo with that in the background: O my love.

Anyway.

“Son,” said Cronos.

“Dad.”

It was an awkward moment.

I thought I’d eaten you, but maybe it was a rock.

I had that thought once, on Floor 93-GA. It was the suckiest eating contest ever.

“You’ve been eating everybody,” said Zeus. “Poseidon and Hera and stuff.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I did not ask to rule a Golden Age,” Cronos said. “Rather I wished to dominate a freakish carnival of horrors. A masque of the imperfect. A world of people with the bones of their pain jutting out so that you can hardly talk to them without saying, ‘O my love, why are you broken?'”

Zeus said, “I understand.”

I don’t know much about Zeus. There’s a bias in the history—a sense of focus to it. Zeus is important, but it’s Cronos whom this history is about, down here in the crust of the world. So I don’t know much about Zeus or what was going on in his head, but I think that he was telling the truth.

He had that Martin sound, all serious and like it’s perfectly natural, of course, who wouldn’t prefer to rule a world wracked with sorrow and pain and full of monsters?

And Cronos smiled, like it was a joy to hear.

Zeus continued.

“I am going to cut your stomach open,” said Zeus, “and spill out my brothers and my sisters, and a rock.”

“And if I forbid it?”

“In this world,” said Zeus, “we bring forth children in sorrow.”

Cronos had trouble finding an answer to that one.

“It’s the rule,” Zeus explained.

This would appear to be one of the Man Laws, like in those Miller Lite commercials. You poke it, you own it. We bring forth children in sorrow. Entropy always increases. Don’t shoot food. Leave the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil alone. Castrating your father and taking over his throne is a punishable offense. Sharing is caring.

Stuff like that.

Not even Cronos can really argue with that kind of rule; but at the same time, he didn’t rise and hand Zeus the sickle.

Zeus waited.

“Who are you, my son?” Cronos asked.

“I’m the Lord of Misrule,” said Zeus. “I’m the answer to your prayers. I’m the one who’ll bring this whole world down around your ears.”

Cronos’ heart fluttered in his chest. It’s weird that he’d never taken it out—you’d think that he would have, since there’s nothing so dangerous as a heart. But he hadn’t.

“Show me,” he said, and his voice was desperate with hope.

Your authority has no foundation,” said Zeus, “for you have done a wicked thing.

It was electric. It cut through the air. But it didn’t impress Cronos.

“More,” Cronos said.

The dog that carries a serpent on his back is vile; the tiger that carries a dog, we call a saint.

Cronos mulled that one over for a while.

Then he shook his head.

He stood.

The sky gathered behind his shoulders and the stars burned bright with Uri’s fires and the world grew heavy as a woman carrying her child and he said, “You are not equal to this task.”

Dread was the nimbus of Cronos at that moment. The power of him held Zeus still. Cronos was Ge’s son in that moment, strong as the earth, unsurpassable, indestructible, horned and terrible, and free—as only one creature in all the world could be—to act accordant to his desires.

Ink’s hand hurts quite a bit more than her neck. The sword has cut her hand deeply. It is still, and thank Heaven for the pathetic muscles of the little rat, no more than skin-deep in her neck.

But it’s the blood that runs down her neck that scares her.

She finds herself wondering, “Is it possible to die?”

She will probably have a choice in the matter. She is the imago and she has been to Hell and back and it seems likely that she would have a choice. But it is also probable that something would be lost. If nothing else, her sense of her own humanity. At worst, the value of the sacrifice of her life, with which she is hoping to carry past any final obstacles that stand between Ink Catherly and God.

I think that I will describe the terror that was Cronos in that moment like this.

We are in ourselves the actual and the ideal. And the actual is all that moves, all that acts, all that speaks. We cannot really demonstrate that there is more: but there must be more, or we are in Hell.

Where is the fire of our intention?

Where does it move upon the earth?

It does not, and in that respect Earth is very much like Hell, and yet, and yet, and yet the difference is that we are here. Hell is to live without experiencing our life. Earth is life knowing our own presence. It is life, flush with our ideals.

But Cronos knew a thing that I did not know.

He wore it like a blaze.

It was the terror of the flesh, the power of the actual, the aura of the substance of him. That with his hands and with his fingers he could move, and Zeus could not stop him from moving; that that substance was raw, unconstrained by Zeus’ volition or the limits that Zeus would rather have put on it, and capable in its action of dragging Zeus’ ideals down.

Those dirty fingernails could break Zeus’ virtue. Those bloody hands could kill him. Those great arms and those great teeth could put a stop to the ideals of the lord of all the gods.

Flesh has that power.

It obliterated the thoughts of Zeus. It held him still.

But Zeus had trained for this.

He had spent years in empty meditation and practice and taught his flesh to act when his mind could not.

The world swam with the blinding rapture of Cronos and it drove away the thoughts of Zeus and the will of Zeus and the fire of him flickered and went dim beneath the wind of all that power, and the flesh of Zeus stepped forward and took the sickle in his hand and cut his father’s stomach open to bring his brothers and sisters into the world.

It seemed impossible to Zeus that it did not hurt Zeus; that the opening of the wound in his father’s stomach brought Zeus no pain, burnt none of Zeus’ nerves; that he could see and hear and smell the wound but he could not feel it.

It seemed a thing that should wound, instead, the all of world and sound.

Out fell the stone; and Hades and Poisedon; and Hera and Demeter and Hestia; and great snaky loops of titantestine too; and Cronos looked down at his stomach and Zeus could hardly see his face through the blindingness of the reality of that moment when he cut his father open at the throne of all the world.

Cronos staggered. The storm shifted at his back. It loomed upon the world and in that moment it seemed very possible that the world would end and there would only be Heaven and Hell forever after, amen—

Somehow, Cronos held it back.

Somehow, Cronos balanced himself and held aloft the burden of all pains while his innards snaked themselves back in.

The fingernails on his hand were cracked and dirty. His hair was wild. He reached for his son with hands soaked in everybody’s blood.

Cloud-shouldered Zeus, the son of Cronos, born in the fullness of Tyranny to bring justice to the world, seized five babies and a stone and fled.

  • Saturday:
    THE HISTORY OF THE SWORD

Easy

It’s New Years’ Eve on the last year of people sufferin’.

Here’s how it goes. One day, late in December, everybody suddenly wakes up knowin’. Some people take a little longer, but not that much.

This is it, they realize.

That’s all.

After this, things are easy.

And there are people who just go into denial immediately because they can’t have things that good. And there’s more than a few think it’s freaky and terrifying and that maybe the whole world’s going to die. There’s some of the Saved who think they’re going to Heaven and some of the pretty-certain-I’m-damned who’d be shocked if they were. There’s old white guys in suits and ties that don’t know what to make of it, except that they’d better do any killing they’re wanting to do in a hurry just in case January 1st is too late.

“Couldn’t it have waited until the new fiscal year?” they grumble.

“This calendrical thing—so outdated!”

And there’s plenty of people who are angry ’cause the gay people will be happy, or the women, or the men, or the black folk, or the white folk, or their parents, or their children, or whatnot.

Plenty, yeah.

But for most of them, it passes quick. Even for people who hate others more than they love themselves, it passes quick.

There’s this kind of magnanimous feeling that they fall right into. Yeah, there’s some resentment that the world’s turning sweet and they’ve still got to share—

That they’d let those people into the New Year—

But in the end, what with the New Year and all, it’s easy to be gracious. It’s easy to say: well, good. At least they won’t come crying and stomping to me about their problems any more.

And there are fathers and mothers who shed endless tears for the children who didn’t quite make it, and fathers and mothers who weep in joy because their children will. And there’s this thing in late December where people mostly stay off the roads, they stay at home, they only work if they love their job or if they can’t keep the electricity on till the 1st in any other way. And each death that happens in those last few days is a tragedy, just as unwanted deaths always are, but people maybe make a bigger deal of it now.

There’s a big speech on television near the end by the President, who takes credit for it all and gives most humble thanks to God.

And in his spacious home the Devil’s nodding off on his sofa, and he’s listening with half an ear, and the other half’s listening to the generator, because his whole house is powered by suffering, you see. He gets his main power from the agony of children who are sick or in unpleasant hands. He’s running hot and cold water from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and he’s got all his servers drawing straight from North Korea. (Because you need a very reliable source of suffering to keep servers up all the time. You can’t just use Syria or Tranquility Bay and hope that there’s never a little pause when everyone there’s all right. That’s bad system management, even if you’re the Devil.) There’s little things too, like, he’s got a cup warmer to keep his coffee hot that’s running on Firefly being cancelled, and he’s pleased with that, because while it’s not much suffering compared to the whole North Korea thing, he really hates cold coffee.

And he’s sitting there, amidst the stuff he’s bought from people’s shame and agony, in a house that’s running on pain, and listening just to see if, you know, the perfect New Year actually happens. If, for once, the humans’ dreams are right.

And it’s with this kind of peculiar self-satisfied little grin that he listens as it becomes a new day, and his generator spins down.

He’s not sad. His whole house is broken—heck, there’s a new episode of Firefly coming on his television right then—but he’s not sad.

He’s snorting. He’s saying, “About time.”

And he’s happy.

He’s always known—even though no one really believed him—that that pain he’s been using was someone else’s fault.

And the generator’s gone, and it’s a Happy New Year for everybody, even that guy over there who nobody really liked.

Things are easy now.

Just have to remember to write the right year on your checks.

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.

An Unclean Legacy: “The Duel”

Once upon a time, the last of the blue essentials returned to the mushroom village and found Gargamel there.

“La, la, la la la—oh,” said the essential uncomfortably.

Gargamel unlimbered his great tall legs and stood.

“Your name is Vanity,” said Gargamel.

“Yes.”

“You are the last,” said Gargamel.

These words struck Vanity like a blow. He stared up at Gargamel blankly.

Gargamel strode forward and his footsteps were like the beating wings of the apocalypse. In his hand was a butterfly net. His eyes were hard.

“Wait,” said Vanity.

“Hm?”

“I don’t deserve to die,” Vanity said.

“You are not alive,” said Gargamel. “You are an alchemical matrix crafted to contain the energy of the blue realm. Where is your soul, Vanity? Where is your humanity? Whence comes the deservingness of life in the mockery that you are?”

“I don’t have those things,” Vanity said.

And he looked down.

“But there is a purpose for my life,” Vanity said. “The deep and surging purpose of the blue. That is why I have admired myself, though I am small and unremarked upon. That is why I claim to virtue.”

He stared into his hand mirror.

“Isn’t that what a soul is?” he asked. “A purpose? A meaning? A reason to exist? Don’t I have these things as much as you?”

Gargamel considered this.

“It is said,” he said, “in A Field Guide to the Blue Essentials, that the blue realm possesses the character of intentionality; and that you creatures are the knifepoint of that purpose’s expression. But tell me, Vanity, why should I value that intention more than I value my own?”

“Because it’s blue,” Vanity stressed. “Blue intentions are more important than just any old intentions.”

“No,” said Montechristien Gargamel, and the net came down.

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 twenty-first installment of the story of that time.

Sophie stares thoughtfully at the Devil.

“I’m glad that I can be what you want,” she says. It’s an honest statement. “But I don’t think I will. Because it seems unlikely to be a desirable outcome for me.”

The horned man considers. He rubs his chin.

“I’d never really thought about whether it was a desirable outcome for you,” he says.

He pulls his shapeless white hat down low over the tops of his eyes. He rocks back and forth. He is clearly thinking very hard. There’s even a little bit of smoke.

“I think you would be happier,” he concludes.

“What?”

“I think you would be happier,” the Devil says, “if you lose this struggle, and help me damn the world, than if you win, and go on like you are.”

“Oh,” Sophie says.

She thinks about that.

“Well, I still can’t,” she says. “I mean, you’re the Devil. It’d be bad.”

“Yes,” the Devil agrees solemnly. “It would be a sin.”

He’s mocking her, because Sophie is, of course, incapable of personal sin and grace. This is why the best reply Sophie can think of is “Grarh!” and standing up with her sword in her hand.

“Oh, come on,” the horned man says. “I’m not the one who didn’t give you your own soul at birth. That wasn’t even God. That was just physics.”

“But I’m still supposed to be good!” Sophie protests.

“No,” says the horned man.

“No?”

“What you’re supposed to do,” says the Devil, “as an individual without a soul, is to define your own purpose for yourself, instead of staggering around in a metaphysical system that doesn’t care about you. What you’re supposed to do is take advantage of the fact that you’re not being judged by the standards of God’s kingdom. And if you’re desperate to adhere to His plans and purposes, you should assume that He has good reason for making that exemption—that if you’re not being judged by the same standard, that that is quite possibly intentional. And what I insist is that in this situation you choose my purpose, and remake yourself as an incarnate thereof, allowing me to dispose of this troublesome struggle and free up the energy I spend pursuing you so that I may focus it instead on killing Montechristien Gargamel and subverting the court of Prester John.”

The Devil is standing now. He is facing her. He is intent.

“Oh,” Sophie says.

She’s a bit dizzied by this, having never thought about her life or her position along anything even a cousin to these lines.

“So,” the red thing says, “we’re going to duel. And if you manage to win, I’ll give you some of my power and leave you alone until Montechristien’s dead. And if I win, I’ll remake you as I like and you’ll stop struggling to stay the Sophie that you’ve been. That’s the deal.”

Sophie stares at him for a moment, thinking.

“All right,” she says.

And they are in motion.

An Unclean Legacy


“The Duel”

It is by unspoken agreement that they shelter their power as they begin.

The Devil is in the form of a red youth eighteen apples tall, with a shapeless white hat and white bootied trousers. Sophie is in her human shape, save for the sword of bone growing as an extension from her hand.

She strikes at him. He blocks it with his palm. There is the flare of a spirit mandala as the sword touches him, parallel to his palm; the blade stops as if it were hitting stone. He spins inwards and elbows her stomach. A similar mandala forms; she absorbs the force of the blow by taking for an instant the shape of a jelly, but only by that measure does she keep her innards from rupturing. She pulls the sword inwards to cut his throat. He seizes her arm and applies a constellation of forces. She avoids having her bones splinter in his hands but finds herself off balance and flung through the air to land rolling on the road. She does not bother to roll to her feet; she simply changes herself so that she is standing, one leg extended back.

“That throw was a ninja technique,” Sophie accuses.

The Devil stares at her for a moment. Then he shakes his head. “No,” he says. “Just—just, no.”

Sophie lunges. The explosion of power that goes into her lunge is driven by the strength of a kangaroo’s legs, a falcon’s wings, the long muscles of a dragon’s back, and the terrible force of the bounding bear’s jumpsprings. She is long and lean and the arm that drives forward the sword is the arm of the stone-born giants that walked the earth of old.

With his forearm he blocks it, bringing his arm before his body, twisting it to catch the blade. It is absurd that the blade skitters from this block, that Sophie finds herself off-balance and falling, that the horned man is coming down towards her, falling onto one knee with his red right hand extended to catch and crush her throat. It is absurd and maddening that flesh could block her so.

But Sophie does not despair, for now she knows the source of that ungodly strength.

In the spirit flare that blocked her when her sword touched his arm she saw it: a line of red power leading to some other realm.

And as she skids to a halt she is a wolverine, a grendel, a hungry lizard-thing, and she is a red essential with immortal power in her veins and a strength to match his own.

As her claw touches his chest her spirit flares red and he is flung through seven trees and deep into a hill. His lung is cut and he is bleeding black half-clotted blood from the score marks of her nails.

He is smiling.

“It is possible,” says Sophie, as the red realm fills her, “that that was a mistake.”

That’s not good, is it? But we won’t have the final part of Sophie’s backstory for a little bit longer.

Instead, it’s time for a heartwarming tale of romance and machinery in an Unclean Legacy special: “Grinding Samael!”

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!”