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.

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]

“I will make you cry” (VI/VII)

One by one the monster’s forces fail him.

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

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

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

The monster looks at her speculatively.

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

“I see,” the monster says.

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Melanie says.

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

She is quiet for a long time.

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

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

The monster straightens.

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

I will guard your line, whispers Amiel.

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

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

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

“I wonder.”

[The Frog and the Thorn — CHAPTER ONE]


October 17, 1995

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

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

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

He focuses the fullness of his attention on Micah.

“I’m disappointed,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” agrees Micah.

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Come on, then,” the monster says.

“That’s it?”

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

Micah frowns. He works his mouth.

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

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

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

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

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

Micah laughs.

“What?”

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

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

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

Gently, he closes the house door.

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

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

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

Whatever the monster was doing, though, he stops.

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

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

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

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

“No,” says the monster. “You won’t.”

And the monster spreads its wings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You get one.

And that’s at best.

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

And he doesn’t hang on to himself.

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

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

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

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

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

You can’t put too much stock in labels.

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

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

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

The Measure of a Monster (III/VII)

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


October 10, 1995

Micah begins to hate himself. He begins to think he is unclean. The burden of it grows on him with the scars of Tina and the monster’s work.

He begins to want, not to beat the monster, not to help him, but to suffer, suffer, and die!

He steals a book from the local store. He is caught — possibly, he allows himself to be caught. He struggles against the police. He screams and bites. He names the monster as his father when they ask after his identity, knowing that the monster will deny it. He gets himself taken down to the police station and put in an empty cell.

This seems like a brilliant idea at first.

Later it seems like he’s adding insult to his own injury and he tries to walk out through the bars. This doesn’t work. He experimentally invokes the power of ‘surprisingly relevant historical trivia’ against the cell but that doesn’t help either.

Then his heart lifts.

He feels a fierce and wild joy.

He’d forgotten it was a monster’s day. He’d forgotten he was supposed to go to Central, later on, and now he can’t. He remembers now, and it’s sweet as icing, because the monster’s follower Stefan is standing at the door.

“You can’t take me,” Micah says. He leers through the bars. He laughs in sheer delight. “If I made enough trouble you would never see me again.

“I can wait,” Stefan says.

“— What?”

“I can wait. They’re not going to hold you for long. They might want you to come in for a hearing, but, seriously, Micah, it was a book.

“I fought back,” Micah says, blankly.

Stefan swift-steps into the cell. He seizes Micah. He pushes him up against the wall. He chokes Micah with one arm. Then as suddenly as that he is outside again.

“Not well,” Stefan says.

“They have cameras,” Micah says, incoherently.

Stefan looks around. He seems a little nervous. There are not, however, any actual cameras in the holding cells at the Santa Ynez police station. He shakes his head.

“I can wait,” Stefan says.

He turns to leave.

“No,” Micah says.

He’s leaning against the bars. He’s grinning again, like three hyenas.

“No, you can’t,” Micah says, “because — get this — if you wait, that’s the police exerting power that supersedes the monster’s. And then he’s weak. And you and I have witnessed him being weak. You can swift-step in and get me out. You can leave me in here as a punishment for my sins and get me later, when it’s convenient. But you sure as Hell can’t wait.”

He is shaking. It is good but he is so very weak. He has so very little left in him of defiance.

Stefan frowns.

“Naturally the police can have precedence for a few hours,” Stefan says.

“You’re going to die,” giggles Micah.

Stefan swift-steps away. Micah looks out the window. Through the criss-cross wires in the heavy glass he watches a leaf fall from an elm tree’s branch.

“Fine,” Stefan says.

He is outside the bars again. He is staring at Micah. He is angry. His position becomes ambiguous. He dissolves into potential. He swift-steps into the cell. He grabs Micah.

“The car!” shrieks Micah, mid-swift-step.

Stefan jerks. He loses concentration. He swift-stumbles into a road with a car heading straight for them, briefly Edinburgh, and, unable quite to concentrate, plunges sideways through the racks of clothing at the Sears in Santa Ynez.

Micah bangs Stefan’s head into the floor, once, twice, three times, then tears away before Stefan reorients. He is weaving through the departments. He is bursting out the door. He is out before the staff of Sears can show a reaction to his presence. He is diving under a car in the parking lot. He is hidden by the time Stefan looks around outside the door.

“Damn it,” Stefan says.

He vanishes.

Micah waits for five minutes, then another two. That’s all he can afford. He rolls out from under the car and runs. If Stefan is in sight, if Stefan can see him, then it’s over —

It isn’t over.

He makes it away. He staggers down the road.

He hasn’t quite figured out what he’s doing next. His mind’s a blank.

He staggers into a phone booth.

It’s idiotic. It’s ridiculous. He feels a terrible guilt and shame. But he calls home. He asks for Liril.

“What is it?” her mother asks him. He shakes his head. She can’t see it.

“I’m shaking my head,” says Micah. “Please, just put her on.”

“OK,” says Liril’s mother.

It doesn’t take her long. He says, “Liril, what do I do?”

“Huh?”

“I’m in a phone booth,” he says. “I’ve gotten away from Stefan and the authorities —”

“Micah,” she says, softly.

And it comes out of him in one long wail. “Why did you want me to suffer this? Why have you forsaken me? Why have you made me to live this way in sorrow?”

“I don’t want that,” she says.

“Please,” he says. “Tell me some other way.”

She is quiet for a long time. Then she says, “Any.”

“What?”

“You can do it any way.”

“I can fight them off?” he says. “I can shatter their world? I can strangle myself on this phone cord and leave them godless? I can master the elements and wield them in a terrible thunder against the monster until everyone in the world lifts me up on their shoulders in praise?”

“OK,” she says.

He almost hangs up.

He is staring out the window and he can see harpies coming. There are actual harpies in the sky. The monster has sent actual harpies out. They are hunting him. They are hunting him for the monster and he will lose

It suddenly occurs to him that Liril is serious.

“You’re serious,” he tells her.

She doesn’t say anything.

“I want to fight him,” Micah says. “Oh, God, I want to fight him. I want to hurt him. I want him to hurt him so badly he won’t come after us for years. I want you to be all grown-up by the time you see him next, and I want you to spit in his goddamned face.”

She giggles.

“What?”

“That’s awful,” she says. “Spitting.”

He can hear her happiness through the phone.

“Listen,” he says. “There are harpies coming. There are . . . there are harpies. I am being hunted by half-bird half-women — that isn’t as weird as I think it is, is it.”

“I like harpies,” Liril says. “They have cool feathers.”

“What do I do?”

“When somebody is really dirty,” Liril says, “you wash them off. Then you show them a mirror. Then you say, ‘look! You’re awesome!’”

This is my last chance at sanity, he thinks.

He could be what the monster wants him to be. He could be a skin to suffer for Liril, and take her pains, and give birth for her to the gods the monster needs. It would be awful but it would make sense to him. He is used to it. He could even think of it as good —

He knows better.

It is settling in to his stomach. It is wild and it is glorious.

I’m going to wash off a bunch of immortal horrors, Micah thinks, and show them a mirror. And then I’m going to say, ‘look! You’re awesome!’

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

And finally he is standing there alone, in the mirrored room, past the showers at the Y. There are still feathers drifting down all around him, and there’s a nasty poisoned gash in Micah’s side.

We’re skipping right past the frantic explanations at the door.

We’re skipping past the horrid run through the showers, and the screaming, and the time when Micah slipped on the flowing water and he lay there as the foul beasts came down. The frantic scrambling, scrabbling, the adrenaline-fired desperation of it all.

He made it to a mirrored room, and turned, and told them, “Look! You’re awesome!” and they went away; for harpies reify only the unpleasantest and filthiest conceits.

It occurs to him, as he looks up at the mirror, that he is awesome, though for a long and terrifying moment, as the poison pulses through him, he can’t remember what he’s called.

The Boundary Between Liril and the World (II/VII)

“I give to you — life!”

Micah giggles to himself. He extends his arms upwards. He whines, inadvertently, from the pain. Then he giggles again. His hair hangs down over his eyes. It’s matted with some nameless horror’s blood, or possibly a delicious lime-flavored Slurp-like beverage.

The monster sighs.

He unlocks Micah’s shackles. He heaves Micah up. He carries Micah up the stairs. His nametag raises a red welt on Micah’s skin, practically burning him. Micah leaves a black smudge on the nametag in his turn.

The monster tosses Micah into a chair and, after a few minutes, throws him a towel.

“Ah, geez,” Micah says. “I can’t possibly.”

“You’re strong enough to be alive,” the monster says, “and to make jokes.”

“That’s true,” Micah concedes, after a moment.

He picks up the towel. He tries to clean himself up. It doesn’t really help. He’s ten. After twenty or thirty seconds his shoulders and elbows stage a rebellion and his arms go limp.

“My arms are limp,” Micah says.

“I’m going to send you home with her,” the monster says. “Rest up. Get some strength. Then you can come back by in a week or two and we’ll see just what you are.”

“Me?”

Micah looks horrified.

“Maybe you’re useful,” the monster says.

“I do have a gift for surprisingly relevant historical trivia,” Micah says. His world reels a little. “I actually get to go home? I have a home?”

He can’t help laughing.

The monster’s eyes are on him. The laughter drains away. It becomes crying and Micah tries to blow his nose into the towel but he doesn’t have the strength.

“Don’t worry,” the monster says. “I’ll make you into something good.”

“Why don’t you hate me?” Micah asks. “You’re supposed to hate me. I’m supposed to be your enemy.”

“Are you?”

“Aren’t I?”

“I’m afraid that I won’t let you be,” the monster says.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


March 25, 1995

Micah’s life is lived staccato.

There are good hours and good days. There is ice cream and there is running in the park. There is home, complete with Liril’s mother Priyanka and her tenuous but loving welcome. There are fish sticks and french fries and cheese which you can divide into arbitrarily many sub-cheese strings. There are times when he can lie on his bed and talk to Liril about the stringencies of their world.

Then between the beats of his life it becomes painful.

It’s like Liril and Micah are two rats in a dinosaur’s cave. Their lives are interrupted, again and again, by the great blundering atrocities stumbling around them in the darkness. It is an inexpressible condition. He will sit in the corner of their room for hours, trying to find a way to put it into words. Liril doesn’t even try.

He’s good with the trivia but she knows everything.

She knows the secret language of the grass and the names of the bats that live on the dark side of the moon. She tells him how the kingdom of magical bears fell from grace, and what Melanie has done to bind the grangler, and the secrets of the lurkunders, and the threat that power line proximity can pose to a person’s health.

One day it is raining. It is pouring down through the branches of the trees. She tells him the name of a bead of water on the glass and he watches Vassily the Raindrop slip down to the edge of the window of their room and break.

On another day the monster is choking him with a belt around his neck.

One day he tries to learn how to skateboard.

“Watch,” he tells Liril. “This will be my real magical talent. Not spitting out seawater or dead fish or historical trivia, but skateboarding.

He doesn’t have a talent like that, and it wouldn’t be skateboarding if he did.

On another day the monster smiles beatifically to him and says, “I have found it.”

Micah leans forward. He looks at the monster. His eyes are bright and maddened, like a bird’s.

“I have seen through all of this at last.”

The monster reaches into Micah. He turns over his hand. He pulls forth a great gout of the fire, a newborn god, educed from Liril straight through Micah, who stands between that crucible and the world. The god sits in the monster’s hand, a snowflake fractal, its edges a drift of shape becoming real; and its eyes are as a bird’s, and seven sacred seals hang all about it, and it is lovely, tame, and sweet, and the monster will name it Aspida, his treasure, his first city-building god.

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

“No,” Micah mutters.

He can’t accept it. It is a perversion. It makes him pointless. His heart cries out, I will not lose!

He stares at the monster. His mouth twitches.

I will have didn’t lost.

It isn’t right. That isn’t what happened and it wouldn’t be the way to phrase it if it had. He stares at Aspida and marvels at its hundred eyes and the interlocking formica and steel and glass that is its flesh. He thinks it’s beautiful and appalling and he has to admit that pretty much he has lost, but for the sake of this child he tries again —

I haven’t any longer lost?

He laughs until he chokes and suddenly he is leaking and there is seawater all around him and the monster actually looks alarmed. “You mustn’t do that,” the monster tells him.

That doesn’t help.

Micah flails inside his heart for some remedy or some ounce of strength. He can’t actually find any. He is gurgling brine out from his mouth. He hacks out a fish bone. His eyes widen and he sputters. Aspida looks hopeful. Aspida opens its baby mouth.

It’s too much. Micah starts to rip open. There is a thorn stuck through his hand.

“It’s all right,” the monster tells him.

His hand is on Micah’s hair. It shouldn’t make anything even close to being all right; but then the monster makes it so.

“She has raised you up to be her Christ,” the monster says, “and suffer in her place; but as you wish to defend her, and stand between her and the world, that doesn’t have to be so bad.”

Micah leans forward.

He is crying.

His will collapses in him. The monster telling him that Liril could have wanted this destroys what little fight he was beginning, again, to have.

He is a fragile, permeable membrane between the world and his insides.

He reaches after Aspida but the god and the monster both are gone.

The Shepherdess (I/VII)

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

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

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

The titan moves in the darkness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The second day passes, and the second night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Micah,” the monster chides.

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

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

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

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

The monster rises to his feet.

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

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

Micah hiccups sadly in the dark.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


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

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

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

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

Oh that the monster should allow it.

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

There.

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

It is feeding him.

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

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

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

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

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

It is none of these things.

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

He cannot read its emotions.

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

He drinks until he can bear no more with drinking.

When he opens his eyes again the thing is gone.

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