It Falls

It’s night, and the stars are out, and the moon’s looking down with a bit of concern; because maybe, just maybe, this is the last night of the world.

The road smells of heat and rubber and it’s black and detailed in the night.

Johnny’s racing Sue.

It’s casual at first. They’re idling at the light; and the tops of their cars are down; and Johnny says to Sue, “I hear you won’t date a guy, he can’t beat you on the road.”

I hear you can’t date anybody at all,” she says. “Your Daddy’s so concerned with propriety.”

And Johnny touches the crucifix that’s hanging around his neck, a bit concerned, and then he laughs, and he pulls it off, and he drops it to the side.

“It’s on,” he says.

And the little angel and the little devil on his shoulder are fighting, seems fair to say, and he’s got this grin of one part fear and one part lust and seven parts excitement.

And the light turns green and the cars rip off.

Sue’s smooth and cool and she tips her sunglasses down to her nose as her car pulls out. The moon’s concerned about that, too, because it’s not very safe, but it does look fine.

And Johnny’s stomping on the gas, wrestling with the clutch, and the true thing is, he isn’t very good.

She pulls ahead.

And the sky is clear above Reaper’s Hill, and the two cars tear up towards the gallows point (called lover’s lane these sordid years) where once Black Richards hung. And Sue’s just far enough ahead that she relaxes, a tiny bit, and slows her car, as the shooting star flares past.

“I wish—” she says, her eyes tracking the star and not the road. “I wish—“

A pony? A new engine? Cash?

Her maiden’s heart is full of lovely notions.

But she doesn’t have the time to speak her wish; there’s a twisting in the sky and the star turns red.

Sue gapes.

“What kind of—“

There’s a stuttering in her engine. Her wheel locks. She turns and looks back, an outraged glare.

Johnny’s coming up the hill.

The star thing is pouring down from the sky towards lover’s lane. It is sprawling forth great Mandelbrot limbs of fire and there’s a rumbling in the earth.

She can feel Black Richards rising.

Johnny’s car shoulders past her; it leaves her staring at the red lights of its rear. She wrestles with the wheel and with tense slowness pumps the pedal of the gas. There is sweat on her brow and the gaping edge of Reaper’s Curve before her.

But fair is fair.

Between every wish and its fruition there is a space to breathe; and in that space, she drags the wheel to the right.

Her car makes protest. There is a grinding of the gears. Then it pulls to the right, steadies on the road, and smooths its course.

“Who wishes for the end of the world?” she says.

Her engine revs.

Johnny’s mad eyes look back at her in the mirror of his car. He’s saying something. She doesn’t hear it, which is just as well; his words aren’t sensible, but mumbled gutturals that reflect the war in his heart.

Now is the time for a good Christian boy like Johnny to make his peace with Jesus and rise to Heaven when the Rapture comes; but on the other hand, he’s winning.

She tries to pass him but he’s not so lame as that; and his car’s not suffering quite so much as hers from the doom that falls.

She’s weaving back and forth on the road behind him, and he pulls left and right to block her.

Staring in the mirror, hand reaching for the crucifix and pulling back, the other on the wheel—he pulls left and right, left and right, and then left HARD; and over, out, and down, too focused on his mirror to see the reaper’s scythe ahead, and Johnny’s twisting up like meat against the acceleration of the ground.

His car bursts into flames as it rolls, flames that draw into themselves the red fire of the star and leave it white and clean again.

Sue pulls up, panting, at the edge of gallows point, and leans her head down honking on the wheel for a cold long time.

There’s nothing else you can do, when someone makes a wish like that. Whether it’s on purpose or an accident—whether they’re a malevolent forerunner of doom or just somebody who’s thinking too much about the doom their Daddy told—you’ve got to take them out before the star can fall.

But it hurts, it hurts like knifepoints in the heart, if you’re a girl like Sue.

And she never gets her pony.

An Unclean Legacy: “Despair”

In the deepness of the night, Francescu opens a window in the air to look in on Manfred who is his brother.

Manfred is sitting, thinking, in the middle of the void.

The darkness of the onyx realm wherein Manfred dwells threatens to spill out in every direction and fill Francescu’s house.

Francescu frowns.

“I know that place,” Francescu says. “Don’t I?”

“It is the without-purpose,” says Francescu’s demon. “The sans-significance. It is the darkness that hangs around you always. It is the despair that is given unto men, to drown in the emptiness of things that have no meaning. It is the damnation that you have chosen for yourself, Francescu. It is the wet dark tendrils that crowd about your mind.”

“Oh? Is that so?” Francescu asks mildly.

Francescu’s demon sighs.

Francescu stares into the image. “What is he doing there?”

“Becoming one with it,” Francescu’s demon says.

There is a flare of terror in Francescu’s mind. The color of his fear is black and purple and he remembers the night when Manfred betrayed him and let Violet go to the shadow alone. He remembers the power and the victory in the Devil’s voice as it claimed her. Francescu finds it hard to breathe.

“His blood will turn black,” says Francescu’s demon clinically. “His eyes will darken. His skin will grow paler, and damp. He is strong, so he will return to the world, but he will not be human any longer. He will be an elder thing, corrupted eternally from his nature.”

“No,” Francescu says.

He is dizzy.

“You could save him,” says Francescu’s demon.

The angel looks speculatively across Francescu’s shoulders. Then, after a moment, it nods. “You could.”

Francescu licks his lips.

“I can’t,” he says.

“Why not?”

“It’s what he’s always been,” Francescu says. “He was not born to be my knight. He was born to be despair.”

But Francescu is not altogether weak. He carves into the air a spell to clarify his thoughts: *&2->^^

His mind calms. He struggles his way through fear towards reason.

“Francescu,” murmurs his angel, softly.

Francescu sketches an @ under those symbols and stares through it at Manfred.

“You’re right,” he says. “Of course. I should save him. I should try—”

Through his magic Francescu sees that there is nothing around Manfred but the creature of the void. And he sees more: that sluggish and cold black blood is drifting through Manfred’s veins, mixed with the natural blue; that Manfred’s eyes are darker than they were; that Manfred’s mind has ceased its turmoil and found a cold and terrible peace.

“Oh, God,” says Francescu.

He banishes the window. He hides his face against his hands.

“It is too late.”

And slowly his heart calms, and his mind grows easy, and there is the breath of the void on Francescu’s soul.

He closes his eyes.

In the cold wet darkness of his mind he knows the peace of nothing mattering at all.

This is how Manfred breaks his chains, in the place beyond the world, and learns to kill.

This is how, in ignorance and fear, Francescu decides that Manfred must be slain; how, in ignorance and rage, Manfred conceives the desire for Sophie’s death.

These are the stories of “Despair,” the twenty-fourth installment of An Unclean Legacy. They begin here, but here is not their ending. They will end in Castle Gargamel, when Sophie, Francescu, and Manfred meet; in blood and pain, at the base of Montechristien’s tower, beneath the threshing machine and the hundred gold eidolons of Montechristien Gargamel.

Manfred sits in the center of his island of dirt. He does not look at its edges, which are slowly falling away into the void.

He is calm. He is meditative. He is thinking.

“I’m not very good at thinking my way out of things,” Manfred admits.

The void is silent.

“It seems to me,” he says, “that I should take responsibility for my sin, even though I am still unsure why you should call Rachel Saraman my sister. But here is my reasoning.”

A cold wind blows.

“In all my life, Santrieste has shown me nothing but loyalty. He has borne me up when I would have fallen into darkness and he has counseled me—against, perhaps, his own best inclinations—towards the good. And it was my own need and desire that blinded me to his counsel in favor of the Devil’s. It is because I was desperate to take shelter in a mortal thing, a fallible person, a woman who was not a chain to my morality, that I listened to Sophie’s lies and Rachel’s blandishments. I have complained all my life that I am bound to my virtue and so cannot truly be good, but when I had the choice between clinging to those chains and burying myself in the filth of the material world, I chose the latter. So I cannot deny that the fault for this is mine.”

And the void laughs.

“Why do you laugh?”

“That Manfred Gargamel would call a Saraman filth.”

But Manfred, who had scarcely known Yseult and never knew Rachel, only squints and shakes his head.

“So here I am,” he says. “Exiled from mortal company. Tested by my God.”

The void is silent.

“I cannot be as you are,” Manfred says. Slowly, he rises to his feet. “I cannot be as she is. I will not let my sin consume me.”

He looks around him.

The air is not air. It is a screen of blankness over the shifting of endless tendrils of the creature’s flesh. The sand is not sand: it is the grit in the onyx creature’s maw. The seething purple aurora and the points of light above like stars are nothing more than striations in the living void.

It is in him. He is breathing it. He is respiring it through his pores, and suspiring from him is Manfred. He is one with it, the tendrils of its nerves in amongst his nerves, the onyx blood of the void mixing with his blood.

Slowly, he knows, if he remains, he will grow quiet and still and the nature that was Manfred’s will cease.

An Unclean Legacy


“Despair”

“What were you?” Manfred asks. “Before?”

The void speaks its name. And Manfred bows his head, humbled by that word.

“I’m sorry,” Manfred says.

Then along the nerves of the onyx void, entangled with his nerves, runs Manfred’s will. Then through the flesh and blood of the void, mixing with Manfred’s flesh and blood, runs Manfred’s strength.

With the body of the void Manfred seizes the void.

With the great ropey tendrils of the void Manfred grasps the creature that surrounds him. He seizes its eyes, its throats, its heart.

“Since I was young,” says Manfred, as he drags the void down into the void, twists the void about the void, throttles the void with its own substance, “people have feared my strength. But I have never used more than the tenth part of it, because my flesh is too frail and would tear.”

The void seizes him about the chest. It crushes him as he is crushing it. Manfred coughs out red-black blood and for a moment his eyes go lifeless, but then he recovers and shoves the void away.

“I will kill you here, son of Heaven,” Manfred says.

His oath burns on his arms. Manfred slides the slick onyx tendrils of the void under his brassards, his oath, his chains, and he rips them all away. There is an explosion, golden and white, that sears him and the void. All around him it is white and hot for a moment before wet chill returns. The great eye of the void below him is burnt; it is red and black and crisp and screaming.

Manfred crushes the void down to thinness and to hardness.

He can feel himself refracted, present in a hundred places simultaneously, as the world around the world bends down. The tension is too much for anything to bear, and Manfred screams.

Then it is gone.

The void surrenders, with one long echoing exhalation.

There is no void. There is no onyx realm. There is only Manfred.

So he climbs from an ichorous well into the world, naked and coughing out black gunk, with a bent and crooked black stick in his right hand; and the tip of it is iron.

His arms hurt. They ache with fire. They are surrounded by the burning red absence of his oath.

He rubs them with the substance of the onyx realm. It cakes and hardens and turns scarlet, and slowly his arms grow cool.

Overhead, the sun is bright. The leaves of the trees wave gently in the wind. The world is beautiful.

“Come,” he says, and from the well rises his steed.

Manfred looks down at his hands, his arms, his body, at the monster of absence and despair that he holds in his right hand. Almost, he begins to sob.

But he does not, because first he must kill his half-sister Rachel Saraman and take a bath, which things he does.

But what of Sophie, who strove alone against the Devil and his plans?

Tomorrow, a special Unclean Legacy: “Red.”

An Unclean Legacy: “Francescu’s Angel”

Sophie has left Francescu’s house—gone out to face the Devil on her own.

Christine has gone to bed.

And Francescu sits in his favorite chair, sipping a glass of wine, with his angel and his demon on their perches to his sides.

“Will Sophie be all right?” he asks.

Francescu’s angel looks skyward. It thinks. “As long as Christine remains a God-fearing woman,” it says, “Sophie can’t properly be damned. I suppose that she could suffer horrible tortures or some sort of infernal perversion of her will, but material pains are transitory.”

“She’ll lose,” says Francescu’s demon. “She’ll probably turn into some kind of diabolical avatar and eat all the rest of your siblings. That can happen, you know.”

“Oh? Is that how it is?” Francescu asks.

Francescu’s demon shrugs.

“I remember thinking that people could stand up to the darkness,” says Francescu.

He swirls his wine around. He takes another sip.

“I liked thinking that.”

Francescu’s angel looks uncomfortable. “In the grace of the Lord,” it says, “all things are possible.”

“Yes,” Francescu says softly.

“But grace conditions on humility,” the angel says. “This is not something I have found your family to possess in great measure. Only Tomas yields himself to the light, and—”

“And with the fullest arrogance of his humility,” Francescu summarizes.

“Yes,” the angel says.

“I wanted Manfred to save her,” Francescu says.

“What, back then?”

“Francescu,” the demon interrupts, “I don’t think Violet needed saving.”

“I know he has his own angel,” Francescu says. “I wanted him to listen to it. To go out. To fight the Devil instead of letting it destroy her.”

“Had,” says Francescu’s angel.

“Hm?”

“He had his own angel,” Francescu’s angel says. “Broken from my nest. But his is dead.”

“I didn’t know that could happen,” Francescu says.

“Enh,” shrugs Francescu’s angel.

And before Francescu’s angel can react, Francescu has swept it from its perch and is clutching it tightly and possessively to his chest.

It kicks its legs.

It flutters its wings.

It splutters in indignation.

“Hee hee,” says Francescu’s demon, calling attention to itself, which turns out to be a mistake.

“Don’t leave me,” Francescu says.

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-third installment of the story of that time.

Manfred is sprawled on a patch of gritty dirt. Above him there are twining purple auroras and scattered stars.

Everywhere around him there is darkness.

He says, “Where am I?”

And his voice echoes back to him: “Where am I? Where am I? Where is the Manfred who slept with his sister and gave himself over to the dark?”

Manfred frowns.

The echo is not entirely exact.

He pushes himself up onto his hands and knees, and then struggles to his feet.

“Santrieste?” he asks.

But the unicorn has abandoned him.

“Santrieste?” he screams.

And the echo comes back: “Santrieste? Santrieste? He gave you his freedom and you spat on the gift.”

“She wasn’t my sister,” Manfred mutters.

He looks around. He walks to the edge of the dirt on which he found himself. It is finite in its extent; at the edges of it, it crumbles away into an infinite dark well below.

Manfred frowns.

In the darkness, far below him, an eye opens. It is larger than Manfred. He cannot judge the distance to it; perhaps it is larger than Castle Gargamel. Its iris is black and the rims of its eyes drip with purple-black ichor.

There is a wet touch upon his back; but when Manfred turns, there is nothing behind him. He rubs at his back; his hand comes back coated with onyx-colored slime.

An Unclean Legacy


“Francescu’s Angel”

“Tell me,” Manfred says, “where I am.”

And all around him he can see that the air is not air but the moving and shifting of dark tendrils and the entire place is one great living thing.

“You have been given a forlorn and dolorous fate,” his own voice echoes back. “You have been cast from the world into the onyx realm. Your voice is loud but it will fall silent. Your movements are vigorous but they will grow still. You will cease to exist in the human fashion, though perhaps a thing named Manfred will rise again from this void.”

“Why?”

His voice echoes back: “Why? Why?”

Manfred sinks down. He strikes the dirt with his fist. “Why would she do this to me?”

And there is silence for a time. Something brushes his cheek, cold and wet; he does not react. Then there is a warmer wetness on both of his cheeks and his nose is stuffed up and his voice is hoarse.

“Why did she betray me?”

Softly, the void answers, “It is not her curse but your sin that brings you here, Manfred.”

The sky above him tears open. There is another eye staring down.

“I thought that I knew better than God,” whispers the onyx void around him. “So I carved open the ichorous wells into the world and sent the elder races forth. And they demonstrated the purpose that I gave to them—their quiet, cold, and simple love for their own nature and their own beauty. But they did vile things with the freedom and the power that I gave them, and now they are forgotten of the Lord; and in this, you and they are alike.”

Manfred looks frantically from one shoulder to the other; but his devil is silent, coated by glistening slime, and his angel is gone.

“When your blood is black,” says the void, “and you are cold and quiet and slow, then you will be free, as they are, and you will not know what you have lost.”

“What will I have lost?”

There is a shrugging in the void.

“I do not know myself,” the echo comes. “Perhaps there is nothing. Perhaps the Lord has lied to me and I am greater than an angel and the elder races are more glorious than man.”

“I won’t give in,” Manfred says.

He clutches at his shoulder and his brassards rattle on his arms and he can feel nothing where once he felt Santrieste.

The dirt is slowly falling from the island on which he stands.

“I’ll be good,” Manfred pleads, empty and abandoned in his onyx void.

And silence.

What blood runs now in Manfred’s veins?

Will Francescu ever trust in knights again?

There’s not that much left of An Unclean Legacy—so tune in tomorrow for the shocking story of Cursebreaker: “Despair!”

An Unclean Legacy: “The Spear Named Cursebreaker”

In medias res: Francescu is casting Manfred from the world. Sophie, in the shape of a scorpion, stings Francescu upon the leg.

Francescu blinks.

He blinks again.

The poison is fast. He is already dizzy. His mind is fading into white. But he is skilled, and so he moves his hand in a mystic gesture before his body and speaks three words.

An invisible weight falls from above onto the scorpion to crush it into the stone.

Manfred is passive, waiting, thinking, his spear before his body, as his shape thins and fades bit by bit from the world.

Sophie is a living thing of molten rock. She is amorphous. Part of her is crushed by the weight; but that portion is vestigial and unnecessary. She tears it off, leaving red and ragged edges, and leaps at Francescu again.

The heat of her singes his hair and robe.

Francescu’s spell has not ceased. It is not a spell of a single blow but that doleful incantation of incessant force that the elder people used to kill the behemoth, the leviathan, the phoenix, and the drogg. So even as her furthest extension pushes against Francescu’s chest and sears him Sophie is driven down again into the stone.

“It is futile,” Francescu says.

Sophie rises furiously and she is no one shape but a great cloud of them: seething, unformed, the eye unable to distinguish one from the other: there is the beating of wings and the flashing of light on horn and bone and the slick wet skin of toads and the dancing of the lightning and the soft mist of clouds and the fur of a cat and the great teeth of sharks and tigers and the claws of dragons and trails of smoke and fire and the splashing of the undines and pure cold blue and the cold black eyes of the elder races and the size of the behemoths and the rolling of thunder; and from that cloud comes the constant crackling noise of shattered bones and snapping horn as Francescu’s spell drives her down.

For a moment a single shape is visible: the armored wolf, its body surrounded by great interlocking plates of adamant, cracking as she advances towards Francescu under the weight of the spell.

There is a gap in the armor.

That is when the wrought iron head of Manfred’s spear pierces them both.

The world stutters. All magic fades. There is simply Sophie and Francescu, both speared through.

“Its name is Cursebreaker,” Manfred says.

But as startled and hurt as Sophie is, she arches her arm, and a dagger appears in her hand, and she sweeps it backwards along the line of Manfred’s throat.

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 nineteenth installment of the story of that time.

It is Sophie’s seventeenth year, not long after that night when Manfred wrestled against the shadow, and Manfred’s house has been empty now for several days.

Sophie is clenched around her loneliness like a fist around a struggling bird. So she goes to the house of Francescu. It galls her, but does not surprise her, to see Christine there, so she ignores the presence of her twin.

“I need help,” Sophie says.

She is ragged and wounded, though the wounds fade away when she gives them attention, returning only when her concentration on her own shape lapses.

Christine’s eyes narrow, but because this is Francescu’s house she does not speak.

“Sophie,” says Francescu. He gestures her in. His house is a strange palatial thing, three floors high, of a cheerful and eccentric design.

“There is raisin pudding,” Francescu says. A bowl of the stuff hovers politely near Sophie, as do a selection of silver spoons. Sophie collapses into a sitting position, with a chair forming under her even as she sits.

“Every night,” says Sophie, “old dead Baltasar chases me.”

Francescu tilts his head to the left. Perhaps he is checking on the details of this with a small household manifestation, or with his devil. His forehead creases.

“What did you do, Sophie?” Christine asks.

Sophie has a special mouth inside her stomach just for biting the lip of when Christine talks. Inside her stomach she bleeds.

“I can’t run any more,” says Sophie. “I have to face him down and make him go away.”

“Is that so?” Francescu asks.

“I need help,” Sophie says. “You’re more powerful than I am. You’re not going to just tell Dad like Violet would. You’re not one of those little wiggling worms that eats dung and turns it to soil like Christine. And Manfred’s gone.”

Christine looks wry.

Francescu asks, “Elisabet?”

Sophie looks at Francescu.

“I am not that cruel,” she says.

Sophie takes of the raisin pudding. She eats it voraciously. She is like a starving beast. She is ragged and she is thin.

An Unclean Legacy


Francescu’s Answer

“I don’t think anyone can confront that thing,” Francescu says.

“Why not?”

Sophie’s voice rises towards a shriek.

“You’re—you can make castles in the air!” she protests. “You could summon up lost empires. You have mastered the seven forms and the eighteen pervulsions, the pnakotic nodes and the words of the unmemorable tongue! The beasts of the woods and the birds of the air and the elementals and the demons and the angels call you ‘master!'”

Francescu looks from shoulder to shoulder.

His expression settles in to wry amusement.

“Perhaps with great sarcasm,” Francescu says. “And much overelaborate bowing.”

“Help me,” Sophie says.

Her eyes flick to Christine. Then, with a wrench of will, Sophie turns them back to Francescu.

“I have chosen,” says Francescu, “to live an untroubled life, severed from fear and pain and sorrow. To fight the shadow—it would force me to abandon that way of life and bury myself again in a hopeless world. And I do not know that I would win. Of all the things that I do not know if I can face, that darkness is the one that most concerns me.”

He hesitates.

“If you like,” he says, “I can shelter you from it here. You would not be able to leave, at least not past dark, but you would endure.”

“Don’t be an idiot, Francescu,” Christine says.

“Hm?”

“It’s already tainted her. She’d bring it here. No matter how you tried to hide her, it’d come in after her and then where would we be?”

Francescu looks between them.

“It doesn’t matter,” says Sophie.

“What?”

“I can’t stay here forever, Francescu. Not even without her, and definitely not with her.”

“Ah,” says Francescu. “—There is hot milk with cinnamon.”

“Please,” says Sophie.

And as she actually means the milk, there is no horror on her face when he interprets this as a signal to pour her a glass and float it near her hand.

“Francescu,” Sophie says. “I am going out to challenge the shadow, like Violet did, but I am not . . . well, I am not Violet.”

“It is not my affair,” says Francescu, with finality.

Sophie slumps.

“Okay.”

Then Sophie looks at Christine. Sophie’s expression is absolutely blank, like that of a machine that has never known human feeling, but the look is nevertheless an appeal.

“I . . .” Christine says.

She looks at Sophie, up and down, up and down.

“If you need me to,” Christine says, “I will kill you. And I will make it as quick and as painless as your properties allow.”

“I see,” Sophie says.

“It has touched you already,” Christine says. “I don’t know how to save you. I can’t trust you and go with you. I would end up shadow-eaten. But I can kill you and end your pain.”

“That is gentler than you have been,” says Sophie.

She rises. She turns to walk out.

“I am grateful for that,” Sophie adds. She looks back at Francescu. “As for you, Francescu, you will never inherit father’s legacy.”

“It seems unlikely,” Francescu agrees.

And Sophie goes out.

Wouldn’t hot milk with honey and nutmeg be better before facing the Devil?

Is Cursebreaker cool or is Manfred just overcompensating because he can’t break spells with his natural endowments?

And just how did the armored wolves go extinct, anyway?

Tune in tomorrow for the amazing Unclean Legacy expose: “Sophie and the Devil!”

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: “Manfred’s Day”

Once upon a time, an ogre came to Castle Gargamel.

He hammered on its walls and gate with his fists. He roared. He shouted.

Montechristien Gargamel snored.

“Wake him up!” said little Elisabet. She was cowering in a shadow. “Wake him up! The ogre’ll eat us!”

Manfred, hesitantly, shook Gargamel’s shoulder.

Gargamel snored. Then he choked. He went into a coughing fit that lasted several minutes. Finally, it subsided, and Gargamel lay back again.

“. . . I think he’s sick,” Manfred said.

“Oh no,” said Elisabet.

Manfred glanced at her briefly. “Maybe he’s dead,” he added. “We could feed him to the ogre!”

“No!” Elisabet said. Then she glared at Manfred. “You fix.”

“Me?”

But Tomas was looking at Manfred. His expression was kind of speculative.

“I bet you could beat up an ogre,” he said.

“I’m nine,” Manfred said, but he did puff his chest out a bit.

“Ridiculous,” said Violet, the oldest. “Nobody’s going to go out and fight the ogre.”

“It’s not ridiculous,” Manfred said. He was standing next to Gargamel’s window. He squeezed one of the stone blocks lining its edge and cracked the stone.

“You’re nine!”

There was a horrible crunch as the ogre broke one of the bars of the castle gate.

“Um,” Elisabet said.

Then Manfred straightened. He said, “Let me.”

And Tomas girded him in pieces of an armor suit. It was heavy. It was rusty. It was far too big. Manfred clanked and wobbled as he walked.

But he went out, and the ogre swung at him, and Manfred caught the club.

“Hey!” the ogre protested.

“Uff,” Manfred muttered.

Then Manfred hit the beast and hit the beast until the ogre vomited up blood and, reeling, staggered back into the jungle.

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 second installment of the story of that time.

The night is cold. There is a wind.

The children huddle in their rooms.

Outside their room in the castle halls there is a flickering red and black light. There are terrible noises. It is fearsome. A shadow walks the halls of Castle Gargamel, and its fingers are like claws.

“It’s calling,” whispers Violet.

“It wants us,” Manfred says.

Manfred is nine years old, and on each of his shoulders there is a spirit that only he can see. One is evil, or so he thinks. One is good.

It is Manfred’s devil that is telling him what the shadow wants.

“Put simply,” it proposes, “you are to kill Gargamel.”

“Why should I do that?” Manfred asks.

“You are a bully,” Manfred’s devil says. Its voice is blunt. “I am not speaking simply of the extraordinary strength that qualifies you for the role. You like dominance. You need control. And it gives you satisfaction to smite those with whom you disagree. In this castle, if you seize it, is adequate power for you to establish your authority over anyone who disagrees and work your will on land and people both.”

“I’m nine,” Manfred protests.

“You’re old enough,” says Manfred’s devil. “And you will not have this opportunity again. Kill Gargamel, and you will have your dreams.”

Manfred looks to his angel, who is unaccustomedly silent.

“Won’t you speak?” he asks.

“I want to call it a sin,” the angel says, “but it’s Gargamel. How bad can it be to kill Gargamel?

“I mean—” Manfred says. “What it said about me—”

“I’m helpless against the truth,” the angel sighs.

Manfred rocks in his place. His eyes are closed. Then he opens them with a start; and neither his angel or his devil are there.

“Go after her,” Francescu says.

Francescu is a weedy and a frail boy, though older than Manfred by nearly a year. He is tugging at Manfred’s sleeve.

“After her?”

Manfred looks around. Violet is gone.

“She’ll die,” Francescu says. “It’ll eat her or turn her evil or something. She’ll be alone.”

Manfred shakes his head. He just keeps shaking it.

“I can’t,” he says.

It is all he can do not to answer the shadow’s call.

An Unclean Legacy


Manfred’s Day

Three weeks before Manfred’s tenth birthday, his father comes and sits down on his bed.

“I will give you a treasure,” says Montechristien Gargamel.

“What?” Manfred asks.

“You may name it,” says Gargamel. “And if it is a thing that may be found on land, or in the sea, or anywhere under the stars, then I shall make it yours.”

“Wow,” Manfred says.

Gargamel does not smile. Sometimes Manfred thinks he can’t; that his father doesn’t have the facial muscles for anything but a crooked sneer.

“I am alone with myself,” Manfred says.

“Alone?”

“I want something to help me know what to do.”

“Ha,” laughs Gargamel. “Ha ha ha. You don’t know what to do.”

It’s a cracked and horrid laugh.

“No, father,” says Manfred, hurt and angry.

So Gargamel stands. He pats Manfred on the head.

“I will give you Santrieste,” he says. “He will guide you.”

But Manfred’s angel only frowns.

Why isn’t the angel happy?

What is the power of Castle Gargamel?

Tune in tomorrow for an Unclean Legacy exclusive: Glorious Unicorn Santrieste!

Wilma

Once, long ago, Wilma strangled her devil-conscience. Now her left shoulder is bare and she is immortal.

“Ow!” says Wilma.

Her angel-conscience is hitting her.

“What?” she asks.

“I’m hitting you to make you better,” says her angel-conscience. “Assault for empathy and battery for wisdom!”

“Ow,” mutters Wilma, again.

She’s on the arena planet. She moves through the crowds like a guttersnipe does, with her eyes downcast and her body language pulled in. People are roaring and mingling and mumbling all around her. They don’t notice her, because they’re all too important and too busy to notice someone like her.

She’s wearing a crinkling silver jumpsuit, like a futuristic woman should. She’s pulled her hair tightly back into a ponytail, and let it return—after many millennia—to its natural red. She’s blending in so that no one finds her.

And on the electronic billboard it advertises the fight between her lovers, the fight that their presence in the 25th century has made inevitable, a fight she cannot bear to watch:

Buck vs. the Flintstone Man, the billboard screams.

“It’s possible,” says Wilma, as she squirms between two knots of people, making her way steadily towards the dock, “that I have empathy and wisdom already.”

The angel hits her on her right shoulder.

“Ow.”

There is a burst of sound. The announcer’s voice booms out:

“FROZEN IN SPACE . . .

“Frozen for millennia by a freak combination of gasses, the Flintstone Man awakens in the savage world of the 25th century! Here he must strive with his obsidian monoknife and his barbaric foot-powered starship to defeat his enemy. FLINTSTONE! DESTROY ALL SPACEMEN! MELEE!”

Wilma covers her head in her hand.

“What?” the angel says.

“I give him 38 seconds,” says Wilma.

“35,” argues the angel. Then the angel hits Wilma again.

“Ow!”

The announcer roars over the shrieking of the crowd:

“FROZEN IN TIME . . .

“Coincidence—or destiny? Flung forward in time, frozen by a similar freak combination of gasses, this 20th century primitive found himself falling in love with the Flintstone Man’s ancient wife! Now, trapped on an arena planet, forced to battle for survival, he so far refuses to kill his enemies—but will he kill his savage rival for love? BIDIBIDIBIDIBIDI TO THE DEATH, BUCK!”

“Ancient?” cries Wilma.

“In fairness, if you hadn’t killed your entropy, you’d be grayer than a Balthusian dawn,” the angel says.

Wilma steadies herself. She sighs.

“You’re right,” she says. “I guess.”

So she resumes her walk.

“You could go back,” says the angel-conscience. “You could save one of them.”

“I could,” Wilma concedes. “But they’ve turned up a flash-frozen 23rd century feminist out by Aldebaran, and I hear he’s hot.”

“Oh-oh,” says the angel.

They move on.

These are a few of the shouts from the crowd, as Wilma picks her way towards the dock and the billboards count the time:

“He’s got a dinosaur! Oh God! The teeth!”

“Yabba! Yabba! Yabba! Yabba!”

“Orbital ballistics? Stupid primitives and your booster rockets! Get an inertialess drive!”

Then there is a horrible cauterized noise and all is still.

The billboards shine forth green numbers: “37.06. Buck.”

“Oh my God!” says one of the rich women in front of Wilma. She’s holding up a ticket. “37.06 seconds! I called it!”

She frantically stuffs the ticket in her purse. It does not stuff well, and as the woman runs towards the ticket counter, the ticket sproings out and flutters flutters flutters down to the bleacher floor.

“Punch!” says the angel-conscience.

“Ow! Stop that.”

“Punch!” says the angel-conscience. “It makes you better.”

Wilma is looking down at the ticket. She is warring with herself.

“Punch!”

“Ow! Stop that.”

“It makes you better,” says the angel smugly.

But Wilma has picked up the ticket. She is holding it tightly. She is realizing that she has the chance to leave the arena planet not just free but also rich.

“Punch! Makin’ you better!”

“It doesn’t seem to be working,” Wilma points out.

The Shelf, And What Happened There

Mercury is a cookie. She is tall and gorgeous. Her hair is long and flows down her side. Her primary ingredients are whole grain rolled oats, brown sugar, and coconut. She’s a lot like a gingerbread man, but she’s prettier and has less ginger.

She cools on a pan for a while. Then Emma, who is five, picks Mercury up and puts her on a shelf next to the other cookies.

“You stay,” Emma says. “Talk to other cookies! If you have to go outside, tell Mommy first. That’s the rule!” Then Emma leaves.

“Hi,” Mercury says to the other cookies.

On the shelf, there’s a rabbit, and a dashing pirate, and a wolf, and a faceless man. All of them are cookies. All of them say “Hi,” except for the faceless man. He doesn’t have a mouth, so he doesn’t say anything.

“I’m a cookie,” Mercury explains. “I just cooled.”

“Welcome,” says the pirate. “We’re telling stories. Do you want to join in?”

“I’d better listen first,” she says. “I’ve never told a story before.”

“I bet you’ll do fine,” says the pirate. Even his voice is dashing. It brightens Mercury’s heart. “But you can have a turn after the wolf.”

“Okay,” Mercury agrees.

The rabbit says, “There’s a place. Very far from here.”

“How do you know?” asks the wolf.

“An angel told me.” The rabbit makes a throat-clearing noise, and continues:

There’s a place that’s white and cold and its sky is dark. It hangs high above the world. It looks down on the Earth. My people live there: not just one, not just ten, but thousands. Thousands of rabbits, their fur white with frost. The enemy cannot find them there. So they live in peace. There are plenty of things for them to enjoy. There’s one there whose heart is one with mine. She waits for me. She doesn’t care how long. She looks down at the Earth; and waits; and loves me.

“Ah,” says the wolf. “That’s very fine.”

“What’s love?” Mercury asks.

“I don’t know,” says the rabbit. “Not really. But when the angel said it, it meant something to me.” The rabbit coughs. “It’s your turn, pirate.”

The pirate thinks. “In the morning,” he says, “I’ll set sail.”

“How do you know?” asks the rabbit.

“Some things you just know,” he says. His voice shares both a sadness and a quiet joy. “It’s like this:”

In the morning, I’ll set sail. I’ll go to a faraway place. I’ll fight many battles. I’ll be a hero. Everyone will admire me. But you can’t be a hero forever. Someday, someone will get in a lucky blow. I’ll crumble. I’ll die. That’s okay. Whoever kills me, they’ll give me back to the sea. And my life will have meant something.

The rabbit thinks. “You’re lucky,” he says. “To know all that.”

“I suppose,” agrees the pirate. “But it’s sad that I won’t have someone to mourn me.”

“I’ll mourn you,” says Mercury, impulsively. “I’ll think of the sea, and say, ‘goodbye.'”

The pirate laughs. “See? A happy ending. But it’s the wolf’s turn.”

The wolf considers. “I could live,” she says.

The faceless man makes a noise.

“I could,” says the wolf. “It’s part of what a wolf is. Listen:”

This is what it means to be a wolf. This is the promise written in our bones. If we’re fast, if we’re smart, if we’re strong. If our senses are sharp and our footfalls soft, we’ll live. There’s always meat for a wolf, if we dare to find it. There’s always water. There’s always warmth. Some don’t make it. Some die. They get sick. They get killed. They go lame. But if you’re strong, if you’re fast, if you’re smart, you’ll live. That’s the only story wolves know. It’s the only one we need.

The faceless man makes another noise.

“I don’t know if I’m strong enough,” says the wolf. “So I don’t know if I’ll live. But I won’t give up. I’m a wolf.”

Mercury says, “You’re very brave.”

“Not brave,” says the wolf. “Just me. It’s your turn.”

“I’m made of oats,” says Mercury. “I was baked in the oven.” She thinks. “That wasn’t a very good story, was it?”

The pirate laughs. “You’ll tell a better one tomorrow,” he says. “It takes a little practice.”

Emma comes into the room. “Wuf!” she says. She picks up the wolf. She gnaws on the wolf’s ear. She leaves the room.

Mercury makes a startled noise. “Hey.”

“Ah,” says the pirate. “I wouldn’t have thought it’d be her, next.”

“What happened to the wolf?”

“She’s gone to war.”

“War?”

“It’s why we’re here,” says the pirate. “We’re waiting, to go to war. We’ll fight back the enemy. To protect everyone else.”

“Oh,” says Mercury, feeling a little stupid. “I didn’t know.”

“It’s okay,” says the pirate. “A lot of us get confused after baking. I’m sure you’ll be a fine soldier. But you have to live longer than I do, to mourn me.”

“And go home,” agrees the rabbit. “I don’t know if your home is like mine, but you should go to it. Afterwards. You seem nice.”

“I don’t have a home,” Mercury says. “Just you.”

“Then you should visit, afterwards,” says the pirate. “Visit the rabbit on the moon. Make a grave for me, down by the sea. See if the wolf survived.”

The faceless man makes a noise.

“You could visit the faceless man, too,” the pirate adds. “He’s the best of us, you know.”

“I will,” Mercury promises. “But oh, I’d rather if you lived too.”

“Ah, lass,” says the pirate. “It’s not such a world as that.”

Night falls. For a time, the cookies are silent. Mercury passes into dreams and visions. When she wakes up, there’s a tiny angel sitting next to her on the shelf. The angel’s not a cookie. She’s a girl. She’s got wings sticking out through holes in her jacket. Above the wings, the back of her jacket reads Magic.

“Hi,” says Mercury.

“Hi,” says the angel. “It’s the first dawn of your life, so you get a wish.”

“I wish I could be with the pirate when he dies,” says Mercury.

The angel dangles her feet off the shelf. “Wouldn’t you rather save him?”

“If I save his life, he might die again,” says Mercury. “But if I’m with him when he dies, he’ll know he’s remembered.”

“That’s sweet,” says the angel. “So I’ll see what I can do.” The angel sparkles and vanishes.

Slowly, the other cookies wake.

“Good morning, Mercury,” says the pirate. “Do you understand stories better after a good night’s rest?”

“I think so,” says Mercury. “I have a people, too. Like the rabbit.”

“How do you know?” asks the pirate.

“Because I’m alive, and someday I’ll be dead,” she says. “And in the meantime, this is how it must be:”

I have a people, in a faraway place. They don’t know the kinds of things I’ll have to do. They don’t know what it’s like at war. But they’ll know I’m fighting for them. There’s a boy in a field, and he looks up. He remembers that we’re fighting. There’s a lady in a school, and she looks up. She remembers that we’re fighting. All my people. Not often. But sometimes. They stop, and they remember.

“Mm,” says the pirate. “I think you’ve got it.”

“Thanks,” says Mercury.

Emma comes into the room. “Pirate!” She picks up the pirate. Then she looks at Mercury. She thinks. There’s an angel on one of her shoulders. There’s a devil on the other. For once, and Emma finds this very strange, they’re both saying the same thing.

“TWO cookies,” Emma says, happily. She picks Mercury up. Then, a cookie in each hand, she leaves the room.