Ink Invaluable (IV/XVI)

In the belly of the world there is a great wintry battlefield where white slate snowflakes drift down from a ceiling measurelessly high and accumulate slowly on the bodies of the dead. They are sprawled there, creatures warped by any surface measure, people with the features of bugs and fish and writhing squirming weasel-things. Some wield weapons. Others claws. They are dead.

Around and among them works Riffle and his crew.

“There,” he says.

Where he points his crew converges. They prop up planks of wood against one another. They nail them together. They build scaffolds. They connect the scaffolds together in great rickety structures. They grow ungainly wooden structures, awkward and without pattern, towards the ceiling rock.

The cavern is full of the sounds of hammering, climbing, and crashing.

It is full of the dust of fallen wood.

The girl coughs.

All eyes turn on her. It is a look of accusation.

You are coughing, suggest the eyes of Riffle’s crew. This is distracting us from our vital and important work. Why, even the time we take to formulate this thought, to contemplate the knobs and pits and irregularities of our own introspection, is time we cannot afford.

“Don’t give them an excuse,” says Riffle.

The girl is fifteen years old, more or less, with hair as black as ink. She’s wearing a pink backpack that’s too small for her. She’s taller than Riffle. He doesn’t make it much past her elbow. She can tell, because suddenly he’s standing next to her, suddenly he’s guiding her away from the crew.

“They’ll slack if you give them the slightest excuse,” Riffle says. “So you have to keep them in fear of their lives.”

Then he stabs at her.

With a sword he’s picked up from the ground!

He stabs her right at the throat!

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

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

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

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

The Island of the Centipede

The girl’s name is Ink Catherly. Short for Ananke, she’ll tell you — Necessity — although we already know that’s not the truth.

There are many legends about her.

People will tell you that she climbed a tower right to Hell, but didn’t find it at the top; or that she dove deep beneath the world to look for Heaven; or that she got caught amidst the soldier’s tents in a duly sanctioned war.

“We cut the freedom from the rock,” said Private Jameson.

That’s from that last legend that we mentioned, the one about the war.

“We cut the freedom from the rock,” Private Jameson said.

Outside the tent blew the wind, cutting and dark and terrible. It kicked up sand and small rocks. The great tall slouching jellyfish of the land moved blindly in that wind, walking amidst and beyond the soldiers’ tents.

Sometimes one of their tendrils brushed against the open flap and Jameson would shudder.

“Here,” he said.

He held a bit of freedom up. It was slick and soapy in his hands. It was translucent and milky and had sparks in it.

“We cut it from the veins in the rock and then we ship it home.”

“Toss it here?” said Ink.

She was shackled to a post in the back of the tent. Her hair blew about, then settled, then blew about again.

“Very funny, ma’am,” Jameson said.

Ink looked down.

“I don’t suppose you’d care to say why you’re in the war zone, ma’am?”

“I was exploring,” she said.

He looked blankly at her.

“I was looking for Hell,” she said.

“Ah,” said Private Jameson. He tapped his nose. “See, that thing, you see, that saying about war? It’s a metaphor.

Ink made a face at him.

“It seems rude,” she said, after a while. “Coming into another country and mining their freedom.”

“I felt sorry for them,” Private Jameson said.

“Sorry?”

“There’s this thing,” he said. “This happiness, this sweetness, this certainty at the heart of totalitarianism. We have it back home. It’s like a blanket wrapped around your heart and a cup of cocoa in your hands. And they were here, out in the Empty Lands, with the jellyfish and the sand. And I said, ‘They must be so cold, so scared, so helpless, there.'”

“With the freedom?”

“Nobody’s free in this world but Jesus and Jehovah, ma’am. They were chained, they were bound, they were helpless like the rest of us, but they had all this freedom just laying around. Just enough to feel it, if you see my meaning. Just enough to be cold.”

The tent shuddered. One of the jellyfish had blundered into it, with its great fat body and its gleaming skin. The top of it bowed in under the weight and there was a tearing sound.

“Oh,” said Ink.

Private Jameson looked up.

It was from the other side. That was why he didn’t have warning or time to stop it: it came from the other side, the tendril that spiked through the canvas of the tent and skewered him. He was looking one way, startled by the looming of the jelly, and the tendril came in from the other and it tore into his skin.

The poison of the jellyfish cut upwards along his spine. He spasmed. The freedom flew from his hand.

Ink stared.

It was very quick, the whiteness and blueness of Private Jameson’s death. It spread across his face. He fell.

“Hey!” shouted Ink.

The tent had pulled up from one of its pegs. The wind was blowing.

“Hey! Captured girl who was wandering around the war zone here! My security’s dead!”

In the distance she heard the echoes of guns and great picks. She could hear running feet. They were not coming for her. Their direction was north.

The tendril of the jellyfish was caught in the tent. It flailed near her.

Her foot stretched out.

The tendril cut across the leg of her pants and she froze; but it did not cut in and she did not die.

Her foot stretched out. Too far — too far —

Just as the muscle in the bottom of her foot cramped she touched her toe against the freedom. She got the tiniest of grips.

The post that held her slipped free.

She fell flat. She pulled at the shackles with her teeth. They gave.

Ink pulled the freedom closer with her foot. She gripped it in her hand.

“South,” she said.

She kicked to her feet. She ran south. The great blind jellies drifted. Behind her, men fought men.

There was more freedom there — just laying on the road. So she picked it up.

She took up more and more of it as she ran until even the gravity well of the world could not hold her; until she could kick up and go flying up from the ground; until the heaviness and slowness of her muscles could not hold her back and she flowed like a river up into the sky.

Se’irite!” cried a voice.

Forbidden thing. Beast. Anathema. Such were the implications of his tone.

Se’irite!” that person said, and she looked over, and she saw a man with horror writ upon his face. He raised a ramshackle cardboard-tube gun with spam cans tied on either side. He fired. Everything around her went white with the explosion of that gun.

The shadow of death rose behind her as she ran into the night.

The gun had only clipped her. Before it fired it again she rose into the sky and she was gone.

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Cronos: The end of human sacrifice was the beginning of time.

I wanted the details of the Titanomachy. I went looking for them. But that’s what I got. Not the origins of the thunderbolt. Not how Zeus freed the siggorts and the woglies, then put them back again. Not how the lord of the gods won the world, or how he saved his family from his father’s fate. Just that: the end of human sacrifice was the beginning of time.

It’s stupid, though, because human sacrifice never ended. We just stopped using the perfect, the beautiful, the valuable, and the precious, and started sacrificing the people we don’t care about instead. We feed them to our gods until their mouths are red with them.

I’m not sure why it doesn’t count.

Perhaps it is the karma of a worm that moves her arm. Perhaps it is the nature of the imago.

Ink’s hand comes up.

She catches the sword before it kills her.

A trickle of blood runs down her neck, and more from her hand, and she asks him, “What the Hell?”

“Fixed-rate liability insurance,” says Riffle, and he twists the blade.

  • Will tort reform destroy Ink Catherly at last? Will Riffle make his quota on scaffold-inches for the day? And what’s that horrific rumbling in Cronos’ belly? Looming up on the horizon, the next exciting installment of the histories of Ink Catherly:
    ACTUAL TERROR.

The Uncanny Valley (I/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]

Sid wakes up.

He smiles eastwards towards the dawn.

It’s wonderful, sometimes, to be Sid. The birds are singing. The sun is bright. His body is fresh and practically unhurt and his hair’s just the way he’s always wanted it to be.

He takes a deep breath of pure clean air and says, “How beautiful.”

Then everything goes wrong.

Branching from the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 )

It is June 2, 2004.

Martin is sitting on the grass by Sid.

Sid has fallen on his back and he’s got this stricken look like he’s just come home from vacation to discover that everything everywhere in the world is broken.

“Did you ever hear that old question about whether you’d prefer to torture one person or let everyone in the world die?” Martin asks.

“No,” Sid says.

“No?”

“For some reason,” Sid says, “nobody ever asks siggorts that one.”

“Huh.”

Martin is sitting there on the grass by Sid. He’s looking at his fingers.

“What is it that’s so beautiful?” Martin asks.

Sid laughs. It hurts him to laugh, but he does.

Martin’s still looking at him.

Sid shakes his head.

“Jane tells me,” Martin says, “that the answer is, ‘You are.'”

Sid doesn’t say anything.

“That that’s what you see when you wake up in the place without recourse and the beauty of it overwhelms you. Not the dawn. Not the sky. You. The inside of your eyes.”

“Why did you make her that way?”

“Best I could do with the materials I had.”

“Really?”

“I’m a boy of pride,” Martin says.

“It’s not me,” Sid says.

“No?”

“Siggorts are legendarily ugly,” Sid says. “It’s not so much the visuals as the dharma.”

“Pointy,” Martin concurs.

Sid makes a face.

“What is it, then?” Martin asks.

“Not me.”

Martin laughs.

“What?”

“Real insightful, Mr. Dialectic.”

Sid snorts.

Martin gestures out at the sea. He says, “Max is out there.”

Sid’s neck goes taut. It’s like his larynx is strangling him. He stands, his hands awkward in the air in front of him, the long muscles of his legs pulling and pushing against one another to draw him up. He stares out at the distant glimmers on the sea.

“Why?” Sid asks.

“I sent him west to seal a fountain of good,” Martin says.

“You didn’t have to.”

“No.”

“No?”

“I just don’t like him,” Martin says.

Sid wants to scowl at Martin but it’s like his nose is stuck pointing west; he can’t make himself turn his head back from the sea. Instead he says, “It’s a trick question, isn’t it? The torture thing?”

“Yes.”

“One side’s intention and the other’s an outcome.”

“That’s the math of it,” Martin agrees.

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

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

The Island of the Centipede

“What do you expect me to do?” Sid asks.

“Go west,” Martin says.

“And if I don’t?”

“Then you don’t.”

The grass is very green beneath the siggort and the boy. The wind makes waves upon it.

“Why?”

“Do you know what sucks?” Martin says. “What sucks is that Jane needs me. And that’s not because of people like the monster. It’s because of people like you.”

“Oh, yes, Mr. Thumbscrews, that makes so much sense.”

“You have these people,” Martin says, entirely ignoring Sid. “These perfectly useful people. And they have beating inside them like a heart their knowledge of themselves, of who they are. And then someone comes along from outside and proposes an alternative. Cripple them here. Clip the wings there. Mold them like Jell-O and make sure they fit. Take your vision of what they should be and use it to overwrite their own. And then just leave them out there—out in the world—flopping around on their wing-stubs, parroting back the twisted nonsense that you gave them, crawling in circles around their concrete-moored peglegs, and then what am I supposed to do?”

“I didn’t ask you to do anything.”

“No,” Martin says. “That’s the trouble with isn’ts.”

“What?”

“You can’t ask. Not once they’ve broken you. You say, ‘Give me more of that torture’, and maybe it’s you, and maybe it’s the twisting in you. You sit there silently, and maybe you’ve got nothing to say, or maybe they’ve drowned it. You say ‘Let me go’, and maybe that’s reason and maybe that’s panic. You say all kinds of things, and the fundamental crime that made you isn’ts is that sometime, once upon a time, somebody didn’t listen; and that somehow, as a result of that, I can’t listen to you now.”

“That’s bleak,” Sid says.

“The trouble with isn’ts,” Martin says, “is that they don’t want to be real, not really. They can’t, because they’re not. How can something that isn’t even there have desires? How can one dharma, forced into the mold of another, know what it means to express itself?”

“That seems like a dumb question to ask me,” Sid says.

“It’s not a question,” Martin says. “It’s an expression of regret.”

“Oh.”

“I can’t fix you, Sid. All I can do is make you anew.”

Dedicated to someone who is not at all like Sid or Martin, except in that you shouldn’t mess with her. Not even if you’re the Buddha—or a shark!

Intermission – How They Choose the JellO King

They search for people who don’t have room for JellO.

Even if it’s only for a moment!

Then they snatch them up. The great wobbly snarvums snatch them.

They blow their frigid snarvum breath and freeze their candidates’ bellies solid so that they’ll never have room for JellO again.

Then they take them up and they take them to the lands where JellOs live under a black-bodied sun and a red red sky.

There the candidates for King are surrounded by JellO.

There they take the test.

If they pass they are the King.

Why must they be those who have no room for JellO?

No one else would be safe.

Someone with room for JellO would devour the people of that kingdom; would break the seven circles of spells that they lay about the King in the language of that land and render with their horrible white teeth the Kingdom into ruin; as was done in the time of David and the time of Gilgamesh and the time of hungry Kings forgotten now to Man.

Someone with room for JellO would devour the prancing, bowing ministers of the JellO court; would eat those courtiers with Cool Whip perhaps or perhaps with cake.

That is why it is only those with no room for JellO who can become the JellO King.

Now one might ask if all those who have this quality must be taken, if it is necessary that any man or woman or child who has no room for JellO become a candidate for the throne; but to the sages and their dented fingertips the answer is most obvious, because the marketing copy demands nothing less.

So only those with no room for JellO can become the JellO King; and anyone with no room for JellO must become a candidate; and so you might wonder in your bedrooms and your offices, what of those who were King before?

What of the previous Kings, when the snarvums freeze and snatch another man or woman worthy of the throne?

What of those who had no room before, when a new great soul of fullness the snarvums find?

They do not say.

The sands and the JellO and the beetles in their dens are silent.

They do not say.

That Moldless Legacy of Hell (IV/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

Leaves scud about on the surface of the chaos. They are yellow, mostly.

There’s an odd amount of sky visible up above, thanks to all the heaving about of the tower.

Tep’s wearing a loose orange sweatshirt, now.

It’s the color of the powdered brick that had clung to him as he fell.

There’s an alchemy of combination to that. He knows. The brick had melded into him, right down to the bone, before his nature rejected it.

Werewolves are good that way.

They never let go of what they are.

They never let go of anything, really.

That’s why for the rest of his life, whenever he likes, he’ll be able to close his eyes and see the great sweep of Sukaynah beneath the chaos and the ancient crusted bonds that had held her down while he challenged her.

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

The Island of the Centipede

“Don’t rightly know what to say,” Tep says.

Sukaynah breathes.

She does not answer.

If there is one thing he has learned from sitting irritably above her mouth for more than a century, it’s that Sukaynah doesn’t talk very much.

“How did it happen?” he says.

He’s asking about Ned.

And Sukaynah says, “He fell. He was old, Tep.”

“Oh.”

Tep had sort of forgotten that people got old. Even dogs.

“And the other thing?”

Sukaynah breathes.

“The tying-up thing?” he elaborates.

“I’d promised to make the sun go away,” Sukaynah says. “And I followed it all day, west and west, to the boundaries of the world. And the gibbelins tied me down.”

Tep whines softly.

Sukaynah breathes.

“I would surrender,” she says, “If I could. Because, in all honesty, I would not want to lose the rest of my teeth.”

“Well, that’s good,” says Tep.

He stares down.

But he can’t help grinning. It gets bigger and bigger.

“What?” Ink asks.

“I won,” he says.

The Tower of the Gibbelins
by Abel Clay

August, Tuesday 5, 1890, Today I fetched in a jellyfish that spoke & offered me three wishes, but when I asked for the death of God it offered me regrets & suggested that easier wishes would involve gold or jewels, which prompted me to great laughter as I am no doubt the richest man in all the West & I threw it back without acceptance of its offer.

January, Thursday 1, 1891. It is the new year. I have settled myself quite comfortably now and do not think I shall have the opportunity to dethrone the Tyrant; for my indisposition in its peaks and swells is worse on each occasion, and I have not cracked but the thousandth part of the gibbelins’ knowledge herein. Still I find that I am not so hard taken by this as Ned is a faithful companion & I have even grown somewhat fond of Tep & Sukaynah. How can a man find himself so comfortable with savage beasts when the Lord, that fount of goodness, proves a Tyrant? I wonder if we have been In the Wrong and goodness is topsy-turvy from the start.

January, Sunday 12, 1891. I saw him in the distance, moving on the sea, and cast my spear; but I have missed the Tyrant and so he shall remain upon his throne.

I am not certain of the date but I felt that I should close out this volume in some better fashion & not so much speak of my inefficacy as of the great and generous favors that Providence and my adversary have granted me & to acknowledge that in all the cruelty that harangues the world there is still grounds for hope for I shall not regret knowing Emma or Lily or Charles or Tep or Sukaynah & if you find this please take care to feed Ned & Tep & Sukaynah as I do not believe that they can fend well on their own;
Abel Clay.

There are a few minutes of silence, punctuated principally by the sound of turning pages. Ink is reading the journal of Abel Clay.

Then she closes it.

She taps her nose, looking very intent.

Then she takes off her backpack—pink and very flat and a bit too small for her—and puts the journal in it. In exchange, she removes a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It is wrapped in plastic and looks about as ancient as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich can look without actually being green.

She tosses this to Tep.

He catches it. He looks at it more or less as anyone would.

“Sheesh,” says Ink. “You people don’t know how good you have it.”

“Oh,” says Tep.

“It’s food! You chew it and swallow it and then it’s in your stomach fueling the divine fire of your life.”

Tep looks at the sandwich sidelong.

“That is the theory,” Tep agrees.

“Hey,” Ink says.

And now she’s looking solemn.

“If you’ve won,” she says, “you can go, right?”

Tep whines again. It’s soft and under his breath and not so much an answer as a vocalization before his words; and he shortly adds, “She is tied down.”

“You’d sit here for a hundred years waiting for a dead dog to come back and fight you,” says Ink, “and now you’ll stay until someone unties a giant sun-killing horror with limbs as big as jet airliners?”

“Yes,” says Tep.

“Outside,” says Ink, “there are a billion souls to love as you’ve loved those here; and sunsets like rocketfire; and candy with chocolate inside and letters on the front, if you can hold that thought in your head without going insane from the sheer head-pounding magical majesty of it—

“‘Cause, seriously, I mean, just think about that for a moment—

“and balloons that fly up to the ceiling and get stuck there until they die; and ten hundred zillion books; and bees made out of ice and bees made out of rocks and bees that have sex with flowers. And when you breathe there’s air and it comes into your lungs and they push out and then suck in like this,” she says, demonstrating. “And sometimes people light little sticks on fire and breathe part of it into their lungs and then spit out smoke just like they were tumorous dragons.”

“There’s air here, too.”

“Huh,” says Ink. She breathes again: it makes the sound ho-ha, ho-ha, but smaller than Sukaynah’s. “So there is.”

She grins to Tep.

“But I’m taking her,” Ink says. “You can fight me over it, and she’ll stay tied up here forever, or you can say good-bye, and go, and find other people to love out in the endless immensity of the world.”

Sukaynah has been shifting softly in her bonds, pulling against them, a tiny motion that Ink did not feel and Tep did not see until it stopped.

It is still now, below Gibbelins’ Tower.

Softly, Sukaynah says, “Go.”

It is like the lifting of a shackle. It is the ending of a hundred years.

Smiling wildly, and leaning out across the chaos to touch Sukaynah’s face, Tep makes his goodbye; and then, his whole body one great moment of transition, he goes up the wall and away.

What is the imago?
Why does Sukaynah even care that fig newtons are fruit and cake?
Why, in just a few short minutes, will a quarter of Gibbelins’ Tower fall into a jumbled ruin?

Check back on Tuesday for the exciting conclusion to Chapter Two of The Island of the Centipede:
Ink Indestructible (I/I)

“What are you?” Sukaynah asks.

Ink’s hand comes down to touch the surface of the chaos.

“I’m a destroyer.”

Higher Jam

Emily can’t reach the jar on the top shelf.

“Unh!”

Emily jumps. Emily reaches. But it’s too far out of the way.

“Sid!” commands Emily.

Sid comes in from outside.

“Yes?” Sid says.

“Jump!”

Sid jumps.

“No,” Emily says. “Jump! To get the jar!”

Sid jumps towards the jar. He fails. It’s out of his reach.

“Hm,” says Sid.

“Hm?”

“Well,” says Sid, “we live alone in this creaky run-down mansion.”

“Yes?”

“Which you purchased, as I recall, before any other person inhabited it.”

“That’s so,” Emily agrees.

“So it seems to me,” Sid says, “that there shouldn’t be any jars on shelves we can’t reach.”

“Huh!” says Emily.

“Indeed.”

“Do you think it really exists?” Emily asks, peering at the jar.

“Well, we see it,” Sid says.

“That much is true.”

“So it has the visual skandha. That’s an important attribute of existence.”

“I concur,” says Emily.

“What’s in it?”

“In what?”

“The jar.”

“Preserves,” Emily says. She indicates the counter. “As you can see, I have lain out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But it has no jelly.”

“Aren’t there other jars in the house?”

“Alas, no,” says Emily.

“Well, there’s the store,” Sid points out.

“By no means!” says Emily. “I cannot very well leave my sandwich to moulder while I go to the store.”

“I could eat it,” says Sid.

“What?”

“Then,” explains Sid triumphantly, “when you return from the store, you could make another!”

Emily squints at Sid.

“You seek falsely to profit from my peanut butter spreading activities.”

“I could spread the peanut butter on your sandwich,” says Sid, “when you returned. Then all would be equitable.”

“No, no,” sighs Emily. “It must be the jar.”

“Then we must think backwards,” says Sid.

“Backwards.”

“Yes.”

“The opposite of jumping is squatting,” Emily says.

She squats. She feels around on the floor.

“If the mansion wrapped around,” Emily says, “so that the floor were the ceiling, I think this would be effective.”

“If the mansion wrapped around,” Sid points out, “we would be cited for numerous violations of the building code.”

“We could banish the inspector to the dungeon,” says Emily.

“Oh?”

“There he would labor endless hours to power my great machine!”

“Your great machine uses batteries,” says Sid. “And also, I believe you dismantled it as unsuitable for your ambitions.”

Emily puffs up her cheeks and then sighs. “Once again reality intercedes.”

“In any event,” says Sid, “by thinking backwards, I meant that we should consider how the jar reached the shelf. If we recollect this process, then we can reverse it to obtain the jar.”

“It was there yesterday,” Emily says.

“Was it?”

“Yes,” Emily confirms.

“And the day before?”

“Indeed.”

“Last Christmas?”

“No,” says Emily. She thinks. “Last Christmas, there was the ham.”

“How did we get the ham down?” Sid asks, momentarily diverted.

“I adapted the taser into an electric grapple,” Emily says.

“Ah, yes,” says Sid.

“That would not work with preserves,” Emily says.

“No.”

They stare at the jar.

“I am starting to recall,” says Emily. “There was a giant.”

“A giant?”

“The large, cloud-haired giant,” says Emily. “You remember. Ms. Brown.”

“Oh, yes,” says Sid.

“I said, ‘Ms. Brown, before you go, could you shelve these preserves?'”

“Clever thought! Giants have little trouble with shelves.”

“And she looked down at me with these gentle eyes and said, ‘Of course.'”

“So,” says Sid. “We need only find Ms. Brown and ask her to fetch down the jar.”

“Focus, Sid!” snaps Emily.

“Hm?”

“If my sandwich moulders while I search for Ms. Brown, the entirety of this effort would be in vain; even Ms. Brown would laugh at me, with great booming sounds.”

“Alas,” says Sid.

“We could poke the jar with a stick,” Emily says.

“This is a proposal with many possible outcomes,” Sid points out.

Emily considers. She glares up at the jar.

“If I had a proper assistant,” Emily says, “I’m sure this would be much easier.”

“Your life would be a glorious montage of roses and victories,” Sid agrees.

“I will stand on your shoulders,” Emily says.

“And if you fall?”

“Ha! Then I fall.”

“And if you die?”

“Then I die!”

“And I may have your sandwich?”

“Let us consider alternatives,” says Emily.

Sid saddens.

“We could make another giant,” Emily proposes.

“Really? Another giant?”

“I could make you into a giant.”

Sid looks down at himself. “I have always thought of myself as a sufficiently large man.”

“That is the corrosive effect of my company,” says Emily. “Observe! My head comes up to your stomach.”

“So it does.”

“And you are thicker and broader than I.”

“So I am!”

“This accounts for your inflated sense of your own dimensions.”

“Ah.”

“In truth, you are of that smaller category of men which I shall label ‘inadequate to reach the jar.'”

“If all men were shorter than I,” says Sid, “I would be no more able to reach the jar than I am now.”

“Meaningless semantics,” dismisses Emily. “There is no degeneration of the species in the offing.”

“There could be,” says Sid.

“No,” says Emily.

“No?”

“Well,” says Emily, “humanity is already degenerate, you see.”

“A sour perspective.”

“Rather, a blessing! There is nowhere to go but up!”

“I do not think humans are degenerate,” says Sid.

“Well, observe,” says Emily. “Humans are not giants.”

Sid waits, but Emily does not continue.

“That is not the normal definition of degeneracy,” Sid says.

“Everyone must form their own definitions,” Emily says. “Still, I stand by mine to the death!”

“To the death?”

“Indeed!”

“And if you die of it?”

“And if I die of it?”

“May I then have your sandwich?”

“Sid! Hardly! It will have already mouldered. You would get cancer of the stomach. No,” concludes Emily. “I will have to make you a giant.”

“Did you make Ms. Brown a giant?”

“Well, naturally,” says Emily.

“It was not natural to me,” says Sid. “I had not known you harbored giant-making proclivities.”

“You know that I have the great machine,” Emily points out.

“Well, yes, I know that.”

“And that I am disdainful towards humanity,” Emily says.

“True.”

“And that I live alone in a run-down mansion with my faithful servant,” Emily says.

“Granted.”

“So therefore I am a scientist of unusual caliber,” Emily says, “and a likely candidate for any giant-makings that have transpired!”

“There is that,” says Sid.

“Indeed.”

“But I am not truly your faithful servant,” says Sid. “I am indifferently faithful at best.”

“Sid!” accuses Emily.

“Well, I am hungry,” says Sid. “An assistant is ruled by his stomach; that is the cardinal law.”

“You may make yourself a peanut butter sandwich,” says Emily. “The bread and peanut butter lay yonder, practically inviting you into their arms.”

“I do not wish to waste,” Sid says primly.

“Such niceties!”

“Well,” says Sid, “to make and eat another peanut butter sandwich while a second is left to moulder—is that not the definition of wastefulness?”

“You are not wasteful, then?”

“I am not,” says Sid.

“I give you my assurances,” says Emily, “that I will find a way to obtain that jar and make my own sandwich, though the world itself might crack. Does this suffice to resolve your moral quandary?”

“To trust is folly in this dismal world,” philosophizes Sid. “Rather, a man watches and judges, keeping his mind open at all times. Then he may seize such opportunities as come along!”

“A sour perspective!”

“In hunger, I am a pessimist. When I am full, then I shall be the definition of optimism!”

A train of thought distracts Emily.

“So after you have eaten,” she says, “if you see half a cup of milk, you would call it ‘half-full?'”

“That is the definition,” Sid agrees.

“And if you were to drink it?”

Sid rubs at his nose. “Perplexing. It would become ‘not at all full’, while a more pessimistic man would call it ‘scarcely empty.'”

“Huh!” declares Emily.

She looks Sid up and down.

“In any event,” she says. “Soon your perspective will brighten.”

“Will it?”

“Indeed!” says Emily.

“By sandwich or by treachery?”

“Neither! I shall make you a giant, which shall have you jumping for joy; though not literally, you understand, lest you crack the ceiling.”

“What if I do not want to be a giant?”

“Are you my faithful servant?”

“Indifferently,” Sid qualifies.

“Then there is no choice in the matter. I must simply find your smalling string.”

“Moderate your gaze!” says Sid. “You study regions that can make me blush.”

“Don’t be silly,” says Emily. “I am looking rather to the left of that.”

“I am embarrassed of my left hip,” says Sid, to save face.

“There!” says Emily. She points.

“What?”

“The smalling string.”

“What?”

“The string,” says Emily, “that makes you small.”

Sid tugs on a string protruding from the left hip of his jeans. “What, this?”

“Yes, that.”

“It’s a string,” Sid says.

Emily takes out a knife. “Let me cut it.”

“Your hands are small and clumsy,” says Sid. “Perhaps I should—”

But it is too late. With dispatch and aggression, Emily has cut the string and Sid is no longer small.

“Oh,” says Sid.

“Ha ha ha!” laughs Emily, pumping one hand in the air. “Genius!”

Sid looks down at Emily. His eyes are gentle; there is a fierce intelligence in them; and the spirit of him is at one time fiery and soft.

“I am grown,” he says.

Emily’s laughter slowly fades. She sighs.

“Yes, yes,” she says. “You have grown.”

“Wow.”

“So?”

“So?”

“Fetch me my jam!”

An Unclean Legacy: “The Duel”

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

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

Gargamel unlimbered his great tall legs and stood.

“Your name is Vanity,” said Gargamel.

“Yes.”

“You are the last,” said Gargamel.

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

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

“Wait,” said Vanity.

“Hm?”

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

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

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

And he looked down.

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

He stared into his hand mirror.

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

Gargamel considered this.

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

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

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

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

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

This is the twenty-first installment of the story of that time.

Sophie stares thoughtfully at the Devil.

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

The horned man considers. He rubs his chin.

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

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

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

“What?”

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

“Oh,” Sophie says.

She thinks about that.

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” says the horned man.

“No?”

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

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

“Oh,” Sophie says.

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

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

Sophie stares at him for a moment, thinking.

“All right,” she says.

And they are in motion.

An Unclean Legacy


“The Duel”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is smiling.

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

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

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

An Unclean Legacy: “The Saraman Destiny”

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

“Ribbit,” the frog said.

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

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

“You’re a frog!” declared Rachel.

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

The frog croaked.

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought not,” said Rachel.

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

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

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

“Ha!” said Rachel.

The frog looked startled.

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

Splish! splished the frog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You honestly don’t know?” she says.

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

Sophie shakes her head.

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

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

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

“Huh,” Rachel says.

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

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

Sophie carefully spread orange peel and marmalade upon her bread.

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

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

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

Rachel looks at Manfred, and her eyes are soft.

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

An Unclean Legacy


The Saraman Destiny

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

Sophie stirs the embers of the fire.

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

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

“Santrieste hates her,” Manfred says.

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

“You see,” Manfred says.

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

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

“Ah,” Sophie says.

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

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

Sophie looks down.

“Manfred,” she says. “Are you happy?”

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

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

“Eh?” Manfred says.

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

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

“Thank you,” he says.

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

“Ah,” says Manfred.

It is not a truth he often hears.

What kind of jam would you want to eat?

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

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

(History: Boedromion 21-22: Things and Choices)

Flagging this as something I’m totally going to let myself change later. I’m not at home and have a real time deadline. I’ll remove the flag if I’ve edited to taste. For example, I’m currently uncertain of the closing line, and might not actually edit. ^_^

Update, 5 years later: I’ve never been totally happy with this series, but I won’t be fixing it until the archives are working at least up to Island of the Centipede.

The Underworld is full of things.

There are the little roly-poly round things. They’re like pillbugs. If you poke them, they’ll curl up tight. Then they’ll curl you up with them.

“Help!” you might cry. “I’m stuck!”

But nobody will hear you except the bug-eating giants, and so that’s hardly a win for you.

If Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the roly-poly round things will be gone. Maybe they’ll blow up. Maybe they’ll scurry down. Maybe they’ll just vanish. But they’ll be gone.

No more stories of great heroes descending into the Underworld and getting rolled up by little bugs before they return.

Legends, maybe, but not stories, because those bugs will be lost.

There are shark-human hybrids in the Underworld. Everyone knows that. If there weren’t then who would swim up just when you thought you could relax and do horrible human things to you with their horrible human teeth?

Down in the Underworld they swim.

There are little fish that live near their teeth, little Crest-brand fish that live near the teeth of the shark-human hybrids and dart in between meals to gnaw the scraps from the horrors’ mouths. You can find them in the Underworld, and in Greece, and, really, everywhere where Crest’s ancient inhuman power isn’t bound by the sevenfold law of the FDA.

And if Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the fish will die.

And the shark-human hybrids will die.

And there will be a silence in the deep.

Perhaps they will go on in some form, of course. It’s hard to say. Where is a soul after a soul-eater’s eaten it? Where is a light after the candle is snuffed? Where will be the noble shark-human hybrids and their terrible blunt teeth?

But we can call it “dead.”

Also in the Underworld there are the streaks. They’re colored red, yellow, and green. They’re in the air, like a classical painter got really tired after painting the Underworld and went suddenly modernist in frustration. They jangle and twist when you look at them. The souls in the Elysian fields can’t see them. The souls in torment in Tartarus try to ignore them. One day Tantalus will eat one and find that it tastes just exactly like artificial pudding, which in turn tastes more or less like his son Pelops. That’s why he will always look so funny when he eats a delicious vanilla Jell-O pudding cup. It’s not the flavor. It’s the nostalgia!

And if Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the streaks will be gone, and any purpose they might have to their long and colorful deaths will pass. And perhaps there will be a few lingerers, one or two stragglers, a few bright streaks of red and chartreuse hanging on the surface of the void, but they will go away and the ones who stay will die.

There are the burrs in the Underworld. They live under things. That’s why you don’t want to poke too much at things under other things in the Underworld. There could be burrs. The Underworld is already under other things, so it makes sense that going too much further under would be spiky. But they’re not spiky because it makes sense. They’re spiky as a natural evolved defense mechanism. It protects them from predators!

There are echoes. They’re not actually Echo, who didn’t die precisely but who made the wrong promise and couldn’t be human any more.(1)

(1) For reference, if Zeus ever asks you to make a promise pursuant to one of his pursuits, consider carefully the consequences. They’re not always as nice as you might imagine, and sometimes they involve having pampered tourists at the Grand Canyon shouting at you all day.

The echoes in the Underworld are not actually Echo, but they are the echoes of distant footsteps, and you can hear them if you try.

If Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the burrs will be gone. The echoes will be gone. There will be nothing but the emptiness where once there stood the cathedrals of Hades and the legions of the dead.

No more will trails of blood call the unliving back.

No more the Elysian fields; no more Tartarus; no more Hades; no more Persephone.

She can do this. It’s in her history, if you read back far enough. That’s what a Persephone does. She ends everything. She takes it away.

So as she stands there, with Hades holding out the pomegranate, Persephone licks her lips nervously and then she bows her head.

“Whatever,” she says. “You can do what you want, I guess. I won’t kill all this stuff you made.”

This is a pretty common decision for someone in her position to make, even though everyone always criticizes them for it later.

And she finds firmness in it and a sense of strength, so she lifts her head.

“I’m letting you live.”

And Hades says, “But that’s not what I want.”

“Huh?”

“End it,” says Hades. “Reach down to the nature of this place and make it an undiscovered land.”

Persephone blinks.

“Let it be a mystery,” he says. His face is avid. “Let no one know what happens here. Let them hope or imagine that it is a place of joy. Let them dream with bloodlust of their enemies suffering here in torment. Ease this from the world. Make it not known. That is what I have brought you here to do. That is what I have chosen.”

And she looks at him. And he looks back.

And she says, “You can’t make that choice for me.”

“I can,” he says.

“You can’t!”

And they’re both right, of course. They think they’re disagreeing, but they’re not. They’re just in the grip of Semantics, that bleak god, cousin to Ananke, from whom alone of all the gods and men great Zeus is free.

(Canon: Boedromion 14) The Growing God

This continues the main Hitherby storyline.

The grangler’s an old ghost. He’s a god of holding on.

His hands are claws, like this—like withered bone with leathery tendons holding it together, cold, damp, and very sure.

He’s the third god to approach Elm Hill in quite some time.

He’s the first that isn’t friendly.

Ahead of him, behind him, all around him dead birds are rising from their graves. They are tearing forth from the rotting earth. They are rising towards the sky.

That’s the sign of the grangler.

“I should never,” the grangler says, “have let her go.”

It is May 28, 2004.

On May 28 in history, an eclipse ended Kuras’ great-grandfather’s war. The Pope married James IV. Scotland and England signed their treaty of everlasting peace. The Chrysler building opened. Liril buried a god in a box—a dead and broken god—and hid it under Elm Hill. An earthquake killed Neftegorsk. Mount Cameroon erupted. People all over the world were born and died.

On May 28, 2004, a shadow lays across the sea; and because he is following that shadow, Truth Daniels is not lost.

He’s thirsty.

It’s been four days since he’s found water. It’s been eight days since the last real bit of land. He’s got legs tight as knots.

He’s really thirsty.

But he’s not lost, because he’s following something, and you can’t be lost when you’re doing that.

“We are following the shadow on the sea,” says Deva.

“Yes,” Truth says.

“We have followed it for eight thirsty days,” says Deva.

“Yes,” says Truth ruefully.

“We should stop following this shadow,” says Deva. “It is not working well for us.”

Truth laughs.

“If we don’t suffer,” he says, “how will we grow?”

Deva considers that.

“Water weight,” he says.

The woman is on the deck now. She has her hand up to shield her eyes from the sun. She says, “I don’t want to be taller.”

Truth frowns.

“You could reach higher up in the rigging,” he points out. “Or, if there were a very low star—”

“When I was a little girl,” says the woman, “I wanted to be taller, but I didn’t want to suffer. Now I’m suffering but I’m as tall as I want to be.”

Her tone changes.

“Truth, where are we going?”

“I’m not lost,” says Truth, defensively.

“It’s hard to be lost when there’s a trail to follow.”

Truth frowns. She’s anticipated his next statement, so now he can’t make it.

“It’s like this,” he says. “I think we’re getting closer to a really horrible place.”

The woman raises an eyebrow. Truth can’t see this, but he knows her well enough to guess.

“With anthropophagy,” Truth clarifies.

“Ah,” says the woman.

So she goes and helps with the rigging, and Deva works the wheel.

She’s not the kind of woman who can just ignore the chance to go somewhere where people might get eaten.

A deadwind rises to fill their sails. It drives them eastwards, towards Elm Hill.

In the facility at Elm Hill, Liril screams.

Micah is bloody and battered. He looks just awful. Haggard, really. But he’s still alert enough to stagger in the direction of the scream.

Liril, Micah, and Tainted John arrived at Elm Hill three days ago.

They were ready to fight, then.

Micah, in particular, was feeling actively enthused, back then, about killing humans and gods until the facility at Elm Hill was nothing but an empty charnel house.

He stood outside the gates of the facility, practically shaking with weariness, and he said, “Okay. Do we get to do it now? Do we get to kill them now? Because this running thing? It’s hard.”

Liril looked at him and her lips were sealed tightly. She walked to the gate. She pushed it open.

The facility was dark.

Everywhere they went in it, it was dark.

And after a while, Liril said, “No.”

It was a plaintive noise.

“They’re all gone and I don’t know where,” she said. “So no killing.”

Then she made the tragic face that all little girls make, when they don’t get the chance to kill.

And three days passed in the darkness while Micah got wearier and the blood that he’d shed getting her there grew cold and gelatinous on his face and arms.

It felt cold and gelatinous even after he found water and washed it off.

His whole body has chills now. But there is still enough in him to run when he hears her scream.

He finds her in the basement in a little crawlspace cradling a dead bird.

There’s a discarded box nearby.

It looks really gross inside, like there’s been a bird buried in it for years.

So Micah figures that she found the box in the crawlspace, and took out the bird, and that’s why she screamed; but he can’t figure out why she’s holding it.

So he looks at the bird. He looks at Tainted John. Tainted John just grins.

“Huh?” says Micah, decisively.

Liril looks up at him.

“I buried it,” Liril says. “I declared the box a time capsule and I buried it. So that it would get younger and younger until it wasn’t dead any more. But I think I did not understand how time capsules worked.”

“Oh,” says Micah.

He looks at the bird again.

“I remember that,” he says. “Sort of.”

The bird is sticky and smelly but it’s really pretty amazing that it’s still around at all.

“The problem isn’t with you,” rasps Tainted John. “It’s with time.”

Micah hesitates.

“Can I fix it?” he says.

He holds out his hands. Liril, gently, reluctantly, passes him the bird.

“What do I do?” Micah asks.

But Liril shakes her head. She crawls out. She stands up. She shakes her head again. She looks sad.

“No,” she says. “It’s okay. You don’t have to do anything.”

The bird has four wings and a really long tail. And maybe a bit more in the way of liver than it should.

It’s twitching, ever so slightly, in his hands.

Here is some of the geography that surrounds them.

To the south there is the road. It curves west and runs through a valley before connecting onto the interstate. That is the direction from which Tina will approach.

To the north and west there is a cliff.

There should not be a cliff. The Elm Hill facility is on level ground in the middle of the city; but there is a cliff, and beyond it the still white waters of the sea.

The ground falls away amidst the graves of children and the swaying elm, down a steep black rocky slope, into the sea.

And the facility at Elm Hill casts its shadow out across the waves.

“Birds,” says Deva.

He takes Truth’s hand and he points it towards the birds.

Truth smiles.

“Good,” he says.

There are birds. There are hundreds of them. They are flying out over the sea.

“They think we might have food,” says Truth.

“They’re dead,” says Deva.

He’s wrinkling his nose. Deva has a bad history with birds, and reanimated ghost birds that smell of ancient graves just aren’t his favorite kind.

“Oh,” says Truth. “Then they might think that we are food.”

“Heh,” says Deva.

The grangler lopes towards the facility at Elm Hill.

Melanie is not that far behind him. She’s discussing things with Vincent.

“It’s the logical place,” she says.

“Is it?”

“We can’t stay at Central,” she says. “But the Elm Hill facility still has most of what we need.”

“No kids,” says Vincent.

“Yet,” says Melanie.

“I meant that as an injunction, not an observation.”

Melanie blinks. Then she laughs.

“Well,” she says. “Let’s start with a temporary operating headquarters and see where things go from there.”

“Death and ruin,” proposes the grangler.

Melanie snorts.

“Nine days of death and ruin, then possibly some sort of delicious cereal,” the grangler says.

It is pleased. It has a fey feeling. It likes fey feelings.

“Git,” says Melanie.

So the grangler lopes off ahead, through the facility gates.

And behind them there are others; walking down the road from the various places where they parked their cars, and some are on two feet, some on four, and others ride the wind.

Down in the basement, in Micah’s hands, the bird-thing is stirring. Micah makes a horrified noise. He lets go of the bird. It’s still stinking. It’s still dead. But it’s stirring, rising, breathing, flying.

It’s whirling around the hall, still smelling of decay.

“Oh my God,” says Micah.

“Hi,” says Liril, to the bird, in a soft pleased voice.

But the bird does not hear her. It is whirling around. It is flying past them. It is flying up the stairs and away.

“What kind of god was it?” Micah asks.

“A growing god,” says Liril.

And it is gone.

The grangler is there when it emerges from the building’s broken door. The bird is raven-sized now, where it was sparrow-sized before. It barely squeezes through the gap in the door; and on the other side, the grangler is waiting. The grangler catches it in his clawed dead hands.

“You’re no good bird,” he says.

The four-winged bird chirps desultorily.

“You’re from someone I let go,” he says. “But no one’s here to make me let you go now.”

The bird twists and shudders in his grip.

The grangler looks behind him. Melanie is not too far away. So he skulks off. He skulks to the cliff. He skulks behind the trees, where he may curl around the bird that is his prize.

He slavers.

“I will eat you slowly,” he says.

The bird is larger now. It’s bucking and twisting in his hands. It has two spare wings to beat at his face with. But the grangler holds tight.

“Wake up,” he says, and certain other words, so that it can appreciate what he’s going to do.

And its mind stumbles back to it from the grave, and Liril’s growing god, killed more than a decade before, wakes to the eyes of an enemy.

And it cannot break free.

There is a ship, the Anna Maria, sailing distantly through the sea.

On it, Deva is frowning, and saying, “You can’t drink the water of a dead bird.”

But Truth is laughing at him, and saying, “Deva, even dead birds mean land and land means water.”

And on the land, above, the grangler is feeling a certain mild concern; because the bird is nearly his size now, and it has two wings for flight, and there is no one there to make him let it go.

(Still Sick) Stacking Mammals and Sid

Gelling agents are often made from various emotions. It is very inefficient to use happiness as a gelling agent, while sadness is extremely effective. That is why Jell-O jiggles so often so tragically. However this story is not about jiggling or gelling, but rather about stacking mammals and Sid.

It is possible to stack mammals to achieve almost any desirable effect. This requires sticky mammals, such as sticky goats and sticky elephants. These are sticky mammals because they adhere to one another and they bear live young. Sometimes this is a consequence of pregnancy and at other times a consequence of inappropriate stacking. Always read the assembly instructions before stacking mammals!

Not every mammal is naturally sticky. You can test this out. Attempt to stack a cat on a dog. They may cuddle happily, or they may completely fail to adhere. That’s because their natural stickiness isn’t adequate to the task of stacking. You can also perform this experiment with cats and easily surprised pandas. Take note of the fact that this will surprise such pandas.

In order to make mammals stickier one can use a gelling agent. This renders the mammal in question into a gelatinous mammal. Gelatinous mammals are always sticky.

Some gelling agents are made with glue. Others are made with happiness!

In the Valley of Happy Gelatinous Mammals there are many mammals made gelatinous with joy and stacked into useful configurations. There is a stack of mammoths that forms the local government and end-to-end opossums that provide advanced communication services. Always the mammals there are happy, and their land is full of rainbows and gumdrops and singing.

Among the mammals move the shimmer-things, which are things that manifest as visual distortions, or, shimmers. Some of the mammals think these things are angels. Others hold different characteristic beliefs regarding the shimmer-things.

Sid is a gelatinous ostrich. He lives in the Valley of Happy Gelatinous Mammals. It is the default consensus in scientific circles that ostriches are not mammals, but there are many specific objections that serious researchers have raised to this classification. These include the very real possibility that the “ostrich eggs” sold on the market are in fact buffalo eggs. If you have ever savored a hearty buffalo steak over fried ostrich eggs and hashed platypus then you probably understand why many important culinary institutes support this theory. This is the basis on which the shimmer-things made Sid gelatinous and stacked him in the Valley with the others.

“Can you make it rain?” Sid asks the shimmer-things.

The shimmer-things stack the mammals appropriately to make it so. The sky glooms. Thunder rattles. Then lightning spears down and rain drums against the earth.

Sid hides his head in the ground. That’s how impressed he is!

Then he pulls his head out. He looks sly.

“Can you make China untether the yuan from the dollar?”

The shimmer-things form a swirling vortex of indecision. Then they whisk about restacking happy animals.

“Whee!” shouts a lemur, as it is rapidly rearranged relative to various wildebeests.

“Grmf,” grumbles a gelatinous bear.

“In a move that could trim the trade gap with the United States, China revalued its currency higher against the dollar Thursday,” says CNN.

Sid hides his head even deeper in the sand this time. He’s very impressed.

But after a while, he pulls his head back out.

“So,” says Sid slyly, “if I wanted to see what being unhappy was like, you could just restack some mammals and I’d know. Right?”

The shimmer-things rotate in a fanblade array.

“Hm?” challenges Sid.

“No,” say the shimmer-things.

Sid looks blankly at the shimmer-things.

“If we’d wanted to make gelatinous mammals unhappy,” explain the shimmer-things, “then we could have stacked them much more efficiently in the first place.”