The Sting (III/IV)

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

They’re not locked.

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

He turns around.

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

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

Two and a half minutes, at the most.

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

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

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

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

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

He tries to pull himself up.

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

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

“Seriously,” he says.

He’s on his feet.

He’s looking at the ragged thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is failing.

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

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

“There’s just too many,” he whispers.

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

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

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

And Liril, and Tainted John, waiting below—

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

He relaxes.

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

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]


May 28, 2004

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

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

“Oh,” Melanie says.

She blinks.

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

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

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

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

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

She frowns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vincent stumbles to a halt.

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

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

It’s looking right at Vincent.

Vincent twitches backwards.

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

“Rabbit,” whispers the boy.

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

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

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

Then he’s on his feet.

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

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

Here’s the third most terrifying thing.

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

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

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

The boy’s degloved him.

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

You never know when you shall need a lamb.

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

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

Somebody good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could lead him to Melanie, he thinks.

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

Vincent catches a glimpse of Melanie’s smile.

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

He’s still at number four, though.

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

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

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

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

“OK,” he whispers.

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

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

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

It is the remnants of the wounding of a King.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He could sacrifice Kaela. Probably.

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

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

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

Oh.

It’s right now.

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

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

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

It’s not useful information.

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

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]


May 28, 2004

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

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

For a moment Vincent thinks Melanie’s forgiven him.

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

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

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

“See?” Melanie says.

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

He can hear Micah—

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

It’s Melanie, he concludes.

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

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

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

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

No. Not that. Not quite.

It’s that he’s lost himself somewhere.

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

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

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

Harold’s Head Gets Underfoot (I/IV)

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

Vincent is too old to say, no you.

So he just shakes his head, instead.

Melanie growls.

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

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

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

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

She turns around.

She looks at Vincent.

“Well?” she asks.

There is a challenge in her eyes.

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

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

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

He’s not very worried about that.

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

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

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

He’s not a fool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is ready.

Something lands on the soft black earth.

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

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

It is ridiculous.

It is folly.

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

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

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

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

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

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]


May 28, 2004

Vincent’s mouth is open.

He is shouting his betrayal.

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

Wicked Children (I/I)

Now squat sits the facility upon Elm Hill, like some great and bulbous beast, and wrapped around it its tangled fences have the look of chains, and its windows of great sad eyes, and when the sun sinks down behind the facility at Elm Hill the children of the neighborhoods beneath imagine it whimpering and muttering to itself, bound down onto the earth, and resentful of humanity that can roam free—

Not that those children, tucked down for the night, bound by their quilts and their blankets and their parents’ rules, were free.

But the wicked ones, well—

If they were wicked children, why, they could loose themselves from their bindings and creep out from their beds. They could walk on their bootied feet to the darkened windows, and there to stare out at the facility and the moon.

Some, like Sam did, like Bird did, could grow up later and go in.

Others were to live and die and sometimes even live again before they ever dared to test its gates.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]


May 28, 2004

The facility at Elm Hill is not active, not now. It has been years since children screamed there. It has been years since the monster worked there, in the fashion of his kind, and Tina, and the rest.

And to look at the green on the facility’s roof and its lawn all specked up with graves, and the dead black gates and the crooked doors, is to suspect that here was an awful mistake. That this was the monster’s Chernobyl. That here had been his Leipzig and his Agincourt.

Here had nearly ended the monster’s ambitions, at the facility at Elm Hill.

It has gone sick, this facility, root and branch.

It has gone wrong.

There is something organic in it now, something dreadful and alive, and in its basement are pipes, and stagnant water in those pipes; and the walls are lightly overgrown with a strange slick substance that is neither mold nor moss; and a bleak karma dwells within those walls that longs to expunge the suffering that gave it birth and revenge itself on those who within its boundaries do harm.

It is a bad house.

It is an evil house.

But as horrid as the facility can be, it is kinder to innocents than to monsters.

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

It is May 28, 2004 and the grangler is dead.

As for Liril, she’s down in the room where they used to keep her. She’s touching the place where she’d once scratched LIRIL on the wall.

“I don’t know,” she says.

It’s too big for her.

She’s trying to wrap her mind around it but she can’t. It’s not the letters, even though they’re capitalized and the part of her name after the L usually isn’t. It’s everything.

It’s just too big.

“I don’t know,” she says. “Do you?”

Tainted John is somewhere. She’s not sure where. Micah’s on his way upstairs. He’s hoping to find out what happened to a great dead bird; that, or to fall down, to rest, because some sleep would be OK.

The thing that’s behind her in the room isn’t one of Liril’s gods.

It’s the last remnant of the grangler.

Now Liril is young but Liril is wise and she knows that the grangler must be dead—for no living grangler could have gotten to her, not past Micah and Tainted John. And she knows that it must long for nothing less than to seize her and never let her go—to have one last thing of its holding before it is given over to the grave.

There was a time when it had held her in its claws. There was a Halloween when it had lunged out of nowhere amidst the screaming of the goblins and the ghouls and seized her up—

It hadn’t liked to let her go.

And Liril does not know whether, by this token, it will drag her down from the halls of life into the Underworld, there to be its prisoner in death, or simply cling to her ankle and succumb there, a new and permanent attachment until decay consumes its flesh.

But still she says, “C’mon, then.”

It comes over by her. It hunches down. It shakes its head.

“Oh?”

And she is crying a little, and she doesn’t really know why, except that she can. It’s all bound up with Melanie. Crying in front of it shouldn’t be allowed.

Except, she can.

So she hugs it first. She cries, and she holds the grangler before it can hold her, and she says, “You’re a grangler, grangler. You’ve gotta.”

It’s still shaking its head.

She doesn’t even see how that can be. She’s been held by ghosts before—not just the grangler, but the monster’s too—and she knows them.

The grangler is a god of hanging on.

It’s just the tiniest bit of broken and lingering soul, at this point, but that part doesn’t change.

But it doesn’t hang on to her. It’s not there to hang on to her. She can feel its ichor where she hugged it and the slime of it is on her and in the openness of her soul and after the very long seconds of her confusion she manages to understand.

Of course it won’t grab her. Of course.

It’s been touched by a growing god.

Her eyes untangle the grangler now. She is alive and fierce with an alien interest now. She sees along the knots and cords of karma—of one thing, which leads to another, which is continued to the next—in search of the pattern that has brought it here.

She sees how to save it. She sees how to bind it. She sees how to reunite its soul. She moves a hand—

Gravity fails. She is disoriented. Everything is white, then black.

There is a scream.

She has lost her connection to the land.

She is flying and the ringing that is Liril smashing into metal pipes is like a shout; is like a horn; is like a great trembling, rumbling, shaking cry dividing the Heavens from the Earth.

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.

Where is Liril?

Liril is against a wall.

Is the monster there?

The monster is not there.

Good.

The monster is not there.

Where is Liril?

Liril is in her room. No. It is not Liril’s room. It is the old room. It is not her room. It is not her room not any more.

Where is Liril’s hand?

Liril cannot find her hand.

Wait.

No.

It is there. It is on the end of her arm. How silly!

She opens her mouth. Her tongue is thick.

What is Liril going to say?

“Is she—is Melanie OK?”

Is that what volition sounds like? Is that the kind of question that a person, who has volition, and a will, would ask?

Liril is not sure.

She closes her eyes.

Her world is going black.

Liril’s world is going black.

She thinks she saw the strangest thing, the strangest thing was written on the wall.

It’s like the grangler has unraveled, but before it died, it scrawled an X upon the wall. Like it had marked a spot—

Is that Liril’s thought?

Or. No.

Like it hadn’t known its name. Hadn’t remembered it, couldn’t write it, or maybe had never known it—

How very strange, someone thinks. It is probably Liril. How very strange.

Doesn’t a person have to have a name?

What Do You Do with a One-Winged Cherub? (VII/VII)

It is 1998 and Micah comes home and Melanie’s sitting on the couch.

She’s wearing a suit and she’s wearing shades and she’s got a nametag on.

It says, “Melanie.”

Just Melanie. It doesn’t say anything about being cunning or beloved of the gods.

She lowers her shades.

She looks at him.

Her eyes are evil, they make him flinch, but they’re otherwise identical to his own.

He puts a bag of groceries down by the door. He stands there numbly.

“Hi there,” she says to him. “What’s your name?”

[The Frog and the Thorn — CHAPTER ONE]


October 31, 1998

Liril hasn’t told him what to do.

Without Liril telling him what to do, he’s just a boy. He’s just a boy who wants to protect her from the evils of the world, but not one who necessarily can.

“I might accidentally flay your soul and stretch it on the birch trees,” Micah says. He tries to make it sound casual, like something Liril’s warned him not to do. “I mean, I don’t want to, I wouldn’t defy Central like that, it’s just, you know, something that could accidentally happen if I forget the alchemical equation I’m holding in my head.”

“That’s a fine trick,” Melanie concedes.

“Where is she?” Micah asks.

“You know,” says Melanie, “I could have sworn there was an order out to have you brought in and tortured. As opposed to standing there, all asking questions with your mouth, and things.”

“It was a terrible misunderstanding,” Micah says. “I showed the last visitor my correct report card and the matter resolved in its entirety. Also, you mean ‘re-oriented’ or something. Torture’s too explicit a word.”

He takes off his coat. He hangs it by the door.

“Can I get you anything?” he asks.

His eyes are scanning the house, looking for signs of Liril. But her frankness or her error—he’s not sure which—has reassured him.

“Like, if you really need a sandwich, or a penny, or a knife in your eye, or something,” he says, “I could totally oblige.”

“Really?” she says. She sounds delighted. “You’d do that for me?”

“See a penny, pick it up,” he assures her. “All that day you’ll have good luck. I’ve got . . . like a thousand. If I had a nickel for every penny I had, I’d convert them into pennies and win the economy forever. “

“Your name, then,” she says.

“Micah.”

She tilts her head. “From formica?”

“That’s two prepositions in a row,” Micah says. “I can’t understand your crazy monster language.”

“Melanie,” she says.

“Yes,” he agrees. “It would be.”

She looks down at her nametag. She blushes a little. “Yes.”

“I’m not going with you,” Micah says. “I’ve decided that you’re holding Liril and Priyanka hostage, but that she has a plan that requires me to pretend that you don’t, refuse to deal, and do everything I can think of to oppose you.”

“Bah,” Melanie says. “Your report card recorded an erroneously high decorum.”

“I had a lot of extra credit,” Micah says. “Field work and the like.”

“Does that really work?” Melanie says. Her tone is genuinely curious. “I mean, just deciding what you want to do and assuming that Liril must support it?”

“No,” he says. “It’s completely ridiculous.”

“Oh.”

“It’s just,” he says, “so is listening to anything you say. So it’s kind of a wash. You know?”

“I see!”

He sighs. He looks tired. He trudges over to a couch and he sits down. “What do you want?” he asks.

She smiles briefly.

“You should come work for us,” she says.

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope!”

She tosses him a nametag. It’s blank. He catches it. Then he flinches and throws it from him like it’s caught fire in his hands.

She frowns.

“I’m not interested,” Micah says.

“The monster’s weak,” she says. “He talks like he left you here on purpose. He talks like he’s still got a plan for that girl Jane. But I saw him when he came back from here. He was hurt. He was frayed. You got acid on his heart and soul, my boy, with whatever trick you pulled.”

“I renamed him,” Micah says.

Melanie closes her eyes for a moment. Her face is perfectly still. Then she opens them up again. “Snotgargler?” she suggests.

He shakes his head.

Doctor Snotgargler?”

He looks away.

“The important thing,” she says, “is that he’s weak. I could take him. If I had your help. I could beat him. If I had your help.”

“It’s amazing,” he says. “You’re not even trying to sound like you believe that.”

“What?”

Her voice is wounded.

“That’s ridiculous,” she says. “It’s an awesome plan.”

And as suddenly as that it crashes in on him that she is hollow; that she is broken; that she has a certain shelter in her heart, and cracks therein, that he remembers from years ago. He is looking at a crucible.

He doesn’t want the pity in his face to show. He turns away.

“Oh, don’t you dare,” she says. “Don’t you fucking dare. It was only twice. He’s been used more than that himself.”

He clenches his fist.

A jolt of humor washes through her. He can feel it in the tides of the emotions of the room. It’s slipped from her, whatever is wrong inside her, and she’s laughing at the world instead.

“Hey,” she says. “Hey. How do you separate a monster from his charges?”

He shakes his head.

He ought to tell her, he thinks. Anything that hurts the monster can redound only to his good. But he doesn’t trust any impulse or reason whatsoever that would tell this woman more than she already seems to know.

“Hey,” she repeats. “How do you separate a monster from his charges?”

“No,” he tells her. I won’t.

“You take away his credit card,” she beams.

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

It’s about an hour later. They’ve had tea. Liril’s almost home from trick-or-treating, so Melanie suspects, and so she rises to her feet.

“The offer is good,” she says, quietly.

He shakes his head.

“It’s just a nametag,” she says. “Pick it up. Put it on. Come with me. We can kill the bastard and live happily ever after without dying even once.”

“I’m not going to Central,” Micah says. “I’d just end up like you.”

“Ouch,” she says. She shakes her hand, pretending that it’s burnt. Then she goes out.

He cleans up the teacups.

He looks at the nametag.

I bet I could use this, he thinks. I bet it could give me some kind of strength.

And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me

Liril gets home and he is rocking, hissing, clutching tight at his inflamed and swollen hand.

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

“I will make you cry” (VI/VII)

One by one the monster’s forces fail him.

The city that once he bound by his own will has become a stronghold for his enemy. It is mazed away, sympathetically estranged, in the keep of a labyrinthine god.

The men he sends for Micah cannot venture very far into that place. The gods he sends do not return.

“It’s a rather unfortunate incident,” Melanie informs him.

The monster looks at her speculatively.

“I don’t know how to say this,” Melanie says. “You’re terrifying, so I don’t want to upset you, but you’re also not impressing me with the successes of your organization. It makes me worry that you’ll think: what if she thinks I can’t handle this place and decides to take over? I’d better start hurting her immediately. But this very line of thought makes me potentially more disloyal! It’s like a vicious cycle operating entirely outside causality.”

“I see,” the monster says.

Melanie rubs at her nose. “It’s like, I get here, and you’re all ‘look upon my greatness, king of kings, and know despair.’ And I buy it, and I get myself a nice little lab, and I start doing some nice little research on some serious, important questions, like just how does this world work, anyway? and hey, can fairy gold be created in the lab? and then wham.”

The monster pulls himself up to sit on her desk. She rolls her chair a little ways away.

“You know,” says the monster, “how Amiel never really stopped talking?”

Her ancestress Amiel is inside her, wound through her, so long ago and so very far away and yet burning in her blood. 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.

“Yes,” Melanie says.

“Resist the habit,” the monster says. He puts his hand on hers. He smiles.

She is quiet for a long time.

“And are there others who have expressed suchlike concerns?” the monster wonders.

Melanie shakes her head. When he doesn’t follow that up with another question, she says, “I don’t think most of the people who work here really get that it’s for real. Not the stuff we do. Not the stuff that happens. It’s all isn’ts to them.”

The monster straightens.

“It’s all right,” he says. It’s kind of soothing. He squints a bit at the wall, thinking. “Dad told me once, ‘the thing about this job, the terrible part of this job, is that you can’t just force it. You’ve got to live with the frustration of standing in a land of plenty and having nothing to eat or drink. With the world fighting you at every turn, with a terrible weight hanging every moment right above your head, no matter how much you turn yourself this way or that. And the better you do, the closer you come, the worse it gets. Just imagine how bad it’ll be, my child, if you ever make it to the throne.’”

“Why?”

Melanie looks blankly at him. She’s used to things that she can’t just force but not to the idea that it’d be the worst at the very end.

“People,” the monster summarizes, “are pretty weird.”

He hops down from the desk. He gives her a twisted smile. “I’m gonna go sort this out,” he says. “You can call anyone you have in there back.”

I will guard your line, whispers Amiel.

“You will,” she says, “bring him back?”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you,” he says. He grins. He leaves.

Melanie stares at the wall for a while. Her hand closes around her nametag. She thinks for a good long while.

“I wonder.”

[The Frog and the Thorn — CHAPTER ONE]


October 17, 1995

The monster drives up to Liril’s house. He gets out of the car. He walks up the way. He gives a glance to Priyanka and to Liril. He looks around the house.

Micah is toying with a pad of sticky notes. Judging by the notes on the television, bookcase, and couch, he’s been in a frenzy of labeling things with their proper names, to what end the monster cannot determine.

For a moment the monster considers interacting with the sticky notes. Then he discards the notion.

He focuses the fullness of his attention on Micah.

“I’m disappointed,” he says.

“So am I,” Micah concedes. “I’d hoped that you wouldn’t be able to get past a properly-labeled door.”

The monster glances at the door. It’s in fact labeled “Door. 100% effective against monsters.”

It arrests his attention for a long moment. It challenges his earlier decision.

“I could have wounded you terribly, then,” Micah says. “While you were looking at that. If I’d had a knife. That was three full seconds of distraction. But Liril said that afterwards you’d have done that thing you would do and I’d have hated my foolish actions for forever.”

“You’ll have to content yourself with hypothetical harm,” says the monster, “I suppose.”

“Yeah,” agrees Micah.

“Yeah?”

“You always win,” Micah says. It’s bleak. “That’s obvious. That’s waiting down every path that opens up in front of us. All I can do is decide among the little tiny things I can get from that victory, and know that one day you’ll figure out, or ask me, what those were, and take them away again, just to make sure that even with all of that, I didn’t get a thing.”

“That’s a healthy attitude,” the monster says. “Yet, I can’t help notice that you’ve missed an appointment, killed a number of my servants, and estranged Santa Ynez from the normal processes of space and time. What if I just asked you right now what you hoped to gain, and immediately took that thing away?”

“I thought about that,” Micah says. “I figure it’s probably best if I don’t know what I’m going to win, myself.”

The monster glances at Liril. It’s a question.

She shakes her head. She doesn’t know either.

“Come on, then,” the monster says.

“That’s it?”

“Just because you hand someone a riddle,” the monster says, “doesn’t mean that they have to answer it. I’m kind enough to permit you the hope that there is some sort of hope.”

Micah frowns. He works his mouth.

“You’re supposed to care,” he says. It’s stubborn.

“Come on,” says the monster. “Out to the car. I’ve been thinking about pulling out some kind of cure for cancer.”

Micah brushes past the monster. The monster frowns. Micah walks out the door. He touches the door.

“You know,” he says. “I could close this door, and then you’d be sealed in.”

The monster takes the post-it off the door. He holds it in his palm for a moment. Then he sticks it on Micah’s forehead.

Micah laughs.

“What?”

“That’s pretty gutsy,” Micah says, “but if you really didn’t think it could do anything, you’d have stuck it on Liril.”

He walks to the car. He’s just a little bit too confident. He’s peeling the top couple of entries off his pad of notes. It’s like he’s looking for something. It’s a matter of academic interest at best; sticks and stones can break the monster’s bones, but words on paper — well.

The monster steps outside. It would be best, he thinks, to settle this now; to break him here, rather than allow him to attempt something while I am driving.

Gently, he closes the house door.

He lets out a breath. He traces with his thoughts the power that is within him. He turns —

Micah is holding the Thorn That Does Not Kill at the monster’s throat.

Micah is turned to the side. He is trembling. He is horribly afraid. The fear is bone-deep, soul-deep, it’s making him cold and hot and cold again, and pale. He is standing as far as he could possibly stand away from the monster, his left arm in full extension with the weapon in it, and the hand that holds the Thorn’s thick end is slippery with sweat.

Whatever the monster was doing, though, he stops.

“You shouldn’t have that,” the monster says.

“I am not going with you,” Micah tells him. Sweat is pouring down his face, his arms, and his sides. “I swear to you on everything that is holy, on Jesus, Good, and Buddha, on my own bloody fucking name, I am not going to get in that car, and if you try, I will break you and I will leave you broken and I will walk back into Central like the new King of the fucking World.”

“Language,” cautions the monster. He moves very slowly and cautiously. He reaches for the wrist of the hand that holds the Thorn.

“Just try me,” Micah says. “Just try me. I will hurt you like you have never been hurt. I will make you cry.”

“No,” says the monster. “You won’t.”

And the monster spreads its wings.

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

I have told you that in such moments he is inevitable. That he may become Truth; or Axiom; or Victory; that when his wings have spread he is not such a thing as you may deny.

He will make you say as much, if he wants to.

He will make you admit to it, while hating him; or to admit it while loving him; or to come through strenuous paths of reason or of faith to the conclusion that you should. And if you think that’s impossible, then you’re lucky, because you’ve never seen the monster’s wings.

Maybe you can keep one thing. One thought. One bit of choice.

If there’s two, he can make you choose between them. If you want to be a good person and to hate him, for instance. If you want to remember your name and who you are. If you want to fight him and not just become him.

Two things would be far too much. It’s not very many things to have, in your life, particularly when we’re talking about thoughts and feelings and bits of self. But it’s still far too much. Try to hang on to two things and your divided mind will shatter against the truth the monster brings to bear.

You get one.

And that’s at best.

So Micah, he doesn’t hang on to the Thorn. He doesn’t even try to hang on to the Thorn. To be utterly honest, he’s never even thought it possible that he could.

And he doesn’t hang on to himself.

He doesn’t even hang on to being Liril’s shield.

He just lets his right hand follow a little twitchy reflex that he’s practiced, when the monster’s coat looms in. It’s reaching forward. He’s practically forgotten what it’s for.

Just a bit of gummed paper for the monster’s nametag, and on it, written, “Amiel.”

As undeniable, in that moment, as any other monster’s truth.

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

You can’t put too much stock in labels.

You have to understand that. Just because you stick a name on something that doesn’t make it true. Words aren’t like that. Even the monster is only like that under certain worldviews’ truth models.

Micah’s not a door. For instance. He’s like a door, but he isn’t actually a door.

And in the end, despite his label, he is 20-30% effective against the monster, at best.

The Lion (V/VII)

It is May 13 in the year of our Lord 1981 and there is a Dominion that bends itself down upon the Earth. And where the Dominion goes there is a singing, and the world itself is moved to join the chorus, and there is a trembling in the houses of the unjust. And where it moves the eyes and faces and wings that are within it turn to see. Shimmering auroras move around its surface, like a cloak, like halos, like a glorious night sky.

Let us not imagine that it is a thing of safety or of sanity. It is a creature out of legend. It kills birds where it passes, for it does not share the skies. It withers trees as it passes them, leaches the world’s life from the soil, it makes good earth to fallow ground. These things it does not from malice but by its nature: it understands no life that is not its own.

I will nevertheless call it good.

If it is a blind and foolish god, if it is harmful, then still, I will say it is well-intentioned. If it has done harm, then still it is high-minded.

It is not its fault, at any rate, what happened at Elm Hill.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


May 13, 1981

Listen, and I will tell you the truth of the monster’s wings.

They are brilliant and they are reflective. When you look upon them you will see the inside of your own eyes. You will see the process by which you form yourself laid bare.

When he has spread his wings through the construction of the world, when he has become a parasite on creation and made the truth a captive to his will, the monster will not give you the luxury of seeing that it is so. Instead you will see yourself. And in that moment he will describe you. He will tell you who you are.

Reason will not help you. This is because the monster is aware of reason. He exists outside it, like the classical God outside of time and space. The tools of your mind are limited. They rely on receiving truthful feedback from the world — all save pure math, perhaps, and even that depends on truth for its relevance. In a position where the monster can reward error, frustrate correctness, and demonstrate as folly whatever might otherwise be wise, you cannot expect to win over him with reason. To imagine that you can do so is unreasonable. It is an idealistic attachment to the happy ending at the end of a fairy tale, where one reasonable person, refusing to give in, triumphs magically at the last.

If you had infinite time, of course, that would be so. Give yourself forever to fight the monster in and his lies, as they are lies, would fray one day and come apart. But we are mortal creatures, bound by time; to us the monster is simply truth.

Reason will not help you. Strength will not help you. Strength is as useless in the monster’s presence as is reason. Where you build walls of your strength he will dig out the ground. Where you hold a position he will encircle it, undermine it, turn the purpose of your holding it to sand. The more you fight him, the more you will lose. To expect any differently is to hew unto a fairy tale; and the fairies, well, they’re isn’ts yet.

Strength will not help you. Reason will not help you. Nor will it help you in the least to know that, theoretically, there is some real truth, somewhere, somewhere outside the monster’s steading.

Depending on what you imagine truth to be, that might not even be the case.

In his unfurled wings the monster is an absolute creature. He is not deniable. He is no longer a person. He is no longer a man, or a god, or whatever the hell monsters are, in a lab coat, with a name tag, with a tie. He is I AM THAT I AM, as much as any burning bush has ever been.

It is as if, to gain his power, he had slaughtered God, had ripped out the bones and organs of Him, and made from Him a coat. He usurps God as he does reason; to seek God in his presence is therefore to seek the monster out.

Look for love, if you’d rather. Look for hate. Look for hope. Look for anything you like.

You’ll be caught up in the maze of him. You’ll find it only where he wills.

The reason I’m explaining this is that I can’t really tell you what happened in places where the monster’s wings spread wide. It’s like I’ve said. He becomes truth. He becomes the authoritative source on the matter, and what he is saying is always — it’s never, “On thus and such time, at thus and such a date, this happened, and then this.”

It’s always just him.

All I can tell you is what someone told me later happened at Elm Hill. All I can tell you is a story. It’s pretty much made up, because if it were true, it would be the monster, just as the monster, at that time, was truth.

The Dominion bent down to meet him. He was standing on the roof.

You probably think you wouldn’t give in to him. Of course you wouldn’t. Of course you’d stand up to him. The man’s a filthy bit of work, isn’t he? Worse’n the Devil, some would say. There’s no way you’d look at those wings and think that what the monster does to children could be right.

Please do believe that. You should. It costs him something, every time he spreads those wings. There’s no point in giving in to him for free.

But I tell you that the Dominion bent down to meet him, and he was standing on the roof, and the monster spread his wings. And from that point forward, he was Axiom. He was Correctness. He was as righteous as the stars.

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

The monster said, “This world is no place for you. If you stay here you will die.”

That’s what I’ve heard. That’s what I’ve heard he said.

“If you stay here,” the monster said, “you’ll die.”

And the creature, its words were the fluttering of ten thousand wings. The creature, its words were ten thousand hands and eyes and wings opening and closing, all modulated into voice.

It said: I will exalt you. I will lift you up. I will make you as God, and no more to depend upon the suffering of your prey.

The monster spat onto the roof, and in that spittle seethed ten thousand tiny living things.

“I will make you death and suffering,” he said. “I will make you anguish and violation. You will be hideous, horrible, and despised. Or you may go.”

The creature rotated in its form. It turned, and the pieces of its turning came into alignment, and you who looked upon it would see: ah, here is its face. Then it would turn further, the previous face dissolving, a new one forming, and you would realize: no, that was not so: its face is this.

The creature said: Can you really say that you are happy with your life?

The monster laughed.

You will die, it told him. And before that death, you will sorrow. You will know the damnation of your line.

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 May 13, 1981, and we can see again, and the monster is giving the Dominion this beautiful grin.

It’s like the sun.

It’s been telling him he’s damned, only —

For a moment, you might almost think: wait. That’s not bravado. He is actually having fun.

It’s pure and clear as the monster isn’t pure and clear. It’s bright and beautiful as the monster isn’t bright and beautiful. It’s the best thing in the world, that laugh, that grin, that enemy of damnation. Then, however, the monster is moving, and there is a thorn in his hand, and it pierces the Dominion, and it is suddenly clear that everything in the world is wrong.

The Dominion staggers. Its form becomes imprecise. Where there was glory there is now a great disruptive seething, as of slime.

It is shattered. It is raining down, upon Elm Hill.

It is twisted. There is within it a great and horrible soullessness of life.

It is wounded. It gapes at him, this thing that has never before been wounded, and which cannot really understand what its hurting means.

“I will kill you,” it cries, and its voice is a great storm. But it does not.

Children, sure, it kills, those that don’t get evacuated in time. There is a price to be paid for the defiling of Elm Hill. Children it kills, and workers, and the place itself: Elm Hill’s no good place for the monster’s work any longer.

But the monster it doesn’t kill.

The monster he just serves it as any other fiend is served, until it limps and staggers howling away beyond the boundaries of the world, a broken lion, and in its paw a thorn.

Sympathetic Magic (IV/VIII)

It is the morning of October 10, 1995.

Liril is making a diorama. She is making it dispiritedly. She is not putting any effort into the work.

“If you don’t grow and learn how to make dioramas,” her teacher informs her, “how can you ever expect that you’ll turn eight?”

“It is an unreasonable expectation,” Liril admits, at last.

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

The day passes, and the night.

Micah sleeps through the night in the wild. His wound gives him fever, and he thrashes, but the poison in it has faded slowly from the world. He is visited by fairies, but they see no need to hinder or to aid him; he doesn’t wake, just twitches, when they land on his hands or nose.

In the morning he stretches. He shakes himself.

He feels terrible but full of hope.

“I will go to the pie shop,” he announces loudly. “If anyone happens to peer eerily through the veil of time and foresee that I will say this, or have said this, or am saying this — in the latter case, peering, of course, through the veil of space — then they might wish to meet me there. Because that is where I will be, and there will be pie.”

His plan is not entirely a success.

He staggers to the pie shop. He meets Liril. She wanders up sleepily as he draws near. Thus far it works, and no farther. She has forgotten to bring money, and he himself has none.

“I meant to say,” he corrects, “that there will be the scent of pie.”

Liril gives him a poignant look.

He sighs.

“It’s not as if you heard me making my misstatement,” Micah says.

“I have to do a diorama,” Liril says. “It is for school.”

“Oh?”

“Teacher said, ‘If you don’t grow and learn how to make dioramas, how can you ever expect to turn eight?’”

Micah tries not to smile. He fails.

“It must be rough,” he says, “doing the same grade all the time.”

“Sometimes the teachers remember,” Liril says. “Then they get all weird. Sometimes it is boring. But meeting new kids every year is fun.”

She unpacks her backpack. She has a box, a large number of popsicle sticks, and paint.

“I was supposed to finish it yesterday,” she says. “But I said, ‘teacher, my brother is an outlaw. May I do this at home?’ Then he let me. I was tricky and did not mention the pie shop.”

Micah looks at the diorama.

“It’s Santa Ynez,” she says.

“What’s that?” he asks, indicating an extension off the side of it.

“That is the bridge.”

He frowns. He blinks at it repeatedly. The popsicle stick bridge does not appear to terminate.

“As above, so below,” Liril explains.

“Really.”

“It’s sympathetic magic,” Liril says. “This diorama is extremely sympathetic.”

She wiggles it in her hand.

“’Oh, Micah,’” she says, in the persona of the diorama, which is in turn in the persona of Santa Ynez, “’I feel deeply for your problems. That’s my sympathy at work!’”

Micah half-expects there to be an earthquake, but there is not.

He looks at the diorama.

“You want me to help you paint it?” he asks.

She frowns.

“You should,” she says.

“OK,” he says.

He helps her paint it.

“This will help me fight the monster?” he asks.

“No,” she says. “It will make it pretty. To fight the monster you should call him a mean name.”

Micah giggles.

“Goatgigolo,” he tries, in the inimitable fashion of the 90s.

“No,” Liril says.

“It means he gigolos, with goats!”

“No,” Liril says.

“OK.”

He helps her paint the diorama. They go outside. He looks at the morning.

“This is a beautiful morning,” he says.

He can hear something breathing. He stops. He holds his body very still as he looks this way and that.

He can hear heavy footsteps in the distance.

“Something’s coming,” he says.

Liril looks around.

She sighs.

“I will never be a third-grader,” she mourns. She hands Micah the diorama.

“What?”

She pushes Micah’s arms up.

“What?” Micah repeats.

“Hold it up,” Liril says. “Then say sympathetic things.”

“Like ‘I, Santa Ynez, am dedicated to providing a quality living environment for people who like their cities named after sneeze-Santa Claus hybrids?’”

“Yes.”

Micah ponders. “Lo! I am Santa Ynez, city of cities. Look upon my wineries and despair!”

“That isn’t very sympathetic,” Liril says.

“It is if you’re an objectivist!” Micah protests. “Or a drunk!”

Liril looks away.

“’I’m a fun spot if you want to ride horses,’ Micah says. ‘Or admire spiderwebs spun between the clouds! But I love the little children most of all.’”

There is an eddying and an oozing. There’s a stomping and a breathing. There’s a ragged thing. Its claws clutch the diorama away from his hands. He can hear a whispered question cutting at the air. He wants to cover his ears but he can’t do that because the ragged thing’s arms are in the way.

Then the diorama is gone.

Then the diorama is taken, off to the place without recourse.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


October 11, 1995

“What did it ask you?” Liril says.

Micah isn’t answering.

He’s uneasy. There’s something broken. It’s like all of the city is unsettled in space and time.

Then he looks at her.

“You couldn’t hear it?”

She shakes her head. “I’m not very prophetic for questions,” she says.

“’If she can’t grow and learn to make dioramas,’” Micah says, “’How is she ever going to age?’”

Liril bites her lip. She frowns at him. Then she turns away.

“I didn’t know,” she said, “that the city cared.”

The Measure of a Monster (III/VII)

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


October 10, 1995

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

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

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

This seems like a brilliant idea at first.

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

Then his heart lifts.

He feels a fierce and wild joy.

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

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

“I can wait,” Stefan says.

“— What?”

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

“I fought back,” Micah says, blankly.

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

“Not well,” Stefan says.

“They have cameras,” Micah says, incoherently.

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

“I can wait,” Stefan says.

He turns to leave.

“No,” Micah says.

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

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

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

Stefan frowns.

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

“You’re going to die,” giggles Micah.

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

“Fine,” Stefan says.

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

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

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

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

“Damn it,” Stefan says.

He vanishes.

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

It isn’t over.

He makes it away. He staggers down the road.

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

He staggers into a phone booth.

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

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

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

“OK,” says Liril’s mother.

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

“Huh?”

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

“Micah,” she says, softly.

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

“I don’t want that,” she says.

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

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

“What?”

“You can do it any way.”

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

“OK,” she says.

He almost hangs up.

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

It suddenly occurs to him that Liril is serious.

“You’re serious,” he tells her.

She doesn’t say anything.

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

She giggles.

“What?”

“That’s awful,” she says. “Spitting.”

He can hear her happiness through the phone.

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

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

“What do I do?”

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

This is my last chance at sanity, he thinks.

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

He knows better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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