Ink Ascending (XVI/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

Sometimes when things seem darkest a flying carpet will come and swoop you off and carry you to the answer to all your pains.

In the lands of Romance you will battle ogres and dragons.

You will find bottles containing the secret hearts of djinn.

Dashing princes will bend their head to look at you, their eyes gleaming with that ancient light of Romance.

They will say: “I see you have come here.”

. . . but no.

That is not right.

The carpet—that seems right.

But not the rest.

The girl is surfacing to consciousness and something is not right. The Prince is not standing over her. That is someone else. He is not saying, “I see you have come here.”

He is saying something else.

The girl focuses her eyes.

It is Minister Jof.

It is Minister Jof, and not the Prince.

He has said, if anything, “I consider you to blame.”

She shakes her head, just a little. She turns her head. It hurts to do this, but she turns her head.

Is that the Prince?

It is Riffle. He is washing his hands.

And there:

Dr. Sarous, glum and sour. Not even speaking.

And there:

The general of the stickbugs. He is approaching. He is lowering his mouth towards the foot of the girl. Dr. Sarous bats at him and he skulks away.

It is distinctly not the lands of Romance.

If anything, it is the murky land of Dismal.

Still, the girl sits up. She makes a game try of it. “How marvelous,” she says. “You, Dr. Sarous; have you been treating our wounds?”

Dr. Sarous’ mouth remains a line.

“Minister Jof, Riffle, you followed me?”

They look away.

The girl makes a face. “Really,” she says, “when one rides a flying carpet to the answer to one’s pains, one is supposed to smile.”

“This?” says Riffle.

His voice cracks.

Something is wrong. No, she knew that. Something is wronger.

She turns.

Behind her there is a chasm, and from that chasm rises a great stone pillar, and bound to that pillar there is a man—

No, a creature like a man—

He is sealed against the stone with molten brass and molten iron. They bubble with great heat. He is sealed into the stone, and the nerves and veins of him run uninterrupted into the rock. Marked in a great circle around him are the symbols of the seasons, and the zodiac, and of time. His flesh in places gaps to show bones and organs beneath.

He is Cronos.

His eyes are open.

They can see the specks of his left iris and the light on his left pupil. They can see the agony in it.

His right eye is burnt ruin.

He is the crust of the world. He is the mechanism of time.

He is aware of them.

He winks.

“Oh, don’t,” says the girl.

His face crinkles, just a bit, around his pain.

“Oh, no,” she says.

It is not words. It is simply an implication in his expression. But it is there all the same.

I see you have come here.

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.

“This is what I experienced in delirium,” says Minister Jof. “A shadow came. It flicked by. It caught me up. Then I was here, with Dr. Sarous extracting the splinter from my eye.”

“For me,” says Dr. Sarous, “it is essentially the same. There was a confusion of stickbugs; I caught the general’s lapel and fell.”

“I am done with this,” says Riffle.

He looks dissatisfied.

“Enough with the business of saviors and killing God. I propose we push the girl over the edge, thus putting the throne of the world in our debt; we then retire to Sarous’ kingdom, where he shall appoint me his high executor and allow you minor appointments in his administration. In exchange, I will advise Sarous as to how to live with the knowledge of his corruption; all of us see profit.”

The girl’s name is Ink Catherly, although everybody calls her the imago. It’s short for imagoro, she’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth.

She’s staring at the face of the titan in the pillar.

“Is this how it begins?” she asks.

Riffle looks at her.

“Is this the first moment of our history?” she asks.

“Hardly,” says Riffle.

But Ink turns on him and she is burning with the power of the interpretation of ended things and her voice cuts across all his thoughts and she says, “Cronos was laying on the sand.”

June, Thursday 3, 2004 – Cronos: Cronos was laying on the sand.

To what end, time?

The stickbug general is a mean and dirty creature. His heart is small and rotten. Time is the vehicle for his resentment: a field in which he may experience things that are not gorging on child flesh, not stickbug sex, not hiding against a tree.

Time is a vehicle for pain and for hunger and for fear without satiety.

There is a heat that washes off the girl as she says these words and it drives the stickbug general flinching back. But this does not quench the stickbug’s determination. If anything it affirms it. Things are too uncomfortable. The girl must die.

Cronos was young. He was young. He was so very young. He was tired. He did not know who he was.

He was a castaway on the shore of the world.

He lay there and he did not move.

The sun was very hot.

It began to burn him.

When his skin turned red he made a strangled sound and rose to his feet and he staggered off to find a cave.

To what end, time?

Time is a vast reach filled with disorder. Time is the vehicle for Riffle’s discontent: again and again it slews him from his purpose. It drives him to the end of narrow aims and imbues his broader projects with a sense of dim futility. It is littered with elements he cannot incorporate into his closed designs.

As the girl speaks Riffle becomes aware of a deep and timeless agony. It is not hers, nor his, nor Cronos’, but the agony of Ge.

He cannot solve it.

He cannot even begin to solve it.

He cannot ignore it, either; and so, in that moment, imagoro, he hates Ink Catherly with a burning passion.

All around him rose the deep voice of the earth.

“My child,” said the earth. “Gotten of a sinful father.”

Cronos put his hands upon the rock.

It was wet. It was hard. It was rough.

“I have a mother,” he said.

Joy rose from his stomach to burn through him. “I have a mother, I have a father, I am a child of the heavens and the earth.”

To what end, time?

For Dr. Sarous time was once a playground: an opportunity to make all things well. But the more deeply he studied the world the more things he found that were not well. The more he bent his fallible eye to scrutiny, the more it seemed that the world was a fractal made out of errors built on errors, noise stacking on noise, with virtue nothing more than an emergent pattern on the whole. In the end, his dream unraveled; time seized his prize from him, and his pride.

It hurts him, to hear the joy in Cronos’ voice.

The world is sick, he thinks. Where is its shame?

“Be not proud to be Uri’s son,” said the earth. “For he first thought of shameful things, and cut away the wrongness from the world.”

A question lies hard on Cronos’ mind, but it is not a question that the earth can answer.

“What is the proper manner of my shape?” Cronos asks. “Ought I be tall or short? Have I three legs or two?”

“Hide yourself,” said the earth, “between the sea, the sky, and the land, and wait for darkness, and I will show you how your father has injured me.”

Though confused, still Cronos obeyed.

He shaped himself into a thing that could make webs and he spun a web between the sea, the land, and the sky. He hung there, waiting, trying to decide how many legs a titan has.

The sun left the sky.

The world grew dark.

The web trembled and shrank. The vault of the stars came down and pressed close upon the world. Cronos shivered in the dark.

To what end, time?

Time is a vehicle for evolution. That is why Minister Jof fears it.

He loves evolution. It is his work. But he fears it. To change— to grow—

He is Minister Jof.

Where could he go?

He does not allow himself to imagine that he is fallible; that he is imperfect; that there is an upwards arc. And those times when he does—when it slips through into his heart that we are unfinished, mean, imperfect creatures, and Minister Jof no different—are exactly the times when he cannot imagine any means of becoming better.

He can feel change coming. It echoes in the words of the history of the girl.

He shutters his heart. He focuses on his judgments and his spite.

He turns away.

The clouds lit with pink and scarlet fires. The earth ground open and in it were pools of darkness and green and coldest indigo. The sky rubbed against the earth and fires slipped from it into the depths and danced upon the waters there. The wind blew. It came down off the hills and it roared across the plains. It chilled the peaks of the mountains and bent the trees of the forest. Stars fell and lost their fire. The chasms under the world ignited. The world and sky strained against one another and the sky grew damper and the air began to taste of rain.

As the sky coupled with the earth, the earth said, “For whom have you made this world, o my love?”

And the sky said, “For Oceanus; and Tethys; and Hyperion; and Theia; and Coeus; and Phoebe; and Cronos; and Rhea; and the birds; and the trees; and the insects; and the flowers; and the naiads; and the oceanids; and the teeth gnomes; and the antelope; and the burrowing things; and the climbing things;” and he went on in just this vein for quite some time.

And as he said these things the earth sighed, “Ah,” for these things were precious to her.

But in the later hours of the night it grew halting and slow, that recitation of the sky. “And for the platypus;” he said, and he thought, and he sought for words, “and the sandpipers; and the dogs—“

And there he had run out.

And fire blazes everywhere throughout the world and Cronos said, “. . . but what of Ophion?”

And the earth trembled and Cronos understood a thing, and he said, “. . . but what of Ophion? But what of siggorts? But what of woglies? But what of all the exiled things? But what of these?”

And his question made no impact on the sky, which only spun, and gave him a ruffling about the head, and said, “Do not love ye evil, child.”

And then the sky withdrew behind the curtains of the dawn.

And Cronos thought of Ophion, and the siggorts, and the woglies: o my loves.

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

In the end they are too small.

In the end they are hopeless and dismal, all of them.

But dharma moves.

Ink is stepping back. She can tell what moves in the wicked hearts that face her: one to three murderers, and one to three who will not help. She is stepping back towards the chasm. She has no idea how she will survive a screaming plummet into unknown depths but she has fallen from high places a fair amount recently and is starting to trust her ability to improvise. She suspects that it is less of a danger than her four companions, but:

“You know what the coolest thing ever is?” she asks.

The general of the stickbugs shakes his head.

It’s not actually negation.

He’s just breaking the spell of her words.

“People,” Ink says.

And she grins at them, flush with an echo of Cronos’ joy, as Minister Jof looks away; as Dr. Sarous and Riffle exchange dark glances; as the general of the stickbugs scuttles towards her with murderous intent.

Freaks, the lot of you, thinks Ink Catherly; o my loves.

And then there is the miracle.

She steps back.

Behind her, dharma moves. The titan’s hands stretch forth. He catches her. And in that motion they see it. They see it in the motion, all four of them. They see the motivation for time.

They see the purpose for the crust of the world.

He holds at bay the price of our imperfections, and behind them our happy endings; he bears the immeasurable weight of all these things.

Time is Cronos, standing there in the crust of the world, bearing his impossible burden, so that before our histories and our stories end in bright perfection, we that are imperfect have the opportunity to grow.

Though people always fight the things they love.

The Island of the Centipede

It is the terrible truth of Heaven and Earth that the Elysian Fields await us all—

Well, except for the woglies, and the siggorts, I suppose—

That the Elysian Fields await us all. That we are accepted as we are by the actual and the ideal, and bent by destiny towards an inexorable fate of bliss for ever. And that it is only by the sleight of Cronos and his work that we may have a chance, before the end, to make ourselves worthy of that ending.

That he does it for them no less than any other: for Riffle, and the stickbug general, and Dr. Sarous, and Minister Jof.

Thus we say, however rare that it might be that purpose changes, or life evolves: dharma moves.

For just a moment, as he lifts Ink from that place, four of the five who remain behind recognize those great and horrible truths.

As for the fifth, it is over already.

Jacob’s carpet releases its hold upon its fate and falls: flutter, flutter, flutter, down through the storm below.

As performed in the Gibbelins’ Tower on October 20, 2005, in remembrance of Ink.

  • But we’re not quite done. Tune in TOMORROW for the unbelievable epilogue:
    THE BEGINNING.
    Then the letters column! Then back to Sid and Max—and let’s see if we can’t finish up The Island of the Centipede this November!

(Good Friday – Hitherby Annual #1 – I/I) Tre Ore

Once upon a time, the world had a purpose.

Back then, everything did.

Everything had a purpose, and a truth, and a dharma.

This time was full of sorrow. If a banshee howled, then someone would die. If a mermaid called you, you would drown. If a witch cursed you, you would shrivel and suffer ill fate. Such was the nature of the banshee, and the mermaid, and the witch. If Coretta’s Lion had your scent, then it would hunt you down, and eat your skin and muscles, bit by bit, and you would take three days to die. The world was full of things like that.

But these sorrows were small.

The worst of the predators of this time were the predators of truth. For there were things, things like Death, and Sickness, and Old Age, that declared their truths supreme. It did not matter what your purpose was. Theirs would overwrite it. In the end, you could not defeat them, because it was the nature of their truth to mean more than your own. They were a very exclusive club.

The monster was such a thing. He was such a predator. And he was undefeatable. And it is because there were monsters, and because there was death, and because there were truths like theirs, that the world was broken, and the gods were cast from the world of truth into the heart of emptiness.

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

Martin stumbles against a man, and his touch does not turn the man to dust. After a long moment Martin realizes that this is so.

“Hey,” Martin says, and refocuses his eyes.

This is a place of deep water, but the man is parched and dry. Fruit is dangling from the trees all around him, but he is terribly thin. His name is Tantalus.

“Hey,” Tantalus says.

Martin backs away a step, tilts his head, and frowns. “You’re not like the others. You’re not a broken god.”

“No,” Tantalus says. “I am a man, and I am dead, and I have been consigned to torture here in the Underworld for roughly three thousand years.”

Martin whistles. “Harsh.”

Tantalus shrugs.

The deepness of the water has put a silence on the woglies, but Martin still feels edgy and twitchy down in his soul. “Hey,” he says. “What makes that okay?”

“Okay?”

“What makes it okay to torture someone for three thousand years?”

“Ah,” says Tantalus.

Then he laughs.

“It didn’t matter,” Tantalus explains. “Zeus sat on the throne of the world, you see, and it did not matter which of his dicta were okay.

Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit

540 BCE

“It would have been better to kill him,” Mylitta admits.

Mylitta sits tailor style on the dust and grime and brushes White Lion’s fur.

“But the problem with heroes,” she says, “is that monsters have an answer to them.”

White Lion lowers its head to the floor.

“A hero is a storm,” Mylitta says, “and storms are terrible. But there is a place above the storm where the air is calm. And I do not know how. But I could feel it, like I could feel the wind and the sunlight. That he had found that place. And so there was no single specific moment in which the monster could be killed. ”

“I thirst,” rumbles White Lion.

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

There is a silence.

“I had fruit,” Tantalus says, “Only a few decades ago. But I would still like some water. If you could hold up some water for me to drink, I would love you.”

“My hands are full of dust,” Martin says.

“Oh.”

“I thought they were people,” Martin says. “I thought they were my predecessors. But when I touched them, it turned out that all they were was dust.”

“It’s the Underworld,” Tantalus says. It’s an explanation or a dismissal; Martin is not sure which.

“My sister keeps making gods to save her,” Martin says, “and all of them fail, and all of them wind up as mud and dust.”

“I remember that,” Tantalus says. “The gods were severed from the world.”

“Severed?”

“In the face of the monster, they were lost,” Tantalus says. “They had no meaning that could compare to his own. So they were cut from the Earth, torn away, and made into isn’ts, lest the monster’s dharma set a new order on the world. It was my doing, in a way; my children could not have learned the truths that make a monster had I not stolen the secret of the gods.”

Martin frowns. “The secret?”

“If you accept a purpose;” Tantalus says. “If you declare something to be your answer to the emptiness; then you must accept the consequences of that answer. It is desirable, for gods as for men, to shrink from that burden; but in the end, it always catches you, and, if it so pleases, it tears you apart.”

Tantalus sits down heavily, and the water sinks into the dust lest he should drink, and the woglies surrounding Martin are in the air once more.

Behold, Your Son (X/?)

546 BCE

“I am born to answer suffering,” says Siddhartha.

Siddhartha and Yasodhara travel through the city. Yasodhara is very pregnant.

Her answer is light and teasing. “And who is not? If you were born to cause suffering, my love, then I should name you a monster.”

Siddhartha says:

Let us speak of death, then, as a monster.
He may be fought,
But the terms are his own.
Each time you make escape from him
He claims his due.
Thus it is that no man may fight death.

Let us call illness a monster.
It may be fought,
But the terms are its own.
We do not choose the behavior of purity.
Even touching a man,
In exercise of compassion,
May bring on sickness.

Let us speak of age as a monster.
She may be fought,
But the terms are her own.
The more you fight, the more she grips to you.
The more you fight, the more she claims her due.
Thus it is that no man may fight age.

This is the flaw in the world.

How can I answer suffering?
Monsters have no remedy.

“The root cause of suffering,” Yasodhara observes, following the train of her own silent thoughts, “is that no one wants to suffer.”

Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise

539 BCE

Nabonidus is educing a god from her when Mylitta breaks.

“Sometimes,” Mylitta says, clearly, “it’s like there’s this thick yarrow stick in my chest, going through where my heart used to be, stretching from my spine to my ribs. And now, suddenly, it’s like it’s just split, and blackness is leaking out all over me.”

Nabonidus blinks.

There is a light that roils under Mylitta’s skin, and then fades. There are great wracking coughs that shake her, and violent seizures. Then Mylitta stops. Her head lolls to one side. Her eyes dim.

Nabonidus looks blankly at her. He steps back. His arms fold around himself for comfort.

“Um,” he says.

Mylitta sleeps.

There is a great bulk behind Nabonidus in the room. It is white, like a maggot, like the wriggling young of flies. It is leonine. It is soft. Its name is White Lion, and it is a god.

“She will not wake,” it says.

The creature pads forward. It says, “I have asked her to leave this place, to come away with me, a thousand times. But she has always said no. I do not think she will deny me today.”

It leans down. It takes Mylitta in its mouth. It turns to walk away.

“She’s mine,” Nabonidus says.

White Lion looks at him.

“She’s my husk,” Nabonidus protests. “I broke her.”

White Lion leans its great head down. It drools Mylitta onto the floor. It looks up. It opens its mouth. It roars.

It is a terrible thing, that roar. It is like a wind tunnel that blows away the qualities of the world. Nabonidus cannot see. He cannot touch. He cannot taste. He cannot smell. He cannot hear, save for the roar.

.
.
.

Nabonidus is on the floor. He does not know how or why he is on the floor. But Mylitta is gone. So he does the only thing that he can do, in answer to her emptiness.

He makes a god.

Behold, Your Son (X/?)

546 BCE

“Ah,” says Yasodhara. “There is a monk.”

Siddhartha follows her gaze. He frowns.

Who is this, Yasodhara?
This man—
His head is shaved,
He wears a robe,
He has a strange demeanor.

The smile on his face
Seems more
Like the one I seek
Than the smile of my father Suddhodana.

“He is a monk,” Yasodhara says. “He lives in the temple and he travels the kingdom, teaching people how to be good.”

“And what is his answer to suffering?” Siddhartha asks.

Yasodhara studies him with the eyes of a goddess. “A very small fiend,” she says. “It lives in his gums. It locks his jaws in that smile. There are bone passages connecting his teeth to his ears, and this allows it to whisper to him constantly, ‘people need not suffer.’ It is a painful fiend, but it has convinced him not to mind.”

(“If only ancient India had had proper dental hygiene!” Jane exclaims. “He could have brushed the fiend right out and put it to use saving the world!”

“There are many tragedies,” Mrs. Schiff agrees.)

Siddhartha opens his mouth to speak.

“Oh,” says Yasodhara, interrupting him. She has gone pale. She leans against him.

Her labor has begun.

Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise

539 BCE

Exhausted, weary, broken, and warm:

Nabonidus is crying.

It has cut him raw, to make a god. It is like being a skinless man, for him, naked in the face of everything he is.

It does not hurt terribly. But it stings.

It costs him that control that would keep him from his tears.

There is a snuffling in the room, and the clicking of nails on stone. A cold wet shadow passes over the footprints of White Lion, the altar of Sin, the blood Mylitta left behind. Then the creature he has made, the Dog of Nabonidus, brushes past and around him and leans against his side.

“Why couldn’t I keep her?” Nabonidus says.

The Dog looks at him. Its eyes are expressive. It is almost as if it wanted to say, It is the monster’s nature to consume his victims.

“She was strong,” Nabonidus says. “She could have fought. She could have kept herself unbroken.”

The Dog pants, quietly. If it could speak, Nabonidus thinks, it would no doubt say, She did not wish to. In the end, she chose to leave you with the burden of the contradiction of your lives.

“Why?” he asks.

Because it is the only answer she could find.

So Nabonidus goes home to Babylon, and he whispers to Mylitta’s absence, “You’re right, of course.”

Mylitta’s absence remains constant.

“One of us must pay the price,” Nabonidus says. “And you think I’m not strong enough. You think I’ll bend. But I won’t. I’ll make a host like you have never seen, and send them after you, to make you whole. You won’t escape from me. I will fix you.”

There is a void in the room, an emptiness, a devouring. For a moment, Nabonidus thinks it is his heart, but then he realizes that Belshazzar has let himself in.

“I will help you, father,” says Belshazzar. “If you let me.”

“Help me?”

“I have seen how it is that one pulls forth gods.”

Behold, Your Son (X/?)

546 BCE

Siddhartha is in the garden. The midwives have chased him from the room where Yasodhara is giving birth, explaining:

Every child we pull forth
Is an answer
To the suffering in the world.

You are Prince Siddhartha,
And we glory in you,
And one day you’ll turn the wheel
And conquer all the world
But you will never be a midwife.

Your fussing distracts us!
Your philosophy confuses us!
Out! Out! Give us space
To answer the suffering in this room.

“Midwives are intimidating,” concedes Siddhartha.

He sits in the garden, under a tree, and thinks about the monk, and suddenly he realizes:

I am suffering.
I know the meaning of it!
And it is this:

From the beginning of my life,
I have made observations
And conclusions regarding the nature of the world.

These carry me along
Like a river
Each new truth means another thing is true.

I have built a world
From premises I’ve found
And premises I’ve made

And this is my suffering:
A flaw has crept in.
A wound has snuck into the world that I have made.

Dukkha.
There: I have named it.
Somehow suffering is intrinsic to my world.

To deny suffering
Is to find contradictions—
We can’t have everything we want.

Maya is in the garden. She sits down beside him. Her eyes are shadowed. She says:

I am here to offer you the treasure wheel.
It is power.
It is truth.
It is the nature of the world
And where it goes, it conquers.

If you take it I can let you live.

Siddhartha says:

I am glad you are not here to kill me,
Mother,
But to bind me to that wheel—that is crueler.

It is beautiful
But it is the cause of all my suffering.

“It is not the cause of suffering,” Maya says. “It is the answer to it. If you have power to dictate the ephemera of the world, you may release things from their suffering.”

Siddhartha reaches out to touch her hand, but she drifts away. She is standing now, slightly out of his reach, staring out at the world, holding the jeweled treasure wheel in her hands.

Siddhartha asks:

If someone is wounded, mother,
What would I use the wheel for?

To heal them, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If someone is being tortured, mother,
What would I use the wheel for?

To save them, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If they are tortured again, later, mother,
What would I use the wheel for then?

To save them again, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If they suffer in the meantime because they remember torture, mother,
What use, then, is the wheel?

To heal them, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If someone suffers, again and again, mother,
What use is the wheel?

You may end or prevent that suffering each time, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If there are conditions in life that make future suffering inevitable, mother,
What use is the wheel?

Maya frowns at Siddhartha. She says:

It is life itself that makes suffering inevitable.
If you end all life, you will end all suffering
But this is not the Maya-Dharma.
And this is not compassion.

Siddhartha says:

If there are conditions in life that make future suffering inevitable, mother,
Is the wheel then no use at all?

Maya says:

We suffer because we love what might have been.
If you end love, you will end all suffering
But this is not the Maya-Dharma.
And this is not benevolence.

Siddhartha shakes his head. He says:

If someone wounded says,
When I bring the wheel to them,
‘This wound is inevitable,’ mother,
What must I do then?

Maya says:

Such a person has lost perspective.
Ignore their words and heal the wound, Siddhartha.

Siddhartha says:

You have lost perspective, mother.
The world is a wound.
The nature of things is a wound.
That suffering is inevitable, this is a wound.
Do you understand?
Even if I must shatter love,
Or shatter life
To heal them,
I will end that quality of things that makes us suffer.

Maya lowers her head. “So ruthless,” she whispers.

Siddhartha reaches out to her. He says:

If I did not know the Maya-Dharma, mother,
I could not transcend it.

Maya says, quietly,

O Prince, O Prince,
In your rooms
Your son is born.

Will you look upon him?
Will you go, and look upon him,
And know the reason for this world?

“Sons are an impediment,” says Siddhartha.

Maya looks wry.

I shall not. Siddhartha rises, and turns, and looks towards the gate. I will seek an end to suffering.

The wheel burns in Maya’s hands. It is a jeweled treasure wheel, thousand-spoked, with two winky eyes; and now it is on fire. It grows great and terrible, and there are wheels within the wheels, and wheels within those, and it rolls towards Siddhartha like the coldest and deadliest of the killer-gods. And as it touches him, and burns his arm, he falls back; but it is Maya, and not Siddhartha, who screams.

A spoke of the wheel has broken free and fallen to the ground.

There is a hissing inside the treasure wheel of the world, a hissing and a shuddering, and the world has cracked.

Eloi, Eloi, Lema Sabachthani?

Present Time

Sebastien emerges from the shower, wrapped in a towel and using another on his hair. He is almost clean, but not entirely.

The monster is waiting outside.

“I’m not intimidated by relative nudity,” Sebastien says.

“Did you ever wonder,” the monster asks, “why it is that you’re something that can kill monsters, and not something that does?”

Sebastien scrubs at his hair a bit more, then shrugs. “No.”

“I’ve thought it might be,” the monster says, “that we’re difficult to kill.”

“No,” Sebastien says. “It’s just that if you’re someone who kills monsters, then there must always be a monster to kill. You can’t fix anything, you can’t solve anything, you can’t make any kind of difference unless you’re lucky enough to do the matter-antimatter thing and burn out with your enemy in a blaze of glory. It’s safer to be someone who can kill them. And even then—”

It is very important to Sebastien that he not turn away from the monster, and so the pain in him is a crisis point; and in the end, though he does not turn away, he does look down.

“To go all the way means being death. It means being a killer. Even if it’s someone who kills things like you. And it means being part of things like you, even if it’s the part that ends them.”

The monster’s smile is brilliant and white.

Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise

539 BCE

It is the seventeenth god.

Belshazzar pulls the seventeenth god from Nabonidus, a great and terrible phoenix shape, a yellow and red effluvium that pours forth from Nabonidus’ chest and mouth.

“Go,” says Belshazzar, and it is gone. It seems to Nabonidus that it is following Mylitta into emptiness, as if Nabonidus’ own strength is pouring after his victim into the void.

Belshazzar leans down again. His face is terribly earnest and clinical.

Nabonidus is weak.

“Wait,” he says.

“It is necessary,” Belshazzar says. “We do not know how long until her heart will cease to beat.”

“No,” says Nabonidus. His word is binding, and Belshazzar stops.

Nabonidus is weak.

“Lift this burden from me,” he begs.

So the teeth of the devouring god close around him.

The nature of the monster ends.

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

The idea that comes to Martin is as inevitable as the rain.

“This is a place that takes everything from you,” he says. His voice is thick and heavy. “I came down here, and I was strong, but I can’t keep that. Not in the Underworld.”

The woglies are closing in on him, but Tantalus stands up, and the water washes in, and over them, and they grow still.

“I have to give up more,” Martin says. “Somewhere, there is something I am clinging to, that I have to give up, and it’ll be the thing that hurts the most to toss away.”

Tantalus looks at him. “Why would you surrender the thing you love the most?”

“Because there cannot be a poor rich man,” Martin says. “There cannot be an earthworm in the sky. There cannot be a man who is not a man, or a bird that is not a bird, or a void that is not empty. I am the architect of suffering, I am its source and its foundation, and I am good; and because these things cannot share one form and nature, I am severed from the world. My purpose fails because it is a contradiction, and contradictions cannot endure.”

The woglies are buried in the water, and they do not speak.

“There is no birth,” Martin says, “that has no pain.”

Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit

540 BCE

Mylitta leans over White Lion, her face in the creature’s fur.

“This is the secret of the monster,” Mylitta whispers to him. “It is not random. It is not chance. And none of it is blind. The line of Amiel could not escape her oath, but they could twist it, and they know the secret of the gods. They know that we exist for a reason, that we respond to purpose, that we are bound by the laws of our nature that we cannot break.”

“Leave here,” says White Lion. “Leave, before he shatters you.”

“So they chose a dharma for themselves,” Mylitta says, “that we could not answer. They chose a dharma that redefines our truths.”

“Leave here.”

“That is the reason for Belshazzar,” Mylitta says. “He will not answer the monster. He will break the question. He will destroy what it means to be a god, and I shall have my Elli.”

She is silent for a moment.

“If he is weak,” she says. “If he is weak, before I die.”

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

Martin opens his eyes. He releases a burden, or accepts it; they are one and the same.

“It’s not the monster who’s hurting Jane,” Martin says. “I won’t claim that. I won’t be a passive observer. If I’m going to shape the world through suffering, I’m going to be the one who shapes it; and the monster’s responsibility won’t ever negate mine. It’s my job to make sure that suffering transforms.”

There are fewer woglies now. They are skating off through the water, like toroidal tropical fish or evil aquatic froot loops that have been startled by a splash.

But one remains.

“Do you have the right?” it asks.

“Ye—”

Martin comes very close to nonexistence.

Then he shakes his head. “That’s not important to me,” Martin says.

It Is Finished

539 BCE

There are some who say that Chen Yu broke the world. There are some who lay the blame on Belshazzar in Babylon, or Siddhartha Suddhodana’s son. A few blame Mylitta, or the monster, or even Maya, for all that there was nothing she feared more.

In the end, that the world should break was inevitable.

The weight of its suffering was not a thing the world could bear.

Martin and Lisa (I/III)

It is 1995. There is no sun in the Underworld.

Martin finds it creepy that there are portraits along the stairs.

One of them is a picture of Frederick. He looks a lot more like the hero than Martin does. But Martin knows him. He was Jane’s brother before Martin was.

“I wonder why you failed,” Martin says.

Then he takes out a bit of charcoal and scribbles a moustache on Frederick’s face.

“Now you’re an Archduke!”

Archduke Frederick, presumably of Austria, looks out impassively at the world.

The next portrait is a picture of Tad. Tad was Jane’s brother after Frederick but before Martin. Tad’s got a smooth smile. He’s pretty cool. Martin isn’t cool yet, so Tad’s coolness annoys him. He turns Tad’s picture around. He writes ‘kick me’ on its back.

Martin descends. He reaches the bottom of the stairs, and a land of mud and darkness.

“I have no idea where to go,” he says.

Nothing happens.

He clears his throat. He says, loudly, “I have no idea where to go! If only there were someone who could help me!”

The world shivers.

Light condenses from the darkness, and ten thousand miles of shadows grow deeper. The light is a girl. She’s carrying a jacket, and her name is Lisa.

“Hey,” she says.

“Hey.”

He looks her up and down. They could be siblings. They could be twins. She’s his height exactly, and she’s got his hair, and she’s got his smile, and she’s got his eyes.

“You’re kidding,” Martin says.

“What?”

Martin looks hesitant.

“She made me,” Lisa says, “a long time ago, to be her older sister. I was an answer to her suffering. I said, ‘maybe it’s for the best. Maybe suffering is transformative. Maybe if I leave her there to suffer, she’ll become something grander, something better, something new.‘”

“Yes,” agrees Martin.

Lisa grins at him. “It makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s a perfect answer. People die in droves, children lay in piles with their arms twitching, dogs starve, and it could all be part of a glorious purpose. The engine that drives the growth of the world. The answer to the Dukkha Call. And I was part of it.”

Lisa turns. She looks out at the mud. She slings her jacket over her shoulder and begins walking.

Martin follows.

“I, um.”

Martin clears his throat.

“That’s why I’m letting her suffer,” he says, “too.”

“Redundancy’s good,” Lisa says, cheerfully. “Hey, do you have a wish?”

Martin looks down. His eyes are in shadow. “I want to win,” he says.

Lisa grins at him. “That’s a good wish,” she says.

“Can you grant it?”

“Maybe!” Lisa grins at him. Her teeth are very white. “If nothing else, I can raise your hopes.”

Martin is not entirely sure how to take that. He retreats in the general direction of sarcasm, but doesn’t quite make it there.

“Yay,” he says.

In the distance, he hears a cry. “Help me!” it says.

“Ignore those,” Lisa says.

“Illusions to lead me off the path?”

“Dead angels,” Lisa says. “Probably some other gods too. They’re steeping in mud and failure until they become something grander, something better, something new.”

“Yay.”

“Do you know the rules of the Underworld?” Lisa asks.

“No,” Martin says.

“They’re like this,” Lisa says. “It’s easy to get into the Underworld. There is no body that does not have its personal gate of death; no soul, without its gate of emptiness; no mind, without its gate of deepness. That’s three whole gates per person, and girls have a fourth, so you can see how easy it is. Getting out, on the other hand, is hard. You can’t leave unless you’re the child of a god, beloved by the one who sits on the throne of the world, or a person inherently good.”

Martin looks wry.

Lisa grins at him. It’s a charming expression. “I know,” she says.

He snorts.

“I do,” she says. “I had the same dream you did. But then I got stuck.”

“I’m inherently good,” Martin bluffs. “Unlike some people.”

“Nice trick,” Lisa says.

They walk on for a bit.

“I mean,” Lisa says, “considering.”

Martin looks up, sharply. For a moment, there’s a force in his eyes. Then it fades, and he bursts out with a question that’s been nagging at him.

“Why are you a girl?”

“The monster isn’t as fond of boys,” the angel Lisa says.

“Oh.”

They walk on.

“People who don’t suffer,” Martin justifies, “remain small. They’re weak. They’re isn’ts. They’re shadows. They’re firewood people.”

“That’s true,” says Lisa.

Then the most remarkably clever and cruel expression comes on her face, and she leans close to him, and she whispers, “So are people who suffer, mostly.”

Martin makes himself walk on.

“Maybe you’re a stillborn thing,” Lisa says. “Like a fire made of wind, like a voice crying in the emptiness, like a dream in the mind of an uncaring man. Maybe you’re down here because you died. It’s the path most people take.”

“Maybe,” Martin says.

Lisa stops.

“Anyway,” she says. “This is your place.”

She gestures ahead of them, where the mud stirs in unseen currents.

“You’ll spend eternity drowning,” she says. “You won’t be able to breathe. Your struggles will be muted. You’ll never know what happened to anyone else you care about. There’ll be no boundary between yourself and the pain. Like with her.”

Martin looks at her.

“It’s not what I’m here for,” he says.

“It’s nicer than being a light spread through ten thousand miles of darkness,” Lisa argues.

“But is it right?”

“I hope so,” Lisa says.

Martin hunches his shoulders a bit. He looks out at the mud.

“I don’t want to drown in mud forever.”

“Enh.”

Lisa shrugs.

“None save the monster,” she says, “may choose the circumstances of their lives.”

Martin looks at the mud. He looks at Lisa. He looks at the mud. He looks at Lisa.

“Don’t ever tell her I did this?” he says.

She looks at his eyes. Then she grins to him, even as she tries to brace herself for war. “All right,” she promises.

PUSH!

Martin pushes Lisa. She falls backwards into the mud behind them. Then Martin runs.

There’s something on his hands. It might be dust. Or it might be Lisa-cooties. Martin can’t tell. So he scrubs his hands vigorously on his legs as he runs.

“There are Stars in Your Eyes, Elli” (II/II)

In the time before time, Amiel and Lia are as sisters.

They would love one another forever. But Lia dies.

It hurts Amiel to speak. Her words tear the inside of her throat. But still Amiel promises Lia as Lia dies, “I will guard your line, and our families be entwined forever.”

The words are pure and beautiful and painful. It is one of the longest things that Amiel has ever said.

And it is false.

Amiel’s line is false. Their guardianship is twisted.

550 years before the common era, Amiel’s heir Nabonidus breaks his ward, his lover, his enemy Mylitta on the altar in the temple of Sin. Belshazzar, their son, devours from within her that potential that opposed Nabonidus.

She is the heir to Lia’s line, and first of the people of salt.

Ten years pass.

It is 540 years before the common era, and the moon burns with white cold light.

Mylitta lives in the temple at Harran. When he wishes, Nabonidus comes to her. He takes gods from her.

“I’m sorry,” he says, sometimes. He tries to say that. He isn’t sure how. So sometimes it’s words, and sometimes it’s a gentler touch, and sometimes he just opens and closes his mouth like a fish.

He’d have broken a long time ago if it weren’t for her.

“I chose this,” she says.

It’s one part true and four parts lie. He knows this. He wrung that information from her, once, when he couldn’t stand not knowing any more.

But it shows him that she is not dead. It shows him that he has not lost her. It shows him that he has won without sacrificing her soul.

“You can’t kill me, now,” he tells her, one day, when drawing a feathered serpent from her. It’s to harass Kuras’ forces in Egypt.

The serpent is slick with the fluids of its birth. It stretches its wings uncomfortably. It shakes itself.

“Fly to Egypt,” Nabonidus tells it.

It will kill two hundred and thirty men and lay five hundred eggs before its death.

Mylitta is drained. She is pale and weak. It is no longer true that she can kill monsters. There was a flame in her once, a flame that gave her that truth, and now there is only silence.

“I can’t kill you,” she agrees. “I’m not the hero any more.”

“Then why are you smiling?”

Mylitta shrugs.

Nabonidus pulls them from her. He pulls forth an army. And among them are things that no mortal blade can kill; things that can devour armies; lawmakers of ruthless dispassion; scourges, judges, scientists, warriors, and architects of the natural order.

“Sometimes I think that the world will hate me,” says Mylitta, as she looks upon a demon born from her.

“It will honor you,” says Nabonidus.

“Why?”

“Because I am your judge.”

Nabonidus walks to the window. He looks up. He bathes in the light of the moon god Sin.

“This is my judgment,” he says. His voice is Amiel’s now. It is the monster’s, now. It is pure and brilliant and cuts at his throat until the words are blood. “Your children shall honor you for all the days of the world. They will call you the mother of their line. They will say that you fell before me, not because you were weak, but because I was too strong.”

It takes him time to recover. She gives him that time. She waits until he can speak again before she asks him,

“Did I fall?”

He laughs. “Did you not?”

He turns to look at her. She is alive, he thinks. Still, after all of this, she is alive.

There is a sudden wild exultation in him. “Do you understand what I have done? What I am? What will happen here?”

He gestures at the window. “Monster, you called me. Monster, of a line of monsters. And it frightened me, Mylitta. That I might lose you to that frightened me. But when I sit on the throne of the world, there will be nothing that can bring me fear. There will be no chains that can bind me. I will not suffer. I will not sorrow. I will shape the world as I see fit, and I shall never know pain or sorrow again. They will not call me monster. They will call me God. I will have won.

“Unless you are weak,” she says.

“This will be a monster’s world,” says Nabonidus. “I will remake it until it honors me.”

“Unless you are weak,” she says.

He is not listening.

“And I will free you from this,” he says. “When I can. When I’m safe. I’ll free you. You won’t have to make gods. I know how it hurts. I know how impossibly it hurts.”

“You’re forgetting who you are,” she says.

He looks at her.

Slowly, he comes back to himself.

“The stars are gone from your eyes, Elli,” she says.

But it’s a lie. She sees them there. And later, he makes her tell him that, until he knows that she remembers that he loves her.

He walks out of the temple. He looks up at the sky. He looks up at Sin, who is the moon.

“I want to do this,” he says to Sin.

It is a plea. The moon god is the guarantor of the word of kings. The words he does not say hang in the air: It’s true, isn’t it?

“It’s just harder to fight her when she’s so weak.”

The moonlight on his face is a blessing.

Nabonidus straightens. He grins. If there’s no path to happiness, he can at least be pure; and one day soon, he figures, he’s going to make sure that the two are pretty much the same.

Whistling, he walks away from the temple and out into the night.

Tigers in their Cages (2 of 2)

The core of Central is hollow, like a warehouse. The ceiling is netting, and above that is darkness. There are things that move on the netting, and people too.

In the core, Central’s not a very nice-looking place. There’s a laminated harpoon attached to one wall, or there used to be. There’s sacks of open grain, gnawed on by rats and bugs. There’s fire and red and things always watching.

Below that, there are the cages.

“How many?” the hero asks.

“Seventeen,” the monster says.

Seventeen?

“Nine here. Four with building passes. Four in special environments,” the monster says.

The cages aren’t like dog cages. Some of them are very nice and have pillows and books. Others are small and cramped and made of wire with rotting feathers in the mesh.

“Most of them aren’t like Jane,” the monster says. “That’s rare. Most of them aren’t even really djinn. Just . . . kin. Distant relatives. The unsuccessful byblows of our kind.”

The hero goes from one cage to the next. He looks in. He looks kind of helpless. “I don’t know which to let out first.”

The monster smiles brightly.

“Start at the front,” he says, “and move back.”

So the hero lets out a young boy named Brian. Brian stares at him.

“It’s over,” the hero says. He reaches into the cage. Brian scuttles back.

“It’s funny,” the monster says, “how unequipped the hero actually is for rescuing people.”

The hero glares at him.

“Well, it is,” the monster says. “Somewhere along the way you people got the idea that heroics was about killing evil and not so much about saving people, and I’m sure that’s why the world is in the mess it’s in today.”

This is technically incorrect, but it’s a solid rhetorical point.

“What do I do?” the hero asks.

“Come on, Brian,” the monster says. He grins. “It’s time for one of the good times. You know. When it doesn’t hurt so much.”

So Brian inches out of the cage. He stands. He waits.

The hero goes to the next cage. It has a girl. Her name—she doesn’t even remember her name. It might be Iris. He lets her out. He holds out his hand.

“No,” she says.

The hero stares at her.

“No,” she says, louder. “Don’t want to.”

“Iris,” the monster says. His voice is oozing. But the hero looks at him in horror.

“You can’t . . . you can’t threaten her into coming out—”

“Oh,” says the monster. He looks happy. “I didn’t know.”

“Come on, Iris,” says the hero. He holds out his hand again.

“I live here,” she says. “I make gods for them. Every day, Leonard comes. We play. He closes the cage. He checks the lock. He smiles at me. I like him.”

The hero frowns. He looks at the monster.

“Leonard’s still alive,” the monster says. “You didn’t kill him when you were burying yourself in the corpses of your enemies. He recanted, absolving himself of that whole abusing-children thing.”

“Ah,” the hero says. He looks at Iris. There’s something messed-up in his eyes. Then he shrugs. “Okay,” he says.

He opens the other cages. Some of the kids come out. Some of them don’t.

Then he and the monster go down the stairs, to where they keep the gods, and Iris can’t see them any more.

That night, Leonard comes, and they don’t play—they just make some funny faces at one another—and Leonard closes the cage, and locks it up, and smiles at Iris, and she sleeps.

It’s strange, she thinks, that some people leave.

The Fable of the Lamb (1 of 2)

It is Friday, the 23rd of April, 2004.

Cunning Melanie, beloved of the gods, wears a dark black suit and a nametag with one name. She eats well. She drinks in moderation. She bikes to work every morning. Most people drive, but they don’t get to feel the wind. She feels the wind. Every day, on the way to work, she feels the wind. She knows it’s changed. So she watches. She watches the trees outside her window, and the squares of concrete, and the lawn.

She is the first, of all who work at Central, to know that the hero and the monster have come.

She walks into her lab.

“Stefan, Vincent, Harold,” she says.

They look up from their computers. They are her students, close to her heart.

“The hero and the monster have come,” she says. “This means that Central is not safe.”

“He is only Sebastien,” says Stefan.

“Perhaps.”

“And the monster outranks us,” Stefan points out.

“The hero can kill monsters,” says Melanie. “So I must ask you: have you committed such crimes that you might bear that name?”

“It seems unfair,” Harold grouses. “He exists to kill that monster. He should not branch out to anyone who simply behaves in a monstrous fashion.”

“Alas,” Melanie says. “Harold may not arrange the world!”

“Alas,” Harold phlegmatically confirms.

“We must remove him,” Melanie says. “It shall be Stefan first.”

“Why?”

“Because you have said, ‘he is only Sebastien.'”

“It was my optimistic confidence,” Stefan says. “Don’t punish such a cheery attitude—it will lead you to sorrow! Your subordinates will paste Dilbert comics on their cubicles and mock your management practices.”

“They should regret such actions bitterly,” says Melanie.

“Fah,” declares Stefan, resigned.

Stefan

The hero opens the door. He walks into Central. He has the monster at his side.

There is a security desk at the entrance to the building. Dave is a guard. He’s sitting behind the desk. He nods to the monster. The monster nods back.

“Cheerio, sir,” says Dave. “Good to see you again.”

“Cheerio,” says the monster.

“Does he know what happens here?” the hero asks.

“Oh, yes,” says the monster. “But it’s a living.”

“Ah,” says the hero.

Dave ducks his head.

Upstairs, Stefan takes down a gun. He checks it. Then he practices the swift-step. He is behind the hero. The gun is in his hand. He is firing. The bullet tears through the hero’s chest, piercing right through the heart.

Uh oh, Stefan! There’s just a hollow where the hero’s heart should be.

The hero is staggering back. There’s a lot of blood and trauma in a heart shot, even if your heart’s in a box somewhere far away.

Stefan swift-steps to the armory.

“I need a shotgun,” he says.

There’s a web, or a net, or maybe just a shredded mesh of raw tissue, spread throughout the room. It has eyes suspended in it. They turn on him. They swivel. There are teeth. They chatter.

“It’s an emergency,” Stefan says.

The eyes turn away. A shotgun clatters to the floor at Stefan’s feet. He picks it up. He readies it. Ka-CHUNK.

He thinks about angles. Dave will probably die too, and maybe the monster, but you have to finish what you start. If you don’t, you end up dead.

Stefan practices the swift-step.

The hero’s sword meets his neck. Stefan swift-stumbles backwards to the office, but it’s too late. His head is hanging on a thread of tissue.

“Damn it, Melanie,” he says.

Then his head falls off, and all he can do is blink until he dies.

Vincent

“Vincent,” Melanie says.

“No,” Vincent says.

“Why not?”

“Harold’s invulnerable,” Vincent says.

“You’re more likely to win,” Melanie says.

“He’s invulnerable.

“Technically, I’m vulnerable to Kryptonite,” Harold points out.

“But there’s no such substance.”

“That’s true,” Harold concedes. “It’s a good weakness for Superman, but it’s not very balanced for me.”

Harold

A long time ago, they gave Liril a doll named Latch. They let her keep it for a while. They promised it would be safe if she was good. So she was good. She combed its hair. She hugged it tight. Then they took it from her. She had to watch as bad things happened to it. She didn’t know what she’d done wrong.

But she didn’t let Latch die.

The god of such moments is called an aegis. Harold carries one, because they are the subject of his study. He has charts on his wall of their spiritual anatomy. He has done surgery on his aegis, and other things besides, to stretch the limits of the god.

He feels it gently. It is in his pocket.

Then he walks down to meet the hero.

The Hero

“Are you all right?” Dave asks.

Dave’s hand is under the hero’s elbow. His other hand is behind the hero’s shoulders.

“‘m ff,” the hero says. He’s trying to imply that he’s fine.

“I don’t . . .” Dave looks at the monster. “I don’t understand.”

“All-hands in the main conference room in twenty minutes,” says the monster. “I’ll explain then.”

“He’s really lucky he’s not dead,” Dave says. “I mean, what with the not having a heart and all.”

“Got a heart,” the hero says. “It’s in a box.”

“Oh.”

“The box is in a duck,” the hero says.

“Oh,” Dave says again.

“I need air,” the hero says. He walks back out. He sits down heavily in the square. The monster follows. There’s not a speck of blood on the monster’s outfit.

“What?”

“I don’t kill people often,” the hero says.

“He had a swift-step god. That’s sort of like being an escalator.”

“What’s the point of a bike rack,” the hero says, “with only one bloody bike?”

“It wasn’t bloody before you started leaning on it,” the monster says.

“I’m cranky,” the hero says. “I’ll stab you if you don’t stop it with the humorous commentary.”

The monster flares his nostrils.

“Who was he?” the hero asks.

“Stefan,” says the monster. “Experimental theologian.”

“I ate lunch with him every day,” Harold says, emerging onto the lawn. “He never picked up the check.”

“Ah,” says the hero. “More company with guns.”

Harold fires at the hero’s head. It misses. Most bullets do.

The hero’s sword comes up, right through the bike rack, right through Melanie’s bike, and stabs into Harold’s chest.

“That’s not good,” says Melanie, watching.

“Ow,” says Harold.

He looks down at his chest. He looks at the hero’s chest. Then he giggles.

“Now you and us are even stevens,” he says.

The hero gets to his feet, and drives the sword in deeper. It’s up to its hilt in Harold’s chest. Harold doesn’t seem to mind.

“I took generic ibuprofen before coming out to fight you,” he says. “That’s why the pain’s not so bad.”

Harold aims his gun under the hero’s chin. The hero elbows it out of Harold’s hand. It skitters across the ground and lands in soft verdant grass. Then the hero gets tired from blood loss and exertion and finds himself leaning gently against Harold’s shoulder.

“This is an awkward moment,” observes the monster.

“Why did you bring him here?” Harold asks.

“If you’d held off the assassination attempts until after the all-hands,” the monster says, “you’d probably know.”

Harold sighs. He shoves the hero away. The hero, blearily, refuses to shove. He grips Harold’s arms and holds them tightly against Harold’s body.

“I’ll squeeze,” the hero warns. So he does. The hero is very strong. Then blood comes out and he’s very weak. Then he’s very strong again. Then he falls back against the bike rack. Because it’s neatly cut in two, there are sharp edges pushing against his back.

“I’m invulnerable,” Harold says, apologetically. He starts walking towards his gun.

The hero leaps onto Harold’s back, and Harold falls to the ground. There’s a bike lock wrapped in the hero’s hands, and it’s choking Harold.

“Damn it,” Harold says. He’s not prone to profanity, even when he spills acid on himself or a really good woman dumps him, but he’s just realized that it’s a Kryptonite lock.

Then he’s dead.

All Hands

“Vincent,” Melanie says.

“I have really good hearing,” Vincent says. “That’s my only power. I have a rabbit familiar. I can hop. I can hear things. I’m not going to be able to kill him.”

“Oh.”

“Besides, the monster says that we should save assassination attempts until after the all-hands meeting. That sounds reasonable to me.”

“If you kill him before the all-hands, then there’ll be more seating for everyone else.”

“We can pull in an extra chair,” Vincent says. “It’s okay.”

So they go to the all-hands meeting.

“I bring a message of love,” says the monster, “from a girl named Jane.”

The monster has a laptop. It’s connected to a projector. The first slide in his PowerPoint presentation shows a large picture of a heart. It’s a formal Valentine heart and not a pulsing human heart. It’s labeled as slide one.

The monster clicks to the next slide.

“Jane wants you to redeem yourselves,” he says. The slide shows a picture of the monster, looking very uncomfortable, hugging a puppy. The puppy is licking the monster’s tie. It’s labeled as slide two. “We have committed acts of evil here, and horror unmeasured by morality. It is time to rededicate yourselves and this installation to compassion, love, and the healing of the world.”

Most of the people in the all-hands look uncomfortable. One hand raises. The monster points. “Yes?”

“What’s the threat?”

The monster’s voice is silk. “The threat?”

“What is she holding against you and/or us?”

“Ah,” says the monster. He clicks past several slides. He reaches slide five. It’s a chart of profit over time for 2002, 2003, and first quarter 2004. “In 2003,” he says, “the Earth Division cleared over two hundred million gross, with nearly forty million in profit. We control one of the three most powerful arsenals of theological weaponry in the known world, and have the chance to pioneer an uncharted and illegal science. What’s wrong with this picture?”

He clicks. There’s a picture of a globe. It’s lightly tinged with red—a dusting here, a deepening there, a bit of crimson spotted through the seas.

“This is the sum of our influence,” he says. “We have theoretically unlimited power, but in practice, our profits are penny ante and our influence tiny. The gods we make are isn’ts. They are severed from us. The greatest host of Faerie assembled in our time failed to topple the Nicaraguan government. The unbounded horrors born unto the Federated States of Micronesia are dying at human hands. And we make forty million a year from the ability to circumvent natural law and bend humans and nations alike to our desiring. We are an isn’t.”

The monster clicks to the next slide. There’s a picture of Martin. He’s leaning against the wall, looking away from the camera.

“This is what Jane has. She has a creature that can breach the boundary and make gods real. He can manifest dharma. If he sends to us a killing god, there are none of us safe. Conversely, should he manifest Ii Ma, then we may imprison any man we choose, without recourse, without jurisdiction, without protection. We would simply speak a man’s name, and Ii Ma would take him away. This creature’s contemners could destroy our enemies with near-perfect reliability. His footsoldiers—”

There’s a little giggle in the room. At this point, the footsoldiers are not much more than an in-joke to the Central crowd.

“Well,” says the monster, expressively.

He clicks ahead a few more slides.

“The rules are simple,” the monster says. “She is willing to forgive. Simply come up to this podium, and say, ‘It was wrong. It was vile. I had no right.’ Then turn, and walk through the door on the right, and begin your new life as an employee of a new, brighter, more loving Earth Division. Or walk through the door to the left, and continue your life as normal.”

The rules are displayed on the screen.

A hand raises. The monster points.

This is a Vice-President in Charge of Sales. His name is Miles, for what it matters. “This is a game, right? I mean, you’re not bloody serious. We’re not going to—I mean, it’s fucking crazy.”

The hero kills a Vice-President in Charge of Sales. His name was Miles.

The monster clears his throat.

“It is juvenile,” he says. “In the literal sense. I’ve sold you all out, and that puts each and every one of you at the mercy of a child. She’s about six years old, and each of you has collaborated, directly or ex post facto, in torturing her. If you refuse to play in her little tea party, I won’t save you, because that’s not in my interest. You can repent in jest, treating it as a game, but I imagine that something horrible would come out from under your bed and devour you in the night. It’s up to you. Leave through the left, or leave through the right.”

The monster turns off his laptop. “That’s all.”

The first man stands up. His name is Leonard. He walks to the front. He says, quietly, “It was wrong. It was vile. I had no right.”

He walks out through the door to the right.

The second man stands up. His name is Douglas, not that it matters. He walks to the front. He turns to the left. He walks left. The hero kills him.

“Hey,” says a woman in the back. Her name is Heather. “Hey!”

“What?” the monster asks.

“You can’t redeem people at the point of a sword.”

“Maybe I just had a grudge against that particular guy,” the hero suggests. He turns Douglas over. He reads the nametag. “‘Doug.’ Maybe he killed my cat.”

“It’s not morally correct as a means for gaining contrition!” Heather protests. She’s an armchair ethicist, and gets very vigorous about such things.

“If it’s within you to be redeemed,” says the monster, “then it shouldn’t matter what incentives are applied. If not, then redemption is impossible, even at the point of a flower.”

Heather frowns in frustration. “Did you . . . did you say those things, doctor? About it being wrong and vile?”

The monster smirks. He didn’t have to. Jane’s emotionally entangled with him, Martin needs him, and the hero’s messed up in the head. “It’s not relevant, dear lady,” he says.

Heather’s face pinches. She looks very upset. But she walks to the front. She looks nervously at the hero. “I didn’t collaborate,” she says. “I mean, not really.”

She turns left. She walks left. The hero kills her.

One by one, they go towards the front. Most of them make the speech now, and turn right. Two of them fight the hero. One of them dies normally. The other one dies with a shout and a bitter complaint on his lips, something to the effect of, “He didn’t have a harpoon when I attacked him.” A few others slink forward to die.

The Fable of the Lamb

Melanie takes out the needle and puts a bandaid on Vincent’s arm.

“Go,” says Melanie.

Vincent walks to the front. He turns left. The hero looks at him.

“I grew up here,” Vincent says. “It took me a long time to know that what we did was wrong. And then I couldn’t think of anything that could stop it. There’s nobody to tell, nobody to warn. Half the system is corrupt and the other half wouldn’t believe me. So I help the kids when I can. I try to give them a little bit of light. And I help the staff. Because I work here, because they gave me a place here, because I love them too. So I’m going to go left, and you’re not going to kill me, because heroes can kill monsters, and I’m just a screwed-up guy who never did figure out what to do.”

The hero shrugs. “If you’re right, then I can’t kill you, but it sounds a lot like excuses.”

Vincent walks left. The hero’s sword is in his hands. He is moving, swift and beautiful, a blur of gray and death; but he has lost a lot of blood, and there are many chairs, and he stumbles, and he falls.

Behind Vincent, Melanie walks out left; and one by one, the rest, as the blood beats slowly from the hero’s chest onto the floor.

In the time before the hero overcomes his dizziness and rises, there are only three who say the words and leave to the right.

“Is it really true, then?” Vincent asks, looking back, after he has left the building. “Am I really clean?”

“I extract your sins during the monthly blood test,” Melanie says. “I keep them in a bottle. You never know when you shall need a lamb.”

Why the Monster Laughs at God (1 of 1)

“My case is hopeless.”

I am full of guilt and shame.

It is funny. It is a funny way to live my life. I would think that it would be better to live some other way. To dance like a star.

But there is a small stain on the top I wore today. And Mom never loved me. And my thighs are too big. And I burp sometimes, even in public. And children are dying everywhere in the world.

I always imagine God up in Heaven, waggling his finger down, as if he’d like to love me but can’t possibly approve.

I got the weirdest spam today. Well, door-spam. You know. People, knocking. They were trying to sell me a “libellus,” and said it would make me good.

I laughed and told them to try next door. “My case is hopeless,” I said.
— from Linda Myers’ livejournal

Two men walk. Their destination is still half a mile ahead.

“Jenna thinks you laugh at God,” Sebastien says.

“Her name is Jane,” the monster says.

“I don’t understand it,” Sebastien says. “Why wouldn’t you claim God’s sanction? Do you really imagine that you’d be the first hypocrite He decides to smite?”

“It is every man’s choice whether to claim God’s approval,” the monster says, “whether their business is charity, industry, or pain.”

They walk on for a bit in silence.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Sebastien says.

The monster snorts. Then he looks sidelong at Sebastien. “You’re really curious? I mean, you actually think it matters?”

Sebastien shrugs. “I want to know what you fear,” he says.

“I don’t fear smiting,” the monster says. “I fear the trouble. I fear having to put on a big fake smile and tell everyone how Christian I am while children scream. The piousness and the constant references to God—it’s sickening.”

“That is why we need the Devil.”

The libellus is an odd thing. Strange and gnarled and horrid in its way. Yet it is soothing to me.

The pamphlet that comes with it says that it is the Devil.

Here, I’ll quote:

“The Devil is the one who tells you that you are beautiful. Because the world does not allow that you can be beautiful. The Devil is the one who tells you that you are good. Because the world does not allow you to be good. To be good and beautiful is reserved for other people. You can ask them, and they will tell you. To be good and beautiful is to be “arrogant and full of pride.” That is why we need the Devil.”

I do not think that I hang the Devil around my neck. I think it is an odd statue.

I find myself liking it.
— from Linda Myers’ livejournal

“Did you know,” says the monster, “that I am good, and right, and an instrument of virtue?”

“I did not know that,” says the hero, blandly.

“It is so,” says the monster. “The facts are barren. They are not pleasant. I have done things that transgress the borders of the self. But without interpretation these actions represent nothing more than a data stream—a flow of arbitrary data to the senses. It transforms topologically into ordinary zeroes and ones. Or into a Gödel number, empty and alone in the infinite set.”

“That is not virtue.”

“To survive,” says the monster, “each person must construct an interpretation for the data available that sums to something good. That is the call to God. Jane called for God’s help, once. In so doing, she placed herself in a world where there was a divine plan—where the immutable laws of God’s love and mercy made it necessary that she suffer. She chose a world where there was hope, and goodness, and salvation, and me.”

“So you laughed,” the hero says.

“I was afraid,” the monster says. “It horrified me. Of course I laughed.”

The condition of not being alone.

I received a letter asking me to speak against a man in court.

I did not want to do this. It took effort, and I value my honesty. But I did not want to lose the libellus.

It was at the court that I met the first of my sisters. She opened the top of her coat, as I passed, to show me the libellus round her neck. That is how I know. There are others who share my grace. I have arranged to have coffee with her on Thursday and she will tell me more.
— from Linda Myers’ livejournal, private entry

“Do you want to be good?” Sebastien asks.

The monster smiles. It is almost wistful. “When I was young,” he says, “I made a praising god. Do you know them? We call them libellatici.

“Succubi,” says the hero. “Incubi. The Devil’s voice.”

The monster tilts his head to one side. “Is there a Devil?” he asks.

Sebastien shrugs. “The existence of a Devil is neither made necessary nor contraindicated by the presence of his voice. Call them rakshasa, if you like.”

“It was pleasant,” says the monster, “to be good. But futile.”

“Futile?”

“The rakshasa are the enemies of the gods.”

And I have met him

I have met the creature to whom my libellus gives voice.

I do not think he is the Devil. It is disappointing, in a way.

He is not conventional. He is sovereign, but worm-like. He is yellow and black. This is not the Devil’s color scheme. He is not the Devil.

But I will serve him. That is what is right.

He has made me good.
— from Linda Myers’ livejournal

They have reached a square of perfect grass and concrete walks, and before them there is a door.

“We make them now,” says the monster. “We make them, here at Central, and we send them out.”

“That is regrettable,” Sebastien says.

“Why?” the monster asks. His voice is mocking. “Surely, it is to the benefit of people to know that they are good.”

Sebastien snorts.

“It helps them understand that everyone is good and beautiful,” the monster says.

“But you’re not,” Sebastien says.

The monster laughs.

Nabonidus’ Gods (IV/IV)

It is 550 years before the common era.

“I wanted to cleanse you, ” Mylitta says. Her voice is soft, distracted, and dazed. “I wanted the power in our love to rise and consume us both. I wanted it to take away your pain and make you clean. It could be sacred. It could fix this. The world could still make sense, Elli.”

Nabonidus only shakes his head. His voice is sorrowful and certain. “We are hero and monster,” he says. “We dare not be that close.”

I dared,” she says.

**

572 years before the common era, Nabonidus creates his first god. He is six years old, very earnest, and attempting to escape from the governor’s palace at Harran.

No one’s eyes are on Nabonidus. A great field of barley is near the castle wall. Each passing second, it grows a little nearer. It spreads across the road. It reaches the wall. The wall dissolves at its touch. The field spreads inwards. The guards assigned to Nabonidus turn to look and give a shout, but it is too late. Instead of playing in his room, the boy is in a field of barley, wriggling away on his stomach and elbows, invisible in the grain. Soon he is outside, and beyond mortal capacity to discover. He rests for a moment, and sits up.

“Ninlil,” he says. His goddess appears. She is the first god of his emptiness, the first creature wrested from him: a goddess of the grain for the house of Harran. Her hair is the color of straw, and she is smiling.

“Nabonidus!” she says. She hugs him.

“We must run,” he says. “We must run far away.”

Ninlil makes a face. “You will be more powerful,” she says, “for staying.”

Nabonidus flops his head back and forth. He’s somatizing an internal conflict. “I know,” he says. “But it really hurts. So I want to run away.”

“If you stay,” she says, “your Mom will hollow you out. Then you’ll fill up with gods. You’ll have lots of company. And we can do stuff for you! It’ll be neat.”

“No,” he says.

So they run.

“Send Enlil,” says the monster. She is the monster of 572 BCE. Her name is Adad-guppi and she is Nabonidus’ mother. “Send Enlil, and he shall hunt them down.”

“How will he track them?” asks her servant, Nusku.

“Nabonidus is a young boy,” the monster says. “He will use his power. Where people were starving, there will be harvests. Where people laugh at him, grain shall grow from their ears and nostrils. Where he passes, he shall make the world more orderly with his god. By these things Enlil shall find them.”

Nabonidus travels. Where people are starving, Ninlil makes the harvest. Where people tease the young and ragged boy, grain grows from their ears and nostrils. Where Nabonidus passes, the world grows more orderly. At last he and Ninlil reach the sacred river.

“I wish to bathe,” Ninlil says.

The naiad of the river rises before them. “O Ninlil!” the naiad cries. “Do not bathe here.”

“But I wish to bathe,” Ninlil says.

“O Ninlil!” says the naiad. “Do not bathe here. Lord Enlil comes!”

“But I wish to bathe,” Ninlil explains. She strips off her garments and shakes out her hair. She bathes herself. The sky above thunders with Lord Enlil’s wings.

“Ah!” Lord Enlil says, landing. “You are beautiful.”

Enlil flops his head back and forth. He’s somatizing an internal conflict. He looks around for a moment. “I do not see the wayward boy,” he says, in an exaggeratedly loud and clear voice. “Perhaps, while I consider how I might best find him, this bathing maiden and I could make love.”

Nabonidus is pale and unhappy. He does not have good associations with these words. He whispers from the grain abutting the river’s banks: “Tell him no. It hurts. You are too small and do not know how to stretch. You are too young for kissing. Also, your mother would be upset.”

Ninlil looks down at herself. She is a fertility goddess and somewhat uncertain as to how she can best present this argument. She opts for a deadpan delivery. “My parts are little,” she says. “And you would be uncomfortable. Also, I am too young. My mother would slap my hand if she saw us making love. My father would shake my shoulders.”

She looks at the naiad, who has buried her face in her hands.

“Also,” Ninlil says, “think of the naiad! You have embarrassed her.”

“I will build a boat,” Enlil declares gallantly. “In the water, our making love might embarrass her. But not in a boat! Inside the boat is outside her proper jurisdiction!”

Nabonidus looks at the naiad, who shrugs.

“Just refuse,” Nabonidus says.

Enlil, busily, begins assembling a boat. Ninlil, noticing Enlil’s distraction, ghosts quickly over to the bank and dries off. She sits down next to Nabonidus.

“I don’t want to refuse,” she says. “He’s hot. Besides, if he gives me his seed, then I’ll have power over him. It’ll help us get away!”

Nabonidus looks down. “But I don’t want to do things that way,” he says.

Ninlil sighs. She pats his hand. “I’m sorry,” she says. “Sometimes we don’t get the answer we want when we’re hurt. I’d be an angel if I could, for you, but I’m not. I’m just Ninlil.”

“But it doesn’t work,” he says. “Helping them hurt you—it doesn’t give you power. Even though it should.”

“It’s not always about hurting,” she says.

Nabonidus frowns. Then he shakes his head. It is a gesture of negation, but his words are: “I won’t stop you.”

He crawls back to hide in the field. He watches. Beside him is a fiend in a blank brass mask.

“I think he’s done,” Nabonidus says, after a while.

“It’s horrible,” says the fiend. “We’ll seize him and throw him out of the city.”

“Yeah,” Nabonidus says. He smiles. The fiend divides itself and becomes legion. It grasps Enlil’s arms from every side.

“I will be certain to look you up later, fair maiden,” lies Enlil in a loud, clear voice as the fiend drags him away. “Or you can find me. My name is Elli.”

The fiend returns. Its hands grasp Nabonidus’ arms from every side.

“You are also horrible,” the fiend says to Nabonidus. It hurls him from the river’s banks and he finds himself at home.

570 years before the common era, he escapes again.

No one is watching him. The moon is bright in the sky. Moonbeams pour down into his window. Suddenly, Nabonidus jumps onto a moonbeam and runs up into the sky.

“After him!” shouts the captain of the guard. The other guards look at one another. One tests the moonbeam with his foot. It makes his foot highly visible, even though it is night time, but it does not support his weight. Nabonidus is beyond mortal capacity to catch.

“Sin!” Nabonidus says. His god appears. He is the third god of Nabonidus’ emptiness. He is the moon god, terrible and powerful, an old man whose beard is made of lapis lazuli and whose cap has bull’s horns. He takes Nabonidus’ hand and leads him into the palace of the moon.

“It is good that you are safe,” says Sin. He is grave, and seems disturbed.

“I will never go back,” Nabonidus promises.

Sin strokes his beard. It clanks. “Is that wise?” he says.

“I will stay in the palace of the moon, and no one will ever hurt me again.”

“And will you be happy?”

Nabonidus hesitates. He clenches and unclenches his hands.

“I am the gate of honesty,” the moon god says. “I am the guarantor of the word of kings. Do not lie to yourself here.”

“I don’t want to go back,” Nabonidus says. “When I am bad, I am hurt until I can’t stop screaming. And I don’t want it to happen again.”

“But it is cold on the moon,” Sin says, “and we have a limited food supply. And you do not think it is right to evade punishment by running away.”

Nabonidus curls up. “I don’t want to go back.”

Sin considers the matter. “Then one must ask, how is it right to evade punishment?”

There is a long quiet. Then Nabonidus looks up. “I am to become a monster,” he says. “If I am a monster, then other people can be hurt instead.”

“Will that make you happy?”

Nabonidus shakes his head. “No,” he says. “It’ll just mean that I can’t be bad any more. To be happy—”

He gestures. It’s a gesture of uncertainty. “There is no path from here that leads to happiness. I’m not supposed to be happy. All I can be is pure.”

“I will give you aid,” says Sin. He walks to his window. Nabonidus follows. He can see events that are very far away. Sin’s light shines down on the husk of Ella. The servants who tend her, fearful lest someday the hero awake, draw back in terror. They watch as Sin fills the hero’s womb. Her water breaks. Two children are born. “Go down before your mother kills them,” Sin says. “Claim the girlchild for your own.”

Nabonidus hesitates. “How does it work?” he says.

“I have named you her guardian,” says Sin. “Her protector. Her god. It is your destiny to care for her, and watch over her, and set an order to her life. There is no one but you who may judge her. There is no one but you who may do her harm. What you must achieve, you must achieve through her. If she chooses, she can kill you. When you accept this duty, you will become a man beyond the monster’s capacity for harm.”

Nabonidus looks down at her.

“I want her,” he decides.

**

It is 550 years before the common era. It is quiet, in the temple of Sin.

There is a fiend in the temple, wearing a blank brass mask. The fiend is weak and dare not act, but still it mutters to itself. “It is not possible that he has the right to do such things,” it says. “I look to the universe and its laws. They say: he may! But what of my personal morality? He tramples it so carelessly!”

Ninlil is gentle. She is smug. “Oh, my lord,” she says, in softest tones. “You have made the future of this land.”

The light of Sin shines full into the room. There is moonlight all around the ruin of Mylitta. It shows every bruise and every mark. The moon shines on Nabonidus as he clenches and unclenches his hands. He cannot decide between exultation and despair. Moonlight pools around the child-god Belshazzar, who has formed by the altar as the answer to an unanswerable circumstance.

“Belshazzar,” Nabonidus says.

The god looks uncertainly between Mylitta and Nabonidus. He smiles, and it is an unhappy smile.

“I shouldn’t exist,” Belshazzar says. “The world is in agony that I am alive.”

Nabonidus tilts his head to one side. “Can you stop Kuras and save Babylon?”

“Maybe,” Belshazzar says. “I don’t know. I’ll try.”

Mylitta looks up. She stares at Belshazzar.

“What are you?” she says.

“I am a god that devours,” Belshazzar says. “I am the answer to your emptiness.”

He rests his hand on her forehead.

“I will free you from your nature.”

The hero ends.

Belshazzar (III/IV)

It is 550 years before the common era. In Harran, at the temple of the moon god, Nabonidus binds Mylitta to the altar.

“I’m sorry,” Nabonidus says.

Mylitta is drowning. She cannot breathe. It makes no sense what is happening to her.

There are words for what he does. They are mundane words, words of everyday life, but they are not pleasant ones. But in the end, it is not the things he does to her that hurts. It is that she cannot stop them.

I loved my world,
My world, where I was strong, where I was fair, where I shone bright,
My world, where I was strong, where I was fair, and I would win.

I did not want to leave that world,
My world, where I was strong,
But passage took to me.
And now my world is thin, and dark, and trembling.
And now my world is thin, and dark, and full of storms.

I trembled when I dreamed
Of it,
The passage to a place of storms.
But passage took to me.

— Mylitta’s Lament

In the temple of Sin, at Harran, Nabonidus escorts Mylitta into a world where neither reason nor magic has power, and nor does she.

This act is named eduction.

At the end, there is a god.

Mylitta’s Question (II/IV)

This is a truth that must be remembered.

The people remember.

The struggle of Mylitta was not in vain. The monster was strong, and much was lost. But much was bought in turn.

The people remember.

They began to come to her and ask her aid.

The people remember.

With blood on their brow they came. And blood on their hands. And pain in their eyes. The people came to her.

The people remember.

And to lighten the pain of the monster’s thrall, the gods of Babylon came to her.

The people remember.

And in the name of the people and the gods, she made argument with him, and often he bent. His heart bent to her. So he said. So he believed.

The people remember.

He held her in thrall to every person’s hopes.

We begged her to buy from him
what he could have freely given.

And the question Mylitta asked of him
remains unanswered still.

The people remember.
The people mourn.

It is 550 years before the common era.

The temple at Harran holds no one prisoner, and many of Nabonidus’ victims have fled. Many others have chosen to stay. They are as caged tigers, who, freed into the wild, still pace out the length of their prison cages. There is a bond between monster and victim that is difficult to break.

In the sacred precinct of Babylon, the monster keeps Mylitta, behind gates of solid brass.

The center of the precinct is a tower two hundred feet in height, and the path of its ascent winds all around. There is a place, halfway up, where one may stop and rest, and stare out over all of Babylon. People who seek her are prone to stopping there, and sitting for a time, and resting.

At the top of the tower, there is a temple. Inside the temple, there is a great couch, richly adorned, with a golden table beside it. And there Mylitta sits.

A woman climbs the stairs. It takes her a full hour. She reaches Mylitta’s door and stops, looking inwards. When Mylitta stands, the woman genuflects.

“Please,” she says. “My husband is dying of his wounds.”

Mylitta takes the woman’s head between her hands, and kisses the woman’s forehead. “I will speak to the gods,” she says.

The woman goes down the stairs.

On another day, there is a man. He is young. He is strong. He is pretty, though not so pretty as Nabonidus. He reaches the door and stares uncertainly at Mylitta.

“Come in,” she says.

“I need strength,” he says. “I am not strong.”

She studies him for a long time. He shifts from foot to foot.

“Why?” she asks him.

“I work hard,” he says. “Every day. But the animals are sick. And the rain leaks in. And the taxes are harsh, and I have not pleased the officials of this realm. Nothing I do seems to work.”

She nods to him, and he enters the room, and when he leaves, he is stronger.

“I will speak to Nabonidus,” she says, to his fading shadow. “About the taxes.”

Nabonidus comes to the temple one day. He brings with him six priests and a sacrifice. At the midpoint of the path, the sacrifice is cut to pieces. In the temple, Mylitta hears his screams, and winces softly. The flesh is boiled, and cut into pieces, and lain out on the tower’s stairs. The sound of prayers and hymns rises to her ears. Then comes a priest.

“Mylitta,” he says. “Give me your grace.”

She shakes her head. She stares at him.

“Mylitta,” he says. “King Istumegu has marched against Kuras, to meet him in battle; but his army turned against him and has delivered him to Kuras in chains. Ah! Kuras rises. He will not stop with Istumegu’s kingdom; he will claim our own.”

“You are a murderer,” she says. “Why do you come to me?”

“Goddess,” he says. “Please. You must help the people of Babylon.”

She stands. She goes to the door and looks out on the city.

“Why?” she says. “Why do you ask me?”

“Because if you do not, Kuras will come to Babylon, and he will kill our men, and our women will know sorrow, and the gate of Nitocris will fall, and all our joys come tumbling down.”

“I will speak to the gods,” she says, blankly.

The priest leaves, and Nabonidus comes in the door, and she hugs him tightly and leans against him for support.

“This is a hard thing,” she says.

“It is,” he says.

She sits on the couch, and he sits beside her.

“What have you done, since last we met?” he asks.

She shrugs, and begins to cry. He holds her. After a moment, she composes herself, and says, “Life for one man. Strength for another. And others, in similar fashion. I said that I would speak to you about the taxes.”

“It’s part of the process of governance,” he says.

“There is nothing that you can do?”

He shrugs. “If taxes are high, people starve. If taxes are low, people starve.”

“I see.”

She looks at him. “There are no gods you have that can defeat Kuras.”

“I know,” he says.

“That is why the sacrifice,” she says, “isn’t it? To make this hurt me more.”

“If we do this thing,” he says, “you will envy that man.”

“And if we do not?”

He shrugs.

“Nabonidus,” she asks, “we could leave. We could abandon this place. You could be Elli. We could go to a place far away and have babies, and I could end the monster’s line and replace it with my own.”

He smiles at her. “But I like who I am,” he says.

“Why can’t I fix you?” she asks.

He takes her hand. “In two days,” he says. “We shall ride a chimera to the temple of Sin, and there I will show you the why of the world.”

“I hear my people screaming,” she says, “sometimes. From far away. And I ask, why can’t I fix you?”

“Aren’t there questions without answers?” he says.

And there is much of the monster in Nabonidus’ eyes.