I Think She’s Maybe a Courier?

The jungle was savage, crawling with strange insects and uncatalogued monsters, vast trees and dense undergrowth, and the spiky metal cell phone towers that the cannibalistic Verizon-men would raise.

“Please,” said Claire, fending off a gigantic crab-thing with a branch, cell phone gripped between her shoulder and her ear. “Please. I have to reach Mr. Dunborough immediately.”

“He’s not available, Ms. Williams.”

“This . . .”

She grunted. The crab had taken the branch in its pincers now and was pushing her backwards; she was braced against it, standing at a lean.

“This cannot be the right location,” Claire explained.

“I understand, Ms. Williams,” said the voice at the other end of the line, “but Mr. Dunborough is not available. We’ve been unable to reach him all morning.”

The crab’s claws sheared through the branch. Claire staggered, then smacked it in the eyestalk. It gave a horrible, polytonal hiss and reeled away.

“There’s not very good reception up where he’s staying,” the voice explained.

“Maeve, you’ve sent me out to the middle of a goddamned jungle,” Claire said.

“Satellite imaging says that you’re close,” the voice said, chipper. “Practically on top of the customer’s location.”

“Fine,” Claire said. She glowered at the crab monster. “I’ll get an aerial view and call you back. Get in touch with Mr. Dunborough.”

“I’ll do what I can, ma’am, but—”

Claire hung up, juggled the phone into her free hand, and tucked it away in the slim handbag at her side. “Come on, then,” she said, to the crab-thing.

It charged.

**

The trees were full of spiders. Some of them, she thought gloomily, were probably venomous. Maybe even the ones that had bit her; or, of course, possibly not.

She pulled herself exhaustedly up onto a branch. She lay over it for a moment before dragging herself to her feet, unsteady on the wooden limb. She glared around.

“Practically on top of it,” she said. “Why can’t I see it?”

Convulsively she dragged her phone out again. She rang the office. “I need Dunborough,” she said, without even introducing herself. “He’s the only one who knows where the client is.

“Satellite imaging says north,” Maeve said.

“I can’t go north,” Claire said. “North is a screaming plummet into what appears to be some sort of gigantic ant-lion pit.”

“Well,” Maeve said, hedging a little bit, “Northish.

“That’s very helpful.”

“Mr. Dunborough’s location is out of service.”

“He can’t be out of service,” Claire said. “He’s just in Wales. Wales has cell phone reception.”

“Not where he’s staying, Ms. Williams. It’s kind of in the middle of nowhere.”

“No,” Claire said. “Listen. The animals here don’t even recognize humanity as dangerous. You want the middle of nowhere? I’m staring straight at a tree goat, and I’ve got bars out the wazoo.”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Maeve said. “Maybe he’s stuck in a tunnel?”

“I’ll have to call you back,” said Claire. “Goat’s getting feisty.”

“Understood—” Maeve responded, but the line was already dead.

**

She found it eventually—though she could have stumbled around in the jungle for days, she thought, and not seen it, save for the stroke of luck that was a moment of sunlight glinting off of its glass. Even then she’d almost—almost—dismissed it as one of the baelbeasts, the glowing lizards that had bulled her car off the road, before she understood what she’d seen.

Then it was as if a burden dropped from her.

Then she was staggering gladly to the customer’s door, hammering on it, and finally bursting in through it when he did not respond—with fortuitous timing, as it happened, as he was currently engaged in wrestling for his life with a strangling tumbleweed that had gotten in through the vents.

Working together, they peeled it off of him; stuffed it into the incinerator chute; and collapsed backwards into two of his sitting room’s wooden chairs.

“This place is impossible to find,” she told him, when she’d gotten her breath back.

“Ah,” he said, apologetically. “Sorry.”

“No,” she said. “It’s OK. Just . . . seriously. A little out of the way here. Y’know? I mean, why would you—why would anybody even choose to live here?”

“It’s a bit hard on my allergies,” he admitted.

“Oh, God,” she said, “don’t remind me.”

“And a little far from the road.”

“And it’s overrun with monsters,” she pointed out.

“But seriously!” he said. “You get such great cell phone reception!”

“Pardon?”

His face was rapturous; his eyes turned upwards towards Heaven. “It’s all the cannibals,” he said. “They make it clear as a bell!”

Better Than None

Nevillea Chesterton had lost the inspiration for her life, and her half a dog was dying. At least she figured it was probably dying, that it had to be dying . . . didn’t it?

Though nobody seemed to have informed the half a dog.

There was a flag outside, and seventeen stars upon that flag, which didn’t seem quite right to her—one for each State in the union, only, that was somehow wrong, too. In fact, she posted, it is quite clear that there ought to be more States than this; somehow President Obama has misplaced them, and I hope he is ashamed.

To this post the White House failed to reply.

“I’ve lost the inspiration for my life,” she explained, cogently, to her best friend Chalcedony. Chalcedony nodded.

“I told you things would get better,” Chalcedony said. “. . . sorry.”

“It’s not that they’re worse,” Nevillea said, and then hesitated. It was possible that having half of a dog wandering around one’s apartment bumping into things did count as “worse.” She just couldn’t remember what it was actually like to have a whole one. “It’s just . . . I have absolutely no idea what I’m supposed to be doing.”

“Don’t look at me,” Chalcedony said, which was ironic, because by any possible measure Chalcedony was succeeding at her life.

It wasn’t just Nevillea, of course, who was having trouble. There were widespread concerns just about everywhere about the apparent absence of part of the constructive fabric of the world. Pieces that people were pretty sure ought to have been there weren’t, and the world was widely understood to be undergoing a mysterious process of decay.

Chalcedony’s functional life was an aberration, as such things went.

“Already we have lost our proud eighteenth State,” one pundit said, “and tomorrow we may well wake up to have lost another one; we will forget that there ever was Wisconsin, and count sixteen stars on the American flag, and wonder at its strange and dairy absence to the world.”

This was existentially terrifying to Nevillea, on account of how she hardly ever remembered Wisconsin in the first place.

She’d wake up in the morning and rush to the news and check the status of the States, only to be certain, absolutely certain, that they’d lost one; that the seventeen that they currently had was one fewer than there’d been before. She monitored her half-a-dog carefully for signs of thirding and worried every day that her lamps might be one fewer than they had been before, or her arms and legs, or brain—

Which worries were misplaced, of course, but Chalcedony could not relieve her on them in any fashion; they were wrong, but every bit as likely as they were not.

“I don’t think there’s really room for another hemisphere in your brain,” Chalcedony did say. “I mean, by definition. So you don’t have to worry too much on that account.”

“Not a hemisphere,” Nevillea said. “A brain.

“You think you might have had two brains,” Chalcedony said, “in a proper world?”

“For redundancy,” Nevillea said. “You need redundancy for a good design.”

Indeed other brains were hard at work; and they were not Nevillea’s.

By a process of pure reason it was deduced that the great State of Virginia ought to exist, for all that it didn’t and it never had; a team of explorers found the ragged edges of the map and ventured out beyond it. There in the darkness of the absence of Virginia they were harried by knife-winged creatures and slithering creatures in the muck; but still they returned triumphant, carrying some vague enlightenment on the nature of what had come to pass.

“It’s data,” Professor Lethiwick said. “We found that we could perceive it directly—immanently—when we got out far enough past the tattered bound. Data, meaning that the world is a simulation: and the errors we’ve encountered are the signs of it coming undone or shutting down.”

Nevillea was not alone in blaming the President for this; his approval ratings spiked violently downwards before leveling off at the “what does it really matter, anyway?” plateau.

Solutions were enumerated and discarded.

Troops massed in the “Virginian Interdict,” pacifying the ur-life of the border region; an Institute was established at the tattered bound to study the border region and the lands beyond it to see if the ontological decay could be reversed. Maps of the hypothetical United States became popular, some listing as many as 45 distinct States and territories, including such refined potenstates as Puerto Rico, Arizona, Madison, and Mars. As for the rest of the world, it intruded on Nevillea’s television mostly in the form of episodic horror—

If Sweden were more or less in one piece, the networks did not show it, preferring to focus on the Italian revolution or on the refugees from Lost Beijing.

She’d watch, glued to her screen, petting half a dog—

But twenty minutes later, they’d be back to endless rounds of punditry and speculation on the Institute, on the missing regions, and on just why we seemed to be missing more than half of the world.

“I think the worst part of it,” Nevillea said, “of losing my inspiration, I mean, is that it’s not even an interesting lack of inspiration; I mean, it’d be one thing if I were suffering, but I’m just . . . kind of dead.”

“Tell me about it,” said Chalcedony.

Nevillea turned off the television as it cycled into its seventy-ninth discussion of the day of how it was probably premature to speculate on whether the “active primitives” the Institute had unearthed were actually data in the process of being executed.

“I just think my life was probably better than this,” Nevillea said, “when there were all thirty States.”

“What are you going to do about it?” Chalcedony asked.

Nevillea stared blankly at her. Then she shrugged. “There’s nothing I can do,” she said. “That’s rather the point.”

“Hm,” Chalcedony said.

She pet the half a dog. Its tail thumped against the couch.

“It’s only going to get worse,” Chalcedony pointed out.

“—Yeah,” Nevillea agreed.

It was called the Vigil—the thing that people took to, of waiting for the next thing to be lost. . . . not that you could ever really tell.

Nevillea kept the Vigil.

She kept it for days and days.

“I think I just lost my spark today,” Nevillea told Chalcedony—by instant message—but it was too early in the day for Chalcedony to read it, and the message never got a reply.

Later she discovered that her bathroom didn’t have a little thing to clean the toilet with, and, in fact, neither did the store. She got extremely confused attempting to explain what it was or what it did to the customer service technician and finally came home with a feather duster, which she propped up, for lack of any better ideas, in the general vicinity of the porcelain throne.

“It’s got to be a new hole,” she concluded. “It’s got to have just vanished. I know I clean my toilet with some regularity and would have previously noticed its absence.”

“It’s hard,” Chalcedony said. “I get what you’re saying, but I’m not sure how often one actually thinks about the fact that little things to clean the toilet with have never actually existed.”

“Or stop lights!”

“Stop lights exist, Nevillea.”

“. . . I can only think of examples of things that exist,” Nevillea admitted. “Except for Virginia and Beijing. And go lights, I guess.”

“. . . go lights exist, too.”

“What?”

“They’re the green ones, Nevillea.”

Time passed.

It was eventually confirmed that yes, the Institute had observed data in the process of execution—data that was not merely static elements disjoined from the process of existence, but active elements that were doing something in the great void beyond the tattered bound.

“There is no formal divergence,” Dean Lethiwick explained, “between data that simply is and data that does; the fabric of the . . . thing . . . is identical. But we have confirmed that there exists an immanence interpreting some of the data that lies beyond the tattered bound as procedural instructions.”

This immanence Dean Lethiwick preferred to interpret as a sort of cosmic computer, but it became more popularly known as “the eye of God.”

The eye of God looks upon data, people would write, and it becomes truth.

Or

The eye of God looks upon that which had been still, and it burns with the fire of motion.

“Our own brains,” Dean Lethiwick said, “possess an elemental division between the understanding of data as passive declarative information and active procedural information; although it is surprisingly difficult to maintain a more than superficial grasp of this, because grasping is something we do to declarative information alone.”

“But what does it mean,” the interviewer asked, “that this particular data is being executed?”

“Well,” Dean Lethiwick said, “the negative perspective is that there’s a memory leak somewhere that’s causing stuff that should just be, like Virginia, to become instructions for action instead; but I think it’s a far more interesting notion that, just possibly, the simulation itself, our baseline existence, isn’t just a passive thing, but a doing. That the reason that there’s stray procedural data beyond the tattered bound is that there’s procedural data here; not just a Wisconsin but a Wisconsoning, if you know what I mean.”

“Thank you,” the interviewer said, and “This has been a discussion with Dean Lethiwick, of the Institute at the tattered bound . . .”

The religious commentators won Nevillea over; their interpretation superseded Lethiwick’s for her; in understanding the active data breakthrough, she preferred to imagine not a cosmic computer but a divine eye that could look upon stuck, still, grey things and make them move. She daydreamed of that eye looking upon her and it making a moving thing of her; it seemed to her that it would be like being set on fire, only painless, and she resolved that if Chalcedony should question this description she would airily dismiss her concerns by claiming that Chalcedony’s declarative memory couldn’t grasp the true and essential experience of procedural divinity.

“I see,” Chalcedony said, when this actually came up; and, “. . . I suppose that’s true.”

There were still seventeen stars at the end of that week, and at the end of the week after; although, for all Nevillea knew, it had been twenty the day before. There was still half a dog, not a third of a dog; though, again, for all she knew, it had been recently whole. It seemed almost tragic that after losing so much she couldn’t tell if she had actually lost any more, or if there was any point in the Vigil that she kept.

“It’ll never get better,” she said, to Chalcedony, but Chalcedony waved her to silence. Chalcedony un-muted the television, which had been running silently in the background. She leaned forward.

Breaking News was running along the bottom of the screen.

There was the familiar face of Dean Lethiwick, and one of the thousand interchangeable interviewers; this one, Stacy Glenn.

“. . . what lesson should we take away from the discovery of this ‘initialization incident?’” the interviewer was asking.

“It’s really too soon to be making hypotheses,” Dean Lethiwick said. “But it’s brought a lot of weight to the formerly-disregarded Expansion Interpretation, wherein the missing pieces of the world are from our future rather than the past. What we seem to have witnessed in the ‘initialization incident’ was the formation or re-formation of a piece of the world that was always supposed to have been there; and now, it always actually has.”

“Fascinating stuff, Dean Lethiwick. We’re with Dean Lethiwick, whose team recently caught what appears to have been a retroactive rectification of one of the missing pieces of the world . . .”

The screen blanks out.

Nevillea comes to the realization that she has seized the remote control; that she has clicked the television off; that she is trembling.

“Nevillea?” Chalcedony asks.

It is terror.

And she thinks for a long moment that her terror is the terror of being forgotten—that if they have gotten the progression backwards, and one day at the end of her Vigil she wakes up to a world with all the States, and all the dog, and all the rest, always and forever, then the Nevillea of today will be lost; that the world will be back, and whole, but the Nevillea who kept the Vigil, the Nevillea of the world of missing pieces, will be gone and unremembered—

Only, that isn’t it.

That could be terrifying her—but that isn’t it.

“It’s just,” she says, aimlessly and unsure, “that that means—”

She imagines the eye of God turning to stare at her; imagines herself as wax, burning under the awful fire of that gaze.

“That things could turn out right.

And Chalcedony doesn’t even blink at the idea that that would terrify her; that the possibility of waking up one day to discover herself a Nevillea who hasn’t lost the inspiration for her life would frighten her;

Just: “In fairness,” Chalcedony says, “Nevillea, it’s probably really rather a good thing, for the dog.”

Respawn Star

The two hundred and sixty-eighth alien invader I killed dropped the decoder for their language and I could finally understand what they were saying as I killed them.

“This is a misunderstanding,” a tall mantis-creature protested. “We are here on entirely legitimate authority.”

I had the option to explore that, but I didn’t.

Instead I found cover over by Paul, ducked behind it, and looked out from behind it long enough to pick the monsters off.

“They’re here on entirely legitimate authority,” I told him.

“I’d heard that,” he agreed. “Some sort of feral species management division. If we can prove that we’ve overcome our violent past, they’ll escort us out into a broader galactic community.”

There was another of their war-beasts in the distance; I put a laser through its head, and a pocketwatch tumbled from its corpse.

I remember how I used to find stuff like that funny, when I was a kid, killing ladybugs and house spiders for loot and XP; “where were they even keeping it?” I’d ask myself. Or “why would they even have that?”

But it wasn’t funny now.

“War,” I said. “War never changes.”

“You get better loot when you’re higher level,” Paul pointed out. “And you get to fight tougher aliens back at their landing point.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But other than that.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “Other than that.”

There was the chance to advance, after a while. We took a new vantage. It reeked; the scent of bonfires, burnt aliens, and death.

“You hoping for anything in particular?” he asked me.

“Something for charm,” I said.

“They’re not very charming,” Paul pointed out.

I peeked up out of cover and nearly lost an ear. I fired a wild shot, ducked back down, and scowled. “They’re not,” I agreed. “But they’ll drop a charm item eventually. And it’s not like I’d do any better anywhere else.”

“I’m hoping for an armband of medicine,” Paul said.

“You want to be a doctor?”

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s . . . I want to make things better, you know? But med school’s pricy as hell.”

“Good luck,” I told him.

“Thanks.”

There was a prickling at the back of my neck. I turned, but I wasn’t fast enough. There was one of them, behind us. It had us dead to rights, and I heard the incomprehensible clicking and chittering of it translate into a confident, “Stand down.”

“I’ve heard bad things about what you do with prisoners,” I said.

It wasn’t what I wanted to say. It was just the best I could do with the dialogue wheel I had. I wanted to point out that I’d just respawn if it shot me, but—

You don’t get to talk about things like that. Not with hostiles. That’s strictly for free chat with your allies in war.

“The rumors are ill-founded,” the creature maintained. “Our camp provides . . . rehabilitation.”

I tried to find a way to ask what I really wanted. Do you have any quests there that provide charm items? Or, well, medical training, I guess?

The best I could do was: “Let’s talk about this.”

“Drop the gun,” it told me. “Kick it away. Then we can talk.”

I flailed mentally, looking for something, anything, I could say. “Do you really rip your mate’s heads off during sex?”

“That is an intensely personal question,” it said. “Drop the gun. Now.”

“It just seems like you’re a bit hypocritical calling us savage—”

It fired.

Paul blurred into a cut-scene. He shoved me out of the way. The wall behind me cracked. He had his gun in his hand. He nailed it between the eyes just as I landed a center-body shot. The alien fell back.

Even after months of farming, I expected it to de-rez, to return to its spawn point; expected it, somehow, to act human—

But of course it didn’t. They don’t do that. Their corpses don’t fade away.

“Nice,” I said.

“It was just scripted,” he said.

I think it counts,” I said.

He seemed a little uncomfortable. Not everybody gets along well with cut-scenes. “. . . thanks,” he said.

I looted the corpse. Nothing of interest. I slipped back into cover.

“Have to watch our flanks, I guess.”

“Yeah.”

After a while, he said, “’Rip their mate’s heads off,’ huh?”

“You understood that?”

He tapped his ear. “Party member,” he said.

“Heh.”

“But, seriously?”

“I was trying to ask about quests,” I said. “My options were limited. This is why I need a charm item.”

“So you can find better things to ask your enemies about than their sexual habits?”

“. . . yeah,” I said.

“It’s probably ridiculously hard to get anywhere with them,” Paul said. “I mean, seriously. This is endgame level stuff.”

“I wasn’t really expecting to be able to make peace,” I said. “I just want to be less inane.”

“Yeah.”

“I can’t even talk to my own mother,” I said. “You know?”

“Oh?”

“I call her up,” I said. “And she answers. And I have nothing but passive-aggressive bullshit, greyed-out options, and ‘goodbye.’ So I hang up again. Every damn time.”

“Sucks,” he said.

“I don’t want her to be my enemy,” I said. “It just kind of happened, and I can’t get it back.”

“Have you tried adjusting your family options?” he asked me.

There was a flurry of laser fire. I popped my head up, brought the gun around, and took out a mantis commander. Time slowed down as it exploded in light.

It was still moving slowly as I dropped back down, put my back to the wall, and turned to look at Paul.

“. . . there are options?”

And the aliens charged us, and died, but they did not return.

Objective Magical Sources

The evil queen disguised herself as an old apple seller. She took a poisoned apple to the cottage of the dwarves. But the dwarves were gone. They had delved too greedily and too deep; they had awakened something in the darkness.

Now only Snow White remained.

“He went chasing the glitter of it,” she said, “some jewel he dreamed of finding, ‘fairest of all the things under Heaven and beneath the Earth;’ but he found something else instead, and heat belched out of the tunnel that he’d been digging and fire flickered in the caverns beneath the mountain and there shall be no body in his tomb.”

“That’s terrible,” said the evil queen.

“’And I alone am returned to tell thee,’” Snow White said. She shook her head. “That’s what he said to me, and sneezed. ‘And I alone am returned to tell thee.’ Seven left, and just one returning, and even he returned not long.

“A weird remained upon him, a dreadful calling.

“’It was a thing of fire and shadows,’ he said. ‘But its eyes were jewels,’ and not three days back before . . .”

She trailed off.

“Before he’s gone.”

“Would an apple make you feel better?” offered the evil queen.

“They smell too sweet,” scoffed Snow White. “They shine too red. They are too beautiful; and I have learned the price of avarice.”

“It isn’t really avarice—” the evil queen started, but the princess interrupted.

“What’s the point in it?” Snow White demanded. “What’s the point in any of it? Of pretty things? Of apples and of jewels? Of gold all glittering? What makes even the fairest of all the jewels beneath the Earth worth seven dwarven lives?”

“It’s — it’s a really fair jewel?” the evil queen suggested.

“And what good would it have even done them?”

“There’s an intrinsic value,” argued the evil queen, “to being beautiful. Particularly the most beautiful.”

“I don’t want an apple,” the princess said. “I want justice. . . . but I will not have it.”

Her head lowered.

“It is a wraith of shade and fire,” she said, “And I am just Snow White.”

“You could,” the evil queen proposed, “go and . . . fight it . . .”

Intended as wicked, twisted advice, it came out from her mouth as sheer stupidity instead; she flushed red behind her mask. As for the princess, she did not even dignify the words with a reply.

“Or use magic,” said the evil queen.

“Ha!” said Snow White.

“It’s perfectly doable,” said the evil queen. “Dark secrets from before the age of humankind. You may command them, if you’d dare to risk your soul.”

“The superstitions of a senile old apple seller,” the princess scoffed. “I’m sure you feel quite the daring witch, but nobody actually cares about your soul. Or even mine.”

“. . . I’m not personally a witch,” the evil queen said, carefully, “as I have said. But it is not just superstition either. For instance, there are magical mirrors—”

“Oh, yes,” Snow White said. “’Magic mirrors.’ My own stepmother thinks she has one of those.”

“ ‘Thinks?’”

“It’s a shameful and degrading affair,” said Snow White.

“It’s a real magic mirror,” the evil queen protested.

“I think we all have things we like to imagine speak to us,” the princess said. “Sometimes I imagine that I hear Doc’s voice—but I don’t. You see.”

“Doubt me if you like,” said the evil queen peevishly, “but you could at least eat a damned apple.”

The princess took the poisoned apple from the basket. She held it up for a moment. Then she gave it a disgusted look and tossed it aside.

“It is red,” she said.

“Red like your lips,” the evil queen pointed out. “One of your finer attributes.”

“Why the hell are you going on about the color of my lips?”

“Well,” said the evil queen, “they’re the color of blood. That’s considered very attractive by objective magical sources.”

“Get out,” the princess said. She pushed the evil queen. “Just . . . get out.” And the evil queen found herself outside the cottage, door slammed against her, and the basket of miscellaneous apples in her hand.

After a long while, she sighed.

“What am I even doing?” she asked herself. “Why does it matter?”

And she could not help the errant thought:

For I have delved too greedily, and too deep.

The Gate of No Returning

The god of evil is dead, and therefore evil itself is dead.

I do not believe in the heresy that says that a god may be slain, so I do not know how these events came to pass. Perhaps the eye of the universe opened, and looked upon evil, and passed through it into awakening. Perhaps evil was always an aberration, a thing that emerged from nothing, strove against its own contradictions, and descended into nothing. Certainly there was not, as some would have it, an “edition change;” nor did adventurers descend into the deepest Hells and murder evil with sword and spell, replacing it in the end with some misunderstood hero from their number—these things are not the way of Heaven and of Earth.

Nevertheless.

“The bite of a werewolf,” the werewolf hunter explained, “causes a contagion that infects one with the qualities of a werewolf; one becomes cursed upon the full moon to transform, vulnerable only to holy things and silver, and unless one uses potent magic to hold it back, one’s alignment will inevitably shift to—”

Here he hesitated.

“Well, at one time, to ‘evil.’”

“Evil has become murky to me,” I said.

“Indeed.”

“It seems to me,” I said, “that at one time it made sense to me; the concept that a person, remaining that person, could undergo a radical shift in their nature and become ‘evil,’ but now—”

“Children born today,” he said, “will grow up their whole lives without even the faintest inkling of what evil was; they will read the word in old books, and come up with the most fanciful theories, but they will not understand.”

I snorted a laugh.

He stirred the fire. “You were,” he said, to confirm, “not bitten— though?”

“I screamed,” I said. “I hid. I wriggled myself deep into a crevice between the cow-fence and the wall. I smelt its stink and I heard it killing the animals and I think that it drew close to me, but it left before it bit.”

I hesitated.

“I think it savored my fear,” I said, “perhaps. I mean, more than it would savor biting me.”

“Doubtless,” he said.

“If you had not come—”

“I did nothing,” said the werewolf hunter. “It was already gone by the time I arrived.”

There were scratches on his shining mail. There was a warrior’s look in his eyes. I knew him as my savior when he found me. But I pretended to believe.

“It will return for you,” he said, still poking at the fire. “Though. I know this because I do not believe it to be true.”

“Oh?”

He looked away. He stared up at the moon.

The night, I think, was very cold.

“It is the nature of a werewolf,” he said, after a while, “to be fundamentally misunderstood. Thus the longer I pursue them, the more acutely wrong I find my instincts to be.”

I laughed, but he was very serious.

“He will return,” he said. “I cannot say why, or, rather, my reasoning is flawed. Not to hurt you, certainly. Not to taunt me. Those occur to me, so they are wrong. But he will return, because I believe that he has fled from here. That is why I am still here, and why I will watch over you for the night.”

I put my hands together. “We are bound to the world by our ignorance,” I said.

That is what the priest had told me.

She set her hands on my mother’s brow and took the fever from her, and she made the crops that were failing grow, and she told us of desire and ignorance and of the path by which these things may be rectified—

Then she moved on.

“Escape our ignorance, and we shall fly from the prison of our lives.”

“It is harder than that,” he said.

I tilted my head.

“You are level one,” he said. “Two? Three, maybe, at the most. You are yet rich in your ignorance, so it is natural that you say, ‘it is ignorance that is binding me to the world.’

“But when you have slain monsters and unearthed forbidden treasures, you will learn the true face of our existence: that it is an endless wheel, and we are held into it by the momentum of its turning.

“Slay one beast and you have guaranteed that you will face another. Find one lost treasure and open the path to searching for a thousand more. The world is a cycle of gaining power only to face more powerful opposition, and there is no escaping it save for martyrdom, in the name of the holy gods.”

“Or,” I said, “you say that because you are ignorant.”

He laughed.

“Perhaps one day you will open your eyes,” I said, “and realize, ‘I am forging this life for myself. It is not the turning of the wheel but rather my own feet as they run.’”

“And in that moment,” he said, “I shall suspire into Nirvana, and no more the slaying of monsters, the delving for treasures, and the gods’ service for me?”

“Well,” I said, “you may still slay the werewolf— when it returns.”

He laughed. He shook his head. “There is no respite,” he said. “None.”

“I don’t have any silver,” I pointed out.

“Of course not.”

“So it’s not as if I can fight it.”

“It’s not as if you could fight it anyway,” he said. “It is a Hell-beast, evil inca— the ‘fundamentally misunderstood,’ incarnate. It is a brooding, sorrowful monster. It has claws like iron and a mouth like the gates of Hell.”

“Namu amida butsu,” I prayed.

Then I hesitated. A thought struck me.

“But what would happen,” I asked him, “if we fought?”

“Pardon?”

“If it attacked me,” I said, “and I could not fight back, and my understanding is that it would savage me; or infect me—that it is . . . what evil has become, only, isn’t that also a misunderstanding?”

“Heh,” he said.

“Heh?”

“They asked My Lady Helena,” he said, “’what is the nature of enlightenment?’ And she said, ‘it is like a blanket. It is like the stars. It is like the snow.’ But they did not comprehend, save for her disciple Aveditta, who exclaimed, ‘It is like the rain.’”

“I see,” I said, though I did not.

“’That which is not evil cannot comprehend the ways of evil, or it would become evil; that which is not good cannot comprehend the ways of good, or it would become good’—it was written, back when there was evil. The bite of a werewolf therefore is a mystery; it is a gate of no return. In the end, can we even say that a werewolf exists at all?”

“That’s going a little far,” I told him.

He shrugged.

“When it comes,” he said, “I will fight it, because that is what I know. And I will win, because that is how the wheel keeps on turning. But you cannot expect me to understand such mysteries.”

The wind was blowing colder now, and I heard a sound—

Or didn’t hear, perhaps. Perhaps it was some other sense, some other cue; or perhaps it was only that I didn’t hear it, and I misunderstood.

Let us say that I heard a sound, and that it was my only warning.

I was on my feet. He was on his feet, and the great wolf-spear in his hand, and his armor was bright in the light of the fire, and the forest was dark and the moon was bright and the wind was cold and it—

It was a thing beyond our understanding.

It was like a wolf, but it was not a wolf. It stood in the light of the moon, and it was not in the light of the moon. It moved, or rather, it was a thing like motion; and as it came in at us, as it gave a great bound and its muscles shifted and its claws moved like blades of iron through the air, I understood something, or rather, did not understand something; my mind gave a great gasp and was released from its ignorance; in that moment my mind’s eye passed through what seemed like a tunnel and unraveled itself into emptiness, and I exclaimed:

It is like the stars. It is like the snow. It is like the rain.

Its teeth were upon me; its weight in passing, and it leapt onwards; I passed through the gate of no returning, and I fell.

Ping

The littlest programmer went down to the sea. She turned the waves over and over in her hands.

“Ping,” she said, finally, when she was satisfied.

And “Ack,” replied the sea.

The littlest programmer went up to the sky. She poked the clouds. They flew away from her with but a touch, as light as a song.

“Ping,” she said, and laughed, and batted the clouds away.

And “Pong,” declared the horizon, and bounced them back.

The littlest programmer came down and played in the tall grass. She made a flute from the thin green strands.

“Ping,” she said.

But the grass responded not.

She walked in the tall grass and disturbed the things that lived there; great was the agitation of the pigeons, and the mice, and the doves, and certainly of the small elephants that lived there then, but do not live there now.

“Ping,” she said, more insistently.

But the grass could find no words.

It has never known words, not for such holy eventualities; it does not suffice for them;

The ping is mightier than the sward.

As To Why You Should Drink the Coffee We Sell Here, as Opposed to the Coffee Sold in World and Sound

1. Coffee

Some coffee’s processed in the guts of monkeys. Some, of ferrets.

Our coffee’s not like that.

Some coffee’s brewed by starving orphans and their puppies in the basements of the pyramids wherein Starbucks may be made.

Our coffee’s not like that, either.

Our coffee’s the good stuff. It’s the right stuff. It’s the stuff of joy and virtue, and of love.

2. The Merry Christmas Man

The Merry Christmas Man goes to Holidaytown.

And he walks its streets, and he slums inside its stores, and on his way out of one store there’s a Sid at the door who tells him, “Happy holidays.”

And it’s like the words are a knife on the Merry Christmas Man’s skin.

They cut him right open. They grate down his arm. Blood wells up, red and angry, and there’s the faintest tinge of green.

And Sid’s gone pale with horror, he’s stammering an apology, but the Merry Christmas Man just growls at him and says, “You say that again.”

But Sid doesn’t.

He won’t say it, not even in Holidaytown, not now that he recognizes the Merry Christmas Man. For he knows the words will cut a Merry Christmas Man, but he doesn’t know the reason why.

Say it,” says the Merry Christmas Man.

But the silence, it just stretches until the Merry Christmas Man goes away.

3. Guilt

The Merry Christmas Man’s not here to buy presents. He could get those at Christmas, or, leastaways, somewhere in Twelve Days. And he’s not here to start something. He’s not that sort of Man.

“I killed me a reindeer,” he says.

He doesn’t have much of an audience. He’s sitting on the corner, next to a giant candy cane, surrounded by forest animals and a pale-faced little girl.

She’s looking at him in confusion.

She’d been walking by in her wolf-eared fur coat, but then she’d seen him, and she couldn’t quite get it, so she’d stopped and she’d stared and she’d been staring ever since.

“. . . Santa?” she asks, like she isn’t sure.

It’s not her fault.

You have to understand, it’s not her fault, growing up in Holidaytown, that she doesn’t really get it about the Merry Christmas Man.

But scorn still plops from his voice like thick batter from a spoon, and he says, “I’m not Santa, little girl. I’m not anything like Santa. I’m a Merry Christmas Man.”

“Oh,” she says. Then, to be sure it’s all quite straight in her head, she says, “And you killed a reindeer?”

“It’s deep magic,” he says. “You take on the spirit of Christmas with the skin of the reindeer, and you gulp down its meat. And you hang tinsel from your hat and put a candycane in your shoe, and you hop, skip, and jump and you’re a Merry Christmas Man.”

There’s more to it than that.

There’s a step or two he’s skipped, right where he says he’s skipping ’em, and another that we’re leaving out, because we don’t want our readers going all skinwalker or curse-maker when they read these words. There’s more to it than just skinning and eating a reindeer and doing some junk with sympathetic magic (not that it’s really all that sympathetic); but those things, they’re the gist.

“And then you can fly,” says the Merry Christmas Man, “and make snow fall where you please, and pull presents from the emptiness if the recipient is good.”

He makes a present-summoning flourish with his hand, and then looks sourly at the result.

“Or,” he says, “pull forth coal chunks for the naughty, if the recipient is so disposed.”

“Thank you, sir,” she says, and takes the coal. “It’s because I am always skinning animals to make my coats.”

“Good lass,” he laughs, forgiving her at once. “Good lass.”

Such forest animals as had remained through his declaration of reindeer-skinning skulk off to frolic elsewhere now: a pointed objection, perhaps; a shunning of the animal-skinning kind; a subtle contextual reminder that even in the winter wonderland of Holidaytown happy forest animals would rather like to keep their skins. Now in Christmastown, to hear some tell it, they love nothing better than to roll stickily in blood diamonds before they jump into the furring machines themselves, but —

“Happy Holidays,” says the girl, and she nods her head, and she walks on.

The snow is turning crimson with the Merry Christmas Man’s bright blood.

4. Jelly, in the Cold

It’s cold in Holidaytown, just like it is over in Christmas, and he’s wishing, just a little, that he’d gone to Valentine’s instead.

It wouldn’t have served his purpose, no, but the hearts would have kept him warm.

Instead, he’s cold.

He’s really, really cold.

His beard is white with snow now and his belly, it’s too cold to jiggle—it’s just like a bowl of jelly that you’ve left out jiggling in the cold while its jiggling grows feebler and feebler until it can’t jiggle any longer, not a bit, and it grows a last despairing rind of ice.

And he’d like to laugh it off, ho, ho, ho, but his laugh had turned to silvery bells when he’d become a Christmas Man.

Didn’t eat enough reindeer, some would say, while others would suggest he’d ate too much.

There’s a lot that we don’t know about the magic that makes a Merry Christmas Man.

They have magical powers. We know that. And they probably eat children. They can lay fell curses, and they really like Christmas, and when you tell them “Happy Holidays,” they bleed.

And one more thing, which we’ll get to! we’ll get to! But not till later on.

5. The Jinglers

The Merry Christmas Man is fading.

In the cold, he’s fading, he’s losing his sense of self and liveliness, and he’s wondering if he’s going to get to do what he came to do before he loses fingers to the cold.

Then ring the bells. Then sound the footsteps on the walk. Then voices that had seemed quite far away unexpectedly draw near.

He thinks with sudden fierce and giddy joy:

I am in luck.

There’s a whole party of jinglers coming his way, just off their work, and they won’t be able to help stopping to look at the Merry Christmas Man.

And he’s sure they’ll wish him Happy Holidays, and the words will make him bleed; and the first of them is kneeling down beside him now—but—

Damn it, thinks the Merry Christmas Man.

“Hey,” says Sid. “Hey, you OK?”

Sid looks up at the others.

“It’s a Merry Christmas Man,” he warns. “So ixnay on the olidays-hay. And a Merry Christmas to you,” he adds, turning back to the Merry Christmas Man, “good sir!”

“Uckfay your ixnay,” says the Merry Christmas Man, preserving this legend’s suitability for children by inventing a jolly new curse word for the holidays instead of saying something potentially obscene. “And the horse it rode in on. I’m in Holidaytown, for the Holiday, I don’t want to hear any ittyshay uckingfay Scrooge-uggeringbay ‘merry Christmas’es.”

At this point the narrator must assume that the Merry Christmas Man has gone around the bend and begun to speak in tongues, likely from exhaustion and cold fatigue but potentially from possession by the Holy Spirit.

Sid seems even more confused than we.

“Sir,” he says, “you’re overwrought.”

The Merry Christmas Man snorts.

Sid says, “If we all actually wished you a Happy Holidays—“

The Merry Christmas Man bites his tongue to hold in the scream.

“Well,” says Sid, his face ashen, “you see, I mean, it’s like—“

But the Merry Christmas Man is on his feet now. He’s holding out five fingers crooked like candy canes, and the stripes of them are red, red, red, and his fury has made him so warm that his stomach may shake like a bowl full of jelly once again.

“We, ‘sir,’” he spits out between his teeth, “are in Holidaytown.

Sid doesn’t cringe.

It’s a near thing, but Sid doesn’t cringe, not even with those fingers pointing most of the way in his direction before they cunningly curve and point backwards towards the hand. Not even with the sweetness of the sugar-snow that has fallen on the shoulders of the Merry Christmas Man. Not even knowing that the Merry Christmas Man is a skinwalker, and that skinwalkers can kill.

“Merry Christmas,” he says, and turns away;

And the Merry Christmas Man is vast like a giant, and billowing with his power and his rage, and bellowing, “What does it take to get a bloody ‘Happy Holidays’ in this town?”

The answer to which, apparently, is that shout; for as if by autonomic motion, for streets around, and in answer to that cry, the people of Holidaytown turn in the Merry Christmas Man’s direction and wish his holidays be bright.

6. Transcendence

The Merry Christmas Man is cut, at first, and bleeds.

Then it is beyond mere flaying. Then the words are tearing into him, catching him like great hooks, ripping him apart, this way, this way, and that. He is pulled apart, and yet improbably alive; and the veins transport the blood of him, and the nerves convey the feel of him, and he is dissipating like some gateway god into the form of ten thousand spheres; but the cutting does not stop.

The world where he was rips open.

The space inside him is made to emptiness, and one vast ring surrounds it, and inside that ring is no location known to man; and with a terrible cry and one last great inversion, the Merry Christmas Man vomits into the world through the vehicle of that emptiness the shining contents of his soul.

They splay there, burning with a holy light against the whiteness of the snow, and with great hope:

The coffee beans the reindeer’d ate, before the Merry Christmas Man began.

For that’s the secret of it all, isn’t it? The source of that grace and that ineffable mystery that brings a Merry Christmas to the world? Isn’t that where all our joy and virtue, and our love, begins?

It’s thus.

O, merrily, it’s thus!

The secret of life isn’t coffee beans processed in the gut of some monkey, we can tell you that. And certainly not a ferret.

You can’t get the good stuff by having orphans hammer and brew it out in the dark reaches beneath the world.

I mean, it’s pretty good.

We are not knocking a good Frappucino.

But it’s not the thing.

To get the kind of coffee that can bring a real Merry Christmas to the world, that can fill the body with great warmth and make a person into a font of joy and virtue, and of love, you have to process the beans through the gullet of a sacrificial reindeer and a sacrificial man. You have to feed them to the flying arboreal ungulates that live in the canopy where the beans are grown, and let them process them down into the spirit of Christmas; and then somebody has to have the courage to step up and be a Merry Christmas Man, to cut the reindeer open and put on its skin and eat its meat and swallow down the coffee beans entangled in its soul.

And if they’re cruel then the world shall know a time of sorrow; for it tempts you to dark magics, oh yes it does, being a Merry Christmas Man.

But if the candidate is good enough, if they’re strong enough, if they’re cussed enough to cling to their first intention in the face of the power that a Merry Christmas Man can wield, why, then they’ll go down to Holidaytown and they’ll flay themselves on the innocent unknowing words of the Happy Holidaysers there. And their death will give back to us the beans we use in the coffee we sell here;

For just 99 cents a cup.

Rainbow Noir: the Mountains and the Sky

It has been a certain interval, dear reader, since I first had the opportunity to speak to you of the magical land of rainbows above the world and the shadowed city that succeeded it. Of how it came to pass that a certain girl, born in shadows and dwelling in shadows, became the rainbow; how she challenged the notorious Nihilism Bear; and, in the end, defeated him. Later, and after the receipt of certain despatches and messages, I was able to speak to you further: of how she sought out Mr. Dismal, whom she falsely suspected of responsibility for her various plights, and, in The Case of Mr. Dismal, made an end to him. But we still did not know the why of it all—whose will it had been that had set itself against the rainbow; that had brought Mr. Dismal to that land; that had dulled the kingdom of every brightness into Shadow City’s noir.

Lately, some of my friends have been struggling. They’re trying to do something good, something amazing, something cool, but they’re working for and with people who’d really much rather it came out a product. There is a corrupt religion of money over worth that has seeded itself in the modern business world; and people I care about, dear reader, are being ground down by the faithful of that religion; by the Mythos cultists of this modern era who would never have believed, who couldn’t have believed, that a place like Shadow City ever had color in it at all.

And I thought, maybe, for them, as a Christmas present; and for you, as a Christmas present—

Even though it wouldn’t help them any, and even though it wouldn’t mean that my dear readers would hear regular tales from me again—

that I would look into the matter a bit. That I would find out a bit more about the thing that turns rainbows into shadows, and ask what kind of answer rainbows make.

Without further ado, and with the hopes that all who read this will trust their hearts and live in brightness, the conclusion and the beginning of a story that started long ago.

Rainbow Noir: The Mountains and the Sky

The girl rides the horse through the sky. It’s the most wonderful and marvelous thing. It’s the most wonderful and marvelous thing, and underneath them there are endless miles of cold air.

Beneath that are the mountains, which we shall name Gray Death.

Her name—the girl’s name, that is—is Wisp. She’s saved the universe once or twice. She’s the kind who you just have to point and shoot, basically, and the universe gets saved. That’s what she is, and why she is, and why there have to be girls like her.

As for the horse—

As for the horse’s name—

There’s an ice crystal bigger than the world. There’s an endless distance, and space. There’s a great and brooding thought that presides over it all,

Like God had forgotten color, hope, and light—

And we could call that “I Am,” or “the All,” or “The Lord that Dwells in Starlight.”

But the horse itself, it doesn’t really have a name.

It’s the most marvelous horse there ever was. A horse like that doesn’t really need its own name. Who could you confuse it with?

It’s just, you know, the horse.

People laugh, talking about magical sky horses and rainbows, sure, they laugh, but if you saw it there, its feet pounding against the nothingness, endless miles of cold air below and below that, Death—

You wouldn’t laugh.

You’d just think, in that moment, that it was the most marvelous and warm and most incredible thing you ever saw.

One day, one day, once upon a time, the girl fell off that horse. She screamed. She’s very brave, but even a brave person can scream when you’re falling and the sky is rushing up around you and there’s only Death below. She screamed, and the world around her burned with its blues and its purples and its brightness, and her life flashed before her eyes in a series of twenty-minute shorts that in the end didn’t add up to very much—

And that time, he saved her.

That time, as she spun and fell and rainbows curled and twisted through the vastness of the void around her, the horse came down and lunged and caught her with his teeth and snapped her away from the touch of great Gray Death, and pulled her up and she twisted and she flung her hands around his neck and she sank her face into his mane and laughed.

She did.

She really did! Even with the awkward angles of it all.

She could, and did, climb up onto his neck and back, because there really isn’t very much gravity when you’re falling, and at that particular moment in time they weren’t really quite done with the falling part of their precipitous descent and back to the flying that the two of them were about to do.

The second time, though, the second time, he didn’t save her when she fell.

She asked—

With her eyes, she asked!

But the second time, when she found herself falling, and the sky was everywhere around her in its blues and purples fading into the shadows of darkness, and grayness was reaching up from the ground as if to seize her up and drown her and shatter her like a teardrop on the stone, the horse, it just stood back.

The ice is bigger than the world, and twice as far as anything.

Her name was Wisp, back then as now, but nobody called her that. Everyone called her things like “the rainbow,” “the rainbow girl,” or “hope.”

She was the one charged with the preservation of love and hope and beauty and power and magic. She was the one responsible for providing all the things that people need to have within their lives, in a world that is sometimes very dark. And the mechanism of this charge was color.

She would find places that were dark and colorless, in the world, in people’s lives, in people’s hearts.

She would walk among the gray shadows and get the feel of them.

Then she would bring the rainbow.

There are a billion places in the worlds that are that needed her special touch. A billion, or even more; so it’s not too surprising that grayness still endures. It took her time to find each spot of darkness. It took her time to find it, and know it, and see its antidote, and make an end to it. It took her time, and there were so many different shadows that needed her to give to them that time.

It probably makes a billion look small, really, the number of those shadows, if you actually could count each of them, and give each one its name. It’s probably laughable to imagine that it’s just a billion, like saying, “well, millipedes have at least one leg”—

But a billion, at least.

So that’s why it took her a while to see what had happened down on Earth.

That’s why she missed the whole of World War I. She was in a flower garden, where the insects had corroded beauty. She was in the Crab Nebula, where monsters were threatening a noble Prince. She was in Kansas, helping a lost child, and in the oceans, healing a dolphin’s heart.

She was polishing one of the stars in the endless sky when the trenches cut the world.

She was in the kingdom of the cats.

She was fixing a broken mountain.

She was painting a butterfly when the Nazis came to power. She was painting a butterfly with vibrant colors, because the butterfly had gone gray.

And she might have missed it;

She might have missed it all;

Save that butterflies can only wear so much paint before their wings will cease to fly. There are only so many stars that lose their glitter. There are only so many monsters, though they spawn eccentrically and at random intervals throughout the cosmos and its worlds; so many broken mountains; so many cats that have never ever been fed.

Before the end of the war—before it had even really gotten started—she saw it. She saw what we were doing. She saw what we had done.

She saw it, and said:

“Here is a darkness. Here are gray shadows. I will walk among them and I will find their antidote, and I will bring the rainbow.”

And tears were falling from her face, great rivers of tears, and breaking on the ground.

“And not just here,” she said.

The war to end all wars, well, hadn’t. But she decided, there and then.

“I will heal this thing,” she said. “I will bring an end to wars.”

Underneath the girl and the horse are endless miles of ice-cold air.

Right now, as you’re reading this story, the horse and the girl are falling. They are a comet. They are a meteor. They are a dying, broken, tumbling leaf, a teardrop, a rainbow chunk of ice and fire, and they are falling towards Gray Death below.

“It’s impossible,” said the horse. “Even for someone like you. Even for someone like me. It’s impossible, rainbow girl, that we could bring an end to war.”

“It’s my quest,” she said.

“It’s wrong,” said Terrence. He was her sprite. “It’s wrong. It’ll destroy us. They’ll find us, if we try to end their wars. They’ll hunt us down. They’ll take Rainbow Land away, make it theirs, make it a part of their earthly kingdom, where only shadows rule.”

“But it’s my quest,” the girl said. “I have to heal this thing. I have to guard the beauty that the people of the Earth deny. I have to make them stop killing each other,

and so cruelly!”

But, oh! The sky was fading.

It was twilight in the rainbow kingdom, the sun was falling to the west, and the horse looked up.

“It will have to wait for morning,” the marvelous horse said. “Dear. You can’t do it today. You can’t do it now. You can’t stop people from fighting wars, forever, if you haven’t gotten any sleep.”

“That’s so,” conceded the girl.

So she went to bed.

She went to bed, to let Earth wait just one last troubled night.

And slept.

And while she slept there were doings in the darkness, and gatherings, and quiet acts of diplomacy and treason; and when she woke, her people did not sing to her, as they had always done, when Rainbow Land was bright.

Rather than sing, instead, they gathered around her, and their voices, they were low.

“We shall show you,” said Terrence.

She looked at him.

“We shall show you,” said Terrence, “why it is that you cannot save the world.”

And they took her down into the depths of the palace, and through the hidden passages to the caves where her servants labored, cutting forth light and hope from the lifeless stone, and to the Great Machine that had made her.

And she said, “It’s made of ice.”

She touched it with her hand.

She said, as if in a trance, “There is a place, so very far from here! And a flake of ice, and oh, it is so very bigger than the world! And God—”

But the horse was brusque.

It bumped her in the back with its nose and made her turn away, and said, “This is where we made you, to save us, to be a girl from nothing and make brightness in our land. We cut you out of ice and dolor and we brought you here, from nothing, to nothing, and filled your heart with fanciful lies. Like, ‘you are charged to save us, wielding light.’ Like, ‘you were made to fill our land with beauty.’”

And she remembered—oh, she remembered, and of a sudden!—how she’d come into existence and out of nothingness as if formed off some great crystal made of ice, and curled about herself in some strange womb, and dreamt of foreign colors as shaved fragments sprinkled by.

She remembered how she’d dreamed, oh! such dreams! of something brighter than the endless hungry void. How she’d conceived a sudden brilliant conception, in that womb of ice, of what the murky and dismal land some call “the world” could be.

And how it had seemed to her that a lady made of light had spoken, had said, “Wisp, will you go forth from this place to my land, my dismal land, that dwells under the hand of shadows, and make it bright?”

The sprites looked down.

In the shadow of the Great Machine, the echo of the work of ice that lives beyond the world, they could not speak; save for Terrence, who cleared his throat, and said:

“You were our doll, lady Wisp. You were our toy. And we are grateful to you, for that you were bright and brilliant and rainbows. But you must not think you are a person. You must not think you are a living girl with breath and heart and hope and rainbows, who can stand against our purpose and our decision, and bring chaos to the land.”

The breath left her.

It was as if he had punched her in the stomach, and all she could breathe in was chunks of ice.

“We had to make you,” he said. “But not the rainbow girl. The rainbow girl was fantasy. You are just a flake of snow.”

She was falling.

She was falling.

The sky was rushing up around her, and she could not breathe, and there was gray and black and white jittering before her eyes, and she could not find the ground.

She clenched around the emptiness in her heart, fell gasping, Gray Death opening below, and cast a glance, a single glance, up at the horse.

He was marvelous, that horse.

He was a wonder.

He caught her, once, when she was falling from the sky, when she was plummeting and she thought that she would die. He caught her, and lifted her up, and brought her back to warmth and hope.

Once, but not again.

As she falls into herself, as she goes black and white, not even gray, within her heart and body, the horse, he does not save her. The horse, he looks away.

And it all spirals away from her, leaving her empty of the rainbow, leaving her cold—

Except that’s wrong.

That isn’t now.

She isn’t falling into herself, now. She isn’t on the floor of a cave under the rainbow kingdom, desperate with pain, broken by impossibilities.

That isn’t now.

That was a very long time ago.

Now, right now, she is in a very real sky, and hope and truth have found her once again, and she is falling.

She is falling because her horse has broken its leg.

Her marvelous flying horse has broken its leg against a stream of ice, and so of course it cannot fly.

As has been told before, the girl who fell became the rainbow once again. She’d been needed. It wasn’t OK, any more, to leave her in her cold sense of soullessness.

A soulless girl couldn’t have saved the world from the death that had been coming.

As has been told before, once she’d been made whole again, she’d refused to transform back.

She’d understood—

Somehow—

That just because people told her she wasn’t a person, just because they’d shown her the womb of ice from which she’d come, and said, “Look, this is how we made you, this is why we made you, can’t you see that’s not how a person’s born?”—

That such a thing can’t end the meanings that lived inside her heart.

She’d spent years and years amongst the grayness there, and had found an end to shadows.

And now she is falling.

She’d gone to the man she’d thought had been behind it all—

A murky, dismal man; a man who had always sought to purge the colors from the world—

And she’d thought that she could save him. That the goddess she’d become, that the endless seven-colored power she had birthed in herself, that the girl named Wisp and sometimes Rainbow would be able to save him from his misery and show him the wonder that was color, light, and hope.

She’d tried, anyway.

And maybe she’d succeeded, in a way.

But it hadn’t done him any good, or her, as has been told; because, in the end, he wasn’t the villain of the piece.

He wasn’t the villain.

He was a villain, but not the villain, just another murky, dismal little man gone lost in shadows. In the end, all the light could buy for him was a single moment of forgiveness.

The villain, if there was a villain, was a thing of ice and distance.

It was something cold and far and cruel.

It whispered this of others: that

“They are not real.”

It was God, perhaps, or a horse, perhaps, or a snowflake larger than the world; and it hung beyond all world and sound, and brooded, saying:

“What there is, there is of me: there is the light I cast, there is the world of my imagining, there are the dreams I dream and the shadows I have made; and nothing else is real.”

And if it thinks that it is the only reality, the only beauty, the only justice, the only right, then it has, perhaps, an excuse of sorts, for it is not merely cold, and it is not merely ice, this king of shadows and winter that dwells beyond the world.

It is beautiful.

It is beautiful, and it is endless, and it is marvelous, and it sheds forth every beauty; and the rainbow is refracted through that ice; and the world is made from the waters when it melts, and the dirt that it sheds, and the light and shadows it casts forth.

It is self-contained.

It is self-complete.

And yet, in some contingency of motion, it has sent forth its avatar, its child, its element to us within the world, and with a spirit of great mercy. It has sent a piece of itself, an image of itself, a mirror of its icy vastness, to be the most marvelous thing, to live in the dreary world of its creation, to redeem it through the presence of the horse.

It has sacrificed for us, the most terrible and deadly sacrifice; it has chosen to become involved.

It is the pinnacle, is it not, the horse?

Is it not the most marvelous thing in all the world?

And did it not already risk itself—risk its perfection-in-itself, daring unimaginably—to descend beneath the darkness of the world and find a part of itself that dreamt of rainbows, and make a girl of it, and shelter her, and raise her against the darkness like a spear, and teach her the power of the rainbow?

So if it thinks it is the only truth; if it thinks it is the only right; if it thinks there is no justice, that is not the justice of the horse; if it thinks there is no beauty, that is not the beauty of the ice; if it thinks that in the end there are nothing but its shadows and its dreams, then it has an excuse of sorts, for in a very real way it is the author of us all, or at the very least its agent and its representative, the mirror-horse of God—

Most marvelous thing in all the worlds that are, and the brightest, and the best.

And so she came, at the end of her journey, the rainbow girl, to the field of grass and flowers at the center of the city, to the last remaining place of color and brightness (before the rainbow had returned), where the horse still lived, and danced, and woke up in the morning to laugh and play and sing; and to turn its eyes on her as she walked up, it seemed, and say, “Oh, Wisp, you have become my rainbow once again.”

And she knew.

His voice was guileless, as it had always been, as if he knew nothing in the world save love for others and self-praise.

His voice was guileless, but still she knew.

In the center of the crumbled world, in that little piece of paradise, he frolicked, and he looked at her with eyes that made her melt, possessed her with a girlhood that overcame the goddess in her, loved her still, with brightness still they shone, and still she knew.

She touched his mouth.

She swung herself up on his back.

She said, “Oh, my love, you have not forgotten me.”

But she knew what he had done.

They rose into the sky, didn’t they? They flew; or ran, at least, on the rainbow once again. They galloped out over blue skies and high above Gray Death.

She knew he meant to throw her.

“It was your lie,” she told him. “Wasn’t it?”

Right into his ear; which flicked, of course, as if to cast a fly away.

And on they rode in silence, far above the world.

It made her breathless with joy and pain.

“It was your idea,” she said, “to show me the Machine that gave me birth; and to tell me, ‘you are just a doll we made from snow, oh Wisp. You are just a toy. Just a toy, and not a person after all.’”

“It was,” said the horse.

The horse’s shoulders rolled. It said: “You are.”

Its voice was distant ice and starlight and it was pale against the sky.

“What else could you be,” mused the horse, “than a reflection of Myself? What else is there to be, than light against the ice? So I realized, when you brought trouble to my heart. That you are the rainbow, or a girl, or a thing I made, or a thing I loved, but in the end, still, you are just a toy, and of my crafting, like all the shining world.”

She wept for him.

“And so,” said the horse, “I tore you down; and buried you in darkness; and then, for reasons elusive even to myself, I must have set you free.”

She wept for him.

She clung to him and wept for him, knowing that he meant to throw her, because he was the most marvelous horse in the world, and yet—

“You do not know,” she said.

And her voice was seven-toned, like the rainbow; and the tears that flowed from her were as a stream of ice; and he meant to throw her, he really did, but it went wrong, he went wrongfooted, and if you were to find a thing to blame for it, you might say, he slipped or struck his leg upon her tears.

And his perfection was distorted.

And his gait was broken.

And suddenly, because a horse can’t exactly fly if it has a broken leg, he fell.

It struck him as ironic that he would not have to throw her; that he was freed, in the end, of the need to cast her from his back to fall screaming to Gray Death. He would fall, and that would be an end to things. He would die, and the world would end, and nevermore a rainbow to trouble him or make turmoil of his heart.

Right now, dear reader.

Right now, they fall—

He falls—

It falls—

Right now, as you’re reading this story, the horse and the girl are falling, spiraling down through endless sky, with Gray Death looming up below.

And because he is a horse of courage, after all, even maimed and broken, he opens one pure and perfect eye.

She is not falling.

It is terribly unfair.

She is not falling.

She is, instead, laying down with a hand outstretched—oh, moving downwards fast enough, and technically perhaps that counts as ‘she is falling,’ but she is descending as a skydiver descends, or a stooping bird, not as a mortal plummeting to her death—

Laying on the rainbow, outstretched beside him in the sky.

Unfairly, she is reaching for him, supported by the rainbow, calling out over and over again for him to live—

He squinches closed both eyes.

The world moves far away, then farther, then farther again, until even Wisp seems to him twice as distant as the sky.

Ice closes about him, and rainbows.

“I’ve broken my leg, you foolish girl,” he says, and casts aside her power, and lets the wind and shadows carry him downwards to his grave.

Flutter,
flutter,
Flutter,

Down to the world below.

And there is a moment where the ice shatters, as he strikes against Gray Death.

There is a moment where the shadows seem to boil and drain away, plunging down through the jagged edges of the mountains to drown some other land.

There is a pure and crystal darkness, and finally, a light.

The rainbow hits the mountains, dances about them for a moment amidst a rain of ice, strives as rainbows strive to lift the broken and the dead.

And then, it flies away.

unknown authorship; part of the “Rainbow Collection” of documents assembled during Congress’ 1954 investigation into various Un-American Activities on the part of Un-American Activities Bear.

Shushiriken

The target drinks miso soup. This lightens the target’s heart and buoys their senses.

The target takes a bit of wasabi and puts it in a bowl. The target adds soy sauce. The target stirs until the wasabi is evenly distributed through the soy.

This is the correct moment in which to throw unagi shushiriken.

Unagi shushiriken uses electric eel. It may therefore electrify the target. The target convulses. One hand dips into the wasabi-soy mixture. Lightning plays across the surface of the soy. Then the target slumps.

It is traditional for the target to refresh themselves at this point with a bite of pickled radish, but it is also impossible.

If you use tamago shushiriken the target will have egg on their face.

Sometimes a ninja will have no access to sushi. In such a case it is traditional for them to go into a fit of rage and bread everything around them. This is known as a tempura tantrum.

Performed on a lover, this is instead tempura tantrick. It is called a trick because we do not bread the ones we love.

Some ebi shushuriken still has the head of the various shrimps attached. It is traditional for the ninja to remove the head of the shrimp and then the head of the target. If this order becomes confused comic eventualities may ensue.

A ninja may lose face by using dynamite roll shushiriken improperly. In such a case it is best to attach a new face using sticky rice and sometimes seaweed. Attaching a new face without using rice is the affair of sashimurai and is not appropriate for ninjas.

Fatty tuna shushiriken batters the target with blunt force. There is a widespread social prejudice against fatty tuna shushiriken. Certain ninjas believe that this emerges from unrealistic norms and a positive social delight in demonizing others. Other ninjas disagree. Both are in any case ruthless killers.

Mekajiki shushiriken is as sharp as a sword. Some ninjas use mekajiki shushiriken to kill their targets. Others say, “Wait, why not just use a sword?” This is the heart of most of the great ninja philosophical arguments. The remaining great ninja philosophical arguments concern brains in vats on trolleys making decisions through veils of ningjorance.

California roll shushiriken is not thrown. Rather it is rolled along the floor to the target. This shushiriken works best for assassinations in California. If you were to use california roll shushiriken in Montana everyone would look at you funny.

Mirugai shushiriken employs surf clams to ensure that a target either surfs or clams up. The other role is taken by the ninja. This is another form of shushiriken best employed in California, but the requirement is less strict.

Tako shushiriken is actually a Mexican ninja weapon. Every now and then a Mexican ninja must travel to Japan to show disrespectful gringojin clans the true way of the tako shushiriken. The lesson is spicy but soon forgotten.

Tai shushiriken is made from sea bream. Often the target will not know they have been killed by the shushiriken for many days. Instead they walk around in a daze and wonder if it was all just a beautiful bream. Then they realize the truth and plummet dead into the sea. This is known as the “death touch,” but the ninja will not actually touch the target. That would be considered “unhygienic” and would detract from the target’s delicious shushiriken experience.

Everyone should have as delicious an experience as possible before they die, particularly if they are being killed by traditional Japanese assassins. That’s the firm resolution of a shushiriken ninja!

R&R

The missiles shatter the city of grey glass. They take the rooftops off, send the minarets tumbling, and make great flashes of light in the distance on the sloughing plains.

The alien peers through his office window at the flashes.

His neck is long.

His skin is blue and gray. His body is like an ichthyosaur’s, if the inexorable force of evolution had selected ichthyosaurs generation after generation for office labor—condensed, inoffensive, and amphibious, with the belly gently rounded and the flippers modified into clever handling paws.

His face is solemn, round, and unreadable to human eyes.

For a while after the missiles stop the alien tries to work. He assembles colorful blocks of substance into meaningful shapes. He flails with his flippers at something that might have been a keyboard. Finally, though, he walks into another office and speaks to the shadowed alien there.

His words cannot be heard over the sounds of the city and its crumbling. His gestures are slow at first, then fervent.

There is a moment of parting and a burning of all bridges.

The alien leaves his work behind.

He trudges from the city, briefcase at his side, but after a time he tosses it away. He straightens his shoulders as if finding freedom. He reaches the shore and slips himself into the water and swims down into the depths of a great gray sea.

There is a farm of swaying fungus there, and over the years—

Tended by the alien—

It grows.

The fish that swim and dart among the fungus become more numerous, and the harvests thick and rich. There is no war here. There is no paperwork.

Sometimes other aliens visit him.

Sometimes he mates. Possibly he mates. Possibly he simply says hello.

He is an alien.

It is not clear.

One winter the sea freezes. It freezes slowly, slowly, downwards from the top. He works hard to shatter the ice as it builds around his crop but in the end he must retreat to further depths and huddle by a volcanic vent. When he returns the crops are like slurpees made of corn.

He begins again.

It is twenty years at least—thirty perhaps—when he is digging beside his crop and strikes the metal of some long-buried and great device of war.

He unearths it.

There is a hatch on one side. It takes him great effort to open the hatch as his hands are not designed for human wheels.

There is blood in the water by the time he wrests it open and goes inside to the strangely lighted innards of the missile sent by man.

There is soft music inside and carpets on its floor, both ruined by the sea.

In the front there is a place to sit—the which he does not use—and a terminal on which to type.

He turns it on.

He presses a few buttons. He wakes it into life.

He watches as Rick Astley sings, and the expression of the alien is not clear as he strives to understand the meaning of the ruin of his world.