“I will make you cry” (VI/VII)

One by one the monster’s forces fail him.

The city that once he bound by his own will has become a stronghold for his enemy. It is mazed away, sympathetically estranged, in the keep of a labyrinthine god.

The men he sends for Micah cannot venture very far into that place. The gods he sends do not return.

“It’s a rather unfortunate incident,” Melanie informs him.

The monster looks at her speculatively.

“I don’t know how to say this,” Melanie says. “You’re terrifying, so I don’t want to upset you, but you’re also not impressing me with the successes of your organization. It makes me worry that you’ll think: what if she thinks I can’t handle this place and decides to take over? I’d better start hurting her immediately. But this very line of thought makes me potentially more disloyal! It’s like a vicious cycle operating entirely outside causality.”

“I see,” the monster says.

Melanie rubs at her nose. “It’s like, I get here, and you’re all ‘look upon my greatness, king of kings, and know despair.’ And I buy it, and I get myself a nice little lab, and I start doing some nice little research on some serious, important questions, like just how does this world work, anyway? and hey, can fairy gold be created in the lab? and then wham.”

The monster pulls himself up to sit on her desk. She rolls her chair a little ways away.

“You know,” says the monster, “how Amiel never really stopped talking?”

Her ancestress Amiel is inside her, wound through her, so long ago and so very far away and yet burning in her blood. I will guard your line, Amiel is promising, as she has always been promising. I will guard your line, and our families be entwined forever.

“Yes,” Melanie says.

“Resist the habit,” the monster says. He puts his hand on hers. He smiles.

She is quiet for a long time.

“And are there others who have expressed suchlike concerns?” the monster wonders.

Melanie shakes her head. When he doesn’t follow that up with another question, she says, “I don’t think most of the people who work here really get that it’s for real. Not the stuff we do. Not the stuff that happens. It’s all isn’ts to them.”

The monster straightens.

“It’s all right,” he says. It’s kind of soothing. He squints a bit at the wall, thinking. “Dad told me once, ‘the thing about this job, the terrible part of this job, is that you can’t just force it. You’ve got to live with the frustration of standing in a land of plenty and having nothing to eat or drink. With the world fighting you at every turn, with a terrible weight hanging every moment right above your head, no matter how much you turn yourself this way or that. And the better you do, the closer you come, the worse it gets. Just imagine how bad it’ll be, my child, if you ever make it to the throne.’”

“Why?”

Melanie looks blankly at him. She’s used to things that she can’t just force but not to the idea that it’d be the worst at the very end.

“People,” the monster summarizes, “are pretty weird.”

He hops down from the desk. He gives her a twisted smile. “I’m gonna go sort this out,” he says. “You can call anyone you have in there back.”

I will guard your line, whispers Amiel.

“You will,” she says, “bring him back?”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you,” he says. He grins. He leaves.

Melanie stares at the wall for a while. Her hand closes around her nametag. She thinks for a good long while.

“I wonder.”

[The Frog and the Thorn — CHAPTER ONE]


October 17, 1995

The monster drives up to Liril’s house. He gets out of the car. He walks up the way. He gives a glance to Priyanka and to Liril. He looks around the house.

Micah is toying with a pad of sticky notes. Judging by the notes on the television, bookcase, and couch, he’s been in a frenzy of labeling things with their proper names, to what end the monster cannot determine.

For a moment the monster considers interacting with the sticky notes. Then he discards the notion.

He focuses the fullness of his attention on Micah.

“I’m disappointed,” he says.

“So am I,” Micah concedes. “I’d hoped that you wouldn’t be able to get past a properly-labeled door.”

The monster glances at the door. It’s in fact labeled “Door. 100% effective against monsters.”

It arrests his attention for a long moment. It challenges his earlier decision.

“I could have wounded you terribly, then,” Micah says. “While you were looking at that. If I’d had a knife. That was three full seconds of distraction. But Liril said that afterwards you’d have done that thing you would do and I’d have hated my foolish actions for forever.”

“You’ll have to content yourself with hypothetical harm,” says the monster, “I suppose.”

“Yeah,” agrees Micah.

“Yeah?”

“You always win,” Micah says. It’s bleak. “That’s obvious. That’s waiting down every path that opens up in front of us. All I can do is decide among the little tiny things I can get from that victory, and know that one day you’ll figure out, or ask me, what those were, and take them away again, just to make sure that even with all of that, I didn’t get a thing.”

“That’s a healthy attitude,” the monster says. “Yet, I can’t help notice that you’ve missed an appointment, killed a number of my servants, and estranged Santa Ynez from the normal processes of space and time. What if I just asked you right now what you hoped to gain, and immediately took that thing away?”

“I thought about that,” Micah says. “I figure it’s probably best if I don’t know what I’m going to win, myself.”

The monster glances at Liril. It’s a question.

She shakes her head. She doesn’t know either.

“Come on, then,” the monster says.

“That’s it?”

“Just because you hand someone a riddle,” the monster says, “doesn’t mean that they have to answer it. I’m kind enough to permit you the hope that there is some sort of hope.”

Micah frowns. He works his mouth.

“You’re supposed to care,” he says. It’s stubborn.

“Come on,” says the monster. “Out to the car. I’ve been thinking about pulling out some kind of cure for cancer.”

Micah brushes past the monster. The monster frowns. Micah walks out the door. He touches the door.

“You know,” he says. “I could close this door, and then you’d be sealed in.”

The monster takes the post-it off the door. He holds it in his palm for a moment. Then he sticks it on Micah’s forehead.

Micah laughs.

“What?”

“That’s pretty gutsy,” Micah says, “but if you really didn’t think it could do anything, you’d have stuck it on Liril.”

He walks to the car. He’s just a little bit too confident. He’s peeling the top couple of entries off his pad of notes. It’s like he’s looking for something. It’s a matter of academic interest at best; sticks and stones can break the monster’s bones, but words on paper — well.

The monster steps outside. It would be best, he thinks, to settle this now; to break him here, rather than allow him to attempt something while I am driving.

Gently, he closes the house door.

He lets out a breath. He traces with his thoughts the power that is within him. He turns —

Micah is holding the Thorn That Does Not Kill at the monster’s throat.

Micah is turned to the side. He is trembling. He is horribly afraid. The fear is bone-deep, soul-deep, it’s making him cold and hot and cold again, and pale. He is standing as far as he could possibly stand away from the monster, his left arm in full extension with the weapon in it, and the hand that holds the Thorn’s thick end is slippery with sweat.

Whatever the monster was doing, though, he stops.

“You shouldn’t have that,” the monster says.

“I am not going with you,” Micah tells him. Sweat is pouring down his face, his arms, and his sides. “I swear to you on everything that is holy, on Jesus, Good, and Buddha, on my own bloody fucking name, I am not going to get in that car, and if you try, I will break you and I will leave you broken and I will walk back into Central like the new King of the fucking World.”

“Language,” cautions the monster. He moves very slowly and cautiously. He reaches for the wrist of the hand that holds the Thorn.

“Just try me,” Micah says. “Just try me. I will hurt you like you have never been hurt. I will make you cry.”

“No,” says the monster. “You won’t.”

And the monster spreads its wings.

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

I have told you that in such moments he is inevitable. That he may become Truth; or Axiom; or Victory; that when his wings have spread he is not such a thing as you may deny.

He will make you say as much, if he wants to.

He will make you admit to it, while hating him; or to admit it while loving him; or to come through strenuous paths of reason or of faith to the conclusion that you should. And if you think that’s impossible, then you’re lucky, because you’ve never seen the monster’s wings.

Maybe you can keep one thing. One thought. One bit of choice.

If there’s two, he can make you choose between them. If you want to be a good person and to hate him, for instance. If you want to remember your name and who you are. If you want to fight him and not just become him.

Two things would be far too much. It’s not very many things to have, in your life, particularly when we’re talking about thoughts and feelings and bits of self. But it’s still far too much. Try to hang on to two things and your divided mind will shatter against the truth the monster brings to bear.

You get one.

And that’s at best.

So Micah, he doesn’t hang on to the Thorn. He doesn’t even try to hang on to the Thorn. To be utterly honest, he’s never even thought it possible that he could.

And he doesn’t hang on to himself.

He doesn’t even hang on to being Liril’s shield.

He just lets his right hand follow a little twitchy reflex that he’s practiced, when the monster’s coat looms in. It’s reaching forward. He’s practically forgotten what it’s for.

Just a bit of gummed paper for the monster’s nametag, and on it, written, “Amiel.”

As undeniable, in that moment, as any other monster’s truth.

There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea
And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me

You can’t put too much stock in labels.

You have to understand that. Just because you stick a name on something that doesn’t make it true. Words aren’t like that. Even the monster is only like that under certain worldviews’ truth models.

Micah’s not a door. For instance. He’s like a door, but he isn’t actually a door.

And in the end, despite his label, he is 20-30% effective against the monster, at best.

The Shepherdess (I/VII)

It is March 18, 1995. The light from the sun does not reach us.

In the dark there is a titan and it does not know its name.

The monster drags Micah down to the basements of Central. He binds him there with leather and metal shackles, under the glare of red and burning eyes. Then he leaves.

The titan moves in the darkness.

It is very weak. It is dying. That is the message Micah intuits from its vibrations in the floor.

“I will tell you of Lia,” says Micah. He is opening a conversation with the darkness.

“I will tell you not of her beginnings,” Micah continues, “but of how Lia was at the end. For while she was strong and wise in life, as she came near to dying, she became weak and confused — as you are now. She knew only that she was tired, frightened, and ashamed, and that she was loved by Amiel. For her children were gone from her, left for distant lands, and her grandchildren too, but her sister had never abandoned her, had never left her side.

“It had been different in their youth, I think. Then Amiel had been the weak one. She had the power to speak truth but not the power to speak lies — I think. And so every word she said tore and wriggled in her throat, scraped it raw and made her bleed from it. She was all but mute and she was eternally beautiful. So in their childhood I think it was Lia who was strong.

“But Lia was mortal, and mortal things grow old, and finally she couldn’t even remember her own name. She had to make Amiel tell her. She had to waste her sister’s power, just to find out little things like ‘you are Lia’ or ‘I am Amiel.’ ‘I love you.’ Or ‘You are my treasure. You are my precious jewel. Your children have gone away to distant lands, but I will protect them, I will guard them, I will guard your line and our families be entwined forever.’

“These things she said to reassure her sister, and the cost of them was blood.”

Micah does not have anything to drink. He does not have anything to eat. He cannot move freely and he is terribly afraid.

The first day passes, and the first night. He can feel the titan’s agony through the floor.

“I’m sure,” Micah says, “that the child who made you loved you. I’m sure she — he? — I’m sure that they won’t blame you for the way the monster is so strong.”

He’d like to think that he is being kind from a native kindness, but he knows better in his heart.

He is afraid that the titan can reach him. He is afraid that it will grow some sort of feeding-maw on a tentacle, or stretch its body like a string, and suck the marrow from his bones to keep from dying. He is afraid that it is free as he is not and that it will somehow hate him, perhaps because it is dying and he, at the moment, is not.

He is crying for the creature, but that does not mean that he is speaking out of kindness. Terror supersedes his sadness every time he thinks that it might not understand his words.

The second day passes, and the second night.

“The promise was twisted,” Micah says, on the third day. He is having trouble speaking. He has a terrible headache and his body feels like it’s being torn apart by knives. He beats his head against the floor to make his headache go away, but except in the moment of each contact, it doesn’t seem to work. “It was twisted, and the monsters came of the twisting of that oath. But Amiel never betrayed it. She loved Lia all her life.”

The third day passes, and the third night; and he can hear the titan, somewhere beneath Central, shudder out its life and die.

Maybe it wasn’t a titan, he supposes. It could have been a different god, or a broken child.

“When the monsters slip and become her children,” he says, “they are as loyal as ever she.”

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

On the fourth day the monster visits. Micah doesn’t bother looking up.

“You’re troubling me, Micah,” the monster says.

Micah frowns at this. He mumbles, “Nunh-uh.” It’s not really much of a denial. He can’t seem to find his defiance in the swimming of his head.

It is nevertheless very clear to him that if someone is troubling anyone, it is not Micah who is to blame.

“Liril hasn’t given me a single god since the day that you were born,” the monster says. “It’s like you burnt her out. Like you broke her, simply by existing. That’s why I say you’re a trouble to me. But I’m afraid that if you die here, she’ll be useless to me forever instead of simply hurt.”

Micah considers this. His world wobbles. Finally he grins.

“That won’t happen,” he says. “She’ll be fine.”

His utter powerlessness is freeing. He doesn’t have to cooperate. He doesn’t have to pretend that the monster has found a point of common interest, or deny it for that matter. He doesn’t have to bother lying to the monster, or telling the truth to the monster, or, really, saying anything in particular at all. The monster wins. The monster always wins. In the face of that victory, until the monster explains what it entails, Micah can do anything he wants.

“Micah,” the monster chides.

“Do you want me to say that I don’t want her to die?” Micah says. “I’ll say that. I’ll say that I don’t want her to die. Do you want me to beg? I’ll beg.”

He giggles. He swallows. He chokes. He gags.

For some inexplicable reason, he discovers, he’d had seawater in his mouth.

He vomits, or tries to vomit, on the monster’s floor, but all he can do is spit out a bit of rotten fish.

The monster rises to his feet.

“That’s awful,” he says. “That’s the worst magic power ever.”

It’s not true. It’s not not true. Micah can’t tell what the heck is in the monster’s voice.

Micah hiccups sadly in the dark.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


March 23, 1995
  
This is not survivable, Micah thinks. There is no way that it is survivable. He is going to die of thirst and possibly starvation. He is going to die of muscle cramps and of exposure. The malice and suffering in Central above him condenses and drifts downwards like the snow. It forms in the darkness into terrible and awful things.

It fills him with fear. It twists his hallucinations into evil and sadistic forms. It makes every sound a shock.

He dwells amidst the poisoned runoff of Central’s theological and emotional waste.

Something snuffles towards him in the darkness. Possibly it is his imagination. Possibly it is the titan come back to life, or risen most unholy. Possibly it is a herd, gaggle, or flotilla of half-starved rats. Micah thinks that it will eat him, whatever it is. He thinks that it will rip the flesh from his bones, and then the bones from one another, unless the monster wishes that it should not.

Oh that the monster should allow it.

He cannot see any longer. His eyes are crusted . . . shut. He thinks that they are shut. He can barely hear.

There.

Something is very definitely near him. It is not his imagination. It is a cold and bulky presence in the dark. It is tactile to him. Then it is against his mouth. It is pouring liquid into him. It is . . .

It is feeding him.

His body cannot resist it. He is gulping it down. He is swallowing. He is crying, he thinks, because it is good, because his body has wanted so much to drink.

It is thick and cold and almost tasteless. Inasmuch as it has a taste that taste is lime.

When he starts to choke it leaves him. When he can breathe again it comes back.

He thinks of how Kuras — his favorite of the Kings of the Ancient World — was exposed on a hilltop and suckled by a sheepdog, or perhaps a shepherdess. That happened a lot back then. Should this be a sheepdog he would be embarrassed, but he thinks that he could forgive such a small blow to his pride.

It is probably not a sheepdog. That is his conclusion. He tries to open his eyes. He tries to make sense of it. It will not be a sheepdog, but rather some sort of hallucination, or a broken sewer pipe, or even a freakish shepherdess of the deeps.

It is none of these things.

It is if anything a nameless horror. He cannot put words to it. It is round where it is straight and it is changing where it is still and where his eyes fall upon it they make blisters rise from its flesh that surge up, whiten, and pop. It has the front part of a lion and the rear portion of a gazelle, and a ring of questing tendrils about its face; and from the calf of its front leg it is bleeding, and it is the blood of it that he drinks.

He cannot read its emotions.

Perhaps it is profaning him. Perhaps it is violating him. Perhaps it is committing a generosity immeasurable by reason. He cannot tell, any more than he can tell what it is, or why. It is simply there.

He drinks until he can bear no more with drinking.

When he opens his eyes again the thing is gone.

short post on Friday, then Chibi-Ex on Monday, then part II on Wednesday.

And Sometimes You Just Slip (III/III)

And one day in 1988 they are talking and Liril tells her about the monster.

It’s like they’ve been avoiding this conversation for most of seven years.

“I screamed,” Liril says, factually. “It was really awful. I started thinking that I was going to forget who I was and I wrote LIRIL on the wall. But then I looked at it and it didn’t even make sense to me, like it was just some palindrome.”

“Oh,” says Melanie.

Seven years, of course, is exactly how old Liril is right then, though she’d been rather more like eight or nine when the two had met, and Melanie’s turned sixteen.

“He made gods from me,” Liril says.

“He did?”

Liril nods. “They were born because I hurt. And he took them. Like—“

She makes vague motions with her hand. She has no real idea what this is like. There’s nothing to compare it to. Pulling birds out of your brain and then using them as firewood might be a good analogy if it were something that ever happened. Stealing your hope for freedom and forging it to a chain.

“Like an awful thing,” she says.

Melanie stares at her.

“You’re so calm,” she says.

Liril’s mouth twitches. It’s like a smile. “You told me to stop crying. Anyway, he kept me caged, and this kind of thing went on and on, and—“

Melanie interrupts her.

It might have been different, what happened later, if Melanie had heard the rest—if she’d learned back then what had happened at Elm Hill.

But she doesn’t.

She’s desperate to say anything to escape the implications of You told me to stop crying.

“I’ll stop him,” she says.

And Liril laughs, great peals like sobs. “You won’t.”

“I will,” Melanie says.

She’s begging.

She’s begging, suddenly, with those words: let me help with this. But this Liril cannot do.

Melanie is running. She has been running.

Melanie doesn’t know when it started. She missed the part where she stumbled to her feet and ran, and knocked open Liril’s door. Did she knock down Liril? . . . no.

She doesn’t think so.

She thinks Liril was to the left.

She’s missed the first block and a half from there, so she can’t be sure; but even so she doesn’t stop.

If she could be a hero—

If she could be a hero, be an angel, be an anything, an anything that could help—

Anything but a fallible, mortal girl, or the most terrible of gods—

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1988

There is a web around Santa Ynez, in those days. It is meant to keep things in.

Melanie does not care.

She reaches it, and she can’t pass through, so she just starts tearing at the web.

And if she were a human, then this would have been ignored; and if she were a god, then the matter would be clear: the spider must attack.

She is not a human and she is not a god.

The spider does not know what to do with her; it descends, uneasy, from the sky, on a single strand of web.

She tastes of the monster—of Amiel’s twisted, empty get, save younger and not so sure.

It looks at her.

She glares at it. It flinches from her eyes.

“What are you?” it whispers.

She has ripped free strands of its subtle web. She has knotted them together to make a cord. She has stretched them between her hands.

And because it is between Melanie and freedom, and because it’s the monster’s slave, and because it’s everything wrong in young Melanie’s world, she says a terrible thing.

“I am the fate which rules you.”

Its eight eyes glint.

Then the cord is a bit ‘neath the spider’s jaw, and she’s leapt onto its back.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


1988

It is bloody and tired when it gives in at last.

It is lolling on the sky.

And she climbs down from its back on a silken thread and she tells it, “You are mine.”

This it concedes.

“You will seal this place no more forever.”

She has strung it between the will of the monster, and her own; and finally it snaps.

“As you like.”

And from that day forth it is in the heights that it spins its delicate web.

Stupid Words and their Stupid Power, Anyway (I/III)

“It is the elephant,” Melanie says.

Liril looks at her.

Melanie is laughing. She is looking upwards at the sky. She is hugging her hands to her own chest now and it is awful and Liril wants to cry but Melanie had asked that she stop crying, so she doesn’t.

“Melanie,” Liril says.

“’Why do we suffer?’” Melanie asks. “’Why do we have to suffer, and fear, and die?’”

“We don’t,” Liril says.

“No,” Melanie says. “Not ‘we don’t.’ It is ‘because of the elephant.’”

Liril looks blank.

“You go,” Melanie says.

“I can’t go,” Liril says.

“It’s easy,” Melanie says. “All the answers are elephants.”

It is beginning to seep in through Liril’s reserve. It’s too ridiculous.

“You go,” Melanie insists.

“What’s gray and awful,” Liril says, hesitantly, “and has a shiny tie?”

“Oh,” says Melanie. “That one could be a frog.”

Liril makes a squinchy face.

“Or an elephant,” Melanie says. “An awful elephant in a tie. Why did the elephant step on the grape?”

Liril shakes her head.

“He thought it was a pair of shoes.”

Liril closes her eyes.

Please, she thinks. Please go away.

It is too late. She is beginning to laugh. It is escaping her. Awful things will happen and it will be her fault, it will be her fault for laughing, it will be her fault for accepting this precious gift that is given to her life.

“You go.”

“What’s gray and wrinkly,” Liril asks, instead of laughing, “And antithetical to the covenants of the world?”

It’s almost like having a will, being able to ask a question like that.

Almost.

“What the hell kind of word is ‘antithetical?’” Melanie asks.

And the giggling takes Liril, and she is lost.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

They go to Liril’s house. Liril opens the door. She goes in and turns around and she is inviting Melanie inside —

“Get out,” says Liril’s mom.

She is standing there, frozen. It’s a whisper. It’s a strangled, horrified little whisper. It’s barely loud enough to hear.

Get out.

Melanie straightens. She braces her feet. She gives a tight grin to Liril’s mom.

“Fear’s showing, love,” she says.

It’s a weird thing to hear from a ten-year-old girl.

A moment passes.

Liril’s mom doesn’t move; so Melanie just shrugs, and nods, and pretends their words were greetings; and she walks past Liril’s mother, and takes up Liril’s hand, and goes up to Liril’s room.

That’s the first time the two of them meet.

The second time they meet, Liril’s mother doesn’t say anything at all.

The third meeting, though, a few weeks into their acquaintance, she’s found some kind of peace.

She stops Melanie at the door. She can stop her, this time. She’s not terrified, this time, and that means that Melanie has to pay her mind — a tall woman like her, with the ability to call the police and the like, maybe even overpower Melanie, physically, with her raw adulthood’s might.

“Go up to your room, honey,” Liril’s mom says, to Liril.

So Liril does.

Liril’s mom leads Melanie into the living room. She makes hot tea and little plates with tea sandwiches. She brings them in. She sits down, facing Melanie, to talk.

Melanie takes a sandwich.

“Thank you,” she says.

“She says you’re a good person,” Liril’s mother says.

“She does?”

“For now,” Liril’s mother agrees.

“Huh.”

Melanie thinks about this. She chews on the sandwich.

“Weird,” Melanie decides.

“So I’ve decided I can’t hate you. And so I am not going to tell the monster that you are here, and have him hale you away and raise you in the customs of the monster’s house; or, failing that, cast you back against the wall and pierce your eyes and heart with the Thorn that Does Not Kill, or hang you from a cross and put razor wire on your brow and let you bleed; or stake you out on some bleak hill for the carrion birds to feed. Because I would enjoy seeing him do those things to you, I would enjoy seeing you suffer, but I shouldn’t go that far for somebody I don’t hate.”

Melanie puts her sandwich down.

It has become unappetizing.

“I would be haled away,” she says, “and raised in a monster’s house?”

“He doesn’t have children,” says Liril’s mom.

Melanie thinks about this.

“It would be nice to have a house,” says Melanie, “and customs.”

“Would it?”

Melanie gives a little snort. Then she shakes her head.

“He won’t catch me,” Melanie says.

“Yes,” agrees Liril’s mother. “Children are so very good at avoiding being caught by monsters. It’s practically a trend.”

“Won’t,” Melanie underlines.

Not me.

“One day,” says Liril’s mother, “you will find him; or he will find you; and you will meet the monster. And then you can decide whether to tell him that I betrayed him. You can decide whether to tell him that I had you here, that I knew you were here, a girl of the monster’s line, and I didn’t even like you, and I kept it from him anyway. If you tell him that then you will have more than enough revenge for what I am going to do to you today, but you’ll also prove that Liril’s wrong.”

It’s hard for Melanie to believe she could stomach this woman’s sandwiches and tea at all.

“If I may ask,” says Liril’s mother, “how do you live?”

“What are you going to do to me today?”

“No,” says Liril’s mother. “It is my question now. It is your question later. How do you live?”

Melanie frowns.

“I don’t understand,” she says.

“I mean,” Liril’s mother says, “are you—fostered? Did you grow up here? How do you live?”

“Oh,” Melanie says.

She shakes her head.

“I steal,” she says. “I carry messages. I live with the fairies in their dells, sometimes.”

“You must be very cunning,” Liril’s mother says.

Melanie’s heart shouts a warning.

She is standing up.

“You won’t do this,” she says.

“What am I going to do?”

“You won’t.

Why am I afraid? she asks herself.

It is the expression on Liril’s mother’s face. It is subtle but familiar. She has seen it on her brother’s face. The last time she saw it Billy was holding up Papa’s head —

The words are not what she’s expecting. She doesn’t even understand how they can stop her; how they can catch her up; how they can freeze her; how, for that matter, it could mean anything to her at all, when Priyanka says:

“There is a King.”

A Study in Entanglement (VII/VII)

“I can’t,” Liril says. “I can’t, Melanie, not you, never you, not you.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

And be free, at last, of the web that is the world—

And be more

And Melanie is already standing up, she can feel it, it is so terribly, terribly close, her bright transcendence, and you’re, and she is strong; but

“I can’t,” Liril says. “I can’t, Melanie, not you, never you, not you.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

It is a raging need in her. It is a hunger. It is a thirst. She can taste it. It is rising in her, what she can, what she must become.

“Make me a god,” she says. “Make me the kind of god that can kill spiders, and break free of any web, and never go hungry and go thirsty, and be by all others loved; to tell the lies that everyone believes, and to slip past any security, and to overcome any obstacle, and to perform transformations, and to become not you the cleverest creature in all the world and save all the hurting people from their pains. Can you make me that?”

And be free, at last, of the web never that is the world—

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

It is a raging need in her. It is a hunger. It is a thirst. She can taste it. It is a rising in her, what she can become.

“Make me a god,” she says. “Make me the kind of god that can kill spiders, and break free of any web, and never go hungry or go thirsty, and to be by all others loved; to tell you’re Amiel’s get lies that everyone believes, and to slip past any security, and to overcome any obstacle, and to perform never you transformations, and to become the cleverest creature in all the world and save all the hurting people from their pains. Can you’re get make me that?”

And be free, at last, of the web that is the world—

And be more

And Melanie is already standing up, she can feel it, you’re, it is so terribly, terribly close, her bright transcendence, and she is strong; but

“I can’t,” Liril says. “I can’t, Melanie, not you, never you, not you.

The words say themselves through Melanie’s throat, like knives: “You must.

“I can’t,” Liril says, and then she looks away. She says, quietly, “I can’t, Melanie. Not you. There’s only one kind of god that you can ever be.”

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

They are poisoned words.

Listening to those words for Melanie is like pouring a jug of drain cleaner right down the gullet of her mind.

The words hurt her, somehow. She is aching deep inside from them, like a child who has just found out Santa’s real, but that he’ll never come for her.

Like a girl, who learns the ERA never passed.

Like an athlete who hurts their leg, and finds out that it will never heal.

She doesn’t even understand yet how it can possibly hurt so much, because she doesn’t have the least idea what Liril means. She can’t understand how it can make her suffer because she obviously—to herself—does not possess whatever knowledge it would be that makes her suffer in reaction to those words. It is as if, rather, she embodies that awful knowledge; as if the implications of Liril’s statements are bypassing her mind entirely and ringing horrid echoes down her soul.

You don’t get to express your dharma, child. never you Not you.

You don’t get to be who you are.

“You’re Amiel’s get,” says Liril.

She isn’t even trying to be cruel.

“You’re the cherub kind. You can’t be any sort of god, ever, except a bondsman of my line.”

It is worse than drain cleaner. It’s turned to lightning now. It’s turned to lightning and it’s writhing in her heart and soul and mind, all the bits of her that knew not lightning’s sting, and it hurts.

For a very long moment, Melanie thinks that Liril is going to change her.

She can’t fight it. She is strong. Melanie is absurdly strong. She is ten and she is stronger than most adults. But Liril’s words have broken her. She is resigned to it, somehow, somewhere in her, to the knowledge that she’ll soon be owned. She will transform. She will become a bondsman of Liril’s line. She will become a possession and a guardian and a follower of this strange and gray-haired girl.

She doesn’t want to be.

She doesn’t want to be, but she doesn’t have any defense against it. She isn’t sure how to fight it, or even if she should.

Her ancestress Amiel is inside her, wound through her, so long ago and so very far away and yet burning in her blood:

I will guard your line, Amiel is promising, as she has always been promising. I will guard your line, and our families be entwined forever.

It is impossible for Melanie to resist.

She thinks it must be easy to transcend, to arise, to become the god of that ancient promise. She can feel it rising inside her as a consuming lightness that will free her from mortality and carry her human self away.

She manages to get out: “I—“

She doesn’t know what to say after that. She can’t find the thing to say or think or do that will make it actually happen, inside her, and she can’t find the thing to say or do that will make it stop.

She notices that she’s scrambled back, away from Liril, but it’s nothing like far enough.

“I won’t make you that,” Liril says. “It’s wrong.”

Melanie’s lost the sense of who Melanie is that she’d had when she sat down. It is a momentary, dizzy emptiness. She is angry and sad and desperately, pathetically grateful, and she hates and loves Liril in that moment with an overpowering, vicious force.

She’s going to say something.

She can feel it.

She’s going to say something, and maybe then she’ll be Melanie again. It’s building up inside her. There are going to be words. There’s something. She doesn’t even know what she’s going to say, but it’s going to be something.

How can a person know what they’re going to say at a time like that?

The words just come.

The Elephant in the Room:

Stay tuned!

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

Once upon a time, the world had a purpose.

Back then, everything did.

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

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

But these sorrows were small.

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

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

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

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

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

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

“Hey,” Tantalus says.

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

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

Martin whistles. “Harsh.”

Tantalus shrugs.

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

“Okay?”

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

“Ah,” says Tantalus.

Then he laughs.

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

Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit

540 BCE

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

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

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

White Lion lowers its head to the floor.

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

“I thirst,” rumbles White Lion.

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

There is a silence.

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

“Severed?”

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

Martin frowns. “The secret?”

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

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

Behold, Your Son (X/?)

546 BCE

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

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

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

Siddhartha says:

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

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

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

This is the flaw in the world.

How can I answer suffering?
Monsters have no remedy.

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

Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise

539 BCE

Nabonidus is educing a god from her when Mylitta breaks.

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

Nabonidus blinks.

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

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

“Um,” he says.

Mylitta sleeps.

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

“She will not wake,” it says.

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

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

“She’s mine,” Nabonidus says.

White Lion looks at him.

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

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

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

.
.
.

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

He makes a god.

Behold, Your Son (X/?)

546 BCE

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

Siddhartha follows her gaze. He frowns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Siddhartha opens his mouth to speak.

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

Her labor has begun.

Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise

539 BCE

Exhausted, weary, broken, and warm:

Nabonidus is crying.

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

It does not hurt terribly. But it stings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” he asks.

Because it is the only answer she could find.

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

Mylitta’s absence remains constant.

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

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

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

“Help me?”

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

Behold, Your Son (X/?)

546 BCE

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

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

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

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

“Midwives are intimidating,” concedes Siddhartha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you take it I can let you live.

Siddhartha says:

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

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

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

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

Siddhartha asks:

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

To heal them, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

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

To save them, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

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

To save them again, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

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

To heal them, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

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

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

Siddhartha asks:

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

Maya frowns at Siddhartha. She says:

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

Siddhartha says:

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

Maya says:

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

Siddhartha shakes his head. He says:

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

Maya says:

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

Siddhartha says:

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

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

Siddhartha reaches out to her. He says:

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

Maya says, quietly,

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

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

“Sons are an impediment,” says Siddhartha.

Maya looks wry.

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

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

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

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

Eloi, Eloi, Lema Sabachthani?

Present Time

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

The monster is waiting outside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The monster’s smile is brilliant and white.

Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise

539 BCE

It is the seventeenth god.

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

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

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

Nabonidus is weak.

“Wait,” he says.

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

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

Nabonidus is weak.

“Lift this burden from me,” he begs.

So the teeth of the devouring god close around him.

The nature of the monster ends.

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit

540 BCE

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

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

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

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

“Leave here.”

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

She is silent for a moment.

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

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

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

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

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

But one remains.

“Do you have the right?” it asks.

“Ye—”

Martin comes very close to nonexistence.

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

It Is Finished

539 BCE

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

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

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

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

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

They would love one another forever. But Lia dies.

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

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

And it is false.

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

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

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

Ten years pass.

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

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

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

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

“I chose this,” she says.

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

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

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

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

“Fly to Egypt,” Nabonidus tells it.

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

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

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

“Then why are you smiling?”

Mylitta shrugs.

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

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

“It will honor you,” says Nabonidus.

“Why?”

“Because I am your judge.”

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

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

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

“Did I fall?”

He laughs. “Did you not?”

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

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

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

“Unless you are weak,” she says.

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

“Unless you are weak,” she says.

He is not listening.

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

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

He looks at her.

Slowly, he comes back to himself.

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

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

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

“I want to do this,” he says to Sin.

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

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

The moonlight on his face is a blessing.

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

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

The Flower (I/IV)

It is 1715 years before the common era.

Near the city of Sodom lives a man named Lot, and he takes many guests within his house. Yet when he serves them meals, and offers them salt, his wife says, “None yet, my husband. There is none.”

Zachariah, a guest, asks her, “What, none?”

And Lot smiles.

“It is a thing my wife says,” Lot explains.

“Why so?”

Zachariah is looking at the shelf on the wall. It has salt on it. The jar is labelled. But Lot only shrugs.

“When we argued with Abraham,” he says, “and then came to this place, she shed no tears. And when the men forced themselves on her, she did not cry. And when our daughters were born, there were no tears; nor when the first of them was slain. So I asked her, ‘Flower of my heart, are you so stingy with your salt?’

“‘This is not pain,’ she said. ‘This is life.’

“‘And what is pain?’ I asked.

“‘Something that our guests will bring.’ And since that time, when I bring in a guest, and ask her for seasoning . . .”

Lot shrugs expressively.

“I do not see why I should be deprived on account of your wife’s strangeness,” Zachariah complained.

“It is a meal,” Lot says. “And I have learned to favor meals that do not so much depend upon the salt.”

So Zachariah eats.

“Can you show me the children?” Zachariah says, after a while.

“I am scarcely a man of Sodom,” Lot demurs.

Zachariah gives him a keen regard. “You would not be here if you had no sympathy for them, nor they for you.”

Lot glances at his wife. She shrugs expressively and scrubs out a pot.

“Come with me,” he says.

He takes Zachariah out into the city, and down its hidden ways, and to the nursery, and there they look in on them. The building is crowded with beds, clothing, pots, and children. The children are between six and thirteen years of age, and the undertone of their skin is gray. Some are playing; others, resting. There’s an undertone of malaise.

“They do not seem like much,” Zachariah admits.

“Ah.”

“It’s just . . . I’d expected more.”

Lot looks up. “Amiel,” he says. “Lia.”

He speaks to two girls sitting side by side on a rough cot and playing some game involving the postures of their hands. They turn, and look towards the entrance. Their eyes are like a shock to Zachariah, and he stumbles back.

“Lot,” says Amiel. Her voice is chimes and wind, a thing of unnatural beauty. It is not suited to her throat, and as she speaks, Zachariah can see the pain that word causes her. He thinks, though he cannot know, that it must rub the inside of her throat raw. Lia places her hand protectively over Amiel’s.

“This is Zachariah,” Lot says. “He’s visiting. He wanted to know about you.”

“I—” Amiel gets out the first part of that word, and nothing more, before Lia’s hand is clamped over her mouth. Lia shakes her head, firmly, and then looks towards Zachariah.

“We are gods,” Lia says. “They call us Nephilim and say that we are the children of angels. But they do not know us. We are gods.”

“I had heard,” Zachariah says, “that some survived the flood. But . . . there are dozens of you.”

“Hundreds,” Lia says. Her voice is matter-of-fact. “This is not our only house.” She looks at him. “Shall I tell you your future?”

Zachariah shakes his head.

“Thank you,” Lot says. Lia nods, and Amiel too. So Lot leads Zachariah back to his home.

Zachariah sits a while in thought.

“When they are of age,” he says, “this city shall be invincible.”

“An empire,” Lot agrees. His wife turns and gives him a harsh look; but he only shrugs and smiles at her.

“And those of us allied to it, . . .” Zachariah adds.

“Why do you think I have shown it to you? . . . I am drawn here,” Lot says. “To these people. To the children. They are a wonder of our time. I cannot betray them. Yet when they sweep out in conquest of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, the Jebusites; when Jordan falls, and Egypt, and even Babylonia; then the tribe of Abraham will not be spared. That is why I bring my people here, to meet the people of Sodom, and sometimes show them these wonders. We must be here, standing behind the scythe, lest our people die like wheat.”

“Where did they come from?”

“It is the Lord’s way,” Lot says, “when he destroys, to leave a remnant.”

His wife snorts. Lot ignores her.

“It is Sodom’s way to breed with such remnants, by force if such it requires, and create the god-children you have seen.”

Zachariah turns his gaze to Lot’s wife, who flushes and turns her head aside.

“My flower bears only mortal children,” Lot says, quietly. “They leave her be.”

It is the night. The fires are low. Zachariah wakes and goes outside. He finds Lot’s wife seated against the wall. He takes a seat beside her.

“It is a night of ill omen,” she says. “You had best be on your way.”

“Pardon,” he says. “But I do not know your name.”

She sighs.

“Well,” he says. “I do not.”

“He calls me his flower,” she says. “Isn’t that enough?”

“No.”

She flushes again. There’s a pause.

“My name is Maya,” she says. “I am the desert, and the desert wind, and the sky, and the sea, and life, and death, and the beating of your heart. I am the perfume of a spring morning. I am the abattoir stench. I am everything in this world.”

“You have fallen low.”

“No,” she says. “I have not.”

She holds out her hands, palm down. “I have known hardship and loss,” she says, “since I came to Jordan, but it is not pain. I am Maya. Even the brutal ways of these men are not pain to me. They are simply life.” She turns her hands upright, and moves them together to cup the air. “And in exchange for this suffering, I may have Lot; and I can tend the children; and these things make me glad.”

Zachariah waits.

“He is a good man,” she says, defensively. “He is not schooled in goodness, he has no great philosophy of virtue, but he is good at heart.”

“You could have palaces in the sky,” Zachariah says, “attended by thousands of men or maidens, and sup on the best of all the world.”

“I have done so,” Maya says, “and will do again; but that is not pleasure. That is simply life.”

“I would lay with you,” Zachariah says.

She sighs. She rises. “You’ll come to a bad end if you do.”

He hesitates.

“Leave,” she says. “You have the chance. This is a favor. Do you understand? It’s not that I’ll stop you. It’s just . . . you’re Lot’s guest. He wants you safe. If you do this, you’ll die horribly, and not at my hand.”

Zachariah looks disturbed, and then he nods. “Thank you,” he says. He leaves, hurriedly; and dawn comes, and turns to evening, and the creatures of beauty, that some name seraphim, come down the road.

Lot is sitting outside his house, outside the city walls, when they approach. He rises to his feet.

“My lords,” he says. “Please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.”

They regard him with a cold and casual regard.

“We will spend the night in the square,” one answers. Lot shivers, hearing the creature’s voice.

“Please,” he says. “They will do you harm.”

There is an indefinable hesitation, and a sense of pressure in the air. Lot’s ears hurt, deep inside. Then the feeling fades.

“Very well,” they say, and enter Lot’s house. Maya gives them a sardonic look.

“More guests?” she says.

“My flower,” he protests.

She looks them up and down. “Leave,” she says flatly. There’s a pause. Then her eyes shadow. “Please.”

The men turn and look at Lot, who smiles jovially. “Ignore her,” he says. “She is ill-mannered; but you are my guests.”

Maya scowls and goes to the cookpots. She feeds them a meal, and does not stint the salt.

“Tell me,” she says. “Is there any way that this city will be spared?”

One of the creatures smiles at her. “If there are fifty,” he says, “fifty virtuous men, why, then, Sodom shall live.”

Lot looks uncomfortable. “How do you mean?” he asks.

“Or forty-five,” the other creature points out.

“Yes. If there are forty-five virtuous men. Why, even forty should do.”

“You mock me,” hisses Maya. “You know there are but three.”

Stung, the creature looks down.

“We had hoped,” he says. “We had hoped there would be ten.”

Lot has gone very quiet; but Maya laughs, and her voice is bitter.

“They are all beautiful,” she says. “The children. And the men! Their ambition is ambrosia. And the women, who keep their men and raise their own cubs in the shadow of such gods: they are heroes too. Oh, this place is a jewel, thou seraphim. But virtue is a measure ill-suited to it.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Spare them,” she says. Her voice is flat.

“The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is too great,” one seraph says. “If what we see is as we have been told, this place must end.”

Then the walls began to shake from the pounding of fists, and a voice rose up from outside: “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”

“If you ignore the first impression,” Maya says, thinly, “they do have redeeming qualities.”

“Bring them out!” cries the voice.

“Can they get children on us?” the seraph asks, in a voice of faint distraction.

“I do not know,” Maya says.

“Bring them out!”

Lot goes outside and shuts the door behind him. “No,” he says. “I pray you. Do not do this thing.”

“It is our way.”

Lot tilts his head to one side. “I have two daughters,” he says. “They have never known a man. Take them, in my guests’ stead.”

Inside, Maya winces. A seraph catches her gaze, and says, “They will be safe.”

“It’s embarrassing,” she says. “I love him for his good intentions, but I’ve met spiders with a better moral compass.”

“You could drive them away,” the seraph suggests.

“It’s not my nature.”

Outside, the leader of Sodom’s men shakes his head. “We seek power, Lot; and so, I think, do you. We won’t be bribed with mortal sex.”

“Then,” says the seraph, inside, “it falls to me.”

The seraph spreads his wings, and his jewel-like eyes blink once, and a great light shines forth within Lot’s house, and from every window and under the door. It blinds the men of Sodom, and they stagger about. Lot, with the quiet step of a child who has erred, walks back inside.

“There is judgment,” the seraph says. “This city shall die. Gather those that are yours. Take them from this city. In the morning, Sodom and Gomorrah shall be dust and ash.”

“The children,” Lot says.

The seraph snorts. Then after a moment, he sighs, and shakes his head.

“There are no innocents,” he says, “in Sodom.”

Maya breaks for the door.

“Maya!” Lot says. But he cannot stop her. She flees into the night. And through the night he went to those he had brought there, and told them to leave, but they did not. And in the morning, the seraphim put their hands on his, and on his daughters’, and take him from the town.

In the shelter of the children, the air is very still.

“What will happen?” asks Lia.

“Brimstone and fire will rain out of Heaven,” Maya answers.

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” Maya says. “Flaming rocks are traditional.”

“Will we die?”

“Yes,” Maya says. The stillness deepens.

“Don’t die,” Amiel says. The voice is clear and beautiful. The flesh inside her throat tears and bleeds. Lia glares at her, then hugs her tightly.

“Please,” Amiel adds.

“I won’t,” Maya says.

Then the fire comes. Maya rises over the city like a veil, her skin shining with the night and the stars, but Maya is illusion, not substance, and the fires come down through her and render all Sodom ruin. She watches as the towers fall. She watches as the nursery crumbles, and the children die, and the men of the city, and the women, and the rats that scurried near the walls. And in the end, only two remain, battered and red, but breathing; and she manifests again at their side.

“Lia,” she says. “Amiel.”

“It is the way of the Lord to leave a remnant,” Lia says. Her voice makes Maya catch her breath. There is nothing of the divine in it, only emptiness, and her godhood has burned away in the crucible of Sodom.

“. . . so cruel,” Maya says.

Lia turns Amiel over, and listens to her heart. “It’s all right,” she says. “Amiel is still herself.” She looks at Maya. “I suppose,” she says, “that my better part was deemed unworthy.”

“It’s not a judgment,” Maya says.

“It’s not?”

“It was deemed better,” Maya says, “that all these die; and you be scoured; and Amiel burned. But that doesn’t make it a punishment. There’s never correlation between one’s suffering and one’s guilt.”

She takes their hands, and leads them away, and at some distance, she looks back.

“You’re crying,” Amiel says, and then begins to choke.

“Help her,” Maya says. And Lia does.

Maya’s tears do not stop, and the salt flows from her like a tide.