Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai: “Shogun and Samurai”

Learning the secret of perfect defense, Tomo begins her career—here!

She saves lovers Meg and Cho.

She reforms two night-grim thieves.

She establishes the standard special effects LIGHT and I’M IN UR FIGHT, BLOCKING UR ATTACKS!

A fearless warrior, her actions shake the status quo.

Defending the oppressed she defies order!

Now the fiery power of terribly offensive shogun Daiimon seeks her end!

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

“Gods of kung fu,” whispers Tomo. “Is this what it is to involve oneself in the world?”

She stands in impasse in the forest—confronting

SHRIEKING OFFENDED MONKEY!

“I’m sorry,” she pleads.

Tomo’s heart is like rice-husk armor—it’s just too delicate! And the monkey’s heart—it’s harder than stale bread!

“I meant no offense!”

It dances!

It shrieks!

And tears run from her eyes and she leaps for the branches and she flees, blindly, sniffling, pursued by shrieking offended monkey, and filled in her heart with an overpowering awareness of the transience of all things; o Merciful Buddha, shelter us from suffering.

Suddenly—

AN EVIL FEELING!

She skids to a halt. She snaps up her head. She looks up and to the east.

Hope gulps down the sorrow in her heart like a dog that hasn’t eaten in too long.

The sky is full of light and evil Chi.

LEISURELY VACATION CITY TURULL is burning.

Fire and ashes fall on Turull from above. Great pillars of red and white spear down.

It is as if the stars have tired of the world and turned their weapons here.

It is beautiful.

It is terrible.

It is amazing.

Tomo trembles and shivers like a race horse waiting for the gun.

She wants to block it so very, very much.

With the back of her hand, she wipes her eyes.

She scans the trees.

She charts a path for jumping—but—

AN ADDITIONAL, ONLY TANGENTIALLY RELATED EVIL FEELING!

Right behind her!

Time slows. She turns. The sword scrapes on her sheath. She has to steady it with her free hand.

This new attack is the sword of the terribly offensive shogun, Daiimon.

It blasts into her like falling, like confusion, like not knowing where one stands.

Inside and outside, she’s in turmoil!

She does not even have time to say it:

I’M IN UR FI—

LIGHT

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

Tomo staggers backwards. Her sword arm is burning inside and out.

LIGHT

Her lips have gone dry. Her heart is struggling with great difficulty to beat.

LIGHT

The aura of Daiimon snaps at her leg like the fangs of a great beast. His sword is a single point of light in an infinite darkness of kung fu. He is strong. He is so TERRIBLY strong.

A scissoring, like the world were twisting around itself.

LIGHT

They draw apart, panting.

Tomo’s lungs burn.

Joy stutters up inside her but he shatters it with twelve biting words.

“You are here, fighting me. So you are not there, blocking that.

Turull is burning.

It tears her heart.

Turull is burning, and she cannot be in that fight and she cannot be blocking those attacks.

She is adrift, her moorings sundered.

Her mind whirls.

He moves, and

LIGHT

Somewhere Daiimon fights Tomo. Somewhere a monkey, perhaps overestimating its own importance, throws a peach pit from behind. Somewhere the world is all in motion and her heart aches fierce.

But Tomo is not there.

Tomo is in a flashback.

“I will teach you the secret of defensive kung fu,” says STATIONARY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI, KON.

“O?”

Kon looks at the distant mountains.

He says, “Through all things in the world, Tomo, a breath flows. We are united in this breath. It is the One-Spirit.”

Tomo thinks on this.

“Is it for blocking?”

Kon hesitates.

“Each of us has our own vision of the One-Spirit,” he says. “For you—”

He nods.

“For you, it is the ‘breath of blocking u’.”

“Show me!” she demands.

And he strikes, lightning-quick, and his fingers on her forehead open the gateways of her mind.

She sees it.

The stone of his temple breathes blue vapors. Kon is livid with red breath. And the grass in the cobblestones breathes greenly; and the distant mountains wreathe themselves with purple gas; and even the sun—

Tomo breathes with it.

She breathes with it, and shares its One-Spirit, and knows in that moment that she will never have sunburn again.

“I cannot leave you in this state for long,” says Kon.

His words come to her from far away. They hang in the air, like shapes behind a watered glass.

It tempts her.

She knows that she could live the breath of blocking words and she would never hear this thing, which she wishes that he would not say.

“You will need laborious training,” Kon says, “to master this. Hours of work in all manner of abnormal training positions, and difficult exercises of great mystic import which I will have to make up on the spot.”

It is so tempting.

One movement.

One movement— one block— and nothing will ever touch her again.

If he tells her otherwise, she does not need to hear.

If the world says otherwise, she does not need to hear.

The spiraling aquamarine coils of rationality breathe and she may easily be one with that great breath, and blocking it.

She breathes. She starts to say:

I’M IN UR FIGHT…

But there is something else.

It it hoving into view. It is giving its shape to the borders of her world.

Insight strikes her like one of those horrible gasp-inducing blows to the stomach, and so beautiful it is that she does not choose to block.

“I see it,” she says.

It is everywhere. It underlies everything. It is the bones of the world.

It is the Great and Humble Road.

LIGHT

LIGHT; LIGHT; LIGHT

She moves on instinct and Chi. There is no other way. No human mind could track the blizzard of their swords’ exchange. No human eye discerns such subtle movements. The fight between Tomo and Daiimon is the “bamboo forest,” where the swords seem great and long and numerous and their sound is hollow ‘thok, thok’ and they sway gently in the wind.

She follows the twisting, winding path of the breath of blocking u.

Her sword spins and dances and it drags her in its wake.

Then she is laughing.

She takes a great deep breath like on the morning of the world and she crows like a child’s laugh and she says, “I love u, I love u, I love u,” as the swords twine and play, and Daiimon is falling back and his face drains of blood and—

LIGHT

The sword of the terribly offensive shogun flies from his hand and cleaves through a rock into the earth.

He slips to one knee.

He says, gasping greatly, “How?”

“Eh?” she says.

“Turull burns; but how did you forget?”

And lightly she laughs and she holds her hand to him and she says, “It’s all right.”

“Eh?” he returns.

“I am Tomo. I am the PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI. It is not important,” she says, and now the wind blows around her. “It is not important to block big attacks. It is not important to block important attacks. It is good to block fire and rain and the power of the stars. But it is not important. This. This right here.”

She touches her heart. She touches his hand.

“This is important. This being in ur fight. This blocking ur attacks. To live where u are and when u are and to breathe the breath of blocking u.”

“No,” says Daiimon.

He shoves the ground and slides back twenty yards.

“No,” he says.

“In the now,” she explains.

He screams, “NO!” a final time and runs away; for staring into the abyss of the truth of her, the terribly offensive shogun has gone mad.

Next time on Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai:
THE BREATH OF TERRIBLE FIRE

The Chimerae (I/I)

Continuing the story of Train Morgan.

There is always a murder.

There is always someone who cannot wait for Train Morgan to reach the crest of the hill. There is always someone who says, “I will make this answer,” and takes out their knife, and cuts.

This splashes blood through the rickshaw that Train pulls.

It stains it darker.

But Train, he does not mind.

It does not matter if a man gets killed on his rickshaw. It is, in most respects, a kindness.

That person will not sit there, stilled by hope, as Train approaches the top.

That person will not know the crisis of impossible disappointment when that journey fails.

They will simply wake up, in their beds, as those who die here always do, looking at the dawn and saying, “How beautiful.”

Ii Ma, the Warden, keeps the place without recourse.

Train is tall and strong.

He has grown great here, in the place without recourse, as he nurses his impossible question.

He is muscled like a Hercules, like a John Henry, like an Atlas.

His skin is tan and there is sweat on his forehead as he pulls the rickshaw up the hill.

From inside he can hear this:

“I found them nesting under the servers.”

That’s a young Asian man from Silicon Valley. Train does not know his name. He is telling his story, as so many do, in an attempt to understand.

“I cut my way down there because the machines had ceased to function, and for no clear cause, and we were losing tens of thousands of dollars a day. Yet there was nothing wrong.”

There’s a woman there, nodding. Her name is Amelie and Train believes that she is French but he has no real evidence outside of her name. She is nodding to the man and considering the possibility of murdering the man, there within Train’s rickshaw.

This is because there is something about the man’s location that disturbs her.

“I tried a lot of things to fix them,” says the man. “Stupid things. I power cycled. I hit the machines. I spent a while there in the server room just flipping random switches, and I’m not even sure whether the switches were actually there. And when I came outside for air I had this cold sharp realization that I had been mad—that there in that small hot roaring room I had gone mad, and there was blood coming from my nose and ears, and that all the time that I’d been there there had been this chittering, chittering, chittering beneath the floor.”

It is hard—mad wack Sisyphusean hard—for one man to drag a rickshaw with four people in it up the hill that borders the valley without recourse. A rock slips from under Train’s foot and he stumbles and it is almost over right then; but he heaves himself back into balance with great strength and begins again to climb.

“I did not understand my own affliction at that time,” says his passenger.

Amelie nods again; but there is only snoring from Mr. and Mrs. Sandhu, who are old and therefore asleep.

“I dried my nose and ears and felt for blood at the sockets of my eyes and I said, ‘is there some chemical in the air?’

“But there wasn’t.

“I don’t know how I knew that. I just knew that that was a statement without a truth value.

“So I went back in.”

Amelie is staring at the man’s chest. It is a man’s chest. He is wearing a white shirt over it. She cannot escape the sense that there is something visibly moving inside him.

Yet this is not so.

“I would have,” she says, “done something different.”

“You have not worked for a startup,” says the man. “At a startup, it is not entirely reason that one prizes, but dedication. It is men like our host—”

And here Train nods, although they cannot see.

“—and myself who are most valuable.”

Train looks up. He imagines that he can see the top.

“So I went in,” says the man. “And I dug under the floor. And I found them there. They were bulbous, like loaves of rat, and they were clinging at odd angles to the floor and to the air. Their symmetry was threefold, and from time to time they would shift their limbs like a dying insect does. I could not see the basement under the server room, because the dizzying warren of them went down so very far. And when I looked around I saw they were also in the air: up, down, left right, there was nowhere that was not infested by the warren of them. Their legs twitched in my lungs and I coughed up a bit of blood and I could not figure out, no matter how I thought, how I could leave the room.”

“What were they?” Amelie asks.

“I have been told that they were chimerae,” says the man. “Creatures that cause the evaluation of boolean statements as neither true nor false.”

“That does not seem so bad,” says Amelie.

“It is bad for computers,” says the man.

“Ah.”

Train pulls the rickshaw higher. Now he can see it: the band of light above him that means that he has almost reached the top.

“For computers,” says the man, “and for men.”

And his nose and his ears are bleeding, and something twitches and kicks at the edge of reality, and driven by a rising panic Amelie takes her knife and cuts his throat in one great slash and her heart beats fast and his head falls back and with a sudden vanishing the man is gone.

Mrs. Sandhu startles awake.

Mrs. Sandhu feels at her face.

Her fingers come back bloody, and she squints at Amelie, and she bobs her head and says something in a language that Amelie does not understand.

“I had to,” Amelie says.

Train grunts.

“I knew what he was going to say.”

She puts her knife away.

“That it wasn’t specifically true or false, you see, that he was still there.”

Mrs. Sandhu sketches a question with one hand.

“I couldn’t let him say that,” Amelie says.

“I couldn’t. Not while I was next to him.”

She shudders.

And Train pulls the rickshaw to the crest of the

There is no discontinuity in the lens.

Train wakes up.

He smiles eastwards towards the dawn.

It is so incredibly beautiful, so mad wack stunning gorgeous. The sun is this brilliant golden glow and there is pink and red like a fire in the sky and the air is clean and bracing and he is fit and refreshed with all the aching in his muscles gone. There’s no dishonesty or pain in it when he sits up in bed and cries, “How beautiful.”

That’s just how it is, every morning, in the place without recourse.

(History: Boedromion 20: The Only Fruit That Tastes Like Dust)

“Nothing is growing,” says Persephone.

There is a note of pain in her voice that reaches Hades’ heart. So he knocks the seeds of his pomegranate into his hand. He lets them fall onto the earth.

He says, “Seeds.”

Persephone looks.

Persephone laughs, the sound like the sound that sunlight makes.

“Why, so they are.”

She steps down from his chariot, hesitating briefly to see if he will stop her. He makes no move to do so, so she descends to the seeds, and kneels beside them. She pokes them with a finger. They are lifeless and unresponsive, even for seeds.

“Poor things,” Persephone says. “Won’t you never learn to grow?”

“If I order it,” says Hades.

She looks at him.

“When I came to the Underworld,” he says, “there was nothing but the gates. Beyond them was tangled darkness. There was no air. There was no soil. There was no place. Simply the gates. And I have made this.”

She looks around.

“I have taken this place from the emptiness,” he says. “Seized it back and filled it with the substance of my will.”

He gestures with an opening hand and dead black shrubs sprout from the seeds. They dig their roots into the dust and bring forth shriveled yellow fruit.

Persephone startles back.

The plants are in the fullness of their living death in moments. They develop a thick and musty fragrance and somehow insects crawl among their leaves.

“That’s pretty good,” says Persephone. “I mean, I’d need to add water.”

“There is growth here,” says Hades. “And light. Even joy, if I wish it.”

“I see,” says Persephone, because she does.

Hades is looking at the plants. His eyes are full of them; he is pleased with what he has wrought. But after a moment, he shakes it off.

“They are dead, of course. I cannot change that. Their story is over before it has begun.”

“Oh.”

“That is why you are here,” Hades says. “In this place you will bring forth hope.”

And Persephone is crying now.

Her tears are stolen girl tears. They are asked-too-much tears. They’re the tears of someone expected to bear the moral burden of her own abduction.

They twist knives in Hades’ heart, but they do not weaken him. They bring him more strength. His eyes grow more distant. His face grows colder. Her tears hurt, but they affirm his power over her. Where there is power, there is authority. Where there is authority, there is righteousness. So in that moment, torn by her pain, he becomes more certain of his course.

Her tears are not a problem for him.

But her question is.

She asks him, in the voice of someone who thinks it’s possible, “So will you wrench this hope from me like you wrenched the plants to bloom?”

And because he can’t, but doesn’t want to answer ‘no’, his affect goes flat and he bites into a fruit and he says, with great forced savor, “You really should try one of these delicious pomegranates.”

The Thistle (I/IV)

This is a history of Persephone.

It is 1328 years before the common era and Persephone still remembers the marvelous thing.

She doesn’t know exactly what it was. Not any more. It was wooden and round, and it had a handle. It shimmered like rainbows, like soap bubbles. It shone.

It made a noise.

It was the most marvelous, incredible noise. It was like the bubbling happiness of the sea. It was crazy, mad, incredible, majestic, that noise.

She remembers.

There’s sunshine all around her now. She’s got grubby hands and there’s a bit of the dirt in her mouth, a little bit, just enough to taste. It tastes like life and also like ick, dirt!

She’s planting seeds with her friend Cyane and her mother Demeter.

She digs a hole. Just a little hole. She drops a seed in it. She covers the seed over.

“Covering things over,” she says, in the flawless ancient Greek spoken by ancient Greeks of the time, “makes them all chaotic.”

She can see that too. It’s like a gray fuzz. It’s like the tides of chaos flowing in.

It’s really not as adult a statement as it sounds, given the time and the place and the language and her history. It’s not that philosophical, to her.

It’s just the kind of thing young Persephone tends to think.

She knows object permanence by now. She knows the seed’s still there. But it’s covered over and that makes doubt. That’s the gray. That’s doubt, that’s mystery, that’s the uncertainty that’s flooded in over the seed. It could be anything now. It could grow into anything now. That’s how Persephone gardens: with love and warmth and a bit of green chaos.

The sun beats down on the earth. Helios is busy today, he’s in top form, he’s shining like there’s no tomorrow, when in fact there are at least 1,216,180 tomorrows left. That’s just how much he loves his job.

Under the pressure of that sunlight the earth splits apart. The seed rushes up. Now it’s a plant.

It’s a THISTLE.

“Huh,” says Persephone.

She looks at it left. She looks at it right. She reaches forward.

“Unh uh,” says Demeter.

Demeter stops her.

“Don’t touch that,” Demeter says. “I think it’s got teeth.”

The thistle snarls and bites at her with its teeth. This totally confirms Demeter’s suspicions.

“Wow,” Persephone says, totally taken.

She can see the echoes of that marvelous thing in the thistle. It’s like the wooden sphere and it’s like the soap bubbles and it’s bright and shiny-colored in the sun and she remembers the noise. Mom always says it wasn’t a very important noise but Persephone remembers.

“I’m going to tame it,” Persephone says.

Her eyes are bright. There’s wonder on her face. Her dress hangs to her knees and her hands are grubby and her hair is black and it is amazing how much Demeter loves her right then.

“It’s going to be the best flower ever.

She feeds it a healthy diet of fruits and grains. She brushes its teeth twice a day. She even flosses when it lets her.

That thistle’s always going to love her.

Just like Demeter does.

It is 1317 years before the common era.

Demeter hears her daughter’s scream.

She hears it end.

She knows that Persephone is gone from the mortal realms.

She has gone below the earth and she is lost behind the gray.

And hope is dead.

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.

Hades (III/III)

It is 1317 BCE.

Hades and Iasion stroll through the Underworld. Hades is munching on a pomegranate. It’s his favorite fruit.

“I have had command of this place for some years now,” says Hades, “and still it does not satisfy.”

“It’s all the suffering,” Iasion says. “I recommend a simple palliative: replace it all with sex.”

Hades raises an eyebrow.

Iasion snags an hors d’oeuvre from a passing waiter of the damned. It’s a cracker with a bit of smelly cheese. He bites into it. “Tastes like dust,” he says.

“Yes?”

“It should taste like orgasms,” Iasion says.

Hades stops walking. He chews for a moment. He swallows, uncomfortably. He signals the waiter. The waiter approaches. Hades carefully puts the remainder of his pomegranate on the plate.

Iasion looks a little nervous. “Or like grain. Grain’s okay. Grain’s the sex of the earth. Its crunchy goodness is like nature’s fertility!”

Hades looks at Iasion with a half-frown. Then he shrugs. He starts walking again.

“It’s the same,” Hades says. “Dust, sex, even chocolate. That’s the point.”

“Give me some chocolate,” Iasion says boldly. “And some sex. And some dust. I will test your theory!”

Hades’ walk is somber.

“I’m not flirting with you,” Iasion clarifies.

“Good,” says Hades.

“It’s not that you’re not hot, or anything. It’s just that I don’t think about you that way. And I mostly like girls.”

“It’s true,” Hades says, firmly, “that everything tastes like dust. And that all the colors are gray. And that everywhere there is suffering. But I do not wish to become Hades the King of Sex.”

“It’s a good title,” Iasion says. “Sex and death? You’d be the most popular god ever. They’d be so busy pouring libations to you that people’d hardly have any time to drink.”

“I want there to be hope.”

Iasion sighs.

Hades looks around. “This is the land of what’s left. It’s the land of sorrow. It’s the land of nothing.”

“In that respect,” says Iaision, “you’ve done really well. I mean, look! Walls! Waiters! Residents! Look yonder: Ephialtes and Otus suffer in chains. There! In the Elysian fields, the maid Ananke portions out destinies to the blest. Compared to Zeus’ world, perhaps, this is no paradise; but for a world of nothing and grown of nothing, it is masterful in its decor. The air is full of music, though it does not satisfy—”

“‘Muzak,’ I call it,” says Hades.

“—and the sweet if sterile scent of empty air!”

“I wish there to be hope.”

Their footsteps echo for a while in the empty halls.

“Death is grim, my lord.” Iasion looks apologetic. “It’s because of the endings.”

“This is my plan,” Hades says. He looks at Iasion. “I will travel up to Earth in my chariot. There, I will seize Persephone.”

“Persephone?” Iasion asks. He looks uncomfortable.

“Does that bother you?”

Iasion hedges. “I heard she’s going to blow up one day, boom, just like a volcano.”

Hades runs his finger along the top of a picture frame. The picture shows a gray square. Its frame is clean. There is no dust.

“I will interrupt her destiny,” says Hades. “I will seize her and carry her down into the Underworld. She will make death, not life, into a mystery.”

“What if she turns me into a mint?” Iasion frets.

“Make ready my chariot,” says Hades.

The rest of the story is well-known. Hades finds Persephone in the field. He seizes her. He carries her off. It is 1317 BCE, so this is pretty typical as weddings go.

“Who are you?” Persephone asks, after a few minutes on the road.

“Hades.”

She thinks about this. He’s Zeus’ brother, and pretty important, but on the other hand, he lives in the Underworld.

“I don’t want to live without sunlight,” Persephone points out.

“None save Zeus may choose the circumstances of their lives.”

“That’s true,” Persephone admits. She bites her lip. She’s not even one tenth as strong as Hades, so her options are limited to marriage and destroying the world. “I guess.”

Right now, with shock setting in and the chariot bouncing along the road, Persephone is having a hard time even figuring out how upset she is.

Hades’ chariot charges towards the spring of the nymph Cyane.

Suddenly, in Persephone’s heart, there is a bit of hope.

Like a waterfall without a cliff, the naiad Cyane rises. She has not one hundredth of Hades’ strength, but still she rises.

She spreads her arms to bar Hades’ way.

“No!” Cyane says. It is a demand.

Persephone’s gratitude is as deep as the world, and she realizes in that moment that she is very upset with things indeed.

Hades’ voice is certain. It is unyielding. It is the wind from the mountains and the cruelty of the sea.

“It is necessary,” says Hades, “that there be hope.”

“No!” repeats Cyane. This time she is chiding him.

“So I have taken hope,” says Hades.

“Go no further!” Cyane says, and suddenly her voice is cracked and angry and full of fear and sorrow. “This maiden must be asked, not taken.”

Persephone takes strength from it.

“If I do not like you,” Persephone tells Hades, in a soft dark lucid voice, “I will unmake you, your world, and everything you have.”

Hades smites the spring. The world cracks open. Cyane falls back. The chariot gallops down into the Underworld and they are gone.

“Oh,” says Cyane. “Oh. Persephone.”

She is crying now.

Her tears are tears of futility, for she does not understand what good it is that she has done.

Wakka wakka wakka

Wakka wakka wakka wakka

My mother always called me lazy. I would go out with my friends and complain. I would say, “I am not lazy. I am full of ambition. Yet God has given to each of us a task. I have not found my task. I have not found my purpose. Let me find the job I am suited for—then she will see my ambition!”

“Sometimes, Paquito, ” Sancho told me once, “I think the only job you would be suited for is eating small dots of light.”

“I would be a master,” I said, with enthusiasm. Esmeralda and Sancho both laughed at me—for where would a man find such a job as that?
— from the diary of Francesco Manderiaga

Wakka wakka wakka wakka

I like to think that each pill I consume is an indulgence.

I cannot know the purpose to my endless task. But I like to think that it is to lift the burdens of the world. So I have given it that dedication in my mind. I prayed to God, saying, “Let each pill I consume free one man of his burden. Let each pill lift a fraction of the weight on one man’s soul. That would make me happy, God.”

Cherries came before me like a grace.
— from a letter by Francesco Manderiaga

Wakka wakka wakka turn! wakka wakka

Always there are ghosts pursuing me. They are like the very fiends of Hell.

It is important, I think, that a man do what he loves. Do the ghosts love their job? I think not. I think they are jealous. That is why they are so angry. I tell them this. When I have eaten a more powerful pill, I turn and I chase them. I shout at them, “Why do you do this? Are you happy? Why do you stand in the way of a virtuous man?”

They do not repent. But I have forgiven them.
— Francesco Manderiaga, in candid conversation

1600 points!

Wakka wakka wakka wakka

When I complete a circuit, the world is reborn.

There are those who would hate this, I think. But to me, it is a joy.

I wish that all of you should know fulfillment.
— written in a high score file

Why the Rooster Crows at Dawn

In the night forest, it comes. It has a wide and awful maw. It snuffles. It snorts. It chitters, hideous and resonant. Its great mandibles scrape along the ground.

The forest is almost empty. It is almost always empty, when the horror walks.

At the edge of the forest, a copper frog pokes at the bramble wall. “Please,” she whispers. “Anyone. If you are there. If you are anywhere. I cannot find my hiding place. Lead me to your own.”

The bramble is silent. The forest is silent, save for the chittering of the beast.

“It will find me,” says the frog.

It has been a very long night, and there will be no dawn.

Piercing and bright, a rooster crows. The horror turns. The frog begins to hop, furiously, towards the sound and its promise of salvation. “Where are you?” she asks, as she hops. “Where are you?”

There is a glint of light. The frog dives into the brambles. The horror’s maw slams into the ground where she had been.

The rooster’s hiding place is small, and dangerously close to the edge of the wall. The brambles shake as the creature’s mandibles probe them.

“Thank you,” whispers the frog. “Thank you. Thank you.”

“Shh,” the rooster says.

The thin layer of wall that protects them begins to tear.

“That’s done it,” says the rooster. “Sorry. I guess I didn’t help you after all.”

A long, prehensile tongue snakes into their hollow. The rooster pecks at it and it retreats. The brambles that shield them continue to tear.

“We’ll fight it,” says the frog. “I’ll do my best.”

She croaks a croak of war. She waddles in place, shaking the brambles.

“To the north,” the rooster says.

The copper frog listens. She can hear it. To the north, the battle cry of two more frogs. The horror hesitates. The racket of the frogs grows louder. The horror pulls back. It begins to tromp north. It begins to tear at the brambles near the sound.

“To the north,” the rooster says.

There is the furious cry of an eagle, to the north. And the yowling of cats. The creature, hesitantly, moves north.

“To the north,” the rooster says.

There is the brazen trumpet of a hiding elephant. A flock of seagulls squabble.

Belly low to the ground in hunger, the creature runs.

“That should hold it,” says the rooster, “’till the dawn.”

The copper frog sinks down.

“There will be no dawn,” she says.

“Pardon?” says the rooster.

“It was my job,” says the frog. “Like the twilight frogs, whose croak calls twilight, and the terces frogs who bring nine a.m. I called the dawn. But I am helpless.”

“Why is that?”

“My love was called away, beyond the sky. I cannot save him. I am no hero. But still I must go, to the gate at the wide world’s edge, and seek to bring him back. That is why this night has been so long. The gate closes at dawn, and I am no fast traveler.”

“Ah,” says the rooster. He scratches at the ground. “Then you can’t very well call the dawn,” he admits.

“I should go,” says the frog.

“I’ll walk you there,” says the rooster.

“I’m sorry,” says the frog.

“When you’re gone,” the rooster says, “I’ll call the dawn. Every morning. Until you return.”

“That’s sweet,” says the frog. “But you’re a chicken.”

“I’ll do my best,” the rooster asserts.

The Stone (IV/IV)

When the Thorn That Does Not Kill went into Liril’s neck, she found a small round stone in her mouth. She spat it out and into the monster’s hand. The monster tossed it aside, and from that time to this, Liril has been still and quiet.

And yet.

It is not so very long ago that Micah, in the schoolyard, found that stone, and picked it up, and named it Liril. He chose that stone not by coincidence or by design, but by necessity. The world works as it does; and there is no other stone that would have been appropriate. So he drew legs on it, and a head, and two hands, and rolled it off into the woods.

Neither Liril or Micah saw where it stopped; but it stopped, of course. It came to a peaceful place, in the shadow of the trees, and waited, still and quiet and without volition, like any other stone.

The shadows grow long, and the wind rustles in the trees, and on its great long legs the namecatcher wasp stalks in. It’s as big as a human hand, which makes it much bigger than the rock.

“Pretty thing,” it says. “Has a name, does it?”

It pokes the rock with a leg. The rock stirs.

“Yes,” the rock admits. “Liril.”

The wasp smiles. Or perhaps it’s more of a leer.

“I’ll take that name,” it says. “Won’t I?”

It scuttles forward a little. Its stinger comes forward, gently, to tap against the stone.

“It’s undecided,” the rock says.

The wasp cocks its head to one side. “Stones tell many things,” it says, “but what a strange thing for a rock to say.”

“Listen,” the rock says, and the namecatcher wasp listens. There’s a soft and faraway drumbeat in the woods.

“They’re coming,” the rock says. “For Liril. And if you take the name, then I won’t be anything at all; but you’ll have her name, and they’ll find you.”

The wasp hesitates. Its antennae twitch. It touches the stone with a leg and rocks it back and forth.

“Then I do not know what to do,” it says.

The rock is still. The wasp is cunning.

“If you can tell me my name,” the wasp says, “then I will let you go.”

“Why?”

“Because I am a namecatcher wasp, and that is the law of my nature.”

“You are Safety,” says the rock.

“I am not.”

“You are Peace,” the rock says.

“I am not.”

The wasp’s wings beat, agitated. Its stinger comes forward, then hesitates. It is wrestling with itself.

“You are Surrender,” the rock says.

“Ah,” says the wasp, as a burden lifts from it. It ascends into the air in a storm, and its wings give rise to a wind that cuts across the winds of the world. As the wasp rises, it blows the rock from its place, and it rolls once, twice, thrice.

There is a drumbeat in the woods, and the rock fears it. So it does not stop. It is even now rolling. It is driven by the changing of the wind.

Compromises with Hell1

1 must be conversant with Star Trek, Chinese Hells, the infinite compassion of Kwan-Yin, and the custom of burning “hell money” to give dead relatives something to spend.

Captain Kirk dies. He goes before the implacable Yama Kings. They abandon him to endless torment in the Hell of Flayed Klingons. There he must face off against a gentle bodhisattva in a battle only one of them can survive.

“KWAN!” he shouts. Then “YIN!”

Her infinite compassion cannot resist his double-fisted punch. His loyal servant, Spock, infiltrates the court of the Yama Kings and administers the Vulcan neck pinch. Soon unconscious Yama Kings litter the floor. Kirk and a horde of demons escape into the mortal realm. There’s only one recourse for the Federation: burning hell money to appease the demons. With tenacious courage, they return to a capitalist economy and set their phasers to “SACRIFICE”. As the first wave of demons assaults Federation Stronghold Coppercorn, the Organians make their move.

“Hostilities must cease,” boom the Organians. “You inferior races must learn to tolerate and work with the fiendish minions of Hell.”

“Compromises with Hell are scary,” the Federation leaders admit.