And Three Points is the Game (II/V)

Now, the Devil had said not to make this a game; but no sooner said than it slipped away. And Vincent’s sipping at his drink, and thinking, I do not want to go to Hell.

And maybe there’s a lesson there, but the lesson’s hard to find.

“You’re meaning things you’re not doing,” Vincent just said. He’s just called out the Devil on how he’s different from most gods.

“Ha!” says the Devil. “That’s a point for you, then, Vincent. And three points will be the game.”

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last

Vincent squints at him.

“Is this a game I can choose not to play?” he says.

“When you’re winning?” the Devil asks.

“I’m not a child,” Vincent says, inaccurately. By this he means that he can see through the Devil’s words to a grim world where there is only losing and continuance—a world of which he would rather have no part.

“Well,” the Devil says, “you can choose not to play, but you’ll probably end up with suffering intrinsic to the condition of your life, followed, after some years, by death.”

Vincent squints again.

“Fine, fine,” the Devil laughs. “Listen, Vincent, I’m here for one reason only, and you’re here for one reason only, and that’s for me to buy your soul; to make you an offer for it, anyway. So tell me. What’s it gonna take? What do you need from me if you’re going to give up Central and its ways and come and work for me instead, in this life and the after?”

“That’s stupid,” Vincent says. “I mean, you’re the Devil, right?”

“Reassurance that it’s the moral path, then?” the Devil says. “Reassurance that it’s doing the world a kindness to side with me instead of the other?”

Vincent hesitates. It’s a lot to ask of a kid.

“Tell you what,” Vincent says. “You gotta make me smart enough to bargain this out with you, free of charge. Smart enough to see through your tricks, smart enough to figure out what you’re really saying, and if it’s just a trick anything I give up to you is out.”

“Oh,” says the Devil. “That’s another point for you, but I can’t do it.”

“Eh?”

“There’s no way I can make you that smart,” the Devil says. “Look at it the other way around: if I’m not tricking you, then I’m practically breaking the rules right there; and if you want me to trick you, but make you so smart that you’re not fooled, and get what you want from it anyway— well. So let me tell you what I can do. I can give you three questions, free, Vincent. Three things you can ask me, to decide what you’d like to do. And I’ll tell you right now that I’ve got a trick worthy of the Enemy himself, which is to say, I can’t promise you that walking away and turning me down is the right and moral thing to do, much less the way to save your soul.”

“Is it?”

“Oh dear,” says the Devil. “That’s point three. I’m afraid, Vincent, that there ain’t no way to save your soul; and as for walking away and turning me down, well, that’ll make you a slimy worm in the end, worth less than a gobbet of my spit.”

Vincent stands up.

“Oh?” the Devil asks.

“Tell me,” Vincent says, “what’d my Dad say for me to do, if he could tell me?”

And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

The Devil shifts from his seat and rises. It’s smooth and natural and Vincent doesn’t even think that it might be a danger until the Devil’s already gone away to tend the fire.

“I figure he’d tell you to ask me a question I can’t answer,” the Devil says. “Don’t know if he’d have a guess what that could be.”

“Seriously?” Vincent asks. The Devil raises an eyebrow at him. “That’s not a question,” Vincent says. “That’s a . . . an interjection.”

“Seriously,” the Devil says. “It’s because—he’d probably say—in all the stories of the Devil, people don’t win by walking away. They win by beating me. Of course, that’s mostly seeing as the stories where I win are the stories they don’t tell— but still. He’d want you to win, and put me in some sort of chains, because that’s what the stories suggest to him and because that’s basically what Central’s fundamental philosophy and methodology is, in re: fiends. Do you want me to suggest a question, Vincent?”

“I should just leave,” Vincent says.

“Really,” the Devil says. “Just throw out all those centuries of tradition, all those stories, Central’s own bleeding methodology, just because I hinted at it in answer to a question that you asked me your own self? You’re a wicked child, Vincent, a wicked child and an unruly one.”

“It’s just,” Vincent says, “that I don’t want to go to Hell. You see. Sir.”

“Ah,” the Devil says.

“It’s all the endless suffering,” Vincent says.

“Yes,” the Devil says. “It would be.”

“I’m glad that you understand.”

“Do you want me to tell you what you’ve won, Vincent?”

Vincent looks down.

“Hey,” he says. “Hey, if I leave now— if I leave, will I grow up to be . . . like my Dad, you know, with magic and gods like Iphigenia and maybe even one day a dharma of my own?”

There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea
And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me.

“Yeah,” says the Devil. “You leave now, and you get everything you’ve ever wanted. Though not, I should say, very much of it; just, you know, some. A little here, a little there, a bit of every dream of brightness, and then you’ll die, if you’re lucky, or you’ll drown forever, if you’re not.”

“Thanks,” Vincent says.

“I’ve got great things to offer you,” the Devil says. “Seriously. Magic carpets. Fire in a bottle. Wealth and treasure. I could probably even swing a bit of dharma, though, to be honest, it’s not like you don’t have one so much as that it isn’t what you’d like.”

“I’m happy,” says Vincent.

The Devil looks away.

“Isn’t that OK?” Vincent says. “To just go back to the simple life, and have a family, and games, and books, and fun, and a purpose, and one day do some good in the world with what I know?”

“I can’t answer that,” the Devil says. “I’ve given you four answers, ‘interjection’ or no, and a prize. You can’t expect me to be your friend.”

Vincent nods. He walks to the door. He turns around. He’s thinking hard.

“Hey,” he says. “Hey.”

“Yeah?”

“Why do we have to suffer?” Vincent asks. “Why do people have to suffer, and hurt, and die?”

The Devil looks at him blankly. For a moment Vincent thinks he’s got him; that at only 13 years old, Vincent’s stumped the Devil, conquered him, beaten him, bound him over to Ii Ma to be immured forever, and that everybody’s going to cheer him on when he gets back.

It’s a passing fantasy.

“Why?” the Devil asks. “You ask me why, Vincent?”

“Yeah.”

And with great calm but fury underneath it, the Devil answers, “Because, Vincent, this is Hell.”

[The Frog and the Thorn — CHAPTER TWO]


September 18, 1987

Vincent wakes up. He clutches at his chest. He’s screaming.

Then he calms.

It’s OK. The sun is bright. His world is good. He is safe at home in Central.

Vincent and the Devil (I/V)

It’s 1981 the year of our lord and there’s a new sun in the sky.

Vincent plays with her in the forest, laughing hide-and-seek in light and shadow, and when he sees her off-balance he steps on a sunbeam to make her trip. She falls and her face is all-over dirt and pine needles and she scrambles up and makes a funny face at him and they both laugh, and she tells him, “You’re a wicked child, Vincent,” and he looks down. “But you don’t mean to be, I suppose, so that’s OK.”

He’s fallen totally in love with her, of course; she’s ever so much more mature and wise and intelligent than a seven-year-old boy like himself, but more importantly, she’s the sun.

She can light up like a candle in the darkness. She can wiggle the sunbeams around upon the ground. She can burn a beetle, just like that, without even needing a magnifying glass like him.

She’s all the magic in the world.

When he’s tired out he flops down on an old log and he doesn’t mind the bugs that swarm in it and he flips a lock of hair out of his eyes and he says, “This is the best.”

She sits down near him.

“What is?” she asks.

“You,” he says. “Magic. All of it. My Dad helps make gods. Derek just works at the zoo.

His tone is full of a contempt for Derek, who is his mother’s second husband. The man works at a zoo! What boy could possibly respect a zoo worker when his real father helps make gods?

This is mostly lost on Iphigenia due to her inhumanity and her poor comprehension of his circumstances.

“I see him,” Iphigenia says. “I think.”

“Derek?”

She’s squinting off into the distance. “His badge is totally shiny now.”

Vincent laughs.

“I’m going to grow up,” he says, “and learn to make gods, just like you, and then I’m going to learn to pull out dinosaurs.”

She looks at him.

“If you can pull fairies out of people,” Vincent says firmly, “and the sun, you can also pull out dinosaurs. Like a brontosaurus and an ankylosaurus. And then you can turn them into oil!”

Iphigenia scratches her head, then shakes out and resettles her long hair.

“I don’t know much about dinosaurs,” she confesses.

So he tells her.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]


September 17, 1987

Vincent doesn’t get to go to school, of course, because he knows too many secrets; and he doesn’t get to go out and play with the gods very often, either, because he knows too few. Mostly he stays in his room and he reads about dinosaurs and magic and he plays with his action figures and he colors in his coloring books and he studies the approved curriculum for a child of Central’s staff.

He’s got pretty much the same textbooks as a good homeschooled Christian child learns from, to keep their souls safe from the Devil; but they’re not exactly the same books, and maybe that’s the reason behind it, the why and the how behind it, Vincent running away one night and finding himself down by the river, at the Devil’s house.

Or maybe it isn’t.

When it comes to standardized education and its failings, everybody’s got their own ideas.

“Yo, Vincent,” says the Devil, and the Devil stirs the fire.

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

Vincent hesitates.

“Yo,” he says.

“I mean to twist you and tempt you away from the path of righteousness,” the Devil says, “if your Daddy don’t mind.”

“I think he’d mind that,” Vincent says, hesitantly. “Sir.”

“Ah,” sighs the Devil. “Just a few drinks, maybe, then, and I’ll send you home.”

Vincent licks his lips.

“If you don’t mind,” he says, “I mean, telling me, should I be running? Hard and fast as I possibly can?”

“All the roads’d just lead,” the Devil says, “to me.”

Vincent is pale. He is trembling. He doesn’t run and he doesn’t come in past the door. He doesn’t really know that this is the Devil, not quite—Central doesn’t hold with ideas like that—but he’s got enough sense to feel the trouble that he’s in. So he stands there and he shakes; and after a while, the Devil sighs.

“You don’t have to be afraid,” he says.

So Vincent relaxes.

“Take off your coat,” the Devil says. “And leave your shoes by the door. And come have a drink. I won’t ask again.”

Vincent takes off his coat. He takes off his shoes. He leaves both of them by the door and he walks in to the couch.

“That means,” he says wisely, “that even if I don’t have a drink, you still won’t ask.”

“That it does,” the Devil agrees. “I won’t ask again, whether you get a drink or not; and I can rip you into pieces and scatter you across the world whether you’re hanging out all comfortable or shivering and squirming at the door. Sometimes things just are the way they are, they tell me, and there’s nothing that a devil or a man can do.”

Vincent swallows.

“So it’s better not to worry overmuch,” the Devil says. “Let’s not. Let’s not worry. Let’s not fret. Let’s not make this into some kind of game. Let’s just have a good time and a talk, Vincent—you and me.”

Vincent walks nervously to the couch.

“You’re a weird kind of god,” he says, “I think.”

He pours himself a drink at the couch-side table. He picks it up. He sits.

The Devil, he gets himself a drink of his own and he sits down facing Vincent, and his body’s all in shadow and there are fires in his eyes.

Vincent doesn’t let it shake him. The Devil himself it was who’d told him that he didn’t have to be afraid.

“After a bit of a mental review of the gods I’m familiar with,” the Devil says, “and the gods I’d guess that you would be familiar with, I’ve got to admit that that hurts, Vincent.”

“Well,” Vincent says, “I mean.”

He doesn’t actually know what he means. Not at first. Then it comes to him.

“You’re meaning things that you’re not doing,” Vincent says.

And that’s when he starts to get an inkling. That’s when he starts to think that this might just be the Devil. Not because of the fire. Not because of the horns, or the shadows. Not even the promise of temptation.

It’s just that he doesn’t seem quite straightforward enough to be a god.

There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea
And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me.

It’s ’87, and the sun’s gone down, and Vincent’s sipping the Devil’s wine; and as he’s drinking, Vincent’s thinking, I do not want to go to Hell.

“If I Go Crazy Then Will You Still Call Me Superman?” (IV/IV)

Tainted John is off the fence. He leaps. Melanie growls at him and swings Harold’s head like a flail. Not all the momentum of his jump slows that swing the faintest iota; he is smashed back like a weightless child and he dents the fence behind him.

“That,” Melanie says, “will be enough.

For Vincent, it is as if she has kicked him in the heart. Tainted John flutters against the fence and howls.

Melanie glares down at Vincent.

She looks up at the ghoul.

She takes a deep breath. She exhales. She calms.

“Finish this one off,” she asks, “would you, dear?”

Then she turns and she walks away.

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last

It is, naturally, impossible that Micah should defeat them.

He is a child.

He is elusive. Melanie sees that. A great long-legged god, that is a beast, bites at him. He is rolling out of the way. It is chipping its teeth against a gravestone.

The black dog snaps at him.

Its teeth don’t score.

An employee of Central—her name is Florence, Melanie thinks—grabs at Micah. He slams his head back and up into her nose and he pulls free.

But she can see the flaw in his defense, which is to say, he is a child. He is not a hero out of legend. He is not a myth. He has no way to kill.

Micah is confronted by a failing god.

It is looming upwards from the earth. It gapes like a ghost made from sheets. It will make him fail, and be lost—

He sticks a gold star on its forehead and the failing god dissolves in light.

Melanie frowns.

Micah is whispering a memory to a remembering god. The remembering god falls down.

It is ridiculous. He is a boy.

Somehow he’s slain a ragged thing. There’s a wounded contemner. “Oh,” she whispers, as she sees the body of a fiend.

She tries desperately to suppress a seething wave of pride. It is hot inside her. It is warming her. She can barely feel her weight against the ground.

“How beautiful,” she says, again.

She doesn’t fear him, though.

She snaps her fingers. She calls a scarab of explosions to scuttle by her side. A hulking crayon-beast walks behind her. She steps on the head of a researcher whose practical skills had proven weak.

She doesn’t fear him. There is nothing that can kill her, here. There is nothing that can hurt her, here. There is nothing that can touch Melanie in the slightest, here, save Kryptonite, not while she holds dead Harold’s head.

As he’d once observed, a vulnerability to Kryptonite is pretty balanced for a fictional character, but it’s not exactly a fair weakness in real life.

Not that it had saved Harold, of course. She gives Micah a thoughtful, abstracted look. Might he have a bike lock?

He has no bike locks.

She looks him up and down as she walks closer. He has no bike locks. He has no plastic miniatures that depict Lex Luthor with his green and glowing rock.

He has the Thorn That Does Not Kill.

He has the Thorn, which is an issue, but he doesn’t have an iPod; so there’s no chance he can bust out suddenly with “Kryptonite” the song. She isn’t sure how that could possibly hurt her, mind, but it’s best not to take any chances.

“You’re going to try to stab me,” she decides. “And you’re going to miss.”

No iPod. No miniatures. No bike locks. Her army has, of course, no Kryptonite that he could steal.

“Make me a god,” she is asking Liril, over twenty years before. “Make me the kind of god that can kill spiders, and break free of any web, and never go hungry or go thirsty, and be by all others loved; to tell the lies that everyone believes, and to slip past any security, and to overcome any obstacle, and to perform transformations, and to become the cleverest creature in all the world and save all the hurting people from their pains. Can you make me that?”

“I can’t,” Liril is saying, twenty years ago. “I can’t, Melanie, not you, never you, not you.

He has the Thorn That Does Not Kill, but no way past her aegis.

I will guard your line, Amiel is promising, as she has always been promising. I will guard your line, and our families be entwined forever.

Melanie chooses not to fear the Thorn.

And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

Vincent struggles to get up. He can’t. He can’t move his legs.

“Kaela,” he whispers.

“He’s hurt your spine, my darling,” Kaela says.

“I don’t have time,” Vincent whimpers.

He can hear Tainted John starting to recover. He can hear the boy pulling himself to his feet.

It’s already too late.

Finish this one off, Melanie had said. Would you, dear?

The boy is crouched beside him.

“Nice,” Vincent mutters.

Tainted John pats him on the head. He ruffles Vincent’s hair. Vincent can hear him grinning.

“Sorry,” says Tainted John.

He plunges his hand through Vincent’s skull. He frowns. He pulls his hand back. It’s covered in Vincent’s brain.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]


May 28, 2004

The gods draw back as Melanie approaches. The army pulls away to give her room. The battle departs from Micah, and he is alone.

He falls over.

It’s like his enemies were the only thing that had held him up.

Melanie turns him over with a foot. Her eyes flick down. There’s a nametag on his chest. It’s construction paper, stuck on with paste. It says, “Micah,” and “Defiant.”

She wonders who wrote it. It’s not Liril’s handwriting, nor his own.

Maybe it’s the ghoul’s.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

She’d like to rip off the nametag, but she’d hate to accidentally become Micah the Defiant. That would be an unexpected outcome but it would still qualify as an error.

She reaches down and seizes his wrist and drags him to his feet instead.

She looks into those eyes.

He’s so tired. It hits her like a blow. She wants to set their fight aside and comfort him. He’s so very tired.

If they’d been any other eyes she wouldn’t have spotted it at all; but she sees them every morning in the mirror, more or less, and the fluttering shadow of scheming behind the mask of his exhaustion warns her.

“Threnody!” she yells.

She lets go of him. She pulls back.

He’s stabbing at her with the Thorn. She can’t help dodging, not after seeing those eyes. He knows a way

“Tag,” he says. “You’re it.”

He is turning as he moves. He is striking her, not with the Thorn but with his elbow. He has elbowed the head of Harold from her hand. It is rolling along the ground.

She opens her mouth.

Threnody hurls the lightning.

There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea
And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me.

Tainted John tastes his hand. His frown deepens.

“Missed?” he says.

There’s a flicker of white and black. His eyes follow it.

“Arise, and be as God,” whispers the voice of the wounding of the King.

The sky stutters argent lightning. The world turns to blaze. A hot wind blows, and full of screams; and the doors of the facility, the wall, the ground below them —

Shatter.

The Sting (III/IV)

Micah stumbles up against the doors to the facility and understands that he can run no farther.

They’re not locked.

They could be, but it wouldn’t do anybody any good, so right now, he hasn’t bothered. They’re not locked. He could go through them. But he is Micah, and there are certain things that Micah can and cannot do.

He turns around.

He turns, jerkily, like a puppet of his dharma, and he stares down the grave-strewn path to the facility’s great black gates.

The army has already come past them. If he’d thought he could buy an hour, fifteen minutes, five minutes even with his bluff, he’d been wrong.

Two and a half minutes, at the most.

The first and fastest gods, great stretchy gods all drawn in crayon, are almost upon him.

His hand clutches convulsively at his shirt. A post-it stuck onto the cloth crinkles in his grip.

“You can’t come in,” he says. He is shaking. He is dizzy. “You can’t come in. You’re going to have to go away.”

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

A crayon fist comes down on him like a hammer. He tries to jump out of the way, but it’s faster and more flexible than he; it catches the side of his head, slams him to the ground, and makes his world dizziness all over.

He tries to pull himself up.

They seize him. They hold him up, spread-eagle. They shove him hard into the wall of the facility at Elm Hill. He mutters, something, slurred, under his breath, and adjusts his sense of perspective; forces himself to see that the hands that hold him up aren’t actually connected to the arms, that they’re just crayon lines on the walls as the rest of the stretchy gods are written on the path; there’s a burst of burnt umber blood and a speech balloon of howling and Micah falls.

His eyes trace back along the path, but the creatures are already drawing back, regrouping behind the tombstones as a ragged thing comes in. One crayon hand, its life lingering longer than the rest, staggers up his body and shoves its fingers in his nose; he coughs and spits and beats his head, hard, against the earth, to keep it from his eyes.

“Seriously,” he says.

He’s on his feet.

He’s looking at the ragged thing.

“Seriously,” he says, “you should know these eyes. You don’t want to screw with me. I am hella not bluffing here. You are going to have to go away.”

He can hear its breathing, louder even than his own.

It is close. It is starting to say something to him. He can barely hear it over the voice of the wound at the facility at Elm Hill, which has chosen this particular moment to renew its on-and-off-again flirtation with Micah and Tainted John, whispering to him:

“I am like you and you are like me and we are we.”

I am like you and you are like me and we are we.
Sublimate into me, o wicked child;
arise, and be as God—

And Micah giggles, right in the ragged thing’s face, and he asks it, “What is God?”

It doesn’t dignify his question with an answer. It seizes at him with its sniggly, snatchy hand instead. Micah dances back, in his head he dances back, but what actually happens is that he staggers in a direction that is vaguely like away, and it has got hold of him, and it is trying to ask him a question.

It is failing.

It is hissing things that are like words, but they are not words. It is gaping at him. Its mouth is working.

Micah doesn’t take the time to mock it. He looks behind it. There’s too many.

“There’s just too many,” he whispers.

It comes across the horizon, the voice that is Ii Ma. He hears it, after the ragged thing’s first five tries, at the last.

“How can you let such things as Tina live?”

It stops him, as it’s meant to. It’s a nasty question, and its got a sting on its tail: for no sooner asked than he is there again, in the shackles again, while the spider-like device strapped to Tina’s palm is shocking him again, and again, and again; and Liril—

And Liril, and Tainted John, waiting below—

And Liril, and Tainted John, waiting below, letting it happen; and he still does not know why—

He relaxes.

He doesn’t fight it. He lets the question take him, lets it estrange him, lets it carry him and his trivia and his seawater and his thorn from the world to the place withou—

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]


May 28, 2004

There are spikes along the top of the iron fence. They’re not really very sharp but Melanie is, so she feels it’s all right to slam Tainted John down on top of them anyway.

He’d have died right there, right then, but his coat twists itself up and catches the spike in its folds as he descends.

“Oh,” Melanie says.

She blinks.

“How beautiful,” she says. She giggles. “Look, Vincent. His coat doesn’t want a hole.”

Tainted John tries to wrestle himself out of the coat and kill her in that moment of distraction. He flails like a turtle on its back instead.

She flips him over, and another fence spike goes in, past the opening in his coat, right through his sweater vest and into the hole Liril had left inside his chest.

“This just won’t do,” she says. “I should get his head.”

She stops. She was going to say or do something else, but she stops. Her attention’s been taken entirely from Tainted John.

She frowns.

She turns, jerkily, like a puppet of a dharma she doesn’t have. She turns away. She turns her back on him, and Tainted John howls in fury and mortification and claws at the air because he cannot even hold the attention of a human antagonist long enough to die or kill. Melanie stoops down and picks up Harold’s head and shelters her eyes with her other hand and she frowns up the path towards the facility at Elm Hill.

“Stupid,” she mutters under her breath. “Stupid. Stupid question. Stupid answer. Stupid Melanie, distracted by a ghoul. Micah is the godling who defies us.”

There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea
And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me.

The Thorn is in Micah’s hand and Elm Hill cries out and Ii Ma cries out and the ragged thing shatters and Micah is landing, crouched and feral, upon the ground, with seawater and the echoes of lost dawns around him in a pool.

He whimpers, once, because almost there was peace; and then he is moving, then the Thorn has caught a contemner in the throat and its will to hunt and its malevolence tumbles from it like a stone; and it is green and black with the blood of gods, his sting, the thorn, the Thorn That Does Not Choose to Leave the World.

The Incredible Leap of the Sinless Man (II/IV)

Vincent stumbles to a halt.

His heart thunders. He tried to go against Melanie and he lost. His foot’s touched down on the hungry earth. He is doomed. He is doomed. He is dead.

There is something crouched upon a tombstone. There is something, and its eyes are pools of blood, and they are luminescent in the shadows, and Vincent realizes with a horrible realignment of his perceptions that this creature is or was a boy.

It’s looking right at Vincent.

Vincent twitches backwards.

It’s too fast for his conscious mind to follow. It’s all in the reflexes. He twitches back, and the boy lands in front of him. He skips back a step, and the boy blurs towards him. Vincent is already in the air again, his body convulsing like a liquid stream to turn him around to face the thing before he lands.

“Rabbit,” whispers the boy.

The boy’s face is suddenly too near his own. Vincent lashes out. It’s a rough blow, and it knocks the boy down onto the hungry earth, and Vincent’s body shakes all over before he skitters back.

His hand is numb where it touched the boy. He is terrified. He is terrified of the boy, and he is terrified of the world, and he is terrified of many other things right then; so many things, in fact, that his recent loss of health insurance has fallen entirely off the list.

The boy looks up. It’s enough to make you wince, you know, the way he bends his neck like that, like his spine isn’t any longer proper bone.

Then he’s on his feet.

“Gonna eat you, rabbit,” says the boy, and secures a firm fourth-most-terrifying thing that is happening to him right that instant place for himself on Vincent’s list.

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

Here’s the third most terrifying thing.

Melanie had told him that she’d extracted his sins during the monthly blood test. She’d said, “you never know when you shall need a lamb.”

Vincent tries to punch the boy. It’s a mistake. The boy moves forward. Vincent flinches back. The boy is faster. Vincent falls over. The boy jumps at him. His feet leave the ground. In that moment when Tainted John has no leverage, when they’re both falling, both flying, both rolling towards the ground behind Vincent, Vincent shoves the boy aside.

The boy is rolling along the ground. Vincent is on his feet.

The boy’s degloved him.

The pain is appalling. There is no skin on Vincent’s right hand or wrist. There is hardly any meat. He blinks stupidly.

You never know when you shall need a lamb.

He’d thought at the time, oh, of course, you’ll never know when you need someone sinless, someone spotless, someone whom a hero like Sebastien will not kill.

You never know when you need someone pure. Someone innocent.

Somebody good.

It just keeps going around and around in his head, because it’s suddenly struck him that when you work with gods day in and day out, another reference point for “lamb” is sacrifice.

“It’s all right,” Kaela is whispering to him.

His heart. His familiar. His salvation. She is wise, his little rabbit god. She is smart. She is fast. She is clever.

She is kicking his feet, bounding him away, one step ahead of the horrid, hungry boy.

“It’s all right,” she is whispering. “Don’t be ridiculous. Melanie isn’t like that. She wouldn’t sacrifice you to a ghoul.

Vincent’s arm is wailing. Maybe it’s his throat. Maybe it’s him.

Kaela’s kept him ahead of the boy these seven deadly seconds past, but he doesn’t know where to go. There’s an army one way and Micah one way and Melanie another, and he’d like to think that none of them would want to kill him but he’s divided his loyalties a bit too thoroughly trying to belong to Central and be good.

I could lead him to Melanie, he thinks.

He can feel a flash of Kaela’s anger and sadness. They stumble. They slow down for just a moment and the boy rips a chunk out of Vincent’s arm.

Vincent catches a glimpse of Melanie’s smile.

The boy’s gotten cleverer. He’s gotten faster. He’s gotten worse and gotten scarier in the less than fifteen seconds of their fight.

He’s still at number four, though.

Opposing Melanie, cunning Melanie, is the third most terrifying thing that is happening to Vincent just right then.

“We can run,” Kaela proposes. It’s alluring. It’s a dizzying temptation. “Forget fighting. Forget killing. We can run. To the gate, over the gate, and out. He won’t catch us. She won’t catch us. Not God himself can catch us, if we really run.”

Melanie had sent Vincent to kill Sebastien once, but Vincent hadn’t gone.

He’s just a student. He’s a student of a hateful practice, he’s a student of hollowing children out and educing gods from them and molding those gods into the theological weaponry of Central, but he’s just a student. He isn’t really cut out for fighting Melanie or Tainted John.

“OK,” he whispers.

That’s what a lamb would do, isn’t it? he thinks. It would try to run.

There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea
And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me.

He can hear it whispering all around him. Something terrible, something horrible, something evil is in this place.

It is the remnants of the wounding of a King.

As Kaela is whispering to Vincent, the shadow at Elm Hill is whispering to Tainted John. It is saying, “I am like you and you are like me and we are we.”

It is slowing the movements of the boy back down again.

The boy is distracted. It is hard for him to listen to the whispering of the wound and eat Vincent at the same time; plus, he’s got to keep one eye, at least, on the army of approaching gods.

It could be an opportunity to strike back, if Vincent had any way to strike back; and there’s a hint of something like that tugging at the sleeve of Vincent’s mind.

He ignores it. It’s not what he needs. He needs a direction to run.

Here’s the second most terrifying thing that’s on his mind right now. It’s a prophecy. Micah had delivered him a prophecy, that the first of Melanie’s army to set foot past the facility’s gates would die. That turned out to be Vincent—not his fault, his foot was pulled onto the earth by gravity—and that means that he is going to die here.

Micah could be bluffing. Vincent’s heard that. Micah lies. It’s really quite astonishing, for a god. He could be bluffing, but Vincent can’t afford to take that chance. If the prophecy is valid, then figuring out a loophole is even more important than dealing with Melanie and Tainted John. He isn’t the best student Melanie’s ever trained but he knows at least that much.

If it’s a valid prophecy, then he has to run it backwards in his mind.

“Sublimate into me,” whispers the ichorous consciousness at Elm Hill to Tainted John. It is like unto the fluid that leaks from his broken heart and his broken eyes.

If it’s a valid prophecy, Vincent thinks, then it means that one of those who dies today can be construed as the first of us to set foot past the gates.

He could recruit somebody from inside. Weak, but it could work. He could hope that one of the army had been here before—the grangler, maybe. Hadn’t it gotten inside?

He could sacrifice Kaela. Probably.

Isn’t there a kind of god who gets there before you, anywhere you step? Isn’t there a kind of god whom you can run from all your life, but then you turn around, and it’s standing there?

He can’t sacrifice his nametag in his place. It doesn’t have feet.

“You don’t have to be afraid,” Melanie told him once. He can’t remember why or when. His thoughts are vague and disassociated. They are a scrambled sphere of forms.

Oh.

It’s right now.

He’s reached her, by accident, as part of running away, and she’s put her hands on his shoulders, and she’s looking into his eyes. It’s like she’s drinking in his soul.

“You don’t have to be afraid,” she says. “It’s just Micah, and some ghoul.”

Shadows, he thinks with sudden clarity. Shadows are the gods that set their feet before you on the ground.

It’s not useful information.

Melanie’s let him go, laughing, and Tainted John has landed on his back.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]


May 28, 2004

Vincent howls. His limbs twitch aimlessly, three of them at any rate.

Then Melanie has acted. Then she’s swept her arm aside, and Kaela’s twitched within him, and the ghoul flies sideways to slam against and through the metal gates.

For a moment Vincent thinks Melanie’s forgiven him.

Then he thinks, maybe an arm is enough to pay.

Tainted John is back on his feet. The army of gods is past them. Melanie makes a little twitching gesture with her fingers, and Tainted John kicks into the air, out of control of his own limbs, whimpering, and falls over sideways to the ground.

Vincent’s own nerve impulses are misfiring. He is flailing. He can’t tell yet if it’s what Melanie is doing or if the boy was quick enough to do damage to his spine.

“See?” Melanie says.

He can hear her heart racing. She is terrified, or exalted. She is nowhere near as calm as she presents herself right then.

He can hear Micah—

Kaela kicks her feet. Vincent’s world dissolves momentarily into confusion. He can see Tainted John flailing, like a puppet dancing on a string.

It’s Melanie, he concludes.

“Shouldn’t have eaten that,” Melanie is crooning, too soft for anyone but them to hear. “That was a mistake, my pretty little god. Gets inside you, doesn’t it? You shouldn’t have tried to eat what’s mine.”

And she makes Kaela to dance, and through her both Tainted John and Vincent as her toys; and that’s pretty awful, pretty scary, pretty wrong, but, really, it’s just a subtle refinement of the third most terrifying thing.

Here’s the thing that’s actually scaring Vincent the most, right then.

“Arise,” whispers the voice of the wounding of a King, to Tainted John. “Arise, and be as God, and no more to depend upon the suffering of your prey.”

No. Not that. Not quite.

It’s that he’s lost himself somewhere.

He’s lost his understanding of what being good would even mean.

He’s lost himself, and he’d hardly even really ever known himself.

More than anything he’s terrified that there is a God, and He will look at Vincent and He will find him small.

Harold’s Head Gets Underfoot (I/IV)

“I won’t be thwarted by a bluff,” says Melanie, cunning Melanie. “Go through.”

Vincent is too old to say, no you.

So he just shakes his head, instead.

Melanie growls.

She can’t afford to stand there. She can’t let the others see her hesitate. She certainly can’t look weak or indecisive in front of the army of her gods.

The first of you to set foot past this gate will die.

“Harold, then,” she decides. That’s the severed head of one of her assistants, sealed and surrounded by a divine aegis, which she had happened to bring along.

She throws Harold’s head through the gates. It lands upon the soft black earth. She shrugs. Then she walks through.

She turns around.

She looks at Vincent.

“Well?” she asks.

There is a challenge in her eyes.

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

It is May 28, 2004, and the shadows are deep around the facility at Elm Hill.

Tainted John crouches on top of a tombstone. He’s mostly invisible there, in the gloom that surrounds the place, but now and again, from the right angles, some light will catch upon the cold bloody pools that are his eyes.

He’s not very worried about that.

He’s not a stealth predator. He’s not an ambush predator. He doesn’t need his prey to be ignorant of him, not really. He just likes to have an edge.

The wind brushes past him. It’s cold. It’s damp, just a bit, with the ichor of a King.

He’s put on a greatcoat. He’s pleased with that. He’d insisted on it, insisted that they take a moment to get presentable before they went to war. He’d put on a greatcoat—well, technically speaking, a greatcoat god—and he’d straightened Micah’s hair and clothing, and he’d popped this little zit that Micah had gotten and licked a bit of Micah’s blood off of his fingers, and then, in a moment of strange generosity, he’d bolstered up the boy.

He’s not a fool.

He doesn’t think that they look good, or anything. John’s a hideous ghoul and his coat has eyes and it’d take more time than they had to make dirty, sweaty, tired Micah into something presentable again.

It just pleases him. It makes him happy. It makes him feel cool.

He’s ready, now that he has a greatcoat. Ready to achieve his destiny. Ready to have the wounds in him have a point.

He can smell rabbit on the air, and ozone, and the ichor of a King.

There’s a fence around Elm Hill, and iron gates, and Micah has told the army that waits outside them that the first of them to set foot past those gates will die. It’s a crazy thing to say but when your sister is a prophet people will give anything sounding prophetic an awful lot of slack.

It’s a lie, most likely. A half-truth at best. Maybe Liril told him that, at some point, and he was passing it along, but it isn’t, Tainted John thinks, an accurate description of what is about to be going down.

The first person to set foot past the gates will die. And the second too, if Tainted John has his way. And the third. The fourth. The fifth. The sixth. Them all.

He is ready.

Something lands on the soft black earth.

Hidden there, waiting, ready to kill and eat the whole damned bloody banquet of Central’s host, is Tainted John.

There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea
And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me.

It is ridiculous.

It is folly.

Even Vincent knows that it is folly. Harold may be just a head, but that doesn’t make his neck his feet. It’s like Melanie has taken leave entirely of her senses, has lost for the first time in his experience the game of prophesies and gods.

He is moving forward, fast as a shaming, fast as laughter, fast as the wishes in his heart. He is thinking:

She is dead. She is dead. And if I am the one to kill her now, I can make peace with the gods inside. If I kill her now it is possible that I can be forgiven.

He is already past the gate, in one great bound, when he sees that her feet do not touch the ground.

She is held above it, her shoes suspended in the air, by the protective aegis that is dead Harold’s god.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]


May 28, 2004

Vincent’s mouth is open.

He is shouting his betrayal.

One foot comes down against the yielding earth and it is suddenly too late.