The Measure of a Monster (III/VII)

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


October 10, 1995

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

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

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

This seems like a brilliant idea at first.

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

Then his heart lifts.

He feels a fierce and wild joy.

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

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

“I can wait,” Stefan says.

“— What?”

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

“I fought back,” Micah says, blankly.

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

“Not well,” Stefan says.

“They have cameras,” Micah says, incoherently.

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

“I can wait,” Stefan says.

He turns to leave.

“No,” Micah says.

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

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

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

Stefan frowns.

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

“You’re going to die,” giggles Micah.

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

“Fine,” Stefan says.

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

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

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

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

“Damn it,” Stefan says.

He vanishes.

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

It isn’t over.

He makes it away. He staggers down the road.

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

He staggers into a phone booth.

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

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

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

“OK,” says Liril’s mother.

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

“Huh?”

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

“Micah,” she says, softly.

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

“I don’t want that,” she says.

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

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

“What?”

“You can do it any way.”

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

“OK,” she says.

He almost hangs up.

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

It suddenly occurs to him that Liril is serious.

“You’re serious,” he tells her.

She doesn’t say anything.

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

She giggles.

“What?”

“That’s awful,” she says. “Spitting.”

He can hear her happiness through the phone.

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

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

“What do I do?”

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

This is my last chance at sanity, he thinks.

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

He knows better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sword of Love (IV/V)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

Tara’s master had always said, “Don’t become a pirate and sail around trying to force enlightenment on people. That’s not the Buddha’s way!”

But Tara still went down to the docks and looked out at the sea and she’d grin at the seagulls on the rocks.

He even tried to hit her with a stick.

You know how it is.

Sometimes, when you hit people with sticks, they achieve enlightenment and stop wanting to be pirates.

But not Tara.

Tara caught the stick on that brilliant effusion of compassion that she insists on calling her Sword of Love, and twisted it from his hand, and shouted, “Ho ha!” and suddenly he was dancing backwards across the dock and out over the edge trying to avoid the lunges of her sword; and if he weren’t an enlightened master quite capable of standing on the wisps of salt vapor rising from the sea he would quite certainly have fallen in.

“It’s because of the heaps,” she said.

“The heaps.”

“Everyone in the world,” she says. “They go walking in the silence of their soul, and they meet the heaps like bandits. And the heaps find them and cut them apart and pile their limbs one on top of another, until they are deeply confused inside their mind; and that is why we have the mess that is the world today.”

“And?”

“So I thought,” Tara said, “that I should become a pirate, and practice my swordplay, until I could meet the greatest of the heaps in a one-on-one battle and stab him, BAM! That’s what I thought.”

“Thus saving the world from suffering,” her master said.

“Exactly.”

She grinned at him.

“Isn’t that brilliant?” she asked.

“If I had another stick,” he said. “I’d hit you with it. That’s how brilliant that is.”

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west there comes an outpouring of good to make all things right.

Max sets out in his catamaran to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime but he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.

It is the Latter Days of the Law.
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.

The knife of the legend of Mr. Kong
Reflects his answer:
“We must try to be good.”

But people always fight the things they love.

The Island of the Centipede

“You project onto me,” says the great heap to Tara, “the failings of the world.”

Sid is watching.

It is the strangest thing. He cannot help but feel: what a horrible, horrible thing.

And a burning sympathy for it, as it lurches on.

“Do I?” Tara says.

“Do I prey?” says the heap. The fight begins—a fight that we shall describe momentarily; for now, let us say, a shifting, a blurring, a great movement like the wind. “Am I a devourer of wastes? A cold, hard, compassionless thing, who closes the door on the suffering of children and keeps every creature from enlightenment?”

It is striking at her like great waves, with the location of it never clear, so that she must parry eight strokes for each one movement of its arm. It is moving slowly, like a boulder tumbling on the sands, but still she is pressed: her sword sparks like a fire and the movement of the heap pushes the pirate back.

She gestures at it and the lotus in her palm blazes: but a great sigil burns in the heap as she does so, and staring at it, her body goes slack, her jaw gapes, her eyes glaze, and it causeth her to correlate each thing she knows with each other thing; and it is only because a bodhisattva pattern-matches more quickly than an ordinary pirate that she clears her head in time to live.

Even so, it knocks her back, and she is bloody about the head.

She is up in a crouch again. Some of the pirates have come forward, but she waves them back.

“Those qualities are not me,” says the heap, in answer to its own questions. “They are a description of the world.”

The sun shines down on the shimmering of the heap. Tara pushes against the beach with her hand; the sand beneath her shifts. The heap issues a lumbering attack. A lotus platform, scented with rich perfume, rises through the sand beneath Tara’s feet. It lifts her up and flies with her to the side. She stabs at the heap’s extended limb; her sword cuts in and clear ichor flows.

The pirates and the heaps have formed a circle. They no longer fight. They watch.

The sword does not pull free as the heap strikes at her again. She releases its hilt and flies back, her feet twisting on the lotus platform to direct its path. Sand geysers upwards from the beach as the heap’s nebulous fist slams down. Tara pulls a knife from a sheath on her leg. She cuts a pattern in the air and lightning goes forth to strike at the creature.

The great heap practices the swift-step.

It is behind her. It is clubbing her, two limbs against her back. Her eyes open wide and she falls.

The great heap practices the swift-step. It looms beneath her. It moves to strike a beneath-her blow.

Tara has the double-jump enlightenment. Thus, even with nothing to brace against, she kicks off against the air and flies upwards out of reach. A near-invisible metal line and hook drop from her hand as she jumps and hook around her sword. Standing there in midair over its head, she jerks the blade from its limb and back into her hand.

“What if every time people looked out at the world, and got confused about what they saw?” she starts.

Time is moving very slowly.

“What if, when they confused things with heaps, they didn’t just transitively confuse them with other things, but rather confused them with brightness? With compassion? With universal love?”

Her feet come down on its shoulders. Her eyes are very bright, and she’s got a wild pirate grin.

“‘Cause,” she says. “You know? We can make that happen.”

Her sword isn’t for stabbing, after all.

She’s a bodhisattva.

It’s for changing things.

And time is moving full on again, and she shouts wordlessly, and she takes the hilt of the sword of her love for all living things in both her hands, and she drives its down towards the nominal location of the creature’s brain.

BAM.

There is thunder.

There is light.

The creature’s clay body shudders and explodes.

The world changes.

Shards of clay fly in every direction.

Wait, Tara thinks. She goes over this carefully in her head—reason being one of the instruments by which a bodhisattva subdues the skandhas. Was it made of clay? Was it made of feathers and clay and blood, with sharpness such as this beneath? Or was that Sid?

It would be very embarrassing, she starts to think—

The skandha hits her like a wave.

It is bone-shattering. It is wind-stealing. It drives everything from her mind but a jagged whirlwind of the pieces of sensation.

She is falling.

Bubbles rise all around her. Chaos swirls in her lungs.

There is a heavy footstep.

The heap is coming.

She remembers her name. Tara. She remembers her purpose. Piracy, then saving everyone from false conceptions. She suffuses with understanding.

“Damn it,” she says. “Now everyone will have to go on suffering.”

Her mouth is running over with red.

The heap is still coming.

She salutes it.

“I’ll beat you some day,” she says, and she grins brightly.

Then she twists to her feet and dives into the crashing sea.

Transience (II/V)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

“Everything is transient,” says Tara.

She is sitting on the deck of her ship. She is meditating. She is holding the ship still while the world moves around her.

“We imagine that things are permanent, but this is not so: rather, ‘permanence’ is a quality of the mind, a sign without referent, that we strive in futility to apply to external things.”

She is crying, freely and without hesitation, because everything that is good and beautiful must pass away.

It is not a wonder that her ship should sink. It is, in fact, a wonder that it ever stayed afloat at all. The great stone statue of the Buddha that serves as its prow should, by rights, have dragged the ship down to the bottom of the sea. That it has not done so yet is a testament to the grace and beauty of the sculptor’s soul: but that grace cannot keep the ship upright much longer.

The bandits of the island have sent forth a ship-killing spear and it trembles in the wood of the good ship Honest with Myself; and the ship cannot take another.

It would be easier for Tara if she did not care about the passing of these things. It would be easier if she could simply laugh and let the illusions of the world fume and blow before her eyes—but Tara is not yet a Buddha.

She has taken a sabbatical from the bodhisattva’s journey.

She has hoisted the Jolly Roger in the name of the enlightenment of all living beings; has put aside the scripture for the sword; has sworn in the greatness of her heart the compassionate oath: “I shall become a Buddha. I shall save all living beings from suffering. But first I shall become a pirate!”

Her unbending determination shook the world and caused flower petals to rain from the highest peak of Heaven: but for every oath there is a price.

All things pass.

All things pass.

All things, even the beautiful things, even the good things, pass.

And there is nothing in piracy to save the heart from the brutality of this truth.

Third-fired, second-landed: a second ship-killing spear slams home. The ship screams—

No, she tells herself. It is the grinding of the wood. It is not a scream.

The ship screams. The ship shakes. The statue of the Buddha splits open. Inside it is not stone. Inside it is hollow, and full of the petals of the chrysanthemum.

The wind seizes them up and scatters them across the sea.

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west there comes an outpouring of good to make all things right.

Max sets out in his catamaran to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime but he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.

It is the Latter Days of the Law.
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.

The knife of the legend of Mr. Kong
Reflects his answer:
“We must try to be good.”

But people always fight the things they love.

The Island of the Centipede

Tara stands.

Everything is exploding underneath her. She thinks: ah, it has struck the strategic sutra reserve.

The ship is becoming flinders.

Gusts of holy fire, the infallible material indicators of the perfect truth of the sutras, billow up. The chickens flutter desperately in their pen. The monkeys climb to the top of the rigging. Her personal parrot flies away.

She fixes her mind upon right pillaging.

Her hand moves sideways. Seeing the lotus in her palm, the chickens go still and resolute. Their minds focus on compassion and their spirits suspire peacefully into Avahārakalikāranirvāņa, the Pirate Chicken Paradise. Tara takes two steps into the air according to the double-jump enlightenment and lands upon a great length of wood blown skyward by the explosion of the Jewel-Thought Sutra. Her gaze turns towards the monkeys.

A terrible splinter of wood is flying towards her eye.

You cannot save yourself and monkeys both, murmurs a false conception. She dismisses it and looks upon the splinter with the all-embracing love of a mostly-enlightened pirate.

I trust you, she says, to the splinter as it comes tearing for her eye.

Caught off balance by Tara’s gaze, it catches fire; it gusts with holy light; it grows into flower, like the cherry wood of its birth, and the wind blows it aside.

Her arm stretches (a human distance) to the right. There is a shift in the equilibrium of the world; her arm becomes heavy with monkeys.

The wood on which she stands is spinning.

She blows a kiss backwards at the ship. “You were good,” she says, and suddenly time is moving at its normal rate again.

“May a thousand beautiful things flower from the karma that gave you birth.”

With horrible speed, the wood plank skips off the sea, wings an upright monk and opens a scar in the side of his scalp that he’ll be telling people about for the rest of his life, skips one last time, and tumbles the dread pirate Tara and a quarter barrel’s worth of monkeys to roll over and over and over again upon the shore.

The Fable of the Lamb (1 of 2)

It is Friday, the 23rd of April, 2004.

Cunning Melanie, beloved of the gods, wears a dark black suit and a nametag with one name. She eats well. She drinks in moderation. She bikes to work every morning. Most people drive, but they don’t get to feel the wind. She feels the wind. Every day, on the way to work, she feels the wind. She knows it’s changed. So she watches. She watches the trees outside her window, and the squares of concrete, and the lawn.

She is the first, of all who work at Central, to know that the hero and the monster have come.

She walks into her lab.

“Stefan, Vincent, Harold,” she says.

They look up from their computers. They are her students, close to her heart.

“The hero and the monster have come,” she says. “This means that Central is not safe.”

“He is only Sebastien,” says Stefan.

“Perhaps.”

“And the monster outranks us,” Stefan points out.

“The hero can kill monsters,” says Melanie. “So I must ask you: have you committed such crimes that you might bear that name?”

“It seems unfair,” Harold grouses. “He exists to kill that monster. He should not branch out to anyone who simply behaves in a monstrous fashion.”

“Alas,” Melanie says. “Harold may not arrange the world!”

“Alas,” Harold phlegmatically confirms.

“We must remove him,” Melanie says. “It shall be Stefan first.”

“Why?”

“Because you have said, ‘he is only Sebastien.'”

“It was my optimistic confidence,” Stefan says. “Don’t punish such a cheery attitude—it will lead you to sorrow! Your subordinates will paste Dilbert comics on their cubicles and mock your management practices.”

“They should regret such actions bitterly,” says Melanie.

“Fah,” declares Stefan, resigned.

Stefan

The hero opens the door. He walks into Central. He has the monster at his side.

There is a security desk at the entrance to the building. Dave is a guard. He’s sitting behind the desk. He nods to the monster. The monster nods back.

“Cheerio, sir,” says Dave. “Good to see you again.”

“Cheerio,” says the monster.

“Does he know what happens here?” the hero asks.

“Oh, yes,” says the monster. “But it’s a living.”

“Ah,” says the hero.

Dave ducks his head.

Upstairs, Stefan takes down a gun. He checks it. Then he practices the swift-step. He is behind the hero. The gun is in his hand. He is firing. The bullet tears through the hero’s chest, piercing right through the heart.

Uh oh, Stefan! There’s just a hollow where the hero’s heart should be.

The hero is staggering back. There’s a lot of blood and trauma in a heart shot, even if your heart’s in a box somewhere far away.

Stefan swift-steps to the armory.

“I need a shotgun,” he says.

There’s a web, or a net, or maybe just a shredded mesh of raw tissue, spread throughout the room. It has eyes suspended in it. They turn on him. They swivel. There are teeth. They chatter.

“It’s an emergency,” Stefan says.

The eyes turn away. A shotgun clatters to the floor at Stefan’s feet. He picks it up. He readies it. Ka-CHUNK.

He thinks about angles. Dave will probably die too, and maybe the monster, but you have to finish what you start. If you don’t, you end up dead.

Stefan practices the swift-step.

The hero’s sword meets his neck. Stefan swift-stumbles backwards to the office, but it’s too late. His head is hanging on a thread of tissue.

“Damn it, Melanie,” he says.

Then his head falls off, and all he can do is blink until he dies.

Vincent

“Vincent,” Melanie says.

“No,” Vincent says.

“Why not?”

“Harold’s invulnerable,” Vincent says.

“You’re more likely to win,” Melanie says.

“He’s invulnerable.

“Technically, I’m vulnerable to Kryptonite,” Harold points out.

“But there’s no such substance.”

“That’s true,” Harold concedes. “It’s a good weakness for Superman, but it’s not very balanced for me.”

Harold

A long time ago, they gave Liril a doll named Latch. They let her keep it for a while. They promised it would be safe if she was good. So she was good. She combed its hair. She hugged it tight. Then they took it from her. She had to watch as bad things happened to it. She didn’t know what she’d done wrong.

But she didn’t let Latch die.

The god of such moments is called an aegis. Harold carries one, because they are the subject of his study. He has charts on his wall of their spiritual anatomy. He has done surgery on his aegis, and other things besides, to stretch the limits of the god.

He feels it gently. It is in his pocket.

Then he walks down to meet the hero.

The Hero

“Are you all right?” Dave asks.

Dave’s hand is under the hero’s elbow. His other hand is behind the hero’s shoulders.

“‘m ff,” the hero says. He’s trying to imply that he’s fine.

“I don’t . . .” Dave looks at the monster. “I don’t understand.”

“All-hands in the main conference room in twenty minutes,” says the monster. “I’ll explain then.”

“He’s really lucky he’s not dead,” Dave says. “I mean, what with the not having a heart and all.”

“Got a heart,” the hero says. “It’s in a box.”

“Oh.”

“The box is in a duck,” the hero says.

“Oh,” Dave says again.

“I need air,” the hero says. He walks back out. He sits down heavily in the square. The monster follows. There’s not a speck of blood on the monster’s outfit.

“What?”

“I don’t kill people often,” the hero says.

“He had a swift-step god. That’s sort of like being an escalator.”

“What’s the point of a bike rack,” the hero says, “with only one bloody bike?”

“It wasn’t bloody before you started leaning on it,” the monster says.

“I’m cranky,” the hero says. “I’ll stab you if you don’t stop it with the humorous commentary.”

The monster flares his nostrils.

“Who was he?” the hero asks.

“Stefan,” says the monster. “Experimental theologian.”

“I ate lunch with him every day,” Harold says, emerging onto the lawn. “He never picked up the check.”

“Ah,” says the hero. “More company with guns.”

Harold fires at the hero’s head. It misses. Most bullets do.

The hero’s sword comes up, right through the bike rack, right through Melanie’s bike, and stabs into Harold’s chest.

“That’s not good,” says Melanie, watching.

“Ow,” says Harold.

He looks down at his chest. He looks at the hero’s chest. Then he giggles.

“Now you and us are even stevens,” he says.

The hero gets to his feet, and drives the sword in deeper. It’s up to its hilt in Harold’s chest. Harold doesn’t seem to mind.

“I took generic ibuprofen before coming out to fight you,” he says. “That’s why the pain’s not so bad.”

Harold aims his gun under the hero’s chin. The hero elbows it out of Harold’s hand. It skitters across the ground and lands in soft verdant grass. Then the hero gets tired from blood loss and exertion and finds himself leaning gently against Harold’s shoulder.

“This is an awkward moment,” observes the monster.

“Why did you bring him here?” Harold asks.

“If you’d held off the assassination attempts until after the all-hands,” the monster says, “you’d probably know.”

Harold sighs. He shoves the hero away. The hero, blearily, refuses to shove. He grips Harold’s arms and holds them tightly against Harold’s body.

“I’ll squeeze,” the hero warns. So he does. The hero is very strong. Then blood comes out and he’s very weak. Then he’s very strong again. Then he falls back against the bike rack. Because it’s neatly cut in two, there are sharp edges pushing against his back.

“I’m invulnerable,” Harold says, apologetically. He starts walking towards his gun.

The hero leaps onto Harold’s back, and Harold falls to the ground. There’s a bike lock wrapped in the hero’s hands, and it’s choking Harold.

“Damn it,” Harold says. He’s not prone to profanity, even when he spills acid on himself or a really good woman dumps him, but he’s just realized that it’s a Kryptonite lock.

Then he’s dead.

All Hands

“Vincent,” Melanie says.

“I have really good hearing,” Vincent says. “That’s my only power. I have a rabbit familiar. I can hop. I can hear things. I’m not going to be able to kill him.”

“Oh.”

“Besides, the monster says that we should save assassination attempts until after the all-hands meeting. That sounds reasonable to me.”

“If you kill him before the all-hands, then there’ll be more seating for everyone else.”

“We can pull in an extra chair,” Vincent says. “It’s okay.”

So they go to the all-hands meeting.

“I bring a message of love,” says the monster, “from a girl named Jane.”

The monster has a laptop. It’s connected to a projector. The first slide in his PowerPoint presentation shows a large picture of a heart. It’s a formal Valentine heart and not a pulsing human heart. It’s labeled as slide one.

The monster clicks to the next slide.

“Jane wants you to redeem yourselves,” he says. The slide shows a picture of the monster, looking very uncomfortable, hugging a puppy. The puppy is licking the monster’s tie. It’s labeled as slide two. “We have committed acts of evil here, and horror unmeasured by morality. It is time to rededicate yourselves and this installation to compassion, love, and the healing of the world.”

Most of the people in the all-hands look uncomfortable. One hand raises. The monster points. “Yes?”

“What’s the threat?”

The monster’s voice is silk. “The threat?”

“What is she holding against you and/or us?”

“Ah,” says the monster. He clicks past several slides. He reaches slide five. It’s a chart of profit over time for 2002, 2003, and first quarter 2004. “In 2003,” he says, “the Earth Division cleared over two hundred million gross, with nearly forty million in profit. We control one of the three most powerful arsenals of theological weaponry in the known world, and have the chance to pioneer an uncharted and illegal science. What’s wrong with this picture?”

He clicks. There’s a picture of a globe. It’s lightly tinged with red—a dusting here, a deepening there, a bit of crimson spotted through the seas.

“This is the sum of our influence,” he says. “We have theoretically unlimited power, but in practice, our profits are penny ante and our influence tiny. The gods we make are isn’ts. They are severed from us. The greatest host of Faerie assembled in our time failed to topple the Nicaraguan government. The unbounded horrors born unto the Federated States of Micronesia are dying at human hands. And we make forty million a year from the ability to circumvent natural law and bend humans and nations alike to our desiring. We are an isn’t.”

The monster clicks to the next slide. There’s a picture of Martin. He’s leaning against the wall, looking away from the camera.

“This is what Jane has. She has a creature that can breach the boundary and make gods real. He can manifest dharma. If he sends to us a killing god, there are none of us safe. Conversely, should he manifest Ii Ma, then we may imprison any man we choose, without recourse, without jurisdiction, without protection. We would simply speak a man’s name, and Ii Ma would take him away. This creature’s contemners could destroy our enemies with near-perfect reliability. His footsoldiers—”

There’s a little giggle in the room. At this point, the footsoldiers are not much more than an in-joke to the Central crowd.

“Well,” says the monster, expressively.

He clicks ahead a few more slides.

“The rules are simple,” the monster says. “She is willing to forgive. Simply come up to this podium, and say, ‘It was wrong. It was vile. I had no right.’ Then turn, and walk through the door on the right, and begin your new life as an employee of a new, brighter, more loving Earth Division. Or walk through the door to the left, and continue your life as normal.”

The rules are displayed on the screen.

A hand raises. The monster points.

This is a Vice-President in Charge of Sales. His name is Miles, for what it matters. “This is a game, right? I mean, you’re not bloody serious. We’re not going to—I mean, it’s fucking crazy.”

The hero kills a Vice-President in Charge of Sales. His name was Miles.

The monster clears his throat.

“It is juvenile,” he says. “In the literal sense. I’ve sold you all out, and that puts each and every one of you at the mercy of a child. She’s about six years old, and each of you has collaborated, directly or ex post facto, in torturing her. If you refuse to play in her little tea party, I won’t save you, because that’s not in my interest. You can repent in jest, treating it as a game, but I imagine that something horrible would come out from under your bed and devour you in the night. It’s up to you. Leave through the left, or leave through the right.”

The monster turns off his laptop. “That’s all.”

The first man stands up. His name is Leonard. He walks to the front. He says, quietly, “It was wrong. It was vile. I had no right.”

He walks out through the door to the right.

The second man stands up. His name is Douglas, not that it matters. He walks to the front. He turns to the left. He walks left. The hero kills him.

“Hey,” says a woman in the back. Her name is Heather. “Hey!”

“What?” the monster asks.

“You can’t redeem people at the point of a sword.”

“Maybe I just had a grudge against that particular guy,” the hero suggests. He turns Douglas over. He reads the nametag. “‘Doug.’ Maybe he killed my cat.”

“It’s not morally correct as a means for gaining contrition!” Heather protests. She’s an armchair ethicist, and gets very vigorous about such things.

“If it’s within you to be redeemed,” says the monster, “then it shouldn’t matter what incentives are applied. If not, then redemption is impossible, even at the point of a flower.”

Heather frowns in frustration. “Did you . . . did you say those things, doctor? About it being wrong and vile?”

The monster smirks. He didn’t have to. Jane’s emotionally entangled with him, Martin needs him, and the hero’s messed up in the head. “It’s not relevant, dear lady,” he says.

Heather’s face pinches. She looks very upset. But she walks to the front. She looks nervously at the hero. “I didn’t collaborate,” she says. “I mean, not really.”

She turns left. She walks left. The hero kills her.

One by one, they go towards the front. Most of them make the speech now, and turn right. Two of them fight the hero. One of them dies normally. The other one dies with a shout and a bitter complaint on his lips, something to the effect of, “He didn’t have a harpoon when I attacked him.” A few others slink forward to die.

The Fable of the Lamb

Melanie takes out the needle and puts a bandaid on Vincent’s arm.

“Go,” says Melanie.

Vincent walks to the front. He turns left. The hero looks at him.

“I grew up here,” Vincent says. “It took me a long time to know that what we did was wrong. And then I couldn’t think of anything that could stop it. There’s nobody to tell, nobody to warn. Half the system is corrupt and the other half wouldn’t believe me. So I help the kids when I can. I try to give them a little bit of light. And I help the staff. Because I work here, because they gave me a place here, because I love them too. So I’m going to go left, and you’re not going to kill me, because heroes can kill monsters, and I’m just a screwed-up guy who never did figure out what to do.”

The hero shrugs. “If you’re right, then I can’t kill you, but it sounds a lot like excuses.”

Vincent walks left. The hero’s sword is in his hands. He is moving, swift and beautiful, a blur of gray and death; but he has lost a lot of blood, and there are many chairs, and he stumbles, and he falls.

Behind Vincent, Melanie walks out left; and one by one, the rest, as the blood beats slowly from the hero’s chest onto the floor.

In the time before the hero overcomes his dizziness and rises, there are only three who say the words and leave to the right.

“Is it really true, then?” Vincent asks, looking back, after he has left the building. “Am I really clean?”

“I extract your sins during the monthly blood test,” Melanie says. “I keep them in a bottle. You never know when you shall need a lamb.”