The Nest of Mirror Pieces (5 of 5)

Once upon a time, the monster pulled Mei Ming from the shadow’s womb.

She was born as thin as a caul— not in depth, but in spirit.

She was already shivering with cold.

She was already desperately hungry.

She was already an intimate of sorrow.

The monster said, “Good morning, child. Do you know what it is that you are?”

And Mei Ming shook her head.

Her eyes were sunken and her hair was gold.

“You are a misunderstanding,” said the monster. “A poorly-formed hypothesis, with some rudimentary justification, regarding the nature of the world. Your mother conceives of you as real. You represent that naivete. You are the blindness in her mind’s eye. You are the mistakes that devour her. That is all, I’m afraid, that you are—

“The instantiation of a destructive and terrible folly.”

“Oh,” whispered Mei Ming.

“I have made you because she needs you,” the monster said. “If you did not exist, then neither would she. Her being would fly apart to all the ten directions of the world. But—”

“. . . do I exist?” Mei Ming asked.

The monster scowled at her and her cheeks grew dark with shame. Then he grinned like a rogue.

“What a question,” he said, shaking his head. “Heh heh. What a question.”

In the tunnels Mei Ming keeps her home.

It is not a house or an apartment. Her home is not a permanent address at all.

It is the location of her stuff.

The walls near her stuff are stone and damp.

She’s hung her framed Matisse upon one wall. Next to it are old bookshelves made from teak and ivory and platters made of gold.

She lives in an unimaginable luxury of material wealth.

There is no electricity and she is always in shadows but there is treasure.

Her teacup is glass with phoenix feathers woven inside it.

Her clothes are hand-dyed silk.

Her coffee table is a solid jade block on four stubby little legs.

Here are some additional notes regarding the coffee table:

When the subway train comes by, rattling-rattling-rattling the walls, the table will dance.

Sometimes it will also dance even when the train isn’t coming by.

At those times it dances just for the joy of it: for the way that when it moves just right, it feels like it is flying.

That’s why Martin always makes sure that there’s a salt shaker on it when he’s visiting. A salt shaker on a table keeps it from dancing and it is also excellently convenient when you want to salt something.

Martin is, as it happens, visiting right now.

He has knocked.

He has entered.

“Hey, Martin,” Mei Ming says. Then she offers, “Milk?”

Martin shakes his head.

“I’m here to help you,” he says.

He sets his burden on the table. It’s a nest of mirror-shards in a cage of firewood. It’s strung together with glue and wires.

The mirror-shards are showing fragments of history—

Vaguely only, there’s only so much chaos in the tunnels, but showing fragments of history—

Surrounding the events of the past few days.

Mei Ming studies it.

She says, “I hope you don’t want me to drink it. It’d be glug glug horrible pain glug. Also I don’t think it fits in my mouth.”

“I also bring gifts that are not for drinking,” Martin says.

Mei Ming peers at it.

“I can’t hang it on the wall,” she says, tentatively.

Her home begins to shudder, rattling-rattling-rattling, as the subway passes by.

“If I did it might get broken.” She gestures at the wall. “Sometimes the subway plows right into my home. Like, I’ll be drinking tea or something. And then whoosh! Bam! There’s this subway. It always sends stuff tumbling every which way.”

“How undignified,” Martin says.

“It is why I live my itinerant lifestyle,” Mei Ming says. “Today, here. Tomorrow, perhaps, three tunnels to the left! Fortunately the table is mobile and Matisse takes exceptionally well to being hit by trains.”

“That’s his eccentric Fauvist genius,” Martin concurs.

There’s a pause.

“So,” Mei Ming says.

“I don’t fail very often,” Martin says. “But I wasn’t able to finish my studies of Persephone.”

Mei Ming traces a line on one of the mirror shards with her finger.

“If Persephone got angry at me,” Mei Ming observes, “she could turn me into Mei Mint. I would have all of the benefits of aromatic leafiness and I would only have to change one letter of my name.”

Martin grins.

“April showers would bring Mei flowers,” Martin agrees.

“So,” Mei Ming says, again.

“I brought this to you because it is the ruin of . . . a vital and true thing,” Martin says. He gestures at the mirror pieces.

“. . . oh.”

“It’s what happens when a tool that is as ancient as the rain is shattered,” Martin says. He hesitates. “And then parts of it stuck back together with glue and wire. But that’s not the important part. The important part is what broke it, which is to say, a mystery and a contradiction. You’re supposed to look at it and say, ‘Wow. That got broken by a conceit.'”

Mei Ming looks up at him sharply.

“What?”

“It wasn’t a physical thing,” Martin says. “It was a concept that shattered it; or, rather, not even a concept but the absence of a concept, which wound up having raw physical import in the world.”

Mei Ming looks a bit defensive.

“That’s not the world,” Mei Ming says. “That’s an artifact of scrying from your little bubble place, your tower bound only by a bridge to the world and sound. That’s a thing of magic, which is to say, something just one absence of an enlightened observation’s distance from not existing at all.”

Martin makes a dismissive noise: pblt!

“Hm?”

“It wasn’t magic that broke it,” Martin says. “It broke because of the impact of intention on a mind.”

“. . . oh,” says Mei Ming softly.

“It’s here to remind you,” Martin says. “That we are all concepts, even those of us with gross physical flesh. That we are minions of the material world, ideas born from the emptiness of matter, concepts without true referent— for who is there whose intentions exactly match to all their actions?— and yet that we can matter in the world.”

“I have gross physical flesh,” protests Mei Ming.

Pblt! Martin offers her again.

“It’s a refined substance,” he says. “If it were gross, then you’d be all splattery from being occasionally hit by a train.”

“I dodge!” Mei Ming protests.

In a small voice, she adds, “Usually.”

“Have you ever seen someone hit by a train?” Martin says. “It’s gross.”

An Unclean Legacy: “Grinding Samael”

Once upon a time, the Devil came to Castle Gargamel and Violet walked out to meet him in the halls.

“Hello,” she said.

She was 11 years old. She was wearing striped pajamas, slippers, and a nightcap.

Dead old Baltasar turned to look at her. The shadow moved in him. He hissed at her.

“You’re keeping the children awake,” Violet said. “You’re scaring everybody. What do you want?”

Suddenly he was upon her. The grave-stench of him was in her face. He was pushing her back against the wall. And he said: Montechristien.

But Violet was not frightened.

“He can’t even hear you,” she said. “He’s still asleep in his rooms, and when you loom in the halls shrieking your terrors, he snores, like this: honk, kzhhh!”

You will give him to me.

“Or?”

I will take you instead. I will carry you off to the furthest corners of the world and there visit terrors and indignities upon you.

And Violet sagged in relief and laughed, a bright clear laugh.

Dead old Baltasar loomed in. He hissed softly and the smell of him was horrid.

“No,” Violet said smugly. “You won’t.”

Baltasar’s black eyes narrowed. Then, suddenly, he withdrew. He turned away. He stared down the hall.

It does not matter, he said. I will enter his rooms. I will pluck him up. I will destroy him. Then you will have no father and the children will tear their hair and pluck out their own eyes in sorrow.

“If you could do that,” said Violet, “then you would have.”

It turned.

Then I will eat Francescu, it said, and be satisfied thereby.

Violet stepped into its path, and then winced, visibly, because now it knew what she feared.

Dead old Baltasar reached out with his shadow arms. He lifted her up and held her against the wall. He walked past her towards the children’s rooms.

“Wait,” said Violet.

Wait?

“We’ll make a deal,” Violet said.

Give me Montechristien.

“No,” Violet said flatly.

There was a moment’s silence.

“Give me fifty years,” Violet said.

No.

They stood there, still, Violet pinned by shadow.

I will give you twenty years, the shadow said, for one of the little gold men.

“Twenty?”

Twenty years, and I will kill none of you in that time.

“I can’t—they’re father’s—”

They are stolen lives. Did you think that they were crafted? They were made from living men.

Violet looked sickened.

I need only one, said the sin of Montechristien Gargamel.

Violet was silent.

Very well.

The shadow dropped her. It moved on.

“Wait!” Violet screamed.

And she cut her thumb and pledged with the shadow, and the shadow left Castle Gargamel for a time.

In a time of wizards and kings, one name stood above the rest. He was Montechristien Gargamel.

He seized from the mushroom village one hundred of the blue essentials and transformed them into gold. From that time on his power was limitless. He broke the world and repaired it again. He dispensed terrible destinies and powers as if they were the most ordinary of gifts. And as the time of his death approached his children came to his Castle to dispose of the matter of their legacy.

Violet, his eldest and most dear, who had betrayed him before she was even half-grown.
Francescu, the deathless sorcerer, who had turned his back on the affairs of the world.
Manfred, the fallen knight, whose strength was legend and whose spear was magic’s bane.
Tomas the cruel, who had looked in his tenth year upon the face of God.
Christine, the mad sorceress, who wandered the world in her living house.
Sophie the skinchanger, soulless and Devil-tainted, and once the one Montechristien loved best.
Elisabet, the Devil’s child, a creature as much of shadow as of life.

In the hour of the end, each turned their hands against each other, and the halls of Castle Gargamel ran with blood. This is the twenty-second installment of the story of that time.

Sometime in her twenty-first year, Violet wakes with a start. There is a dampness and a darkness in her room.

A hand comes down over her mouth.

Its fingers are webbed and pale. She bites at the palm but due to the construction of the human mouth does not succeed.

“My name is Samael Saraman,” says the man in her room. “I have come to pay suit to you and bind our houses together in matrimony. But as I have heard that you grind up your suitors into a fine mist and expel them over Castle Gargamel, I do not wish to pay you court by conventional means.”

His fingers press against her neck. They form a magical seal. Violet finds herself unable to move.

Samael scoops her up. He walks to her window. He whistles.

There is a creature below. It is like a horse. It is like a serpent. It eddies its way up the wall and out Samael steps onto its arching neck.

“We will be wed by morning,” Samael says.

An Unclean Legacy


“Grinding Samael”

The beast descends the wall and Samael takes her away to the ruined cathedral by the Castle. There are squamous guards beside the door. There is a priest rousted from his bed by cold white fingers in the night.

Samael’s hand touches Violet’s neck. She is free to move.

“You are in error,” Violet says.

In Castle Gargamel there is a great threshing machine. It is in an isolated chamber and the blades spin lightly this way and that even when it is unpowered.

“Begin,” says Samael to the priest.

Above the threshing machine the Castle is open to the sky. Below it, there is a hole in the Castle’s stone floor.

“It’s a really bad error,” Violet says.

The priest looks uncomfortably between them. “I don’t—I don’t know—”

“It’s all right,” Violet says to the priest. She smiles.

Samael looks sideways at her.

“It is necessary,” Samael says.

So the priest begins to recite from the wedding ceremony. He stumbles his way through; until the guards bring Violet a ring of nickel and iron.

“Alas,” says Violet, as Samael puts the ring onto her finger.

In Castle Gargamel, the threshing machine spins to life. Pedals in a nearby room begin to pump, without feet on them. Levers lower themselves. The blades turn faster and faster.

“Alas?”

“I can’t get married,” Violet says. “I can’t get swept away. I have to take very special precautions if I even want to have sex.”

Samael looks oddly at her.

“Pronounce us man and wife,” he says, to the priest.

The priest says: “I—”

There are long creeping tendrils of eldritch power on the ground. They seize Samael’s legs. He looks down. He looks up.

The tendrils pull.

Samael is whisked away. He is dragged, and his hands come down nail to the ground to fight it, into Castle Gargamel. He thumps past the great barking dog and under the eyes of the watching statues. He passes Montechristien Gargamel, staggering through the Castle in his nightcap to find a midnight snack. Montechristien stares at him.

Samael is of the cold folk, and he does not scream.

The threshing machine reaches its fastest pitch as he enters that room. Samael is flung up among its spinning blades. They cut him into a fine black mist.

A series of great levers yank themselves downwards. There is a puff of wind from the hole in the floor below the threshing machine. The mist that is Samael flies up and out and hangs over Castle Gargamel in great clouds. He disperses; and the crops and livestock fare poorly that year in the lands around.

“Mom always told me,” Violet says, “that someday I’d find a man who would sweep me away. But back then, these horrible brats were always coming to the castle to woo me or Francescu, and . . . well, when my tenth birthday came around, I really hated boys.”

Does the autothreshing of suitors really count as a birthday present?

Who got the better deal: the shadow or Violet?

Tune in on Monday for the next exciting installment of An Unclean Legacy: “Francescu’s Angel!”

An Unclean Legacy: “Sophie and the Devil”

That night as the questing shadow comes Sophie does not run.

She stands there and the moonlight is behind her so she shines.

There is a sword of bone in her hand.

So dead old Baltasar stops and he stares at her through his ruined eyes. She does not move.

Slowly, taut with the pain of moving his broken body, he steps forward.

“Tonight,” says Sophie, in a clear and ringing voice, “I will destroy you. Or I will make you my slave. Or I will force you to leave me alone for all of the days of the world. Or, should I be vindictive, should I be angry for these past seven years, I will strip you of your throne as King of Hell and assign it instead to some lesser evil, such as a malevolent frog or Francescu’s shoulder demon. Then you will have to bow and simper and cower to it for all the days of your existence.”

There is a pause.

“And should I fail,” Sophie adds, in a concession to realism, “then I will try again tomorrow night, and the night after, and each night that follows until I succeed, and I will make you suffer more strongly for each night I have suffered before then. You have tested me and I have not broken. You may hunt me again each night between now and forever and it will only give me another chance to win.”

There is moonlight in her hair.

You are mine, and you will be mine, says the shadow.

But the shadow is hesitating, and it is more than just the ruination of the corpse.

Sophie lowers her sword. She points it at the shadow.

“Do we begin?”

And . . .

Once upon a time there was a seraph who had a different vision for the world than God’s.

He rejected the drive that would lead the world to grace. And God said to him, “Then I shall cast you from Heaven into the blue realm, whence you may strive against me to bring harmony and fellowship into the world even when it opposes the fabric of the greater design.”

“No,” said that seraph.

“Is it the purple realm, then, that calls you? Are you to be a servant of the life?”

“I am indifferent to life,” said that seraph.

“Then you may choose the onyx realm, though it sorrows me, the realm of Saraman and Santrieste; the realm that dreams of silence and the dark.”

“There is a realm of burning red,” that seraph said.

And God hardened his heart against that seraph and cast him down into the fire of the pit; and everlasting damnation decreed against him; and shattered in him forever the understanding of God’s grace.

Now that fallen creature seeks to turn men and women from the path of righteousness. Now he seeks the damnation of the world. As the serpent he broke the Garden of Eden. As the reveler in white he brought the flood. As the red giant he fought with Montechristien Gargamel. As old dead Baltasar he hunted Sophie down the road.

He will not rest while grace exists within this world. He is the architect of sin.

The shadow forces words from dead Baltasar’s lungs. “We will not start yet.”

Suddenly there is a chill in Sophie. Every sense is telling her that behind her there are eyes. Her hackles rise. She casts about with her mind, but there is no physical location sourcing this unease; it is “behind” her in the realm of spirit. The attention grows more strict; more fierce; more painful. There is a flare of red and black in her mind.

Her legs go nerveless and she sits.

The thing in dead old Baltasar sits down opposite her. It writhes inside the corpse. Then it abandons it. The corpse dissolves. Body parts black and blue and rotten fall to every side. Shadow dissipates.

Sophie glimpses a portal to another realm in the Devil’s shapelessness. It is a horror too great for her mind to comprehend. She squints, trying to filter it down to pieces she can grasp, but by that time it is too late. The enemy has chosen its new form.

It has become a lean and elfin man, four feet tall. He has horns. They are simple, curved, and short.

He is shirtless, though trousers hide his shame.

He is red, red, red, and his shapeless cap is white.

“I do not wish to engage you on those terms,” says the horned man.

Sophie forces out these words: “It is beyond your power to change.”

“I am a coward,” says the horned man casually. “It is because I have so much to lose. So we will converse, you and I, and find another way to settle our affair.”

“This is not a conversation,” Sophie points out, struggling even to speak.

“Ah.”

The sense of a predator’s gaze vanishes away. Feeling returns to Sophie’s limbs. She curls in on herself, gasping in breath, shivering, recovering, restoring order to her mind.

“It is not my specific intention to hurt you, though I am perfectly willing to see you in agony,” the horned man says. “You do not find my attentions enjoyable because change is distressing, and I must change you.”

Sophie half-looks up, squinting. “Why?”

An Unclean Legacy


“Sophie and the Devil”

The horned man tilts his head to the side. “Will I gain points with you, Sophie, for answering that question?”

“If the answer doesn’t suck.”

“I disagree with God as to the proper purpose for this world,” the horned man says. He stands up. Sophie notices for the first time that his trousers include pointed booties for his feet, and it is only because she is exhausted and terrified and wounded that she is successful in smothering her laughter. “He directs it like a symphony towards a kingdom of eternal grace. But I find it more interesting to develop its potential for drama and tragedy.”

Sophie is staring at him.

“What?” the Devil asks, irritably.

“You’re still trying to oppose him?”

The red thing laughs. “I would think you of all people would understand that, Sophie.”

Sophie blushes a little. “Yes,” she says, “I mean, sure, but still?

The red thing frowns, just a little.

“In truth,” he says. “I am winning. It is the nature of humanity to count as my victories their sins and their sorrows, these petty things that win one soul at a time away from God’s eternal kingdom. Then they see sorrow and tragedy in the world and they cry out, ‘Lord, why are you cruel?’

“The former may be my work, but the latter is my pride. When God is cruel, I am victorious. When God makes people suffer. When he tests. When he punishes. When he turns a blind eye to pain. Those are the points of my victory. Those are the compromises that he makes with my red purpose to achieve his eventual kingdom.”

“. . . I am not theologically prepared to debate the problem of pain with you at this time,” Sophie says, a little dazed.

The Devil grins.

“That’s so,” he says. “In truth, you are probably best served by listening to nothing that I say. But if you did not, we could not talk, and then I would continue troubling your life.”

“So what do you want?”

“You can be anything I want,” the red thing says. “That is the gift your father gave you, that he never had reason to explain. It is your most marvelous quality: that you alone in all the world can be anything that anybody wants.”

“Anything?”

“The damnation of the world,” says the Devil. “The destruction of Montechristien. You can be everything that I desire. And yet you prefer to be a bunch of animals at once or a girl with a sword growing out of her hand.”

“Oh.”

“It is vexing,” says the Devil, “and we will resolve the matter tonight.”

Time for theology! Can you minimally adjust Pseudo-Dionysus’ hierarchy of angels to include matrices of blue energy in human shape, three apples high, wearing shapeless white caps?

Can proper Biblical exegesis reveal more about these strange creatures? Are there oblique references in Ezekiel 15 to the doom ‘Handy’ worked on Israel? Did ‘Batty’ save Zipporah and Moses from a giant snake?

Make sure to read the first nineteen installments of this story, and tune in Friday for a special Unclean Legacy: “The Duel!”

An Unclean Legacy: “Way of the Ninja”

Yseult is dying.

She is dying in childbirth.

She clutches at Montechristien’s hands. She says, “Oh, love, do not forsake me.”

And Montechristien holds her hands tight.

“I see angels walking towards me,” Yseult says dreamily. “On a path of gold.”

Everywhere there is blood.

Yseult frowns. It is a distant, worried frown. She says, “Wait. Wait.”

“Hm?” says Montechristien.

“Why do I see angels, love?”

Montechristien glances towards the bowls of water and the towels and a wet towel flies through the air undripping to brush gently against Yseult’s brow.

“Why are there angels coming for me when my Gargamel is damned?”

“Peace,” says Montechristien. “Do not become upset.”

“No,” says Yseult. “No. I must go downwards. They tell me I will forget. That this will pass from me. I do not want to forget, my love. Shake them from me. Drive them forth, my love. Send them forth with broken wings and tattered robes.”

“I would not do that,” says Montechristien. “Even were I God.”

“Tell them,” sobs Yseult. “I have always been evil. I have slept with elder things. I have consorted with sorcerers. Tell them I have always been evil, my Gargamel.”

“Love,” says Montechristien, “in our lives we transcend such small and barren categories. In your life you have been nothing more or less than my Yseult.”

And Yseult lays back and there is another rush of blood and the child is born in it.

And slowly the life passes near from Yseult’s eyes.

“Oh, love,” says Montechristien. And he starts to close her eyes.

That is when Yseult wrenches herself back nearly from the grave and rises on her elbows and tries to see the child she has given; and seeing Montechristien’s face instead a terrible fear and anger grow in her and she points at him and cries, “Gargamel! Gargamel! Do not you blame the child!”

Then she dies.

And Montechristien looks down at the child, still unslapped, and this is what he sees: a creature of protoplasmic shadow, its tendrils flailing still about, extracting gently from the vaginal tunnel the cord through which it drained its mother’s life. He sees the product of Yseult Saraman’s black blood and the seed of a soul already dead and damned: a creature as much of Hell and Montechristien’s own doom as anything of Earth.

His face twists.

Slowly, he picks up Elisabet. Slowly, he cradles her in his arms.

That sphere of shadow that most resembles for Elisabet an eye turns to study him. A mouth gapes. The thing in his arms says, “Father, I am scarcely born; why do I know you?”

And “What am I, father?”

Montechristien Gargamel thinks. He walks the child about the room, rocking it gently. He thinks further.

And he hears in his mind: “Gargamel! Do not you blame the child!”

“Father?”

Montechristien looks down at her with his long nose and his thin hair.

“It is because you are a ninja,” lies Montechristien.

“A ninja?”

“A mystic warrior of the far east. Trained to hide in shadows and throw shuriken and—”

He held out a finger and black tendrils wrapped around it.

They are like sharkskin. His finger is bleeding, just a little, into his daughter’s unformed shape.

“—and to kill those who must be killed.”

“It is hard,” says Elisabet, “to be born a ninja, and to kill your mother with your birth.”

Montechristien clenches his teeth together. He hyperventilates to hold back tears.

“It is a great gift,” he says. “And a great curse. But you must be worthy of the sacrifice she made.”

“I promise, father.”

And it is not until Elisabet is safely in her cradle with a magical bottle and a blanket once made for Violet that Montechristien screams and from his tower splits apart the world; and then, on hands and knees, with tears and mumbled apologies to the Lady Yseult for all his clumsiness, knits the Earth carefully back together at its seams.

We do not know how Montechristien Gargamel came into his power. His origins are a mystery. How such an ungainly, strange, and immoral man could rise so swiftly to prominence puzzles even the greatest scholars of our time. Of his life once established in Castle Gargamel, however, certain facts are known.

He took to wife the Lady Yseult Gargamel, one of the great beauties of his day; and though many a rival pressed for evidence that he’d bewitched or stolen her, none was ever found. They had and loved six children of their flesh, until the seventh, Elisabet, killed Yseult with the complications of her birth. Each of these children was a prodigy, possessed of astonishing talents. When at last Montechristien stumbled towards the grave, the talents of his children turned against their siblings, every hand against the other, until at last they could dispose of the matter of their legacy.

This is the eighteenth installment of the story of that time.

Montechristien is dying, and his seven children have gathered to his keep.

Elisabet is walking the halls and she meets Tomas.

“Hi!” she says.

Tomas looks at her. His eyes are cold and severe. Elisabet shivers.

“What would you do,” Tomas asks, “if father named you his heir?”

“I hope he doesn’t,” Elisabet says.

“Hm?”

“I know who I am,” Elisabet says. “But having near-infinite power—that would mess everything up. I wouldn’t even really know which fork to use for the salad any more. Also, I think maybe the little gold men make their owner shriveled up and cranky. You?”

“I would use them for good works,” says Tomas. “I would clothe the naked, feed the hungry, tend the sick, and wipe away the unworthy.”

“That is a fine ambition.”

Tomas is looking at her.

“I should kill you,” Tomas says. “Here and now. I should destroy you and leave nothing. But it is hard for me because you lie so well.”

An Unclean Legacy


Way of the Ninja

Elisabet fades into her shape of shadow, but she does not retreat.

“Why do you think I’m lying?” the shifting inhuman Devil’s child asks.

“When I was ten,” said Tomas, “I looked upon the face of God. I saw the order and the purpose to which this world is arranged and the glory and the honesty of it.”

“That is as may be.”

“You are no part of that, Elisabet.”

Elisabet furrows.

“Ninjas are forgotten of the Lord?”

“You aren’t a ninja,” says Tomas. “I don’t even think there really are ninjas. It’s just something father made up.”

“Oh,” Elisabet says.

“You’re a child of that shadow that came to Castle Gargamel that night,” says Tomas. “A protrusion of Hell and horror into this world.”

Elisabet is in her human shape again. She is shaking.

“Everything else,” says Tomas, cruelly, “is a lie.”

“Do you think that you can kill me, Tomas?”

“No,” says Tomas.

He turns and walks away.

“I think you will,” he says, as he departs.

And Elisabet falls to her knees.

There is a blade in her hand. She’s not entirely sure where it came from. Possibly from Hell.

“Father says seppuku is just a myth,” she reminds herself. “So I shouldn’t.”

But the blade is there.

Just in case she’s someone who should die.

“Tomas is lying,” says Elisabet. Her voice trembles. But she knows better. She’s always known better, or at least ever since she was six and found Montechristien’s copy of Mysterious Oriental Ways: How Ninja Techniques Can Help You Catch Blue Essentials!

“I wonder if it matters,” she says, distantly. “I wonder if it can even hurt me. I wonder if dying changes anything for me.”

The blade shines.

“Oh, well,” says Elisabet, and the blade moves in her hands.

Hop hop hop! Hide in shadows! Blood is red!

That’s it for now for Elisabet’s story, but tune in tomorrow for the next exciting chapter of An Unclean Legacy: “The Spear Named Cursebreaker”—also called: “Francescu’s Answer!”

An Unclean Legacy: “Abandoned”

Once upon a time, a terrible spinach-spider troubled the forest near Manfred’s cottage.

Rachel went out to gather water. This was a mistake. The spinach-spider leapt out from the shadows. It knocked her down. It loomed over her, its fangs dripping a peculiar assortment of vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates against her face.

“I’ve eaten tougher things than you,” Rachel said, bravely.

She waited for the Saraman destiny to kick in. She waited for it to kneel before her. But the spinach-spider was not truly evil, and so it saw her as its prey.

It chittered a horrible chitter and leaned down over her face.

There was the clattering of hooves.

Rachel turned her head to one side. The spinach-spider looked as well.

“Manfred!” Rachel said.

“Charge!” cried Manfred, to Santrieste.

But Santrieste, having cantered into the clearing where Rachel and the spinach-spider were, stopped in his advance.

He shook his head. He whinnied.

This is the natural order of life, Manfred, said Santrieste. It is bloody and cruel. But let it be.

“Charge, fuck it,” repeated Manfred.

But Santrieste stood still.

Rachel cast her eyes around frantically. She found an evil bee. She seized it from the flowers and flung it at the spinach-spider’s face. It buzzed about. It stung the spinach-spider once and then died. This is actually a pretty heroic accounting for an evil bee.

Manfred, still cursing, flung himself down from the saddle. He charged the beast himself. Its fangs came down at Rachel. Manfred caught one fang in his hand. He squeezed it until the juice of the spinach gurgled back into the spider’s stomach and the spider squealed and danced in pain. Its stinger stabbed down at Rachel’s unprotected leg; Manfred caught it in his other hand.

“Well,” said Manfred.

The spinach-spider chittered horribly. You will regret this indignity! is how Manfred interpreted its intention.

“You underestimate me, monster of the woods,” said Manfred.

With a great heave, he lifted the spider into the air and flung it sideways fifteen feet. It landed with a startled squelch and rose to its eight feet.

It danced one, two, three steps in anger.

Then it scurried into the forest and was gone.

Manfred reached down a hand for Rachel, who blushed prettily as she took it and rose to stand.

“I do not think it will trouble humankind again,” said Manfred.

If you sleep with her, said Santrieste, I will leave you.

Manfred looked over his shoulder at the unicorn.

He squinted.

“You do understand, Santrieste,” he said, “that I am not a virgin?”

This startled a giggle from Rachel, in turn causing Manfred to blush.

The unicorn spoke only with its eyes: Nevertheless.

“Well . . . well, fine,” said Manfred.

He stared at the unicorn.

“Is he criticizing your sexual prowess?” Rachel asks.

Santrieste colored.

“I understand that it’s a big thing with stallions.”

Not unicorn stallions, said Santrieste, looking away. Also, you are an evil thing and will destroy my Manfred, so please, next time this happens, die.

“Aww,” said Rachel. “He’s blushing.”

After a moment, Manfred forces out a, “Yes. Yes, he is.”

We do not know how Montechristien Gargamel came into his power. His origins are a mystery. How such an ungainly, strange, and immoral man could rise so swiftly to prominence puzzles even the greatest scholars of our time. Of his life once established in Castle Gargamel, however, certain facts are known.

He took to wife the Lady Yseult Gargamel, one of the great beauties of his day; and though many a rival pressed for evidence that he’d bewitched or stolen her, none was ever found. They had and loved six children of their flesh, until the seventh, Elisabet, killed Yseult with the complications of her birth. Each of these children was a prodigy, possessed of astonishing talents. When at last Montechristien stumbled towards the grave, the talents of his children turned against their siblings, every hand against the other, until at last they could dispose of the matter of their legacy.

This is the sixteenth installment of the story of that time.

Sophie wakes. It is the morning after Manfred’s encounter with the Devil on the road.

Manfred is sitting, half-asleep, by a dying campfire.

For a long moment, Sophie just stays there, smiling, staring at her brother Manfred who has wrestled the Devil to the ground.

“Hi,” she says.

And Manfred looks up, and says, hesitant and scared, “Was I in time?”

Sophie stares at him.

Slowly, the smile fades from her face. It is replaced by a lonely mouth and bitter eyes.

“Yes,” she says. “Yes, you were in time.”

“Good,” Manfred says, and the fear flows out of him with those words and he smiles at her and he does not seem to see what’s in her face.

He stirs the fire.

“It is no wonder,” he says, “that you have become so swift. I am in awe.”

“Yes,” Sophie says.

Then she shrugs.

“The shadow gets stronger as the years go by. At first it was just Uncle Baltasar’s bumbling corpse chasing me around the halls.”

She mimes a staggering corpse with one hand and a running girl with the other. Manfred laughs.

“Hey,” Manfred says.

“Hey?”

“Dad won’t even talk me about Rachel,” Manfred says. “And Santrieste will leave me if we . . . if we . . .”

Manfred shrugs.

“I wanted your advice,” he says.

“Don’t care,” says Sophie.

“Huh?”

“Listen,” says Sophie, and her face grows hot as she speaks. “You don’t have to care what they think. You don’t have to care what anybody thinks. If you can find some shelter in her arms, Manfred, then you should take it and shout praise for that opportunity to Heaven. If you can find real love with her that isn’t a sorcerous binding, then I say, do it now and don’t count the consequences. Find something that is yours and real and take it and never let it go. Do you think Montechristien and Santrieste are your friends?

And she would be crying, if she did not shift in the instant before each tear into a shape that had no ducts.

“. . . You’re right,” Manfred says. “Thank you.”

Sophie is a lark, a raven, a jay, a robin, an eagle, and she is flying away.

An Unclean Legacy


Abandoned

That night, Rachel stands up to leave Manfred’s cottage as the sun nears setting.

“You don’t have to go,” Manfred says.

And there is a terrible angry thrashing from the stable near his house.

Rachel stares at Manfred for a long time.

“Truly?” she asks.

“Truly,” he says.

And she steps into his arms. And he embraces her with the warm strength of him and the cold white metal of the brassards on him. And as they fall into his bed the room seems strangely hot to him, and there is a pounding on the cottage-stable wall. And it seems to him that the cares and burdens of life as Manfred Gargamel are falling from him; that the long years of bondage to principles not his own and the ancient fear of the Devil that walked in Castle Gargamel and the roads outside his home are passing from him. And in the moment of his completion he says her name, “Rachel,” and she says, “I will free you, Manfred,” and it is as if he is at last abandoned by the nagging voices of his devil and his angel and his curses and his blessings and in her arms is shelter, warmth, and peace.

It fades to darkness.

The darkness fades to cold.

Manfred is haled away from world and sound and banished from the lands of spinach-spiders and of men.

That’s not good, is it? But we won’t have the final part of Manfred’s backstory for a little while.

Instead, it’s time for a heartwarming Unclean Legacy holiday special: “How Elisabet Saved Christmas!”

An Unclean Legacy: “Manfred on the Road”

It was in Manfred’s home, laying on his couch as he carved apples at his table, that Sophie first realized that her father was damned.

“His soul’s already in Hell,” she said.

“Eh?”

“That’s what it means,” she said. “To be a twin. Baltasar had their soul. He made a mistake. The demons took him down to Hell, and their soul with him. So he’s already suffering the torments of the damned, and when he dies, they’ll get worse. That’s why Daddy had to tie up the Devil, I think.”

Manfred pondered that.

“He should tie up the Devil again,” Manfred said. “And also wrench his soul back from Hell, cleanse it with the power of the little gold men, and send it up to Heaven.”

“Huh,” said Sophie, thinking about that. “. . . Yes. I wish he would.”

We do not know how Montechristien Gargamel came into his power. His origins are a mystery. How such an ungainly, strange, and immoral man could rise so swiftly to prominence puzzles even the greatest scholars of our time. Of his life once established in Castle Gargamel, however, certain facts are known.

He took to wife the Lady Yseult Gargamel, one of the great beauties of his day; and though many a rival pressed for evidence that he’d bewitched or stolen her, none was ever found. They had and loved six children of their flesh, until the seventh, Elisabet, killed Yseult with the complications of her birth. Each of these children was a prodigy, possessed of astonishing talents. When at last Montechristien stumbled towards the grave, the talents of his children turned against their siblings, every hand against the other, until at last they could dispose of the matter of their legacy.

This is the fifteenth installment of the story of that time.

Sophie runs.

She has left Manfred’s cottage for the night. It is after dark. The shadow is on the road. It is heading in her direction, blindly questing towards Manfred’s home.

In a blur of bounding shapes Sophie darts into the trees. When she passes the shadow she is barely hitting her stride. She lands beside the road as a greyhound, lean and long, and she runs.

It does not see her. She is silent as she passes. But it smells her. And it turns.

Sophie, it says.

The shadow is in the shape of Baltasar Gargamel, her uncle, but it moves unnaturally and its eyes are red and black.

“No time,” mutters Sophie, in moments of human shape between each bound.

You are beautiful, says the shadow. You will serve me.

The voice is like honey and ice cream to her. It is beautiful and it is sweet. And the shadow reaches its claw after her, stretching across the yards between them.

Sophie is a gnat. She whirls between its fingers and away.

Dead Baltasar lifts his arms against the moonlight and eight shadow-limbs weave a web to catch the gnat.

Sophie is a hare. She tears through the web and runs, her back legs pounding.

Dead Baltasar drops to his hands and knees. He takes on the aspect of the hound. He is chasing her, his fingers clawed, his head extended, baying in the fashion that the Devil bays.

“You should stay,” Manfred said. He looked out at the setting sun. “If you head home now, you’ll meet the shadow on the road.

“No worries,” Sophie said.

Sophie is a horse; a stag; a gazelle; an antelope; a tiger. She shifts with each footstep, finding the shape best suited to that moment of the road. She is gaining on the shadow.

Then the aspect of the Devil burns around dead Baltasar, and he grows great and fiery, and he tromps after her on great elephantine legs, and the forest shakes and shudders with the pounding of his feet.

Sophie, you have no soul, but I can see your heart, and it is worthy of me.

“You won’t catch me tonight,” Sophie says.

She is the lightning, arcing madly forward from tree to tree.

“What if you meet the shadow?” Manfred asked.

“Then I will run and run and run,” Sophie said, “until the dawn.”

To take form as lightning is tiring and dizzying, so she does not move forward quite so quickly or for quite so long as she would like. She falls from that shape and rises again and she is a hummingbird, an eagle, a falcon, flying upwards towards the clouds and the moon.

Behind her there is the terrible swarming sound of bees.

“I do not like you taking such a risk,” Manfred said.

“I am used to it,” Sophie said.

“But if it should catch you—” Manfred said.

“Yes?”

“Then it would taint you,” Manfred said. “It would work its miasma into your flesh and bone. You’d be lost to us.”

Sophie is a thrashing cloud-runner. She is a winged unicorn, its skin as black as pitch. She is a spreading murder of crows.

Dead Baltasar, mounted on an iron pestle, is gaining on her.

“Damn it,” Sophie mutters. “I’m distracted tonight.”

“I could resist,” Sophie protested. “I could stay clean.”

But Manfred thought back to the night of the shadow, and the temptations that he has overcome only by virtue of the shackles on his arms, and he shook his head. “No. You couldn’t. No one could.”

Then Sophie is tumbling down as a spear of sunlight to the earth. She realizes her mistake too late. The bracken below her is Devil-twisted. It is raising its claws as she falls to snatch her. She changes into an owl and tries to pull herself up but she is falling far too fast.

This will be one of those nights, Sophie realizes bleakly, when she is caught before the dawn.

An Unclean Legacy


Manfred on the Road

Manfred’s dreams are tormented by lust and confusion and the desire for Rachel Saraman. He wakes convulsively, in the middle of the night, sweating, tired, and hot.

In his mind an intention forms.

So he puts on his armor, clean and white. He looks back at Santrieste’s stable, but he does not wake the unicorn.

He walks out onto the road.

The sin of Gargamel is moving on the road that night, as every night. It is painting the sky red and black with the light of it.

And Manfred walks.

“Where do you go, this night, with your armor and your binding?” Manfred’s devil asks.

And Manfred walks.

“Turn back,” says Manfred’s devil.

But he does not.

“I need to talk to Sophie,” he says. “I need her advice.”

And on the road he meets dead Baltasar, and Sophie whimpering quietly amidst the heath. And Manfred looks slowly from one to the other, processing what he sees.

“Where do you go this night,” he asks the shadow, “with your corpse-like flesh and the evil in your eyes? Why do you walk these roads and bring trouble to my family and to me?”

I hunt her, says the Devil. From the sunset to the dawn.

And Manfred looks at Sophie. And suddenly his eyes blur with tears.

“Is that why you are about?” he asks.

And, hoarsely, “For how long?”

Each night, the shadow says, For seven years and seven days.

“Not tonight,” says Manfred.

And he steps forward and seizes dead Baltasar in his arms. And as the Devil struggles Manfred drags him down onto the road and holds him fast.

And fingers of shadow wrap around Manfred’s throat. They are cold. They are choking the life from him.

With every strength that Manfred possesses he squeezes Baltasar’s corpse. The bones of it crack. The flesh of it turns pustulent and black. In the hollow eyes of it Manfred sees the shadow’s rage, and fire burns him.

But he does not let go.

Spider-arms wrap around Manfred. They draw tight. They convulse, as if to break a lesser man’s back. But Manfred only says, “Uff!” and still he holds.

Sophie is unconscious now. She lays there sprawled with drool dangling from her mouth.

And Manfred frees one arm with his weight upon the body of dead Baltasar and he uses his fingers to burst its carbuncle eyes. And he tears from the Devil’s shoulders the spider-limbs of shadow that Baltasar’s arms cast forth. And there in the twisted flesh of dead Baltasar Manfred can see at last the Devil’s heart, that even the magic of Montechristien Gargamel was not strong enough to crush; and he reaches his hand into the hollow of the creature’s chest and lays his fingers upon it.

But there is a magic binding upon him, and even the Devil is not without his innocence.

So Manfred does not kill.

He holds the Devil there instead, bloody and tired and short of breath, until the dawn.

Will the shadow succeed in tainting Sophie?

Will Manfred marry Rachel?

Manfred’s history approaches its terrible conclusion tomorrow in “Abandoned!”

An Unclean Legacy: “The Shadow on the Road”

They walk into the room at the base of Gargamel’s tower through three different entrances. It is more or less simultaneous: first all ten doors are closed, then three doors open.

One shows Francescu, wan and tired.

One shows Sophie, still ash-covered from the furnace.

Then there is Manfred, silhouetted by the light, unarmored but carrying his iron-tipped spear.

They pause there. They look at one another. There is a long silence, and suspicions grow.

Manfred’s voice is hard and bitter.

“Is it blood, then?” he asks.

Sophie looks down at the gutters along the sides of the room. She glances at the drain in the room’s center.

Calculations take place behind her eyes.

“It would be easy to clean up after,” she says.

Then in a flicker she is entirely gone. Manfred’s eyes track down to the floor. He sees a tiny speck of black. It is a scorpion and it is running towards Francescu’s leg.

He readies his spear.

“Seek her not,” Francescu says.

Manfred speaks the scorpion’s name: “Sophie.”

His spear stabs down.

She isn’t our target,” Francescu says.

The breath leaves Manfred before his blow completes. A mist of red and purple surrounds him. His connection to the fundament and the firmament wavers as Francescu strives to banish him from the world.

“Ah,” sighs Manfred.

That is when the scorpion reaches Francescu’s leg and stings.

And . . .

Once upon a time there was a girl born to an elder thing and a human girl. The child was as pale as her father and as beautiful as her mother and her ears were sharp and her fingers webbed.

She bore the unclean destiny of the Saraman family, that runs in its blood and its ichor and exhales through its pores: that black luck that draws to the Saraman the most abhorrent of powers. So she took to herself a company of bastards, rogues, and brigands and she plagued the roads not far from Castle Gargamel.

In the power of their youth, in the might of their teenaged years, Manfred and Sophie came upon her. They scattered her company like insects in a wind. Gone was Sir Medrin, who kept the skull of a priest on his belt for easy access; gone was Sly Stephen and the other rogues; gone was Cord Glauster, the wickedest of the lot. Rachel’s sorcerer, Meagle, fled the fight on an iron gatling-bike, but Sophie followed; and Meagle hung himself, quite entirely by accident, from an improvised gallows out by Stormy Lake.

“I will die,” said Rachel Saraman, “if left alone in these woods.”

“Then follow,” said Manfred, and walked away, and she went after his echoing tread.

As one of the many twilights of his nineteenth year approaches, Manfred walks back towards his cottage at the edge of Tantrevalles.

He is walking beside Santrieste, and the woman Rachel is behind him.

I do not trust her, says the unicorn.

“I know,” Manfred says.

There is the sound and feathers and impact of ten thousand fluttering wings striking the road beside him. They are gone before he can look. Sophie is there. She is sweating.

“It is done,” she says.

Rachel looks at her.

Sophie looks back at Rachel.

“You weren’t supposed to keep her, Manfred,” Sophie teases.

Manfred sighs.

“I’m Sophie,” Sophie introduces. She licks dirt and blood off her hand, rubs it dry on her other arm, and holds it out to Rachel.

“Rachel,” the woman says.

“Manfred is being heroic,” Sophie explains, redundantly. “But he needed my help, because of that Meagle.”

Rachel smiles thinly. “I imagine he’s well away by now.”

“Dead,” Sophie says.

Rachel’s forehead furrows. She looks a bit shocked. “Pardon?”

“Sophie,” rumbles Manfred gently. “I have urged you against murder.”

“I didn’t kill him!” Sophie protests.

Manfred snorts.

“Come in,” he says. “Both of you. After dark, a shadow walks these roads.”

So they kick the mud from their boots and they go in and sit on the chairs in Manfred’s cottage, save for Manfred, who stops at the door and takes hold of Santrieste’s cheeks.

“I love you,” he says.

The unicorn’s eyes are unrelenting. I do not trust her.

But still he nuzzles Manfred’s shoulder and gives him there permission to go in.

An Unclean Legacy


The Shadow on the Road

Manfred lit the lights and shared out his bread.

“In the night,” he says, “you can see it against the sky.”

“I know,” Sophie says.

And Rachel nods.

Then Rachel flicks her eyes up at Sophie. Her face is set and hostile. She asks Sophie, “How did Meagle die?”

“I imagine we should take you back to the castle,” Sophie says. “There, father can work high justice on you.”

Rachel squints at Sophie.

Then she sags. “Ha,” she laughs. “Ha ha ha. That will be rich. The high justice of Montechristien Gargamel. Ha ha ha ha ha ha!”

This is a defeated and hopeless mad cackling, but it is still mad cackling; and as it grows quieter and quieter it stirs old nameless memories in Manfred’s heart.

“We don’t need to,” Manfred says.

“No?” Sophie asks.

“It wasn’t her fault she wound up with that band of misfits,” Manfred says.

Sophie’s eyes narrow.

Rachel’s laughter falls quiet. She coughs once. Then she looks up.

“I built them,” she says. “They were mine. I saved Sir Medrin from the gallows. I tempted Meagle from the gray to the black. Even Cord Glauster was just a butcher’s boy who made too free with others before I found him. Don’t take my sins from me. They’re all I have.”

For different reasons, this speaks to Manfred and to Sophie; and so rather than recoiling, they relax, each of them, in different ways.

“How will you pay, then?” Sophie asks.

“What?”

“How do you make up for that?”

And there is silence for a long time before Rachel says, “Is that the price for my life?”

“Yes.”

“Then I will find a way.”

The wind is blowing harsher now. Manfred rises to his feet.

“The shadow walks,” he says.

He goes to his window. He opens the curtains and the glass. He looks out.

There is red and black against the sky.

Who is Rachel?

Why did Manfred target Sophie?

Just how does a rapid-fire iron bicycle work?

Don’t forget to read the first eleven installments of this story, and tune in Tuesday for a shocking Unclean Legacy expose: “The Saraman Destiny!”

An Unclean Legacy: “Deathless”

Once upon a time, Francescu found a nest of angels under Castle Gargamel.

He was seven years old and bright with love for his life. He wore a jury-rigged hard hat with a candle strapped to it. He dragged a woefully heavy mining pick with his hand.

He was exploring the catacombs under the Castle.

“This was formed by natural geological processes,” he said, “I bet.”

He lay his hand against the dungeon wall. It was moist with dripping water and dark with ancient blood.

“You can see how the natural striations of rock produce incredibly detailed formations,” he said.

He walked to a rusty iron table. He lay down in front of it. He crawled forward under it, on his stomach.

“Amazing,” he said.

Then he saw the spider on his hand.

“Ack!” cried Francescu. “Yick!”

He flung the spider away. He crawled forward, hurriedly, to the light on the far side of the table. He stood up, brusquely. He shook himself off.

There were more webs. There were more spiders. Strange darkness-dwelling insects scurried on the walls.

“Ick,” sighed Francescu.

He walked forward carefully. He opened a peculiar naturally-occurring iron door. It was blocked by something on the other side. He decided to squeeze through the narrow opening, arm-first.

That’s when he broke open the angel nest.

“Sticky,” he said, in vague confusion. He pulled back an arm wet with ichor.

There was the furious fluttering and flapping of angelic and demonic wings. Suddenly Francescu’s eyes widened. He jumped back as a storm of angels and demons flurried through the door and out towards the dungeon stairs.

“Gah!” he said.

Francescu fell over backwards. The mining pick skittered across the floor. The candle guttered out.

“It’s wrong to break open angel nests,” observed the angel on Francescu’s right shoulder. Its voice was beautiful and sanctimonious both.

“Yeah,” agreed the demon on Francescu’s left shoulder, and kicked him.

“Mommy,” whimpered Francescu, in the darkness, but the Lady Yseult Gargamel was dead.

We do not know how Montechristien Gargamel came into his power. His origins are a mystery. How such an ungainly, strange, and immoral man could rise so swiftly to prominence puzzles even the greatest scholars of our time. Of his life once established in Castle Gargamel, however, certain facts are known.

He took to wife the Lady Yseult Gargamel, one of the great beauties of his day; and though many a rival pressed for evidence that he’d bewitched or stolen her, none was ever found. They had and loved six children of their flesh, until the seventh, Elisabet, killed Yseult with the complications of her birth. Each of these children was a prodigy, possessed of astonishing talents. When at last Montechristien stumbled towards the grave, the talents of his children turned against their siblings, every hand against the other, until at last they could dispose of the matter of their legacy.

This is the ninth installment of the story of that time.

The night is cold. The wind is howling. There is a light sprinkling of rain.

To the west there is red and black against the sky.

“It’s the Devil,” says Francescu, with the razor intuition of a child nearly ten.

He is standing on the battlements of Castle Gargamel. He is looking off to the west. He is damp from the rain.

On each of Francescu’s shoulders is a spirit that only he can see. One, he thinks, is good, and the other evil, although he’s never entirely sure which one is which.

“But I thought,” Francescu says, “That father tied the Devil up.”

The angel on his right shoulder shelters its eyes with a hand. It looks out worriedly to the west.

“Some unicorn has freed him,” the angel opines.

“Unicorns are pure and good,” Francescu insists, jutting up his nose.

“They’re elder creatures,” observes Francescu’s demon.

Francescu looks at it.

“Their interests and morality,” clarifies the demon, “are not those of men.”

“I guess,” says Francescu.

He sighs.

“Well,” Francescu concludes. “It’s all right.”

Francescu’s angel suffers a mild consternation. “The Devil is freed to torment the world and he’s coming this way. Are you sure that’s all right?”

“Evil falls to good,” Francescu says.

Thunder rolls in the distance. Francescu’s demon startles, then blushes and checks to make sure the angel didn’t notice.

“Evil falls to good?” asks Francescu’s angel.

“Yes,” Francescu says, sternly. “It is like this. The shadow can threaten us, it can trouble us, but if we hold to our principles and our courage, then it can’t ever win. There are always noble knights like Manfred, great good sorcerers like father, and innocent hearts like Sophie and Christine. These are our candles against the darkness that is the Devil’s power; our saints and heroes burn deathless and they will not still before the dawn.”

“That’s very eloquent,” says Francescu’s angel, somewhat impressed.

“One learns a certain sophistication of moral philosophy,” Francescu says, “listening to angels and demons nattering at one all the time.”

“Ouch,” mutters Francescu’s demon. It’s just had both its means and its ends zung.

“Still . . .” Francescu’s angel says. “I mean, when the Devil reaches the Castle, will shiny metaphors actually help?”

Francescu frowns.

The Devil is getting closer, and Francescu is getting a little more nervous.

“I’m going to go stand near Manfred,” Francescu says.

And he does.

An Unclean Legacy


Deathless

The children huddle in their rooms, listening to the Devil’s whispers in the halls.

Christine and Sophie shout at one another. Francescu watches them, watches with wide eyes as the hate flares up.

He grabs Christine. He holds her from behind to keep her from physically attacking Sophie. He tries to stop bad things from happening. But the hate keeps getting worse.

I am death, is the whisper resounding through the halls.

Red and black radiance skitters and shivers beyond the children’s door.

“Christine, stop it,” pleads Francescu, but his voice doesn’t get above a whisper.

I am everything wrong that visits upon this world.

The words of the Devil are pressing onto Francescu’s heart like burning irons. They are shaking out of the air and falling on him like rain. They are hurting him.

I am the falling of the light into the darkness.

And Violet stands up, as sharply as the slamming of a book. She says, “That’s enough.”

The air is still, heavy, waiting.

“But you’re just Violet,” Francescu tries to say.

He can’t make himself talk.

Violet goes to the door. She opens it. She goes out.

“You’ll get killed,” Francescu tries to say. “The horrible things will happen to you. You’re just Violet. You’re not like them. You’re like me.

hsssaaa, hisses the distant Devil’s voice.

The paralysis breaks from Francescu. He flings himself on Manfred. He tugs on Manfred’s sleeve. “Go after her,” he pleads.

But Manfred does not go.

Time passes.

I win, says the Devil.

There are horrible noises in the distance, and Francescu understands that knights are false.

Are angel nests more like beehives or wasp’s nests?

Are ninjas a deathless good, like knights, or are they more like bookbinders?

Tune in tomorrow for an Unclean Legacy expose: “The Marvelous Fingerbone!”

An Unclean Legacy: “The Nine-Fingered Man”

Christine stands outside the base of Gargamel’s tower.

She is staring at the door.

“He’s going to know,” she says.

Then she argues with herself: “But it’s for the best. Sophie sold him out to the shadow.”

She shakes her head slowly.

“He’s going to know.”

She scrubs her arms with her hands, though she is not cold. She is not at this time aware that Sophie has survived.

Finally, she sighs.

“He won’t hurt me,” Christine says. “I’m the only part of us left.”

Boldly, she opens the door. She walks into the room at the base of Gargamel’s tower. It is a room with many entrances. The entrance opposite her is also a door, and it opens. Manfred stands there, silhouetted against the light.

“Glurp,” says Christine. She blushes hotly with guilt and fear.

Manfred stares at her.

“What is it?” Christine demands. “It wasn’t my fault. She was evil. What are you doing here? Oh my God, your arms.

Without thinking, she pushes back her right foot and sets herself in stance. There is a bit of fire rising around her and the air is thick with power.

Manfred’s face is now peculiarly forlorn.

There’s a pause.

“I should end this here,” Manfred rumbles, slowly. “But—”

Christine draws fiercely, in the air:

)@*#%*!!

Manfred steps back. He closes the door. He is gone.

Christine waits for arcane fire to lash out through the door and devour the flesh from Manfred’s bones. But it doesn’t.

It takes her eighty-seven long seconds to realize that she’s accidentally written an obscenity instead of a spell.

An Unclean Legacy


The Nine-Fingered Man

Francescu’s a ragged nine-fingered man walking on the road, with his brother Tomas following far behind.

There’s a crunch under Francescu’s foot.

“You broke it,” says a pixie, crouched down on the ground.

“Hm?”

“You broke my leaf. You’re going to have to give me seven years of service.”

Francescu looks under his foot. There is in fact a broken leaf.

So Francescu gets this odd kind of grin. He says, “That wasn’t there when I put my foot down. It must have followed my shadow to the sole.”

The pixie swells up blustrously. “The allegation is irrelevant to the facts at hand.”

And Francescu’s eyes, the pixie suddenly realizes, are the eyes of an alligator staring at its prey.

“Would you like me to put it back together for you?” Francescu asks.

Slowly, the pixie nods.

So Francescu exhales and the wind blows, and the leaf comes back together, all the little bits and pieces of it, even the tiny shard hidden in the sole of Francescu’s boot. Then the leaf drifts and lands in front of the pixie. The pixie looks a little ill.

“I disclaim any further obligation,” says Francescu. “And you will find yourself troubled should you pull such tricks again.”

The pixie curls in on itself. It sulks. Francescu walks away, whistling to himself.

There’s a horrible crunching sound.

And . . .

Once upon a time there was a deathless sorcerer who could have held the stars cupped in his hands. His name was Francescu Gargamel, and the world was his for the taking.

He had no use for it.

He turned his back on the Devil and on God. He turned his back on principle and on kin. He turned his back on the world.

He walked away.

But not even Francescu Gargamel could resist the chance to claim the little golden men.

There is a horrible crunching sound.

The pixie looks up.

Tomas is standing there. He’s dressed in a plain brown robe. He’s got straight black hair and wild green eyes.

He’s standing, very deliberately and crunchily, on the pixie’s leaf. He’s grinding it with his heel.

Francescu looks back.

“My leaf!” the pixie protests.

Tomas looks down. His expression is distant. “I have no love for the fairy folk,” he says. “Trouble me not.”

The pixie hesitates, torn between alternatives. Then it swells up in its anger and pokes Tomas’ leg.

“It’s not okay. It’s my leaf and you probably knew it was there and you stepped on it. You owe me.”

“Tomas,” says Francescu.

Tomas looks at Francescu. He frowns.

“You’re being unkind,” Francescu says.

“These things are unsainly,” Tomas says. “You should have killed it, or banished it to live inside a stump for seven years. Instead—”

Tomas shrugs.

Francescu’s shoulders slump. He sighs, a long exhalation.

“You’re right,” he says. “I should have killed it. But be kind, Tomas.”

He turns. He begins to walk down the road.

The pixie looks apoplectic. It hops up and down. “Don’t discuss abstract morality! Pay me for my leaf!”

There’s a click. There’s a hum. There’s a shifting in the world.

Tomas looks down.

“Such is my instinct,” he says, cruelly, “that you have attempted this trick before; sliding this leaf under the feet of good honest men like me, to entrap them into servitude. And it is my belief that at one such time you chose a great sorcerer as your victim, and so were cursed that should you ever attempt this again, your next victim would choose your punishment.”

Francescu closes his eyes.

“No doubt,” says Tomas, “this was many centuries ago, or even millennia, and that is why you have forgotten.”

The pixie’s glare has disappeared entirely. It is now looking rather glum.

“Not so long as that,” it says. It affects a cheerful, pacifying expression. “So, it’s to be that seven years in a stump thing?”

Francescu’s eyes are still closed, signaling and connoting his weariness with the world. He sighs as he walks.

Tomas ignores him.

“Let you be haled down into the darkest regions,” says Tomas, “there to be scourged undying by knife-edged flails until you repent and consign your soul over to the Lord.”

Francescu walks into a tree.

He falls down.

Francescu turns around as he lands. He’s a bit dazed. He opens his mouth. Perhaps he is going to note that the curse has its limits, and that, in exceeding them, Tomas has rendered his justice null and void.

“That,” says Tomas, as hard and inevitable as death, “or for the maximum duration within this curse’s power.”

The pixie is drawn into the darkness under the ground.

It is screaming, then it is not.

Francescu, making dizzy noises, gets back to his feet. He looks at Tomas.

After a moment, he protests, “I don’t know if pixies can consign themselves to the Lord.”

Tomas is brutal. “Let me be clear,” he says.

“Hm?”

“That thing was a slave-taker of the elder races, forgotten of Heaven. It’s size is less than a child’s, but it has no innocence.”

Francescu snorts angrily. Then he turns. He begins walking back to the castle.

“As you like,” Francescu says.

They walk quietly for a time.

“The weak are cruel when they have power,” observes Francescu.

He closes his eyes and sighs, indicating with this that Tomas wearies him and that a great sorcerer need not mind the fate of pixies or of men.

“Did you know Violet gave me the bone that holds your life?” Tomas asks, conversationally.

“Huh?”

Francescu opens his eyes just in time to walk into a tree.

But what kind of tree is it?

Is it a birch? An elm? An oak? What?

Oh, and is Tomas telling the truth?

And what bone is he talking about?

Don’t forget to read the previous seven installments of this story, and tune in tomorrow for the revolutionary Unclean Legacy flashback: “Deathless!”

An Unclean Legacy: “The House That Runs”

When Christine was young, she crawled out of her crib.

She landed hard. Her arm hurt for a long time. But she made it out. She crawled down the halls of Castle Gargamel in her blue pajamas with white polka dots and feet.

Gargamel did not expect her escape. He had wards against Violet; against Francescu; and certainly against Manfred. But Tomas and the twins he had as yet ignored.

So she slipped under the viewing arcs of the glowing-eyed statues.

The great barking dog said, “Wuf! Wuf! Wuf!”

Christine gurgled, “A-heh.”

The great barking dog did not know what to do about this. It had not been briefed on baby etiquette by the sorcerer Montechristien Gargamel. So it whined and it hid.

Christine crawled into the room with the little gold men.

When Gargamel found her, she had already worked the first sorcery of her lifetime. She was crying. Sorcery makes babies need to burp, but golden eidolons—however excellent their other qualities might be—are not skilled at burping. And so no one burped her until Montechristien arrived.

In a distant village, whose coincidental associations with the ephemeral dreams of Christine’s childhood isolated it from the principality of its peers, a whirlwind of purple and abalaster fire spun. Lightning crackled. The world rent in two and a house was born.

It wasn’t just any house.

It was a house that could run and slice things up. So it ran and it sliced things up. People screamed. They ran around.

This made the house very excited.

Its sickle-limb cut and cut and cut. And houses and homes and buildings fell.

We do not know how Montechristien Gargamel came into his power. His origins are a mystery. How such an ungainly, strange, and immoral man could rise so swiftly to prominence puzzles even the greatest scholars of our time. Of his life once established in Castle Gargamel, however, certain facts are known.

He took to wife the Lady Yseult Gargamel, one of the great beauties of his day; and though many a rival pressed for evidence that he’d bewitched or stolen her, none was ever found. They had and loved six children of their flesh, until the seventh, Elisabet, killed Yseult with the complications of her birth. Each of these children was a prodigy, possessed of astonishing talents. When at last Montechristien stumbled towards the grave, the talents of his children turned against their siblings, every hand against the other, until at last they could dispose of the matter of their legacy.

This is the seventh installment of the story of that time.

Christine is ten.

She stands before her father, in her pristine white dress. It has ruffles. Her hair is combed carefully. She looks angelic.

“What?” snaps the sorcerer, Montechristien Gargamel.

“It’s my day,” Christine says. She looks eager.

He frowns irritably. “You already got your wish,” he says. “Two, if you count Sophie’s.”

Christine stares blankly at him.

Gargamel, shaking his head, changes the subject.

“On that night,” he says.

He is speaking of the night the shadow came to Castle Gargamel.

“What did it say to you?” he asks.

Christine goes pale. She works her mouth. She protests, “You said we wouldn’t have to tell you.”

“You don’t,” Gargamel says. “But I’m asking.”

Christine tries to parse this. Her mind whirls. Then, slowly, she says, “It told me that I was good when people were looking.”

“Heh,” says Gargamel.

“It said that when I was alone, I was worse. But that I was really bad when I wasn’t there at all. What did it mean by that, father?”

She hesitates.

“Because I was thinking,” Christine says, “that it meant Sophie.”

Gargamel’s neck and shoulders tense. He says, “No. No, it doesn’t.”

“It would make sense,” Christine says.

Gargamel’s jaw tightens. He says, “You wished for a bad house.”

“—What?”

Gargamel shrugs.

“Manfred gets a unicorn,” Christine protests, “and Francescu gets magic and Tomas gets to look on the face of God and I get a bad house?

Gargamel can’t help laughing at Christine’s look of outrage.

“You’re a dear, child, and you’re trying, but every day while you sit here in smug comfort and frilly things, there’s a part of you running around in the darkness. And it’s not just the house. It’s everything you’re not paying attention to about yourself.”

Christine is staring at him.

“Ha,” laughs Gargamel. “Ha ha ha.”

“Why—wh—”

There is a white glow around Christine now. It’s like a fire roaring up from the earth. She sketches the burning symbols in the air that help her think:

*&2->^^

And through the lens of those symbols she says, tightly controlled, “You’re indulging in a practice of self-deceit, father.”

Gargamel’s nostrils flare. He sweeps away the symbols with his hand. Christine’s mind falls into confusion and guilt again.

Then she regathers her thoughts. She scowls. She shakes her head. Her eyes burn, and she draws:

)@*#%*!!

Gargamel stares at that. He giggles. Then he laughs, full-bore. Christine blushes furiously, erases the symbols, and tries again:

*&2->^^ *#&!_.

And through that lens, she says, “You don’t act this way to the others. Only to me. You don’t like me. Why?”

And Gargamel scowls.

He says, “I won’t have you questioning me.”

“I’m ten, father,” she says.

“I can’t help you,” he says.

She sees something dark and horrible behind those words. It is unacceptable, impossible, maddening. So she hides from it. She lets the magic fade. Her thoughts are ten-year-old thoughts again.

And Gargamel says, “Every time I see you, child, I see my brother. I see his leering, mocking face. I see his smugness, his superiority. I see his soul. And I see the demons that took his ankles as he attempted the pinnacle of his magics and with their clawed hands dragged him down to Hell. That is why I cannot help you.”

“—What?”

Christine’s face is now absolutely white.

“I thought that there was hope for me, once, you see,” he says. “But the flesh is an inconstant shelter for the soul.”

An Unclean Legacy


The House That Runs

It’s a bad house.

It’s not haunted. It’s not spooky. It’s certainly not drab.

It’s a bad house because it doesn’t care what other houses it hurts.

That’s why Christine wakes up one day and decides she has to go out and find it. That’s why she decides to claim her legacy instead of running from it.

Manfred is the one who sees her off. He says, “Good luck.”

She hugs him. She kisses him on the cheek.

“Our shining knight,” she says.

“You give too much to appearances,” Manfred says.

Then she is gone.

Now we have seen much of Christine and Sophie and their soul; though not quite all there is to see. But what of Francescu? What of Tomas?

Tune in tomorrow for the next breathtaking chapter of An Unclean Legacy: “The Nine-Fingered Man!”