(Good Friday – Hitherby Annual #1 – I/I) Tre Ore

Once upon a time, the world had a purpose.

Back then, everything did.

Everything had a purpose, and a truth, and a dharma.

This time was full of sorrow. If a banshee howled, then someone would die. If a mermaid called you, you would drown. If a witch cursed you, you would shrivel and suffer ill fate. Such was the nature of the banshee, and the mermaid, and the witch. If Coretta’s Lion had your scent, then it would hunt you down, and eat your skin and muscles, bit by bit, and you would take three days to die. The world was full of things like that.

But these sorrows were small.

The worst of the predators of this time were the predators of truth. For there were things, things like Death, and Sickness, and Old Age, that declared their truths supreme. It did not matter what your purpose was. Theirs would overwrite it. In the end, you could not defeat them, because it was the nature of their truth to mean more than your own. They were a very exclusive club.

The monster was such a thing. He was such a predator. And he was undefeatable. And it is because there were monsters, and because there was death, and because there were truths like theirs, that the world was broken, and the gods were cast from the world of truth into the heart of emptiness.

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

Martin stumbles against a man, and his touch does not turn the man to dust. After a long moment Martin realizes that this is so.

“Hey,” Martin says, and refocuses his eyes.

This is a place of deep water, but the man is parched and dry. Fruit is dangling from the trees all around him, but he is terribly thin. His name is Tantalus.

“Hey,” Tantalus says.

Martin backs away a step, tilts his head, and frowns. “You’re not like the others. You’re not a broken god.”

“No,” Tantalus says. “I am a man, and I am dead, and I have been consigned to torture here in the Underworld for roughly three thousand years.”

Martin whistles. “Harsh.”

Tantalus shrugs.

The deepness of the water has put a silence on the woglies, but Martin still feels edgy and twitchy down in his soul. “Hey,” he says. “What makes that okay?”

“Okay?”

“What makes it okay to torture someone for three thousand years?”

“Ah,” says Tantalus.

Then he laughs.

“It didn’t matter,” Tantalus explains. “Zeus sat on the throne of the world, you see, and it did not matter which of his dicta were okay.

Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit

540 BCE

“It would have been better to kill him,” Mylitta admits.

Mylitta sits tailor style on the dust and grime and brushes White Lion’s fur.

“But the problem with heroes,” she says, “is that monsters have an answer to them.”

White Lion lowers its head to the floor.

“A hero is a storm,” Mylitta says, “and storms are terrible. But there is a place above the storm where the air is calm. And I do not know how. But I could feel it, like I could feel the wind and the sunlight. That he had found that place. And so there was no single specific moment in which the monster could be killed. ”

“I thirst,” rumbles White Lion.

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

There is a silence.

“I had fruit,” Tantalus says, “Only a few decades ago. But I would still like some water. If you could hold up some water for me to drink, I would love you.”

“My hands are full of dust,” Martin says.

“Oh.”

“I thought they were people,” Martin says. “I thought they were my predecessors. But when I touched them, it turned out that all they were was dust.”

“It’s the Underworld,” Tantalus says. It’s an explanation or a dismissal; Martin is not sure which.

“My sister keeps making gods to save her,” Martin says, “and all of them fail, and all of them wind up as mud and dust.”

“I remember that,” Tantalus says. “The gods were severed from the world.”

“Severed?”

“In the face of the monster, they were lost,” Tantalus says. “They had no meaning that could compare to his own. So they were cut from the Earth, torn away, and made into isn’ts, lest the monster’s dharma set a new order on the world. It was my doing, in a way; my children could not have learned the truths that make a monster had I not stolen the secret of the gods.”

Martin frowns. “The secret?”

“If you accept a purpose;” Tantalus says. “If you declare something to be your answer to the emptiness; then you must accept the consequences of that answer. It is desirable, for gods as for men, to shrink from that burden; but in the end, it always catches you, and, if it so pleases, it tears you apart.”

Tantalus sits down heavily, and the water sinks into the dust lest he should drink, and the woglies surrounding Martin are in the air once more.

Behold, Your Son (X/?)

546 BCE

“I am born to answer suffering,” says Siddhartha.

Siddhartha and Yasodhara travel through the city. Yasodhara is very pregnant.

Her answer is light and teasing. “And who is not? If you were born to cause suffering, my love, then I should name you a monster.”

Siddhartha says:

Let us speak of death, then, as a monster.
He may be fought,
But the terms are his own.
Each time you make escape from him
He claims his due.
Thus it is that no man may fight death.

Let us call illness a monster.
It may be fought,
But the terms are its own.
We do not choose the behavior of purity.
Even touching a man,
In exercise of compassion,
May bring on sickness.

Let us speak of age as a monster.
She may be fought,
But the terms are her own.
The more you fight, the more she grips to you.
The more you fight, the more she claims her due.
Thus it is that no man may fight age.

This is the flaw in the world.

How can I answer suffering?
Monsters have no remedy.

“The root cause of suffering,” Yasodhara observes, following the train of her own silent thoughts, “is that no one wants to suffer.”

Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise

539 BCE

Nabonidus is educing a god from her when Mylitta breaks.

“Sometimes,” Mylitta says, clearly, “it’s like there’s this thick yarrow stick in my chest, going through where my heart used to be, stretching from my spine to my ribs. And now, suddenly, it’s like it’s just split, and blackness is leaking out all over me.”

Nabonidus blinks.

There is a light that roils under Mylitta’s skin, and then fades. There are great wracking coughs that shake her, and violent seizures. Then Mylitta stops. Her head lolls to one side. Her eyes dim.

Nabonidus looks blankly at her. He steps back. His arms fold around himself for comfort.

“Um,” he says.

Mylitta sleeps.

There is a great bulk behind Nabonidus in the room. It is white, like a maggot, like the wriggling young of flies. It is leonine. It is soft. Its name is White Lion, and it is a god.

“She will not wake,” it says.

The creature pads forward. It says, “I have asked her to leave this place, to come away with me, a thousand times. But she has always said no. I do not think she will deny me today.”

It leans down. It takes Mylitta in its mouth. It turns to walk away.

“She’s mine,” Nabonidus says.

White Lion looks at him.

“She’s my husk,” Nabonidus protests. “I broke her.”

White Lion leans its great head down. It drools Mylitta onto the floor. It looks up. It opens its mouth. It roars.

It is a terrible thing, that roar. It is like a wind tunnel that blows away the qualities of the world. Nabonidus cannot see. He cannot touch. He cannot taste. He cannot smell. He cannot hear, save for the roar.

.
.
.

Nabonidus is on the floor. He does not know how or why he is on the floor. But Mylitta is gone. So he does the only thing that he can do, in answer to her emptiness.

He makes a god.

Behold, Your Son (X/?)

546 BCE

“Ah,” says Yasodhara. “There is a monk.”

Siddhartha follows her gaze. He frowns.

Who is this, Yasodhara?
This man—
His head is shaved,
He wears a robe,
He has a strange demeanor.

The smile on his face
Seems more
Like the one I seek
Than the smile of my father Suddhodana.

“He is a monk,” Yasodhara says. “He lives in the temple and he travels the kingdom, teaching people how to be good.”

“And what is his answer to suffering?” Siddhartha asks.

Yasodhara studies him with the eyes of a goddess. “A very small fiend,” she says. “It lives in his gums. It locks his jaws in that smile. There are bone passages connecting his teeth to his ears, and this allows it to whisper to him constantly, ‘people need not suffer.’ It is a painful fiend, but it has convinced him not to mind.”

(“If only ancient India had had proper dental hygiene!” Jane exclaims. “He could have brushed the fiend right out and put it to use saving the world!”

“There are many tragedies,” Mrs. Schiff agrees.)

Siddhartha opens his mouth to speak.

“Oh,” says Yasodhara, interrupting him. She has gone pale. She leans against him.

Her labor has begun.

Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise

539 BCE

Exhausted, weary, broken, and warm:

Nabonidus is crying.

It has cut him raw, to make a god. It is like being a skinless man, for him, naked in the face of everything he is.

It does not hurt terribly. But it stings.

It costs him that control that would keep him from his tears.

There is a snuffling in the room, and the clicking of nails on stone. A cold wet shadow passes over the footprints of White Lion, the altar of Sin, the blood Mylitta left behind. Then the creature he has made, the Dog of Nabonidus, brushes past and around him and leans against his side.

“Why couldn’t I keep her?” Nabonidus says.

The Dog looks at him. Its eyes are expressive. It is almost as if it wanted to say, It is the monster’s nature to consume his victims.

“She was strong,” Nabonidus says. “She could have fought. She could have kept herself unbroken.”

The Dog pants, quietly. If it could speak, Nabonidus thinks, it would no doubt say, She did not wish to. In the end, she chose to leave you with the burden of the contradiction of your lives.

“Why?” he asks.

Because it is the only answer she could find.

So Nabonidus goes home to Babylon, and he whispers to Mylitta’s absence, “You’re right, of course.”

Mylitta’s absence remains constant.

“One of us must pay the price,” Nabonidus says. “And you think I’m not strong enough. You think I’ll bend. But I won’t. I’ll make a host like you have never seen, and send them after you, to make you whole. You won’t escape from me. I will fix you.”

There is a void in the room, an emptiness, a devouring. For a moment, Nabonidus thinks it is his heart, but then he realizes that Belshazzar has let himself in.

“I will help you, father,” says Belshazzar. “If you let me.”

“Help me?”

“I have seen how it is that one pulls forth gods.”

Behold, Your Son (X/?)

546 BCE

Siddhartha is in the garden. The midwives have chased him from the room where Yasodhara is giving birth, explaining:

Every child we pull forth
Is an answer
To the suffering in the world.

You are Prince Siddhartha,
And we glory in you,
And one day you’ll turn the wheel
And conquer all the world
But you will never be a midwife.

Your fussing distracts us!
Your philosophy confuses us!
Out! Out! Give us space
To answer the suffering in this room.

“Midwives are intimidating,” concedes Siddhartha.

He sits in the garden, under a tree, and thinks about the monk, and suddenly he realizes:

I am suffering.
I know the meaning of it!
And it is this:

From the beginning of my life,
I have made observations
And conclusions regarding the nature of the world.

These carry me along
Like a river
Each new truth means another thing is true.

I have built a world
From premises I’ve found
And premises I’ve made

And this is my suffering:
A flaw has crept in.
A wound has snuck into the world that I have made.

Dukkha.
There: I have named it.
Somehow suffering is intrinsic to my world.

To deny suffering
Is to find contradictions—
We can’t have everything we want.

Maya is in the garden. She sits down beside him. Her eyes are shadowed. She says:

I am here to offer you the treasure wheel.
It is power.
It is truth.
It is the nature of the world
And where it goes, it conquers.

If you take it I can let you live.

Siddhartha says:

I am glad you are not here to kill me,
Mother,
But to bind me to that wheel—that is crueler.

It is beautiful
But it is the cause of all my suffering.

“It is not the cause of suffering,” Maya says. “It is the answer to it. If you have power to dictate the ephemera of the world, you may release things from their suffering.”

Siddhartha reaches out to touch her hand, but she drifts away. She is standing now, slightly out of his reach, staring out at the world, holding the jeweled treasure wheel in her hands.

Siddhartha asks:

If someone is wounded, mother,
What would I use the wheel for?

To heal them, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If someone is being tortured, mother,
What would I use the wheel for?

To save them, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If they are tortured again, later, mother,
What would I use the wheel for then?

To save them again, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If they suffer in the meantime because they remember torture, mother,
What use, then, is the wheel?

To heal them, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If someone suffers, again and again, mother,
What use is the wheel?

You may end or prevent that suffering each time, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If there are conditions in life that make future suffering inevitable, mother,
What use is the wheel?

Maya frowns at Siddhartha. She says:

It is life itself that makes suffering inevitable.
If you end all life, you will end all suffering
But this is not the Maya-Dharma.
And this is not compassion.

Siddhartha says:

If there are conditions in life that make future suffering inevitable, mother,
Is the wheel then no use at all?

Maya says:

We suffer because we love what might have been.
If you end love, you will end all suffering
But this is not the Maya-Dharma.
And this is not benevolence.

Siddhartha shakes his head. He says:

If someone wounded says,
When I bring the wheel to them,
‘This wound is inevitable,’ mother,
What must I do then?

Maya says:

Such a person has lost perspective.
Ignore their words and heal the wound, Siddhartha.

Siddhartha says:

You have lost perspective, mother.
The world is a wound.
The nature of things is a wound.
That suffering is inevitable, this is a wound.
Do you understand?
Even if I must shatter love,
Or shatter life
To heal them,
I will end that quality of things that makes us suffer.

Maya lowers her head. “So ruthless,” she whispers.

Siddhartha reaches out to her. He says:

If I did not know the Maya-Dharma, mother,
I could not transcend it.

Maya says, quietly,

O Prince, O Prince,
In your rooms
Your son is born.

Will you look upon him?
Will you go, and look upon him,
And know the reason for this world?

“Sons are an impediment,” says Siddhartha.

Maya looks wry.

I shall not. Siddhartha rises, and turns, and looks towards the gate. I will seek an end to suffering.

The wheel burns in Maya’s hands. It is a jeweled treasure wheel, thousand-spoked, with two winky eyes; and now it is on fire. It grows great and terrible, and there are wheels within the wheels, and wheels within those, and it rolls towards Siddhartha like the coldest and deadliest of the killer-gods. And as it touches him, and burns his arm, he falls back; but it is Maya, and not Siddhartha, who screams.

A spoke of the wheel has broken free and fallen to the ground.

There is a hissing inside the treasure wheel of the world, a hissing and a shuddering, and the world has cracked.

Eloi, Eloi, Lema Sabachthani?

Present Time

Sebastien emerges from the shower, wrapped in a towel and using another on his hair. He is almost clean, but not entirely.

The monster is waiting outside.

“I’m not intimidated by relative nudity,” Sebastien says.

“Did you ever wonder,” the monster asks, “why it is that you’re something that can kill monsters, and not something that does?”

Sebastien scrubs at his hair a bit more, then shrugs. “No.”

“I’ve thought it might be,” the monster says, “that we’re difficult to kill.”

“No,” Sebastien says. “It’s just that if you’re someone who kills monsters, then there must always be a monster to kill. You can’t fix anything, you can’t solve anything, you can’t make any kind of difference unless you’re lucky enough to do the matter-antimatter thing and burn out with your enemy in a blaze of glory. It’s safer to be someone who can kill them. And even then—”

It is very important to Sebastien that he not turn away from the monster, and so the pain in him is a crisis point; and in the end, though he does not turn away, he does look down.

“To go all the way means being death. It means being a killer. Even if it’s someone who kills things like you. And it means being part of things like you, even if it’s the part that ends them.”

The monster’s smile is brilliant and white.

Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise

539 BCE

It is the seventeenth god.

Belshazzar pulls the seventeenth god from Nabonidus, a great and terrible phoenix shape, a yellow and red effluvium that pours forth from Nabonidus’ chest and mouth.

“Go,” says Belshazzar, and it is gone. It seems to Nabonidus that it is following Mylitta into emptiness, as if Nabonidus’ own strength is pouring after his victim into the void.

Belshazzar leans down again. His face is terribly earnest and clinical.

Nabonidus is weak.

“Wait,” he says.

“It is necessary,” Belshazzar says. “We do not know how long until her heart will cease to beat.”

“No,” says Nabonidus. His word is binding, and Belshazzar stops.

Nabonidus is weak.

“Lift this burden from me,” he begs.

So the teeth of the devouring god close around him.

The nature of the monster ends.

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

The idea that comes to Martin is as inevitable as the rain.

“This is a place that takes everything from you,” he says. His voice is thick and heavy. “I came down here, and I was strong, but I can’t keep that. Not in the Underworld.”

The woglies are closing in on him, but Tantalus stands up, and the water washes in, and over them, and they grow still.

“I have to give up more,” Martin says. “Somewhere, there is something I am clinging to, that I have to give up, and it’ll be the thing that hurts the most to toss away.”

Tantalus looks at him. “Why would you surrender the thing you love the most?”

“Because there cannot be a poor rich man,” Martin says. “There cannot be an earthworm in the sky. There cannot be a man who is not a man, or a bird that is not a bird, or a void that is not empty. I am the architect of suffering, I am its source and its foundation, and I am good; and because these things cannot share one form and nature, I am severed from the world. My purpose fails because it is a contradiction, and contradictions cannot endure.”

The woglies are buried in the water, and they do not speak.

“There is no birth,” Martin says, “that has no pain.”

Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit

540 BCE

Mylitta leans over White Lion, her face in the creature’s fur.

“This is the secret of the monster,” Mylitta whispers to him. “It is not random. It is not chance. And none of it is blind. The line of Amiel could not escape her oath, but they could twist it, and they know the secret of the gods. They know that we exist for a reason, that we respond to purpose, that we are bound by the laws of our nature that we cannot break.”

“Leave here,” says White Lion. “Leave, before he shatters you.”

“So they chose a dharma for themselves,” Mylitta says, “that we could not answer. They chose a dharma that redefines our truths.”

“Leave here.”

“That is the reason for Belshazzar,” Mylitta says. “He will not answer the monster. He will break the question. He will destroy what it means to be a god, and I shall have my Elli.”

She is silent for a moment.

“If he is weak,” she says. “If he is weak, before I die.”

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

Martin opens his eyes. He releases a burden, or accepts it; they are one and the same.

“It’s not the monster who’s hurting Jane,” Martin says. “I won’t claim that. I won’t be a passive observer. If I’m going to shape the world through suffering, I’m going to be the one who shapes it; and the monster’s responsibility won’t ever negate mine. It’s my job to make sure that suffering transforms.”

There are fewer woglies now. They are skating off through the water, like toroidal tropical fish or evil aquatic froot loops that have been startled by a splash.

But one remains.

“Do you have the right?” it asks.

“Ye—”

Martin comes very close to nonexistence.

Then he shakes his head. “That’s not important to me,” Martin says.

It Is Finished

539 BCE

There are some who say that Chen Yu broke the world. There are some who lay the blame on Belshazzar in Babylon, or Siddhartha Suddhodana’s son. A few blame Mylitta, or the monster, or even Maya, for all that there was nothing she feared more.

In the end, that the world should break was inevitable.

The weight of its suffering was not a thing the world could bear.

Shame (I/II)1

1 But, earlier . . .

Nabonidus broods.

Cinder ash whirls in the fireplace. His hand snaps out. Even as the ash forms into the fairy Tanit, his hand is around her throat and shoulders.

“Hi,” Tanit says.

He looks her up and down. She’s small. She’s winged. She is a threat to him, an ancient enemy, an unbound god—a creature, he knows, that his great-great-grandfather educed from the first hero, Ella, back before she’d made herself a hero. Tanit had been with Ella, and the fiend White Lion, when they raged amidst the monster’s armies in Assyria. She had escaped when Ella fell.

She looks so puzzled and so empirically interested that he’s seized her that he can’t help laughing.

“I should break your neck,” he says.

“Yes,” she agrees. “But you won’t.”

“No.”

He lets her go. She flutters wildly for a moment, trying to get her bearings.

“What is it?” he asks.

“It’s Mylitta,” she says. “She’s gone to the Underworld.”

Mylitta stood at the gates of the Underworld. She knocked. The gate opened. The guard on the other side was a scorpion-man. His eyes terrified her. They brought fear and death. She could not move.

“What do you want?” it asked her, slowly. Its voice was the rasp of chitin on chitin. It looked at her expectantly, and that expectation broke the spell of her fear.

“My mother,” she said. “My mother Ella is dead.”

“You do not want her to come back,” the scorpion-man said. “If she comes back, she’ll be hungry. She will eat living people. She will kill everyone you know. That’s why it’s bad to bring back the dead. They also carry diseases.”

“In a week,” she said, “I go to the temple. I want to see my mother before I go.”

It is 556 years before the common era. It is the last day of spring.

Nabonidus’ eyes narrow. “Going to the Underworld was foolish,” he says.

Tanit shrugs.

“Why would you come to me?”

“I asked the sky for help,” Tanit says, “but there was only wind. I asked the moon for help, but there was only moonlight. Not even the sun can help me. So I came to you.”

Nabonidus sighs. He stares out his window. “What will happen to her?”

“She will suffer,” Tanit says, “and then she will die.”

“Ah.”

“Please,” Mylitta said.

“You have power,” the scorpion-man said. “It won’t help you, below. Everyone enters the Underworld naked and powerless. Then terrible things happen. If you’re lucky, you get to leave. If you’re not, they just keep happening until the end of time.”

Mylitta winced. “I’d rather not be powerless,” she said. “Or naked.”

“Then go home.”

Mylitta hesitated. Then she shook her head, firmly. She took off her clothes. She removed her anklets. She removed her bracelets. She handed all of these things to the scorpion-man. Then she walked inwards.

“Are you a goddess?” it asked, curiously, as she passed him.

“No,” she said.

She walked on.

Nabonidus is silent for a long time.

“You haven’t said no,” Tanit points out.

“I haven’t,” Nabonidus agrees.

“That’s a hopeful sign,” Tanit says. “See, I’m practically an inch taller right now. That’s from hope!”

“Why did she go?”

“I’ve told her about her mother,” Tanit says, “all her life. I wanted her to remember Ella like I remember Ella. But they never really met.”

“What was she like?” Nabonidus asks.

“Ella had a fire,” Tanit says. “She fought brilliantly. You didn’t know?”

“I’m young,” he says.

“Oh.”

“I visited Ella, once or twice, before she died. She was a husk. She wasn’t even useful.”

Tanit shrugs. “Life sucks,” she says brightly. “Will you help?”

Nabonidus rubs his temples.

“I know what I’m asking,” Tanit admits.

His eyes are like a hurt animal’s.

The Underworld was very dark. Its twists and turns confounded her. Mylitta did not find her mother. She did not find anything. In the end, she began to cry out: “Ella! Ella!” Her words echoed in the halls. She could hear things skittering in the distance. She was cold and could not warm herself.

In the distance, she heard a whisper. “Namtar,” it said. “Unleash the sickness upon her.”

There was something crawling in her veins. She felt very ill.

“Namtar,” said the voice. “Make her hurt.”

Something twisted in her arm. She cried out. Her ankle gave way. She fell on the rough stone. In the distance, she could hear a terrible laughter. She fought, desperately, to hold back tears.

Nabonidus’ eyes shutter. His expression is indecipherable.

Tanit waits.

Nabonidus holds out his hands. “Scrape the dirt out from under my nails,” he says.

Tanit flits forward. She pulls out a small brass dagger, fairy-sized. She begins to clean under his nails, and specks of dirt and blood fall on the floor. When she is done, she darts back, and waits.

Nabonidus bends down. He picks up the bits of dirt. He rolls them around in his fingers. He is whispering. Tanit does not understand at first what he is saying. When understanding finally dawns, she covers her ears to shut out the sound of it. The dirt twists. Nabonidus shakes off his hands.

“This is a season of metal,” he says.

Two creatures stand before him.

“This is a time of gathering.”

They look at him with cold dead eyes.

“Go,” he says. And they are gone.

Nabonidus sits down at his desk. He folds his arms on its surface. He rests his head on his wrists.

“Thank you,” Tanit says.

Nabonidus is crying, helplessly, unable to hold back the tears.

Tanit flutters forward, awkwardly. She puts her hand on his shoulder.

“I hate her,” he whispers. His voice is raw and thin. “I hope she dies.”

“Oh.”

There was a voice in the darkness. It was deep and rumbling. Its words cut right through her.

Mylitta, ‘litta, hides her fear.
But maidens have no secrets here.

There was a rank, feline stench in the air; and White Lion was beside her, who had been her mother’s god. And in the darkness, and in her ignorance, she did not understand.

“Go away,” she said. “Please go away.”

“As you like,” White Lion said. She heard four feet padding off into the dark.

And she rose.

She rose.

She struggled onwards through the endless halls.

“What will they do?” Tanit asks.

He is silent for a long time. Then Nabonidus looks up. He rubs his eyes. There’s a hint of cocky arrogance in his gaze.

“They’ll make Ereshkigal love them,” he says.

Tanit looks uncertain.

“She’s more powerful than they are,” he says. “She’s more powerful than I am. But they’ll go right to her weakness and make her their slave. And she’ll let Mylitta go.”

“How?”

“We’re attached to the things that hurt us,” he says. “Didn’t you know?”

“Namtar,” whispered a woman’s voice, “make great sores appear on her skin, and suppurate, and ooze forth pus.”

Mylitta looked down at her body in horror. Great sores appeared on her skin. They suppurated. Her feet hurt, but she dared not sink to her knees. She tried to cover the marks, but her arms and hands were as tainted as the rest. She leaned against the wall, setting her shoulder afire with pain. She sobbed.

There was the voice in the darkness of a returning god.

Mylitta, ‘litta, strength all spent.
Maidens burn it on descent.

“Go,” she whimpered.

There was a hesitation. “As you wish,” the voice said. Something turned to pad away. Then she fell. As she hit the ground, she screamed.

In the darkness, she heard a quiet sigh.

“Help me,” she whispered.

A cat’s tongue rasped on her back. She could feel the sores fading away. It proceeded down her arms, and the back of her legs. A great paw rolled her over. She was too tired for shame. It finished the job.

“I am called White Lion,” it said, as the last sores faded. “White Lion, who was your mother’s god.”

“Oh,” she said.

She sat up, against the wall. Her body felt clean.

“I will show you your power,” White Lion said.

It is the naming of pains.

“I hurt inside,” says Ereshkigal.

Oh, my inside!

“I hurt outside,” says Ereshkigal.

Oh, my outside!

“I hurt,” says Ereshkigal, “because of what happened to me. I hurt because of what happened to others. I hurt because happiness is transient. I hurt because the world is cruel.”

Oh, the world is cruel!

And in this time, and in this place, the cracking voice of Ereshkigal is more real than anything.

“I hurt,” says Ereshkigal, “because Abdi-Ashirta is dead, and Agabus, and Ili-Hadda, and Ninsun, and Odainat, and Yakin, and Mamaea, and Urshanabi.”

Oh, for Urshanabi!

“I hurt because Kummu is dead, and Mithridates, and Panammu, and Zebba. I hurt because Shamshi-Adad suffers, and Adad-guppi, and Sibittibael.”

Oh, Sibittibael!

She names those living, and those dead, and they are badges of her suffering. And when she names a dead man, or a dead woman, that person looks up from the throngs of the Underworld, and their heart shines in their eyes.

“There is the pain of the fire condition,” Ereshkigal says.

Oh, the fire!

“And the water condition, and the earth condition, and the condition of the soul.”

Oh, the soul!

And in this time, and in this place, the cracking voice of Ereshkigal is more real than anything. And all the while through her naming of the pains, two creatures of dirt and blood sit in the corner of the room. They eat the names. They eat the pain. They grow. And when in time the naming of the pains fades into a great and wayward silence, Ereshkigal looks over, and she sees them there.

“What are you?” she says, and it echoes in the room.

“I am hurting inside,” says one. “I am hurting outside. I am hurting because of what happened to me, and what happened to others.”

“I am hurting because happiness is transient,” says the other. “I am hurting because the world is cruel. I am hurting because Abdi-Ashirta is dead, and Agabus, and Ili-Hadda, and Ninsun, and Odainat, and Yakin, and Mamaea, and Urshanabi.”

And

“Ah!” Ereshkigal cries, stricken. “Ah! I know you both!”

Mylitta climbed up on the great beast’s back. It began to pad down the endless halls to where her mother stayed.

But

“Namtar,” whispered a voice, “strike her dead.”

The spark of life blew out. Mylitta’s body turned to rotten meat. She tumbled off of White Lion’s back.

It nosed her and she did not move.

It touched her and she did not respond. It bit into her and she did not flinch.

So she lay there, dead, and all hope lost, and it began to eat.

The servants of Ereshkigal came for her corpse. They had spears. They had arrows. They drove White Lion back, strips of Mylitta’s flesh still dangling from its mouth. They picked her up. They took her to the throne room.

They hung her on the wall.

Mylitta can still see. This is the Underworld. She can still hear. She can still feel pain.

“We are here,” the creatures say, “for Mylitta.”

“You may not have her,” Ereshkigal says.

“I am hurting,” one whispers, “because Kummu is dead, and Mithridates, and Panammu, and Zebba.”

“Because Shamshi-Adad suffers, and Adad-guppi, and Sibittibael,” says the other.

Ereshkigal’s fist clenches. “Ah,” she says, in pain. “You have my heart!”

“Please,” says the creature of dirt and blood.

“She may live,” Ereshkigal says. “But she may not leave.”

Ereshkigal gestures. One creature walks to Mylitta. It gives her a measure of its pain, and Mylitta is alive again. It lifts her off the hook. It sets her down. It looks into her eyes.

“Stars,” she whispers.

“What?”

“Your eyes are like my boy’s,” she says.

It frowns, and backs away, and turns to Ereshkigal. It bows.

Mylitta’s eyes flick to Ereshkigal. “I must remain?” she says.

She is bleeding. There are strips missing from her flesh where White Lion chewed on her corpse. She puts her hand on the blood. She can feel the creature’s thoughts in it, and suddenly there are no boundaries to her world.

“I command the hosts of the dead,” Ereshkigal answers, placidly. “And of the scorpion-men. And Namtar. And Irra. And she who erases. And the god of submission. If these are any barrier to you, Mylitta, then you cannot leave.”

“I’m sorry,” Mylitta says.

She can feel the thoughts of White Lion in her blood, and there are no boundaries to her world.

She draws a sword of starlight. There is a pounding in her ears. She can hear a crowd of thousands roaring out her name.

Not Namtar;
Not Irra;
Not the scorpion-men—

“These things are not a barrier to me.”

“heroes can kill monsters.”

It is 556 years before the common era. It is the first day of summer.

Nabonidus looks out at the sky. There is fire on the horizon, and the earth rolls, slowly and steadily, and he can all but hear the gates of the Underworld cracking.

“Mylitta?” he says.

He’s recovered, a little, from the making of two gods.

And Tanit nods.

“Did she get to see her mother?” Nabonidus asks.

The world shakes. The sky burns red. Namtar falls, and Irra, and the great hosts of the dead. Somewhere beneath the world the death gods scream, and Mylitta their apocalypse.

Tanit shakes her head.

“She didn’t,” Tanit says.

Strepitus; and silence; and

“She’s so helpless,” sighs Mylitta’s boy.

At the Temple (II/II)

Her name is Mylitta.

“Will you come for me?” she asks her boy. They are sprawled in the grass, under the stars. They’re dressed, though disheveled. Mylitta has chosen to remain a virgin today.

“I will,” he says.

“It’s a long way,” she says.

“I will come to the temple,” he says. “And I will be there first of all the men. And I shall bring you a coin of silver, and it shall shine like the moon, and I shall press it in your hand, and say, ‘The goddess prosper thee.'”

She rolls on her side. She props herself up on one elbow. She looks at his face.

“There are stars in your eyes,” she says, “Elli.”

“Are there?” he says.

“I think so.” She reaches out a finger towards his eye. He reflexively flinches away.

“Mylitta!”

She giggles, and rolls back. “It’s all right,” she says. “I can see them in the sky.”

“heroes can kill monsters.”

The hours of the night pass, and break into the borders of the dawn.

“I saw a god named White Lion,” Mylitta says.

The boy tenses. It’s almost unnoticeable.

“It talked to me about being a hero.”

“Oh?” says her boy.

“It gave me a sword,” Mylitta says, “made of starlight. And I struck at a pillar made of stone, and cleaved it through. And I could hear a roaring in my ears, like a crowd of thousands, all chanting my name.”

“A sword doesn’t make a hero,” the boy points out.

“No,” she says. “It doesn’t.”

“Killing monsters,” he says. “That’s what makes a hero.”

Mylitta moves like a flame, flickering to her feet, and the wind fans out her hair, and her eyes are bright, and her hand clenches at the air as if it wants a sword. “How,” she asks, “would you know that?”

He smiles. It’s a little languid. “Boys know,” he says.

She hesitates. She seems a bit uncertain.

“Do you think you can do it?” he asks.

Her posture slumps a little. She looks towards the city walls. “I can cut through armies,” she says. “I am a swathe of blood and death to them. I can shatter walls. Gods are dust to me, and even the stars will do me honor. Death is easy, Elli.”

“Ah,” he says, softly. “You are a wondrous and terrible thing, my love.”

She sits down with a thump, then flops back onto her back. “It’s not going to be hard,” she says. “Look.”

She holds up her hand, palm towards him. She spreads her fingers. She rests her hand gently on the ground. The earth shakes. The world trembles. In the distance, he hears a great shout of stone, that might have been her name. She lifts her hand. The earth calms.

“Huh,” he says.

He sits up. He spreads his fingers. He rests his hand on the ground. Nothing happens. He lifts his hand and looks at it again.

“You have the advantage of me,” he says. His eyes have a teasing light in them.

She grins. “Today,” she says. “But not tomorrow.”

“Will you remember me,” he says, “when you’ve killed the monster, and the world kneels at your feet?”

“and the monster shall rule over even the gods;
but he shall be as empty as his victims.”

“I will remember, Elli.”

“When great kings come from every corner of the world to pay you suit?”

She nods gravely.

“And even gods?”

“And even gods,” she says.

“Good.”

He hops to his feet. “I should go home,” he says. “And work at my letters. And make myself ready to camp tonight at the temple’s gate.”

“They will chase you away,” she says. She rises. “They will have brooms, you know.”

“I will look them in the eye and tell them, ‘Have you no pity for a young man’s love?'”

“They have no pity!” Mylitta assures him. “They’re priestesses!”

The boy laughs. “Then I’ll have to be sneaky,” he says. “And bear such brooms as I must bear, for love of you.”

They kiss, and he departs.

“the monster’s strength shall flourish,
and in Babylon make his home. . . .”

Mylitta goes to the river. She calls forth a naiad and asks its permission to bathe. When it nods, she strips, and bathes herself, and when she is clean, dresses again in simple clothes. She goes to the temple and watches.

There are hundreds of girls there. Some of them, like she herself, are watching. Most are sitting, in the holy enclosure, with wreaths of string about their hair. Men walk through, strangers, and they study the girls one by one. Each makes his choice. Each throws a coin of silver onto a woman’s lap. Then each takes her hand, and walks with her, beyond the holy sanctuary, and into the groves or chambers.

And in Babylon this thing is sacred.

After a time, Mylitta walks to her friend Ilma. She squats down beside her, careful not to sit. “How are you?” she asks.

Ilma gives her a small smile. “Not as desirable,” she says, “as I had hoped.”

“Is it scary?”

Ilma nibbles at the edge of her thumbnail, thinking. “Sometimes,” she says.

Mylitta makes a face, and nods.

“Some of the girls,” Ilma says. “They’re crying, as they’re led away. Or after they come back. But mostly . . . mostly, it’s just kind of hot, and my butt hurts, and I kind of want to shout at the guys who look at me and then walk by.”

Mylitta straightens, and touches Ilma’s shoulder. “It’ll be okay,” she says. “If it happens today, it’s over with. And if you’re still here tomorrow, we can sit together!”

Ilma giggles. “You won’t be here long,” she says.

Mylitta hesitates. “Long enough to hold your hand,” she says.

“That’s true,” Ilma says. She grins at Mylitta. It’s a happy grin, though there’s a crust of salt near her eyes. “You should get lost,” she says. “You’re scaring away the men.”

Mylitta nods, and drifts away.

Day turns to night. Night turns to morning. Mylitta dresses herself in temple garb. She puts a wreath of string into her hair.

“there is something even the monster fears.”

It is 556 years before the common era. It is summer, and the dawn is bright. Mylitta sits in the holy enclosure. Ilma is gone. Mylitta feels alone.

There are many women in the temple, but there are no men. It is a strange occasion. Mylitta can hear the others muttering among themselves, a sound rising and falling, like a river.

Her boy enters. He walks towards the enclosure. The priestesses and keepers of the temple fall to their knees before him. A chill climbs up Mylitta’s spine.

“Nabonidus,” they say. And, “King.”

He ignores them. He walks along the line. He looks at one woman, then the next, and finally he presses a coin of silver into Mylitta’s hand.

“The goddess prosper thee,” he says.

There are still stars in his eyes. She is confused, and her world is swimming, and the stars seem to dance.

And in Babylon, this thing is sacred.

“You told me,” she says, “that your name was Ellil.”

He takes her hand. He lifts her to her feet.

“It is not,” he says.

“And I am fairly certain,” she says, “that at no time did you mention that you were King of Babylon. For you see, that is the kind of tidbit that sticks in my memory.”

He leads her towards the chambers.

“And if you are Nabonidus,” she points out, “that would make you the monster. This is very awkward.”

“I promise,” Mylitta told White Lion, once.
I will kill him.”

He pulls her into the chamber. He closes the door. He sits down on the bed.

“Do you know what being the monster means?” he says.

“That I’m supposed to kill you?”

He snorts. “Besides that.”

“No,” she says.

“All my life,” he says, like he were talking about someone else entirely, “I have had nothing. Mother emptied me, to make her Harran gods. I have known every manner of horror. I have had to take notes on them, and record what brought me the most pain or disorientation. That was mother’s instruction, so that I could better apply her techniques, later, against your kind. I have also known, since childhood, that in time we would meet, and that you would most likely kill me.”

Mylitta studies him. “I am not that naive,” she says.

“Oh?”

“If you are a monster,” she says, “then it is not because you have suffered, but because you have chosen to inflict suffering on others.”

“That’s true,” he says.

Her voice is uncertain now, and small. “It is?”

“I want power,” he says, calmly. “I want to rule the world. And I want you at my side, as my warrior, my consort, and the mother of my gods. You are a symbol of fertility to me. And to achieve my aims, I must empty and break you.”

Her arm snaps straight. Though there is no starlight in the room, a sword flares into being in her hand.

“I can kill you,” she says. “It’s allowed.”

He smiles at her, sad and crooked. “You’ll be the death of me,” he says. “But not today.”

She hesitates. He pats the bed.

“Come on,” he says.

“we are as we define ourselves, whether fairy, fiend, or maid.”

“I don’t have to,” she says. Her head tilts to one side. Her eyes burn. “I’m strong, Nabonidus.”

“That’s why you have to,” he says.

She looks at her hands. The sword fades out.

“You’re right,” she says. She sounds sickened.

He nods.

And in Babylon, this thing is sacred.

“I won’t give you my heart,” she says. “I’ll do my duty. Like any girl here. Because it’s sacred. Because it’s for me. But I won’t give you my heart.”

“there are stars in your eyes, Elli.”

Her head is burning and sickening with the stories and the promises that have led her here.

The stars are in his eyes.

She sits.

Remnants (III/IV)

It is 702 years before the common era.

Micaiah, called Micah, is a prophet in the land of Judah. He has a desert complexion. His hair is brown but turning to gray. He is sitting, stirring the ashes of his fire, when there’s a knock at the door. A hint of a fetid stench wafts in.

“Come in,” he calls, and the door opens. There’s a woman outside, gaunt and tired. Behind her, he sees the bulk of a great white shape. Its paws are larger than most cats. Its mouth could swallow him whole. The woman enters. White Lion stays outside.

“My name is Micah,” he says. “And I have water, to wash your feet.”

“Ella,” she says. “I need to sit.”

So he gestures towards his bed, and she sits down.

He studies her for a while. “They say that some of the Nephilim survived. But they are described as Anakites. Taller than a man. You are shorter than a sunflower.”

“Is it that obvious?” she says.

“You fit through my door. It’s not a very tall door.”

She flushes. “Not my height. My race.”

He nods. “I have seen the messengers of the Lord,” he says. He goes to the fireplace, fills it with logs, and starts a fire to make the house warm. “You have something of their semblance, but not enough to be one of them; and I am not such a fool as to discard one truth or another.”

“It is hard for me,” she says, “to come here, and beg of the God of Abraham.”

“Yes.”

“But a thousand years ago, in Sodom, he smote my people. He killed them, all but two. And he should not have stopped.”

Micah smiles. “I have wine,” he says. “Would you like some?”

“Please.”

So he fetches a skin, and tosses it to her, and then he sits down near the fire and lets the tension drain from him and into the earth below.

“Tell me about it,” he says.

“In Assyria,” she says, “there is a monster named Sennacherib. He is making a terrible host to trample Judah, Samaria, and eventually all others. I have sworn to kill him, but . . .”

She turns her hands upright, then down again. “I am not sufficient to the task. Not alone. Not with Tanit. Not with White Lion. So I come here, to you. To your God. To ask him to finish the job.”

“I’m sorry.”

She looks up at him, startled.

“Listen,” he says. “My people . . . we make gods too.”

Micah gestures out at Judah.

“We do not carve them out of souls. We carve them from wood and stone and meaningless prayers. We have lost our devotion to the Lord, so our devotions to Him are empty. We have lapsed idle in our dedication to virtue, so even the virtuous lapse to dedicating idols. We are a people fallen, like shorn wheat, and the Lord shall reap us.”

He sighs.

“The Lord has readied Sennacherib like His scythe.”

“That?” she says. The color drains from her face.

“What?”

“That is why we survived?” It is instant; her calm reserve is shattered, and hot tears fall down her face. “He left Lia and Amiel alive to be his weapon?

“Ah.”

Micah sighs, then smiles at her. “No,” he says.

“No?”

“Listen,” he says. “Do you have a god?”

She hesitates. “I have White Lion,” she says. “And a fairy. And myself.”

“See, I know how the Lord’s like you, and I know how He’s different from you, but I don’t know . . .”

Micah waves his hands through the air.

“I don’t know why He’s one way and you’re another.”

“Oh.”

“But I can say why He left you alive.”

She looks at him.

“It is always the Lord’s wish that hearts will turn towards Him,” Micah says. “He asks of us that we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with Him. And to let us do so . . . it is His will that always a remnant shall survive. No matter how He culls or cuts us, He shall leave some of us . . . the meek, the most virtuous, the most loyal . . . that He can gather them again in time, and make of that remnant of His people a great nation once again.”

“But we are not of your people,” Ella says. Then she grins, despite herself. “I would not care to try circumcising White Lion.”

“No,” Micah agrees. “You have no covenant with Him, and you are not of His people. Yet . . . His way is His way. He did not empty Egypt of its people, but took their firstborn; He did not empty the world in flood; He did not smite all Sodom and Gomorrah and leave none alive. He is a culling God, a pruning God, a God of vineyards and olive trees; and when a man shakes an olive tree, he leaves some behind.”

“It were better,” she says, “that He had not.”

“As you say,” Micah says. He looks out at Judah. “Yet for all their wickedness, I love my people. I want them to return. I want to imagine a day when they pass beyond the punishment of the Lord and learn His mercy.” He smiles at her. “Surely you are the same?”

Ella looks down.

“Surely?”

“Yes,” she says, quietly. “I want Aishah to be free. And Zenobia. And all my line. And those born from it.”

Ella holds up her hand, and cinders from the fire whirl together, and the fairy Tanit stands within.

“There are wonders,” Ella says. “Strange and beautiful wonders. And I do not want them to end. But Sennacherib has violated us and turned it to dust and I cannot see how there is anything that can survive.”

Tanit hops down onto the bed, curls up, and sleeps.

“It is a harder task,” Micah says, “to be the remnant than the culled.”

“Yes.”

Micah sighs. “Listen,” he says. “The King of Judah . . . his ears are not stone. In the reign of Ahaz, there was no hope for this people. But Hezekiah . . . I think that he may listen. He may set aside his statesmanship, and lead our people to righteousness, and turn against the Assyrian. Then the Lord would check His scythe, and open a great wound in the army of Sennacharib, and . . . perhaps allow you your victory.”

“And if not?”

“Then the monster shall grow more powerful,” Micah says. “And in Babylon he will make his home. And the world will writhe in agony under the gods of Babylon, and my people and yours will be carried there in chains. Then a hero of your line will come and stand against him, and strive to break the bond of Lia and Amiel. And in that battle shall come an end to the time of gods and monsters, and the Lord shall gather the assembled nations of the world like sheaves to the threshing floor, and they shall be driven with lust to ravish the remnant of Israel, and in their hunger they will not see what lies ahead. For the Lord shall shod us in hooves of bronze and horns of iron, and we shall break the assembled nations to pieces, and devote the wealth earned through their greed to our worship of the Lord.”

“And . . .”

Micah shrugs. “I do not know,” he says, “what becomes of your people then. I am a prophet of Judah.”

She looks down.

“Try to survive,” he says. “Your heart’s a good one. There’s not enough of that in the world.”

“I’ll try.”

He smiles.

“You were right,” she adds, after a moment. “It’s harder to be the remnant than the culled.”

Then she picks up Tanit, and holds her close, and walks to the door, and climbs atop the great white beast. And King Hezekiah turns his people’s mind to the Lord, and a wound opens in the host of Sennacherib, and a great lion ravages amidst its ranks; but Sennacherib does not die that day, and Micah does not see Ella again.

Myths and Heroes (II/IV)

It is 703 years before the common era.

Ella lives in the castle of King Sennacherib. Its upper levels are a thing of great majesty and glory, and the King and Ella’s sisters live there. Below that are the humbler quarters of the servants and Ella herself. In the warren beneath are cages, endless cages, full of fiends. And deeper yet, there is a dark and private place, full of a fetid, feline stench. When life is too much for her, Ella goes there, and finds the hidden rag doll she calls Tanit, and talks to it in the dark.

“Tanit,” she says, “I will tell you a story.”

“Story!” cheers Tanit. “Story!”

“There is something that even the monster fears,” she says.

“Ooh.”

Ella imagines that Tanit’s eyes are round.

“When Sodom fell,” she says, “there were two sisters who survived the scourge. Their names were Lia and Amiel.”

“Yes,” Tanit agrees, wisely.

“And Maya looked back on the city, and saw an oracle there that made her cry. It said: Amiel and Lia will love one another forever. But Lia will die, and her children will die, and all her line be mortal. And as Lia dies, Amiel will promise her, ‘I will guard your line, and our families be entwined forever.’

“And this she promised.

“And the oracle said: And these words will be false, for the guardians will prove false. Amiel shall have a daughter, and she a daughter, and she a son. And he will bear a line of men turned monsters, and they shall prey on Lia’s brood, and bring them every misery and sorrow.”

Tanit stomps her foot, or so Ella imagines. “But the monster is afraid!”

“Before she died,” Ella says, “Amiel returned to Sodom, and cracked the pillar of salt; and Maya came forth, and spoke her oracle; and Amiel set a curse on her own line. That as long as there were monsters, there could be heroes.”

Tanit considers this.

“Do you see?” Ella says. “Somewhere, there is a hero. Someone who can kill him. Someone who can fight him. He’ll come here. He’ll save me.”

She picks up the rag doll and hugs her.

“Like a prince,” she says.

Ella is prized among Sennacherib’s maidens. She is a treasure of his realm. But she takes no joy in it. He makes her do hard work from morning until night. She gets up before daybreak, carries water, lights fires, cooks and washes. She sleeps in the ashes of the fire, for she has no bed. Her sisters spill her meals there, or fill her drawers with spiders. Sennacherib cuts her, sometimes, with a thin silver blade. And one day, he names the duty: “You must clean the fiends’ cages.”

Where the fiends dwell, caged like animals, it is dark and cold and quiet. They have the faces of men or monsters, but they are not either. They are madness given form. And she lowers the grate that divides their cages, and scrubs out one half; then lets them back and scrubs out the other. She does this in silence, for she is terrified of fiends. Yet she cannot help naming them, for they are her only companions in this darkness. Razor, she calls one. Tsebanath, she names another. The worst she calls White Lion, for its great bulk is leonine in its way. Its face is the least human of them all, and its mouth larger than her sleeping hearth.

One day, as she cleans its cage, White Lion rumbles:

Ella, Ella, maiden raw.
Come and sleep between my jaws.

She turns and regards it, her heart rate rising. Only one word comes to her mind, so she speaks it: “No!”

White Lion’s eyes close, softly. “I will wait.”

Weeks pass, and months. Ella’s sister Aishah finds Tanit, Ella knows not how, and makes a show of disemboweling the doll before the court. Laughter beats against the boundaries of Ella’s mind. And, as she does every week, she goes down below to clean the cages of the fiends.

Ella, Ella, end your grief.
Let me taste you, root and leaf.
Maiden shining, maiden raw.
Rest your head between my jaws.

“No,” she insists, voice breaking with fear. And White Lion’s eyes close.

“I will wait.”

Weeks pass, and months. Ella dreams of a hero, but the dreams are cold and distant. It is harder to cling to such dreams in days like these.

Ella, Ella, fair of face.
I know a special, secret place.
Let your winter turn to thaw.
Come and sleep between my jaws.

She sits down, exhausted, on the floor.

“Please,” she says. “Do not do this.”

It regards her, silent.

“I don’t want to die.”

“Ah,” rumbles White Lion.

“So I don’t want you to eat me.”

White Lion hisses, and its fetid breath casts clouds of dust across the room. “Child,” it says, “I do not wish to devour you. I wish to know you.”

“Pardon?”

“You know how we are made,” it says.

“My sisters,” Ella says. “Aishah. Zenobia. He . . . emptied them, and broke them. Then he used their emptiness to make you.”

“There are angels in this castle,” White Lion says. “They are born to fill Zenobia’s emptiness with hope. And fiends, to answer Aishah’s hurt with madness. And demons, and ghosts, and dragons, besides. Yet we are not whole. He keeps us from them. In that separation is his strength.”

The fiends in their cages are still now. They are listening to White Lion.

“I wish to know you,” White Lion says. “To become yours. And then to know you further. Then I will not be weak. I will be complete. And I will be free.”

“I won’t,” she whispers. “I don’t want you.”

So she goes up to the hearth, and curls up in the ashes, and shivers herself to sleep.

“Good morning, Ella,” says a voice. It’s a girl’s voice, but still Ella starts awake, and thinks of heroes. It is with two sickening shocks in turn that she sees the truth: not a hero, nor a girl, but rather a tiny fairy maid, leaning against the hearth. In defiance of the dirt and ash, the fairy’s blue gown is as pristine as the sky.

“No,” Ella whispers.

“My name,” the fairy says, “is Tanit. And I have come to deliver you from this place.”

“Please don’t be real.”

The fairy looks dispassionately at her. “It’s not for you or I to decide such things. I exist; I am here; we must both learn to cope.”

Ella holds out her hand, and the fairy steps into it, and Ella holds her up. “He wants me to break,” she says. “He wants to drain away the pieces of myself, until my soul is a patchwork of gossamer. Then he will use the emptiness and use it to craft gods. If you are real, then it means that I am breaking. That I have begun to resemble the void. And that you are the first child of it.”

Tanit sighs and sits down, cross-legged in Ella’s palm.

“Do you know what fairies are?” she asks.

“No.”

So Tanit speaks:

Each person has a world.
It is just so long,
And just so wide,
And just so tall.
Yet there are things beyond its boundaries.
Wildness and magic.
Power.
A fire.
When emptiness looks on the beyond,
The fire casts reflections.

“That is a fairy,” Tanit says. “We are the reflections of that fire. The radiance of the beyond. And I can offer you freedom.”

“No,” Ella says, and her eyes fill with tears. “I’ve tried. I ran, once. I ran all the way to the castle gates. They were there. In sight. And I stopped. I could not make myself go further. I sat down. I waited for him to find me. To punish me. Because I was not strong enough.”

“Ah.”

“I could only choose two things,” Ella says quietly. “To hate myself, or to say, ‘There can be no freedom.'”

Tanit looks down at herself. Her wings shimmer. “Yet I reflect something,” she says. “For I am here.”

Ella tilts her head to one side. “You smell of cat,” she says. Then there’s a mad rage in her eyes, and she flings the fairy to one side, and Tanit flutters dazedly about and scarcely misses the wall.

“No!” Ella shouts.

“Ella?”

At the sound of that voice, Ella goes still. Tanit becomes the drifting of disturbed cinders in the air; and if this is voluntary or involuntary, Ella does not know. She does not care. The voice is Aishah’s, and Aishah is walking in.

“Ella,” Aishah says, “you must not shout so, early in the morning.” She smiles. It’s a crooked, bent smile. “It is not surprising from a filthy cinder girl, but it is still improper.”

“I’m sorry,” Ella says. She ducks her head.

Aishah’s eyes widen. “Dear Ella,” she says.

“No,” whispers Ella; but Aishah walks to her, and lifts her chin.

“Why,” Aishah says, “there’s a hollow in your voice, and in your eyes.”

“No.”

“You are becoming like us.” Some of the coldness fades from Aishah’s voice. It is layered, for a moment, with a bright, mad joy.

“No.”

“Sister,” Aishah says, “it is a thing to celebrate. If this is so, I can give aside my torment of you, and spilling your meals in the ashes, and filling your drawers with spiders. At long last! We may be siblings again. I can dress you in finest raiment, and we can braid one another’s hair, and we can talk of fine and precious things.”

“I am not like you yet.”

Aishah’s eyes shutter. “No,” she says. And she walks to the door. “Yet still I will hold to pleasure, in my heart. For I have longed for this. I have longed for him to raise you up, to join us at his side, and no more the fiends, and no more the knives. I have missed you; and you have been too stubborn in your self to care.”

Then she is gone. And as Tanit reforms, Ella snatches her from the air, and Ella flees like a beast down into the castle’s depths.

“White Lion, White Lion,” she says.

White lion, white lion,
Would you taste of my skin?
Rip the King open from torso to chin.
White lion, white lion,
Do you want to be mine?
Rip the King open from stomach to spine.
White lion, white lion,
This maiden is yours
If you’ll kill the King whom my sister adores.

White Lion studies her for a time.

“I will tell you a secret,” it rumbles.

“What secret is that?”

“In all the years since Lia and Amiel,” White Lion says, “there has not been a hero.”

It is a cold white shock.

“Why are you not a god, Ella?” White Lion asks. “Why are you flesh? Why can my teeth cut you? Why can my claws cleave your bones?”

Ella hesitates. The pressure of its gaze is on her, and a blinding headache rises.

“Because there is a price.”

It pads forward, and its cage cracks and breaks. It sets its paw on her chest and she sinks like paper to the ground.

“Listen,” it breathes, and its stink washes over her. “We are as we define ourselves, whether fairy, fiend, or maid. If you wish a hero, then become one.”

Its mouth comes down over her, and swallows her in darkness and pain.

“What price?” she asks the darkness.

But in the end, it does not matter.

“I want to kill him,” she says.

Wrong.

The stench makes her dizzy. She is on the verge of fainting. She thinks about what she has chosen; and then makes a small correction.

“I promise,” she says. “I will kill him.”