Rainbow Noir: the Mountains and the Sky

It has been a certain interval, dear reader, since I first had the opportunity to speak to you of the magical land of rainbows above the world and the shadowed city that succeeded it. Of how it came to pass that a certain girl, born in shadows and dwelling in shadows, became the rainbow; how she challenged the notorious Nihilism Bear; and, in the end, defeated him. Later, and after the receipt of certain despatches and messages, I was able to speak to you further: of how she sought out Mr. Dismal, whom she falsely suspected of responsibility for her various plights, and, in The Case of Mr. Dismal, made an end to him. But we still did not know the why of it all—whose will it had been that had set itself against the rainbow; that had brought Mr. Dismal to that land; that had dulled the kingdom of every brightness into Shadow City’s noir.

Lately, some of my friends have been struggling. They’re trying to do something good, something amazing, something cool, but they’re working for and with people who’d really much rather it came out a product. There is a corrupt religion of money over worth that has seeded itself in the modern business world; and people I care about, dear reader, are being ground down by the faithful of that religion; by the Mythos cultists of this modern era who would never have believed, who couldn’t have believed, that a place like Shadow City ever had color in it at all.

And I thought, maybe, for them, as a Christmas present; and for you, as a Christmas present—

Even though it wouldn’t help them any, and even though it wouldn’t mean that my dear readers would hear regular tales from me again—

that I would look into the matter a bit. That I would find out a bit more about the thing that turns rainbows into shadows, and ask what kind of answer rainbows make.

Without further ado, and with the hopes that all who read this will trust their hearts and live in brightness, the conclusion and the beginning of a story that started long ago.

Rainbow Noir: The Mountains and the Sky

The girl rides the horse through the sky. It’s the most wonderful and marvelous thing. It’s the most wonderful and marvelous thing, and underneath them there are endless miles of cold air.

Beneath that are the mountains, which we shall name Gray Death.

Her name—the girl’s name, that is—is Wisp. She’s saved the universe once or twice. She’s the kind who you just have to point and shoot, basically, and the universe gets saved. That’s what she is, and why she is, and why there have to be girls like her.

As for the horse—

As for the horse’s name—

There’s an ice crystal bigger than the world. There’s an endless distance, and space. There’s a great and brooding thought that presides over it all,

Like God had forgotten color, hope, and light—

And we could call that “I Am,” or “the All,” or “The Lord that Dwells in Starlight.”

But the horse itself, it doesn’t really have a name.

It’s the most marvelous horse there ever was. A horse like that doesn’t really need its own name. Who could you confuse it with?

It’s just, you know, the horse.

People laugh, talking about magical sky horses and rainbows, sure, they laugh, but if you saw it there, its feet pounding against the nothingness, endless miles of cold air below and below that, Death—

You wouldn’t laugh.

You’d just think, in that moment, that it was the most marvelous and warm and most incredible thing you ever saw.

One day, one day, once upon a time, the girl fell off that horse. She screamed. She’s very brave, but even a brave person can scream when you’re falling and the sky is rushing up around you and there’s only Death below. She screamed, and the world around her burned with its blues and its purples and its brightness, and her life flashed before her eyes in a series of twenty-minute shorts that in the end didn’t add up to very much—

And that time, he saved her.

That time, as she spun and fell and rainbows curled and twisted through the vastness of the void around her, the horse came down and lunged and caught her with his teeth and snapped her away from the touch of great Gray Death, and pulled her up and she twisted and she flung her hands around his neck and she sank her face into his mane and laughed.

She did.

She really did! Even with the awkward angles of it all.

She could, and did, climb up onto his neck and back, because there really isn’t very much gravity when you’re falling, and at that particular moment in time they weren’t really quite done with the falling part of their precipitous descent and back to the flying that the two of them were about to do.

The second time, though, the second time, he didn’t save her when she fell.

She asked—

With her eyes, she asked!

But the second time, when she found herself falling, and the sky was everywhere around her in its blues and purples fading into the shadows of darkness, and grayness was reaching up from the ground as if to seize her up and drown her and shatter her like a teardrop on the stone, the horse, it just stood back.

The ice is bigger than the world, and twice as far as anything.

Her name was Wisp, back then as now, but nobody called her that. Everyone called her things like “the rainbow,” “the rainbow girl,” or “hope.”

She was the one charged with the preservation of love and hope and beauty and power and magic. She was the one responsible for providing all the things that people need to have within their lives, in a world that is sometimes very dark. And the mechanism of this charge was color.

She would find places that were dark and colorless, in the world, in people’s lives, in people’s hearts.

She would walk among the gray shadows and get the feel of them.

Then she would bring the rainbow.

There are a billion places in the worlds that are that needed her special touch. A billion, or even more; so it’s not too surprising that grayness still endures. It took her time to find each spot of darkness. It took her time to find it, and know it, and see its antidote, and make an end to it. It took her time, and there were so many different shadows that needed her to give to them that time.

It probably makes a billion look small, really, the number of those shadows, if you actually could count each of them, and give each one its name. It’s probably laughable to imagine that it’s just a billion, like saying, “well, millipedes have at least one leg”—

But a billion, at least.

So that’s why it took her a while to see what had happened down on Earth.

That’s why she missed the whole of World War I. She was in a flower garden, where the insects had corroded beauty. She was in the Crab Nebula, where monsters were threatening a noble Prince. She was in Kansas, helping a lost child, and in the oceans, healing a dolphin’s heart.

She was polishing one of the stars in the endless sky when the trenches cut the world.

She was in the kingdom of the cats.

She was fixing a broken mountain.

She was painting a butterfly when the Nazis came to power. She was painting a butterfly with vibrant colors, because the butterfly had gone gray.

And she might have missed it;

She might have missed it all;

Save that butterflies can only wear so much paint before their wings will cease to fly. There are only so many stars that lose their glitter. There are only so many monsters, though they spawn eccentrically and at random intervals throughout the cosmos and its worlds; so many broken mountains; so many cats that have never ever been fed.

Before the end of the war—before it had even really gotten started—she saw it. She saw what we were doing. She saw what we had done.

She saw it, and said:

“Here is a darkness. Here are gray shadows. I will walk among them and I will find their antidote, and I will bring the rainbow.”

And tears were falling from her face, great rivers of tears, and breaking on the ground.

“And not just here,” she said.

The war to end all wars, well, hadn’t. But she decided, there and then.

“I will heal this thing,” she said. “I will bring an end to wars.”

Underneath the girl and the horse are endless miles of ice-cold air.

Right now, as you’re reading this story, the horse and the girl are falling. They are a comet. They are a meteor. They are a dying, broken, tumbling leaf, a teardrop, a rainbow chunk of ice and fire, and they are falling towards Gray Death below.

“It’s impossible,” said the horse. “Even for someone like you. Even for someone like me. It’s impossible, rainbow girl, that we could bring an end to war.”

“It’s my quest,” she said.

“It’s wrong,” said Terrence. He was her sprite. “It’s wrong. It’ll destroy us. They’ll find us, if we try to end their wars. They’ll hunt us down. They’ll take Rainbow Land away, make it theirs, make it a part of their earthly kingdom, where only shadows rule.”

“But it’s my quest,” the girl said. “I have to heal this thing. I have to guard the beauty that the people of the Earth deny. I have to make them stop killing each other,

and so cruelly!”

But, oh! The sky was fading.

It was twilight in the rainbow kingdom, the sun was falling to the west, and the horse looked up.

“It will have to wait for morning,” the marvelous horse said. “Dear. You can’t do it today. You can’t do it now. You can’t stop people from fighting wars, forever, if you haven’t gotten any sleep.”

“That’s so,” conceded the girl.

So she went to bed.

She went to bed, to let Earth wait just one last troubled night.

And slept.

And while she slept there were doings in the darkness, and gatherings, and quiet acts of diplomacy and treason; and when she woke, her people did not sing to her, as they had always done, when Rainbow Land was bright.

Rather than sing, instead, they gathered around her, and their voices, they were low.

“We shall show you,” said Terrence.

She looked at him.

“We shall show you,” said Terrence, “why it is that you cannot save the world.”

And they took her down into the depths of the palace, and through the hidden passages to the caves where her servants labored, cutting forth light and hope from the lifeless stone, and to the Great Machine that had made her.

And she said, “It’s made of ice.”

She touched it with her hand.

She said, as if in a trance, “There is a place, so very far from here! And a flake of ice, and oh, it is so very bigger than the world! And God—”

But the horse was brusque.

It bumped her in the back with its nose and made her turn away, and said, “This is where we made you, to save us, to be a girl from nothing and make brightness in our land. We cut you out of ice and dolor and we brought you here, from nothing, to nothing, and filled your heart with fanciful lies. Like, ‘you are charged to save us, wielding light.’ Like, ‘you were made to fill our land with beauty.’”

And she remembered—oh, she remembered, and of a sudden!—how she’d come into existence and out of nothingness as if formed off some great crystal made of ice, and curled about herself in some strange womb, and dreamt of foreign colors as shaved fragments sprinkled by.

She remembered how she’d dreamed, oh! such dreams! of something brighter than the endless hungry void. How she’d conceived a sudden brilliant conception, in that womb of ice, of what the murky and dismal land some call “the world” could be.

And how it had seemed to her that a lady made of light had spoken, had said, “Wisp, will you go forth from this place to my land, my dismal land, that dwells under the hand of shadows, and make it bright?”

The sprites looked down.

In the shadow of the Great Machine, the echo of the work of ice that lives beyond the world, they could not speak; save for Terrence, who cleared his throat, and said:

“You were our doll, lady Wisp. You were our toy. And we are grateful to you, for that you were bright and brilliant and rainbows. But you must not think you are a person. You must not think you are a living girl with breath and heart and hope and rainbows, who can stand against our purpose and our decision, and bring chaos to the land.”

The breath left her.

It was as if he had punched her in the stomach, and all she could breathe in was chunks of ice.

“We had to make you,” he said. “But not the rainbow girl. The rainbow girl was fantasy. You are just a flake of snow.”

She was falling.

She was falling.

The sky was rushing up around her, and she could not breathe, and there was gray and black and white jittering before her eyes, and she could not find the ground.

She clenched around the emptiness in her heart, fell gasping, Gray Death opening below, and cast a glance, a single glance, up at the horse.

He was marvelous, that horse.

He was a wonder.

He caught her, once, when she was falling from the sky, when she was plummeting and she thought that she would die. He caught her, and lifted her up, and brought her back to warmth and hope.

Once, but not again.

As she falls into herself, as she goes black and white, not even gray, within her heart and body, the horse, he does not save her. The horse, he looks away.

And it all spirals away from her, leaving her empty of the rainbow, leaving her cold—

Except that’s wrong.

That isn’t now.

She isn’t falling into herself, now. She isn’t on the floor of a cave under the rainbow kingdom, desperate with pain, broken by impossibilities.

That isn’t now.

That was a very long time ago.

Now, right now, she is in a very real sky, and hope and truth have found her once again, and she is falling.

She is falling because her horse has broken its leg.

Her marvelous flying horse has broken its leg against a stream of ice, and so of course it cannot fly.

As has been told before, the girl who fell became the rainbow once again. She’d been needed. It wasn’t OK, any more, to leave her in her cold sense of soullessness.

A soulless girl couldn’t have saved the world from the death that had been coming.

As has been told before, once she’d been made whole again, she’d refused to transform back.

She’d understood—

Somehow—

That just because people told her she wasn’t a person, just because they’d shown her the womb of ice from which she’d come, and said, “Look, this is how we made you, this is why we made you, can’t you see that’s not how a person’s born?”—

That such a thing can’t end the meanings that lived inside her heart.

She’d spent years and years amongst the grayness there, and had found an end to shadows.

And now she is falling.

She’d gone to the man she’d thought had been behind it all—

A murky, dismal man; a man who had always sought to purge the colors from the world—

And she’d thought that she could save him. That the goddess she’d become, that the endless seven-colored power she had birthed in herself, that the girl named Wisp and sometimes Rainbow would be able to save him from his misery and show him the wonder that was color, light, and hope.

She’d tried, anyway.

And maybe she’d succeeded, in a way.

But it hadn’t done him any good, or her, as has been told; because, in the end, he wasn’t the villain of the piece.

He wasn’t the villain.

He was a villain, but not the villain, just another murky, dismal little man gone lost in shadows. In the end, all the light could buy for him was a single moment of forgiveness.

The villain, if there was a villain, was a thing of ice and distance.

It was something cold and far and cruel.

It whispered this of others: that

“They are not real.”

It was God, perhaps, or a horse, perhaps, or a snowflake larger than the world; and it hung beyond all world and sound, and brooded, saying:

“What there is, there is of me: there is the light I cast, there is the world of my imagining, there are the dreams I dream and the shadows I have made; and nothing else is real.”

And if it thinks that it is the only reality, the only beauty, the only justice, the only right, then it has, perhaps, an excuse of sorts, for it is not merely cold, and it is not merely ice, this king of shadows and winter that dwells beyond the world.

It is beautiful.

It is beautiful, and it is endless, and it is marvelous, and it sheds forth every beauty; and the rainbow is refracted through that ice; and the world is made from the waters when it melts, and the dirt that it sheds, and the light and shadows it casts forth.

It is self-contained.

It is self-complete.

And yet, in some contingency of motion, it has sent forth its avatar, its child, its element to us within the world, and with a spirit of great mercy. It has sent a piece of itself, an image of itself, a mirror of its icy vastness, to be the most marvelous thing, to live in the dreary world of its creation, to redeem it through the presence of the horse.

It has sacrificed for us, the most terrible and deadly sacrifice; it has chosen to become involved.

It is the pinnacle, is it not, the horse?

Is it not the most marvelous thing in all the world?

And did it not already risk itself—risk its perfection-in-itself, daring unimaginably—to descend beneath the darkness of the world and find a part of itself that dreamt of rainbows, and make a girl of it, and shelter her, and raise her against the darkness like a spear, and teach her the power of the rainbow?

So if it thinks it is the only truth; if it thinks it is the only right; if it thinks there is no justice, that is not the justice of the horse; if it thinks there is no beauty, that is not the beauty of the ice; if it thinks that in the end there are nothing but its shadows and its dreams, then it has an excuse of sorts, for in a very real way it is the author of us all, or at the very least its agent and its representative, the mirror-horse of God—

Most marvelous thing in all the worlds that are, and the brightest, and the best.

And so she came, at the end of her journey, the rainbow girl, to the field of grass and flowers at the center of the city, to the last remaining place of color and brightness (before the rainbow had returned), where the horse still lived, and danced, and woke up in the morning to laugh and play and sing; and to turn its eyes on her as she walked up, it seemed, and say, “Oh, Wisp, you have become my rainbow once again.”

And she knew.

His voice was guileless, as it had always been, as if he knew nothing in the world save love for others and self-praise.

His voice was guileless, but still she knew.

In the center of the crumbled world, in that little piece of paradise, he frolicked, and he looked at her with eyes that made her melt, possessed her with a girlhood that overcame the goddess in her, loved her still, with brightness still they shone, and still she knew.

She touched his mouth.

She swung herself up on his back.

She said, “Oh, my love, you have not forgotten me.”

But she knew what he had done.

They rose into the sky, didn’t they? They flew; or ran, at least, on the rainbow once again. They galloped out over blue skies and high above Gray Death.

She knew he meant to throw her.

“It was your lie,” she told him. “Wasn’t it?”

Right into his ear; which flicked, of course, as if to cast a fly away.

And on they rode in silence, far above the world.

It made her breathless with joy and pain.

“It was your idea,” she said, “to show me the Machine that gave me birth; and to tell me, ‘you are just a doll we made from snow, oh Wisp. You are just a toy. Just a toy, and not a person after all.’”

“It was,” said the horse.

The horse’s shoulders rolled. It said: “You are.”

Its voice was distant ice and starlight and it was pale against the sky.

“What else could you be,” mused the horse, “than a reflection of Myself? What else is there to be, than light against the ice? So I realized, when you brought trouble to my heart. That you are the rainbow, or a girl, or a thing I made, or a thing I loved, but in the end, still, you are just a toy, and of my crafting, like all the shining world.”

She wept for him.

“And so,” said the horse, “I tore you down; and buried you in darkness; and then, for reasons elusive even to myself, I must have set you free.”

She wept for him.

She clung to him and wept for him, knowing that he meant to throw her, because he was the most marvelous horse in the world, and yet—

“You do not know,” she said.

And her voice was seven-toned, like the rainbow; and the tears that flowed from her were as a stream of ice; and he meant to throw her, he really did, but it went wrong, he went wrongfooted, and if you were to find a thing to blame for it, you might say, he slipped or struck his leg upon her tears.

And his perfection was distorted.

And his gait was broken.

And suddenly, because a horse can’t exactly fly if it has a broken leg, he fell.

It struck him as ironic that he would not have to throw her; that he was freed, in the end, of the need to cast her from his back to fall screaming to Gray Death. He would fall, and that would be an end to things. He would die, and the world would end, and nevermore a rainbow to trouble him or make turmoil of his heart.

Right now, dear reader.

Right now, they fall—

He falls—

It falls—

Right now, as you’re reading this story, the horse and the girl are falling, spiraling down through endless sky, with Gray Death looming up below.

And because he is a horse of courage, after all, even maimed and broken, he opens one pure and perfect eye.

She is not falling.

It is terribly unfair.

She is not falling.

She is, instead, laying down with a hand outstretched—oh, moving downwards fast enough, and technically perhaps that counts as ‘she is falling,’ but she is descending as a skydiver descends, or a stooping bird, not as a mortal plummeting to her death—

Laying on the rainbow, outstretched beside him in the sky.

Unfairly, she is reaching for him, supported by the rainbow, calling out over and over again for him to live—

He squinches closed both eyes.

The world moves far away, then farther, then farther again, until even Wisp seems to him twice as distant as the sky.

Ice closes about him, and rainbows.

“I’ve broken my leg, you foolish girl,” he says, and casts aside her power, and lets the wind and shadows carry him downwards to his grave.

Flutter,
flutter,
Flutter,

Down to the world below.

And there is a moment where the ice shatters, as he strikes against Gray Death.

There is a moment where the shadows seem to boil and drain away, plunging down through the jagged edges of the mountains to drown some other land.

There is a pure and crystal darkness, and finally, a light.

The rainbow hits the mountains, dances about them for a moment amidst a rain of ice, strives as rainbows strive to lift the broken and the dead.

And then, it flies away.

unknown authorship; part of the “Rainbow Collection” of documents assembled during Congress’ 1954 investigation into various Un-American Activities on the part of Un-American Activities Bear.

Oriane

“You’ll have to lock your closet tightly,” says Del Monver, “or the itchy-scritchy wiggle-waggle cut-up doll’ll get out.”

Oriane laughs.

Sometimes father’s so silly, she thinks.

So she gives him a bright big smile and she says, “No problem.”

She even makes the OK sign with her hand.

Ellona shakes her head sadly. She’s been a little girl like Oriane. She knows how unreliable the OK sign can be. But Del Monver, he’s completely fooled!

So Oriane goes off to bed and she doesn’t lock her closet tight.

A legend about wounds.

Oriane is the most perfect cherub of a girl. She’s unmarred in every portion. Her limbs are very light but she is also aware of pressures. Where a heavy antelope might struggle, she floats. Where a foamy spongecake girl might stumble unheeding into discomfort, she is alert to the world. Her skin is smooth, her muscles are strong, and her eyes are periwinkle blue.

She goes to bed every night in a nest of wings— ten thousand wings, cunningly assembled. There are giraffe wings and ibex wings and zebra wings, the wings of bumblebees and butterflies, the wings of cardinals and robins. There are wings jointed such that they shift in the slightest breeze and wings as stolid as granite pillars.

Most of the wings spread out like the base of a clamshell and atop them Del Monver has installed a boxspring, mattress, corrugated foam, bedpad, sheets, and blankets. Over the whole great gondola-wings flutter and tiny firefly wings sparkle to protect her from the dark.

Oriane unties a long string from around her neck. She lays it down on her dresser. She changes into her long laced nightgown. She goes to sleep and the lights go dim.

In the night her closet door rattles, tikili, tikili, tik.

Oriane squinches open her eyes.

Her closet door rattles, tikili, tikili, tik.

Oriane wriggles upright. She turns herself around. She crouches, looking at the closet door.

It opens.

Beyond the closet door there is a dresser and the drawer is open and in the drawer there stands the cut-up doll. She’s small and gestureful, her hands are padded mitts, and she’s all-over wounds. She’s all-over wounds: scored like sheet music, sawn up like notched lumber, shredded like wheat. She’s barely keeping her stuffing in. One eye hangs off as a button on a string.

She wiggles. She waggles. She jumps from the drawer and begins to walk across the room.

Oriane doesn’t know what to do. There’s no protocol for this in the little girl’s handbook. She’s supposed to ignore Del Monver’s warning but nobody ever explained what she should do when it turns out to be correct.

The wiggle-waggle cut-up doll climbs up onto Oriane’s dresser.

She makes itchy-scritchy noises as she climbs.

Then the doll says, “String!”

It’s a happy burble of a voice. It’s clear that this is a doll that loves string, loves the potential of it, loves the sheer impactful power that rests within it like the fissive power of unkindled uranium.

The doll picks up the string.

Oriane makes a strangled noise of protest. It sounds like this: “‘uk!”

The ‘ is a click her tongue she makes when she accidentally uses a silence as the first sound in her word.

“String, string, string,” carols the cut-up doll. She turns around. Then she winks at Oriane with her one good eye, jumps down from the dresser, and runs back towards the closet.

“‘uk!” Oriane says again.

Oriane flounders out of bed.

Oriane jumps to her feet.

The doll jumps into the drawer in the closet.

“I’ve got you now!” says Oriane, rushing forward.

The doll looks back. She says, “Oh!” in a startled voice. Then Oriane and the doll fall into her closet’s dresser drawer and it snaps shut with a bang.

It is very dark.

“It’s very dark,” says Oriane.

The cut-up doll lights a match.

There in the great hollow cavern the walls are slick wet stone and striped like tigers and the wind blows in little tufts towards the ceiling high above.

“Oh, dear,” says Oriane.

The cut-up doll consults its cut-up arm. It begins to walk.

Oriane follows.

Her footsteps are soft little clicks but she thinks that to the doll they must sound like a giant’s dreadful pounding. Still, the cut-up doll just tosses Oriane a merry grin over her shoulder and walks on. Every now and then she consults some part of her body.

“What are you doing?” Oriane asks.

“I’m following the map,” says the cut-up doll.

“The map?”

“To my hideout.”

Oriane looks around. “There should be more of my socks in this drawer,” she says.

“I moved them,” the doll says. “They were very heavy and socky. Like mountains.”

“Oh?”

“A long time ago,” says the doll, “there was a great shifting in the magma beneath the world. One of the plates tilted—suddenly, like when china decides to fall off the shelf. Suddenly your drawer of socks swung down to form a fissure in the world.”

“Is that where my sock drawer came from?”

The doll picks up a bit of lint from the cave floor. She holds it up next to the match. “Yes,” she says. “You can tell by the striations.”

“I see.”

The doll tosses the lint aside. “Lint is like a storybook,” she says. “It tells the history of the earth.”

Oriane nods. She picks up the lint. She tucks it behind her ear.

“Hey!” says the doll.

“Hm?”

“That’s my lint.”

“What?”

The doll puffs up her cheeks and then blows out air. The air leaks out of the side of one cheek where there’s a cut-up place.

“Never mind,” she says.

The cut-up doll delicately lifts up her skirt so she can check the wound on her thigh. She lowers it and nods to herself and walks purposefully in the indicated direction.

“You shouldn’t cut yourself up to make a map,” Oriane says.

The doll looks back at her. The doll’s eye is solemn.

“I wouldn’t do that,” the cut-up doll says. “I only get cut up by other people. But I made it a map, later, so that it would be useful.”

“Oh,” says Oriane.

The doll walks on. They pass walls of blank granite, rocks festering with bats, and a place where the earth rings loud and hollowly like a bell.

“It’s supper-time,” says the cut-up doll, “for the squinchy grod-things deep below the world.”

Oriane shudders.

“And left!” the cut-up doll exclaims.

She turns abruptly left and Oriane follows and they walk out into the sunshine.

Oriane blinks.

She covers her eyes with a hand.

She looks out on it.

“It’s a little beach,” she says. “It’s a marvelous splooshy little beach with a treasure pile!”

“It’s a cave oasis.”

The doll walks over and puts the string in the treasure pile. It goes on top of the gold and the octopus but kind of partly under the scrinkled map and the box of rubies.

The cut-up doll flops in her recliner and sighs.

“It was a good trip,” she says. “I got string.”

“Technically,” says Oriane. “That’s my string.”

“Technically,” dismisses the cut-up doll.

“If you have a phone,” says Oriane, “I will take my string and I will call Del Monver and he will come and pick me up and he will laugh and say, ‘Oh, little Oriane, you didn’t lock your closet and the itchy-scritchy wiggle-waggle cut-up doll got out.'”

The doll looks dubious.

“I can’t just give you the string,” she says.

“But it’s mine.”

“It’s totally mine.”

“It was given me by Mom Ellona!” says Oriane.

“You left your closet door open and the itchy-scritchy wiggle-waggle cut-up doll got out and took your string,” says the doll. “Open and shut.”

Oriane considers. The arguments appear to be of equal value in the absence of a mutually binding social contract.

“Please?”

“Open and shut,” the cut-up doll repeats.

So Oriane sniffles.

“Ten cents,” the doll says.

“Huh?”

“Ten cents fungible value. For string!”

Oriane begins to cry.

The cut-up doll folds her arms. She looks stern.

“Ten cents,” she says.

Oriane bursts into wailing.

And when she is done the doll brings her the string and says, “Ten cents is the fungible value for such tears.”

So Oriane sniffling takes the string and she hugs it tight and she calls Del Monver who comes and picks her up and takes her home and puts her to bed.

“I told you so,” he says, and he kisses her forehead, and he locks her closet tight.

“You did,” Oriane concedes.

In the morning she ties her Oriane wings on with string and she goes flying.

Should Siggorts? (I/I)

The doom of Spattle approaches.

It is like this.

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

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

The wind blows softly.

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

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

“Because it’d be God,” Max says.

“Ah.”

“Is it all right to fight God?”

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

There is a breath of time.

“Why?” Sid asks.

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

And Sid frowns.

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

“Ah?”

Sid points out east.

“Do you see that?”

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

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

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

He sees—

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

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

Max blacks out.

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

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

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

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

The city is under a pall.

“A King?” Sid says.

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

He stares out east.

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

“Ah,” says Sid.

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

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

“Will you leave?” Sid asks.

Max shakes his head.

“No,” he says.

And the doom of Spattle nears.

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

The progress of the King is slow.

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

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

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

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

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

A car drives past.

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

And Max watches.

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

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

Max does not know.

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

“Sid,” Max says.

As suddenly as a dream the siggort is there.

“There’s a man in town,” Max says.

“A man?”

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

“I see,” Sid says.

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

And suddenly Sid looks wry.

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

“Yes.”

Tension flares up between them. Humor becomes outrage.

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

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

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

Sid hesitates.

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

“This is my line, Sid.”

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

And Sid looks at Max.

And Sid can see that it is so.

Sid sighs.

“Fine.”

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

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

For a profit, he will sell them.

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

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

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

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

Sid enters, pursuant to their appointment.

Peter looks up and smiles.

Then he frowns.

“Wait,” he says. “I know you.”

—“I know you,” says Grouchy Pete.

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

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

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

He pulls a gun.

He fires, just like that.

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

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

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

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

“Geez, Pete,” he says.

He sways.

And he falls down.

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

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

Sid has woken up.

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

Sid begins to laugh again.

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

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

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

“It won’t work,” Sid says.

“Why not?”

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

Pete studies Sid.

“You look okay,” he says.

Sid looks at him.

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

“I am a terrible comprehension,” says Sid.

“Oh.”

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

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

Pete is hesitant.

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

Sid looks at him.

“What kind of a question is that?”

Pete shrugs.

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

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

“Thank you,” Pete says.

He draws back slightly. He thinks.

“How can I kill you?” he asks.

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

After a moment, Pete blushes.

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

The wheel of knives spins.

Sid straightens against the radiator.

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

Pete stares at Sid.

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

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

And Peter sighs.

And he lets Sid go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it hurt?” Max asks.

“I can’t tell,” Sid says.

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

His reasons are not specific.

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

Is it right to kill a King?

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

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

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

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

“Hm?”

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

“True,” Sid says.

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

Sid considers that.

“We were ugly,” Sid says.

“Hm?”

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

Max studies Sid.

“You look okay,” he says.

Sid shrugs.

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

“Oh,” says Max.

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

He grins a little, sadly, like a Sid.

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

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

Sid rises.

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

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

And Max is on his feet.

Max is hugging Sid.

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

There is a breath of time.

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

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

“Tell me,” Max says.

“Hm?”

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

“Is it . . .”

“Yes.”

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

“No,” he says.

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

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

“Then leave it be,” Max says.

And they leave it be, and go;

And doom comes to Spattle.

The Jewel of the Teaching

The gem is the ultimate distillation of faith.

It sits on its pedestal in the caverns deep under Amish country. It glitters. It’s green.

Samuel is staring at it.

Clyde bursts into the room. The doors slam open and Clyde rolls in, his suit jacket smoldering. He lands hard.

Slowly, he stands up, brushing out his jacket.

“That’s it?” Clyde asks.

“Figure so,” Samuel says.

The chamber echoes oddly. It’s like their words are coming out a bit before their mouths move.

“It’s totally separate from worldly affairs,” breathes Clyde.

“The jewel of the Anabaptists,” sighs Samuel.

Samuel starts forward towards the pedestal.

“Wait!”

Clyde flings up a hand.

“What?”

“Only hands firmly grounded in traditional values,” Clyde says, “can touch the Anabaptist jewel!”

Samuel turns towards him. “You implying something, Clyde?”

Samuel’s eyes narrow.

“Maybe I am,” Clyde says. He juts his chin forward. Then he begins walking towards the jewel.

Samuel shoves himself past Clyde. There’s an ominous click and rumble deep below. Samuel steps onto an ornate design on the floor, which sinks, ever so slightly, under his foot.

“Now, Samuel,” says Clyde.

There are little popping noises of bone, like someone cracking their fingers. A moment later, Clyde shakes out his neck and his arms.

“You know the Lord don’t approve of violence,” Clyde threatens.

Samuel turns. “Darn it, Clyde, that’s what you said right before you locked me in with the bees!”

“You earned those bees,” hisses Clyde.

Samuel takes off his jacket. He sets it aside.

“We oughtn’t better make a habit of this, Clyde,” he says.

There’s the terrible sound effect of a fist hitting someone’s chin. Both of them freeze. They don’t have very long to make the calculation: am I going to hit him, or is he going to hit me?

“Darn it!” says Samuel.

It’s Clyde. He’s the reckless one. His arm twitches into motion almost like it’s not his own. He punches Samuel.

Even before it connects, there’s another sound of pow!

Samuel’s head is knocked back. He sways. Then he comes around, eyes burning, and his fist connects squarely with the side of Clyde’s head.

“Stop it!” says Clyde. He takes a step back.

Samuel hesitates.

Then, curtly, he nods.

“There’s ominous music playing,” says Clyde.

“That there is,” says Samuel.

“Sin music,” says Clyde.

“That’s so.”

They are angry, sullen, and shamed. Their eyes lock.

“I can’t come all this way and not bring the jewel back,” says Clyde. “I can’t, Samuel.”

“It’s not meant to be brought out there in conformance with the world,” says Samuel. “It’s meant to be here, in God’s secret bunker.”

And Samuel breathes out his tension and his shoulders sink and he lowers his eyes.

“Then why’d you come here, Samuel?”

“I wanted it too,” Samuel says. There’s longing in his voice. “Want it still. With it, I could learn such adherence to traditional ways as to shake the pillars of Heaven. But …”

“But there’s the price,” Clyde says. He rubs his jaw.

“Wasn’t our fault,” says Samuel. “We’re just in the habit of following the sound effects. Moving our mouth once the words come out. Milking the cows when we hear the spurt. Entering scenes when the prompter tells us to. Stuff like that.”

“It’s a bad habit,” says Clyde.

His mouth doesn’t move at all, even though he’s said stuff. Samuel stares at him. Samuel waits. Then Samuel gets all twitchy.

“Darn it, Clyde, that’s just unnatural,” he says.

Clyde, reluctantly, moves his mouth. Samuel does the same.

After a moment, Samuel says, “You’re right, though. We can’t blame the teleprompter for our sins.”

“Sometimes,” proposes Clyde, as if looking for an exception, “when I look at Katie, and there’s that music . . .”

“Not even those sins,” says Samuel.

Clyde lowers his head.

“Come on,” he says. “I think all the zombies are on fire. Let’s go home.”

Samuel nods. He gives one last longing look at the jewel, and then he steps off of the design.

There’s a horrible noise, like the gateway to Hell itself opening. There’s the rising shriek of devils and the damned.

Samuel and Clyde freeze.

Then, slowly, they relax.

“Just a buggy backfiring,” says Samuel.

“Zombie popping,” says Clyde.

“Might’ve been that spinny door,” says Samuel. “You know, the hundred-ton one that flips end over end. They probably don’t oil that much down here.”

“Hey,” says Clyde. “I know the jewel of the teaching is fabulously valuable, but still—this seems a bit weird.”

“Hm?”

“I mean,” says Clyde, “Why does God have a bunker filled with traps and zombies, anyway?”

Samuel shrugs.

“Tradition.”

Standing in the Storm: Their Lives Were Jewels

This story begins here.

“It’s getting harder,” says Emily.

She’s hanging out in a booth in a coffee shop talking on her cell phone to Bertram. Using the phone is pretty much habit. Since they’re not talking aloud, neither of them has actually bothered to turn their phone on.

“Totally,” says Bertram.

There’s a woman at one of the tables. She looks at Emily. She’s generically irritated that Emily is on the cell phone even though she can’t actually hear anything that Emily is saying. But before the woman can comment Emily looks at her with empty, hollow eyes and mouths the woman’s name. That’s so horrifying that the woman shudders and hurries from the shop.

“It’s Hunger,” says Emily. “The House of Torment is still pretty well-behaved. Dreams is Dreams, and I’m not even sure there are any saints left. But Hunger . . .”

“It’s like they’re encouraging it,” Bertram says.

“They can’t do that, can they?” interjects Fred.

Emily hesitates.

“Fred,” she says, “I am trying to impose the context of a phone call on this conversation.”

“It’s a conference call,” says Fred.

“Oh,” says Emily.

Emily shivers away her confusion.

“I think they are encouraging it,” Emily concludes. “I think they are actively cultivating the hunger within them.”

“But it’ll get out,” says Fred. “We won’t be able to keep it.”

“Yes,” says Emily. “But it’s okay, if we tried? I mean, failure’s okay?”

But before Fred answers, Emily suffers a distraction.

“You are a difficult person to eavesdrop on,” says the Saul-beast.

It should never have happened.

The sorting hat was not the first crack in the armor of the world. Through cracks of just such a kind came Fenris Wolf into the world, and other things. It was not the first and it was not the last.

But it should never have been at all.

At the Lethal Magnet School for Wayward Youth, the only British boarding school that doubles as a secret weapon against giant wolves, the sorting hat came into the world. It changed people—into saints, into mad scientists, into tormented souls, into beasts. It sorted them into new destinies. It perverted them to new forms.

One man was sorted twice. He is the head boy of the House of Beasts. He is its visionary. His name is Saul.

The call is like elevator music, like Barry Manilow ballading on the sitar, like a cheerful twanging distant and strange. It is a ballad heard not with the ears but with the heart.

It is how the Keepers know that Gotterdammerung nears.

Emily looks up.

Bertram is there. Fred is there. Morgan is there. All of the others are there. They have drifted into the scene from unknown places. They are standing in the entrances to the coffee shop, outside the glass wall, against the bar. They are watching events unfold.

“Guys,” silents Emily, in profound relief.

“Yo,” says Fred.

And in the silence the Saul-beast opens its mouth.

“Are you still a saint?” Emily asks him, aloud.

Saul hesitates.

“I’ll tell you what we are,” Emily says, “if you will tell me that.”

Then Saul sits opposite her. He pulls the salt and pepper shakers out and sets them on the table between them. He smiles at her.

“Hello,” he says. “My name is Saul. I was sorted into the House of Hunger, but it was my second sorting. Before that I was a saint. I am the last survivor of the House of the Saints. My brother Edmund ate the others. Who are you?”

Emily looks at him.

“Oh God Oh God Oh God,” she is saying, to the other members of the Keepers’ House, because she is terrified that Saul will eat her. But he cannot hear her. She is silent and gnomic before him.

“Saul,” she says. “You have to understand that what you are doing is not in the best interests of—”

The hunger that surges up in Saul’s eyes is like a physical blow. It silences her and pushes her back against her seat.

“Who are you?” says Saul, companionably, again.

“My name is Emily,” Emily says meekly. “I like jaguars and coffee. I am a Keeper. I contain you so that your hunger does not call the wolf.”

“Good,” says Saul.

He leans back.

“Containment,” Saul says, thoughtfully.

Emily reaches out. She touches his hand. It’s a dangerous thing to do. But she wants to tell him a confidence.

“I don’t want to be eaten by people or wolves,” says Emily. “I want to live a long time and die in a beautiful place, surrounded by something wonderful. It is like the Hunger, only it’s not.”

Saul stares at her for a while. His eyes are distant like a snake’s.

“The purpose of humanity,” says Saul, “is to transform into beasts and devour the world. You are inhibiting this purpose. You must cease.”

“That isn’t so,” says Emily.

Saul looks around.

“Why haven’t I eaten you yet?” the Saul-beast asks. It is genuinely puzzled, because it was sure it would have eaten her already.

“Damn!” swears Bertram silently. “He’s on to us!”

“Run away! Run away!”

“We can’t run,” notes Fred. “He’ll eat Emily! I like Emily.”

Fred pauses.

“Not that way,” Fred clarifies.

Emily gets to her feet. She stares down at Saul. The others swell around them, containing, keeping, holding back Saul’s hunger.

The beast in Saul can sense it.

He is catching on.

“Saul,” Emily presses, in her last few moments of safety. “You have been corrupted by the sorting hat. Your mind has been altered. You are wrong about the destiny of humanity, and you will destroy your own House.”

“Make your case,” says Saul.

“I—”

Fred is gone.

Emily looks up sharply. She looks around the shop. Her brain cannot parse what has happened.

Bertram is gone.

There is something warm and wet on Emily’s face.

Morgan is gone. Lisa is gone. Betty and Veronica are gone.

“Go!” says Emily, to the others. Her voice is audible, so shaken is she. “Go now.”

The Keepers’ House disperses, leaving only Emily, Saul, and their dead; and sitting on the floor amidst the blood, chewing happily on Bertram’s arm, is the Edmund-beast.

And there is a burgeoning breath of pain in Emily. And she says, “I—”

“Ah,” says Saul. “I have backup.”

“I—”

“It’s all right to be frightened,” Saul says. “But you’ll need to make your case.”

Emily isn’t frightened. She is staring at him. She is mouthing a single syllable blankly. But what she means by it is this:

“How dare you take them from me and this world?

“Their lives were jewels: unswerving, dauntless, loving, precious things—And they died before they knew how wonderful they were.”

Doesn’t it suck when that happens?

Anyway, now Emily’s alone with the beasts, and also, the world’s about to end. Check back tomorrow or the next day for Standing in the Storm: Calling to the Wolf!

Sevens

“Did you fetch the morning eggs, Danielle?”

Danielle holds her hands over the breakfast table. They are cupped together. She separates them. Rubies fall. Sapphires too, and emeralds. Seven gems, and an egg.

“I see.” Her wicked stepmother narrows her eyes. “The hens have not lain eggs properly in several days.”

“I feed them the normal feed, mother.”

Danielle’s wicked stepmother is named Glory. She clicks her sharp fingernails on the table.

“Danielle,” Glory says, “these gems are very fine, but what may I eat for breakfast?”

“Perhaps they are edible,” says Danielle. She taps a ruby. It rings, lightly, like a bell.

“I should have the wealthiest chamberpot in the world,” Glory says, “and not be full from it.”

“Mother?”

Glory shakes her head. “It is no matter. I shall have bread and cheese. Clean the cinders, Danielle. They are a disgrace.”

Danielle curtsies. She goes to the closet. She takes out a broom and a pan. She holds the broom at her left side like a sword. She leaves the room and goes to the fireplace. The room is full of cinders and ash. They are being fanned onto every surface and every wall by seven cinder pixies. In the center of the room stands the cinder troll.

“I’ve been sent to clean this up,” she says.

The troll looks her up and down. He snorts. “You’re not much,” he says.

Her right hand crosses her body and takes the broom’s hilt. In a long circular motion, she brings the broom up and around until its bristles face the troll. Her left hand joins her right at the broom’s base. The broom is heavy, held in this fashion, but her arms do not tremble. “I am whom my mother sent.”

The cinder pixies go still. The troll looks her up and down.

“It’s my right,” says the troll, “as a cinder troll, to push the cinders out into the room.”

“And mine, to sweep them back.”

The troll hesitates. “Perhaps,” he says, “one quarter of the room in soot, and three parts clean.”

Danielle closes her eyes. She thinks. Then she opens them. “They say that every one of us lives seven lives,” she says.

“Aye.”

“And that we should be kind to those we meet. For anyone may have been one’s mother, in another life, or one’s father, or one’s child. One’s lover, or one’s friend.”

“That’s wise,” says the cinder troll.

“In another life,” says Danielle, “I believe that we were friends. For there is a light in your eyes that my soul knows. But in this life, I have a duty, and I must drive you back.”

She steps forward. The troll steps back.

She steps forward. The troll is still. Then he reaches behind him to the fireplace and draws forth a poker, and takes it in his great strong hands.

They duel.

“I had not thought,” says the troll, “that Glory would have a loyal servant.” He is breathing lightly though Danielle’s lungs burn. Each clash of poker and broom makes her arms ache.

“She is my mother,” Danielle says.

“That,” says the troll, “cannot be so.”

Cinders in the air swirl into Danielle’s mouth, and she chokes. Her eyes water. The troll strikes, the poker winging her shoulder, and her left arm goes numb. She falls backwards. The troll does not advance. After a moment, he holds out his hand to help her up. She takes it. She backs away. She reassumes her stance.

“She has taken me in,” Danielle admits. “The mother of my birth is gone.”

“Ah, so.”

“My true mother went adventuring,” Danielle says. “To find a lost prince, they sent out seven maidens; to find each lost maiden, they sent out seven princes; and for seven princes lost, seven maidens each; and so in progression were all the heroes lost, and my mother among them. And I was left behind.”

The troll feints, then brings the poker around hard. The broom cracks, though it does not break. The poker lunges for Danielle’s face, and she steps back.

“And why have you not gone?” asks the troll.

She looks at him. She does not answer, for she does not know. Slowly, she brings the broom back to her side. She sets her feet. Her eyes burn.

“Are you surrendering?” the troll asks.

Danielle shakes her head.

“Then we will end this now,” says the troll.

“May we be friends again,” says Danielle, “when next we meet.”

The troll steps forward. There is tension in the great muscles of his arm.

Danielle’s shout splits the air and makes the cinder pixies flutter. She strikes. There is a crack like the breaking of the world. She is past the troll in a single motion, stumbling to a stop, kneeling in the ashes, and her broom is nothing but splinters.

The troll falls, and the room is clean.

Random Genealogical Interjection

See also
Genealogy: the People of Salt and
Genealogy: the Monster

Lia and Amiel were sisters who survived the destruction of Sodom.

Amiel swore to protect Lia’s family forever.

Lia had children, and they had children, and eventually you wound up with Aerope of Crete. Aerope had children by Atreus and Thyestes, including Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Pelopia. Her line zigzagged off in a couple of directions: for instance, to Priyanka, by way of Menelaus and Helen of Troy, and to the first hero Ella, probably by way of Agamemnon. That’s where we think the ancestry of Liril and Jenna diverged, by the way: Liril inheriting from Helen of Troy and Jenna not so much. That said, there’s plenty of genes in the pool, and certain disreputable scholars claim that just about all the people of salt have a common ancestor in Helen’s daughter Hermione.

We call this family the Nephilim.

Meanwhile, Amiel’s line became the House of Atreus, which hooked together with the people of salt up at that mention of Atreus above. The two bloodlines didn’t become one people, though; genealogy or no genealogy, Amiel’s heirs fissioned off and stayed fissioned off as the line of monsters.

By the time you had Nabonidus in Babylon, the House of Atreus was a pretty serious threat to just about everything. Its branch in India was mysteriously culled back around 583, and the American House had problems of its own, but the Middle Eastern lineage was going strong and educing all kinds of domesticated gods from the Nephilim there.

They were a threat even to the throne of the world!

So everyone breathed a sigh of relief, more or less, when Mylitta was born.

At last! the world thought.

At last, the world thought, somebody would do something!

Because heroes can kill monsters. That’s in the rule book. Heroes can kill monsters. All Mylitta had to do was kill off Nabonidus and cut a swathe of blood through his family and Babylon’s aristocracy, burn the ground and salt the earth, and maybe spend a few decades wandering the earth murdering whatever representatives of her ancestor’s sister’s family she could find, and then everything would be all right forever.

And that’s exactly what she did!

Except for the part where she didn’t do any of it, at all, causing no end of historians who were not there and don’t know what it was like and never had to do anything hard in their entire lives to look down on her.

But it’s OK.

It’s OK.

She won!

It’s like we said a long time ago.

Shame was set 556 years before the common era.

17 years later, in 539 BCE, the hero Mylitta would make an answer to monsters forever and ever;

and they would deliver the world from sorrow.

The Tunnels (I/IV)

In January, 1974, the Pandora Squad began putting things of great value in the tunnels. Gold. Jewels. Subway trains. Ruby-studded jet zeppelins. Rare and collectible giant spiders. Promises, hopes, dreams, and silver. No one ever found out why, because the Pandora Squad promptly exceeded its budget and went defunct.

Three months passed.

Jenna has an immortal soul and a mortal nature. She demonstrates them while talking to the hero. He makes a point. Jenna dies. There’s an awkward silence.

“Clearly,” says the hero, “you’re a mortal creature, bound by time.”

Jenna slumps on the floor.

“I shouldn’t make my points so forcefully,” the hero says. It’s gallows humor. On a dead audience, it falls flat. Jenna doesn’t giggle. She just grows colder.

“. . . I should probably cremate you.”

Jenna is mortal. But she also has an immortal soul. She demonstrates that too! She reanimates her body and hops to her feet. “You don’t have to cremate me. I can be a zombie!”

He’s the hero. He’s suave. He can handle this. But it disturbs him. “Zombies rot and their body parts fall off. Maybe you could be a vampire? Then you’d be my arch-nemesis.”

“I could be an anentropic zombie,” Jenna proposes. “Instead of rotting, I’d grow ever more beautiful! And I could be a mime!”

“I don’t want you to be a mime.”

Jenna pretends to be an anentropic zombie trapped in an invisible box. “Look! I’m inside an invisible box! It’s a sealed system, so the order constantly increases. That’s my noncompliance with the principle of entropy at work!”

“I appreciate the explanation,” the hero says, “as I would not readily have derived that from your visual cues. Mimes don’t usually narrate, though.”

Jenna ignores him and pretends to be an anentropic zombie struggling against the wind. “Oh no! Bits of fashionable clothing are blowing onto me from all over and replacing my dreary cerements! But my umbrella—it’s inverted!”

The hero sighs, leans back, and closes his eyes. Once he has his equilibrium, he says, “I love you.” It’s true, but it’s also the only way to stop the narrated miming.

“You shouldn’t cremate people you love. I mean, not when they’re still moving around.”

“That’s true. I try to live my life by this rule.”

“We all should!” Jenna declares. “We could achieve a perfect world.”

“But an anentropic zombie can’t live in our house,” the hero points out. “People would talk.”

Jenna snorts. “People.”

“And I’m not sure I’m ready for it.” The hero thinks. “You could live in the tunnels.”

“Is an anentropic zombie very valuable?”

“Rarity would seem to suggest it.”

Jenna shakes her head. Her hair grows shorter but ever more beautiful. “Nope. Scarcity is an entropic measure of value. For anentropic objects, commonality would have to determine value—the arrow of time points the other way!”

The hero sighs. “You could be a ghost,” he offers. “Ghosts are rare but subject to entropy.”

“I want to exist,” Jenna says. “I want to be me. When I heard that I was dead, that was all I could think. I’m not done being me. I like myself. I’m cool. So I dragged myself back from the grave.”

The hero smiles. “Narcissist.”

“Narcissism is important,” Jenna says, firmly. “The first thing the universe said to me after I was born was, ‘love yourself.'”

“Oh?”

“Yup. ‘Love yourself. Trust yourself. Be true to yourself. Oh, and, by the way, you can no longer absorb nutrients through your belly button.'”

The hero smiles. “I’m glad you came back.”

“I can’t live with you?”

“You’re dead.”

Jenna closes her eyes for a moment, and then opens them. “Depreciation is a function of entropy,” she says. “So I’m a good investment, at least.”

“I’m sure that’ll do.”

“Yay!” Jenna says. “I get to live in tunnels!”