(Holy Saturday) Stories of Deliverance (I/I)

Belshazzar’s Feast

Babylon

Daniel works at his desk. He balances accounts. He looks for discrepancies. He reads the records of the dreams of the people of Babylon, and searches them for meaning. It is the hope of his masters that he may discover corruption and incompetence within Babylon’s bureaucracy by correlating the records and the dreams.

He is not surprised when the seraph enters his room.

“I dreamed,” Daniel says, “that the people of Judea fled from a lion, and were met by a bear. The bear was bitten by a serpent, and the bear and the serpent tore one another apart. Then I flew away and was suddenly naked.”

“That is the kind of thing that happens in dreams,” says the seraph.

“The lion was Nabonidus,” says Daniel. “The bear is Belshazzar, who rules in Babylon now that the monster is gone.”

The seraph is a creature of beauty. It is tall. Its skin is strange. Its wings are great and terrible. Its eyes are jeweled.

“I had hoped,” says Daniel, “that he would be a better King. The people of Judea have suffered under the monster for too long; and we are not the only ones.”

“The Lord has not rendered His judgment,” says the seraph.

“Then,” says Daniel, “I ask that the Lord be merciful, and redeem this man. Move his heart, and have him release us from captivity. I have seen into his soul, and there is hope for him.”

“He is no more than any other man,” says the seraph, “and like any other man, he must make his own chances for redemption.”

It is 539 years before the common era.

It is the night before the Feast of Belshazzar.

The Bo Tree

India

Siddhartha has wandered for six years and several months. He is tired, and he has not found his answer. So he sits beneath a bo tree, and he says,

I will not leave this spot,
Until I find supreme enlightenment—
Until I can make answer
To the suffering of the world.

The wings of Maya beat against him, and she whispers on the wind:

Do you not wish to know your wife again?
To indulge in sensual pleasures with her?
And hold your son, your wonderful son,
And raise him in the duties of the house?

Have you forgotten all the pleasures
That found you in your palaces of gold?

Siddhartha’s smile is clean enough to break her heart.

Should such knick-knacks tempt me? Siddhartha asks.

Belshazzar’s Feast

Babylon

Belshazzar slouches on Babylon’s throne.

“It falls to me, now,” he says.

He is dressed in the regalia of a King. He did not know what else to do with it when his father Nabonidus cast it aside.

“I must assume the burden of their dharmas. I must conquer the world. I must break the chains that hold Mylitta’s gods. I must devour everything that is.”

He considers.

“It is fortunate,” he says, “that I am a man who can bear contradictions.”

He snaps his fingers. Mana, an incubus like a giant stick-bug, answers Belshazzar’s call. He is wearing a minister’s robes.

“Release the gods from their bindings,” Belshazzar commands. “And tell them: ‘Go. Make horrid revel, or strike down the armies of Kuras, or help the people of Babylon, or hide under the beds and fear the dawn; do as you like. Serve your nature. Go free.'”

“They will not want to leave you, sire,” oozes the incubus.

“Tell them that their long pain is answered,” says Belshazzar. “Tell them that Nabonidus is gone. That Mylitta is gone. Tell them I have won. Tell them that it is time.”

“And of the people of Babylon?”

“Tell them to make celebration,” Belshazzar says. “Tell them that tomorrow I shall hold a feast, and they shall see the wonders of my kind.”

“They will be afraid,” says the incubus. “There will be fiends that burrow in their skin and move their hands like puppets. There will be angels preaching unimaginable hopes. There will be ghosts of the things they cannot let go of. There will be cruel claws under the bed, and black wings in the sky, and purple light in the depths of the city. If you do not lead them with a strong hand, fear and doubt will break their minds.”

“It is not for me to judge them,” says Belshazzar. “I would go mad. The power I have in Nabonidus’ army—I would go mad! Should I choose whom the gods shall make puppets, and whom they shall exalt? Should I command the hungering beasts, ‘Eat those who stray from the traditional morality, but leave the rest alone?’ When someone sees an eye in the darkness, shall they say, ‘Ah, Belshazzar wishes to know what it is I do?'”

Belshazzar shakes his head.

“I am alone,” he says. “I am an orphan. I am naked in the face of the world. Let them be the same. Let them face the infinity of gods and sort out their own judgments from among them.”

“Such wisdom,” says the incubus. “Truly, you shall be the King of all the world.”

Belshazzar smiles thinly.

“You too are free,” he says. “I need no praising god.”

The Bo Tree

India

As the feast of Belshazzar approaches, Siddhartha sits beneath the bo tree and thinks on life. Maya’s wings are beating, and she says to him:

Surely, Siddhartha,
If you continue this meditation
It will bring you your death.

Over the horizon, he can see them come. They are swift. They are terrible. They are an army of horror, summoned from the world to answer Maya’s need. And Maya names them as they come:

Look, this is Sakkaya-ditthi,
Raksha and enemy of the gods, but still she comes,
Twisting wind, white light in a hurricane,
Mumbling the truths of power.

Look, this is Vicikiccha,
A world-breaking fiend, like a panther, like a snake,
Crawling on two legs towards you
Dragging his tail behind him
Burning you with his eyes.

Look, this is Silabbataparamasa,
Dark sorceress clad in writhing rituals,
Hidden in a cloak of night,
Practicing the magic of your end.

Look, here are my daughters, child:
Tanha, whom you must love;
Arati, whom you must hate,
Raga, whom you must lust for.

Here is Arupa-raga, a distancing god,
Here is Mana, raksha, clad in robes
Here is Uddhacca, born of the monster’s need
Here is Avijja, demon, your undoing.

Look, Siddhartha, as they come,
Boiling over the horizon.
They shall be your death.

And Siddhartha looks at them, and he sees the laws of their natures, and he says, I shall die, mother, but not in such a fashion as this.

Belshazzar’s Feast

Babylon

The celebration rages through Babylon. It is punctuated by screams and cries of ecstasy. And Daniel stands before Belshazzar, and says, “My people cannot be here, Belshazzar. Living under your rule will destroy us. It is time to let Judea go.”

Belshazzar rises from his throne. He is drunk. His eyes are cold.

“Where was your God when I needed him?”

Daniel shakes his head. “That isn’t relevant.”

Belshazzar’s nostrils flare. He is not a bad man in all ways, but he is not a very good drunk.

“I find your people wanting,” he says. “I will devour you. I will break your faith and prove your Lord is meaningless and in so doing I shall unmake everything your people are.”

Daniel lowers his head. He walks away.

Belshazzar turns to a servant.

“Fetch forth the ceremonial vessels taken from the temple at Jerusalem,” Belshazzar commands. “I shall defile them here, at the feast of Belshazzar, and then there shall be no people of Judea, no tribe of Abraham, no servants of Daniel’s almighty God, but henceforth only emptiness.”

And so he drinks, but as he drinks, the seraph enters the room; and there is no one whose eyes follow the seraph but Belshazzar himself.

The seraph’s hand is red.

“Mene,” writes the seraph on the wall, in letters of crimson and black. “Mene. Tekel. Peres.”

The Bo Tree

India

Siddhartha is unmoved.

The army of Maya has cast itself against him, and it has broken. Stone, and ice, and knives have rained from the heavens upon him, and even the devas opened their umbrellas to shield them from so terrible a rain—but Siddhartha is unmoved.

Flaming rocks fall upon him, and in Maya’s eyes Siddhartha sees the bite of an unmeasurable pain, and he bows his head, but he does not leave, and he does not die, and he does not break.

Finally, Maya is exhausted, finally there is nothing left in her, finally she is curled upon the ground and saying:

Why have you left me alive, my son,
To know my helplessness?

Belshazzar’s Feast

Babylon

It is later that night, and Belshazzar has devoured the alcohol from his blood and now there is only a headache.

“Daniel,” he says, “what does it mean, this writing on the wall?”

“‘You have been measured and found wanting.‘”

Belshazzar laughs. He cannot stop laughing. He shouts, into the air of Babylon, “It’s so! It’s so! I will judge myself so!”

The Bo Tree

Dualistic Existence

Siddhartha holds out his hand to the treasure wheel, and says,

You weep, mother, because I will be a Buddha.
Yet only the Buddha can end your tears.

Listen. This is enlightenment:
Suffering is unnecessary.

To make it unnecessary—
That is the nature of the Buddha.
That is my dharma.

There is no room in all the natures of the world for the truth he has just named; and in that moment, the purpose of the world is emptiness, and the treasure wheel is hollow. And in Babylon, Belshazzar’s teeth cut and tear at his own flesh, and the devouring god devours himself, and into him like a rushing river pour all the natures of the world.

539 years before the common era, the world is delivered from sorrow.

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

Once upon a time, the world had a purpose.

Back then, everything did.

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

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

But these sorrows were small.

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

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

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

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

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

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

“Hey,” Tantalus says.

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

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

Martin whistles. “Harsh.”

Tantalus shrugs.

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

“Okay?”

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

“Ah,” says Tantalus.

Then he laughs.

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

Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit

540 BCE

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

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

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

White Lion lowers its head to the floor.

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

“I thirst,” rumbles White Lion.

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

There is a silence.

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

“Severed?”

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

Martin frowns. “The secret?”

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

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

Behold, Your Son (X/?)

546 BCE

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

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

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

Siddhartha says:

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

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

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

This is the flaw in the world.

How can I answer suffering?
Monsters have no remedy.

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

Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise

539 BCE

Nabonidus is educing a god from her when Mylitta breaks.

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

Nabonidus blinks.

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

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

“Um,” he says.

Mylitta sleeps.

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

“She will not wake,” it says.

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

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

“She’s mine,” Nabonidus says.

White Lion looks at him.

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

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

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

.
.
.

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

He makes a god.

Behold, Your Son (X/?)

546 BCE

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

Siddhartha follows her gaze. He frowns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Siddhartha opens his mouth to speak.

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

Her labor has begun.

Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise

539 BCE

Exhausted, weary, broken, and warm:

Nabonidus is crying.

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

It does not hurt terribly. But it stings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” he asks.

Because it is the only answer she could find.

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

Mylitta’s absence remains constant.

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

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

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

“Help me?”

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

Behold, Your Son (X/?)

546 BCE

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

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

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

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

“Midwives are intimidating,” concedes Siddhartha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you take it I can let you live.

Siddhartha says:

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

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

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

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

Siddhartha asks:

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

To heal them, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

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

To save them, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

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

To save them again, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

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

To heal them, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

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

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

Siddhartha asks:

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

Maya frowns at Siddhartha. She says:

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

Siddhartha says:

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

Maya says:

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

Siddhartha shakes his head. He says:

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

Maya says:

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

Siddhartha says:

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

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

Siddhartha reaches out to her. He says:

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

Maya says, quietly,

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

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

“Sons are an impediment,” says Siddhartha.

Maya looks wry.

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

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

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

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

Eloi, Eloi, Lema Sabachthani?

Present Time

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

The monster is waiting outside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The monster’s smile is brilliant and white.

Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise

539 BCE

It is the seventeenth god.

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

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

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

Nabonidus is weak.

“Wait,” he says.

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

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

Nabonidus is weak.

“Lift this burden from me,” he begs.

So the teeth of the devouring god close around him.

The nature of the monster ends.

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit

540 BCE

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

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

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

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

“Leave here.”

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

She is silent for a moment.

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

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

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

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

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

But one remains.

“Do you have the right?” it asks.

“Ye—”

Martin comes very close to nonexistence.

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

It Is Finished

539 BCE

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

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

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

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

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

They would love one another forever. But Lia dies.

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

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

And it is false.

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

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

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

Ten years pass.

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

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

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

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

“I chose this,” she says.

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

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

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

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

“Fly to Egypt,” Nabonidus tells it.

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

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

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

“Then why are you smiling?”

Mylitta shrugs.

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

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

“It will honor you,” says Nabonidus.

“Why?”

“Because I am your judge.”

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

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

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

“Did I fall?”

He laughs. “Did you not?”

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

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

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

“Unless you are weak,” she says.

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

“Unless you are weak,” she says.

He is not listening.

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

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

He looks at her.

Slowly, he comes back to himself.

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

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

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

“I want to do this,” he says to Sin.

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

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

The moonlight on his face is a blessing.

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

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

“Why Can’t I Fix You?” (I/II)

Cockatrices are born when a serpent coils around an abandoned chicken egg until it hatches.

They are rarer than hen’s teeth or eel’s wings. To see one is a marvel, a rarity, a precious and a magical thing. Few in life will ever meet the prince or princess of their deepest dreams; receive a vision of Heaven’s grace; or transcend the natures of the world and know enlightenment. Compared to a cockatrice, all of these things are dirt common, like winter or the flu.

Cockatrices are, unfortunately, very ugly.

It is 548 years before the common era. A cockatrice slithers into Belshazzar’s room. It finds him in darkness, but Belshazzar does not need light to see.

“How awful,” Belshazzar says.

“I am ugly,” concedes the cockatrice. “That is why most people die when they see my face.”

It shows its face to Belshazzar. Belshazzar does not die. He is, however, sickened.

“How do you live with it?” Belshazzar asks. His voice is faint. His nostrils have flared.

“I’d hoped you’d die,” says the cockatrice. “I thought, if I’m going to be so ugly that I kill everyone who looks at me, I should kill someone whose existence brings agony to the world.”

“I don’t know if I can die,” says Belshazzar.

“It’s all right to be a cockatrice,” says the creature. “I said that when I opened my eyes for the first time. I uncoiled myself from the membrane of my shell. I tasted the cold stone on which I rested. I looked at my mother, the snake, and she died. And I said, ‘it’s all right. Because I can slither, and taste things, and feel the sunshine, and kill people who need it.’ But mostly I kill people who don’t need to die.”

“It’s all right,” Belshazzar agrees. He devours the nature of the cockatrice. “But why would a serpent coil around an egg?”

There’s a thing, and it’s snaky, and it’s avian, but it’s not a cockatrice any more. It twists and coils. It eddies away along the ground. As it leaves the presence of Belshazzar, it passes a servant, who looks down and sees its face.

“How awful!” the servant says, and hits it with a tray.

543 years before the common era, Belshazzar visits Nitocris’ gate. This is a gate in Babylon. It has a tomb built into it. It is the tomb of Queen Nitocris. Anyone who walks through the gate walks under the dead.

Belshazzar runs his fingers along the writing on the stone.

If there be one among my successors on the throne of Babylon who is in want of treasure, let him open my tomb, and take as much as he chooses—not, however, unless he be truly in want, for it will not be for his good.

Belshazzar devours the nature of the stone, and now he may walk through it. He enters the tomb without breaking its seals. There he sees the limitless wealth of Nitocris, and the living corpse of Queen Nitocris herself.

“Are you truly in want of wealth?” the corpse asks him.

“No,” says Belshazzar.

“Then taking it will not be to your good,” says the corpse. “That’s as the writing indicates.”

“The world is in agony that I’m alive,” says Belshazzar. “I thought you might have advice.”

“It’s all right to be a living corpse,” says Queen Nitocris’ abandoned body. “But it limits the answers available to me. I can give you advice on the treasure. Don’t take it! It won’t be to your good. I can also recommend against mummification. I’d think better if they hadn’t pulled Nitocris’ brains out through my nose. You don’t need brains to think, but they’re really helpful.”

“I don’t know if I have a brain,” says Belshazzar. “Sometimes I think that I’m just a ring full of sharp, sharp teeth, even if I look like a boy.”

“Let me feel you,” says Nitocris’ corpse. It runs its foul hand over his face. Then it sighs.

“What?”

“Most of the tactile processing was in my brain,” the creature says. “So I’ll tell you this. Pain is caused by wanting. So if the world’s in agony because you’re alive, then you’re probably making it want something.”

“What do you want?”

The corpse grins ferally. “Someday, someone’s going to come in here who doesn’t really need the treasure. Then I’ll make it all vanish, and I’ll point my long skeletal finger at them and say, ‘Had you not been so insatiate of money, and careless how you got it, you would not have broken open the sepulchers of the dead!’ Then I’ll crumble into dust and leave them wondering for the rest of their life if they really saw me.”

“What lingers in the body after death?” Belshazzar asks.

He devours the nature of the corpse.

The withered remains of Queen Nitocris give him no answer.

It is in a state of uncertainty that Belshazzar returns to his father Nabonidus.

“What is a monster?” Belshazzar asks.

“It’s someone who thinks it’s all right to be a monster,” Nabonidus says.

“Is it all right?”

Nabonidus smiles at him. “I think so.”

“It’s not so good to be a devouring god,” says Belshazzar.

“It’s because you haven’t figured out how to live with it properly,” says Nabonidus. “If you take the right path, it’ll satisfy you.”

“Thank you,” Belshazzar says.

It is all right, Belshazzar thinks, to devour the bad things. It would be all right if he could eat the nature of the monster; the nature of Hell; the nature of suffering. That would be a fair answer to the pain that gave him birth.

But he cannot bite Nabonidus. He is an instrument in Nabonidus’ hand, and Nabonidus is not so clumsy as that.

So he waits, a ring full of sharp, sharp teeth, for the chance to kill his father; and while he waits, he prepares to defend Babylon against the army of Kuras by devouring everything that makes the invaders who they are; and he leaves his mother Mylitta to suffer in the temple of Sin; and he does not think that these things are wrong.

Monsters think it’s all right to be a monster, after all.

Nabonidus’ Gods (IV/IV)

It is 550 years before the common era.

“I wanted to cleanse you, ” Mylitta says. Her voice is soft, distracted, and dazed. “I wanted the power in our love to rise and consume us both. I wanted it to take away your pain and make you clean. It could be sacred. It could fix this. The world could still make sense, Elli.”

Nabonidus only shakes his head. His voice is sorrowful and certain. “We are hero and monster,” he says. “We dare not be that close.”

I dared,” she says.

**

572 years before the common era, Nabonidus creates his first god. He is six years old, very earnest, and attempting to escape from the governor’s palace at Harran.

No one’s eyes are on Nabonidus. A great field of barley is near the castle wall. Each passing second, it grows a little nearer. It spreads across the road. It reaches the wall. The wall dissolves at its touch. The field spreads inwards. The guards assigned to Nabonidus turn to look and give a shout, but it is too late. Instead of playing in his room, the boy is in a field of barley, wriggling away on his stomach and elbows, invisible in the grain. Soon he is outside, and beyond mortal capacity to discover. He rests for a moment, and sits up.

“Ninlil,” he says. His goddess appears. She is the first god of his emptiness, the first creature wrested from him: a goddess of the grain for the house of Harran. Her hair is the color of straw, and she is smiling.

“Nabonidus!” she says. She hugs him.

“We must run,” he says. “We must run far away.”

Ninlil makes a face. “You will be more powerful,” she says, “for staying.”

Nabonidus flops his head back and forth. He’s somatizing an internal conflict. “I know,” he says. “But it really hurts. So I want to run away.”

“If you stay,” she says, “your Mom will hollow you out. Then you’ll fill up with gods. You’ll have lots of company. And we can do stuff for you! It’ll be neat.”

“No,” he says.

So they run.

“Send Enlil,” says the monster. She is the monster of 572 BCE. Her name is Adad-guppi and she is Nabonidus’ mother. “Send Enlil, and he shall hunt them down.”

“How will he track them?” asks her servant, Nusku.

“Nabonidus is a young boy,” the monster says. “He will use his power. Where people were starving, there will be harvests. Where people laugh at him, grain shall grow from their ears and nostrils. Where he passes, he shall make the world more orderly with his god. By these things Enlil shall find them.”

Nabonidus travels. Where people are starving, Ninlil makes the harvest. Where people tease the young and ragged boy, grain grows from their ears and nostrils. Where Nabonidus passes, the world grows more orderly. At last he and Ninlil reach the sacred river.

“I wish to bathe,” Ninlil says.

The naiad of the river rises before them. “O Ninlil!” the naiad cries. “Do not bathe here.”

“But I wish to bathe,” Ninlil says.

“O Ninlil!” says the naiad. “Do not bathe here. Lord Enlil comes!”

“But I wish to bathe,” Ninlil explains. She strips off her garments and shakes out her hair. She bathes herself. The sky above thunders with Lord Enlil’s wings.

“Ah!” Lord Enlil says, landing. “You are beautiful.”

Enlil flops his head back and forth. He’s somatizing an internal conflict. He looks around for a moment. “I do not see the wayward boy,” he says, in an exaggeratedly loud and clear voice. “Perhaps, while I consider how I might best find him, this bathing maiden and I could make love.”

Nabonidus is pale and unhappy. He does not have good associations with these words. He whispers from the grain abutting the river’s banks: “Tell him no. It hurts. You are too small and do not know how to stretch. You are too young for kissing. Also, your mother would be upset.”

Ninlil looks down at herself. She is a fertility goddess and somewhat uncertain as to how she can best present this argument. She opts for a deadpan delivery. “My parts are little,” she says. “And you would be uncomfortable. Also, I am too young. My mother would slap my hand if she saw us making love. My father would shake my shoulders.”

She looks at the naiad, who has buried her face in her hands.

“Also,” Ninlil says, “think of the naiad! You have embarrassed her.”

“I will build a boat,” Enlil declares gallantly. “In the water, our making love might embarrass her. But not in a boat! Inside the boat is outside her proper jurisdiction!”

Nabonidus looks at the naiad, who shrugs.

“Just refuse,” Nabonidus says.

Enlil, busily, begins assembling a boat. Ninlil, noticing Enlil’s distraction, ghosts quickly over to the bank and dries off. She sits down next to Nabonidus.

“I don’t want to refuse,” she says. “He’s hot. Besides, if he gives me his seed, then I’ll have power over him. It’ll help us get away!”

Nabonidus looks down. “But I don’t want to do things that way,” he says.

Ninlil sighs. She pats his hand. “I’m sorry,” she says. “Sometimes we don’t get the answer we want when we’re hurt. I’d be an angel if I could, for you, but I’m not. I’m just Ninlil.”

“But it doesn’t work,” he says. “Helping them hurt you—it doesn’t give you power. Even though it should.”

“It’s not always about hurting,” she says.

Nabonidus frowns. Then he shakes his head. It is a gesture of negation, but his words are: “I won’t stop you.”

He crawls back to hide in the field. He watches. Beside him is a fiend in a blank brass mask.

“I think he’s done,” Nabonidus says, after a while.

“It’s horrible,” says the fiend. “We’ll seize him and throw him out of the city.”

“Yeah,” Nabonidus says. He smiles. The fiend divides itself and becomes legion. It grasps Enlil’s arms from every side.

“I will be certain to look you up later, fair maiden,” lies Enlil in a loud, clear voice as the fiend drags him away. “Or you can find me. My name is Elli.”

The fiend returns. Its hands grasp Nabonidus’ arms from every side.

“You are also horrible,” the fiend says to Nabonidus. It hurls him from the river’s banks and he finds himself at home.

570 years before the common era, he escapes again.

No one is watching him. The moon is bright in the sky. Moonbeams pour down into his window. Suddenly, Nabonidus jumps onto a moonbeam and runs up into the sky.

“After him!” shouts the captain of the guard. The other guards look at one another. One tests the moonbeam with his foot. It makes his foot highly visible, even though it is night time, but it does not support his weight. Nabonidus is beyond mortal capacity to catch.

“Sin!” Nabonidus says. His god appears. He is the third god of Nabonidus’ emptiness. He is the moon god, terrible and powerful, an old man whose beard is made of lapis lazuli and whose cap has bull’s horns. He takes Nabonidus’ hand and leads him into the palace of the moon.

“It is good that you are safe,” says Sin. He is grave, and seems disturbed.

“I will never go back,” Nabonidus promises.

Sin strokes his beard. It clanks. “Is that wise?” he says.

“I will stay in the palace of the moon, and no one will ever hurt me again.”

“And will you be happy?”

Nabonidus hesitates. He clenches and unclenches his hands.

“I am the gate of honesty,” the moon god says. “I am the guarantor of the word of kings. Do not lie to yourself here.”

“I don’t want to go back,” Nabonidus says. “When I am bad, I am hurt until I can’t stop screaming. And I don’t want it to happen again.”

“But it is cold on the moon,” Sin says, “and we have a limited food supply. And you do not think it is right to evade punishment by running away.”

Nabonidus curls up. “I don’t want to go back.”

Sin considers the matter. “Then one must ask, how is it right to evade punishment?”

There is a long quiet. Then Nabonidus looks up. “I am to become a monster,” he says. “If I am a monster, then other people can be hurt instead.”

“Will that make you happy?”

Nabonidus shakes his head. “No,” he says. “It’ll just mean that I can’t be bad any more. To be happy—”

He gestures. It’s a gesture of uncertainty. “There is no path from here that leads to happiness. I’m not supposed to be happy. All I can be is pure.”

“I will give you aid,” says Sin. He walks to his window. Nabonidus follows. He can see events that are very far away. Sin’s light shines down on the husk of Ella. The servants who tend her, fearful lest someday the hero awake, draw back in terror. They watch as Sin fills the hero’s womb. Her water breaks. Two children are born. “Go down before your mother kills them,” Sin says. “Claim the girlchild for your own.”

Nabonidus hesitates. “How does it work?” he says.

“I have named you her guardian,” says Sin. “Her protector. Her god. It is your destiny to care for her, and watch over her, and set an order to her life. There is no one but you who may judge her. There is no one but you who may do her harm. What you must achieve, you must achieve through her. If she chooses, she can kill you. When you accept this duty, you will become a man beyond the monster’s capacity for harm.”

Nabonidus looks down at her.

“I want her,” he decides.

**

It is 550 years before the common era. It is quiet, in the temple of Sin.

There is a fiend in the temple, wearing a blank brass mask. The fiend is weak and dare not act, but still it mutters to itself. “It is not possible that he has the right to do such things,” it says. “I look to the universe and its laws. They say: he may! But what of my personal morality? He tramples it so carelessly!”

Ninlil is gentle. She is smug. “Oh, my lord,” she says, in softest tones. “You have made the future of this land.”

The light of Sin shines full into the room. There is moonlight all around the ruin of Mylitta. It shows every bruise and every mark. The moon shines on Nabonidus as he clenches and unclenches his hands. He cannot decide between exultation and despair. Moonlight pools around the child-god Belshazzar, who has formed by the altar as the answer to an unanswerable circumstance.

“Belshazzar,” Nabonidus says.

The god looks uncertainly between Mylitta and Nabonidus. He smiles, and it is an unhappy smile.

“I shouldn’t exist,” Belshazzar says. “The world is in agony that I am alive.”

Nabonidus tilts his head to one side. “Can you stop Kuras and save Babylon?”

“Maybe,” Belshazzar says. “I don’t know. I’ll try.”

Mylitta looks up. She stares at Belshazzar.

“What are you?” she says.

“I am a god that devours,” Belshazzar says. “I am the answer to your emptiness.”

He rests his hand on her forehead.

“I will free you from your nature.”

The hero ends.

Mylitta’s Question (II/IV)

This is a truth that must be remembered.

The people remember.

The struggle of Mylitta was not in vain. The monster was strong, and much was lost. But much was bought in turn.

The people remember.

They began to come to her and ask her aid.

The people remember.

With blood on their brow they came. And blood on their hands. And pain in their eyes. The people came to her.

The people remember.

And to lighten the pain of the monster’s thrall, the gods of Babylon came to her.

The people remember.

And in the name of the people and the gods, she made argument with him, and often he bent. His heart bent to her. So he said. So he believed.

The people remember.

He held her in thrall to every person’s hopes.

We begged her to buy from him
what he could have freely given.

And the question Mylitta asked of him
remains unanswered still.

The people remember.
The people mourn.

It is 550 years before the common era.

The temple at Harran holds no one prisoner, and many of Nabonidus’ victims have fled. Many others have chosen to stay. They are as caged tigers, who, freed into the wild, still pace out the length of their prison cages. There is a bond between monster and victim that is difficult to break.

In the sacred precinct of Babylon, the monster keeps Mylitta, behind gates of solid brass.

The center of the precinct is a tower two hundred feet in height, and the path of its ascent winds all around. There is a place, halfway up, where one may stop and rest, and stare out over all of Babylon. People who seek her are prone to stopping there, and sitting for a time, and resting.

At the top of the tower, there is a temple. Inside the temple, there is a great couch, richly adorned, with a golden table beside it. And there Mylitta sits.

A woman climbs the stairs. It takes her a full hour. She reaches Mylitta’s door and stops, looking inwards. When Mylitta stands, the woman genuflects.

“Please,” she says. “My husband is dying of his wounds.”

Mylitta takes the woman’s head between her hands, and kisses the woman’s forehead. “I will speak to the gods,” she says.

The woman goes down the stairs.

On another day, there is a man. He is young. He is strong. He is pretty, though not so pretty as Nabonidus. He reaches the door and stares uncertainly at Mylitta.

“Come in,” she says.

“I need strength,” he says. “I am not strong.”

She studies him for a long time. He shifts from foot to foot.

“Why?” she asks him.

“I work hard,” he says. “Every day. But the animals are sick. And the rain leaks in. And the taxes are harsh, and I have not pleased the officials of this realm. Nothing I do seems to work.”

She nods to him, and he enters the room, and when he leaves, he is stronger.

“I will speak to Nabonidus,” she says, to his fading shadow. “About the taxes.”

Nabonidus comes to the temple one day. He brings with him six priests and a sacrifice. At the midpoint of the path, the sacrifice is cut to pieces. In the temple, Mylitta hears his screams, and winces softly. The flesh is boiled, and cut into pieces, and lain out on the tower’s stairs. The sound of prayers and hymns rises to her ears. Then comes a priest.

“Mylitta,” he says. “Give me your grace.”

She shakes her head. She stares at him.

“Mylitta,” he says. “King Istumegu has marched against Kuras, to meet him in battle; but his army turned against him and has delivered him to Kuras in chains. Ah! Kuras rises. He will not stop with Istumegu’s kingdom; he will claim our own.”

“You are a murderer,” she says. “Why do you come to me?”

“Goddess,” he says. “Please. You must help the people of Babylon.”

She stands. She goes to the door and looks out on the city.

“Why?” she says. “Why do you ask me?”

“Because if you do not, Kuras will come to Babylon, and he will kill our men, and our women will know sorrow, and the gate of Nitocris will fall, and all our joys come tumbling down.”

“I will speak to the gods,” she says, blankly.

The priest leaves, and Nabonidus comes in the door, and she hugs him tightly and leans against him for support.

“This is a hard thing,” she says.

“It is,” he says.

She sits on the couch, and he sits beside her.

“What have you done, since last we met?” he asks.

She shrugs, and begins to cry. He holds her. After a moment, she composes herself, and says, “Life for one man. Strength for another. And others, in similar fashion. I said that I would speak to you about the taxes.”

“It’s part of the process of governance,” he says.

“There is nothing that you can do?”

He shrugs. “If taxes are high, people starve. If taxes are low, people starve.”

“I see.”

She looks at him. “There are no gods you have that can defeat Kuras.”

“I know,” he says.

“That is why the sacrifice,” she says, “isn’t it? To make this hurt me more.”

“If we do this thing,” he says, “you will envy that man.”

“And if we do not?”

He shrugs.

“Nabonidus,” she asks, “we could leave. We could abandon this place. You could be Elli. We could go to a place far away and have babies, and I could end the monster’s line and replace it with my own.”

He smiles at her. “But I like who I am,” he says.

“Why can’t I fix you?” she asks.

He takes her hand. “In two days,” he says. “We shall ride a chimera to the temple of Sin, and there I will show you the why of the world.”

“I hear my people screaming,” she says, “sometimes. From far away. And I ask, why can’t I fix you?”

“Aren’t there questions without answers?” he says.

And there is much of the monster in Nabonidus’ eyes.

Hero and Monster (I/IV)

It is 556 years before the common era.

Mylitta wakes in a tangle of bedclothes, and Nabonidus is there.

“I should kill you, ” she says.

He opens his eyes. He thinks about this. “I vehemently disagree.”

“I would rather not,” she says. “But you are the monster, and the bane of my kind. If I let you live, will you be Elli for me? Will there be stars in your eyes, and brightness, or will you be cruel?”

He laughs. “Boys are cruel, Mylitta.”

He moves his hand across her. She frowns in distraction and pushes it away.

“I don’t want you to be a monster,” she says.

“It’s inevitable,” he says.

“You’re so beautiful,” she says. “I want to heal you. I want to show you the Elli I see. I want you to be that person, and not the monster.”

His smile is wistful. “I can see your Elli,” he says. “He’s reflected in your eyes.”

“I want you to share a deep and ancient power with me,” she says, “and let it rise up to take you away, and have you find a cleansing in me, and a hope.”

She leans in, and against his neck, she whispers.

“Let me heal you.”

“You may try,” he says, “but you must not blame yourself if you fail.”

She leans away.

“Why not?” she says.

“Some people are cold and hard and you cannot make them change,” he says. “If you blame yourself for failure, or for trying, then you’ll end up broken. That is not the way in which I want you broken, Mylitta.”

She frowns at him. “We can merge together,” she says. “Like sharing souls. And you can borrow of my innocence, to shield you from your truths.”

“Again,” he says.

“Again?”

“It will be easy,” he says, “to grow sick with shame, when you understand whose soul you have shared yourself with; but you must not be ashamed. You do not deserve to be.”

She sighs.

He laughs. His fingers trace circles on her arm. She sighs again, and some of the tension leaves her.

“If you are a monster,” she says, “then perhaps you have a stable of Nephilim, whose souls you rend to make your gods.”

“I do.”

“I am Nephilim, Elli. They are my tribe.”

He closes his eyes.

He thinks.

He allows some time to pass. Then he opens his eyes again. “I know.”

“Will you free them, if I stay?”

“I will.”

“And perhaps you have angels, too, locked in cages.”

“Them, as well.”

“And fiends? And demons? And ghosts? And other gods?”

“I shall empty the temple of Sin at Harran,” he says. “And they shall all go free, for you.”

She hesitates.

“And will you take gods from me, then,” she asks him, “to replenish them?”

“Not yet,” he says.

“Not yet?”

“You are too dear; and you will hate me, when I have done.”

Random Genealogical Interjection

See also
Genealogy: the People of Salt and
Genealogy: the Monster

Lia and Amiel were sisters who survived the destruction of Sodom.

Amiel swore to protect Lia’s family forever.

Lia had children, and they had children, and eventually you wound up with Aerope of Crete. Aerope had children by Atreus and Thyestes, including Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Pelopia. Her line zigzagged off in a couple of directions: for instance, to Priyanka, by way of Menelaus and Helen of Troy, and to the first hero Ella, probably by way of Agamemnon. That’s where we think the ancestry of Liril and Jenna diverged, by the way: Liril inheriting from Helen of Troy and Jenna not so much. That said, there’s plenty of genes in the pool, and certain disreputable scholars claim that just about all the people of salt have a common ancestor in Helen’s daughter Hermione.

We call this family the Nephilim.

Meanwhile, Amiel’s line became the House of Atreus, which hooked together with the people of salt up at that mention of Atreus above. The two bloodlines didn’t become one people, though; genealogy or no genealogy, Amiel’s heirs fissioned off and stayed fissioned off as the line of monsters.

By the time you had Nabonidus in Babylon, the House of Atreus was a pretty serious threat to just about everything. Its branch in India was mysteriously culled back around 583, and the American House had problems of its own, but the Middle Eastern lineage was going strong and educing all kinds of domesticated gods from the Nephilim there.

They were a threat even to the throne of the world!

So everyone breathed a sigh of relief, more or less, when Mylitta was born.

At last! the world thought.

At last, the world thought, somebody would do something!

Because heroes can kill monsters. That’s in the rule book. Heroes can kill monsters. All Mylitta had to do was kill off Nabonidus and cut a swathe of blood through his family and Babylon’s aristocracy, burn the ground and salt the earth, and maybe spend a few decades wandering the earth murdering whatever representatives of her ancestor’s sister’s family she could find, and then everything would be all right forever.

And that’s exactly what she did!

Except for the part where she didn’t do any of it, at all, causing no end of historians who were not there and don’t know what it was like and never had to do anything hard in their entire lives to look down on her.

But it’s OK.

It’s OK.

She won!

It’s like we said a long time ago.

Shame was set 556 years before the common era.

17 years later, in 539 BCE, the hero Mylitta would make an answer to monsters forever and ever;

and they would deliver the world from sorrow.

Shame (I/II)1

1 But, earlier . . .

Nabonidus broods.

Cinder ash whirls in the fireplace. His hand snaps out. Even as the ash forms into the fairy Tanit, his hand is around her throat and shoulders.

“Hi,” Tanit says.

He looks her up and down. She’s small. She’s winged. She is a threat to him, an ancient enemy, an unbound god—a creature, he knows, that his great-great-grandfather educed from the first hero, Ella, back before she’d made herself a hero. Tanit had been with Ella, and the fiend White Lion, when they raged amidst the monster’s armies in Assyria. She had escaped when Ella fell.

She looks so puzzled and so empirically interested that he’s seized her that he can’t help laughing.

“I should break your neck,” he says.

“Yes,” she agrees. “But you won’t.”

“No.”

He lets her go. She flutters wildly for a moment, trying to get her bearings.

“What is it?” he asks.

“It’s Mylitta,” she says. “She’s gone to the Underworld.”

Mylitta stood at the gates of the Underworld. She knocked. The gate opened. The guard on the other side was a scorpion-man. His eyes terrified her. They brought fear and death. She could not move.

“What do you want?” it asked her, slowly. Its voice was the rasp of chitin on chitin. It looked at her expectantly, and that expectation broke the spell of her fear.

“My mother,” she said. “My mother Ella is dead.”

“You do not want her to come back,” the scorpion-man said. “If she comes back, she’ll be hungry. She will eat living people. She will kill everyone you know. That’s why it’s bad to bring back the dead. They also carry diseases.”

“In a week,” she said, “I go to the temple. I want to see my mother before I go.”

It is 556 years before the common era. It is the last day of spring.

Nabonidus’ eyes narrow. “Going to the Underworld was foolish,” he says.

Tanit shrugs.

“Why would you come to me?”

“I asked the sky for help,” Tanit says, “but there was only wind. I asked the moon for help, but there was only moonlight. Not even the sun can help me. So I came to you.”

Nabonidus sighs. He stares out his window. “What will happen to her?”

“She will suffer,” Tanit says, “and then she will die.”

“Ah.”

“Please,” Mylitta said.

“You have power,” the scorpion-man said. “It won’t help you, below. Everyone enters the Underworld naked and powerless. Then terrible things happen. If you’re lucky, you get to leave. If you’re not, they just keep happening until the end of time.”

Mylitta winced. “I’d rather not be powerless,” she said. “Or naked.”

“Then go home.”

Mylitta hesitated. Then she shook her head, firmly. She took off her clothes. She removed her anklets. She removed her bracelets. She handed all of these things to the scorpion-man. Then she walked inwards.

“Are you a goddess?” it asked, curiously, as she passed him.

“No,” she said.

She walked on.

Nabonidus is silent for a long time.

“You haven’t said no,” Tanit points out.

“I haven’t,” Nabonidus agrees.

“That’s a hopeful sign,” Tanit says. “See, I’m practically an inch taller right now. That’s from hope!”

“Why did she go?”

“I’ve told her about her mother,” Tanit says, “all her life. I wanted her to remember Ella like I remember Ella. But they never really met.”

“What was she like?” Nabonidus asks.

“Ella had a fire,” Tanit says. “She fought brilliantly. You didn’t know?”

“I’m young,” he says.

“Oh.”

“I visited Ella, once or twice, before she died. She was a husk. She wasn’t even useful.”

Tanit shrugs. “Life sucks,” she says brightly. “Will you help?”

Nabonidus rubs his temples.

“I know what I’m asking,” Tanit admits.

His eyes are like a hurt animal’s.

The Underworld was very dark. Its twists and turns confounded her. Mylitta did not find her mother. She did not find anything. In the end, she began to cry out: “Ella! Ella!” Her words echoed in the halls. She could hear things skittering in the distance. She was cold and could not warm herself.

In the distance, she heard a whisper. “Namtar,” it said. “Unleash the sickness upon her.”

There was something crawling in her veins. She felt very ill.

“Namtar,” said the voice. “Make her hurt.”

Something twisted in her arm. She cried out. Her ankle gave way. She fell on the rough stone. In the distance, she could hear a terrible laughter. She fought, desperately, to hold back tears.

Nabonidus’ eyes shutter. His expression is indecipherable.

Tanit waits.

Nabonidus holds out his hands. “Scrape the dirt out from under my nails,” he says.

Tanit flits forward. She pulls out a small brass dagger, fairy-sized. She begins to clean under his nails, and specks of dirt and blood fall on the floor. When she is done, she darts back, and waits.

Nabonidus bends down. He picks up the bits of dirt. He rolls them around in his fingers. He is whispering. Tanit does not understand at first what he is saying. When understanding finally dawns, she covers her ears to shut out the sound of it. The dirt twists. Nabonidus shakes off his hands.

“This is a season of metal,” he says.

Two creatures stand before him.

“This is a time of gathering.”

They look at him with cold dead eyes.

“Go,” he says. And they are gone.

Nabonidus sits down at his desk. He folds his arms on its surface. He rests his head on his wrists.

“Thank you,” Tanit says.

Nabonidus is crying, helplessly, unable to hold back the tears.

Tanit flutters forward, awkwardly. She puts her hand on his shoulder.

“I hate her,” he whispers. His voice is raw and thin. “I hope she dies.”

“Oh.”

There was a voice in the darkness. It was deep and rumbling. Its words cut right through her.

Mylitta, ‘litta, hides her fear.
But maidens have no secrets here.

There was a rank, feline stench in the air; and White Lion was beside her, who had been her mother’s god. And in the darkness, and in her ignorance, she did not understand.

“Go away,” she said. “Please go away.”

“As you like,” White Lion said. She heard four feet padding off into the dark.

And she rose.

She rose.

She struggled onwards through the endless halls.

“What will they do?” Tanit asks.

He is silent for a long time. Then Nabonidus looks up. He rubs his eyes. There’s a hint of cocky arrogance in his gaze.

“They’ll make Ereshkigal love them,” he says.

Tanit looks uncertain.

“She’s more powerful than they are,” he says. “She’s more powerful than I am. But they’ll go right to her weakness and make her their slave. And she’ll let Mylitta go.”

“How?”

“We’re attached to the things that hurt us,” he says. “Didn’t you know?”

“Namtar,” whispered a woman’s voice, “make great sores appear on her skin, and suppurate, and ooze forth pus.”

Mylitta looked down at her body in horror. Great sores appeared on her skin. They suppurated. Her feet hurt, but she dared not sink to her knees. She tried to cover the marks, but her arms and hands were as tainted as the rest. She leaned against the wall, setting her shoulder afire with pain. She sobbed.

There was the voice in the darkness of a returning god.

Mylitta, ‘litta, strength all spent.
Maidens burn it on descent.

“Go,” she whimpered.

There was a hesitation. “As you wish,” the voice said. Something turned to pad away. Then she fell. As she hit the ground, she screamed.

In the darkness, she heard a quiet sigh.

“Help me,” she whispered.

A cat’s tongue rasped on her back. She could feel the sores fading away. It proceeded down her arms, and the back of her legs. A great paw rolled her over. She was too tired for shame. It finished the job.

“I am called White Lion,” it said, as the last sores faded. “White Lion, who was your mother’s god.”

“Oh,” she said.

She sat up, against the wall. Her body felt clean.

“I will show you your power,” White Lion said.

It is the naming of pains.

“I hurt inside,” says Ereshkigal.

Oh, my inside!

“I hurt outside,” says Ereshkigal.

Oh, my outside!

“I hurt,” says Ereshkigal, “because of what happened to me. I hurt because of what happened to others. I hurt because happiness is transient. I hurt because the world is cruel.”

Oh, the world is cruel!

And in this time, and in this place, the cracking voice of Ereshkigal is more real than anything.

“I hurt,” says Ereshkigal, “because Abdi-Ashirta is dead, and Agabus, and Ili-Hadda, and Ninsun, and Odainat, and Yakin, and Mamaea, and Urshanabi.”

Oh, for Urshanabi!

“I hurt because Kummu is dead, and Mithridates, and Panammu, and Zebba. I hurt because Shamshi-Adad suffers, and Adad-guppi, and Sibittibael.”

Oh, Sibittibael!

She names those living, and those dead, and they are badges of her suffering. And when she names a dead man, or a dead woman, that person looks up from the throngs of the Underworld, and their heart shines in their eyes.

“There is the pain of the fire condition,” Ereshkigal says.

Oh, the fire!

“And the water condition, and the earth condition, and the condition of the soul.”

Oh, the soul!

And in this time, and in this place, the cracking voice of Ereshkigal is more real than anything. And all the while through her naming of the pains, two creatures of dirt and blood sit in the corner of the room. They eat the names. They eat the pain. They grow. And when in time the naming of the pains fades into a great and wayward silence, Ereshkigal looks over, and she sees them there.

“What are you?” she says, and it echoes in the room.

“I am hurting inside,” says one. “I am hurting outside. I am hurting because of what happened to me, and what happened to others.”

“I am hurting because happiness is transient,” says the other. “I am hurting because the world is cruel. I am hurting because Abdi-Ashirta is dead, and Agabus, and Ili-Hadda, and Ninsun, and Odainat, and Yakin, and Mamaea, and Urshanabi.”

And

“Ah!” Ereshkigal cries, stricken. “Ah! I know you both!”

Mylitta climbed up on the great beast’s back. It began to pad down the endless halls to where her mother stayed.

But

“Namtar,” whispered a voice, “strike her dead.”

The spark of life blew out. Mylitta’s body turned to rotten meat. She tumbled off of White Lion’s back.

It nosed her and she did not move.

It touched her and she did not respond. It bit into her and she did not flinch.

So she lay there, dead, and all hope lost, and it began to eat.

The servants of Ereshkigal came for her corpse. They had spears. They had arrows. They drove White Lion back, strips of Mylitta’s flesh still dangling from its mouth. They picked her up. They took her to the throne room.

They hung her on the wall.

Mylitta can still see. This is the Underworld. She can still hear. She can still feel pain.

“We are here,” the creatures say, “for Mylitta.”

“You may not have her,” Ereshkigal says.

“I am hurting,” one whispers, “because Kummu is dead, and Mithridates, and Panammu, and Zebba.”

“Because Shamshi-Adad suffers, and Adad-guppi, and Sibittibael,” says the other.

Ereshkigal’s fist clenches. “Ah,” she says, in pain. “You have my heart!”

“Please,” says the creature of dirt and blood.

“She may live,” Ereshkigal says. “But she may not leave.”

Ereshkigal gestures. One creature walks to Mylitta. It gives her a measure of its pain, and Mylitta is alive again. It lifts her off the hook. It sets her down. It looks into her eyes.

“Stars,” she whispers.

“What?”

“Your eyes are like my boy’s,” she says.

It frowns, and backs away, and turns to Ereshkigal. It bows.

Mylitta’s eyes flick to Ereshkigal. “I must remain?” she says.

She is bleeding. There are strips missing from her flesh where White Lion chewed on her corpse. She puts her hand on the blood. She can feel the creature’s thoughts in it, and suddenly there are no boundaries to her world.

“I command the hosts of the dead,” Ereshkigal answers, placidly. “And of the scorpion-men. And Namtar. And Irra. And she who erases. And the god of submission. If these are any barrier to you, Mylitta, then you cannot leave.”

“I’m sorry,” Mylitta says.

She can feel the thoughts of White Lion in her blood, and there are no boundaries to her world.

She draws a sword of starlight. There is a pounding in her ears. She can hear a crowd of thousands roaring out her name.

Not Namtar;
Not Irra;
Not the scorpion-men—

“These things are not a barrier to me.”

“heroes can kill monsters.”

It is 556 years before the common era. It is the first day of summer.

Nabonidus looks out at the sky. There is fire on the horizon, and the earth rolls, slowly and steadily, and he can all but hear the gates of the Underworld cracking.

“Mylitta?” he says.

He’s recovered, a little, from the making of two gods.

And Tanit nods.

“Did she get to see her mother?” Nabonidus asks.

The world shakes. The sky burns red. Namtar falls, and Irra, and the great hosts of the dead. Somewhere beneath the world the death gods scream, and Mylitta their apocalypse.

Tanit shakes her head.

“She didn’t,” Tanit says.

Strepitus; and silence; and

“She’s so helpless,” sighs Mylitta’s boy.