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.

Rainbow Noir: The Case of Mr. Dismal

It is at last my pleasure to report to you, gentle audience, more of the history and legends of that magical land of rainbows that is high above the mortal Earth. Certainly you will remember how that land was troubled by the endless machinations of Mr. Dismal, until at last it was cast into shadow and its greatest defender shattered and broken; and you will also remember how, in Rainbow Noir, that defender at last recognized the truths of her own nature and took up the rainbow once again. But what came of her struggles afterwards? I have scrounged the world for this secret, I have plunged into hidden libraries and bartered with eclectic monks; and now, with the final autopsy report on Mr. Dismal in my hands, I think I can explain.

With no further ado . . .

The Case of Mr. Dismal

Mr. Dismal works in Shadow City. He stamps papers. He files reports. He is a gray little man who moves in a gray little world

It has been seven years since he looked out the window.

It has been seven years since his heart last beat.

But now it is 1952, and out beyond the city, the rainbow stirs.

He hears a sound.

“What is this terrible sound?” asks Mr. Dismal. He listens. It comes again. It is his heart.

There is terror in Mr. Dismal now. There is terror in him, but he must hide it. So he sips from his coffee and he tries to concentrate on his work.

There is a flicker of color at the edge of his vision. He looks south.

Mr. Dismal chokes on his coffee. He staggers away from the window.

“Heaven and Earth,” he says.

The rainbow has returned.

“You are weak, Mr. Dismal,” says Mr. Dismal.

He looks in the mirror.

“Creating Shadow City was necessary,” says Mr. Dismal. “I should not apologize. I must not apologize. And I will not apologize.”

Mr. Dismal’s face is like his suit: pale, cold, and grey.

Barren and cold, he says, “I could not have known.”

It is a bright spring day in 1947, and Mr. Dismal goes to his great grime machine, and he pours translucent crystals in. He stirs, and from the bubbling depths come horrors. These are the horrors that eat apologetic men. They have long arching limbs and those limbs end in hooks. They are like spiders and they are like snarls of twine. They are pale. They are large but they can fit themselves into the smallest spaces. They live in the nooks between the cabinets and the files. They live in the little shadow behind the coffeemaker. They curl up in the tips of his shoes and the corners of untended piles.

And his heart, it does not beat.

There is a trembling and a rattling in the room.

Mr. Dismal walks to the corner. He sits down. He makes himself very small. But it does not help because Mr. Dismal’s nose is very large.

The cabinets fall over.

The door shatters.

“I am here,” says the rainbow girl.

It is 1952, and Rainbow Land is dead. That’s what Mr. Dismal thought. That’s what everybody knew.

There aren’t any colors there any more. There isn’t any rainbow. There’s just Shadow City, dull, gloomy, and drab.

But this girl has color in her. And the room has color in it. And there is a stain of brown coffee on Mr. Dismal’s financial reports, and his skin is the color of smog.

“I do not believe in you,” says Mr. Dismal. “I do not believe in your rainbow.”

The rainbow girl gives him a defiant smile. There is a stirring and a strengthening of the colors in the air.

“It is the weak-minded and cowardly,” she says, “Mr. Dismal, who must deny the truth.”

Mr. Dismal’s nose twitches.

“Go away,” he says.

The rainbow girl shakes her head and smiles.

“I am taking over,” she says. “Do you run this place? Are you the master of Shadow City? Are you the one whom I must topple from the throne?”

Mr. Dismal laughs.

He laughs and he laughs.

“I’m just a functionary,” he says, like it’s the most priceless joke imaginable. “Do you understand that, rainbow girl? You don’t want me.

“Pathetic, Mr. Dismal,” sneers Mr. Dismal.

He looks in the mirror.

“It is an inevitable historic truth that where color flourishes, so flourishes decay. It is color that tempts men and women to lasciviousness. It is color that prompts them to gluttony. It is color that makes the things of the world desirable to us, and it is color that ruins that detachment that allows us to be good. Thus it was necessary. It was necessary and it was important, what I have done. To destroy the the reign of color was worth any price. I must not repent. I must not betray and disavow my principles with repentance. For if I am not constant in my principles then what merit can they have?”

Mr. Dismal’s face is like the world: pale, cold, and grey.

Barren and bitter, he says, “I could not have known.”

It is a sullen winter day in 1949, and Mr. Dismal goes to his great grime machine, and he pours translucent crystals in. He stirs, and from the bubbling depths of the machine come horrors. This time they are the wind-wolves, the horrors of the air that fall on those who admit the flaws in their expressions of morality. They are cold and their eyes are fierce and they are beautiful. When the wind blows, their heads and shoulders stream forth from its gusts. They chase the circling leaves in the streets. They howl in windy nights at the moon. And Mr. Dismal knows that if he should say, just once, that he was wrong, the wind will blow; and the air will chill; and the world will sing with the hunting cries of wolves.

The rainbow girl stares at Mr. Dismal for a long, long time.

“No,” she says. “No. That is impossible. I know your crimes of old. You have always opposed the truth of Rainbow Land. It must be you.”

“He came to me,” says Mr. Dismal. “He came to me, like the King of Shadows reborn, and he said, ‘you strive always to steal the colors from Rainbow Land, without reward, while we work all our lives to give them away for free. Let us compromise. Let us remove this troublesome girl, and drown this land in despond, and sell a tiny bit of color at a time.”

Mr. Dismal’s voice is crisp and precise and he bites out each syllable.

“And I agreed. I agreed because it was right. I agreed because it was good. It was a victory that justified its price. I partake of the profits and I bend my knee in compromise but in the end the acts that shattered you were not mine; and Shadow City is not mine; and it is not my fault.”

“And what of Earth?”

Mr. Dismal clenches his teeth.

“I stole the color from Rainbow Land,” he hisses. “I won. I saved the land. I have always striven to do what is right and what is expected of me and it was not wrong.”

“Did he tell you,” says the rainbow girl, “that I wanted to stop the war?”

“Sniveling worm, Mr. Dismal,” says Mr. Dismal.

Mr. Dismal looks in the mirror.

“How dare you even think of it as crime?”

He’s been staring at photographs of the concentration camps again. He’s been staring at the faces.

“People who can’t live with the consequences of their actions, Mr. Dismal, don’t deserve moral agency. Don’t you dare go thinking that your virtue owes a debt.”

It’s a windy autumn in 1950 and Mr. Dismal goes to his great grime machine. He pours translucent crystals in.

He’s muttering to himself. He’s saying: “There were plenty of other magical kingdoms that could have done something. There were the Bears. There was Voltron. There was God. Wasn’t there? I just wanted to get rid of Rainbow Land’s colors. That’s all I was trying to do.”

He stirs, and from the bubbling depths of the grime machine come the terrible malachite creatures of judgment. These are the things of faces and wings and teeth, great grinding wheels, fires, storms, and ice. These are the creatures that visit themselves upon those who are humble in the face of their transgressions. These are the blades that fall on those who recognize that they have failed to be good. They guard the gates of wisdom and make men believe their own perfection.

“You will kill me,” says Mr. Dismal, “if I falter. If I let myself—“

Then he shakes it off, and he goes to work in the files of Shadow City, portioning out color and the gloomy shadows for yet another day.

His heart still does not beat, and the malachites are watching.

The rainbow girl’s eyes are piercing and sad.

“I want you to go away,” says Mr. Dismal. “Leave me alone. It’s not your place, rainbow girl. It’s not your place to be cruel.”

Then the rainbow girl squats down beside him. She puts her hand on Mr. Dismal’s knee.

“I’m not cruel,” she says. “It is you who have locked away your heart. I’ll free it for you.”

“I did not ask for your help, rainbow girl.”

Mr. Dismal stands up. He is terrified, but he moves with stiff decorum. He goes to his desk. He gathers up his papers. He shuffles them into a folder and begins to walk out the door.

“I am leaving now,” he says.

“You just need a little color to lighten you up,” says the rainbow girl, and she laughs; and the rainbow touches him; and he tastes the rainbow; and the smog of his complexion becomes a pure and shining gold. The dismal garb he wears becomes a rich and textured gray. His eyes sparkle. His moustache shines. And there is something human in his eyes.

The weight of it hits him all at once and knocks him to the floor.

“Oh God,” he says.

The rainbow girl grins. She pats him on the head. “See? Was that so hard?”

He is crying, now, great wrenching sobs.

“Oh God,” he says. And he does not say what he wants. Because what he wants is to find some way to make it right. He wants to give his life in labor and in service and count it as nothing if it should answer the smallest portion of his wrong.

But it would not.

And he does not have that time.

“I’m sorry,” says Mr. Dismal. “I’m sorry I was blind.”

There are noises and there is silence and there is a long, thoughtful pause.

“Huh,” says the rainbow girl.

“It is not meet, Mr. Dismal.”

He stares into a mirror.

“It is not meet for good men to bear reproach.”

It’s almost an hour later when Mr. Dismal’s secretary pokes his head into the room.

“Mr. Dismal?” he asks. “Mr. Dismal?—oh, dear.”

The body is in pieces, and the pieces are in a pile, and the pile is bright with vivid color; and its spine does not work, and its brain does not work, and its kidneys and neck and chest are shreds.

The heart, in the center of the pile, still beats.

Rainbow Noir

Long ago there was a girl who guarded Rainbow Land. Long ago there were magical bears that lived on clouds up in the sky.

Long ago there was a beautiful and perfect world.

It’s 1952, and Rainbow Land is dead. There’s only Shadow City now. It’s dark and it’s drab but there are glimmers of color here and there around the edges. The shine on the edge of the gang members’ leathers. The shimmer that runs down the length of their guns. The little rainbows you can see in a glass of gin when you hold it up to the light.

Terrence is a sprite. He’s small and cute, covered in gray fur. In another kind of place, it might be a soft and fluffy white. He’s wearing a trenchcoat and a hat. He holds up his glass. He shakes it. Ice cubes clink one against the other. At the edge, the rainbows shine.

“Hey.”

It’s a girl’s voice. He ignores it. Girls are nothing but trouble. But she says it again. “Hey.” A blood-red hand comes to rest on his shoulder. “Terrence.”

“One of my sins,” he asks, “come home to roost?”

“In three hours,” she says, “everyone in Shadow City will die.”

He sets his drink down on the bar and turns. He sees a flare of red and terrible light.

There’s a mansion at the edge of Shadow City. It’s cold white marble, edged in black. In the mornings, the sun casts pale light over its garden and in through its windows. At night, its lights don’t come on. The girl who lives there sits in a chair and looks at the wall, in moonlight or in darkness, and lets her hair grow long.

She hears a bell ring. She rises from her chair. She walks, tall, graceful, and lithe, to the door; and out; and down the garden path to the great black gates.

A man’s standing there. He’s fading away to nothing. He’s drowning in shadows. His face is blurry. “Help me,” he says.

“I don’t have anything for you,” she says.

“Color,” he says. “I need color.”

Her hand comes up to her face. It traces the cold black edge of her chin. It runs across the bleak white of her cheek. It passes across her eyes, two wells of darkness in a perfect face. “I don’t have any,” she says. “I never did.”

She turns and walks away.

“I believe in your rainbow!” he cries.

She walks back to her chair. She sits down. She waits. The man dissolves into darkness.

Terrence wakes, slowly. He looks around. He’s in a car. It’s moving fast. He can make out the driver’s face in the rear-view mirror, but she’s no one he knows.

“Who are you?” he asks.

“Femme Fatale Bear,” she says. “I use sexual forthrightness to unlock the inner desires of men.”

“Sorry, babe,” he says. “Sprites don’t do that kind of thing.”

She smirks.

“Okay,” he admits. “But it’s more ethereal with us. Sprites, we like to get our kids by stork or cabbage, not by knocking up some bear with our star sprinkles, capisce?”

“That’s not what you were moaning in your sleep.”

Terrence frowns in faint memory, then shakes it off. “If this is a kidnapping, you’ve got the wrong sprite. There’s no one left who’d pay a cent for me.”

“You know my kind,” she says.

“Yeah.” He shrugs. His species’ natural deelyboppers wobble. “Magical bears. You live on clouds and ride rainbows around to bestow your gifts on humankind. Am I supposed to be impressed?”

“No,” she says. “There’s no place in the world for that kind of thing any more. It’s a darker time, Twink.”

“Terrence,” he says. “Terrence is the name.”

“It’s a darker time. It calls for a darker bear. All the originals—they shut themselves away back when the rainbows turned monochrome and the stars stopped shining so bright. It’s hard to spread cheer when people’ll kill one another for a little bit of color. It’s hard to spread tender affection when good, honest girls are selling themselves on the streets just so their lips can be red and their hair gold for another few hours of the night. So now there’s just the five of us. Alienation Bear, and Transgression Bear, and Fatalism Bear, and me.”

“That’s four,” Terrence says, and then bites his lip. I’m playing her game, he tells himself. I should know better.

“Nihilism Bear,” she says. “The end-of-everything bear. The bastard bear at the heart of the void. In . . . just under two and a half hours . . . he’s going to stand outside Shadow City and use his Nihilism Bear Stare; and then there won’t be any star sprinkles, or any Shadow City, or any sprites, or even any Earth. Just the great long hungry void.”

“Why’d he wait so long?”

“He wasn’t like this when it started,” she says. “For years, he’s been caring less and less. He’s become a regular grumpy-puss. So last night, he made the decision. ‘Make your goodbyes,’ he said. ‘In the morning, I’ll end the world.'”

Terrence suddenly sits bolt upright. “I can’t help you,” he says. There’s panic in his voice.

“We all pled with him,” she says. “We even tried working together. We all stood next to one another, our bellies bright with the symbols of our aspects and our attributes, and as one we stared. The padlock of alienation, the lipstick of transgression, the hourglass of fatalism, and the broken heart of the femme fatale — our magical bear symbols sprang forth from our stomachs in rays of light and merged into a glorious rainbow of sheer caring. But he only laughed; for he had moved beyond such mortal concerns.”

“No,” Terrence says, vigorously. “I mean, I really can’t help. It’s totally impossible. I can’t do what you think I can. You need to find someone else.”

“You can’t wake the rainbow?”

“She’d never listen to me,” he protests. “Not now.”

Femme Fatale Bear studies him in the mirror. Then she laughs. “You’re afraid, pookie. But you’ll do it for me, won’t you?”

He shakes his head, but the symbol on her stomach is beginning to glow, and the car fills with carmine light. There’s a brilliant beam of energy, the reddest he’s seen in more than a dozen years, and it glances off the mirror to shine full into his eyes.

“Heaven and Earth,” he whimpers.

“You have to help me,” she says, voice almost breaking. “I don’t want to die.”

Terrence closes his eyes and slumps back. “Fine,” he says. “Fine. I’ll talk to her. I’ll talk to her. Please . . . just . . . don’t do that. You’re . . . it’s too much.”

The light fades, and the car pulls up outside the mansion gates.

Wisp looks up as she hears a bell ring. “Twice in one night,” she whispers. “That’s not common.” She rises from her chair. She walks, tall, graceful, and lithe, to the door; and out; and down the garden path to the great black gates.

“Terrence,” she says, to the sprite who waits for her there.

“Rainbow,” he cries. It’s a soft and wounded noise.

“Wisp,” she says.

“Wisp.” He looks up at her, pleading. He trembles. He’s terrified of her. She only looks sad, but he’s shaking like a leaf.

“I don’t have anything for you,” she says.

“Wisp,” he says softly. “Please. Get your magic belt. Put it on. If you don’t harness the power of the rainbow, Nihilism Bear will kill us all.”

She tilts her head to one side. She blinks. “Ask me to move aside a mountain to save a trapped child, and I will stand at its base and push. Ask me to run a thousand miles without stopping, that a starving man might find a meal, and I will set my feet upon that course and run. Ask me to sing to charm the angels, or cut out my tongue to staunch the devil’s hate. Do not ask me this.”

Terrence hesitates. He closes his eyes in pain. Then he says, softly, “I lied to you.”

Wisp’s face is still. Her eyes draw in the moonlight. After a long moment, she says, “Why?”

“It was necessary,” he whispers. Leaves skitter across the road.

“You showed me the machine that made me,” she says. “It wasn’t a lie. I was never a real girl. I was just a thing the sprites put together to save Rainbow Land from darkness. You poured in the star sprinkles and out came a girl.”

“That was true,” Terrence answers.

Wisp’s eyes narrow. There’s a glint in them now that chills. “Then the rest is true,” she says. “I have no heart. I have no life. I have no magic. I’m just a tool. A thing. A vessel for power.”

Behind his back, Terrence crosses his fingers. “That’s true,” he says, “but only when you don’t have sprinkles. Don’t you understand, Wisp? When I put the magic in you, you’re a real person. Your hopes are real hopes. Your dreams are real dreams.”

Fast as a striking whip, she has one hand on each of his shoulders and has him pressed back against the stone arch that holds her gate. She’s grown now. She’s twice her old height and her muscles are strong. She leans into his face. “Why?” she hisses. “Why didn’t you tell me that then?

“You were a threat,” he answers. “Wisp, it wasn’t my idea. You have to believe me. I had orders! You were a threat!”

Her eyes scan his face. “A threat.”

“Don’t you know what it would have done?”

“I could have stopped the war,” she says. “I could have stopped the killing. But I didn’t. Because I’m not a person. You’re telling me I could have been?”

Some strength returns to Terrence’s eyes. His voice is sharp and resonant. “It was not appropriate for Rainbow Land to get involved. Earth would have found us. They would have annexed us. We wouldn’t have Rainbow Land. We wouldn’t have Shadow City. We’d have nothing.

She holds him there for a moment, then drops him. “It doesn’t matter,” she says. “Give me a heart. I’ll fight Nihilism Bear.”

She holds up her hands, and a rainbow-symbol belt slithers through the air from her house to land in them. She buckles it around her waist, exhaling like a cinched horse. Solemnly, Terrence extends to her a handful of colored stars. She takes them. The air around her shimmers and gleams like a soap bubble, thousands of colors livid in the night. She makes a high and maddened keening noise. The paleness and darkness of her drips away like paint washing off of ice. Then there comes silence. When Wisp next speaks, her voice comes in seven tones and strikes into his consciousness like a god’s.

“Where shall I go?” she says.

Mutely, he gestures to the car. She laughs a little. “No budget for a magic horse?” she sings.

“Lady,” he whispers. “Had I the means, I would give you the stars; and the sky; and a magic horse besides. But now, I have a car, and a fuzzy red bear representing sexual empowerment; this only, and my life.”

She opens the door. She climbs in. She gestures, and he climbs over her into the other seat. The bear gets in the front, buckles up, and drives.

“Femme Fatale Bear,” she says.

“Wisp.”

“He’s mine,” the bear clarifies. “My sprite. Now. I won’t let anyone else have him.”

Wisp laughs. “Our contest, Bear, is for another time, and another place.”

The bear slams a foot down on the accelerator and the car screeches away. “We’ll get to the city’s edge before Nihilism Bear,” she says. “Unless we get attacked by random monsters who serve only to prolong the action and suspense.”

Wisp smiles. “It . . . has been some time,” she murmurs, polytonally. “It has been some time since I was randomly attacked by monsters. I almost miss it. Such things do not happen in Shadow City.”

“No,” agrees Femme Fatale Bear. “Yet . . . perhaps times change.” She gestures out the front window towards the strange alien monster that straddles the road, ten miles ahead.

“It’s okay,” Wisp sings. “It will delay us, and nothing more.”

Nihilism Bear’s alarm rings. He stretches sleepily. He pulls himself upright in bed. The sun shines fully upon him. “Huh?” he asks. “It’s 9 o’clock? I was sure I set my alarm for 7.” He stands up and putters about the room. He brushes his teeth. He pulls on a cap to cover his mullet. “Bother. Someone must have changed it. Now I’ll be late to destroy the city.”

He wanders out onto his cloud. “Hello sun!” he cries out. “I’ll be destroying you today. Hello butterfly! Your days are numbered. Hello bird! Life is a pointless parade of misfortune and anguish.” The sun twinkles merrily. The butterfly whirls around his head. The bird tweets, twice.

Nihilism Bear grabs a giant nihilism balloon and floats towards Shadow City. He touches ground at the edge. He yawns. “Huh. I guess no one’s going to try to stop me. All right,” he says, sharply. “Nihilism Bear Stare!”

He huffs. He puffs. He takes a deep breath and the shiny formless shadow that marks his stomach glimmers and glistens. Then a wind rises from beyond, and the air goes chill; and there’s a piping from far away of maddened, mindless flutes. In the alleys of Shadow City, a drunk girl takes out her knife and holds it to her wrist. On its streets, gang members strut and preen. In the high towers, gray bureaucrats push the papers about that allocate the city’s color to the few. The void rises from Nihilism Bear to consume Shadow City, and the void takes breath.

A glimmering rainbow rises to meet it. P’a chao! Color and shadow begin to drizzle from the sky.

Nihilism Bear exhales, startled. The darkness dissolves. “Good morning!” he exclaims. Three figures stride towards him through the chromatic rain. “It’s Femme Fatale Bear! You must introduce me to your friends.”

“These,” she says, softly, “are Wisp, who is the Rainbow, and Terrence, her sprite; and they shall bring your madness to an end.”

Nihilism Bear shakes himself, tummy wiggling. “We’ll see about that. Nihilism Bear Stare!”

The symbol arcs from his chest and strikes Wisp’s heart.

“A lot of people get confused,” he says companionably, as she screams and sinks to her knees. “They start thinking that it’s better to exist than not to exist. That’s why you have Nihilism Bear. I bring the enlightenment of the void. I teach children that it’s all right to set aside the burdens of their life and dance forever in nothingness. My motto is, ‘Stop crying — start dying!’ You look like a girl who needs a fresh dose of nihilism. Have you been imagining that life has a point? That’s a good dream, but all it does in the long run is make you hurt more. When you realize it’s all a futile, endless cavalcade of pain, it makes all that struggling you did kind of stupid. Doesn’t it?”

“I saved the universe once,” she says.

“Tsk, tsk.” He points his fuzzy paw at her. “Bang.”

Wisp slumps.

Nihilism Bear relaxes the black glow, and turns to face the other two. His hand goes out to them, palm up, and he wriggles his fused furry fingers in invitation. “Nihilism Bear is hot today. Who else wants some?”

“Wisp,” whispers Terrence. “You can’t die.”

“What?” asks Nihilism Bear.

“You can’t die, Wisp!” Terrence shouts, hardened demeanor slipping. “Then I wouldn’t see you for days and days! I believe in your rainbow, Wisp!”

“Bah,” Nihilism Bear sneers, and the black glow plays across Terrence and Femme Fatale Bear alike. “Your belief doesn’t matter.”

“It does.” The voice is single-toned.

Nihilism Bear turns back to Wisp, who straightens, slowly and painfully.

“It’s one thing to doubt your purpose when you’re just a lost, tired girl gripped in a miasma of existentialist doubt,” Wisp says. Her voice has two tones now, and rising. “But when a gray fuzzy alien in a trenchcoat declares that you can generate color and possibility out of the magic belt you wore when you were a little girl, then maybe — just maybe — the philosophy behind it all isn’t really that important.”

“Oh, hon,” Nihilism Bear says, moved. “You really do need more nihilism in your life. Do you want me to sing the nihilism song?”

Once again, the black wars with the rainbow, against the sound of flutes; and a long seven-toned scream; and then there’s silence.

In Shadow City, a girl fumbles and drops her knife. A thug pauses, and sniffs the air. A bureaucrat, for the first time in seven years, looks out his window to regard the street.

A bird sings.

Terrence opens his eyes. The air is blindingly bright. It’s full of swirls of color. In the center of it all there hangs a girl, her body limp, her eyes closed, and nothing in her expression that is human.

A symbol shines upon Terrence, falling from far away upon a cloud: the lipstick mark of Transgression Bear. In that spotlight he stands, frozen. This is Transgression Bear’s purpose: to teach children and sinners that they must pay for their crimes.

Wisp’s eyes snap open.

“It’s time,” Terrence croaks. “It’s time to take the belt back off. You’ll run out of star sprinkles soon. You won’t have a heart. But it’s good, right? You saved the world. You proved that you’re a true and glorious rainbow.”

“Oh, Terrence,” murmurs the goddess at the rainbow’s heart. “You have lied to me again.”

She takes off the belt. She drops it. It lands, below her, with a clunk. She smiles at him. It’s fierce. It’s predatory. She does not fall.

“You see?” she says, softly. “You lied to me. I never lacked a soul.” She is silent for a moment. “It is not a thing I deserved,” she adds. “That my fuzzy magical companion should be so cruel.”

A length of rainbow lashes out to stroke under his chin.

Once again, Terrence straightens. He glares at her. “Then kill me. I’ve been waiting more’n ten years for you to wake up and put that rainbow through my heart. I won’t be afraid of you. Make an end to it! Make an end to it, Rainbow!”

“No,” she says, and smiles. The rainbows around her slither faster and faster through the air. He feels his mind drifting away into the shifting colors; and it is beyond Terrence the sprite to speak or move or think now.

“It’s not my job,” she says, softly. “I’m not here for revenge.”

The rainbows merge and twist, and the rope of them plunges endlessly into Terrence’s eyes. He shivers. He opens his mouth to scream, and another rainbow plunges in. The gray fades. The white returns, and his fur burns like a star. The trenchcoat whips in the wind and rips away. His hat flies off. He sinks to the ground. The rainbows withdraw.

“I name you Glorious Servant,” she says.

Glorious bounces happily. “All right, Wisp! Thanks for chasing my gloom away. I bet it’s time to bring some color back to Rainbow Land!”

Wisp smiles.

In the alleys, a girl gropes on hands and knees to find her knife. She’s drunk. It’s hard to find. There are only so many places it could be. So many garbage cans, so much waste-strewn ground. She finds it. She brings it to her wrist. “I can’t stop just because I had a moment’s hope,” she says. “There’s so much more despair.”

In the distance, beyond the city’s edge, a tide rises.

In the high towers, a bureaucrat sees the tide. He chokes on his coffee and staggers back away from the window. “Heaven and Earth.”

The tide crests.

The girl cuts. Her white arm begins to trickle deep black blood. She cuts again.

The wave falls.

Spatters of coffee, sinking into the bureaucrat’s papers, shimmer a bright and wooden brown. The cuts on the girl’s wrist shine; her skin turns flush and pink, her blood a pure wine-red. The shadows and grime of Shadow City fade. The bandanas of the gangs shine a brilliant blue, save for the one that is green; and a gangster realizes with cold terror that he’s been hanging out with his blood enemies for the past ten years.

There’s a wind, and it carries a message from the rainbow girl.

“Hi,” says the wind.

“This is my city now.”

There is no blood that flows but red; and no tears that fall that are not jewels; and for a time, of Rainbow Land, we hear no more.