Intermission (I/I)

March 25, 1995

Tantalus hungers. Tantalus thirsts.

The woglies flee.

“That’s not important,” Martin is saying. “That isn’t. I’m going to sweep away the kingdoms of the world and tear down all the monsters. I’m going to rend the world down to a remnant and from its ashes build the most glorious of Heavens.”

His soul is in shreds.

He’s hardly alive. He’s holding himself up by sheer will and his eyes are full of the radiance of the numinous and every time he looks at Tantalus it’s like Tantalus is suddenly naked before the face of God; caught by shame and forbidden knowledge in the Garden of Eden; staring full on into Medusa’s eyes.

He’s a creature of all wild freedom, Martin is, and freedom’s terrible.

Then Martin wobbles and loses strength.

He falls, face-first, into the lake.

It is Tantalus’ lake. It belongs to him. It’s his clear cold lake of water. He has always thought that it must be extremely cool and damp and refreshing, but whenever he reaches down to cup up some water in his hands, the water flees from him. It drains away into the ground and leaves only parched dry earth behind. For three thousand years Tantalus has lived amidst his lakes and never once has he had a chance to drink.

As for Martin, he is cool and damp and refreshed but also trying to breathe.

He is underwater.

It does not work. Instead Martin, involuntarily, coughs. He thrashes. He tries to pull himself to the surface. It does not work. His eyes widen with panic. His panic redoubles. Shuddering and flailing washes through him. He breaches the surface. He flutters his arms against the water. His head rolls back. He sinks.

“Oh,” says Tantalus.

There is emotion in his voice. He is surprised to hear it there. He had not thought himself still capable of emotion, after three thousand years.

It must be envy, he thinks.

“Oh, I envy you.”

It is the Underworld. Martin cannot die. Beneath the water his eyes pop open. He gasps. He tries to take a breath but he cannot. He tries to scream but he cannot. His arms flutter but he cannot make his body move.

After a while he passes out again.

The emotion in Tantalus’ voice is not envy. This baffles him.

“Ridiculous,” says Tantalus.

It still isn’t envy. It is pity, perhaps. Maybe even kindness.

Tantalus’ heart beats once. It is irritated at him. His heart only beats when it’s irritated at him, these past three thousand years. He’s long since too dry for blood.

The clenching of his heart is a dry and agonizing pain. Air whistles through his veins.

“Ridiculous.”

It is a unique experience, to have his conscience blackmailing him again, after all these years of death. He reaches upwards. The wind whips the branches of the trees away from him. They are laden with sweet-smelling fruit and for three thousand years he has not caught hold of a single one.

He braces his hand against the trunk of the tree. He pulls himself upright.

Martin wakes up. His eyes open. He tries to scream but he cannot. He tries to move but he cannot.

He passes out.

Tantalus wades out to Martin. He purses his lips. He looks down at the drowning boy. Then he sits down heavily. The water level plummets. Tantalus snatches at it reflexively, tries to cup some up. There is no water left.

It has drained into the ground already. It has fled from him. It has left only dry dust behind, and Martin like a flopping fish.

Tantalus sets his withered lips on Martin’s own.

He inhales. He is like a vampire. He is seeking some scrap of sustenance — to draw some bit of soothing moisture up from Martin’s waterlogged lungs.

The heart of Tantalus beats.

Tantalus’ face grows taut with pain. He loses his grip on Martin. He tries to hang on but he cannot. In the moment he pulls back and curls around the agony in his chest, the water escapes him, makes a break for it, scrambling out of Martin’s lungs, drooling from his lips, pouring desperately into the ground to escape Tantalus’ touch.

Martin coughs. He wakes. He passes out.

He wakes again.

In the moment Martin wakes he recoils. He throws himself back. His eyes open. He gasps. His skin is bitterly dry. He stares.

Then he begins to laugh.

“Oh, God,” he says. He laughs. “Oh, man.”

His eyes focus on Tantalus. He sees the lines of pain on Tantalus’ face. He gives a wretched smile.

Tantalus shrugs.

“Thank you,” Martin says. “I’m so sorry. Thank you. Oh, man.”

“It happens,” Tantalus says.

“I was drowning,” Martin says. “And now I am not. It is really good to not be drowning. Nobody ever told me this. Nobody told me how good it was going to be. Nobody ever said, ‘it’s so incredible, not to be drowning, and then passing out, and then waking up and drowning some more.’ But it is. I think that people just don’t know.”

“I would like that,” Tantalus says.

“You would not.”

“It looked moist.”

Martin’s eyes flick down to the dry ground, then back up.

“Yeah,” he says, more softly. “Yeah, I guess.”

He sits up.

“It was cool, and clear,” he says, “and refreshing. It would have been really nice. Except then I started to panic. Because I couldn’t breathe. And then the panic got worse and worse until I think I would have done anything to make it stop. And then my brain shut down and I couldn’t think any more and my eyes filled up with agony and the dark. And then I’d wake up again and it wasn’t cool and clear and refreshing any more because I was already drowning when I woke.”

Tantalus licks his lips.

“And if it weren’t the Underworld —”

Martin shudders, suddenly.

“I’m so lucky,” he says. “Oh, God. If this hadn’t been the Underworld. If this weren’t the Underworld — what a stupid way to stop existing. I would have died.”

“It is good to be a living person in the Underworld,” Tantalus says, “since there is nothing here that can actually kill you.”

There is a distant cursing. There is a distant rumbling.

Sisyphus, rolled over by a distant boulder, screams.

“There are also disadvantages,” Tantalus concedes.

Martin looks down.

“You’ve been stuck here,” he says, “for three thousand years.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m going,” Martin says. “I’m going to go. You should also go. You should come out of the Underworld, to the surface world, like me. What d’you think?”

“I can’t.”

Martin tilts his head. “Why not?”

“It’s my punishment.”

“Yes?”

“Zeus said,” Tantalus says. “He said that I had to live in a land of plenty, and know only hunger. He said that I had to dwell amidst sweet lakes, and know only thirst. He said I had to be forever in the company of what I long for, and have it never. So I can’t go.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Martin says.

Tantalus shrugs.

“That isn’t punishment,” Martin says. “That’s just . . . that’s just life.

Tantalus can’t help it. He laughs. It’s a bitter laughter and it hurts almost as much as a heartbeat; and eventually it causes a heartbeat, and hurts strictly, mathematically, more.

Martin is watching him.

Tantalus isn’t even looking at him any more and he can still feel it, that Martin is watching him; that that fey power is coming back into Martin’s eyes.

“Hey,” Martin says.

Martin touches his shoulder.

“Hey,” Martin says. “I’m not — I mean, I’m not a good person. I’m not going to say that. But I’m not the kind of person who’s going to just meet somebody who’s been starving for three thousand years and then go away and let them starve and dry out for another three thousand. That’s too much. I’m the kind of cruel hell-god who might leave you to suffer another, you know, three months, for a total of six. Or stab you in the eye with a spork, but then take you to a hospital. But, I mean, seriously, man. Three thousand years. You’re done. You’ve paid enough.”

Tantalus’ heart is not beating. He has stopped laughing.

It is a certain grace that settles in around Tantalus, then, and frees him from the pain of Martin’s words.

“I’m okay,” he says.

“You’re not okay.”

“I have my lakes,” Tantalus says. “I have my sweet-smelling fruit trees. And when I reach for the fruit the branches fly up like winged birds, and it is beautiful; and sometimes, their petals float free to land upon the surface of the lake, like little boats. And they are beautiful.”

He cannot look at Martin.

He dare not look at Martin. He would break. Instead he stands up. He turns away. The water trickles back around his feet.

“I have the gourd of my stomach,” Tantalus says. “I am very used to it. It is always hungry, but I laugh at it, ho-ho-ho, and strike it with my hands to make a drum.”

Martin is on his feet.

That is good, Tantalus thinks. If Martin does not get up and leave the lake then I shall have to repeat this whole conversation again.

“I have no talent for drumming,” Tantalus observes. “And my stomach is not a very good drum. But I can still make Persephone weep or Hades dance with my drumming; for even the least talented man will become a quite good drummer if he practices for three thousand years.”

“You will still have a stomach,” Martin says, “if you go free.”

“I don’t want to go,” Tantalus says.

He risks a glance over his shoulder. Martin is standing on the water. It is lifting him up as it rises. His eyes are as the oceans and the skies.

“I didn’t ask if you wanted to go,” Martin says.

This is a lie.

“Well,” Martin admits. “I did. But that was earlier. After that, I said that I was not the kind of person who was going to just leave you here to suffer another three thousand years. You’re going now. It’s done.”

Tantalus’ heart is beating. It will not stop. It is like four little torturers having an agony party in his chest, one for every valve, and taking occasional vacations down his veins.

And for just a moment Tantalus believes in Martin.

For just a moment Tantalus forgets that he is doomed to this garden and this hell. For just a moment he believes there is a choice; and swiftly, perversely, he rejects it, rejects freedom, turns away from it, clings to his torment with the whole of him, with body, heart, and mind, crying: o my gardens! O my agonies! O my lakes!

And Martin grins.

“I want to stay,” Tantalus says.

Martin grins wider. He snaps his fingers. “Bang,” he says, and points his finger like a gun, because Tantalus has erred.

And desperately Tantalus reaches for the substance of his damnation, and it eludes him; claws for it, and it sinks into the dry parched earth; reaches for it, and the wind catches him up, blows the branches of him away, and he is gone.

Scarab All-a-Fulminatin’, Explody & Oh Shi— (I/I)

Video:

The warhead strikes Central. It explodes! The explosion freezes. The scarab beetle catches it. It begins to roll up the explosion into a clever little ball.

The picture freezes.

“This,” the monster says, “is a scarab of explosions. It’s an infallible defensive measure in event of bombings, since it uses explosions both as its food and as the containers for its eggs.”

It is 2002 the year of our Lord. The monster is speaking to a Prince of men; a Prince in white, with a small black beard.

The Prince is not entirely convinced.

“Why?” he asks.

“Why?” the monster repeats.

“Why should there be a beetle that contains explosions? The Star Wars missile defense has been called fanciful, fairy-tale, fantastic; this defense, then, cannot even qualify for those names.”

“Ah,” says the monster. He closes his eyes. “Why should there be a beetle that rolls the sun across the sky? That dies at the end of each day, and is reborn from its own semen, shot into a clod of dung? Why should there be beetles that carry the souls of the dead away, to be judged in unhallowed courts? Why should there be beetles at all?”

Sir,” says the Prince. He is angry.

“People don’t want to explode,” says the monster.

He opens his eyes. His voice is a little sad. “They look for something they can do. There isn’t anything, though. God won’t save them, Highness. Science gives them nothing. So they turn to coleoptera.”

The monster starts the video up again.

“How does it live?” the Prince asks. Perhaps, demands.

“Shamelessly,” says the monster.

The video shows little scarabs scrambling out of bursts of flame. It shows the battles and power struggles of the children. It shows Melanie, laughing, with three tiny little bomb-bursts crawling along her skin.

“They die, constantly,” the monster admits. “But they come back. They’re like roaches. Or that—”

He doesn’t know whether saying ‘that Jesus dude’ will offend a Prince of Saud.

“Or Cary Grant. They’re beetles.”

The screen goes black.

“It’s what they do.”

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]


May 28, 2004

Melanie has no time to react. It is all instinct. She is horribly exposed: she can tell that much. She is standing in the middle of a battlefield without an aegis. She’s face-to-face with Micah, who is very dangerous, and she has a scarab of explosions at her side.

Threnody is hurling the lightning.

Melanie slams down the walls around her heart. She sets everything aside. She bites the head off of every question in her being, like a mantis with its mate, and she is open, she is empty, she is floating and groundless and without origin or endpoint as the lightning strikes.

That is how it has to be.

She knows the rule of lightning: that it begins with that which is struck.

So she asks not the question to which lightning makes its wild answer. She does not lower the lens of her perceptions or preconceptions down to see the world. For a long moment, as the lightning falls, she floats there, rootless.

It slams into Micah, and she is safe.

It crucifies him, blasts him head to groin and flows down into the ground, spreads his hands apart and agonizes him—and she, demanding nothing, is safe—

Is—

Is—

What the Hell, Micah, she thinks.

She stares.

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.

He is screaming. Oh, so terribly he is screaming. But she is not safe at all. She is, instead, astonished, for he has caught the lightning.

He is burning. Oh, so terribly he is burning. But he is not letting go.

He is not letting it dissolve. He is not letting it ground through him to the earth. He is holding it.

She whistles, long and low.

It is possibly a mistake, she realizes, suddenly, to let Tina go around torturing gods with electricity; working it into them, branding them to their bones with the lightning-pain, making them know it as they know their eyes, their hands, their hearts, their thoughts, their fate. It is possibly a mistake to let that become a part of somebody, a core of their life experience, if you might ever need to blast them with lightning later—

It strikes her as a subject worthy of a monograph, at the least. On the wearing thin of the judgment of Heaven when used without discrimination, perhaps, or Recidivistic considerations related to the galvanic treatment of captive gods . . .

The lightning is burning him. It is melting him like a candle, but he is not letting the liquid flesh drip from him, he is holding it on the surface of his hands by will alone.

He is holding the lightning and he does not let it go.

He is turning towards her, oh, so slowly, and his teeth are white and his eyes are white and the screams have stopped and his face holds such enormous pain—

Oh! she whispers, in her mind. Such pain!

—and he whispers, “Shall you know not justice?”

” ‘Should,'” she corrects him, absently. SHOULD you know not justice?

It would have derailed any other god. It should have derailed him, should have made him fumble, made him lose his grip, but Micah just smiles whiter. His teeth are sweating in the heat.

“Should you know not justice?” Micah asks, “You who hate good and love evil? Who tear the skin from my people and the flesh from their bones? Who eat my people’s flesh, strip off their skin, and break their bones in pieces? Who chop them up like meat for the pan, like flesh for the pot?”

She wants to laugh. It’s brilliant.

“You can’t be serious,” she says. “That’s from a verse about the sun setting for the prophets, and the day going dark for them. That’s about God’s vengeance on people like your sister, Micah, and her fastness becoming a heap of rubble, and this hill a mound overgrown with thickets—”

He isn’t listening.

He isn’t listening to her at all. She stares.

“Should you know not justice?” he asks again. “Because the thing is, Melanie, the thing is? What you do?”

She owes him this much. She maps the terrain around her, quickly, with her eyes, and then she meets his burning gaze and she says, “Yeah?”

“It’s wrong.”

It fountains from him then. It overflows. He does not hurl the lightning, but rather bursts with it, loses it, runs over with it like a clogged sink struck by a sudden flow. It shatters from him like the waves from a missile that falls into a lake. It cries out thunder. Lightning arcs from him to the scarabs, to the crayon creatures, to the footsoldiers and the dog. It dances in frustration around Melanie like a braided rope, like a hoop from a crinoline skirt, like a halo forbidden and restless to lay itself upon and brand an angel’s brow.

It is hungry for her. It grinds its teeth around her but it cannot bite.

She sees what is coming. It unfolds in her mind, and there are two paths for her, two roads that she may walk.

There is a flying god that is swooping past. She can take its tail and be away; may float past as it floats; she has timed it, she can do it, she can leave him there to wail, and be safe

Or—

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 scarab of explosions bursts. It becomes a string of fireworks. It becomes a bang, and then another bang, and then another. It cannot contain itself. It cannot bind its own explosion. If it could then scarabs would be immortal, rather than always dying and always rising up again.

It is just a beetle. Beetles don’t know not to think the kind of question that the lightning answers. Beetles don’t know to let themselves loose from expectations and from preconceptions when people are throwing lightning here and there. Nobody hires beetles as meteorologists, and that’s half the reason for it; the other being, now and then, if there’s an errant spark or whatever, a beetle will explode.

And life is sweet and it loves the sun
But we’re born to die when our hour comes.

He is howling. The howls and sobs are ripping themselves from him, heavier than the whole of his chest and body, and he is scrabbling at the ground, and his eyes are burning and the world is throbbing and shivering with great bursts of light.

Cool hands touch his face.

They burn his melted skin all over again. He whimpers.

Melanie pulls his head up to face her.

“Look what you have done,” she tells him.

He cannot comprehend. Not killed you, he thinks, in absolute frustration.

“You’ve killed fourteen,” she says. “And that’s not even counting Vincent. That’s awfully good, dear.”

Not you.

It’s like she’s heard him. “Not me never me,” she agrees, sadly.

His vision swims. She picks him up.

“It was my very own dear beetle,” she says. “I raised it from the egg. And so I thought, ‘It will not kill me.'”

The doors of the facility are shattered.

“The fire will burn all around me, and shards of stone and shell fly past, but it will not touch me.’ That’s what I thought.”

The wall is shattered. The ground around them is broken.

Melanie stands in the great brooding gap where the doors should be, at the entrance to Elm Hill.

She grins.

She tilts her head.

“Sometimes you have to trust,” she says, “you see, in those you love.”

[The Frog and the Thorn — END OF CHAPTER TWO]

A Feast of Kin (V/V)

It is only natural that the infection at Elm Hill should find the ghoul appealing. It is only natural that it should say to him, “I am like you and you are like me and we are we.”

It is wounded, as he is wounded, by the Thorn.

It has spent its long slumbering years without anything closer to its nature than the occasional wicked child stumbling by; and now, such a feast of kin! The ghoul; Micah; the nostalgic taste of Liril and the grangler in its depths; and Melanie—

“Sublimate into me,” it whispers to Tainted John, “o wicked child.”

It beats about his mind like a moth. It caresses him like a hank of dangled silk. It yearns for anything to end its loneliness and fill the wound it cannot fill.

John has somehow missed Vincent. The man isn’t in his brain. You’d think that when you can reach your hand right into somebody’s head and feel around that he’d have the grace to be there, Cartesian dualism be damned, but no, the man’s warm body is just an empty corpse.

It’s enough to tempt a man to become God, seeing your sacrifices get away like that. It’s enough to make you think: yeah, maybe that Jesus had the right idea. Arise, and be as God.

If you’re, you know, a ghoul, with a particular concept of divinity and a poor grasp of the theology behind the miracle of the incarnation, and you’re rooting around in Vincent’s brains outside Elm Hill.

One day Tainted John will look back on this and think how amazing it is how many problems he could have avoided if he’d grown up and gone to seminary instead of trying to assert order on the world and on himself through the vehicle of Liril’s flesh. Or become some sort of workman, maybe, if a seminary didn’t fit.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]


May 28, 2004

There.

He can smell them. A moment later he can see them—a flicker of white and black. Rabbit.

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

He is already moving when the lightning strikes. He has already caught one of them when he hears its long low roll. He lifts it up in his hand, weighs it, judges it, the black rabbit, and it is numinous and shining and no mortal thing all wriggling and writhing in his hand.

The white rabbit’s halted, trembling, in its run.

Tricky, he judges. He opens his mouth. He’s going to say something, but he doesn’t get the chance.

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

Shatter.

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

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 almost makes it. Vincent almost makes it.

He’s wrenched from his body an instant before Tainted John’s hand wrecks his brain. He’s dragged out, stumbling, staggering along the ground, with Kaela crying urgency into his soul.

Kaela’s seized up by the boy and helpless and he can’t make himself leave her and even still he almost makes it, because it’s just then that the world turns white and Tainted John is tumbling and the rabbit slips away—

But it is Kaela, and not Tainted John, who lands broken; and Vincent can only watch as Tainted John picks up his heart, his familiar, his salvation, and gulps her down.

And one day, maybe, he’d look back on this and think how amazing it is how many problems he could have avoided if he’d gone to work for the Devil and not for Central; or become some sort of workman, maybe, if the Devil’s shoes didn’t fit; anything, really, that wasn’t working for the monster; except that his brains are jam and his rabbit’s gone and so, suddenly, he’s dead.

A Digression Concerning the Performance of the Confessional (IV/V)

Tainted John isn’t a priest. He’s a cannibal. If you were trying to get him and a priest across a river, for instance, you’d want to make sure he didn’t outnumber the priest at any given time. If you were to feature him in a rendition of Shriekback’s Nemesis sung entirely by the creatures mentioned, he’d be unable to start the chorus—he’d have to wait for a priest of some sort to go first!

Now you might think that what with all of the intimations that Tainted John is in some fashion in danger of becoming God that doctrine might allow for some flexibility here. For instance, you might allow him to sing the whole “priests and cannibals” and maybe even the “prehistoric animals” section of the song, to the consternation of the velociraptors; or you might think, as Micah is about to think, that it’s all right to offer Tainted John your confession.

These ideas are not correct.

If Tainted John were going to receive a confession, he would do it very poorly, and without the holy offices of the Church. Afterwards you would not be impressed with him; rather you would say things like, “What a bad implementation of the sacrament!” or “I’m not sure whether that’s holy or creepy, Tainted John.”

If he does become God, he’ll probably have to work at this kind of thing. He would have to become generically better at being holy, I think—in addition to learning the various rules that are binding specifically on God, of course, such as, move in mysterious ways, better than he already does, I mean; or never, probably never, I mean, participate in a Macintosh switch commercial, and disavow any Macintosh switch commercials in which he had previously participated; and maintain, most crucially of all, a serially uncorrelated will.

(God’s will should not repeat within the lifespan of the universe, that is. If God’s will repeated sooner than that then everybody would point and laugh at God!

“That God!” they would say. “So regressive!”

He would be separating the land from the waters, again, and smashing Jericho. The people of Jericho would say, “That was unnecessary.”

That was unnecessary, God!

Then God would make the sun stand still and the moon stay put.

Everybody would wonder why but in fact it would be so that Joshua can kill the enemies of the children of Israel. You, and hopefully Tainted John, can see how unfortunate that kind of thing would be.)

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

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 May 28, the year of our lord 2004, and the sun has fled from Tina’s tender care. The facility at Elm Hill bellies low against the earth. Melanie has just sounded her doleful Haraldr-horn.

It is almost time for Micah to go to war.

He is in the hallway at Elm Hill. He is gathering his strength. Tainted John is there, too, straightening Micah’s clothing and grinning that horrid grin at him because it seems to be the thing to do at the time. He’s grinning, and his eyes are mirrors made of blood, and they make Micah remember how very much he’d wanted to kill the boy, back before Liril had remade him ghūl.

There’s something weird in Micah’s eyes, just then, and Tainted John finds himself ruffling Micah’s hair.

Micah looks away.

“Would you hear my confession?” Micah asks.

Tainted John isn’t a priest. He’s a cannibal. He pops a bit of Micah’s acne and licks it off his fingers. He’s spent a lot of time lately thinking about how Micah would taste, particularly now that the scent of paste is almost gone. Salty, certainly, and subtly human, and—

He reminds himself that thinking about eating people while talking to them is rude. He considers Micah’s request. He shrugs.

“Can,” he says.

“I wish that I had better friends,” Micah says quietly.

John gives a noise like a cat testing out a potential hairball. From John it appears to be, arguably, a laugh.

“That wasn’t the confession,” Micah says. “Listen. I was supposed to be something awesome. I was supposed to be this incredible rescuing god but instead I came out—”

He hesitates. John just grins at him.

“I never get to impress the monster,” Micah says. His whole face twitches. He leans against the wall. “I don’t even want to care. But I wanted to be this thing he’d fear, this thing he’d, I wanted to crush him and stab him and tell him, ‘should you know not justice, you who hate good
and love evil, you who tear
the skin from my people
and the flesh from their bones,’ and all I ever get to be is—”

John frowns.

“Alive,” Micah says.

John shakes his head. Micah can’t see him. Micah is looking at the wall.

“Also,” Micah confesses, in a small voice, “I’m allergic to laminates.”

John isn’t a priest. He’s a cannibal. He does not have the necessary dispensation to assign Micah prayers in penance—nor, if we are going to be strict about the dogma, to demand that Micah offer up some portion of his flesh.

So he takes a bit of paper and he pastes it on Micah’s shirt and he writes on it in his awful hand, “Micah,” and “Defiant.”

Instead.

He doesn’t even say “Now go, and sin no more.”

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]


May 28, 2004

What a bad implementation of the sacrament!

That is maybe even more creepy than it is holy, Tainted John.

Green (III/V)

It is September 27, 2002. The sun has gone down into the sea.

John dyes his hair green. He rinses it off. He rinses it again, and again, until the water comes out clean, and he looks into the sink.

He frowns.

Bad enough it should be stained with green; but the sink is discolored instead with streaks of green and black.

It’s a week of awful portents. He isn’t really superstitious, but you never can tell, these modern days, with fairies in the woods and the spider in the sky.

He sinks his fork into a chicken breast and it oozes something viscous and white; and his mom is all apologetic but he just thinks, it’s going to happen.

It’s going to happen. His Dad’s going to come by.

There’s nothing else as God would bother warning him of, he thinks. There’s nothing else worth the way he keeps smelling dead things, and stubbing his toe, and the way his business comes floating, rolling up after he’s done using the facilities, every time. And he reads the cards, one time, and the reading’s none too kind; so he wanders by Liril’s house, down the street, because.

“Is he coming?” he asks her.

She frowns at him.

“What?” he says.

“One day,” she says, “if you eat the wrong people, particularly, I think somebody might want you to be God.”

John squints at her. Micah, who was reorganizing the bookshelf, stops.

“God?” John asks.

Liril shrugs. “Yeah.”

“What does that even mean?” John asks.

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

It is Saturday, the 17th of April, 2004.

John turns. He lunges towards Liril. He is shouting something. He is going to—

He is going to—

Oh.

The Thorn That Does Not Kill has popped his heart. It’s put a hole straight through his chest and now he’s like the bubble that was broken, like the dream that was ended, like the rescuer that was not.

He has no center to him. He has no reality. He has no John.

It’s leaking out of him, a thick ectoplasm of his structure, from front and back alike. It’s running out of him, he’s dripping out of his center, like air from a balloon and despairing of the world.

Liril pushes him off of her. He staggers back. He sits down on the bed.

She pulls out the Thorn.

“Your heart is damaged,” Liril says. “I can leave you this way, or I can finish.”

I didn’t consent, he thinks dumbly. She’s supposed to change you when you ask, not when you move—

“I didn’t consent,” he says.

He’d done it to himself, really, with the way the Thorn was right there; but—

Liril looks away from him. She rubs her eyes.

“You want me to fix you?” she says. She sounds like she’s trying really hard to be cold and cruel and not managing it quite. “You want me to just put it back, so you can hurt me more?”

He puts his hand over the hole in his chest but he cannot hold in the substance that is John.

“Your moral standing,” he says, “is not clear.”

“That’s true,” Liril admits.

Her voice is weak and strained. He can understand it, now, as he’s never understood it before. It’s been lurking under everything she’s said, for a very long time, something empty, something broken, something like he’s feeling now. If he pushes her hard enough she will collapse. She will fix him. She does not have it in her to refuse him, if pushed hard enough, to stand up to what’s left of the boy named John.

He wants to shout at her to do it. To fix him. He doesn’t understand why he hasn’t done it yet. He keeps getting distracted by the ectoplasm on his hand.

A bit of him falls off his fingers and lands upon the quilt of Liril’s bed. It fades away.

He can’t make himself say it. He’s dying and he can’t make himself say it—

“So we compromise,” he says.

He is fading. He is falling. He is becoming nothing, not even John.

“One year,” she says.

“Done.”

The Thorn goes into his left eye. The Thorn goes into his right eye. The last thing he sees is the Thorn plunging, twice, deep into his brain; and it takes him a long time to realize that that wasn’t actually a thing he saw at all.

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

He screams out his mortality. It flutters from him, rough-edged, like a departing flock of crows. He sways and he starts to fall.

The door of the room bursts open. Liril’s mother stands behind it. She stares at him for a long moment, and he has just enough time to notice how appallingly empty she is before she picks him up physically and throws him across the room. He coils, lands hands and feet upon the dresser, and braces to spring; her elbow comes down hard on the back of his neck just a moment before he realizes that he has no actual desire at this particular juncture to engage in a fight with Priyanka.

His face crunches through the dresser. His arm is twisted up behind his back. He howls. He can’t help thinking, all things considered, that this is rather a bit unfair.

“What the hell, Liril?” Priyanka says.

“I—”

Liril doesn’t appear to have an answer for ‘what the hell’ at this particular time. “I, um.”

Tainted John coughs the last spluttering syrup of his old self from his lungs. He dislocates his arm and twists himself around for leverage, trying to catch that fluid; Priyanka steps back and does something he can’t see but can feel in the motion of her legs and two floors of wooden floorboards recoil away, skittering from them like waves in a disrupted pool and leaving Priyanka, John, and the dresser to tumble into the basement down below.

John screeches in the dust and garments and the world revolves. He tries to grasp for Priyanka, but there is only emptiness.

“I—” Liril says again, above him.

Somehow he’s been shackled.

Priyanka has stepped back. His perceptions are clearing, he is limber, the shackle can’t hold him, he could—

Instinct reminds him once again that he has no particular desire to fight Liril’s mother at this juncture.

She snarls at him.

“Explain,” Priyanka says.

His voice isn’t working very well. “You were not home,” he rasps.

“So you come into my daughter’s bedroom,” Priyanka says.

He nods.

“And she puts out your eyes,” Priyanka says, “and turns you into— some sort of—”

He shrugs.

“Don’t lie to me,” Priyanka says, but her voice has already lost all of its strength.

She is sitting down, right there on the floor. She looks down at the ground under her knees for a long time, and then looks up at Liril.

Liril stares back. She has mastered herself. She looks brave.

“What am I going to do with you?” Priyanka whispers.

“Wicked children should be punished,” Liril says.

Priyanka laughs. It’s hollow. He cannot get over how empty they both are. He bets if he bit a chunk off of either of their fleshes he’d get brain freeze and maybe die.

“I won’t eat you,” John observes.

Priyanka gives him an alarmed glance. “You eat people?”

“Not you,” John clarifies.

Priyanka stands up. The last bits of life flow out of her expression.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

Liril slips away from the hole two floors above. He can feel her walking down the stairs. She opens the door. She comes in.

“I’m sorry,” Priyanka says, again.

Liril tries to touch Priyanka’s hand, but there is only emptiness.

“Is he safe?” Priyanka asks.

“He won’t eat me,” Liril says.

Priyanka nods. Liril sits down on the floor. The ceiling shudders and wavers closed. Priyanka leaves.

Behind her, she locks the door.

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 dark, but that doesn’t matter much. He’s locked in, but that doesn’t really matter either. The only things that matter are Liril and the hunger.

“I’m hungry,” he says, softly.

“I’m sorry,” Liril says.

“I want to eat angels,” John says. “And demons. And fiends, and ragged things, and other gods.”

“Yes,” says Liril.

“I don’t mind not having eyes,” he says. “Or a great vacant hole where was my heart. But I wish that I weren’t so hungry.”

“I’m sorry,” she says.

He grins at her. The bloody holes where his eyes should be are very bright. “Corpses would be okay.”

She stares at him vacantly for a little while. He supposes that she can’t see him, not properly, not in the dark.

“Hey,” he says. “Hey, what am I?”

“One day,” she says, thoughtfully, “if you eat the wrong people, you might be God.”

He finds himself salivating, and fights it down. He adds himself to the list of things that he should not eat.

“What is God?” John asks.

This seems to stump her for a bit. He thinks that maybe she’s not quite so great an oracle as he’d always thought, given the way that her mouth keeps opening and closing and then opening again, and her forehead furrowing and then going straight.

[The Frog and the Thorn — CHAPTER TWO]


April 17, 2004

“God,” she says, eventually, “is that which shatters you.”

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.