Scarab All-a-Fulminatin’, Explody & Oh Shi— (I/I)

Video:

The warhead strikes Central. It explodes! The explosion freezes. The scarab beetle catches it. It begins to roll up the explosion into a clever little ball.

The picture freezes.

“This,” the monster says, “is a scarab of explosions. It’s an infallible defensive measure in event of bombings, since it uses explosions both as its food and as the containers for its eggs.”

It is 2002 the year of our Lord. The monster is speaking to a Prince of men; a Prince in white, with a small black beard.

The Prince is not entirely convinced.

“Why?” he asks.

“Why?” the monster repeats.

“Why should there be a beetle that contains explosions? The Star Wars missile defense has been called fanciful, fairy-tale, fantastic; this defense, then, cannot even qualify for those names.”

“Ah,” says the monster. He closes his eyes. “Why should there be a beetle that rolls the sun across the sky? That dies at the end of each day, and is reborn from its own semen, shot into a clod of dung? Why should there be beetles that carry the souls of the dead away, to be judged in unhallowed courts? Why should there be beetles at all?”

Sir,” says the Prince. He is angry.

“People don’t want to explode,” says the monster.

He opens his eyes. His voice is a little sad. “They look for something they can do. There isn’t anything, though. God won’t save them, Highness. Science gives them nothing. So they turn to coleoptera.”

The monster starts the video up again.

“How does it live?” the Prince asks. Perhaps, demands.

“Shamelessly,” says the monster.

The video shows little scarabs scrambling out of bursts of flame. It shows the battles and power struggles of the children. It shows Melanie, laughing, with three tiny little bomb-bursts crawling along her skin.

“They die, constantly,” the monster admits. “But they come back. They’re like roaches. Or that—”

He doesn’t know whether saying ‘that Jesus dude’ will offend a Prince of Saud.

“Or Cary Grant. They’re beetles.”

The screen goes black.

“It’s what they do.”

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]


May 28, 2004

Melanie has no time to react. It is all instinct. She is horribly exposed: she can tell that much. She is standing in the middle of a battlefield without an aegis. She’s face-to-face with Micah, who is very dangerous, and she has a scarab of explosions at her side.

Threnody is hurling the lightning.

Melanie slams down the walls around her heart. She sets everything aside. She bites the head off of every question in her being, like a mantis with its mate, and she is open, she is empty, she is floating and groundless and without origin or endpoint as the lightning strikes.

That is how it has to be.

She knows the rule of lightning: that it begins with that which is struck.

So she asks not the question to which lightning makes its wild answer. She does not lower the lens of her perceptions or preconceptions down to see the world. For a long moment, as the lightning falls, she floats there, rootless.

It slams into Micah, and she is safe.

It crucifies him, blasts him head to groin and flows down into the ground, spreads his hands apart and agonizes him—and she, demanding nothing, is safe—

Is—

Is—

What the Hell, Micah, she thinks.

She stares.

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.

He is screaming. Oh, so terribly he is screaming. But she is not safe at all. She is, instead, astonished, for he has caught the lightning.

He is burning. Oh, so terribly he is burning. But he is not letting go.

He is not letting it dissolve. He is not letting it ground through him to the earth. He is holding it.

She whistles, long and low.

It is possibly a mistake, she realizes, suddenly, to let Tina go around torturing gods with electricity; working it into them, branding them to their bones with the lightning-pain, making them know it as they know their eyes, their hands, their hearts, their thoughts, their fate. It is possibly a mistake to let that become a part of somebody, a core of their life experience, if you might ever need to blast them with lightning later—

It strikes her as a subject worthy of a monograph, at the least. On the wearing thin of the judgment of Heaven when used without discrimination, perhaps, or Recidivistic considerations related to the galvanic treatment of captive gods . . .

The lightning is burning him. It is melting him like a candle, but he is not letting the liquid flesh drip from him, he is holding it on the surface of his hands by will alone.

He is holding the lightning and he does not let it go.

He is turning towards her, oh, so slowly, and his teeth are white and his eyes are white and the screams have stopped and his face holds such enormous pain—

Oh! she whispers, in her mind. Such pain!

—and he whispers, “Shall you know not justice?”

” ‘Should,'” she corrects him, absently. SHOULD you know not justice?

It would have derailed any other god. It should have derailed him, should have made him fumble, made him lose his grip, but Micah just smiles whiter. His teeth are sweating in the heat.

“Should you know not justice?” Micah asks, “You who hate good and love evil? Who tear the skin from my people and the flesh from their bones? Who eat my people’s flesh, strip off their skin, and break their bones in pieces? Who chop them up like meat for the pan, like flesh for the pot?”

She wants to laugh. It’s brilliant.

“You can’t be serious,” she says. “That’s from a verse about the sun setting for the prophets, and the day going dark for them. That’s about God’s vengeance on people like your sister, Micah, and her fastness becoming a heap of rubble, and this hill a mound overgrown with thickets—”

He isn’t listening.

He isn’t listening to her at all. She stares.

“Should you know not justice?” he asks again. “Because the thing is, Melanie, the thing is? What you do?”

She owes him this much. She maps the terrain around her, quickly, with her eyes, and then she meets his burning gaze and she says, “Yeah?”

“It’s wrong.”

It fountains from him then. It overflows. He does not hurl the lightning, but rather bursts with it, loses it, runs over with it like a clogged sink struck by a sudden flow. It shatters from him like the waves from a missile that falls into a lake. It cries out thunder. Lightning arcs from him to the scarabs, to the crayon creatures, to the footsoldiers and the dog. It dances in frustration around Melanie like a braided rope, like a hoop from a crinoline skirt, like a halo forbidden and restless to lay itself upon and brand an angel’s brow.

It is hungry for her. It grinds its teeth around her but it cannot bite.

She sees what is coming. It unfolds in her mind, and there are two paths for her, two roads that she may walk.

There is a flying god that is swooping past. She can take its tail and be away; may float past as it floats; she has timed it, she can do it, she can leave him there to wail, and be safe

Or—

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.

The scarab of explosions bursts. It becomes a string of fireworks. It becomes a bang, and then another bang, and then another. It cannot contain itself. It cannot bind its own explosion. If it could then scarabs would be immortal, rather than always dying and always rising up again.

It is just a beetle. Beetles don’t know not to think the kind of question that the lightning answers. Beetles don’t know to let themselves loose from expectations and from preconceptions when people are throwing lightning here and there. Nobody hires beetles as meteorologists, and that’s half the reason for it; the other being, now and then, if there’s an errant spark or whatever, a beetle will explode.

And life is sweet and it loves the sun
But we’re born to die when our hour comes.

He is howling. The howls and sobs are ripping themselves from him, heavier than the whole of his chest and body, and he is scrabbling at the ground, and his eyes are burning and the world is throbbing and shivering with great bursts of light.

Cool hands touch his face.

They burn his melted skin all over again. He whimpers.

Melanie pulls his head up to face her.

“Look what you have done,” she tells him.

He cannot comprehend. Not killed you, he thinks, in absolute frustration.

“You’ve killed fourteen,” she says. “And that’s not even counting Vincent. That’s awfully good, dear.”

Not you.

It’s like she’s heard him. “Not me never me,” she agrees, sadly.

His vision swims. She picks him up.

“It was my very own dear beetle,” she says. “I raised it from the egg. And so I thought, ‘It will not kill me.'”

The doors of the facility are shattered.

“The fire will burn all around me, and shards of stone and shell fly past, but it will not touch me.’ That’s what I thought.”

The wall is shattered. The ground around them is broken.

Melanie stands in the great brooding gap where the doors should be, at the entrance to Elm Hill.

She grins.

She tilts her head.

“Sometimes you have to trust,” she says, “you see, in those you love.”

[The Frog and the Thorn — END OF CHAPTER TWO]

“If I Go Crazy Then Will You Still Call Me Superman?” (IV/IV)

Tainted John is off the fence. He leaps. Melanie growls at him and swings Harold’s head like a flail. Not all the momentum of his jump slows that swing the faintest iota; he is smashed back like a weightless child and he dents the fence behind him.

“That,” Melanie says, “will be enough.

For Vincent, it is as if she has kicked him in the heart. Tainted John flutters against the fence and howls.

Melanie glares down at Vincent.

She looks up at the ghoul.

She takes a deep breath. She exhales. She calms.

“Finish this one off,” she asks, “would you, dear?”

Then she turns and she walks away.

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last

It is, naturally, impossible that Micah should defeat them.

He is a child.

He is elusive. Melanie sees that. A great long-legged god, that is a beast, bites at him. He is rolling out of the way. It is chipping its teeth against a gravestone.

The black dog snaps at him.

Its teeth don’t score.

An employee of Central—her name is Florence, Melanie thinks—grabs at Micah. He slams his head back and up into her nose and he pulls free.

But she can see the flaw in his defense, which is to say, he is a child. He is not a hero out of legend. He is not a myth. He has no way to kill.

Micah is confronted by a failing god.

It is looming upwards from the earth. It gapes like a ghost made from sheets. It will make him fail, and be lost—

He sticks a gold star on its forehead and the failing god dissolves in light.

Melanie frowns.

Micah is whispering a memory to a remembering god. The remembering god falls down.

It is ridiculous. He is a boy.

Somehow he’s slain a ragged thing. There’s a wounded contemner. “Oh,” she whispers, as she sees the body of a fiend.

She tries desperately to suppress a seething wave of pride. It is hot inside her. It is warming her. She can barely feel her weight against the ground.

“How beautiful,” she says, again.

She doesn’t fear him, though.

She snaps her fingers. She calls a scarab of explosions to scuttle by her side. A hulking crayon-beast walks behind her. She steps on the head of a researcher whose practical skills had proven weak.

She doesn’t fear him. There is nothing that can kill her, here. There is nothing that can hurt her, here. There is nothing that can touch Melanie in the slightest, here, save Kryptonite, not while she holds dead Harold’s head.

As he’d once observed, a vulnerability to Kryptonite is pretty balanced for a fictional character, but it’s not exactly a fair weakness in real life.

Not that it had saved Harold, of course. She gives Micah a thoughtful, abstracted look. Might he have a bike lock?

He has no bike locks.

She looks him up and down as she walks closer. He has no bike locks. He has no plastic miniatures that depict Lex Luthor with his green and glowing rock.

He has the Thorn That Does Not Kill.

He has the Thorn, which is an issue, but he doesn’t have an iPod; so there’s no chance he can bust out suddenly with “Kryptonite” the song. She isn’t sure how that could possibly hurt her, mind, but it’s best not to take any chances.

“You’re going to try to stab me,” she decides. “And you’re going to miss.”

No iPod. No miniatures. No bike locks. Her army has, of course, no Kryptonite that he could steal.

“Make me a god,” she is asking Liril, over twenty years before. “Make me the kind of god that can kill spiders, and break free of any web, and never go hungry or 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 the cleverest creature in all the world and save all the hurting people from their pains. Can you make me that?”

“I can’t,” Liril is saying, twenty years ago. “I can’t, Melanie, not you, never you, not you.

He has the Thorn That Does Not Kill, but no way past her aegis.

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.

Melanie chooses not to fear the Thorn.

And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

Vincent struggles to get up. He can’t. He can’t move his legs.

“Kaela,” he whispers.

“He’s hurt your spine, my darling,” Kaela says.

“I don’t have time,” Vincent whimpers.

He can hear Tainted John starting to recover. He can hear the boy pulling himself to his feet.

It’s already too late.

Finish this one off, Melanie had said. Would you, dear?

The boy is crouched beside him.

“Nice,” Vincent mutters.

Tainted John pats him on the head. He ruffles Vincent’s hair. Vincent can hear him grinning.

“Sorry,” says Tainted John.

He plunges his hand through Vincent’s skull. He frowns. He pulls his hand back. It’s covered in Vincent’s brain.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]


May 28, 2004

The gods draw back as Melanie approaches. The army pulls away to give her room. The battle departs from Micah, and he is alone.

He falls over.

It’s like his enemies were the only thing that had held him up.

Melanie turns him over with a foot. Her eyes flick down. There’s a nametag on his chest. It’s construction paper, stuck on with paste. It says, “Micah,” and “Defiant.”

She wonders who wrote it. It’s not Liril’s handwriting, nor his own.

Maybe it’s the ghoul’s.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

She’d like to rip off the nametag, but she’d hate to accidentally become Micah the Defiant. That would be an unexpected outcome but it would still qualify as an error.

She reaches down and seizes his wrist and drags him to his feet instead.

She looks into those eyes.

He’s so tired. It hits her like a blow. She wants to set their fight aside and comfort him. He’s so very tired.

If they’d been any other eyes she wouldn’t have spotted it at all; but she sees them every morning in the mirror, more or less, and the fluttering shadow of scheming behind the mask of his exhaustion warns her.

“Threnody!” she yells.

She lets go of him. She pulls back.

He’s stabbing at her with the Thorn. She can’t help dodging, not after seeing those eyes. He knows a way

“Tag,” he says. “You’re it.”

He is turning as he moves. He is striking her, not with the Thorn but with his elbow. He has elbowed the head of Harold from her hand. It is rolling along the ground.

She opens her mouth.

Threnody hurls the lightning.

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.

Tainted John tastes his hand. His frown deepens.

“Missed?” he says.

There’s a flicker of white and black. His eyes follow it.

“Arise, and be as God,” whispers the voice of the wounding of the King.

The sky stutters argent lightning. The world turns to blaze. A hot wind blows, and full of screams; and the doors of the facility, the wall, the ground below them —

Shatter.

The Sting (III/IV)

Micah stumbles up against the doors to the facility and understands that he can run no farther.

They’re not locked.

They could be, but it wouldn’t do anybody any good, so right now, he hasn’t bothered. They’re not locked. He could go through them. But he is Micah, and there are certain things that Micah can and cannot do.

He turns around.

He turns, jerkily, like a puppet of his dharma, and he stares down the grave-strewn path to the facility’s great black gates.

The army has already come past them. If he’d thought he could buy an hour, fifteen minutes, five minutes even with his bluff, he’d been wrong.

Two and a half minutes, at the most.

The first and fastest gods, great stretchy gods all drawn in crayon, are almost upon him.

His hand clutches convulsively at his shirt. A post-it stuck onto the cloth crinkles in his grip.

“You can’t come in,” he says. He is shaking. He is dizzy. “You can’t come in. You’re going to have to go away.”

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

A crayon fist comes down on him like a hammer. He tries to jump out of the way, but it’s faster and more flexible than he; it catches the side of his head, slams him to the ground, and makes his world dizziness all over.

He tries to pull himself up.

They seize him. They hold him up, spread-eagle. They shove him hard into the wall of the facility at Elm Hill. He mutters, something, slurred, under his breath, and adjusts his sense of perspective; forces himself to see that the hands that hold him up aren’t actually connected to the arms, that they’re just crayon lines on the walls as the rest of the stretchy gods are written on the path; there’s a burst of burnt umber blood and a speech balloon of howling and Micah falls.

His eyes trace back along the path, but the creatures are already drawing back, regrouping behind the tombstones as a ragged thing comes in. One crayon hand, its life lingering longer than the rest, staggers up his body and shoves its fingers in his nose; he coughs and spits and beats his head, hard, against the earth, to keep it from his eyes.

“Seriously,” he says.

He’s on his feet.

He’s looking at the ragged thing.

“Seriously,” he says, “you should know these eyes. You don’t want to screw with me. I am hella not bluffing here. You are going to have to go away.”

He can hear its breathing, louder even than his own.

It is close. It is starting to say something to him. He can barely hear it over the voice of the wound at the facility at Elm Hill, which has chosen this particular moment to renew its on-and-off-again flirtation with Micah and Tainted John, whispering to him:

“I am like you and you are like me and we are we.”

I am like you and you are like me and we are we.
Sublimate into me, o wicked child;
arise, and be as God—

And Micah giggles, right in the ragged thing’s face, and he asks it, “What is God?”

It doesn’t dignify his question with an answer. It seizes at him with its sniggly, snatchy hand instead. Micah dances back, in his head he dances back, but what actually happens is that he staggers in a direction that is vaguely like away, and it has got hold of him, and it is trying to ask him a question.

It is failing.

It is hissing things that are like words, but they are not words. It is gaping at him. Its mouth is working.

Micah doesn’t take the time to mock it. He looks behind it. There’s too many.

“There’s just too many,” he whispers.

It comes across the horizon, the voice that is Ii Ma. He hears it, after the ragged thing’s first five tries, at the last.

“How can you let such things as Tina live?”

It stops him, as it’s meant to. It’s a nasty question, and its got a sting on its tail: for no sooner asked than he is there again, in the shackles again, while the spider-like device strapped to Tina’s palm is shocking him again, and again, and again; and Liril—

And Liril, and Tainted John, waiting below—

And Liril, and Tainted John, waiting below, letting it happen; and he still does not know why—

He relaxes.

He doesn’t fight it. He lets the question take him, lets it estrange him, lets it carry him and his trivia and his seawater and his thorn from the world to the place withou—

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]


May 28, 2004

There are spikes along the top of the iron fence. They’re not really very sharp but Melanie is, so she feels it’s all right to slam Tainted John down on top of them anyway.

He’d have died right there, right then, but his coat twists itself up and catches the spike in its folds as he descends.

“Oh,” Melanie says.

She blinks.

“How beautiful,” she says. She giggles. “Look, Vincent. His coat doesn’t want a hole.”

Tainted John tries to wrestle himself out of the coat and kill her in that moment of distraction. He flails like a turtle on its back instead.

She flips him over, and another fence spike goes in, past the opening in his coat, right through his sweater vest and into the hole Liril had left inside his chest.

“This just won’t do,” she says. “I should get his head.”

She stops. She was going to say or do something else, but she stops. Her attention’s been taken entirely from Tainted John.

She frowns.

She turns, jerkily, like a puppet of a dharma she doesn’t have. She turns away. She turns her back on him, and Tainted John howls in fury and mortification and claws at the air because he cannot even hold the attention of a human antagonist long enough to die or kill. Melanie stoops down and picks up Harold’s head and shelters her eyes with her other hand and she frowns up the path towards the facility at Elm Hill.

“Stupid,” she mutters under her breath. “Stupid. Stupid question. Stupid answer. Stupid Melanie, distracted by a ghoul. Micah is the godling who defies us.”

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.

The Thorn is in Micah’s hand and Elm Hill cries out and Ii Ma cries out and the ragged thing shatters and Micah is landing, crouched and feral, upon the ground, with seawater and the echoes of lost dawns around him in a pool.

He whimpers, once, because almost there was peace; and then he is moving, then the Thorn has caught a contemner in the throat and its will to hunt and its malevolence tumbles from it like a stone; and it is green and black with the blood of gods, his sting, the thorn, the Thorn That Does Not Choose to Leave the World.

The Incredible Leap of the Sinless Man (II/IV)

Vincent stumbles to a halt.

His heart thunders. He tried to go against Melanie and he lost. His foot’s touched down on the hungry earth. He is doomed. He is doomed. He is dead.

There is something crouched upon a tombstone. There is something, and its eyes are pools of blood, and they are luminescent in the shadows, and Vincent realizes with a horrible realignment of his perceptions that this creature is or was a boy.

It’s looking right at Vincent.

Vincent twitches backwards.

It’s too fast for his conscious mind to follow. It’s all in the reflexes. He twitches back, and the boy lands in front of him. He skips back a step, and the boy blurs towards him. Vincent is already in the air again, his body convulsing like a liquid stream to turn him around to face the thing before he lands.

“Rabbit,” whispers the boy.

The boy’s face is suddenly too near his own. Vincent lashes out. It’s a rough blow, and it knocks the boy down onto the hungry earth, and Vincent’s body shakes all over before he skitters back.

His hand is numb where it touched the boy. He is terrified. He is terrified of the boy, and he is terrified of the world, and he is terrified of many other things right then; so many things, in fact, that his recent loss of health insurance has fallen entirely off the list.

The boy looks up. It’s enough to make you wince, you know, the way he bends his neck like that, like his spine isn’t any longer proper bone.

Then he’s on his feet.

“Gonna eat you, rabbit,” says the boy, and secures a firm fourth-most-terrifying thing that is happening to him right that instant place for himself on Vincent’s list.

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

Here’s the third most terrifying thing.

Melanie had told him that she’d extracted his sins during the monthly blood test. She’d said, “you never know when you shall need a lamb.”

Vincent tries to punch the boy. It’s a mistake. The boy moves forward. Vincent flinches back. The boy is faster. Vincent falls over. The boy jumps at him. His feet leave the ground. In that moment when Tainted John has no leverage, when they’re both falling, both flying, both rolling towards the ground behind Vincent, Vincent shoves the boy aside.

The boy is rolling along the ground. Vincent is on his feet.

The boy’s degloved him.

The pain is appalling. There is no skin on Vincent’s right hand or wrist. There is hardly any meat. He blinks stupidly.

You never know when you shall need a lamb.

He’d thought at the time, oh, of course, you’ll never know when you need someone sinless, someone spotless, someone whom a hero like Sebastien will not kill.

You never know when you need someone pure. Someone innocent.

Somebody good.

It just keeps going around and around in his head, because it’s suddenly struck him that when you work with gods day in and day out, another reference point for “lamb” is sacrifice.

“It’s all right,” Kaela is whispering to him.

His heart. His familiar. His salvation. She is wise, his little rabbit god. She is smart. She is fast. She is clever.

She is kicking his feet, bounding him away, one step ahead of the horrid, hungry boy.

“It’s all right,” she is whispering. “Don’t be ridiculous. Melanie isn’t like that. She wouldn’t sacrifice you to a ghoul.

Vincent’s arm is wailing. Maybe it’s his throat. Maybe it’s him.

Kaela’s kept him ahead of the boy these seven deadly seconds past, but he doesn’t know where to go. There’s an army one way and Micah one way and Melanie another, and he’d like to think that none of them would want to kill him but he’s divided his loyalties a bit too thoroughly trying to belong to Central and be good.

I could lead him to Melanie, he thinks.

He can feel a flash of Kaela’s anger and sadness. They stumble. They slow down for just a moment and the boy rips a chunk out of Vincent’s arm.

Vincent catches a glimpse of Melanie’s smile.

The boy’s gotten cleverer. He’s gotten faster. He’s gotten worse and gotten scarier in the less than fifteen seconds of their fight.

He’s still at number four, though.

Opposing Melanie, cunning Melanie, is the third most terrifying thing that is happening to Vincent just right then.

“We can run,” Kaela proposes. It’s alluring. It’s a dizzying temptation. “Forget fighting. Forget killing. We can run. To the gate, over the gate, and out. He won’t catch us. She won’t catch us. Not God himself can catch us, if we really run.”

Melanie had sent Vincent to kill Sebastien once, but Vincent hadn’t gone.

He’s just a student. He’s a student of a hateful practice, he’s a student of hollowing children out and educing gods from them and molding those gods into the theological weaponry of Central, but he’s just a student. He isn’t really cut out for fighting Melanie or Tainted John.

“OK,” he whispers.

That’s what a lamb would do, isn’t it? he thinks. It would try to run.

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.

He can hear it whispering all around him. Something terrible, something horrible, something evil is in this place.

It is the remnants of the wounding of a King.

As Kaela is whispering to Vincent, the shadow at Elm Hill is whispering to Tainted John. It is saying, “I am like you and you are like me and we are we.”

It is slowing the movements of the boy back down again.

The boy is distracted. It is hard for him to listen to the whispering of the wound and eat Vincent at the same time; plus, he’s got to keep one eye, at least, on the army of approaching gods.

It could be an opportunity to strike back, if Vincent had any way to strike back; and there’s a hint of something like that tugging at the sleeve of Vincent’s mind.

He ignores it. It’s not what he needs. He needs a direction to run.

Here’s the second most terrifying thing that’s on his mind right now. It’s a prophecy. Micah had delivered him a prophecy, that the first of Melanie’s army to set foot past the facility’s gates would die. That turned out to be Vincent—not his fault, his foot was pulled onto the earth by gravity—and that means that he is going to die here.

Micah could be bluffing. Vincent’s heard that. Micah lies. It’s really quite astonishing, for a god. He could be bluffing, but Vincent can’t afford to take that chance. If the prophecy is valid, then figuring out a loophole is even more important than dealing with Melanie and Tainted John. He isn’t the best student Melanie’s ever trained but he knows at least that much.

If it’s a valid prophecy, then he has to run it backwards in his mind.

“Sublimate into me,” whispers the ichorous consciousness at Elm Hill to Tainted John. It is like unto the fluid that leaks from his broken heart and his broken eyes.

If it’s a valid prophecy, Vincent thinks, then it means that one of those who dies today can be construed as the first of us to set foot past the gates.

He could recruit somebody from inside. Weak, but it could work. He could hope that one of the army had been here before—the grangler, maybe. Hadn’t it gotten inside?

He could sacrifice Kaela. Probably.

Isn’t there a kind of god who gets there before you, anywhere you step? Isn’t there a kind of god whom you can run from all your life, but then you turn around, and it’s standing there?

He can’t sacrifice his nametag in his place. It doesn’t have feet.

“You don’t have to be afraid,” Melanie told him once. He can’t remember why or when. His thoughts are vague and disassociated. They are a scrambled sphere of forms.

Oh.

It’s right now.

He’s reached her, by accident, as part of running away, and she’s put her hands on his shoulders, and she’s looking into his eyes. It’s like she’s drinking in his soul.

“You don’t have to be afraid,” she says. “It’s just Micah, and some ghoul.”

Shadows, he thinks with sudden clarity. Shadows are the gods that set their feet before you on the ground.

It’s not useful information.

Melanie’s let him go, laughing, and Tainted John has landed on his back.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]


May 28, 2004

Vincent howls. His limbs twitch aimlessly, three of them at any rate.

Then Melanie has acted. Then she’s swept her arm aside, and Kaela’s twitched within him, and the ghoul flies sideways to slam against and through the metal gates.

For a moment Vincent thinks Melanie’s forgiven him.

Then he thinks, maybe an arm is enough to pay.

Tainted John is back on his feet. The army of gods is past them. Melanie makes a little twitching gesture with her fingers, and Tainted John kicks into the air, out of control of his own limbs, whimpering, and falls over sideways to the ground.

Vincent’s own nerve impulses are misfiring. He is flailing. He can’t tell yet if it’s what Melanie is doing or if the boy was quick enough to do damage to his spine.

“See?” Melanie says.

He can hear her heart racing. She is terrified, or exalted. She is nowhere near as calm as she presents herself right then.

He can hear Micah—

Kaela kicks her feet. Vincent’s world dissolves momentarily into confusion. He can see Tainted John flailing, like a puppet dancing on a string.

It’s Melanie, he concludes.

“Shouldn’t have eaten that,” Melanie is crooning, too soft for anyone but them to hear. “That was a mistake, my pretty little god. Gets inside you, doesn’t it? You shouldn’t have tried to eat what’s mine.”

And she makes Kaela to dance, and through her both Tainted John and Vincent as her toys; and that’s pretty awful, pretty scary, pretty wrong, but, really, it’s just a subtle refinement of the third most terrifying thing.

Here’s the thing that’s actually scaring Vincent the most, right then.

“Arise,” whispers the voice of the wounding of a King, to Tainted John. “Arise, and be as God, and no more to depend upon the suffering of your prey.”

No. Not that. Not quite.

It’s that he’s lost himself somewhere.

He’s lost his understanding of what being good would even mean.

He’s lost himself, and he’d hardly even really ever known himself.

More than anything he’s terrified that there is a God, and He will look at Vincent and He will find him small.

Harold’s Head Gets Underfoot (I/IV)

“I won’t be thwarted by a bluff,” says Melanie, cunning Melanie. “Go through.”

Vincent is too old to say, no you.

So he just shakes his head, instead.

Melanie growls.

She can’t afford to stand there. She can’t let the others see her hesitate. She certainly can’t look weak or indecisive in front of the army of her gods.

The first of you to set foot past this gate will die.

“Harold, then,” she decides. That’s the severed head of one of her assistants, sealed and surrounded by a divine aegis, which she had happened to bring along.

She throws Harold’s head through the gates. It lands upon the soft black earth. She shrugs. Then she walks through.

She turns around.

She looks at Vincent.

“Well?” she asks.

There is a challenge in her eyes.

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

It is May 28, 2004, and the shadows are deep around the facility at Elm Hill.

Tainted John crouches on top of a tombstone. He’s mostly invisible there, in the gloom that surrounds the place, but now and again, from the right angles, some light will catch upon the cold bloody pools that are his eyes.

He’s not very worried about that.

He’s not a stealth predator. He’s not an ambush predator. He doesn’t need his prey to be ignorant of him, not really. He just likes to have an edge.

The wind brushes past him. It’s cold. It’s damp, just a bit, with the ichor of a King.

He’s put on a greatcoat. He’s pleased with that. He’d insisted on it, insisted that they take a moment to get presentable before they went to war. He’d put on a greatcoat—well, technically speaking, a greatcoat god—and he’d straightened Micah’s hair and clothing, and he’d popped this little zit that Micah had gotten and licked a bit of Micah’s blood off of his fingers, and then, in a moment of strange generosity, he’d bolstered up the boy.

He’s not a fool.

He doesn’t think that they look good, or anything. John’s a hideous ghoul and his coat has eyes and it’d take more time than they had to make dirty, sweaty, tired Micah into something presentable again.

It just pleases him. It makes him happy. It makes him feel cool.

He’s ready, now that he has a greatcoat. Ready to achieve his destiny. Ready to have the wounds in him have a point.

He can smell rabbit on the air, and ozone, and the ichor of a King.

There’s a fence around Elm Hill, and iron gates, and Micah has told the army that waits outside them that the first of them to set foot past those gates will die. It’s a crazy thing to say but when your sister is a prophet people will give anything sounding prophetic an awful lot of slack.

It’s a lie, most likely. A half-truth at best. Maybe Liril told him that, at some point, and he was passing it along, but it isn’t, Tainted John thinks, an accurate description of what is about to be going down.

The first person to set foot past the gates will die. And the second too, if Tainted John has his way. And the third. The fourth. The fifth. The sixth. Them all.

He is ready.

Something lands on the soft black earth.

Hidden there, waiting, ready to kill and eat the whole damned bloody banquet of Central’s host, is Tainted John.

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.

It is ridiculous.

It is folly.

Even Vincent knows that it is folly. Harold may be just a head, but that doesn’t make his neck his feet. It’s like Melanie has taken leave entirely of her senses, has lost for the first time in his experience the game of prophesies and gods.

He is moving forward, fast as a shaming, fast as laughter, fast as the wishes in his heart. He is thinking:

She is dead. She is dead. And if I am the one to kill her now, I can make peace with the gods inside. If I kill her now it is possible that I can be forgiven.

He is already past the gate, in one great bound, when he sees that her feet do not touch the ground.

She is held above it, her shoes suspended in the air, by the protective aegis that is dead Harold’s god.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]


May 28, 2004

Vincent’s mouth is open.

He is shouting his betrayal.

One foot comes down against the yielding earth and it is suddenly too late.

What Do You Do with a One-Winged Cherub? (VII/VII)

It is 1998 and Micah comes home and Melanie’s sitting on the couch.

She’s wearing a suit and she’s wearing shades and she’s got a nametag on.

It says, “Melanie.”

Just Melanie. It doesn’t say anything about being cunning or beloved of the gods.

She lowers her shades.

She looks at him.

Her eyes are evil, they make him flinch, but they’re otherwise identical to his own.

He puts a bag of groceries down by the door. He stands there numbly.

“Hi there,” she says to him. “What’s your name?”

[The Frog and the Thorn — CHAPTER ONE]


October 31, 1998

Liril hasn’t told him what to do.

Without Liril telling him what to do, he’s just a boy. He’s just a boy who wants to protect her from the evils of the world, but not one who necessarily can.

“I might accidentally flay your soul and stretch it on the birch trees,” Micah says. He tries to make it sound casual, like something Liril’s warned him not to do. “I mean, I don’t want to, I wouldn’t defy Central like that, it’s just, you know, something that could accidentally happen if I forget the alchemical equation I’m holding in my head.”

“That’s a fine trick,” Melanie concedes.

“Where is she?” Micah asks.

“You know,” says Melanie, “I could have sworn there was an order out to have you brought in and tortured. As opposed to standing there, all asking questions with your mouth, and things.”

“It was a terrible misunderstanding,” Micah says. “I showed the last visitor my correct report card and the matter resolved in its entirety. Also, you mean ‘re-oriented’ or something. Torture’s too explicit a word.”

He takes off his coat. He hangs it by the door.

“Can I get you anything?” he asks.

His eyes are scanning the house, looking for signs of Liril. But her frankness or her error—he’s not sure which—has reassured him.

“Like, if you really need a sandwich, or a penny, or a knife in your eye, or something,” he says, “I could totally oblige.”

“Really?” she says. She sounds delighted. “You’d do that for me?”

“See a penny, pick it up,” he assures her. “All that day you’ll have good luck. I’ve got . . . like a thousand. If I had a nickel for every penny I had, I’d convert them into pennies and win the economy forever. “

“Your name, then,” she says.

“Micah.”

She tilts her head. “From formica?”

“That’s two prepositions in a row,” Micah says. “I can’t understand your crazy monster language.”

“Melanie,” she says.

“Yes,” he agrees. “It would be.”

She looks down at her nametag. She blushes a little. “Yes.”

“I’m not going with you,” Micah says. “I’ve decided that you’re holding Liril and Priyanka hostage, but that she has a plan that requires me to pretend that you don’t, refuse to deal, and do everything I can think of to oppose you.”

“Bah,” Melanie says. “Your report card recorded an erroneously high decorum.”

“I had a lot of extra credit,” Micah says. “Field work and the like.”

“Does that really work?” Melanie says. Her tone is genuinely curious. “I mean, just deciding what you want to do and assuming that Liril must support it?”

“No,” he says. “It’s completely ridiculous.”

“Oh.”

“It’s just,” he says, “so is listening to anything you say. So it’s kind of a wash. You know?”

“I see!”

He sighs. He looks tired. He trudges over to a couch and he sits down. “What do you want?” he asks.

She smiles briefly.

“You should come work for us,” she says.

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope!”

She tosses him a nametag. It’s blank. He catches it. Then he flinches and throws it from him like it’s caught fire in his hands.

She frowns.

“I’m not interested,” Micah says.

“The monster’s weak,” she says. “He talks like he left you here on purpose. He talks like he’s still got a plan for that girl Jane. But I saw him when he came back from here. He was hurt. He was frayed. You got acid on his heart and soul, my boy, with whatever trick you pulled.”

“I renamed him,” Micah says.

Melanie closes her eyes for a moment. Her face is perfectly still. Then she opens them up again. “Snotgargler?” she suggests.

He shakes his head.

Doctor Snotgargler?”

He looks away.

“The important thing,” she says, “is that he’s weak. I could take him. If I had your help. I could beat him. If I had your help.”

“It’s amazing,” he says. “You’re not even trying to sound like you believe that.”

“What?”

Her voice is wounded.

“That’s ridiculous,” she says. “It’s an awesome plan.”

And as suddenly as that it crashes in on him that she is hollow; that she is broken; that she has a certain shelter in her heart, and cracks therein, that he remembers from years ago. He is looking at a crucible.

He doesn’t want the pity in his face to show. He turns away.

“Oh, don’t you dare,” she says. “Don’t you fucking dare. It was only twice. He’s been used more than that himself.”

He clenches his fist.

A jolt of humor washes through her. He can feel it in the tides of the emotions of the room. It’s slipped from her, whatever is wrong inside her, and she’s laughing at the world instead.

“Hey,” she says. “Hey. How do you separate a monster from his charges?”

He shakes his head.

He ought to tell her, he thinks. Anything that hurts the monster can redound only to his good. But he doesn’t trust any impulse or reason whatsoever that would tell this woman more than she already seems to know.

“Hey,” she repeats. “How do you separate a monster from his charges?”

“No,” he tells her. I won’t.

“You take away his credit card,” she beams.

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

There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea

It’s about an hour later. They’ve had tea. Liril’s almost home from trick-or-treating, so Melanie suspects, and so she rises to her feet.

“The offer is good,” she says, quietly.

He shakes his head.

“It’s just a nametag,” she says. “Pick it up. Put it on. Come with me. We can kill the bastard and live happily ever after without dying even once.”

“I’m not going to Central,” Micah says. “I’d just end up like you.”

“Ouch,” she says. She shakes her hand, pretending that it’s burnt. Then she goes out.

He cleans up the teacups.

He looks at the nametag.

I bet I could use this, he thinks. I bet it could give me some kind of strength.

And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me

Liril gets home and he is rocking, hissing, clutching tight at his inflamed and swollen hand.

[The Frog and the Thorn — END OF CHAPTER ONE]

The Rabbit and the Wolf (I/I)

“I said no kids,” Vincent tells her.

“Hm?” Melanie says.

He’s such a strange and innocent young man.

“No torturing kids. No making gods. We work with the gods we have. We don’t do this any longer, Melanie. We don’t have to be the monster.”

She blinks at him.

He’s right, of course. She doesn’t have to be the monster. She doesn’t even have to be a monster. She could just turn around and—

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


May 28, 2004

She can’t help giggling at the serious expression on his face.

“Vincent,” she says. “If you want to negotiate with them, you’re welcome to try. You can just walk in and say, ‘Kids, I know you don’t mean any harm, but you’re trespassing on a Central-owned facility, so please vamoose immediately and we’ll move in.’”

“I wouldn’t say vamoose,” Vincent says, even though the word, like his name, begins with V.

“Whatever,” Melanie says. “Or make a deal where she makes gods for us, in exchange for a share of the profits and someone to turn the electricity on.”

Melanie can’t actually order the electricity turned on at the facility at Elm Hill, since the property isn’t in her name, but she can point Threnody at the problem, and that’s practically as good.

Vincent is glaring at her.

“I’m serious,” he says.

“It’s impossible?”

He licks his lips. He glances down at Harold’s head. She’s lowered her arm to her side but the head’s still dangling from her hand.

“Like that,” he says, “it’s impossible. But we could— we could help them. Hide them. We could help them hide.”

“Well, go ask him, then.”

“What?”

She’s gesturing towards the gates.

Micah has come out again.

He’s walking, pale and blood-soaked, from the doors of the facility and down the path to its iron gates. He is standing in front of them, on the other side of those gates, and he is looking at them and he is swaying like the ground beneath his feet has lost the trick of keeping still.

His shirt is different.

It isn’t the same as it was when he was watching from the balcony. There is something different.

He is pulling the gates closed.

She almost laughs at him, at his determination, at the stupidity of it, to close a gate of ordinary metal against Melanie and all her gods.

But she must not laugh.

Not for all the laughter that is filling her, she must not laugh. Not with him so close. She must take him seriously. Micah is weak and pale and shaped into the image of a boy, but Micah is a god.

So she takes Vincent’s arm and she walks towards the gates, and they get close, and he says, “The first of you to set foot past this gate will die.”

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

“The first of you to set foot past this gate will die.”

The gate closes with a click.

He’s just a boy. He’s not more than twelve. More likely, he is ten. He looks tireder than she has ever been.

“She said it,” Micah emphasizes. “Liril said that it would happen. So it’s true.”

Melanie steps towards him.

He flinches.

Metal and death between the two of them, and he flinches.

“That’s a fine trick,” she says.

His poker face is bad.

“But she didn’t say that, did she?” Melanie asks. “She couldn’t have. Because it’s not my fate to die. So why don’t you tell me what she really said?”

“It was that!” Micah protests.

But it’s a bluff.

“We can talk,” Vincent says. “We don’t have to hurt you. We’re not him. We can . . . don’t make this a war, Micah. I don’t want to hurt anybody else. Don’t make this a fight.”

It’s like there’s a curse on Vincent’s tongue.

It’s the exact wrong thing to say.

Melanie takes another step, and Micah’s strength breaks, and he runs; but he stops before the doors. He stands there, frozen, because that’s as far as he can run, with Liril still inside, and he hears the gate creak open, and he knows that Melanie is looking in.

“After you,” she says, to Vincent.

Vincent tries to find the word “no.” He tries really hard. But he’s lost it somewhere along the way. Instead, his mouth works for a moment, and to his own horror, he comes out with, “But I wanted to be good.”

Melanie grins at him. She grins wide. She looks at Micah, her eyes brilliant and alive, as if daring him to get the joke; but Micah doesn’t smile.

And Melanie is thinking:

Such a strange and innocent young man.

See also: The Cautionary Tale of Abermund Plain

Oh, Harold Dear (I/I)

It is 1981 and Liril is in a terrible place.

She is in a room bulked out with shadows. She is in terror and the dark. She is scratching, desperately scratching, to get her name down on the wall.

In case she forgets.

In case she forgets, or everyone else forgets, and there’s never anything more to show that she exists, just a name written on the wall.

LIRIL.

Tomorrow they’ll move her to a different room, and she’ll stare at the place where she scratched her name, and the writing won’t be there.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


May 28, 2004

Now in the Latter Days of the Law the heart may not know the true doctrine; so rightly it may be said that this sunlit afternoon in May is the winter of the world.

Grey clouds shadow the brightness of the sky.

The clouds scuttle in clumps, this way and that, their movements driven by the wind.

It is May 28, 2004, and Liril is in a terrible place, and before it is Melanie’s army.

There are failing-gods and flying-gods. There are great stretchy gods drawn in crayon. There is a terrible black dog. There are twelve humans worth the fearing. There are twenty humans who are not—secretaries, psychologists, a system administrator, and the like, who had collaborated with the monster and survived but gained no measure of his power.

There is a ragged thing.

There are footsoldiers and two contemners. There is a long-legged beast and a scarab bomb. There are remembering gods, and an angel and a half, and fiends in a motley crew.

And then there are four more fearsome than this host: Threnody, whose nametag notes that she wields the lightning; Vincent, whose heart is pure; that crooked tyrant labeled “The Keeper of the Wheel;” and Melanie, cunning Melanie, most frightening of them all.

They are an ungainly force. They are escapees from a disaster and not an organized and deadly host. Still, they are an army, and the bulk of them are gods.

“In this place,” says Melanie to that host, “there is a girl more valuable than gold. She is enough to kill us all, I think, or to make us rich and powerful for all time.”

She is taking Vincent’s backpack off.

She is rummaging around inside.

He is surprised and disgusted to find the thoughtful things that she’s packed him for their journey.

A notebook. An apple. A few texts—Behavioral Psychology, and the like. Half of a ham sandwich. The other half she ate. And most disturbingly Harold’s head.

“If she is strong,” Melanie says, “we are in danger. If she learns strength, we are in danger. But she will not be strong.”

“Melanie,” Vincent says.

She hushes him.

“Hush,” she says.

“When—what—when did you even—“

She glances at him. She says, “When I was recovering my bike.”

Back before they’d been rousted out from Central, Melanie had biked to work every day. It’s normally a healthy and environmentally conscious habit, but in the end it had killed Harold and she’d nearly pulled a muscle leveraging his corpse off of her bike. Then she’d sawed off his head with her broken bike lock and left the rest of him there to rot, so in the end, it wasn’t a very healthy or environmentally conscious habit after all.

Also, she didn’t like to wear her helmet.

Vincent is still staring at her. It’s as if he hasn’t heard her explanation, or hasn’t parsed it.

“Two months ago,” Melanie says, “at the dinner party, he’d said that in an emergency, it was very important to keep his head. You were there.”

She opens the corpse’s mouth. She looks inside it clinically. She pushes on its nose. She rolls open one, and then the other eye, but they just close again.

She shrugs and looks back at the gathered host.

“Liril is broken,” Melanie says. “If she has recovered her will and spine at all, they’ll be no stronger than a twig.

“So we’ll shatter them. We’ll stomp her down. And then we shall rule this rotten world.”

“His head should be rotten,” Vincent protests.

What he wants to say is something about how shattering someone’s will is wrong. But he fails to do so. Harold’s head has distracted him completely.

Melanie shrugs.

She breathes into the corpse’s mouth and it jerks opens both its eyes.

“What—“

That’s Vincent’s voice. He’s terribly glad that it’s his voice. For a moment, he’d thought it would be the corpse’s.

Wasn’t it?

He’s suddenly not sure.

Melanie holds the head up high. She turns it to face the facility on Elm Hill. She says, “Oh, Harold, dear, you’re dead.”

And Harold screams.

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

The scream of Harold’s head is like a bird, at first; and then it is a horn; but Melanie has grit her teeth and put behind this deviant act the fullness of her strength, and she sinks that long shout low. It becomes a rumbling. It becomes an organ sound. It becomes a shaking of the earth, a burgeoning and world-completing and a trembling cry, resounding off the world and sound and sky.

There is only so much sound that one ought to be able to make with a single breath. This beyond that by a hundredfold.

There is an additional, secondary limit on the sound one can make.

And so eventually this sound goes still.

She has announced herself, has Melanie, her and the army of her gods; and she does not have long to wait.

There is a balcony on the seventh floor.

Micah comes out to stand on it. He looks down at them. He is pale. He is afraid.

Her heart gives a thump, because Micah’s there, and Liril’s not alone; and then the joy bubbles up inside her, it’s giggling out of her nose and wiggling in her throat, it’s crowing and burbling through her, and then it’s a rising force, how good it is, a rising force in her lungs and chest and heart, and she’s shouted out before she’s thought about it any a great shout of all triumph and sweet success.

He is afraid.

He is afraid.

He isn’t the defiant boy that once she met. He’s gone all pale and all weak. He’s standing there and his mouth is moving and she thinks he must still know her name;

But from the look on his face, he’s the kind of boy right then who only barely remembers his own.

“And Break.” (VI/VII)

“What now?” Liril asks, after a while.

“You go in,” Melanie says, standing up. “And you be a crucible of gods, and you try so very hard to forget that this ever happened, because you can’t afford to be thinking about labyrinths and heroes and your old friend Melanie when the monster’s trying to pull a construction deity out of your heart. And it won’t work. You’ll be distracted. You’ll be wanting things, and you’ll be hating me, and you’ll be yearning to have what that other girl has, and you’ll be broken.”

Liril licks her lips.

“He’ll probably kill you,” Melanie says. “Then he won’t have a single proper crucible left. He’ll have to use ordinary children and their silly little emptiness. It will be a sad day for the monster.”

“No,” Liril says.

“All your remembering forward,” Melanie says, “and still, I bet you can be killed. I bet you can be killed right in the middle of a prophesy, bam, just like the rest of us mid-anticipation.”

Why are you being cruel? Liril asks.

She can’t get the words out. Melanie’s face twitches. After a moment, Melanie answers even the silence.

“I don’t want to see you like this any more,” Melanie says.

“Oh.”

Liril tilts her head to one side.

You could have just not come back.

Melanie kisses Liril on the forehead.

“Go be a good crucible,” she says, “and break.”

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


March 18, 1995

Four times the monster reaches into her and pulls forth a god, and it is not the god of his desiring.

Iaccholyreus, the labyrinthine god, slips free of her chains. He is gone before the monster can seize him, laughing, skipping, burning and slipping down secret paths and out of Liril and the monster’s ken. Renderin, the wild god of the skies, bursts forth and is caught and ripped apart by the monster’s hands. A sewer gnome bubbles up and is forced back; a superstructure god constitutes, but cannot hold himself together. His eyes widen, he gives a great shout, and then he is nothing more than unbound miracle circling the brown drain within the room.

The last is Micah.

The last eduction calls forth Micah.

It does not go well.

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

It hurts her in places she did not know still existed to be hurt, the birth of Micah. He surges out from that part of her that still wants things — no, not still; but, rather, now — and he leaves her bruised and broken entire.

She is forced to cough him out, runneling from her throat in a gout of fluids, and her lungs are aching, and her chest is aching, and several of her ribs are broken, and worst of all, there is a lingering echoing openness in the part of her that remembers how to want.

And in all of that she would feel well rewarded had she brought forth a constructive god, but she had not.

He is no god of buildings.

If anything, he is a boy.

let’s try Wednesdays and Fridays for a bit, with Mondays going to Chibi-Ex.

Exposition Answers Emptiness with Digressions (V/VII)

This can’t be happening, Liril thinks.

Her eyes scan the room frantically. This cannot be happening. This is the monster’s office. Someone is going to stop Melanie. Someone is going to save her.

Then it clicks.

Then the knowledge clicks.

There is Melanie, right there, in the white coat of the monster’s service. There is Melanie, right there, with a nametag on her coat. Blessed by the authority of this place, assigned its power, given righteousness and suzerainty in the monster’s place of business.

No one is going to stop her. No one is going to chase her out. The world itself is broken; gone entirely unreal.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


March 18, 1995

“On October 28,” Melanie says, “1989, Jane escaped our purview.”

Liril is listening.

She can’t help listening. She doesn’t want to listen, but she can’t help it. She maybe even wants, for the first time in a long time, to not listen, but there is nothing in wanting that helps her to not be.

Not being was always Jane’s trick anyway. A dead girl can do that better than a cracked doll ever could.

“She did so in the following fashion,” Melanie says. “She constructed a boy named ‘Bob,’ in the image of her brother, and he set her free.”

Liril had promised herself once that she’d go back, after she finished being angry, or upset, or frightened, and carefully think through all the decisions that she’d made. Then at the time, remembering forward, she’d be able to see what the right decision will have would have been, and know that she was responsible to herself to act on it. Regrettably this promise bore little fruit; she was quite capable of calming herself, asserting control, and clinging to the conclusions that she would later make, but rarely did she actually go back, after times of trauma, and consciously revisit the errors she previously had made.

Maybe if she’d thought about it later, she’d have figured out what Melanie was getting at. In some ways, she sort of did.

In others, she did not.

She put aside her Highlights. She stared at Melanie and her eyes were circles of silver pain.

I will let you hurt me, she thinks, and maybe you will see that you are hurting me and stop.

“In this particular case,” Melanie says, “Bob was a traitor. He did not have what it took to oppose the monster. But ultimately his own nature betrayed him. Quite unwillingly he found himself freeing her from Central, extracting her from our reach, and marooning her in the sky. If I believed she had planned it, I would say it was brilliantly done. Since she did not, I must admire her good fortune.”

There is a pinch of sudden confusion.

Liril does not understand how Melanie can know what was planned and what was not.

“It was the monster’s own eduction,” Melanie clarifies, and Liril’s puzzlement clears away.

“Then,” Liril says.

“It is a cautionary tale,” Melanie says. “Evoke a labyrinthine god and he may imprison you on a world of wood, between the Earth and the moon.”

The wanting moves through Liril in great waves. It causes the room to waver; to spasm, sometimes; to burst into patterns of grey-blue light.

“How lucky she was,” Melanie says. “To have a brother to base a brother on. I feel sorry for only children like yourself.”

Liril tries to focus her eyes on Melanie but she can’t. There are only strange reflections from the lamination on her tag.

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

“Well,” Melanie says, and she straightens, and pats Liril gently on the head. “I have to go. Gods to study, forms to fill out, and all. Did you know, there’s some really exciting work being done right now on the fae?”

“Take it back,” Liril says.

Melanie’s smile fades away.

It’s not until it fades that Liril realizes she was still seeing it, gleaming in the dark.

“Oh,” she says. “Oh, no,” she says. “That simply wouldn’t do.”

I don’t want to want things, Liril pleads.

There’s a bit of silence. Melanie squeezes Liril’s hand.

“Do you know,” Melanie says, after a moment, “I’m not that fond of it myself?”