Intermission (I/I)

March 25, 1995

Tantalus hungers. Tantalus thirsts.

The woglies flee.

“That’s not important,” Martin is saying. “That isn’t. I’m going to sweep away the kingdoms of the world and tear down all the monsters. I’m going to rend the world down to a remnant and from its ashes build the most glorious of Heavens.”

His soul is in shreds.

He’s hardly alive. He’s holding himself up by sheer will and his eyes are full of the radiance of the numinous and every time he looks at Tantalus it’s like Tantalus is suddenly naked before the face of God; caught by shame and forbidden knowledge in the Garden of Eden; staring full on into Medusa’s eyes.

He’s a creature of all wild freedom, Martin is, and freedom’s terrible.

Then Martin wobbles and loses strength.

He falls, face-first, into the lake.

It is Tantalus’ lake. It belongs to him. It’s his clear cold lake of water. He has always thought that it must be extremely cool and damp and refreshing, but whenever he reaches down to cup up some water in his hands, the water flees from him. It drains away into the ground and leaves only parched dry earth behind. For three thousand years Tantalus has lived amidst his lakes and never once has he had a chance to drink.

As for Martin, he is cool and damp and refreshed but also trying to breathe.

He is underwater.

It does not work. Instead Martin, involuntarily, coughs. He thrashes. He tries to pull himself to the surface. It does not work. His eyes widen with panic. His panic redoubles. Shuddering and flailing washes through him. He breaches the surface. He flutters his arms against the water. His head rolls back. He sinks.

“Oh,” says Tantalus.

There is emotion in his voice. He is surprised to hear it there. He had not thought himself still capable of emotion, after three thousand years.

It must be envy, he thinks.

“Oh, I envy you.”

It is the Underworld. Martin cannot die. Beneath the water his eyes pop open. He gasps. He tries to take a breath but he cannot. He tries to scream but he cannot. His arms flutter but he cannot make his body move.

After a while he passes out again.

The emotion in Tantalus’ voice is not envy. This baffles him.

“Ridiculous,” says Tantalus.

It still isn’t envy. It is pity, perhaps. Maybe even kindness.

Tantalus’ heart beats once. It is irritated at him. His heart only beats when it’s irritated at him, these past three thousand years. He’s long since too dry for blood.

The clenching of his heart is a dry and agonizing pain. Air whistles through his veins.

“Ridiculous.”

It is a unique experience, to have his conscience blackmailing him again, after all these years of death. He reaches upwards. The wind whips the branches of the trees away from him. They are laden with sweet-smelling fruit and for three thousand years he has not caught hold of a single one.

He braces his hand against the trunk of the tree. He pulls himself upright.

Martin wakes up. His eyes open. He tries to scream but he cannot. He tries to move but he cannot.

He passes out.

Tantalus wades out to Martin. He purses his lips. He looks down at the drowning boy. Then he sits down heavily. The water level plummets. Tantalus snatches at it reflexively, tries to cup some up. There is no water left.

It has drained into the ground already. It has fled from him. It has left only dry dust behind, and Martin like a flopping fish.

Tantalus sets his withered lips on Martin’s own.

He inhales. He is like a vampire. He is seeking some scrap of sustenance — to draw some bit of soothing moisture up from Martin’s waterlogged lungs.

The heart of Tantalus beats.

Tantalus’ face grows taut with pain. He loses his grip on Martin. He tries to hang on but he cannot. In the moment he pulls back and curls around the agony in his chest, the water escapes him, makes a break for it, scrambling out of Martin’s lungs, drooling from his lips, pouring desperately into the ground to escape Tantalus’ touch.

Martin coughs. He wakes. He passes out.

He wakes again.

In the moment Martin wakes he recoils. He throws himself back. His eyes open. He gasps. His skin is bitterly dry. He stares.

Then he begins to laugh.

“Oh, God,” he says. He laughs. “Oh, man.”

His eyes focus on Tantalus. He sees the lines of pain on Tantalus’ face. He gives a wretched smile.

Tantalus shrugs.

“Thank you,” Martin says. “I’m so sorry. Thank you. Oh, man.”

“It happens,” Tantalus says.

“I was drowning,” Martin says. “And now I am not. It is really good to not be drowning. Nobody ever told me this. Nobody told me how good it was going to be. Nobody ever said, ‘it’s so incredible, not to be drowning, and then passing out, and then waking up and drowning some more.’ But it is. I think that people just don’t know.”

“I would like that,” Tantalus says.

“You would not.”

“It looked moist.”

Martin’s eyes flick down to the dry ground, then back up.

“Yeah,” he says, more softly. “Yeah, I guess.”

He sits up.

“It was cool, and clear,” he says, “and refreshing. It would have been really nice. Except then I started to panic. Because I couldn’t breathe. And then the panic got worse and worse until I think I would have done anything to make it stop. And then my brain shut down and I couldn’t think any more and my eyes filled up with agony and the dark. And then I’d wake up again and it wasn’t cool and clear and refreshing any more because I was already drowning when I woke.”

Tantalus licks his lips.

“And if it weren’t the Underworld —”

Martin shudders, suddenly.

“I’m so lucky,” he says. “Oh, God. If this hadn’t been the Underworld. If this weren’t the Underworld — what a stupid way to stop existing. I would have died.”

“It is good to be a living person in the Underworld,” Tantalus says, “since there is nothing here that can actually kill you.”

There is a distant cursing. There is a distant rumbling.

Sisyphus, rolled over by a distant boulder, screams.

“There are also disadvantages,” Tantalus concedes.

Martin looks down.

“You’ve been stuck here,” he says, “for three thousand years.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m going,” Martin says. “I’m going to go. You should also go. You should come out of the Underworld, to the surface world, like me. What d’you think?”

“I can’t.”

Martin tilts his head. “Why not?”

“It’s my punishment.”

“Yes?”

“Zeus said,” Tantalus says. “He said that I had to live in a land of plenty, and know only hunger. He said that I had to dwell amidst sweet lakes, and know only thirst. He said I had to be forever in the company of what I long for, and have it never. So I can’t go.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Martin says.

Tantalus shrugs.

“That isn’t punishment,” Martin says. “That’s just . . . that’s just life.

Tantalus can’t help it. He laughs. It’s a bitter laughter and it hurts almost as much as a heartbeat; and eventually it causes a heartbeat, and hurts strictly, mathematically, more.

Martin is watching him.

Tantalus isn’t even looking at him any more and he can still feel it, that Martin is watching him; that that fey power is coming back into Martin’s eyes.

“Hey,” Martin says.

Martin touches his shoulder.

“Hey,” Martin says. “I’m not — I mean, I’m not a good person. I’m not going to say that. But I’m not the kind of person who’s going to just meet somebody who’s been starving for three thousand years and then go away and let them starve and dry out for another three thousand. That’s too much. I’m the kind of cruel hell-god who might leave you to suffer another, you know, three months, for a total of six. Or stab you in the eye with a spork, but then take you to a hospital. But, I mean, seriously, man. Three thousand years. You’re done. You’ve paid enough.”

Tantalus’ heart is not beating. He has stopped laughing.

It is a certain grace that settles in around Tantalus, then, and frees him from the pain of Martin’s words.

“I’m okay,” he says.

“You’re not okay.”

“I have my lakes,” Tantalus says. “I have my sweet-smelling fruit trees. And when I reach for the fruit the branches fly up like winged birds, and it is beautiful; and sometimes, their petals float free to land upon the surface of the lake, like little boats. And they are beautiful.”

He cannot look at Martin.

He dare not look at Martin. He would break. Instead he stands up. He turns away. The water trickles back around his feet.

“I have the gourd of my stomach,” Tantalus says. “I am very used to it. It is always hungry, but I laugh at it, ho-ho-ho, and strike it with my hands to make a drum.”

Martin is on his feet.

That is good, Tantalus thinks. If Martin does not get up and leave the lake then I shall have to repeat this whole conversation again.

“I have no talent for drumming,” Tantalus observes. “And my stomach is not a very good drum. But I can still make Persephone weep or Hades dance with my drumming; for even the least talented man will become a quite good drummer if he practices for three thousand years.”

“You will still have a stomach,” Martin says, “if you go free.”

“I don’t want to go,” Tantalus says.

He risks a glance over his shoulder. Martin is standing on the water. It is lifting him up as it rises. His eyes are as the oceans and the skies.

“I didn’t ask if you wanted to go,” Martin says.

This is a lie.

“Well,” Martin admits. “I did. But that was earlier. After that, I said that I was not the kind of person who was going to just leave you here to suffer another three thousand years. You’re going now. It’s done.”

Tantalus’ heart is beating. It will not stop. It is like four little torturers having an agony party in his chest, one for every valve, and taking occasional vacations down his veins.

And for just a moment Tantalus believes in Martin.

For just a moment Tantalus forgets that he is doomed to this garden and this hell. For just a moment he believes there is a choice; and swiftly, perversely, he rejects it, rejects freedom, turns away from it, clings to his torment with the whole of him, with body, heart, and mind, crying: o my gardens! O my agonies! O my lakes!

And Martin grins.

“I want to stay,” Tantalus says.

Martin grins wider. He snaps his fingers. “Bang,” he says, and points his finger like a gun, because Tantalus has erred.

And desperately Tantalus reaches for the substance of his damnation, and it eludes him; claws for it, and it sinks into the dry parched earth; reaches for it, and the wind catches him up, blows the branches of him away, and he is gone.

Regarding Hope

In the city on the edge of the void the Nose makes her living tracking down Froot Loops for creatures forsaken of the Lord.

Solomon walks through the city. His feet go ‘tik tik tik’ on the metal of it.

He’s surrounded by scrap and stinking filth. That’s all the city is. It’s the bits that the Lord has thrown away, infested and ripened with the unlife of the void.

He can’t imagine how the Nose can bear to live here. The smell of it, he thinks, must be terrible.

He doesn’t actually know, though, because Solomon cannot smell at all.

His nose is like the nose of a swordfish, a long metal spike that resonates and modulates the power of Heaven.

It is incapable of olfaction.

The Nose lives in a bad part of town. Solomon can tell because he’s being followed and the thing that’s following him—like a great metal spider, with gleaming living eyes—has a predatory air. And that’s not the only thing: there are great cat-bats circling in the sky, drooling and twitching with the hunt, and he suspects that the grime that is rising ever-higher on his boots is an amoeba of evil intent.

“It’s always the way in a place like this,” he says.

The spider clitters and clatters closer.

“Before anyone can accept you, you must present your credentials.”

And he whips his head up to look the spider in the eyes and the nose of him catches the music of the spheres and modulates it into a rising crescendo; and it twitches and its heart catches on fire and it thinks how beautiful Solomon is.

And he turns towards the cat-bats and one falls from the sky and the others flee screaming.

And the amoeba at his feet withdraws just a bit, and says, “Pardon, gov’ner. Just doin’ a shine.”

And Solomon’s boots glow like the righteousness of Heaven.

So Solomon laughs and says, “Then show me where the Nose is.”

“You, gov’ner? You want Froot Loops?”

The amoeba’s voice is skeptical, as if to imply that Solomon doesn’t look like the kind of man to eat a delicious Froot Loops breakfast with milk, juice, and toast.

“She was better than that,” says Solomon, “once. She knew where the traitors were. She could smell the distinction between that which would bring the world towards righteousness and glory and that which would lead it down the paths towards Hell. A very discriminating woman, the Nose.”

“Wouldn’t know about that,” says the amoeba, but it oozes northwards and Solomon follows it towards the Nose.

The Nose works out of the Clifton Building, one of many buildings judged unworthy by the Lord. She’s a tall lean woman in a black plastic jacket and her eyes are blue.

She’s leaning back in her desk chair when Solomon knocks, opens the door, and enters.

Slowly, she straightens.

Slowly, one eyebrow lifts.

She says, softly, “Face.”

“Danielle,” Solomon says.

“I hadn’t thought,” says the Nose, “that I’d ever see you again. You— You—”

And she rises from her chair and she is holding Solomon close like one holds a love thought lost forever. Tears are leaking down her face, and she says, “Not you. Not you. You do not deserve this place.”

“It’s all right, Danielle.”

“If you are here,” says the Nose, “then there is no hope in all the world for the rest.”

She bites her lip.

“I had thought,” she adds, “that there was something sweeter than life here. But I told myself that it could not be so.”

“Well,” says Solomon.

“Well?”

“What is, is. And it will not be for very much longer.”

The Nose draws back. She looks him seriously in the eyes—though distracted, as any person might be, by the spear of metal jutting from his face.

“No?”

“I was not cast out,” says the Face. “I fled.”

The Nose turns to the window. She opens it. She leans out the window and she takes a long sniff of the ordure of the city, and she grows pale and green all at once.

“Then it has happened,” she says.

“It has happened.”

“The Red Right Hand has declared that it shall be the all of the Lord.”

“I had trusted it,” Solomon says.

“Naturally.”

“I had thought: what can it do on its own? It cannot see. It cannot smell. It cannot hear. It cannot breathe. It has every reason for loyalty. When it cut you from me and cast you out I said only, ‘Ah, that must be what Danielle had wanted. No doubt it is for the best. Because why should the Hand betray me?'”

“That is the way of it,” says Danielle. “Processes freeing one from the discriminating power rarely cultivate a doubt about themselves. Instead they clear the mind, fill it with relish, and offer a sense as if one has been released from a great weight or exposed to a clean pure breeze. This is, I think, the greatest problem with the cosmos, but as yet I have not found a solution to it.”

“There isn’t one,” says Solomon.

“No?”

“No.”

“Ah, well,” Danielle says.

Solomon nods.

“It’s hunting us, you know. I can smell it. It’s walking on the webs between the skyscrapers, running on the ground of the city streets. It can feel us talking and understand our words. In all the cosmos it is only the Hands that can feel such microscopic vibrations.”

Solomon frowns.

“But what can it do?” he says. “We are already outside the grace of the Lord.”

“Anything it wants,” says the Nose.

She takes another deep breath, this time through her mouth. She exhales.

“Come on,” she says. “We’ll go find breakfast.”

“Huh?”

“Follow the Nose,” Danielle says, firmly, and she takes his hand and she leads him out. “I’ll give you a freebie.”

They walk through the city streets under the leaning towers of garbage and twisted corpses. Behind them, Danielle thinks, the Red Right Hand is running on the five limbs of it. Lacking a heart it knows no limitations of endurance. Lacking a nose it has no discrimination of right and wrong. It is a peerless and unforgiving hunter. But even the Hand is bound by the limitations of time and for this reason she does not worry yet.

“I don’t understand,” Solomon admits, “how there can be Froot Loops here.”

“They grow,” Danielle says.

“They grow?”

“The dark reaches of the places forsaken of the Lord are like compost for them,” she says.

She points out at the surface of the void. This is possible because it stretches around the city like a balloon, its surface to the north, south, east, west, below, and in the sky.

“Do you see those moving things?” she says.

“I had assumed that an optical illusion,” he says.

“No. They’re boats.”

The Face squints. His metal nose hums with the subtle harmonics of the universe. Then he frowns.

“Hey,” says Solomon. “They’re made of Froot Loops.”

“Look down,” says Danielle. “And 29.2 degrees to the left.”

So Solomon does. He stares through the layers of trash and metal. He exercises the ultimate faculty of observation that ignores all obstacles. And he gasps.

“Was I right?”

Buried in the city, growing in the muck, he sees the gleaming sugary towers of the Froot Loops that grow there like formations of crystal.

“They’re glowing,” he says.

“They have an ‘inner light’,” Danielle says, a subtle intonation revealing the scare quotes.

“But what—”

Danielle sniffs. She pulls him around a corner. She leads him down a rickety metal staircase, past a thing of snot and brains, past a timeworn clockwork devil begging on a landing, past a hook monster and a cutting muck.

She tosses a coin in the clockwork devil’s hat as she does.

“Until you got here,” she says, “the Froot Loops were the best smell in this whole damn place.”

And they stumble into a great cavern of Froot Loops and all around them are the colors of it and she says, “They are like unto the Lord, and thus stay crunchy even in the void. That’s why they’re so important here—they’re not just part of this delicious breakfast, they’re also the only material that remains stable on the surface of the endingness.”

“Wow,” Solomon says.

She grins.

“They love me here,” Danielle says. “I’m the best damn prospector this whole place has.”

Solomon rubs his hand along the sticky hardness of the Froot Loops.

“Good Heavens,” he says.

He breaks off a few and crunches them between his teeth. He says, “Even in this emptiness—that there should be such things—”

“Eat,” says Danielle.

“No milk?”

“No time,” Danielle says.

And Solomon looks back and the power of his gaze strikes through the layers of the world and finds the Red Right Hand and he says, “It is so close.”

“There’s nothing we can do,” Danielle says. “It is blind and cannot see the beauty of your eyes. It is deaf and cannot hear the music of the spheres. It has no tongue to taste the riches of this place and if I were to think of a plan it would feel the vibrations of my thoughts and adapt its plans to mine.”

So Solomon and Danielle eat.

“We’ll fight,” Solomon says.

“Of course,” Danielle says.

“But we’ll lose?”

Danielle eats a chartreuse Froot Loop, the color and flavor of a fruit that never was.

“It is the Red Right Hand,” she says.

It is too big to enter the cavern so when it does it is like an explosion: it shatters the towers of crystallized Froot Loops, it bursts down the door, it is followed by the cracking twisting metal of the collapsing metal stair and the clockwork devil and the creature of snot and brains are tumbling after it in the vortex of its movements.

It is not human-shaped like they.

It is a hand larger than buildings. It is red with the blood of the Nose and of every other thing that has suffered in the world. Its fingers do its terrible walking and it has no eyes.

They had resolved to fight, but they do not fight: faced with the terror of the Red Right Hand, Solomon and Danielle run.

“There,” says Danielle, pointing. This is the vibration of her thoughts: The floor there—too weak to support its weight.

And she pulls Solomon across and her hair is streaming back and their faces both are white as porcelain and they jump for one of the towers of cereal and the Hand leaps after.

The whole of the cavern creaks and tilts sideways.

“Eh?” says Solomon.

He glances down. The cavern is on top of a rickety collection of buildings that have slumped inwards to hold one another upright; they stand on a mire of blood and dead trees, and below that a labyrinth of blindly moving worms and the great balloons that suspend the whole above the void.

“Problem,” he says.

And as the Hand comes after them the buildings shudder and the fourth floor of the cast-out Mariman House explodes inwards and the dead trees crack and the worms writhe and the balloons pop and suddenly they are looking down—in a direction that was ‘forward’ just a moment ago—towards the endless infinity of the void.

“I have always loved you,” Solomon says.

And the Red Right Hand shows no mercy but plunges into them and crushes Danielle’s arm and the left side of Solomon’s face and drives them down towards the void.

Solomon twists and jerks his head. His proboscis stings into the beast. He channels the music of the spheres and attempts thereby to tear the membrane of the Hand apart; but though it recoils back and gives a snapping howl it is not in the character of Solomon to destroy.

They fall.

It is the Froot Loops that cushion them, of course. They land like bumblebees falling into cereal, splashing the surface of the void, crushing and shattering the walls of cereal that would otherwise rebound and hover crunchily on the surface of the void—but even the splintered remnants of the pillars are enough to hold them up.

Like men and women after a shipwreck, the Face and the Nose cling to Froot Loop driftwood to hold their heads above the void.

Over their heads there is an immense strut of the city, leaning sideways but remaining whole; and on that strut, quivering with fury and with fear, there is the Hand.

“Close your eyes,” hisses Danielle.

And Solomon does; and he can see dimly with that remnant of sight that he is unable to entirely extinguish that Danielle has freed her working hand, draping her body across driftloops, so that she may pinch shut her nose.

“Why?” he says.

“It cannot feel vibrations in the void,” Danielle says. “It can only tell where the void lies by the substance of our thoughts.”

“Oh,” Solomon says.

The Hand skitters back and forth.

“It is afraid,” Danielle says. “And furious because I know that it is afraid. But with all the senses of us crippled, how can it know for sure where among the floating Froot Loops on the void it will be safe to leap down and pursue us?”

The surface of the void is like a flickering fire to the tactile sense of the Hand. Things come and go. They manifest vibration erratically. And down there there is the Nose that it cut off to spite the Face, the Face that it must kill to seize control, and the Froot Loops that because it cannot taste them should not be allowed to be.

Fear, it trembles.

Rage.

Danielle’s eyes widen.

It picks up her thought: Oh, God. I’m going to sneeze.

The Hand cultivates its plan.

“Don’t,” pleads Solomon.

Danielle is sniffling.

“Oh, Danielle, Danielle, no.”

And Danielle sneezes, and that sneeze sends the Froot Loops skirling across the surface of the void, and in the irrational reflex that follows it she inhales and her thoughts become rich with the scent-details of the world:

And the Hand leaps.

It is bounding across the surface of the void, its fingers never landing on a chunk of Froot Loops long enough to push it below the surface, it is coming for them—

And Danielle says, softly, “You have chosen poorly, Hand, to fight the Nose in its area of omniscience.”

And as the Hand comes down for her she taps her nose gently against the log on which she rests.

A crack spreads through it.

The Hand lands upon her. It drives her down into the substance of the void. The log of Froot Loops on which it hoped, momentarily, to rest, explodes.

It flounders, there, on nothingness. Its fingers catch hold of individual Froot-flavored rings. They crumble under it.

Then it is gone.

“Danielle,” Solomon says.

There is silence.

“Oh, Danielle.”

And the Face looks upon the substance of the void and his metal nose resonates with beauty and with sorrow.

There are some who say that the Nose that knows Froot Loops may know them even beyond the boundaries of life and death. That the smell of those Froot flavors crawls beyond nothingness and the grave to serve as a beacon for whatever lies beyond. There are those, thus, who imagine that this story has a happy ending, and also that the biggest problem with keeping Froot Loops in one’s house is the zombies and the restless dead.

That in that empty place beyond substance and mind the Nose still strains to know in which direction Froot Loops lie.

If she can find them—

If she can just find them!—

She will have won.

Because “Nil Sine Numine” Was Too Ironic

As the imago matures, there are legends that we do not see.

Meredith runs away from the glorious germ cycle.

Run, Meredith, run!

The germ cycle works like this. First, someone sneezes. This is probably because they’ve been mentioned.

For example, Meredith was sneezing just a few minutes ago. She was mentioned as part of this ongoing legend!

Later, Martin will talk about infinite forces, unknowable, imperceptible, transcendent to the circumstances of his life. Then you’ll sneeze! It’s not that he doesn’t know you’re there, but there are light cone and timing issues that make you ineffable unto him. Your germs will get everywhere.

Meredith is fleeing the sneezing because she doesn’t want germs on her. She’s getting in a boat. She’s sailing away!

Once people sneeze, the germs are “in play.” They rotate around the immediate environment vigorously germing. Once they’ve infected everyone they can, they evaporate upwards into the sky.

Meredith pulls a sweep of storms over the sky. The clouds seal away the germs behind a layer of mystery.

The germs seethe around in the sky. Then they come down as divine vengeance!

You can’t escape divine vengeance just because there’s a storm, but you can sometimes sail away from it if you’re a very good sailor. That’s why Odysseus kept surviving, even though his shrimp-eating ways angered both God and Poseidon. Everyone stuck on land, however, gets the plague and runs around sneezing right and left.

Look! Sid’s illustrating this. He’s running around sneezing right and left—one sneeze in each direction, like the waving of a baton!

People wonder why the Heavens are so angry. They look around. They find someone to blame. Often this is just someone running around sneezing, like Sid, to whom they impute grave moral failings. Sometimes it’s someone terribly unrighteous like Tantalus or that girl who had sex that one time. Personally, we recommend Tantalus! If God is going to send down plagues every time people have sex, you’re going to have to live with your sneezing.

Once people have blamed someone to clear their consciences, they begin the hard work of reforming themselves. This step is optional but an important part of the germ cycle. Meredith’s sailing away mostly so she doesn’t have to do it!

Reformation leads to a quelling of divine vengeance. Virtue appeases God or the gods, as appropriate to the plague in question. The germs dry up and the germ cycle begins a new revolution.

Meredith pulls up her boat on the docks of a distant land. She sags in relief. She’s escaped the sneezing and the vengeance!

A sign next to the docks reads, “Sodom and Gomorrah. Population 40,000.”

And the city motto, “Ad astra per aspera,” or, “Through difficulty, to the stars.”

Standing in the Storm: The Jaguars

Five of Emily’s friends, and one acquaintance, are dead.

“Come on,” says Saul. He rises. He takes Emily’s arm. He leads her out onto the street. They begin walking towards the school where it all started.

“They’re dead!” Emily shrieks. “You killed them! You monster!

Saul doesn’t seem to have noticed her outburst. After a moment she realizes that that’s because she didn’t outburst aloud. She outburst silently, inside herself.

The moment has passed. She can’t shriek at him now. It would seem artificial.

“He liked me,” she says.

She means Fred. He’s one of the dead ones.

“Good,” says Saul.

This is a story about jaguars. Emily loves them.

It’s also a story about death. Emily doesn’t want to be eaten. She wants to live a long time and then die in a beautiful place, surrounded by something wonderful.

Finally, it’s a story about a hat that sorted people into a high pure vision of what they should be, and about the people who thought that that might not have been the best idea.

This isn’t a story about Vladimir or Edmund. If it helps, Vladimir meets a horrifying fate and Edmund lives happily ever after. Edmund would have died, except that Saul sends him to safety shortly after this story ends.

Just in case you really wanted to know.

“There are tiny scales on your skin,” says Emily. She’s looking at Saul’s hands. She’s looking at his fingers.

Saul looks at his fingers.

Saul bites at one of his fingers. It’s a thinking gesture. But pretty soon it turns into a chewing gesture, and then a flesh-tearing gesture. He stops himself with a wrenching shudder.

“Listen,” Emily says. “When people look at other people, they don’t see what’s really there. They see something else. They see reality, but distorted. Like it’s through a lens. The lens is flawed. The shape of that flaw is Gotterdammerung.”

“The apocalypse,” says Saul.

“People kept predicting it,” says Emily. “But it didn’t happen. Because it was something in the world we see. Not in the world that is.

Saul tilts his head to one side.

Emily shrugs.

“You know how primitive people would see lightning and think of gods?” she says. “It’s like that. We’d look at other people and see these alien things. Heroes and villains and trash for the killing. That’s the world we saw. A world where the apocalypse drew ever closer, driven by the marching drumbeats of the heralds of oblivion.”

There is a distant drumbeat in the wind, and the bleat from far Bifrost of Heimdall on the tuba.

“It’s actually a lower-energy state for the world,” Emily says. “Gotterdammerung worlds are easier. The kind of thing God could have done on a lazy Sunday afternoon, after finishing up here. But he didn’t. Your purpose didn’t come from God. Instead, Vladimir made a hat, and it sorted you into his vision for the world.”

Emily might have had more to say. But she doesn’t say it.

Instead, she hisses in air. She bites her lip. She stares.

They’ve just rounded the corner and she can see the Lethal Magnet School for Wayward Youth.

It has, at last, lived up to its name.

All through it the ivy grows and the students are dead, save where the surviving beasts of Hunger run.

Saul isn’t taken aback by the sight. He’s still thinking about their conversation.

“Hats don’t lie about moral issues,” says Saul, uneasily.

But Emily is staring at the dead.

The Edmund-beast snarls. Then it yowls. It’s the kind of noise that reminds you that if the gnostics are right there’s a blind idiot God somewhere in the universe burning popcorn in the microwave before settling in to watch the suffering of your life.

It is answered by howls.

All through the school there is howling. It is a rising voice. The beasts give praise to hunger and to death.

“It’s obscene,” explains Saul, who still hasn’t noticed her horror. “I see a purpose. It is high. It is holy. It is noble. We must develop the hunger until it consumes the world. This purpose is inherent in the universe. The hat opened my eyes to that purpose. It can’t have created it.”

And Emily wrenches herself from the sight. She lowers her eyes. She looks at the shadows on the ground.

“It’s not your fault,” she says.

“But how can I know?” says Saul. “By what yardstick? How can I tell if what I see is universal or delusion?”

“It’s not your fault,” Emily stresses. “It’s too late. You’ve already been assigned. You can’t tell. It was always nothing more than a question of how long we could contain the damage.”

“Oh,” says Saul.

The hunger is rising in the beasts of the school. To Saul, it is the great surging of an endless sea. To Emily it is a concert for xylophone and tuba. It fills the air with the power of it.

And the Keepers’ House is there.

“We’ll hold it back,” Emily says, “for as long as we can.”

Edmund’s broken away from Saul and Emily. He’s loping over towards the remaining Keepers. He’s looking into their faces.

“Don’t eat me,” says the foppish Englebert. “My family has the ear of the Queen.”

“Wow,” says Edmund. “Really?”

“No,” admits Englebert. He slumps. Then he dissolves into a spray of various parts.

“I’ll give you Keeper cooties,” protests Isobel.

“I’ve got some,” says the Edmund-beast.

“I hope the wolf steps on you,” Isobel mopes.

Things proceed.

There aren’t enough of them left to hold Edmund’s hunger back.

It surges out from the Lethal Magnet School for Wayward Youth. The breaking of the Keepers’ lives is a gap in the dike, and the hunger pours down into the world.

“What’s going to happen?” Saul asks.

Emily looks at him bleakly.

“No reason not to say,” says Saul.

“The wolf will come,” says Emily. “You’ll turn into beasts. The boot, no doubt, will fall. The world we’ve dreamed of will force its way in. And I guess I don’t get the death I wanted.”

Saul nods. The hunger rises in him. It is like a flame. It is like a cold and terrible sea. Saul does not hold it back. He opens his fanged mouth. He rears back like a serpent. The Saul-beast’s eyes burn red and its hat is green like a snake’s.

Er, scales.

Like a snake’s scales.

And just before he eats her, three things happen.

The first thing is that a great wolf wanders in. Its binding cord has broken; where the hunger is, the dwarves have no power. Fenrir is curious. The hunger calls it. So it has come.

The second thing is that the House of Hunger sloughs off more of its humanity.

And suddenly Emily is cheerful. She is pointing at Edmund. She is laughing, like a child, like a bright clear bell. “You have spots,” she says.

This causes Saul to pause and Edmund to blush.

“They’re good spots,” the Edmund-beast mutters.

Saul’s eyes are narrowed.

“You’re oddly bubbly,” says Saul, “for someone who’s about to die.”

Emily’s shoulders sink as she relaxes. She looks at him peacefully. “Jaguars are my favorite part of Gotterdammerung,” she sighs.

The third thing is that the great space station, Vidar’s Boot, comes down; for there is something in a boot that loves to stomp, and nothing is quite so stompable as one’s alma mater.

“The wolf’ll eat most of you before it dies,” says Emily, peacefully. It’s not a threat. It’s a gift. She’s giving Saul a chance to react.

WHAM!

The station strikes the ground.

WHAM!

The station strikes the ground again.

WHAM!

The shockwave of the boot’s impact throws the House of Hunger into the air.

Now it’s raining men. Well, jaguars. Well, jaguar-men.

“It’s like Christmas came early!” Emily says, happily.

The boot clips the wolf, and suddenly it is looking for a place to run, and there are howling and yowling and clucking and chittering beasts in its path.

Down fall the jaguars like a gentle rain; and it is there, standing in the storm, surrounded by something wonderful, that Emily dies.

Standing in the Storm: Calling to the Wolf

The Hubble II drifts around the world.

It looks at space. Space is different. There’s something at its edges. Something hungry.

The Hubble II clicks and whirrs. Its great glass lenses roll into position. The frame of the telescope vibrates. It stares harder at the edge of the world.

“This is beyond me,” it says.

So it turns its burning eye on Vidar’s Boot. It sends a message. It opens a link. Data flows.

“I was looking at things,” says the Hubble II. “Space has a texture now.”

It is 2012, and the tape drives of the majestic computerized space station, Vidar’s Boot, begin to spin. The lights on its consoles flash.

Vidar’s Boot says, slowly, “Space is performing work.”

“What does it mean?”

“It means that I am summoned,” says Vidar’s Boot. “I am called to stomp.”

It hesitates.

“You cannot stomp upon the world,” acknowledges Vidar’s Boot. “You are a telescope.”

“I will look at things,” says the Hubble II.

There is affectionate warmth in Vidar’s Boot‘s reply.

“You are a wonder,” the space station says.

Fred and Emily were members of the Keepers’ House. They kept hunger, and torment, and even saintliness at bay.

One of the stories of hunger and saintliness begins here. That’s the one where we meet Edmund, who just ate Fred, and also some other people.

This story begins here. So far, it’s about what Keeping means, but today it’s also about the things that are Kept.

It is 2012, and the doom of things approaches. In Mr. Domel’s basement, the wolf is restive. It is pacing. It is tugging on the cord that binds it. It is whining.

Mr. Domel stands at the top of the stairs. He looks down. His face is affectless.

“Be still,” he says.

Fenrir, unhappy, vomits up a bit of dwarf and various stomach liquids. Then it looks at the ground and sniffs at the puddle. It looks up at Mr. Domel.

“. . . you can’t expect me to clean that up,” says Mr. Domel.

“You left the dwarf out,” reasons Fenrir, persuasively, cocking one ear down and one ear up. “That makes it your fault.”

“I didn’t—”

Mr. Domel founders, hesitates, and then looks disgusted.

“I’m not going to talk about a dead person this way when he’s right there in front of me in chunks,” he says. “What the hell happened?”

“He wanted to check my cord,” says Fenrir.

Mr. Domel steps back three steps. He slams the door. There is darkness for a while. When he returns, he’s pointing a loaded shotgun at Fenrir.

“It’s got wolfshot in it,” he says.

Fenrir tosses its head. It licks a bit at the dwarf, then shrugs. “Do you know why the dwarfs made my cord from things like a river’s stillness and the lightning’s depth?”

“No,” says Mr. Domel.

“In the energy differential between concept and reality,” says Fenrir, “there lies a power. This is the fuel for the dwarven engines, the dwarven smithies, the dwarven works.”

Fenrir tugs on the cord. The cord strains but still it holds.

“Leave me alone,” says the wolf, pettishly.

“Why did the dwarf break into my basement?” says Mr. Domel.

Fenrir looks up.

“He was drunk,” says Fenrir. “Drunk and afraid. He thought the hunger of the beasts would call me. He thought that it would set me free. But it hasn’t, yet.”

So Mr. Domel backs away. Mr. Domel closes the door.

Fenrir tugs on the cord. There is a snap. It’s the nerve of a bear, one of the strands of the cord, and it just broke.

In 2004, Emily met Fred’s mom for the first and only time. Emily and the other Keepers were standing in a spooky circle around one of the poor kids from the House of Torment at parent-teacher night, holding in his pain. And Fred’s mom walked past and suddenly she stopped.

“Oh!” she said. “You must be Emily!”

Slowly, Emily turned her head. She gave Fred’s mom a wicked squint. But Fred’s mom returned a brilliant smile.

“I’m Heather Moorage,” she said. “Fred’s told me everything about you.”

Heather looked Emily up and down.

“But I thought you’d be more talkative,” Heather added.

“I’m keeping him sane,” said Emily. She jut her chin towards the poor kid from the house of Torment. He didn’t even have a name. That’s how much his life sucked. “If his torment really took hold, it’d call the wolf.”

Heather scratched at her head. She looked in at the kid, squinting like she was having a little bit of trouble seeing him.

“Is that really something a girl your age should be doing?” Heather said.

“Do you know what happens when the dike cracks between the Earth and Hel?” Emily said. “Do you know what they say about people who leave the dike to break because they’re ‘girls my age?'”

Heather grinned a little.

Emily looked back. “The pressure would equalize,” she emphasized. “Gotterdammerung is a lower-energy state.”

Heather grinned wider.

“What?” Emily said.

“You’re so serious,” Heather said. She took Emily’s hand, squeezed it once, and walked away beaming.

Eight years later, as Saul drags her out of the coffeeshop, Emily suddenly realizes that Fred liked her.

“He liked me,” she says.

“Good,” says Saul. “It is good to be liked.”

“Don’t call the wolf,” says Emily.

“We’re not going to call a wolf,” says Saul. “Unless that’s an unanticipated consequence of turning into beasts and eating the world.”

“. . . yes.”

“Then today is probably not your day,” says Saul.

Or is it? Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion, Standing in the Storm: The Jaguars!

Standing in the Storm: Their Lives Were Jewels

This story begins here.

“It’s getting harder,” says Emily.

She’s hanging out in a booth in a coffee shop talking on her cell phone to Bertram. Using the phone is pretty much habit. Since they’re not talking aloud, neither of them has actually bothered to turn their phone on.

“Totally,” says Bertram.

There’s a woman at one of the tables. She looks at Emily. She’s generically irritated that Emily is on the cell phone even though she can’t actually hear anything that Emily is saying. But before the woman can comment Emily looks at her with empty, hollow eyes and mouths the woman’s name. That’s so horrifying that the woman shudders and hurries from the shop.

“It’s Hunger,” says Emily. “The House of Torment is still pretty well-behaved. Dreams is Dreams, and I’m not even sure there are any saints left. But Hunger . . .”

“It’s like they’re encouraging it,” Bertram says.

“They can’t do that, can they?” interjects Fred.

Emily hesitates.

“Fred,” she says, “I am trying to impose the context of a phone call on this conversation.”

“It’s a conference call,” says Fred.

“Oh,” says Emily.

Emily shivers away her confusion.

“I think they are encouraging it,” Emily concludes. “I think they are actively cultivating the hunger within them.”

“But it’ll get out,” says Fred. “We won’t be able to keep it.”

“Yes,” says Emily. “But it’s okay, if we tried? I mean, failure’s okay?”

But before Fred answers, Emily suffers a distraction.

“You are a difficult person to eavesdrop on,” says the Saul-beast.

It should never have happened.

The sorting hat was not the first crack in the armor of the world. Through cracks of just such a kind came Fenris Wolf into the world, and other things. It was not the first and it was not the last.

But it should never have been at all.

At the Lethal Magnet School for Wayward Youth, the only British boarding school that doubles as a secret weapon against giant wolves, the sorting hat came into the world. It changed people—into saints, into mad scientists, into tormented souls, into beasts. It sorted them into new destinies. It perverted them to new forms.

One man was sorted twice. He is the head boy of the House of Beasts. He is its visionary. His name is Saul.

The call is like elevator music, like Barry Manilow ballading on the sitar, like a cheerful twanging distant and strange. It is a ballad heard not with the ears but with the heart.

It is how the Keepers know that Gotterdammerung nears.

Emily looks up.

Bertram is there. Fred is there. Morgan is there. All of the others are there. They have drifted into the scene from unknown places. They are standing in the entrances to the coffee shop, outside the glass wall, against the bar. They are watching events unfold.

“Guys,” silents Emily, in profound relief.

“Yo,” says Fred.

And in the silence the Saul-beast opens its mouth.

“Are you still a saint?” Emily asks him, aloud.

Saul hesitates.

“I’ll tell you what we are,” Emily says, “if you will tell me that.”

Then Saul sits opposite her. He pulls the salt and pepper shakers out and sets them on the table between them. He smiles at her.

“Hello,” he says. “My name is Saul. I was sorted into the House of Hunger, but it was my second sorting. Before that I was a saint. I am the last survivor of the House of the Saints. My brother Edmund ate the others. Who are you?”

Emily looks at him.

“Oh God Oh God Oh God,” she is saying, to the other members of the Keepers’ House, because she is terrified that Saul will eat her. But he cannot hear her. She is silent and gnomic before him.

“Saul,” she says. “You have to understand that what you are doing is not in the best interests of—”

The hunger that surges up in Saul’s eyes is like a physical blow. It silences her and pushes her back against her seat.

“Who are you?” says Saul, companionably, again.

“My name is Emily,” Emily says meekly. “I like jaguars and coffee. I am a Keeper. I contain you so that your hunger does not call the wolf.”

“Good,” says Saul.

He leans back.

“Containment,” Saul says, thoughtfully.

Emily reaches out. She touches his hand. It’s a dangerous thing to do. But she wants to tell him a confidence.

“I don’t want to be eaten by people or wolves,” says Emily. “I want to live a long time and die in a beautiful place, surrounded by something wonderful. It is like the Hunger, only it’s not.”

Saul stares at her for a while. His eyes are distant like a snake’s.

“The purpose of humanity,” says Saul, “is to transform into beasts and devour the world. You are inhibiting this purpose. You must cease.”

“That isn’t so,” says Emily.

Saul looks around.

“Why haven’t I eaten you yet?” the Saul-beast asks. It is genuinely puzzled, because it was sure it would have eaten her already.

“Damn!” swears Bertram silently. “He’s on to us!”

“Run away! Run away!”

“We can’t run,” notes Fred. “He’ll eat Emily! I like Emily.”

Fred pauses.

“Not that way,” Fred clarifies.

Emily gets to her feet. She stares down at Saul. The others swell around them, containing, keeping, holding back Saul’s hunger.

The beast in Saul can sense it.

He is catching on.

“Saul,” Emily presses, in her last few moments of safety. “You have been corrupted by the sorting hat. Your mind has been altered. You are wrong about the destiny of humanity, and you will destroy your own House.”

“Make your case,” says Saul.

“I—”

Fred is gone.

Emily looks up sharply. She looks around the shop. Her brain cannot parse what has happened.

Bertram is gone.

There is something warm and wet on Emily’s face.

Morgan is gone. Lisa is gone. Betty and Veronica are gone.

“Go!” says Emily, to the others. Her voice is audible, so shaken is she. “Go now.”

The Keepers’ House disperses, leaving only Emily, Saul, and their dead; and sitting on the floor amidst the blood, chewing happily on Bertram’s arm, is the Edmund-beast.

And there is a burgeoning breath of pain in Emily. And she says, “I—”

“Ah,” says Saul. “I have backup.”

“I—”

“It’s all right to be frightened,” Saul says. “But you’ll need to make your case.”

Emily isn’t frightened. She is staring at him. She is mouthing a single syllable blankly. But what she means by it is this:

“How dare you take them from me and this world?

“Their lives were jewels: unswerving, dauntless, loving, precious things—And they died before they knew how wonderful they were.”

Doesn’t it suck when that happens?

Anyway, now Emily’s alone with the beasts, and also, the world’s about to end. Check back tomorrow or the next day for Standing in the Storm: Calling to the Wolf!

Standing in the Storm: The Keepers’ House

Emily had always wanted a jaguar. When she was a young girl, she’d point at them in the zoo and say, “Mommy! Mommy! Jaguar! Jaguar!”

But her mother didn’t understand. She’d just say things like, “That’s right!” and “Yes!” and “It’s time to go home now, Emily.”

Young kids can’t say what’s on their mind. They can think it, but they can’t boil down those thoughts efficiently into a communicable form. That’s why Emily just said “Mommy!” and “Jaguar!” when what she meant was:

“It is very hard to be a person. To live in this world—that’s an exquisite sorrow! What is not tainted with the universal characteristic of suffering?

“But there is also this: the recognition in this moment that I may find beauty within this world. That there is something that makes it worthwhile to be here. That there are jaguars. These are things to take my breath away and lift my spirit and make me glad that I was born, that I will live and breathe and suffer and eventually die. These are a marvel. Oh, mother, oh, mother. Look at them move!

Then she’d wave her chubby little hands around in frustration because her mother did not understand.

Emily’s admiration of the great yellow beasts never faded.

That’s why she was very excited when she was sorted into the Keepers’ House. The hats of the Keepers’ House are yellow, just like a jaguar’s.

Er, fur.

Just like a jaguar’s fur.

The Houses were born of Vladimir’s hubris.

His “sorting hat” reshaped the students of his school into five distinct Houses. It changed their nature. It subjected them to the rules of their House. It committed a crime against their humanity.

Thus Peter, of the House of Saints, interceded for others even unto his death.

And Cheryl, of the House of Dreams, lives with lightning in her mind.

And Sid, of the House of Torment, hurt until he died.

And Saul, of the House of Hunger, has become a beast.

Their story began with House of Saints, here. But there are truths the saints would never know.

Emily graduated in 2008 from the Lethal Magnet School for Wayward Youth, but she keeps tabs on all her classmates. “The Keepers’ House keeps in touch,” as Bertram says.

“Yes, we do!” Emily always replies.

They have a very important duty. They have to keep the world from ending.

“I try to stay enthusiastic,” says Emily. “But it’s hard.”

She doesn’t have to actually say it out loud. They hardly ever do. Most of the people in the Keepers’ House just know what the others want to say. It’s part of the nature of the House.

“It really is,” Fred agrees.

It’s 2012, and they’re standing in a creepy circle around Saul. Saul is a young man now. He’s lean and his eyes are deeply-set. He is meditating in a cross-legged pose. He’s a student of the House of Hunger, and hunger seethes in him like a stormy sea.

His skin has very tiny scales on it, almost too small to see. They are more visible when the hunger is upon him, like the beast in him is prickling up and hardening his flesh.

It’s hard not to sense the creepy circle. It’s people standing around him and they’re staring.

So Saul opens his eyes. He feigns a neutral expression.

“Do you mind?” Saul says.

“Run away!” says Emily. Saul does not hear, but the others do. “Run away!”

The Keepers’ House disperses. Emily always feels very awkward and ungainly when she flees, but Bertram’s reassured her that she is as silent and flowing as the rest of them. So she tries not to feel too embarrassed as she gusts away.

Saul gets to his feet. He tilts his head to one side. Then he swings it to the other. Inside him, he twitches, and the beast takes over.

Gaunt and feral, it begins to stalk Emily.

“Uh oh!” says Emily, as she finds herself facing a wall with the Saul-beast stalking behind her. The beast doesn’t hear. She cuts left to the cargo lift.

The lift, which she had left locked there on the ninth floor, is now on the first.

“Fudge,” silents Emily.

She presses the button. She looks around her.

There’s a window to her left. It’s plexiglass.

Her yellow hat is the brightest thing in the hall.

The building she’s in is the main office of a company called Manifest. It is where Saul works. If it were Emily’s nature to do so, she could shout out, and there is a chance someone would come. They might say, “Saul, please remember that we are already being sued over the last nineteen visitors you have eaten.” Then there would be a chance that the Saul-beast would back down, and there would be a separate chance that it would eat the complainant and acquire another permanent black mark for Saul’s record.

It is not Emily’s nature to shout. So instead she turns. She looks at the Saul-beast.

In a clear and audible voice, she says, “What is it, Saul?”

“I am hungry,” states the Saul-beast.

“I am indigestible,” says Emily. “It is my bad diet. I eat too much salt, fat, and plastic. If only I were a normal girl! I would eat the Pringles, but leave the bag. But I am not, and I must decline to be eaten. With apologies.”

The Saul-beast laughs.

It steps closer.

Emily shrinks back.

“I am always hungry now,” says the Saul-beast. “And I am practicing to become more so. That hunger is my strength. One day I will open my mouth and I will eat the world.”

“Oh,” cries Emily.

It is a soft, pained sound. She looks down.

Then the Saul-beast is on her. It is pushing her back. Its hands are like iron pistons that force her shoulder and side back against the door. Its neck is absurdly long and thin and it arches back. Its canine teeth are longer than they were, once, and there is venom in them.

“That wasn’t fear,” says Saul. “That was sympathy.

“It wasn’t,” protests Emily. “It was sadness at the way of things. It was a recognition of their ohness.”

“Tell me,” says Saul. “What is your House for?”

“Hm?” Emily says.

“Why do you gather? What prompts your comings and goings? Why do you stand around people in a creepy circle, and then disperse to the winds? For what purpose did the sorting process make you?”

“Oh,” says Emily. “That’s a secret.”

The lift doors open. There is a janitor in them, pushing a wheeled contraption involving a trash can, mops, and cleaning supplies. For just a moment, as Emily drifts back, the geometry of the situation confounds the Saul-beast. She is inside. The janitor is outside. The Saul-beast is outside. The doors close. Emily slumps.

Time passes.

. . . but it won’t be a secret tomorrow! Be sure to read Tuesday’s entry, Standing in the Storm: Their Lives Were Jewels!

(History: Boedromion 21-22: Things and Choices)

Flagging this as something I’m totally going to let myself change later. I’m not at home and have a real time deadline. I’ll remove the flag if I’ve edited to taste. For example, I’m currently uncertain of the closing line, and might not actually edit. ^_^

Update, 5 years later: I’ve never been totally happy with this series, but I won’t be fixing it until the archives are working at least up to Island of the Centipede.

The Underworld is full of things.

There are the little roly-poly round things. They’re like pillbugs. If you poke them, they’ll curl up tight. Then they’ll curl you up with them.

“Help!” you might cry. “I’m stuck!”

But nobody will hear you except the bug-eating giants, and so that’s hardly a win for you.

If Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the roly-poly round things will be gone. Maybe they’ll blow up. Maybe they’ll scurry down. Maybe they’ll just vanish. But they’ll be gone.

No more stories of great heroes descending into the Underworld and getting rolled up by little bugs before they return.

Legends, maybe, but not stories, because those bugs will be lost.

There are shark-human hybrids in the Underworld. Everyone knows that. If there weren’t then who would swim up just when you thought you could relax and do horrible human things to you with their horrible human teeth?

Down in the Underworld they swim.

There are little fish that live near their teeth, little Crest-brand fish that live near the teeth of the shark-human hybrids and dart in between meals to gnaw the scraps from the horrors’ mouths. You can find them in the Underworld, and in Greece, and, really, everywhere where Crest’s ancient inhuman power isn’t bound by the sevenfold law of the FDA.

And if Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the fish will die.

And the shark-human hybrids will die.

And there will be a silence in the deep.

Perhaps they will go on in some form, of course. It’s hard to say. Where is a soul after a soul-eater’s eaten it? Where is a light after the candle is snuffed? Where will be the noble shark-human hybrids and their terrible blunt teeth?

But we can call it “dead.”

Also in the Underworld there are the streaks. They’re colored red, yellow, and green. They’re in the air, like a classical painter got really tired after painting the Underworld and went suddenly modernist in frustration. They jangle and twist when you look at them. The souls in the Elysian fields can’t see them. The souls in torment in Tartarus try to ignore them. One day Tantalus will eat one and find that it tastes just exactly like artificial pudding, which in turn tastes more or less like his son Pelops. That’s why he will always look so funny when he eats a delicious vanilla Jell-O pudding cup. It’s not the flavor. It’s the nostalgia!

And if Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the streaks will be gone, and any purpose they might have to their long and colorful deaths will pass. And perhaps there will be a few lingerers, one or two stragglers, a few bright streaks of red and chartreuse hanging on the surface of the void, but they will go away and the ones who stay will die.

There are the burrs in the Underworld. They live under things. That’s why you don’t want to poke too much at things under other things in the Underworld. There could be burrs. The Underworld is already under other things, so it makes sense that going too much further under would be spiky. But they’re not spiky because it makes sense. They’re spiky as a natural evolved defense mechanism. It protects them from predators!

There are echoes. They’re not actually Echo, who didn’t die precisely but who made the wrong promise and couldn’t be human any more.(1)

(1) For reference, if Zeus ever asks you to make a promise pursuant to one of his pursuits, consider carefully the consequences. They’re not always as nice as you might imagine, and sometimes they involve having pampered tourists at the Grand Canyon shouting at you all day.

The echoes in the Underworld are not actually Echo, but they are the echoes of distant footsteps, and you can hear them if you try.

If Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the burrs will be gone. The echoes will be gone. There will be nothing but the emptiness where once there stood the cathedrals of Hades and the legions of the dead.

No more will trails of blood call the unliving back.

No more the Elysian fields; no more Tartarus; no more Hades; no more Persephone.

She can do this. It’s in her history, if you read back far enough. That’s what a Persephone does. She ends everything. She takes it away.

So as she stands there, with Hades holding out the pomegranate, Persephone licks her lips nervously and then she bows her head.

“Whatever,” she says. “You can do what you want, I guess. I won’t kill all this stuff you made.”

This is a pretty common decision for someone in her position to make, even though everyone always criticizes them for it later.

And she finds firmness in it and a sense of strength, so she lifts her head.

“I’m letting you live.”

And Hades says, “But that’s not what I want.”

“Huh?”

“End it,” says Hades. “Reach down to the nature of this place and make it an undiscovered land.”

Persephone blinks.

“Let it be a mystery,” he says. His face is avid. “Let no one know what happens here. Let them hope or imagine that it is a place of joy. Let them dream with bloodlust of their enemies suffering here in torment. Ease this from the world. Make it not known. That is what I have brought you here to do. That is what I have chosen.”

And she looks at him. And he looks back.

And she says, “You can’t make that choice for me.”

“I can,” he says.

“You can’t!”

And they’re both right, of course. They think they’re disagreeing, but they’re not. They’re just in the grip of Semantics, that bleak god, cousin to Ananke, from whom alone of all the gods and men great Zeus is free.

House of Saints: Standing in the Storm

Saul finds Vladimir crying on a bench.

The hunger for human flesh is there. It is tugging on Saul’s sleeve. It is asking for his attention. Saul considers it. But since Vladimir controls swarms of Lethal robot bees he is not the most edible man on campus.

Saul sits down.

“Hey,” he says. “What is it?”

Vladimir looks up. “You will kill me,” he says.

“No,” says Saul. He shakes his head. “I’m not going to kill you. I’m here to give you a shoulder to cry on.”

Vladimir laughs.

“No. Not now,” he says. “You will not kill me now. That is essentially impossible in the scenario as I understand it. But later. You will kill me later.”

“Oh,” says Saul. “That. Well—well, yeah.”

Saul grins a little.

“But we’ve got time,” Saul says. “There’s no hurry, now. No one’s joining the House of Hunger any more. I don’t know if the Hungry breed true, but if we don’t, and even if we do, really, we’re just a tiny handful of predators wandering an infinite world of prey.”

“It is my fault,” says Vladimir. “I have seen it. It is my ambition. It was too overweening. I weened, and then I weened more than I should have. In such a fashion did I doom us all.”

Saul pulls Vladimir over. And Vladimir rests his head on Saul’s shoulder and there he cries.

And Saul strokes Vladimir’s hair, and says, “Sh.”

“You will die too.”

“That’s all right,” says Saul.

“Hm?”

Saul gestures out at the horizon. “See,” says Saul, “I know the purpose of the world. It’s hunger. It’s the hunger that surges and falls inside me like a sea. I think we can make it grow in us. I think it can transform the world.”

Here Saul hesitates. He looks briefly confused. Then he shakes his head.

“The others are too confused to do it,” he says. “They’re pawns of the hunger. But I can teach them. I can lead them. I can make it grow. And if I succeed in this then it doesn’t matter if I die.”

“You do not know the purpose of the world,” says Vladimir.

“Pardon?” says Saul.

Vladimir withdraws. He gives Saul a corpse-grin.

“Here is what I know,” says Vladimir. “We see the purposes for others that are in our minds to see. But these are not their purposes. We are a lens that looks at one another and ourselves. But we are a flawed lens. I made a hat. It was my most brilliant creation, Saul. It was true genius. It found the potential in each person and sorted them into the House that would bring that potential out. But its world view was limited by the flaw in my personal lens, and the name of that flaw is Gotterdammerung.”

“Hats don’t lie about moral issues,” says Saul, uneasily.

Vladimir shrugs.

“I cannot say,” he says. “I am sorted. I am head boy of the House of Dreams. I am surrounded by the lightning and I cannot see the truth. I have trapped myself in the construct of my purposes. But I pray that it is wrong. I pray that someone will save us. Because I finally understand that that purpose is an evil purpose. It will crush me. It will crush you. It will take away our humanity.”

Something in this touches Saul. Perhaps it is the pitiability of meat regretting lost humanity. Perhaps it is the way that Vladimir in his edibleness nevertheless reminds Saul of his peers.

So Saul says, very gently, “We must take joy in the purposes given to us, Vladimir. They are all we have.”

The hunger is a rising storm; but Vladimir is a “sometimes” food.

Saul brushes his tears away.

Fun Fact! Some dieticians think that it’s okay to eat Vladimir all the time, but Vladimir doesn’t think it’s okay to eat him even once!

House of Saints is over. There will be one more related legend at some point in August or September. Beyond that, I make no promises, either to those who like it or those who don’t.

House of Saints: A Practically Unsolvable Problem

There is a sentience and a power in the graveyard of the hats. It has stirred; it has cast forth a sorting hat; it has created many Houses from the school.

In the House of Hunger, Edmund and Lucy meet.

“A shilling,” says Lucy.

“I want to apologize,” the Edmund-beast says.

Lucy points at the sign on her door. It says, “Consultations — 1 shilling. Eating your enemies — 18 shillings (ea.).”

“No exceptions,” Lucy says.

Edmund, blinking, passes her a shilling from some random change purse he has on him.

“Go ahead,” Lucy says.

“I’m sorry,” says the Edmund-beast. “It was rotten of me.”

Lucy snorts.

“I should have told you that he was mine. That I’d claimed him. But somehow I thought that hunger could be private.”

“It’s not,” says Lucy. “It is a surging force, Edmund. It is a power. It is like electricity or fire, and the color of it is green.”

The Edmund-beast nods. It is thoughtful.

“But if it’s a force, and not just something in me,” it says, “where did it come from? Whence did it rise?”

“That’s the kind of question that could get you into trouble, Edmund. If you think too much about the hunger it’ll devour your thoughts.”

In the House of Torment, young Sid in his pale hat is clipping at his nails. He’s digging at them now with a pair of Lethal-looking nail clippers and a file. He’s having to go in under the cuticle to get any more, and the pile of nail scraps on the floor is large enough to hide his discarded socks, gloves, and shoes. There is a fair bit of blood and his fingers and toes are red.

He is in the human graveyard. That’s where he went. He’s in a mausoleum. All around him, in the high levels, in the low levels, staring at him from each nook, are students with great owlish eyes and yellow hats. Emily. Morgan. Fred.

He does not mind them. They are standing between young Sid and madness.

“It is okay?” he asks them.

“There is no alternative,” Emily says.

And their presence, at the least, serves to damp his pain.

In the House of Saints, Peter makes himself ready for a journey into space.

“I wonder if this is right,” he says, to Bethany.

“We must save the world, Peter. If we do not act then it will die.”

“What if it’s meant to die?” Peter asks.

Bethany frowns at him.

“That would seem to negate all questions of morality.”

“Hm,” Peter agrees.

They pack their bags. They board the Bootstrap. Vladimir shoots them into space.

House of Saints


A Practically Unsolvable Problem

Vidar’s Boot is not simply a giant shoe. It is also a space station. From its quiet reaches Peter and Bethany look down at the Earth. They are supposed to be alone on the station, but they are not.

“Do you ever regret it?” Bethany asks him. “I mean, being sorted into the House of Saints?”

“Constantly,” says Peter.

“Me too,” says Bethany.

And from the texture of it as it spins below they know the Earth is vast.

“When we are over the hats,” says Bethany, “we will send Vidar’s Boot down.”

“Will we?” Peter asks.

Bethany shrugs.

“We will, or we won’t,” she says. “As is the way of saints. It is the virtue of strict categorization: we can determine how saints act by observing our own behavior.”

There is a soft snarling in the air. It is coming through the vents. Peter tries hard to ignore it.

“Someone is snarling,” Bethany points out.

“I am trying hard to ignore it,” Peter says. “In this, you are not helping.”

“I’m sorry,” says Bethany. “I thought you might be more comfortable if it was out in the open.”

Peter grins at her a little.

“Thank you,” he says.

He takes her hand. He squeezes it.

“We are approaching,” Peter says.

“Are you ready?” Bethany says. “To push the button?”

“Aren’t you going to do it?” Peter asks.

“No,” Bethany says.

“I’d thought,” Peter says, “that as a saint, you might spare me from this decision, by taking it onto your own shoulders.”

“No,” says Bethany.

Peter is surprised, although he should not be.

“Oh dear,” Peter says.

They both look at the button. They both face the inescapable truth. And it is an unfair one.

“Saints don’t . . . kill, do we.” Peter says.

“Apparently not.”

“Not even the terrible sentience of the graveyard of the hats?”

“Not even that.”

“That’s a flaw,” Peter protests. “That’s not a consistent morality! That’s an unfair expectation imposed from outside! We should get to kill things that are already dead.

“Peace,” Bethany says.

Peter sags a little.

“It’s not for nothing,” Bethany says. “I mean, the House of Dreams really liked building this boot.”

“Saul charged us to save the world. And we’re failing him. We’re failing the world,” says Peter. “But what can we do? Love was Gandhi’s weapon against the British Empire, and it changed the world, but the British Empire has always had a soft spot for love. Dead hats—they’re not that sentimental! They’re hollow inside! It’s like loving a hurricane or an evil jar!”

“I think saints fix things by helping others, not by campaigning to change their lives for them,” Bethany says.

Vidar’s Boot drifts over the graveyard of hats.

Sensors beep.

A button flashes, forlorn and unpushed.

“See,” says Peter, “it would have been nice to have figured that out before we were in, y’know, space.”

They pass the graveyard and continue their orbit around the earth.

Bethany makes a face.

And over the hours that follow Peter’s shoulders slump, and he sits in the corner of the room.

And finally Peter says, bleakly, “Saul lied.”

“Oh,” says Bethany. Slowly, she colors. “I . . . guess we really shouldn’t have taken him at his word after his whole reclassifying-people-as-food thing, yeah.”

“Man the defenses,” Peter says, straightening a little. “Edmund’s coming.”

There is a breathing sound and a scraping sound and the elevator opens. The Edmund-beast lopes in.

Bethany is standing at the internal defenses panel. Her finger hesitates over “heat-seeking lasers.” It moves on to “unspeakably painful nanovirus.” After reading the labels on the “worldkiller nuke” and “dimensional destruction” buttons, Bethany puts the palm of her hand to her head and says, “God. I’m sorry, Peter. We’re defenseless.”

“Peter,” says the Edmund-beast. “You cannot flee me by launching yourself willy-nilly into space. I will always find you, and when you have served your usefulness to me, I will eat you. And so I must ask: have you done so? Do I still need you, Peter?”

And Peter shakes his head.

“You don’t,” Peter says. “It’s over. Whatever you needed me for, it’s done.”

Edmund’s face shines with a brilliant grin.

There is a certain artificial gravity provided by the rotation of the boot, but it is not enough. Peter and Bethany’s blood takes a long, long time to fall.

“I am still hungry,” complains the Edmund-beast. “And now I am in space.”

It looks down at the Earth.

“I should not trust the discretion of saints to arrange things to my optimal satisfaction,” the Edmund-beast concludes.

Vidar’s Boot drifts over the graveyard of hats.

Sensors beep.

The Edmund-beast casts a startled gaze around.

A button flashes, forlorn and unpushed.

WHAM.

There is something in a boot that loves to stomp; and there is no enemy of boots so great as hats; and in the end, untended by its saints, Vidar’s Boot chooses its own destiny:

It slams down with brutal force into the Earth.

Time passes.

Vidar’s Boot smoulders.

The Edmund-beast claws out through the leather shell and limps into the molten ruins of the graveyard of the hats. He looks around. He sniffs the air.

“Welcome, brother,” says Saul. He is sitting on the blackened crater’s lip.

“What has happened?” says Edmund. It is a cry of pain. “The graveyard is ruined. The sorting hat will die. The House of Hunger will not grow.”

The computers in Vidar’s Boot click and whirr.

“There is a better way,” says Saul.

And as the beasts walk away, discussing, and unnoticed by them, the power systems in the boot come one by one to life. It is considering how it can achieve orbit again. It is a difficult problem, even for a computerized giant boot. It is practically unsolvable.

But it has tasted the stomping of the hats, and it can never go back now.

Fun Fact! Computers that click and whirr are up to 37% more powerful than computers that run in silence!

House of Saints will conclude Tuesday or Wednesday with “Standing in the Storm”