Salwa and the Bears

Brakes scream. Momentum lurches Salwa in her trunk. A gaunt’s claws cut through the car like a rake through litter;

there is news from Iraq that we hear not of.

Salwa tumbles out and her blindfold catches on a rock. It rips from her eyes. She sees the gaunt;

flowers bursting to bloom; and laughter.

It is tall as houses, its arms swept back, trailing its long grey claws. Its beak is a sword. There is facing it in the street a small and fuzzy bear.

Its hand moves quick as death. Its nails come for the bear;

there is news from Iraq that we hear not of: flowers bursting into bloom; and laughter.

The nail bursts through. Or no: rather, the bear has moved aside, catching the nail of the gaunt between its arm and body. The bear turns in a jujitsu form, never releasing the nail, and the creature rolls sideways into the home of Najat bint `Aljan, cracking its arm bone, shattering brick, crushing Najat and her child.

The gaunt is tumbling to its feet and its wings snap a telephone wire. Its other hand brushes towards the bear, but the bear is already on the gaunt’s long arm, running towards its face.

The cloud on the chest of the bear is brilliant in the night.

The gaunt’s foot shifts. It lashes back towards Salwa, the heel point like a knife.

there is news from Iraq that we hear not of.

In a blur there is another shape before her. It is a bear. We do not talk of the bears, not since they made their failed play for Gonzales on his throne. But they are there. They are there. It is there.

Its symbol is invisible to her; but the foot cuts through its hide. Salwa screams.

there are schoolhouses; and laughing babies; and teenagers that are not stoned.

The broken wire and the new bear’s path collide; it seizes that unslender thread; the tension of the wire unbalances the gaunt and its heel point does not kill.

Shadow falls over the gaunt’s face. The first small bear comes down. A piece of the gaunt’s own nail scores deep into its eye.

there is news from Iraq that we hear not of.

Salwa’s heart is full of the courage of the bears; but it will go unremarked, she knows.

There are things from Iraq that are never reported, and of such like as this.

Rainbow Noir: The Case of Mr. Dismal

It is at last my pleasure to report to you, gentle audience, more of the history and legends of that magical land of rainbows that is high above the mortal Earth. Certainly you will remember how that land was troubled by the endless machinations of Mr. Dismal, until at last it was cast into shadow and its greatest defender shattered and broken; and you will also remember how, in Rainbow Noir, that defender at last recognized the truths of her own nature and took up the rainbow once again. But what came of her struggles afterwards? I have scrounged the world for this secret, I have plunged into hidden libraries and bartered with eclectic monks; and now, with the final autopsy report on Mr. Dismal in my hands, I think I can explain.

With no further ado . . .

The Case of Mr. Dismal

Mr. Dismal works in Shadow City. He stamps papers. He files reports. He is a gray little man who moves in a gray little world

It has been seven years since he looked out the window.

It has been seven years since his heart last beat.

But now it is 1952, and out beyond the city, the rainbow stirs.

He hears a sound.

“What is this terrible sound?” asks Mr. Dismal. He listens. It comes again. It is his heart.

There is terror in Mr. Dismal now. There is terror in him, but he must hide it. So he sips from his coffee and he tries to concentrate on his work.

There is a flicker of color at the edge of his vision. He looks south.

Mr. Dismal chokes on his coffee. He staggers away from the window.

“Heaven and Earth,” he says.

The rainbow has returned.

“You are weak, Mr. Dismal,” says Mr. Dismal.

He looks in the mirror.

“Creating Shadow City was necessary,” says Mr. Dismal. “I should not apologize. I must not apologize. And I will not apologize.”

Mr. Dismal’s face is like his suit: pale, cold, and grey.

Barren and cold, he says, “I could not have known.”

It is a bright spring day in 1947, and Mr. Dismal goes to his great grime machine, and he pours translucent crystals in. He stirs, and from the bubbling depths come horrors. These are the horrors that eat apologetic men. They have long arching limbs and those limbs end in hooks. They are like spiders and they are like snarls of twine. They are pale. They are large but they can fit themselves into the smallest spaces. They live in the nooks between the cabinets and the files. They live in the little shadow behind the coffeemaker. They curl up in the tips of his shoes and the corners of untended piles.

And his heart, it does not beat.

There is a trembling and a rattling in the room.

Mr. Dismal walks to the corner. He sits down. He makes himself very small. But it does not help because Mr. Dismal’s nose is very large.

The cabinets fall over.

The door shatters.

“I am here,” says the rainbow girl.

It is 1952, and Rainbow Land is dead. That’s what Mr. Dismal thought. That’s what everybody knew.

There aren’t any colors there any more. There isn’t any rainbow. There’s just Shadow City, dull, gloomy, and drab.

But this girl has color in her. And the room has color in it. And there is a stain of brown coffee on Mr. Dismal’s financial reports, and his skin is the color of smog.

“I do not believe in you,” says Mr. Dismal. “I do not believe in your rainbow.”

The rainbow girl gives him a defiant smile. There is a stirring and a strengthening of the colors in the air.

“It is the weak-minded and cowardly,” she says, “Mr. Dismal, who must deny the truth.”

Mr. Dismal’s nose twitches.

“Go away,” he says.

The rainbow girl shakes her head and smiles.

“I am taking over,” she says. “Do you run this place? Are you the master of Shadow City? Are you the one whom I must topple from the throne?”

Mr. Dismal laughs.

He laughs and he laughs.

“I’m just a functionary,” he says, like it’s the most priceless joke imaginable. “Do you understand that, rainbow girl? You don’t want me.

“Pathetic, Mr. Dismal,” sneers Mr. Dismal.

He looks in the mirror.

“It is an inevitable historic truth that where color flourishes, so flourishes decay. It is color that tempts men and women to lasciviousness. It is color that prompts them to gluttony. It is color that makes the things of the world desirable to us, and it is color that ruins that detachment that allows us to be good. Thus it was necessary. It was necessary and it was important, what I have done. To destroy the the reign of color was worth any price. I must not repent. I must not betray and disavow my principles with repentance. For if I am not constant in my principles then what merit can they have?”

Mr. Dismal’s face is like the world: pale, cold, and grey.

Barren and bitter, he says, “I could not have known.”

It is a sullen winter day in 1949, and Mr. Dismal goes to his great grime machine, and he pours translucent crystals in. He stirs, and from the bubbling depths of the machine come horrors. This time they are the wind-wolves, the horrors of the air that fall on those who admit the flaws in their expressions of morality. They are cold and their eyes are fierce and they are beautiful. When the wind blows, their heads and shoulders stream forth from its gusts. They chase the circling leaves in the streets. They howl in windy nights at the moon. And Mr. Dismal knows that if he should say, just once, that he was wrong, the wind will blow; and the air will chill; and the world will sing with the hunting cries of wolves.

The rainbow girl stares at Mr. Dismal for a long, long time.

“No,” she says. “No. That is impossible. I know your crimes of old. You have always opposed the truth of Rainbow Land. It must be you.”

“He came to me,” says Mr. Dismal. “He came to me, like the King of Shadows reborn, and he said, ‘you strive always to steal the colors from Rainbow Land, without reward, while we work all our lives to give them away for free. Let us compromise. Let us remove this troublesome girl, and drown this land in despond, and sell a tiny bit of color at a time.”

Mr. Dismal’s voice is crisp and precise and he bites out each syllable.

“And I agreed. I agreed because it was right. I agreed because it was good. It was a victory that justified its price. I partake of the profits and I bend my knee in compromise but in the end the acts that shattered you were not mine; and Shadow City is not mine; and it is not my fault.”

“And what of Earth?”

Mr. Dismal clenches his teeth.

“I stole the color from Rainbow Land,” he hisses. “I won. I saved the land. I have always striven to do what is right and what is expected of me and it was not wrong.”

“Did he tell you,” says the rainbow girl, “that I wanted to stop the war?”

“Sniveling worm, Mr. Dismal,” says Mr. Dismal.

Mr. Dismal looks in the mirror.

“How dare you even think of it as crime?”

He’s been staring at photographs of the concentration camps again. He’s been staring at the faces.

“People who can’t live with the consequences of their actions, Mr. Dismal, don’t deserve moral agency. Don’t you dare go thinking that your virtue owes a debt.”

It’s a windy autumn in 1950 and Mr. Dismal goes to his great grime machine. He pours translucent crystals in.

He’s muttering to himself. He’s saying: “There were plenty of other magical kingdoms that could have done something. There were the Bears. There was Voltron. There was God. Wasn’t there? I just wanted to get rid of Rainbow Land’s colors. That’s all I was trying to do.”

He stirs, and from the bubbling depths of the grime machine come the terrible malachite creatures of judgment. These are the things of faces and wings and teeth, great grinding wheels, fires, storms, and ice. These are the creatures that visit themselves upon those who are humble in the face of their transgressions. These are the blades that fall on those who recognize that they have failed to be good. They guard the gates of wisdom and make men believe their own perfection.

“You will kill me,” says Mr. Dismal, “if I falter. If I let myself—“

Then he shakes it off, and he goes to work in the files of Shadow City, portioning out color and the gloomy shadows for yet another day.

His heart still does not beat, and the malachites are watching.

The rainbow girl’s eyes are piercing and sad.

“I want you to go away,” says Mr. Dismal. “Leave me alone. It’s not your place, rainbow girl. It’s not your place to be cruel.”

Then the rainbow girl squats down beside him. She puts her hand on Mr. Dismal’s knee.

“I’m not cruel,” she says. “It is you who have locked away your heart. I’ll free it for you.”

“I did not ask for your help, rainbow girl.”

Mr. Dismal stands up. He is terrified, but he moves with stiff decorum. He goes to his desk. He gathers up his papers. He shuffles them into a folder and begins to walk out the door.

“I am leaving now,” he says.

“You just need a little color to lighten you up,” says the rainbow girl, and she laughs; and the rainbow touches him; and he tastes the rainbow; and the smog of his complexion becomes a pure and shining gold. The dismal garb he wears becomes a rich and textured gray. His eyes sparkle. His moustache shines. And there is something human in his eyes.

The weight of it hits him all at once and knocks him to the floor.

“Oh God,” he says.

The rainbow girl grins. She pats him on the head. “See? Was that so hard?”

He is crying, now, great wrenching sobs.

“Oh God,” he says. And he does not say what he wants. Because what he wants is to find some way to make it right. He wants to give his life in labor and in service and count it as nothing if it should answer the smallest portion of his wrong.

But it would not.

And he does not have that time.

“I’m sorry,” says Mr. Dismal. “I’m sorry I was blind.”

There are noises and there is silence and there is a long, thoughtful pause.

“Huh,” says the rainbow girl.

“It is not meet, Mr. Dismal.”

He stares into a mirror.

“It is not meet for good men to bear reproach.”

It’s almost an hour later when Mr. Dismal’s secretary pokes his head into the room.

“Mr. Dismal?” he asks. “Mr. Dismal?—oh, dear.”

The body is in pieces, and the pieces are in a pile, and the pile is bright with vivid color; and its spine does not work, and its brain does not work, and its kidneys and neck and chest are shreds.

The heart, in the center of the pile, still beats.

Ancient Kings

In the modern day, people are very unrighteous. This was not true of the Ancient Kings. The Ancient Kings brought all things into accord with Heaven using their Ancient King Stare.

Now, the Ancient King Stare is the root of all virtue, and it stems from the root chakra. It is modulated through the symbol on the Ancient King’s chest and projects outwards to civilize society. The first Ancient King is the Duke of Zhou and his symbol denotes filial piety.

When the Duke of Zhou takes off his shirt and enacts the righteousness of his symbol, then the Ancient King Stare brings filial piety to all men. The feeling of affection develops in all offspring and they learn reverential awe for their father. The teachings of this sage, without being severe, are successful.

Upon the chest of the second Ancient King is the symbol for benevolence, or “ren.” This is in the shape of a very benevolent thing. Like a clam, but even more benevolent. Possibly some sort of large-hearted purple dinosaur. When men have no benevolence, they are discontent. Struck by the Ancient King Stare of the second Ancient King, a sense of benevolence towards all living things arises. This makes them content.

Upon the chest of the third Ancient King is the symbol for war. This is the symbol of King Wu. When King Wu takes off his shirt and enacts the righteousness of his symbol, then his Ancient King Stare brings war and trouble. Parents bury their children and all manner of calamities occur. In this fashion the Ancient King Stare of King Wu the Martial King renders all unfortunate things transitory.

These are the ways of the Ancient Kings. We do not have their like today.

The Bride of Transgression Bear

It’s 1952, and not all the beauty has gone from the world. There is a woman. Her name is Shalva. She lives in a little temple by a lone lakeshore.

Shalva was a child in Germany during the war. Her parents begged Heaven to save her, and so she came under the blessing of a secret angel; and all those who saw her knew not to think of her. She was forbidden.

She grew in beauty and in grace, and soon she wished to find love, but this was also forbidden to her. So she lived in a temple, by a lake, and opposite she built her tomb. She wrote this message above its arch, “Here I shall lay my body down, and at my side the one who loves me.” Then she retreated to her home, and dwelt.

There’s a kingdom in the clouds. It’s always covered in shadows, and neon lights reflect from pale streets. Magical bears live there. One of them is Transgression Bear.

It is Transgression Bear’s birthday. She rises. She’s a cute little bear. There’s a lipstick symbol on her chest. She shines it at people, sometimes, to teach children and sinners that they must pay for their crimes. “Today,” she says, “I am an adult.”

She goes to the treasure vault. She opens it. It clicks. She looks around. Then she takes out the mirror. Its frame is hammered from gold and set with opals, and in it is a mirror of such purity as none of earth have seen.

“I’m pretty,” she says. “I wonder if there’s anyone prettier.”

The mirror isn’t magical. So it doesn’t say. But Transgression Bear suddenly thinks of Shalva.

“No,” she says, shaking her head fiercely. “I mustn’t think of her!”

She thinks of Shalva again. She imagines her fuzzy orange finger tracing the outline of Shalva’s cheek. She imagines the wells of Shalva’s eyes.

“It’s wrong,” she says. “Transgression Stare!”

The lipstick mark springs forth in bright fury from her chest and plays against the mirror, casting back upon herself. In that beacon she stands frozen.

There’s a trundling noise. Then Alienation Bear waddles in. He wriggles his nose. He looks her over. He pokes her. Then he pokes her again.

“Oh,” he says. “She’s transgressed.”

He looks in the mirror. He can’t see himself. He’s Alienation Bear. Then, with a shrug, he takes it from her hand.

Transgression Bear screams.

“It’s okay,” he says.

Her eyes regard him. The pupils are dilated to points.

“You did something wrong, right? It’s okay. You’re Transgression Bear. It’s who you are.”

“. . . I guess,” she says.

“What did you do?” he asks.

She looks down. “I thought about Shalva.”

“Ah.” He hesitates. Then he touches her shoulder. “I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t understand how things like that work. But I think you’ll be okay.”

There’s a long moment’s hesitation.

“But you can’t live here,” he adds. He looks down. His eyes are shadowed. “Not in the magical kingdom. Not if you’re thinking of Shalva. It’s not a Bear thing.”

“Who decides that?” she says. “Who decides what’s a Bear thing?”

Alienation Bear shrugs. “Fate,” he says. “The fates that make us what we are. If you stayed, you’d eat away at the clouds. You’d wither in on yourself and become a shrunken gray homunculus, and unmake our whole world. If you go, you’ll die, and maybe be reborn. That’s how it works. We’re not supposed to understand.”

She stares at him. The padlock symbol on his chest is glowing slightly. But not very much. Not enough to Stare her.

“In the blood of Bear there is a tide,” he says. “A current. That draws us to our destined place. Go. Your place isn’t here.”

So, bitterly, she puts on a trenchcoat and crams a fedora against her ears to shield her from the cold. She summons a monochrome rainbow and twines herself in its shades of gray and casts herself down to the world below. And wherever she goes, the windows slam down, and the doors close, and mothers pull their children away; for well humanity remembers the ancient powers of the Bears, and fears them.

By night she curls herself down in the doorways of the shops, and shivers in the cold; but each dawn brings her hope, and the sunrise echoes in the shining of her fur, and the wind tugs at her hat and her coat, and she walks ever onwards, ever closer, driven by the heat and the fire that is in the depths of her mind the forbidden image of the beauteous Shalva.

When she reaches at last the lone lakeshore at the temple’s side, she bathes herself in its waters, and save her fur is nude; and the grime of her journey she casts away from her; and then she rises and wraps herself in the air of her aspect, Transgression. She boldly casts open the door of the temple and goes within. And Shalva does not turn her head from her, or shrink back, but only steps forward once and said, “You can see me.”

“I can,” Transgression Bear says.

Shalva looks down. “Will you love me?” she says.

“For all the ages of the earth.”

“Not so,” Shalva says. “Not so; for when I look at the stars, I see my ending written there.”

“How long?” asks the Bear.

“Three months,” Shalva says. “Three months, you may love me, and then be buried at my side.”

“I should go,” Transgression Bear says, but she does not, and stands there looking at the forbidden. Her thoughts are filled with a strange orange fuzz.

“Don’t,” Shalva says. “I have not known love since the Holocaust, and I have three months left to live. You are a Bear, and a girl, and this is not what I had wanted, but you are here, and that is more than I had hoped.”

“I cannot leave,” admits Transgression Bear; and so she knows her ending. She loves for three months, bright and well, and then she and Shalva go to Shalva’s tomb; and Trangression Bear’s breath grows still and quiet; and with a sudden terrible pain she dies. Then by the lake, two entwined flowers grow. Their seeds fall on the world, and in the course of time turn orange. From them rises a new Transgression Bear, and she travels home.

Related links:
Rainbow Noir
“The Bride of the Man-Horse,” by Lord Dunsany

Rainbow Noir

Long ago there was a girl who guarded Rainbow Land. Long ago there were magical bears that lived on clouds up in the sky.

Long ago there was a beautiful and perfect world.

It’s 1952, and Rainbow Land is dead. There’s only Shadow City now. It’s dark and it’s drab but there are glimmers of color here and there around the edges. The shine on the edge of the gang members’ leathers. The shimmer that runs down the length of their guns. The little rainbows you can see in a glass of gin when you hold it up to the light.

Terrence is a sprite. He’s small and cute, covered in gray fur. In another kind of place, it might be a soft and fluffy white. He’s wearing a trenchcoat and a hat. He holds up his glass. He shakes it. Ice cubes clink one against the other. At the edge, the rainbows shine.

“Hey.”

It’s a girl’s voice. He ignores it. Girls are nothing but trouble. But she says it again. “Hey.” A blood-red hand comes to rest on his shoulder. “Terrence.”

“One of my sins,” he asks, “come home to roost?”

“In three hours,” she says, “everyone in Shadow City will die.”

He sets his drink down on the bar and turns. He sees a flare of red and terrible light.

There’s a mansion at the edge of Shadow City. It’s cold white marble, edged in black. In the mornings, the sun casts pale light over its garden and in through its windows. At night, its lights don’t come on. The girl who lives there sits in a chair and looks at the wall, in moonlight or in darkness, and lets her hair grow long.

She hears a bell ring. She rises from her chair. She walks, tall, graceful, and lithe, to the door; and out; and down the garden path to the great black gates.

A man’s standing there. He’s fading away to nothing. He’s drowning in shadows. His face is blurry. “Help me,” he says.

“I don’t have anything for you,” she says.

“Color,” he says. “I need color.”

Her hand comes up to her face. It traces the cold black edge of her chin. It runs across the bleak white of her cheek. It passes across her eyes, two wells of darkness in a perfect face. “I don’t have any,” she says. “I never did.”

She turns and walks away.

“I believe in your rainbow!” he cries.

She walks back to her chair. She sits down. She waits. The man dissolves into darkness.

Terrence wakes, slowly. He looks around. He’s in a car. It’s moving fast. He can make out the driver’s face in the rear-view mirror, but she’s no one he knows.

“Who are you?” he asks.

“Femme Fatale Bear,” she says. “I use sexual forthrightness to unlock the inner desires of men.”

“Sorry, babe,” he says. “Sprites don’t do that kind of thing.”

She smirks.

“Okay,” he admits. “But it’s more ethereal with us. Sprites, we like to get our kids by stork or cabbage, not by knocking up some bear with our star sprinkles, capisce?”

“That’s not what you were moaning in your sleep.”

Terrence frowns in faint memory, then shakes it off. “If this is a kidnapping, you’ve got the wrong sprite. There’s no one left who’d pay a cent for me.”

“You know my kind,” she says.

“Yeah.” He shrugs. His species’ natural deelyboppers wobble. “Magical bears. You live on clouds and ride rainbows around to bestow your gifts on humankind. Am I supposed to be impressed?”

“No,” she says. “There’s no place in the world for that kind of thing any more. It’s a darker time, Twink.”

“Terrence,” he says. “Terrence is the name.”

“It’s a darker time. It calls for a darker bear. All the originals—they shut themselves away back when the rainbows turned monochrome and the stars stopped shining so bright. It’s hard to spread cheer when people’ll kill one another for a little bit of color. It’s hard to spread tender affection when good, honest girls are selling themselves on the streets just so their lips can be red and their hair gold for another few hours of the night. So now there’s just the five of us. Alienation Bear, and Transgression Bear, and Fatalism Bear, and me.”

“That’s four,” Terrence says, and then bites his lip. I’m playing her game, he tells himself. I should know better.

“Nihilism Bear,” she says. “The end-of-everything bear. The bastard bear at the heart of the void. In . . . just under two and a half hours . . . he’s going to stand outside Shadow City and use his Nihilism Bear Stare; and then there won’t be any star sprinkles, or any Shadow City, or any sprites, or even any Earth. Just the great long hungry void.”

“Why’d he wait so long?”

“He wasn’t like this when it started,” she says. “For years, he’s been caring less and less. He’s become a regular grumpy-puss. So last night, he made the decision. ‘Make your goodbyes,’ he said. ‘In the morning, I’ll end the world.'”

Terrence suddenly sits bolt upright. “I can’t help you,” he says. There’s panic in his voice.

“We all pled with him,” she says. “We even tried working together. We all stood next to one another, our bellies bright with the symbols of our aspects and our attributes, and as one we stared. The padlock of alienation, the lipstick of transgression, the hourglass of fatalism, and the broken heart of the femme fatale — our magical bear symbols sprang forth from our stomachs in rays of light and merged into a glorious rainbow of sheer caring. But he only laughed; for he had moved beyond such mortal concerns.”

“No,” Terrence says, vigorously. “I mean, I really can’t help. It’s totally impossible. I can’t do what you think I can. You need to find someone else.”

“You can’t wake the rainbow?”

“She’d never listen to me,” he protests. “Not now.”

Femme Fatale Bear studies him in the mirror. Then she laughs. “You’re afraid, pookie. But you’ll do it for me, won’t you?”

He shakes his head, but the symbol on her stomach is beginning to glow, and the car fills with carmine light. There’s a brilliant beam of energy, the reddest he’s seen in more than a dozen years, and it glances off the mirror to shine full into his eyes.

“Heaven and Earth,” he whimpers.

“You have to help me,” she says, voice almost breaking. “I don’t want to die.”

Terrence closes his eyes and slumps back. “Fine,” he says. “Fine. I’ll talk to her. I’ll talk to her. Please . . . just . . . don’t do that. You’re . . . it’s too much.”

The light fades, and the car pulls up outside the mansion gates.

Wisp looks up as she hears a bell ring. “Twice in one night,” she whispers. “That’s not common.” She rises from her chair. She walks, tall, graceful, and lithe, to the door; and out; and down the garden path to the great black gates.

“Terrence,” she says, to the sprite who waits for her there.

“Rainbow,” he cries. It’s a soft and wounded noise.

“Wisp,” she says.

“Wisp.” He looks up at her, pleading. He trembles. He’s terrified of her. She only looks sad, but he’s shaking like a leaf.

“I don’t have anything for you,” she says.

“Wisp,” he says softly. “Please. Get your magic belt. Put it on. If you don’t harness the power of the rainbow, Nihilism Bear will kill us all.”

She tilts her head to one side. She blinks. “Ask me to move aside a mountain to save a trapped child, and I will stand at its base and push. Ask me to run a thousand miles without stopping, that a starving man might find a meal, and I will set my feet upon that course and run. Ask me to sing to charm the angels, or cut out my tongue to staunch the devil’s hate. Do not ask me this.”

Terrence hesitates. He closes his eyes in pain. Then he says, softly, “I lied to you.”

Wisp’s face is still. Her eyes draw in the moonlight. After a long moment, she says, “Why?”

“It was necessary,” he whispers. Leaves skitter across the road.

“You showed me the machine that made me,” she says. “It wasn’t a lie. I was never a real girl. I was just a thing the sprites put together to save Rainbow Land from darkness. You poured in the star sprinkles and out came a girl.”

“That was true,” Terrence answers.

Wisp’s eyes narrow. There’s a glint in them now that chills. “Then the rest is true,” she says. “I have no heart. I have no life. I have no magic. I’m just a tool. A thing. A vessel for power.”

Behind his back, Terrence crosses his fingers. “That’s true,” he says, “but only when you don’t have sprinkles. Don’t you understand, Wisp? When I put the magic in you, you’re a real person. Your hopes are real hopes. Your dreams are real dreams.”

Fast as a striking whip, she has one hand on each of his shoulders and has him pressed back against the stone arch that holds her gate. She’s grown now. She’s twice her old height and her muscles are strong. She leans into his face. “Why?” she hisses. “Why didn’t you tell me that then?

“You were a threat,” he answers. “Wisp, it wasn’t my idea. You have to believe me. I had orders! You were a threat!”

Her eyes scan his face. “A threat.”

“Don’t you know what it would have done?”

“I could have stopped the war,” she says. “I could have stopped the killing. But I didn’t. Because I’m not a person. You’re telling me I could have been?”

Some strength returns to Terrence’s eyes. His voice is sharp and resonant. “It was not appropriate for Rainbow Land to get involved. Earth would have found us. They would have annexed us. We wouldn’t have Rainbow Land. We wouldn’t have Shadow City. We’d have nothing.

She holds him there for a moment, then drops him. “It doesn’t matter,” she says. “Give me a heart. I’ll fight Nihilism Bear.”

She holds up her hands, and a rainbow-symbol belt slithers through the air from her house to land in them. She buckles it around her waist, exhaling like a cinched horse. Solemnly, Terrence extends to her a handful of colored stars. She takes them. The air around her shimmers and gleams like a soap bubble, thousands of colors livid in the night. She makes a high and maddened keening noise. The paleness and darkness of her drips away like paint washing off of ice. Then there comes silence. When Wisp next speaks, her voice comes in seven tones and strikes into his consciousness like a god’s.

“Where shall I go?” she says.

Mutely, he gestures to the car. She laughs a little. “No budget for a magic horse?” she sings.

“Lady,” he whispers. “Had I the means, I would give you the stars; and the sky; and a magic horse besides. But now, I have a car, and a fuzzy red bear representing sexual empowerment; this only, and my life.”

She opens the door. She climbs in. She gestures, and he climbs over her into the other seat. The bear gets in the front, buckles up, and drives.

“Femme Fatale Bear,” she says.

“Wisp.”

“He’s mine,” the bear clarifies. “My sprite. Now. I won’t let anyone else have him.”

Wisp laughs. “Our contest, Bear, is for another time, and another place.”

The bear slams a foot down on the accelerator and the car screeches away. “We’ll get to the city’s edge before Nihilism Bear,” she says. “Unless we get attacked by random monsters who serve only to prolong the action and suspense.”

Wisp smiles. “It . . . has been some time,” she murmurs, polytonally. “It has been some time since I was randomly attacked by monsters. I almost miss it. Such things do not happen in Shadow City.”

“No,” agrees Femme Fatale Bear. “Yet . . . perhaps times change.” She gestures out the front window towards the strange alien monster that straddles the road, ten miles ahead.

“It’s okay,” Wisp sings. “It will delay us, and nothing more.”

Nihilism Bear’s alarm rings. He stretches sleepily. He pulls himself upright in bed. The sun shines fully upon him. “Huh?” he asks. “It’s 9 o’clock? I was sure I set my alarm for 7.” He stands up and putters about the room. He brushes his teeth. He pulls on a cap to cover his mullet. “Bother. Someone must have changed it. Now I’ll be late to destroy the city.”

He wanders out onto his cloud. “Hello sun!” he cries out. “I’ll be destroying you today. Hello butterfly! Your days are numbered. Hello bird! Life is a pointless parade of misfortune and anguish.” The sun twinkles merrily. The butterfly whirls around his head. The bird tweets, twice.

Nihilism Bear grabs a giant nihilism balloon and floats towards Shadow City. He touches ground at the edge. He yawns. “Huh. I guess no one’s going to try to stop me. All right,” he says, sharply. “Nihilism Bear Stare!”

He huffs. He puffs. He takes a deep breath and the shiny formless shadow that marks his stomach glimmers and glistens. Then a wind rises from beyond, and the air goes chill; and there’s a piping from far away of maddened, mindless flutes. In the alleys of Shadow City, a drunk girl takes out her knife and holds it to her wrist. On its streets, gang members strut and preen. In the high towers, gray bureaucrats push the papers about that allocate the city’s color to the few. The void rises from Nihilism Bear to consume Shadow City, and the void takes breath.

A glimmering rainbow rises to meet it. P’a chao! Color and shadow begin to drizzle from the sky.

Nihilism Bear exhales, startled. The darkness dissolves. “Good morning!” he exclaims. Three figures stride towards him through the chromatic rain. “It’s Femme Fatale Bear! You must introduce me to your friends.”

“These,” she says, softly, “are Wisp, who is the Rainbow, and Terrence, her sprite; and they shall bring your madness to an end.”

Nihilism Bear shakes himself, tummy wiggling. “We’ll see about that. Nihilism Bear Stare!”

The symbol arcs from his chest and strikes Wisp’s heart.

“A lot of people get confused,” he says companionably, as she screams and sinks to her knees. “They start thinking that it’s better to exist than not to exist. That’s why you have Nihilism Bear. I bring the enlightenment of the void. I teach children that it’s all right to set aside the burdens of their life and dance forever in nothingness. My motto is, ‘Stop crying — start dying!’ You look like a girl who needs a fresh dose of nihilism. Have you been imagining that life has a point? That’s a good dream, but all it does in the long run is make you hurt more. When you realize it’s all a futile, endless cavalcade of pain, it makes all that struggling you did kind of stupid. Doesn’t it?”

“I saved the universe once,” she says.

“Tsk, tsk.” He points his fuzzy paw at her. “Bang.”

Wisp slumps.

Nihilism Bear relaxes the black glow, and turns to face the other two. His hand goes out to them, palm up, and he wriggles his fused furry fingers in invitation. “Nihilism Bear is hot today. Who else wants some?”

“Wisp,” whispers Terrence. “You can’t die.”

“What?” asks Nihilism Bear.

“You can’t die, Wisp!” Terrence shouts, hardened demeanor slipping. “Then I wouldn’t see you for days and days! I believe in your rainbow, Wisp!”

“Bah,” Nihilism Bear sneers, and the black glow plays across Terrence and Femme Fatale Bear alike. “Your belief doesn’t matter.”

“It does.” The voice is single-toned.

Nihilism Bear turns back to Wisp, who straightens, slowly and painfully.

“It’s one thing to doubt your purpose when you’re just a lost, tired girl gripped in a miasma of existentialist doubt,” Wisp says. Her voice has two tones now, and rising. “But when a gray fuzzy alien in a trenchcoat declares that you can generate color and possibility out of the magic belt you wore when you were a little girl, then maybe — just maybe — the philosophy behind it all isn’t really that important.”

“Oh, hon,” Nihilism Bear says, moved. “You really do need more nihilism in your life. Do you want me to sing the nihilism song?”

Once again, the black wars with the rainbow, against the sound of flutes; and a long seven-toned scream; and then there’s silence.

In Shadow City, a girl fumbles and drops her knife. A thug pauses, and sniffs the air. A bureaucrat, for the first time in seven years, looks out his window to regard the street.

A bird sings.

Terrence opens his eyes. The air is blindingly bright. It’s full of swirls of color. In the center of it all there hangs a girl, her body limp, her eyes closed, and nothing in her expression that is human.

A symbol shines upon Terrence, falling from far away upon a cloud: the lipstick mark of Transgression Bear. In that spotlight he stands, frozen. This is Transgression Bear’s purpose: to teach children and sinners that they must pay for their crimes.

Wisp’s eyes snap open.

“It’s time,” Terrence croaks. “It’s time to take the belt back off. You’ll run out of star sprinkles soon. You won’t have a heart. But it’s good, right? You saved the world. You proved that you’re a true and glorious rainbow.”

“Oh, Terrence,” murmurs the goddess at the rainbow’s heart. “You have lied to me again.”

She takes off the belt. She drops it. It lands, below her, with a clunk. She smiles at him. It’s fierce. It’s predatory. She does not fall.

“You see?” she says, softly. “You lied to me. I never lacked a soul.” She is silent for a moment. “It is not a thing I deserved,” she adds. “That my fuzzy magical companion should be so cruel.”

A length of rainbow lashes out to stroke under his chin.

Once again, Terrence straightens. He glares at her. “Then kill me. I’ve been waiting more’n ten years for you to wake up and put that rainbow through my heart. I won’t be afraid of you. Make an end to it! Make an end to it, Rainbow!”

“No,” she says, and smiles. The rainbows around her slither faster and faster through the air. He feels his mind drifting away into the shifting colors; and it is beyond Terrence the sprite to speak or move or think now.

“It’s not my job,” she says, softly. “I’m not here for revenge.”

The rainbows merge and twist, and the rope of them plunges endlessly into Terrence’s eyes. He shivers. He opens his mouth to scream, and another rainbow plunges in. The gray fades. The white returns, and his fur burns like a star. The trenchcoat whips in the wind and rips away. His hat flies off. He sinks to the ground. The rainbows withdraw.

“I name you Glorious Servant,” she says.

Glorious bounces happily. “All right, Wisp! Thanks for chasing my gloom away. I bet it’s time to bring some color back to Rainbow Land!”

Wisp smiles.

In the alleys, a girl gropes on hands and knees to find her knife. She’s drunk. It’s hard to find. There are only so many places it could be. So many garbage cans, so much waste-strewn ground. She finds it. She brings it to her wrist. “I can’t stop just because I had a moment’s hope,” she says. “There’s so much more despair.”

In the distance, beyond the city’s edge, a tide rises.

In the high towers, a bureaucrat sees the tide. He chokes on his coffee and staggers back away from the window. “Heaven and Earth.”

The tide crests.

The girl cuts. Her white arm begins to trickle deep black blood. She cuts again.

The wave falls.

Spatters of coffee, sinking into the bureaucrat’s papers, shimmer a bright and wooden brown. The cuts on the girl’s wrist shine; her skin turns flush and pink, her blood a pure wine-red. The shadows and grime of Shadow City fade. The bandanas of the gangs shine a brilliant blue, save for the one that is green; and a gangster realizes with cold terror that he’s been hanging out with his blood enemies for the past ten years.

There’s a wind, and it carries a message from the rainbow girl.

“Hi,” says the wind.

“This is my city now.”

There is no blood that flows but red; and no tears that fall that are not jewels; and for a time, of Rainbow Land, we hear no more.