Hades (III/III)

It is 1317 BCE.

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

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

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

Hades raises an eyebrow.

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

“Yes?”

“It should taste like orgasms,” Iasion says.

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

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

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

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

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

Hades’ walk is somber.

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

“Good,” says Hades.

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

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

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

“I want there to be hope.”

Iasion sighs.

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

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

“‘Muzak,’ I call it,” says Hades.

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

“I wish there to be hope.”

Their footsteps echo for a while in the empty halls.

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

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

“Persephone?” Iasion asks. He looks uncomfortable.

“Does that bother you?”

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

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

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

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

“Make ready my chariot,” says Hades.

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

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

“Hades.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She spreads her arms to bar Hades’ way.

“No!” Cyane says. It is a demand.

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

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

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

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

“So I have taken hope,” says Hades.

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

Persephone takes strength from it.

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

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

“Oh,” says Cyane. “Oh. Persephone.”

She is crying now.

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

The Treasure Wheel (II/III)

It is 1320 BCE. The sun sneaks out from behind the clouds. The sun shines on the fields. It shines on the streams. It shines on fair Persephone, black-haired and clean-limbed, a girl who loves its light.

For a long moment, Persephone simply basks. She is beautiful. Her mother Demeter admires how the light plays on her hair; her neck; her stomach; her legs—

Then Demeter giggles.

“You have toes, you know,” says Demeter.

It’s true, so Persephone doesn’t deny it.

“They came out of my womb,” Demeter says, in satisfaction.

“Mom!”

“If it embarrasses you, you should wear boots! That’s what I do, when Rhea talks about my nose.”

Persephone sighs.

There’s a brief silence.

“Mom,” asks Persephone, “why am I going to destroy the world?”

Persephone is planting seeds. It’s something she likes to do with her friends. She digs a little hole. She puts the seed in it. Then Cyane or Agalope or Thelxiepia pours water on the seed. Soon a marvelous plant, such as a dandelion, olive tree, or rose springs up. Sometimes Persephone even gets plants that no one has ever heard of before, like ratweed or singing gardenia.

“It’s complicated,” Demeter says.

Persephone’s friends are not here today. Demeter is visiting. Persephone wants to talk to her Mom about things like birds and bees and her period and why she’s going to destroy the world. She expects it’ll all be pretty embarrassing, so she’s sent her friends home. They’re naiads, so they mostly respond to this by sitting in their various rivers bubbling sulkily.

“I mean,” Persephone says, “am I going to blow up like a volcano?”

“No,” Demeter says.

“Or turn into a horrible wind that blows over all the world sweeping it bare?”

“No,” Demeter says.

“Or eat the sun? Like a giant wolf?”

“No,” Demeter says. “It’s—”

“I could set everything on fire,” Persephone notes. “I mean, I don’t want to, but I could?”

“Look at the heart of the world,” Demeter instructs, cutting her off.

Persephone looks down.

“There’s the ground in the way,” Persephone explains.

So Demeter blows on Persephone’s eyes, and Persephone sees.

“It’s a wheel,” Persephone says. “It’s a wheel with one thousand spokes.”

“That is the nature of the world,” says Demeter.

“Bah,” says Persephone. “That old thing?”

“It’s a jeweled treasure wheel! With two winky eyes!”

“That’s all well and good,” says Persephone, “but I think— I think that you shouldn’t be able to just look at the nature of the world like that. It should be a mystery.”

Persephone reaches out a hand. Then she stops. Demeter has hold of her wrist.

“That’s how you’re going to destroy the world,” says Demeter.

“Oh,” says Persephone, in a small voice. “But I wouldn’t!”

“You almost did it just now.”

Demeter thinks.

“Really,” Demeter says, “I should ground you.”

Persephone thinks quickly. Demeter is the goddess of the grain. Her groundings often involve being transformed into barley.

“I have toes,” Persephone says, meekly.

Demeter looks at her for a moment. Then she laughs.

Demeter hugs her. “You do,” she says. “Ten perfect toes. That’s how a Mom knows her girl’s going to be okay.”

Normally, Persephone finds this particular speech embarrassing, but it’s a great way to get out of trouble for almost destroying the world.

“I can wiggle them!” Persephone says.

Angels

“There are angels in this castle,” White Lion says. “They are born to fill Zenobia’s emptiness with hope.”

Angels are a kind of spiritual being (“god.”) They generally wear jackets with holes for their wings. Where angels go there is the potential for virtue and good outcomes—even when things are bleakest. The smallest, but genuine, chance of impossible and unlooked-for grace travels with them, drifts down where they pass, flies with the sound of their wings. Thus we say angels answer emptiness with hope.

Sadly angels aren’t quite so much as one would want.

Their power is real. Sometimes an angel goes into a hopeless situation and something good happens that couldn’t have happened without the angel. Sometimes that possibility of a good outcome, of being good, of finding good in another—sometimes that possibility wasn’t even there without an angel, and sometimes once the angel arrives, you find it.

Or, a lot of the time, you don’t.

Known angels include:

Daniel, who knew what it took to save Jenna but couldn’t do it;
Evasive Angel, who allows anyone who catches her to change their fate, even to the breaking of the cycle of the world (but who cannot be caught);
Forbidden A, whom one ought not think about;
Magic A, who can do anything (sometimes); and
Realistic A, who can provide a pragmatic evaluation of any situation.

Sometimes when people are hurting all we can do is dream up legends for them.

It hurts! But that’s all that we can do.

And Pelopia says that that’s sort of what being an angel is like. Only, when she says it, it’s when we’d expect it to be sad, and instead she looks—

Like the sea is crashing, somewhere, on the shore; like the world is brilliant with love; like the sky is bright, too bright for mortal eyes to look at, and with the sun.

Jane (III/IV)

The angels have seen the show; for thirteen nights running they’ve seen it; and now Erin is backstage with Jane, drinking Kool-Aid and asking the kinds of questions angels always ask.

“But why do you call yourself Jane?”

“I like being Jane, ” Jane says.

“But isn’t it the name the monster gave you?”

Jane smiles. “Yes.”

“Then how can you like it?”

“A long time ago,” Jane says, “Martin came for me. He had an axe, and it was covered with blood. He said, ‘This isn’t working.’

“And I nodded. Because it wasn’t.

“And he said, ‘Let me show you another way to be.’ And he reached into my heart, and found a wind and a fire and something wonderful, and then I was me.”

Erin thinks on that for a bit.

“And does it work?” Erin asks.

“Does being an angel work?”

“It’s sad sometimes,” Erin says, “but I get to fly and blow up robots. That part’s pretty cool.”

“It’s kind of like that,” Jane says. “Only, with goggles.”

She leans in and confides to the angel.

“And I’m waiting for the wind to change,” she says, “so I can change the world.”

Aegisthus (IV/IV)

Tell me, oh muse, of the decision of Aegisthus, who learned the truth of his heritage: son and grandson both of the monster Thyestes, who sired him by force on Pelopia’s womb. Tell me of Aegisthus, who stood with sword in hand in the cold wet cell where Thyestes sat enchained, and chose, not to kill, but to strike free the monster’s chains. I must turn to you, oh muse, for this decision is not one I can encompass; but still he made it; and so have countless others through the years; down the line from one to another, to the monster Jenna and Liril knew.

**

It is 1212 years before the common era. The sun in the clouds is the color of a flame. A young boy named Aegisthus stands upon a hill. He holds a sword. He cuts his hand with it and smears its edge with blood. Then he thrusts it into the ground. The world cracks open. He calls out, “Tiresias! Tiresias! Prophet and oracle!” A ghost suspires from the ground and sips the blood from the edge of the sword.

“Oracle,” Aegisthus says. “I am Aegisthus, son of Atreus, and one day I shall be King. Yet I wish to be more. My ambition does not end with such paltry measures. I must command the gods themselves. Speak me an oracle. Give me an answer to my dream.”

Tiresias turns blind, dead eyes on Aegisthus. “Many in the world have desires. Why should yours take precedence?”

Aegisthus shrugs.

Tiresias sighs. “What you ask is impossible. If you must attempt it, then go to the spring of the nymph Cyane and wake her with your blood.”

The earth takes breath, and pulls Tiresias away. Aegisthus withdraws his sword and the world grinds closed.

The next morning, four people leave Mycenae. Aegisthus goes to Sicily, where the spring of Cyane is found. His half-brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus travel to the Oracle, searching for the King’s hated brother Thyestes. These three leave with fanfare and with wealth, for Atreus King loves them well; but Atreus’ youngest wife, Pelopia, hearing certain rumors regarding Leda’s daughter Helen, walks away in silence, and few mark her departure.

Aegisthus takes a boat, and then a road, and finds himself in Sicily next to an ancient spring. He stirs the water with his finger. It forms an image. Aegisthus sees the chariot of Hades, charging across the world, with captive Persephone in Hades’ arms. Then the nymph Cyane rises from the stream. She spreads her arms to bar Hades’ way.

“‘No,'” Aegisthus says, watching the image of her mouth. “‘No,’ she says, and ‘Go no further! This maiden must be asked, not taken.'”

Then Hades smites the spring, and the world cracks open, and his chariot gallops down into the Underworld, and the waters of the spring seal over. Cyane weeps, and as she cries, she loses substance, until the spring and nymph alike are nothing but her tears.

The water goes still. The vision ends. Aegithus frowns. He cuts his hand. He smears his sword with blood. He dips it through the water to touch the stone Hades’ sceptre broke.

“Ew.” Cyane rises from the pool. “Ew. Don’t do that. Ick. Ew.”

“What?”

Aegisthus, uncertainly, withdraws his sword.

“Memories. Symbolism. Mind in the gutter.” Cyane looks at him. She shudders. “What do you want?”

“Can you do impossible things?”

“I’ve tried. I failed. I wish I could.”

“I am Aegisthus,” he says, “son of Atreus. I wish to sit at Olympus on the high god’s throne; or, if I cannot, that my heirs should do so. I spoke of this to the dead prophet Tiresias, and he sent me to you.”

She sits on a rock and thinks.

“So I’d rather like you to tell me what to do,” he says. “Or give me some kind of magic to achieve my ends.”

She thinks more.

“Please?”

Cyane looks at him. Her expression is calm. “Go home,” she says. “Call for me again when everything you know is true proves false.”

“It’s a long walk,” he says.

“You’ve got sandals,” she answers. So he leaves.

Cyane sits upon a stone. She thinks. Then she turns to the water, and an image of Persephone forms. Persephone looks up.

“Cyane!” she says. Her voice is glad and bright. Cyane smiles crookedly.

“I’d thought you might be angry,” Cyane says.

“Why?”

“I failed.”

Persephone thinks about that for a moment. Then she reaches up a finger to touch the surface of the water; and Cyane sets her hand upon it; and for a time, the two of them are still.

“I have anger, hate, and rage enough,” Persephone says, “to fill the world, and slosh against each person in it. But none for you.”

“Can I free you?”

“No,” Persephone says. “It’s impossible, even for a nymph.”

“But you’d like me to.”

Persephone sighs. “There’s that in all of us that wants the impossible. The real can hurt so much.”

“I’ll free you,” Cyane says. She closes her eyes. “I promise.”

Persephone’s eyes narrow. “Cyane—”

The sun passes above the spring, and the glare of the sun on the water turns blinding, and Persephone can see the nymph no more.

In Laconia, near Mount Taygetus, Atreus’ wife Pelopia looks up at the sun. “So bright,” she says.

She trudges down the road. Her feet are bloody. It’s a long way from Mycenae, and she’s lost her sandals along the way. She comes to a clearing.

Helen sits against a tree. Her hair runs down the bark. She’s not yet the most beautiful woman in the world. She’s very young.

Helen opens her eyes.

“I wondered if you’d come,” Helen says.

Pelopia hesitates. “I want things to be different,” she says.

“Why?”

“Not all of us can be the children of gods and swans,” Pelopia says. “My father was Thyestes, now an exile. I went into Athena’s service, and on the night of a ceremony, a masked stranger caught and forced me and got a child on me. I took his sword as he lay sated, but found myself unable to kill—not him and not myself. So I fled. My uncle Atreus, who would kill me if he knew my parentage, thought me the daughter of another King, and took me to wife. When I bore the stranger’s child, he imagined it as his own. I had hoped to make some small brightness from this, but my son Aegisthus is as empty as the sky. His eyes are hollow. He cuts his own flesh with the sword I stole and gave to him. There is nothing I may do to save him. This is the world I live in. I want it to be different.”

Helen bites her lip. Then she reaches out a hand. She touches Pelopia’s elbow. “You’re like the sea,” she says.

“I went to the sea once,” Pelopia says. “I washed the blood off. And the dirt. And the tears. And all the foulness of mankind. And the sea stayed clean. But I’m not like that.”

Helen makes a sad face. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

“When your father dies, go and stand before his grave and call to me. I’ll make you an immortal.”

At the Oracle of Delphi, Agamemnon and Menelaus, sons of Atreus, meet their uncle Thyestes. They catch him and bind him and return home; and on one weary evening, Agamemnon, Meneleaus, Aegisthus, and Pelopia reach their home together. Atreus consults the entrails of a goat. He turns to Aegisthus and Pelopia. He says, “As Thyestes was Agamemnon’s and Menelaus’ to capture, he is yours to kill.”

“Ours?” Pelopia asks.

“Yours.”

“Come, mother,” Aegisthus says, and leads her down into the dark. There, he opens the door of Thyestes’ cell, and goes in. Thyestes slouches languidly against the wall, bound in irons. There’s a touch of fear in his face as Aegisthus enters; but it fades as he sees Pelopia, and dissolves entirely when Aegisthus draws his sword.

“I know that sword,” Thyestes says. He smiles lazily. “But how did you come by it?”

Aegisthus hesitates. Thyestes’ expression and his choice of topics confuses the boy. The execution has turned unexpectedly uncomfortable. “My mother,” he says. “She gave it to me.”

“Then,” says Thyestes, “this is the sword my daughter took from me, after I lay with her to conceive you; and you are my son, my grandson, and my destined instrument of vengeance, raised in my enemy’s house as his very own son. You will kill him for me,” continues Thyestes. “You will kill him for me, and set me on the throne, for this is the revenge promised me by the Oracle, and now I see you shall fulfill it.”

There is a silence. Pelopia’s face grows paler. Aegisthus’ eyes are blank and white.

“I should kill you,” Aegisthus says. “I should kill you thrice over. For Atreus, and Pelopia, and myself.”

“You’re my son,” Thyestes says.

The corner of Aegisthus’ mouth twitches. The sword wavers in his hands. Then he turns, and strikes the wall. The blade splits the stone, and water pours into the room like blood. Aegisthus beats his head upon the wall. “Cyane!” he cries. “Cyane!”

A woman rises from the water. She shivers at the cold air. She draws the water up from the ground. She wraps it around her. It’s like a long jacket. There are lumps under the back, like budding wings.

“You’re different,” he says.

“I made a promise that I couldn’t fulfill,” she says. “So I changed.”

“Into what?”

“Someone who could do anything,” she says. “Sometimes.” She smiles at him. “Thank you,” she adds. “I thought about it, when I watched Hades take her off, but I didn’t dare. Not until you came along, impertinently bringing me to life to fill your own emptiness and then asking the impossible.”

“Make it not true,” Aegisthus says. “Make him not my father.”

Cyane looks at Thyestes. She makes a helpful gesture. Then she smiles wryly at Aegisthus. “It didn’t work this time.”

“Oh.”

“Monster!” Pelopia shouts. She pulls the sword from the wall and lunges towards Thyestes, but Aegisthus grabs her arm, and pulls her back, and casts her against the wall, where she sits.

“Monster,” she says again, and stares at the sword. She runs it along the edges of her wrists.

Thyestes grins at her. Then he looks up at Aegisthus. “If she keeps bleeding on it like that, you can take it to Atreus and say it’s my blood. Then kill him with it later, by surprise! It’s like a family reunion, all that blood on one sword.”

“Why would I do that?” Aegisthus asks.

Cyane tilts her head to one side. “Because he can tell you the secret of the gods,” she says.

“What?” Aegisthus’ voice is hoarse.

“You asked me to give you power to command the gods,” Cyane says. “I can’t. But he can.”

Aegisthus hesitates.

Cyane kneels by Pelopia. “I had to tell him,” she says, apologetically. “I belong to him. Kind of. Because I was dead, and then he put his blood in the spring, and called me forth. But I can try to save your life. If you want me to.”

Aegisthus claims the sword, and walks to Thyestes, and strikes down the chains.

“Monster,” Pelopia mutters.

Aegisthus leaves the room, and Thyestes too, and they close and lock the door behind them.

“He tried to change,” Cyane says, clinically. “Thyestes tried a hundred plans. He tried a hundred ways not to do what he did to you. But all of them were too hard, so he gave up.”

“Save my life,” Pelopia says.

Cyane wraps her jacket around Pelopia’s wounds; and slowly, the bleeding stops.

“I’m going to stand at his grave one day,” Pelopia says. “And I’m going to call to Helen, and become a god.”

“What kind of god?”

“I’ll be like a nymph,” Pelopia says. “They’ll come. People will come, and try to catch me. Because if they catch me, their plans will succeed. If they can catch me, they can change their fate, and break the cycle of the world.”

“And will they catch you?”

“No,” Pelopia says. “I won’t let them. I can’t let them. Not again. I’ll be as evasive as the wind.”

Cyane leans back against the wall.

“That’s what drives them, you know,” Cyane says.

“What?”

“People like your son. They make gods. They have such emptiness in them, and can make such emptiness in others, that gods come to them in swarms. But they can’t ever be one. It’s what makes them monsters.”

“I’m not sorry for him,” Pelopia says.

“No,” Cyane admits. “Neither am I.”

“It’s his own decision,” Pelopia says. “As ours are ours. But I wish he hadn’t locked the door.”

The Shelf, And What Happened There

Mercury is a cookie. She is tall and gorgeous. Her hair is long and flows down her side. Her primary ingredients are whole grain rolled oats, brown sugar, and coconut. She’s a lot like a gingerbread man, but she’s prettier and has less ginger.

She cools on a pan for a while. Then Emma, who is five, picks Mercury up and puts her on a shelf next to the other cookies.

“You stay,” Emma says. “Talk to other cookies! If you have to go outside, tell Mommy first. That’s the rule!” Then Emma leaves.

“Hi,” Mercury says to the other cookies.

On the shelf, there’s a rabbit, and a dashing pirate, and a wolf, and a faceless man. All of them are cookies. All of them say “Hi,” except for the faceless man. He doesn’t have a mouth, so he doesn’t say anything.

“I’m a cookie,” Mercury explains. “I just cooled.”

“Welcome,” says the pirate. “We’re telling stories. Do you want to join in?”

“I’d better listen first,” she says. “I’ve never told a story before.”

“I bet you’ll do fine,” says the pirate. Even his voice is dashing. It brightens Mercury’s heart. “But you can have a turn after the wolf.”

“Okay,” Mercury agrees.

The rabbit says, “There’s a place. Very far from here.”

“How do you know?” asks the wolf.

“An angel told me.” The rabbit makes a throat-clearing noise, and continues:

There’s a place that’s white and cold and its sky is dark. It hangs high above the world. It looks down on the Earth. My people live there: not just one, not just ten, but thousands. Thousands of rabbits, their fur white with frost. The enemy cannot find them there. So they live in peace. There are plenty of things for them to enjoy. There’s one there whose heart is one with mine. She waits for me. She doesn’t care how long. She looks down at the Earth; and waits; and loves me.

“Ah,” says the wolf. “That’s very fine.”

“What’s love?” Mercury asks.

“I don’t know,” says the rabbit. “Not really. But when the angel said it, it meant something to me.” The rabbit coughs. “It’s your turn, pirate.”

The pirate thinks. “In the morning,” he says, “I’ll set sail.”

“How do you know?” asks the rabbit.

“Some things you just know,” he says. His voice shares both a sadness and a quiet joy. “It’s like this:”

In the morning, I’ll set sail. I’ll go to a faraway place. I’ll fight many battles. I’ll be a hero. Everyone will admire me. But you can’t be a hero forever. Someday, someone will get in a lucky blow. I’ll crumble. I’ll die. That’s okay. Whoever kills me, they’ll give me back to the sea. And my life will have meant something.

The rabbit thinks. “You’re lucky,” he says. “To know all that.”

“I suppose,” agrees the pirate. “But it’s sad that I won’t have someone to mourn me.”

“I’ll mourn you,” says Mercury, impulsively. “I’ll think of the sea, and say, ‘goodbye.'”

The pirate laughs. “See? A happy ending. But it’s the wolf’s turn.”

The wolf considers. “I could live,” she says.

The faceless man makes a noise.

“I could,” says the wolf. “It’s part of what a wolf is. Listen:”

This is what it means to be a wolf. This is the promise written in our bones. If we’re fast, if we’re smart, if we’re strong. If our senses are sharp and our footfalls soft, we’ll live. There’s always meat for a wolf, if we dare to find it. There’s always water. There’s always warmth. Some don’t make it. Some die. They get sick. They get killed. They go lame. But if you’re strong, if you’re fast, if you’re smart, you’ll live. That’s the only story wolves know. It’s the only one we need.

The faceless man makes another noise.

“I don’t know if I’m strong enough,” says the wolf. “So I don’t know if I’ll live. But I won’t give up. I’m a wolf.”

Mercury says, “You’re very brave.”

“Not brave,” says the wolf. “Just me. It’s your turn.”

“I’m made of oats,” says Mercury. “I was baked in the oven.” She thinks. “That wasn’t a very good story, was it?”

The pirate laughs. “You’ll tell a better one tomorrow,” he says. “It takes a little practice.”

Emma comes into the room. “Wuf!” she says. She picks up the wolf. She gnaws on the wolf’s ear. She leaves the room.

Mercury makes a startled noise. “Hey.”

“Ah,” says the pirate. “I wouldn’t have thought it’d be her, next.”

“What happened to the wolf?”

“She’s gone to war.”

“War?”

“It’s why we’re here,” says the pirate. “We’re waiting, to go to war. We’ll fight back the enemy. To protect everyone else.”

“Oh,” says Mercury, feeling a little stupid. “I didn’t know.”

“It’s okay,” says the pirate. “A lot of us get confused after baking. I’m sure you’ll be a fine soldier. But you have to live longer than I do, to mourn me.”

“And go home,” agrees the rabbit. “I don’t know if your home is like mine, but you should go to it. Afterwards. You seem nice.”

“I don’t have a home,” Mercury says. “Just you.”

“Then you should visit, afterwards,” says the pirate. “Visit the rabbit on the moon. Make a grave for me, down by the sea. See if the wolf survived.”

The faceless man makes a noise.

“You could visit the faceless man, too,” the pirate adds. “He’s the best of us, you know.”

“I will,” Mercury promises. “But oh, I’d rather if you lived too.”

“Ah, lass,” says the pirate. “It’s not such a world as that.”

Night falls. For a time, the cookies are silent. Mercury passes into dreams and visions. When she wakes up, there’s a tiny angel sitting next to her on the shelf. The angel’s not a cookie. She’s a girl. She’s got wings sticking out through holes in her jacket. Above the wings, the back of her jacket reads Magic.

“Hi,” says Mercury.

“Hi,” says the angel. “It’s the first dawn of your life, so you get a wish.”

“I wish I could be with the pirate when he dies,” says Mercury.

The angel dangles her feet off the shelf. “Wouldn’t you rather save him?”

“If I save his life, he might die again,” says Mercury. “But if I’m with him when he dies, he’ll know he’s remembered.”

“That’s sweet,” says the angel. “So I’ll see what I can do.” The angel sparkles and vanishes.

Slowly, the other cookies wake.

“Good morning, Mercury,” says the pirate. “Do you understand stories better after a good night’s rest?”

“I think so,” says Mercury. “I have a people, too. Like the rabbit.”

“How do you know?” asks the pirate.

“Because I’m alive, and someday I’ll be dead,” she says. “And in the meantime, this is how it must be:”

I have a people, in a faraway place. They don’t know the kinds of things I’ll have to do. They don’t know what it’s like at war. But they’ll know I’m fighting for them. There’s a boy in a field, and he looks up. He remembers that we’re fighting. There’s a lady in a school, and she looks up. She remembers that we’re fighting. All my people. Not often. But sometimes. They stop, and they remember.

“Mm,” says the pirate. “I think you’ve got it.”

“Thanks,” says Mercury.

Emma comes into the room. “Pirate!” She picks up the pirate. Then she looks at Mercury. She thinks. There’s an angel on one of her shoulders. There’s a devil on the other. For once, and Emma finds this very strange, they’re both saying the same thing.

“TWO cookies,” Emma says, happily. She picks Mercury up. Then, a cookie in each hand, she leaves the room.

The Angels (III/IV)

“Surprise!” says Jane’s mother. “We got you an early Christmas present.”

“Ooh!” says Jane, and tears off the wrapping. “It’s a burning bush action figure, with real prophetic action! And it sings!”

“That’s right!” announces Jane’s mother. “I knew you’d like it. I couldn’t wait for Christmas!”

“That’s very bad, mother,” lectures Jane. “Presents should wait until Christmas Day!”

“I’m sorry,” admits Jane’s mother, and hangs her head. “Here, you should light it on fire and see what action figure God says!”

“Okay!” says Jane, who can’t stay angry at her Mom long. Fwoosh! The bush catches on fire.

“I AM THAT I AM(TM),” the bush announces. “I’m a burning bush with real prophetic action!”

“Wow!” says Jane. “It’s even better than I imagined.”

“You must be Jane,” says the voice of the plastic Yahweh action figure. “That’s good! I need you to save the world.”

“I’ll do it!” Jane exclaims. “But I have to be in bed by 8.”

“You must push every software CEO in town,” explains the burning bush action figure. “PUSH! Otherwise I’ll have to blow everything up, and that’s bad.”

“That’s very bad, plastic God,” lectures Jane. “Pushing people is impolite! A good girl never pushes. Not even people with MBAs.”

“Very well,” concedes the burning bush. “You may give them a bouillon cube instead, if they do not want to be pushed.”

“Yay!” shouts Jane. “I’m going to save the world.”

“Be careful!” cries the burning bush. “You will have many enemies!”

It’s no good, burning bush action figure! Jane’s already dropped you and bolted out the door. She’s a hasty heroine!

Jane visits three CEOs. She gives two of them a bouillon cube. The third, she looks over. He doesn’t understand the importance of Ops. So she says, “Excuse me, sir, but can I push you?”

“Only if it’s necessary to save the world,” says the CEO. He laughs to himself. He’s so clever! She’ll never push him now!

PUSH! Jane runs away. You always have to get permission before pushing someone, but if it’s to save the world, they just might give it to you. That’s the lesson!

Jane’s at the mansion of a software CEO. You can pick which one! It’s guarded by fierce attack dogs. They snarl and slaver at Jane. She makes faces at them. They can’t cross the invisible fence! But Jane can’t cross it either — they’d snap her up! She pokes her finger over the fence. SNAP! SNAP! SNAP! go the dogs.

Jane falls over backwards. She’s got all her fingers, but that was close!

“Oh, Heaven,” she says, looking upwards. “I have to give this CEO a bouillon cube. Or maybe push him! But I can’t — his dogs are too fierce!”

Heaven is silent. Jane gets up. She pokes a finger past the invisible fence again. The dogs look shifty. Their eyes shift back and forth! They’re discussing a suspicious plan in dog language. Jane can’t speak dog language, so she doesn’t know. All she knows is, they’re not biting her.

Slowly, she steps forward, past the invisible fence. The dogs don’t move. They just wag their ears and tails. Dogs speak in semaphore! That’s their secret.

Jane steps forward again. Suddenly, the dogs lunge! LUNGE! LUNGE! LUNGE! They look like they’re made of teeth and claws! Their eyes burn like fire and blood! Jane screams and falls down. Bouillon spills from her bouillon pocket and scatters across the ground. Oh no! She can’t give the CEO a dirty bouillon cube, can she? Plus, the dogs want to bite her in half. Jane closes her eyes.

The teeth don’t bite.

“You can chomp all you want, but you can’t bite me!” That’s a mysterious voice shouting. “No one can bite me! I’m Evasive Angel!”

Jane opens her eyes. She’s surrounded by four angels. One’s standing in front of the dogs, but every time they try to bite Evasive Angel, they miss.

Evasive Angel’s a girl. She’s wearing a jacket. It’s got holes for the wings. It’s got a big logo on the back that says “Evasive A.” She’s got a halo. The dogs can’t get a hold on her. It’s not that they’re bad at biting. It’s not that they don’t want to bite her. It’s just a part of who Evasive A is.

Jane looks at all the angels’ jackets. “You must be Realistic Angel, Forbidden Angel, and Magic Angel!”

“Probably not,” says Realistic A.

“Ignore her,” says Magic A. “We’re the Angel Four, and we’re here to make sure you can push this naughty CEO!”

“That’s very bad, Magic Angel,” says Jane. “You can’t push people just because Heaven wants you to.”

“Actually,” says Forbidden A, “that’s kind of a knotty theological question.”

“Can you even apply standards like that in the modern world?” wonders Realistic A.

“No one can defy me! I’m Evasive Angel!”

Jane looks confused. “How does that work?” she asks.

Evasive A takes a moment to think about it, then snaps her fingers. She doesn’t have to answer that question. She’s Evasive Angel. “That’s not important,” she declares. “What’s important is, we have a CEO to trouble!”

“Then let’s go!”

“I’ll stay here and distract the dogs,” says Evasive A. She’s scared of what awaits Jane inside. She’d rather distract the dogs. She likes dogs, and they can’t bite Evasive Angel!

Jane and the angels rush up to the mansion.

“Be careful,” says Forbidden A. “There are lasers strafing the entry hall.”

“Lasers?” asks Jane.

“Worse!” says Forbidden A. “Heat-seeking lasers! And exploding robot butlers on the other side.”

“That’s bad,” concedes Jane. “Do any of you have any special powers?”

“I can provide a pragmatic evaluation of any situation,” says Realistic A.

“I can do anything, but only sometimes,” answers Magic A.

“You aren’t supposed to think about me,” says Forbidden A. “Although people do anyway.”

“Her special power sucks,” notes Realistic A.

“Realistic Angel, how can I get past the heat-seeking lasers?”

“I’d recommend distracting them with something hot, like the sun.”

Jane searches her pockets. “I don’t have it on me!” she wails.

“Or a burning bush?”

“That either!” Jane sits down. Her lip trembles. She might have to cry. The angels are no help at all! But then she has an insight. “I know! The burning bush has an omnipresence mode. When you activate it, the burning bush is everywhere — just like in the Bible!”

“Go Jane!” says Forbidden A. Forbidden A is pretty cool, but remember that you’re not supposed to think about her!

Jane reaches out and activates the omnipresence mode. Soon, her burning bush action figure is everywhere. She turns it on. It lights on fire. “I AM THAT I AM(TM),” says the bush.

“Action figure!” commands Jane. “Distract the heat-seeking lasers.”

BURN! The burning bush action figure flares up. It’s omnipresent, so it’s in the hall too. The heat-seeking lasers all fire. Silly lasers! You’re just helping action figure God burn!

Jane and the angels dash through.

“Oh no!” cries Jane. “Exploding robot butlers!”

“That’s right,” says the chief robot butler, twirling his steel moustache. “I’m going to serve you tea, and then explode, showering you with thermonuclear radiation! No one will be able to live near you for generations!”

“But I have to push the CEO!”

“I won’t let you!” The chief robot butler laughs manically, boiling water for tea with hideous mechanical efficiency. Jane watches the pot, but how long can that save her?

Forbidden A steps forward. “Hey! Robots!”

The robots all look at her.

“Oh no!” says the chief exploding robot butler. “I’m thinking about you, but I’m not supposed to! This is an error in my programming!”

“Oh no!” say all the other robot butlers. “Us too! We’re just as bad as our boss!”

“01010101001110100101,” exclaim the robot butlers, and deactivate. Thank Heaven for Forbidden A! And then stop thinking about her!

“Let’s go!” cries Jane, and rushes onwards. But then she comes to a giant pit. It’s all that’s between her and the CEO — he’s standing on the other side. He looks lonely. No one’s come and pushed him or given him bouillon since he bought the heat-seeking lasers. He wanted to be safe, but now he doesn’t have any friends!

“I can’t jump that giant pit,” says Jane. “Can you fly me to the other side?”

“Hardly,” says Realistic A. “My wings are far too delicate.”

“I oughtn’t,” admits Forbidden A.

“Of course,” says Magic A. “But only if it works.”

“All right,” says Jane. “Then I’ll have to trust you!” She leaps into Magic A’s arms. It’s a leap of faith! Magic A backs up, then runs for the pit. She jumps!

“Hey,” says the omnipresent burning bush. “Don’t you four have tickets to a show?”

“Eep!” says Evasive A. “No one can make me late — I’m Evasive Angel!” Evasive A vanishes. Realistic A vanishes. Forbidden A vanishes.

Magic A soars with Jane across the pit, but in midair, she looks at Jane. Her face is very apologetic. “It won’t work this time,” she says. Her wings give out. She falls. Jane falls. They’re going to hit the far wall. It could break their heads! But Magic A shoves Jane back towards the center of the pit and vanishes.

Jane’s still falling. She’s thinking this: “I just wanted to give bouillon to every software CEO in town, or push them. Now I never will. I guess my burning bush action figure will have to blow up the world tomorrow.”

No, Jane! It’s not that way. The bottom of the pit is covered in stock certificates. The CEO has so many, he has to use them to pad his pit — otherwise, he’d be covered in them from head to toe! Sploosh! Jane splashes into the stock.

“Hey,” she cries up. The CEO comes curiously to the edge of the pit and looks down. “Would you like some bouillon?” she shouts.

“No, little girl,” says the CEO. “I’m too important for your dirty old bouillon. Also, please stop swimming in my stock.”

“If I can’t give you bouillon, can I at least push you?”

“I don’t see as how you have any alternative,” says the CEO, who is a realistic man.

Suddenly, Jane rises from the pit. She’s standing on the head of a colossal stock squid! If you leave stock sitting around too long, you’re going to have colossal squids — that’s just how spontaneous generation works. The stock squid rockets skyward. Jane leaps down to stand in front of the CEO.

PUSH! Then Jane runs away. The angels left for a show, but she’s got bouillon and a squid — no one can stop Jane now!