The No-Good Bird (I/I)

Sing, muse, of Melanie, beloved of the gods, and how she came at last, and with her army, to Elm Hill. Tell us how she led unto that place a tattered host of women and of men; of humans, and of gods; and among that host a black dog and a flying god and the Keeper of the Wheel; and Threnody, who held the thunderbolt in this degenerate and broken age; and, for now, and for the shortest time to come, the grangler. Tell us how the footfalls of her soldiers beat down on the asphalt way. Tell us how the wind blew all around them and grey the storm clouds came. Tell us of the laughing joy that filled her, despite the darkness of that day; and tell us of the grangler, that old ghost, and how it died.

At Elm Hill there is a building old and rank, and in its basement many cages, and it is abandoned now, but once—not so many years ago—it was a place of suffering for Liril and for Jane.

At Elm Hill is a facility.

As Cunning Melanie leads her army to that place, she sees an omen, and it comes upon her thus. From a copse of trees by the building’s gates there flies a bird, and the bird flies out over her host, and the number of its wings is four, and it is growing larger as it comes, and it holds the grangler in its claws, and the grangler holds it, and the bird—to all appearances—is dead.

She stares at it as it flies.

The omen is elaborate. It takes her a long moment’s stare to decide that she is seeing a real thing and not a vision sent her by the gods.

“Threnody,” she says.

Threnody looks up. Her eyes seethe with the whiteness of the storm. The bird is struck by lightning, from clear sky.

It shrieks.

It does not fall.

Threnody’s expression grows tight with anger. “Dead things ought not shriek,” she says.

She stands in a javelin-thrower’s stance. Her hand begins to burn with light. Then it is as if the sky has hurled the fire of the sun directly to her hand; the thunder roars across the hill; and the bird is shattering, splaying out and sundering into bits, falling like a gross and gobbet rain, and the metal chains with which Threnody weights down her hair do her no longer any good, for it has fluffed out like a cloud.

A chunk of bird hits the ground between them, rolls like the debris from an explosion, bounces from a rock, and jumps past Melanie’s right leg.

A drop of filth would have touched her cheek, but doesn’t.

Before the end of its trajectory it decides to swerve, instead. For she is Melanie, cunning Melanie, beloved of the gods.

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

They gather around the ruin.

The creature’s heart is beating. It’s stuttering in its fear. It will continue to beat—this is Melanie’s guess—for three more darknesses and three dawns.

Where the chunks of the bird have struck the ground the earth is bursting forth in life—grass and grains and trees are exploding upwards, and new elms are already building-height.

As for the grangler, he’s broken.

He oughtn’t really be able to be broken, since he’s a ghost and all, but the thunderbolt passed too close to him before he fell.

She squats down beside it.

“So,” she says.

It reaches for her leg. She shakes her head, and its hand falls back.

“Now it came to pass,” Melanie says, “after the death of Moses, that the Lord spake unto Joshua, the son of Nun, saying, ‘Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, thou, and all this people, unto the land which I do give them, even to the children of Israel.’”

“It’s so,” the grangler concedes.

“And to Jericho he sent two men to spy secretly, and determine the nature of its readiness; and they took shelter with the harlot Rahab; and when the King of Jericho learned of the spies’ presence and their purpose, she preserved them, kept them safe, if only they would promise that Israel would spare her family and their possessions when Jericho’s walls came tumbling down.”

And the story is a pleasantry amidst the grangler’s great pain, a coolth inside its fire, and it says, “It’s so.”

“And they said: tie a scarlet cord, a grangler, to the window when we come; and by that bond of blood shall we be held to you and yours, and you to we, and never to let go.”

It occurs to the grangler that it is dying.

It is impossible to imagine it—to die, and after so very many years.

“And it tangled you up in that red, red cord, and bound to a sacred trust; but—oh, grangler. Oh, grangler. Look upon you now.”

He is a very old ghost, is the grangler. He’s a god of hanging on. But the edges of the world are fraying for him, just like the untwisting of a rope, and her words have loosened a string wound round his heart.

She lets him touch her, then, though he cannot hold her.

He rests his claw upon her hand.

“It was a no-good bird,” the grangler says.

“Was it?”

It is struggling to rise, but it cannot rise. It is struggling to look at her, but her eyes are far too kind. It is desperate with a sudden need of justification, and it pulls its claw back to its chest and hugs it there and says, “It was a Liril-bird, milady, it was a bird-god made by Liril, oh, milady, she is there, she unleashed a growing god.”

Melanie blinks at the grangler.

Its words confound her. She cannot quite grasp them.

“Liril,” she says.

“She is encamped there, I could smell it, I could taste it on the bird.”

“Liril,” Melanie says again.

“She is.”

There is no reason for it that Melanie can possibly imagine. She knows where Liril is. Liril is in Santa Ynez, guarded by her brother Micah, protected by him from humans and gods alike.

Liril is not in the cages beneath Elm Hill.

That was before, Melanie thinks, clearly. That was back then. The facility is abandoned. The cages are empty. Liril cannot possibly be there.

She looks up.

She stares blankly at the facility at Elm Hill.

She is not here for Liril. She is here for a temporary base of operations. She is here because she has no other place to go, her and her ragged army, driven from their homes—

“More valuable than frankincense,” she says.

It’s from a song the monster sang to her, a long, long time ago.

“More valuable than gold.”

Children like Liril are the source of granglers and thunderbolts, of flying carpets, angels, fiends, and killing gods, after all.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


May 28, 2004

Does she know we’re here?” Melanie asks.

She is angry at herself.

The question is wasteful. She discards it. She asks the only question that has relevance.

Is she afraid?

But the grangler is dead.

To Serve the String (I/I)

Melanie walks into a bar.

THUNK!

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


April 18, 1989

It’s in a rubbish bin in Jericho that she finds the grangler. He’s a spirit bound to a red, red cord. He’s a ghost from Rahab’s days.

“Poor thing,” she says. She’s kneeling down.

She’s picking up the cord.

And the grangler’s hands are claws, like this—like spears of withered bone—and they slice at her like a siggort’s knives, only, Melanie rolls away.

She’s fast.

She’s ripped a thread from the weave of the cord and still she had time to dodge his claws—that’s just how fast she is.

The grangler is faster.

She’s ripping a lock from the hair of her head, and she’s knitting it together with the thread from the grangler’s cord. She’s scrambling back, but the grangler is faster.

He’s as fast as falling.

He’s as fast as running out of air after your dying cough.

He’s fast like a puma’s jump.

She kicks out, hard, as the grangler comes. She shatters the grangler’s nose. He shakes his head. He snarls then. She skips back three times before he moves again.

It isn’t fast enough.

He seizes her. He’s got her leg. He’s pinned her down. He will rip her with his next blow.

“Guess what?” she says. She isn’t scared.

She isn’t scared, so the grangler blinks.

Just a blink! But it’s long enough.

While the grangler’s blinking, she’s pulled tight the knot—bound the thread to her bloody hair. While the grangler’s blinking, she’s bound him up, and to the grangler become the master.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


May 7, 1977

Her brother’s Billy but Billy’s bad.

Melanie walks into a bar.

THUNK!

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


April 17, 1989

The grangler’s an old ghost. He’s a god of hanging on. But there isn’t much to hang on to, any more.

He’d been killed by the people of Israel.

They’d promised not to kill anyone living with his Auntie Rahab: anyone sheltering in her care; anyone hiding, in short, behind the crimson cord that she’d use to mark her home.

And they’d come into his city, and they’d knocked away his sword, and they’d killed him, and all because he wouldn’t stay at home with his Auntie Rahab, whom he’d despised.

For a very long time that had seemed like enough reason to live, as much as a ghost can be said to be living, all tangled up in his hate and the threads of the crimson cord.

But lately it’s felt a little awkward and pointless and unnecessary to be a god bound up in string.

He’d hung in a bar, or the cord had, anyway, like maybe one day the tribes of Israel were going to get confused and attack Jericho again, only, they’d see the red cord hanging from the bar, and stop.

“Wait!” the hardened Israeli commander would say. “We cannot attack this bar. That would break our covenant with Auntie Rahab!”

In the 50s and 60s this was a possibility.

In 1989, with the city firmly in Israeli hands, the scenario seems remote.

And maybe that’s why the barkeep eventually took down the cord, and trashed the grangler, like he was any other piece of string.

Or maybe he’d just killed too many customers.

Human reasoning is often opaque. The grangler doesn’t know.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


May 7, 1989

Melanie walks into a bar.

THUNK!

That’s the sound of the door that she’s just kicked open striking Connor on the head.

And Duncan growls, “What the Hell?”

Melanie is young. She’s not a legend yet.

Duncan reaches for her arm.

Her weight shifts. His grip is just a tool to her, to pull him off his feet. She’s turning, and her heel is on his foot, and her elbow is in his gut. It’s all very quick and painful then and Duncan follows Connor to the floor.

Melanie looks at Billy.

Her attention’s shifted a bit too fast. It’s a bit of a mistake. Duncan is outclassed against her skill, but he’s also a big strong man. He’s throwing his weight against her as he falls.

For a moment she’s off balance.

Billy’s growling. He’s closed the distance, bloody fast, and bloody fast he’s thrown a punch. She’s leaning right into it, on account of being off balance, and it looks to shatter Melanie’s face.

The grangler’s claws come through Billy’s eyes and they squeeze tight, instead. They short the circuits of his brain.

Melanie has caught her balance. She’s advancing through the bar. And Billy’s gang are already on their feet, but she moves through them like the wind.

She’s laughing.

She’s laughing, and it’s brilliant, and she yanks up Billy’s head and she tells her brother’s shattered, staring eyes, “Remember me?”

It’s 1989 and Melanie’s only 17, but she’s bright and burning with hubris. She’s wound a red cord in her hair. She’s learned the secrets of the gods.

And she whispers, sweet, to Billy’s head, “I’ll never live in fear again.”

But what about you?

Can you make it a week—a terrible, whole week—until Hitherby posts again? Can you endure without the darkness closing in?

Maybe you should pass the time by . . .

  • rereading the first storyline Hitherby had, which is named:
    At Gibbelins’ Tower
  • learning what we meant by the phrase “a siggort’s knives”
  • debating whether it’s that Duncan and that Connor
  • reading about the forthcoming 3rd edition of Nobilis, by Jenna Katerin Moran! (3, 2, 1!)
  • admiring this awesome news story about a shark charitably expiating a debt of karma owed from a former life
  • mourning my inability to watch literal music videos while in China
  • glancing over the Book of Joshua, so you can laugh at me when I mangle it? or even
  • reading the entire archives of Gunnerkrigg Court in a single sitting, and then falling over blind and legless for five days!

My Neighbor Samara

Bursts of noise come from upstairs—the sound of television tuned to nothing, shouting its emptiness at the world.

The room is seething with motes of white and black.

Static sprites—makkurokurosuke.

They are hungry and they live in abandoned houses where someone has left a television on and they cling to human flesh like leeches. They are hungry. But they do not eat today.

Today Mei screams.

The sound of her scream cuts across the noise. It drives the static sprites before it. It maddens and hurts them. They swirl back into the television set, bits of puffy white and black jockeying for place, until the last of them squeezes in at last and in darkness and silence a white ring shines forth.

“That’s very good, Mei,” her father says.

Mei giggles happily.

Mei’s father is a forensic archaeologist. He investigates mysterious and horrible deaths with the invaluable assistance of his two adorable daughters, Satsuki and Mei.

The three of them have moved to a fabulous new house that their father knew about because its previous owner died in a horrible mysterious way. It was an incredible bargain.

But it’s haunted by the evils of modern entertainment.

Mei goes down to the booze cellar one day to play and she sees this guy. This strange guy. This strange little spirit-rabbit guy walking on the shelf above the port.

This guy above the port is the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Mei follows him.

He meets up with another, larger guy, in a more modern dead channel blue.

They notice her following. They’re a bit perturbed. They run.

She chases.

They lead her out of the house and through the woods and to an abandoned well. They run out along its wooden lid. She follows. The lid cracks. Mei falls.

Down and down she tumbles, like Alice, and lands on the stomach of a beautiful drowned lady.

“Unh,” the lady grunts.

Then the lady tries to go back to sleep.

It’s not very easy to get to sleep when you’re at the bottom of a well. It might sound cool and soothing but in practice your hair is always getting algae on it and the rocks dig into the hollow of your back and you find yourself thinking that really it would be nice if somebody would pull you out of the well. Also sometimes you are an inhuman creature who had never previously slept since the day you were born.

So when the lady had finally gotten to sleep and then Mei fell on her her first instinct was something on the order of, “Just another few minutes, Mom.”

But Mei is prodding her.

“Hi, lady,” Mei says.

Finally the lady opens her eyes. She mumbles something in Japanese and tries to afflict Mei with terrible visions.

“Sa-ma-ra?” Mei says.

She beams happily.

“Your name is Samara!”

Satsuki and her father look for Mei. They find her laying in front of the television set and twitching.

“You must have had an epileptic seizure,” her father says.

But Mei shakes her head.

“I was with a magical decaying girl at the bottom of a well!”

“Hmm,” her father says, thinking. “That might have been Samara. She is the keeper of the Juzou Mori.”

“Ohhhh,” say Mei and Satsuki.

They run around saying, “Samara! Samara!”

“Hmm, we should really get phone service,” their father says.

One night when their father is out investigating a hideous vivisection-initiated murder in the outskirts of town Satsuki gets an idea.

“Father didn’t bring a body bag today,” she says. “What if he needs to bring the corpse back with him? We should go meet him at the bus stop!”

“Bus stop!” Mei says, delighted.

They go to wait at the bus stop. Mei falls asleep on the way. She begins moaning and twitching.

“I bet Samara’s afflicting you with emanations,” Satsuki says.

She sighs fondly.

Mei is always getting afflicted with psychic emanations. Satsuki, who is older, is more often kidnapped by deranged lunatics.

Satsuki picks Mei up and carries her to the bus stop. To her delight Samara is standing there as if waiting for a bus.

Satsuki looks at Samara.

Samara looks at Satsuki.

“It must be hard to be dead and all alone in the forest,” Satsuki says. Then she chews on her lip. It’s hard to say what she is going to say next. “Would you like a body bag?”

Samara looks at her.

Satsuki closes her eyes and bows and holds out the body bag, blushing.

Samara hesitates.

Then Samara takes the body bag. She steps into it. She zips it up. She beams delightedly, one must suppose. After a moment, the bag unzips a little and a pale hand emerges to offer Satsuki a videotape.

“Oh! Do you want me to take it?” Satsuki asks.

Samara just holds out the videotape.

“Thank you!” Satsuki says.

She takes the videotape. She looks at it.

“Um, it’s Rated R for extremely disturbing scenes and a curse,” she says.

Samara zips up her body bag. She doesn’t say anything.

After a bit a bus-like horror shows up. It has the face of a cat and its eyes burn static. Its upholstery is flesh and fur. It has no driver. Samara hops awkwardly on board.

“Ohhh,” Satsuki says.

Samara does not look back but she speaks. “When you record data onto a bus, it develops cat-like features. This lasts for seven days.”

The bus doors close. Grinning horribly, the creature leaps away.

“Wait!” Satsuki calls suddenly. “Wait! How do you record data onto a bus?”

But the creature is gone.

That night, when she tells the story to their father, he nods wisely.

“If she died in terrible agony,” she says, “then little things like recording data onto busses is not surprising.”

“I want to die in terrible agony!” Satsuki says.

Her father laughs.

He shakes his head.

Satsuki looks pleadingly at him. Mei bounces around, saying, “Die! Die!”

“Well,” their father says, kindly, “Let’s just watch the tape.”

They watch the tape. It shows them a house filled with terrible soot creatures, lumbering beasts with leaves on their heads, barbaric ritual dances, and a woman gasping for life in a hospital far from home.

There is a pause.

Then the video resolves into the image of a ring
ing phone.

“Hmm, we should really get phone service,” their father says again.

A shadowy figure picks up the phone.

A voice says, “Seven—”

But their father turns the television off.

He’s just noticed!

The girls are fast asleep.

“So young,” he says. “I guess you have to be an old-timer to be scared by all these dead people.”

He carries them off to bed.

One morning Mei has a terrible psychic intuition.

“It’s mother,” she says.

“Mother’s dead,” Satsuki says.

“Not any more!” Mei protests.

“Let her rest in peace,” Satsuki says. “She probably hasn’t forgotten the last time!”

But Mei starts crying.

“Mei—” Satsuki says.

“No!” Mei shouts.

She bursts onto her feet, tears streaming down her face, and charges out of the room, slamming the thin screen door behind her.

“Mei?” Satsuki says.

Satsuki goes to the door. She opens it. She looks outside.

“Mei?”

Satsuki’s face pales. Mei has vanished.

“What do I do?” Satsuki says. “What do I do?”

She runs around in a circle.

Then she stops. She calms herself.

“She’s probably just in a spirit world,” Satsuki says. “Halfway between life and death. Oh, father should be here!”

She clenches her fists.

She is only a little assistant. She is not good at solving hideous mysteries on her own. But her father is at work investigating a mysterious death and her mother is hopefully still buried in the steel-chained coffin so she is on her own.

“The tape,” she says.

She goes to the television room. She turns on the television. She flips past Mr. Headroom and Mr. Krueger. She finds a blank channel and puts in the video.

It shows a game show. Teenagers with meat strapped to their heads are sticking their heads through holes into a cage with a gila monster in it.

“No, no, no!” Satsuki says. She hits the television. “Mei you shouldn’t have taped over the cursed tape!”

The gila monster approaches one of the teenagers, who screams and ducks.

Then in the distance Satsuki sees Samara.

“Oh, thank God,” she says.

“This is unexpected,” the game show host is saying. “Not just a gila monster, but also some kind of unliving . . .”

Samara gives him a chilling glance and he stops.

“Somebody call a forensic archaeologist!” a contestant shrieks. The gila monster lunges. But we do not see the ending.

Samara obscures it as she crawls from the screen.

Samara stares at Satsuki.

“Samara, Samara,” Satsuki says. “Mei’s gone! Mei’s gone into some kind of terrible netherworld between light and darkness!”

Samara looks at her still.

Then slowly Samara’s mouth widens into a hellish grin.

Samara gestures towards the door. The sky goes dark and fills with twisting clouds and lightning flares. The wind blows deep and cold.

Yielding a horrible howl unto the world, a seven-day bus creature lands before the door.

Satsuki looks back at Samara.

“Do you want me to get in? Do you want me to get in, Samara?”

Then, because Samara gives no indication, Satsuki scrambles into the cat-like bus and seats herself amongst its bulging clumps of fur.

The door slams shut and fades away.

Through realms of darkness and horror the bus flies, its mouth fixed in a bared-teeth smile. Its eyes cast forth static unto the mist.

Then Satsuki sees her—Mei—suspended amongst the permeable and nebulous tendrils of the netherworld, eyes blank and purple fires burning in her open mouth.

Before this majestic and infernal vision the bus goes still.

Its headlights shine upon the younger girl.

Its engine stops.

Its door manifests and opens again.

“I have lived for seven days,” it says.

And as Satsuki steps from the bus she can see the material form returning to it; and it plunges from the world of horror into the world of things; and she closes her eyes tightly against a strange butterfly of grief that flies within her chest.

Mists surround her now.

She can hear the songs of the tormented dead, calling to her, bidding her to join them in their suffering.

But she opens her eyes, and she says, “Mei.”

And Mei wakes.

“You can’t be with Mom yet,” Satsuki says.

And she takes Mei into her arms, and pulls away into the living world.

Terror fades to light.

That’s the last time either of them see Samara or watch her magical tape. But Samara watches over them always.

Seven days before you die, they say, she makes a bus for you.

She makes a bus for you, so that you will not go unaccompanied into the dark.

Against the warm fur of a cat you shall ride to whatever is your destination; and where that is not even a forensic archaeologist may know.

The Matter of Zheng’s Son (3 of 5)

Mr. Kong is steeping tea. He hears a rustle of silk.

He looks up.

It is a winter evening. His house is cold. He can see his snowy yard. No one is visible, but he can hear motion. No one has announced themselves, but he can hear the shifting of metal against leather and the soft hissing of someone’s breath.

His eyes narrow.

There is a stool inside the entryway, where there was none before, and a staff leaning against the wall. There is a dusting of snow.

He can hear, distantly, the jingling of a bell.

It is 501 years before the common era. The sun hides behind the clouds. An assassin has come.

This is a history of Mr. Kong.

It is the Latter Days of the Law
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.

“In these degenerate days,” says Mr. Kong politely, “it is good to have an assassin who is observant of the rites and practices. Will you take tea with an old man before you kill me?”

Mr. Kong breathes in the air of the room.

It is probable, he thinks, that the assassin has unwound a length of garrote. It gleams between the man’s fingers—behind Mr. Kong, no doubt, and to the left, and three steps back: the honorable place for an assassin, according to the Book of Rites.

But the man does not move.

He is like a statue, frozen by Mr. Kong’s question.

“It would make me happy,” says Mr. Kong.

The assassin reaches his decision. There is a snap as the garrote retracts. He walks seven quick paces and now he stands before Mr. Kong. He lowers himself, with great decorum, to sit opposite Mr. Kong, and Mr. Kong pours the tea.

“It is unusual for an assassin to attend diligently to the rites,” says Mr. Kong. “The requirements of attending to giving and repaying are the principal matter of contention.”

“Yes,” says the assassin.

Mr. Kong studies the assassin. The man is dressed in white; his hair is tied back; he has features of grave discernment and etched with terrible sorrow.

“If I may ask,” he says. “Whom?”

Whom are you mourning, that you would seek to kill a humble scholar in his home?

“My son.”

“Ah.”

“We sparred,” says the assassin. “With sticks of wood. I struck him. The mark was red on the paleness of his skin. He skipped back. He laughed. He blurred to the side, and came forward to attack. But I caught his stick and twisted it from his hand and I struck him again; and this time his eyes opened very wide and he cried out, ‘It is thus!'”

Mr. Kong sighs.

They sit there. They drink.

“In the days of the Zhou,” says Mr. Kong, “it did not matter how many times you hit a man with a stick; still, he would retain his false conceptions and his attachment to material existence. But the world has changed.”

The assassin’s voice is choked.

“You deny your responsibility?” he says.

Mr. Kong thinks on that.

“I do?” he asks.

“The men of old,” says the assassin— “they lived with unhesitating purpose and they loved virtue. The nature of them prevailed, and they could not hesitate to act. Is it not so?”

“I have said as much,” says Mr. Kong.

“Our ancestors exceeded us.”

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong.

“Heaven is distant from the world; it acts through mortal men, who must struggle to hew to the spirit of goodness—is it not so?”

Mr. Kong says, “You are in mourning for the days of antiquity, when humans possessed the character of uprightness that allowed them to perform miracles, and we did not suffer the plague of spiritual enlightenment.”

“You speak of it,” says the assassin, “as if these days were centuries ago; but they were not.”

Mr. Kong smiles over his tea.

“It has been less than forty years,” he says, “since last I witnessed magic in the world—you mean? But I have told my disciples, I do not discuss magic.”

“So,” says the assassin.

“I am not dissembling,” says Mr. Kong, in tones of gentle protest. “It is not the matter of spirits, or ghosts, or devils that concerns me. When I look upon the past, it is not the flying brooms and wishing boys and Heaven-Defying Lightbringing Yama Kings that draw my eye, but the spirit of humaneness that pervaded the ancients even in the face of all these wonders.”

“You are a man,” says the assassin, “who spoke unto the world words that changed it. You told Heaven and Earth: we are not like the ancient men. And thus it was. You told Heaven and Earth: we are empty; we are in disorder; we are the only channel by which Heaven may affect the world—and thus it was. You teach a disregard for spirits, and they flee from us—or so I must conclude.”

He sets down his teacup.

He folds his hands in his lap. His face is very bleak.

“My name is Zheng,” he says.

He hesitates.

“Please tell me that when I have killed you, my son shall return; and magic; and purpose; and the will of Heaven manifest on Earth; and things will be as once they were.”

Outside the wind toys with flakes of snow.

It is not Mr. Kong’s way to deny an accusation when doing so will only heighten the wound in another man’s heart; so he searches in him for an answer that is courteous, honest, and humane.

A sadness rises.

“It is the character of humanity,” Mr. Kong says softly, “to be wrong.”

A sound comes from Zheng. It is like the peal of a bell, and it comes from his throat as if it were ripped from it.

“Once,” says Mr. Kong, “I imagined that I had the power in me to make all things correct. That I could right all the practices of the world. That I would do these things because I am Kong. And when I understood that it was not so, I cried out: Heaven, Heaven, why have you abandoned me?”

Zheng does not respond.

“But I’m glad,” says Mr. Kong.

Zheng looks up.

He sees that Mr. Kong is smiling.

“Do you understand? It is because we are not as the ancients were that we may look up to them. Were we as gods, we would spend our lives in the affairs of gods; but because we are human, we may practice humaneness.”

“Why?”

Mr. Kong tilts his head.

“Why,” says hoarse-voiced Zheng, “should we practice humaneness, when Heaven denies us righteousness? Why should we strive for good, when we are always wrong? What is this world we live in, where a man may burn out his own son’s soul?”

But Mr. Kong ignores the last of these questions, and answers only the second.

“Love.”

And Zheng let him to live, and went away, and in the mountains he taught his students that it was not so important to kill as to kill with good character as a righteous assassin; and Mr. Kong found himself a limited employment in government service; and the world went on for many years, severed from its gods.

The knife of the legend of Mr. Kong
Reflects his answer:
“We must try to be good.”

In the darkness of the sea, Max slices through Sid. The knife glitters darkly in his hand.

A wire snaps.

Like all the wires of Sid, it is under high tension. It scissors through the world and cuts the sea and causes a great turbulence in the mechanisms of Sid. His thoughts become deranged, disordered, and unbalanced.

It is June 3, 2004.

Sid is furious and maddened, under the staring eye of Good.

Since cutting does not work, he slams Max down into the silt floor of the sea. He smashes Max against the shell of the world; but the human—

The heap he reminds himself; not Max, it cannot be Max—

slips aside and the blow only widens the crack at the base of the rising Good.

Max is thinking something wry about learning from the lessons of history. Sid can taste it; it amplifies in the jangling of his thoughts. The man is going to stab him again. The opening in the world through which Good rises is nearly critical mass: much larger, and the Good will transform the shell that holds it back and all the stories of the world shall end.

Sid conceives a plan.

His plan is mad, like the siggort himself.

He anchors himself. He hooks himself with shivering cutting lines into the sea. He insinuates himself into sea and sky and the shadow of the sun. He hopes for time—

Not so very much; just a little bit—

To finish cutting away the heart of the Good. But if he does not have it—well, very well.

Max cuts at a great bundle of the mind of Sid and Sid’s memory of 1955 and his knowledge of differential equations and his power to taste snow all snap and the tangling spinning power of it progresses inevitably through the system of him and a great spinning wire hits Max’s chest and, because Max will not cut, drives him into the Good; and a great heaving convulsion in the world slams together the elements of the crust and makes an island of stone and sky where once there was a crack beneath the sea.

In the aftermath, there is blindness to match the silence of his world.

He drifts there, free of attachment to things.

Max loved him, he thinks.

Certainly, so did the Good.

He wonders why.

The Peculiar Case Of Miss Mu Lung (4 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

This is a history of Mr. Kong.

It is 532 years before the common era. Mr. Kong works in the state of Lu as a keeper of farm animals and parks.

He finds a scaled anteater—a pangolin—caught in an illegal trap.

Sluggishly, it licks its entangled paw.

Mr. Kong squats down. He distracts the anteater. He holds up a finger so that it tracks his finger with its eyes. He says, “It’s no shame that you can’t solve these knots; if you could, you’d be queer for a pangolin.”

The anteater attempts to process this information. It blinks its eyes lazily.

A woman’s footsteps approach.

“In this,” says Mr. Kong to the anteater, “we are alike. Diligently I study, but there are questions that I can’t answer, because I’m a man.”

The anteater shakes its head. Then, irritated that it cannot understand Mr. Kong with its tiny brain, it curls itself up in a ball.

It’s all right.

He’d held its attention long enough.

His free hand has already cunningly unraveled the knot that had trapped the anteater’s paw.

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west comes an outpouring of virtue to make all things right.

The Island of the Centipede

“It is very human,” says a woman’s voice, “how it waits to curl until once it has been rescued.”

Mr. Kong straightens. He looks towards the clearing’s edge.

Miss Mu Lung stands at the edge of the clearing. She wears the elaborate dress customary to the Lung family. Its fringe has blood and dirt and grass upon it.

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong. His voice is warm and his face shows pleasure. Her presence here is an impropriety, the blood on her hem a warning, and the texture of the woven trap reminds him of Miss Lung’s tapestries, but she is a fellow human being and as such receives his brightness. He gives her a courteous bow.

She looks upon him and her face is still.

“It is bold of me to say,” says Miss Lung. “But I have heard you called a great scholar and a man of discernment, Mr. Kong. So surely you tease the pangolin when you mention questions that you cannot answer.”

“I should not think to call myself a scholar,” says Mr. Kong. “If I were ten times more erudite, perhaps, and understood the Quinquennial Sacrifice, then I might be worthy of that name.”

“Ah,” says Miss Lung.

He holds up one finger so that Miss Lung tracks his finger with her eyes.

“I think that we are all trapped, in this life, like that unfortunate pangolin,” he says. “We do not measure to the standard of our ancestors, and so there are questions we cannot answer. There are questions we cannot answer, and so we do not execute our practices with precision. We find ourselves unable to comport ourselves with order and harmony; justice does not prevail; and emptiness flourishes throughout the world. One day, if the world does not explode, I hope to make myself a legendary minister and redeem these practices, but, of course, I can make no guarantees.”

Miss Lung thinks on these words.

Her eyes close, then open.

“Forgive me, Mr. Kong,” she says, “but I cannot see the emptiness of the world.”

“It affects to fullness,” says Mr. Kong, “but it is hollow, like the scar on the pangolin’s leg.”

Something in his words has freed her; the strength leaves her; she sits down.

She swallows and her eyes grow bright with tears.

“Miss Lung,” he asks, gently, “are you in some distress?”

Bleakly, she says, “More than some.”

“Come;” he says, “if there is need, you may impose upon me. But if there is not, I am afraid I must soon be on my way to catch the person who sows illegal traps upon this land.”

She looks miserably at the trap.

“No one can assist me,” says Miss Lung. She shakes her head. “I am in an ungodly state; someone has murdered the spirits of my ancestors and circumstances compel me to torment small animals to survive.”

To his credit, Mr. Kong blinks only once.

He straightens his clothing. He says, “Naturally I am at your service.”

Miss Lung says, “I cannot refuse so gentle an offer, but I fear your good character will bring me misery.”

Mr. Kong lowers his head in acceptance of this rebuke.

Miss Lung rises. She takes him to her house. As he walks its halls he frowns.

“Ah,” he says. “There is a hollow sound.”

“It is the absence of men, where once they would be talking. It is the absence of women, where once they would be working. It is the absence of the laughter and whimpering of children,” answers Miss Mu Lung.

She leads him to the shrine of her ancestors.

Its doors are heavy black wood. They are sealed with many sacred marks. They are scarred with hollow rings, white rings, like the marks of a lamprey’s jaws.

“I cannot go within,” says Miss Lung. “In my youth, we would say, ‘brik, brik, brak, open a crack!’ and the doors would open. Inside the spirits of our ancestors would dispense wisdom and benevolence.

“Then seven years back, as I walked this hall, I heard the great brassy voice of ancestor Zedong declare, ‘The more I look up at It, the higher It rises. The more I probe It, the more impenetrable It becomes. I catch a glimpse of It in front and It is instantly behind.’

“Then I heard an ungodly wind and I felt a sudden fear and I banged my fist upon the door, but since that day, they have not answered.

“Two years ago, I climbed atop the roof and looked down through a small round gap. Inside, the shrine was empty, save for some vague notion that took me of ethereal blood.”

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong.

“Was it improper?” asks Miss Lung. “To bang upon the door?”

“What is impropriety?” says Mr. Kong. “I can’t criticize the selfless concern for your ancestors.”

He stares at the doors, deep in thought.

“Pardon,” says Mr. Kong. “But if I may, your family? The Lung family?”

“One by one they succumbed to kindness,” says Miss Lung.

“Hm?”

“It is like this,” says Miss Lung. “The Lung family has traditionally held some virtue of position in the celestial hierarchy. Assiduously we would seek to develop our personal merit to facilitate our ascension into the ranks of Heaven. Since our ancestors fell silent, the matter has become problematic; upon refining our spirit to a full measure of virtue, we explode. Now I and my obdurate brother remain; myself because I am a woman and dedicate myself to the methodical torment of animals, and he because, constantly insensible with wine, he is awake too rarely for the acquisition of virtue.”

For a long moment Mr. Kong stands there.

“Then,” he says, “if I may, I have solved the mystery.”

“Please,” she says.

“It is the emptiness of the world,” says Mr. Kong.

“If only you were the Grand Secretary of Justice,” says Miss Lung, with grave courtesy, “you could arrest it at once.”

Mr. Kong smiles at her.

“You are skeptical,” he says.

“Only, dulled with grief and fear,” she says.

“These are the scars of emptiness,” says Mr. Kong. He rests his hand on one of the circles in the door. “The methodology, I take to be as follows. The emptiness proposed to Lung Zedong, ‘In what fashion should a man conduct himself to bring harmony and order to all things?’ He could not answer this question without compromising the affairs of Heaven, and thus allowed the emptiness to devour him. The hollowness of your home represents a marker of its passage.”

“If that’s so—“

She struggles to hold back her emotions.

“If that’s so,” she says, “what can I do?”

“Open the doors,” he says. “Sacrifice to your ancestors. Set aside this animal torture and lawless skulking; cultivate the quality of kindness that you have denied yourself.”

Bitterness drives her to unworthy words: “Even to the destruction of my soul?”

“It often seems that virtue operates against our interests,” says Mr. Kong. “But if we do not cultivate the habits of virtue, then what value are our interests?”

She lowers her head.

“As you say,” she says, tonelessly.

“Here is my recommendation,” says Mr. Kong. “When you commit an act of kindness, do not seek to cultivate yourself but rather to build harmonious relationships with others. Then you need not fear unless you are so kind as to elevate all the world.”

“And if I am?”

“If the world explodes because of my advice,” says Mr. Kong, “then I fear I shall never find government employment, nor become a legendary practice-righting minister.”

Continuing the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 )

The chaos has completed its adaptation to the knife.

Red Mary swims in a sea of Confucianism and blood.

Drawn by the blood the sharks have come. They are monstrously large. They dwarf her as they dwarf Max.

One of them bumps Max gently with its nose. He curls around the pain as a pillbug might.

“Red Mary,” the shark says, with scrupulous precision, “I cannot say your actions have been correct.”

“Yes, thank you,” Red Mary says irritably.

“If the sirens are not humane,” presses the shark, “then how may they expect the oceans to remain in order?”

Red Mary bares her teeth and the shark subsides.

“I have acted in error, but you may not correct me,” she says.

“The blood frenzy overcame my judgment, and I forgot my place,” the shark concedes.

“Hmf,” Red Mary says.

Then with one hand Red Mary lifts Max and with the other the knife and she draws them both up from the sea.

Are Siggorts? (I/I)

“What do siggorts do?” Max asks.

It’s 1979 and Max is 18 years old. He’s wearing jeans and a jacket, but he isn’t an angel. He’s a young Republican.

“Siggorts?”

Sid’s walking with Max, like he does now and then.

“Yeah,” Max says. “Like, fairies reflect the chaos, and As bring you hope, and ghosts cling to your memories, and stuff. What do siggorts do?”

Sid thinks for a moment. Then he points.

“There,” he says.

There’s a siggort, down a few streets and over.

It has one hundred hands and the parts of it move like clockwork gears. It is in constant orbit around itself and it is subject to a chaos of form. Wings spread behind it, metal wings, folding and unfolding. They reflect the sunlight so that it seems like the air is a riot of feathers. Its central portion is bulbous and smooth, roly-poly, round, like Santa’s stomach or God’s eye. Its legs are long. It has a wheel of knives. Its hands open and close and a singing rises from it like the singing of seraphim. It is vivisecting passersby. It is leaving their corpses for investigators to discover.

It is pure and it is bright and it is innocent and clean.

“Wow,” says Max. “. . . That’s a siggort too?”

“Yeah.”

Max frowns a little. “Hey, is it vivisecting that guy?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s just like in Scanning Things!“, Jane says proudly, pumping her fist, with a shocking disregard for whoever that guy who is being vivisected back in 1979 is.

“Not quite,” Martin says. “See, you tend to notice the singing before the vivisection in this history, while you had it the other way around back in the legend.”

There’s a silence.

“Maaaan!” Jane exclaims.

“So you vivisect people?”

“Yes,” Sid says.

Max pauses.

“I am currently reviewing my life to figure out whether there have been more vivisected people in it than an objective observer would expect,” Max says.

Sid makes a face.

“But I’m only coming up with that one,” Max says.

“Yeah,” Sid says. “I haven’t actually felt like vivisecting anybody yet.”

“But it’s your nature?”

“Yeah.”

They walk on for a little bit. Neither of them stops to help that guy whom the siggort is vivisecting, since, after all, siggorts happen, and there’s not much anyone can do.

Max is deep in thought. His brow is really furrowed.

Then he says, “Oh!”

“Oh?”

“It’s because you’re an isn’t,” Max says. “You aren’t. So even though you’d think, having a nature to vivisect people, that you would, you don’t. Actually. Instead you just hang out with me.”

“I am so,” Sid says, wounded.

“You’re totally an isn’t. I bet that guy getting vivisected was an isn’t, too. That’s why I don’t feel at all concerned about his fate.”

Sid looks aggrieved. “That’s ridiculous,” he says. “Siggorts have been around since the dawn of the world. We’re totally not isn’ts.”

“Prove it.”

“How?”

“Vivisect me.”

Sid stares at Max for a long moment. His wheel of knives spins.

Max looks really uncomfortable. “Wait,” he says.

“You know,” says Sid bleakly, “in a lot of fairy tales, I’d have been waiting for you to say just that. I’d have been hanging out with you since you were seven so I could vivisect you, and then you’d ask me to, and I would, and as I cut open your chest I’d find the magic that was taken from me long ago and I would finally be free.”

Max shifts. He’s thinking about running, except, well, running from something like Sid doesn’t help.

“Is . . . is that going to happen?” Max asks.

Sid shakes his head.

“No,” he says.

“Then you are an isn’t!” Max says.

Sid sighs.

“Look,” Sid says. “I’ll . . .”

He tries to think of something he can do to prove he can have a substantive effect on the course of events.

“I’ll . . . I’ll get Ronald Reagan elected President. Through grassroots activism!”

Max stares at him for a while.

Finally, Max says, “Okay?”

“It’ll prove I can have a substantive effect on the course of history,” Sid points out.

“Do it, then,” Max says.

“I will!”

“Do it!”

And so Sid does.

“So that was you,” Martin says.

Sid hangs his head.

“Man,” Martin says. “I was so sure it was Dr. T.”

“Multiple citizens can participate in grassroots activism,” Sid says, stoutly.

Reversing himself with the suddenness of humor becoming outrage, Martin says, “That was so not you.”

Sid opens his mouth to protest, but . . .

“Sh!” says Jane. “Jigsawing!”

“So,” says Max.

Secretly, he’s starting to hope that Ronald Reagan will lose the election.

But the numbers aren’t good.

They’re at this little comic shop by the beach where they hang out sometimes and there’s a newspaper right there and Sid’s pointing at it and the numbers just aren’t good for President Carter.

“See?” Sid says.

“Yeah,” Max says.

He looks unhappy.

“Fine,” Max says. “You’re not an isn’t.”

Sid grins.

And Max almost hits him; and he says, “That’s not good, Sid.”

And Sid’s grin drifts away.

“That’s sick, what siggorts do.”

Sid pulls in on himself, just a little. He doesn’t look like much right now. Just a Sid.

“But still,” Sid says, “I’d rather be.”

“Is it relevant whether Reagan won?” Jane asks. “I’ve got this bit about the three fairies visiting him on the night before the election here. So we can probably figure out whether he got to be President.”

“I think we can skip it,” Martin concludes.

Hans’ Farm

Hans’ farm is deep beneath the earth. It’s under the great gate. It’s under the giant centipede. It’s under the bridge where the dead soldiers march.

The rock over Hans’ farm is beautiful and dark. But the farm is doleful because Hans does bad things.

It’s bad to sharpen a goat.

Oh, Hans, it is bad.

You can sharpen goat cheese but it’s bad to sharpen the actual goat.

Hans’ goat is sawing, sawing, sawing on the bars of its pen.

It tosses its head. It cuts the wooden boards of the ceiling with its great sharp head. Then it returns to its sawing, sawing, sawing on the steel bars of its pen.

It is not a good goat.

Nobody wants Hans’ goat to escape.

That would be bad.

It’s bad to plug in a cow.

Oh, Hans, it is bad.

Electricity is good, but not too much electricity, and just about any amount is too much for a cow.

Hans’ cow is there, on his farm deep beneath the earth. It’s pretty shocked. It’s crackling. It’s dancing. It aurores. Soon it is on fire.

Hans’ cow burns.

Hans’ cow burns, deep beneath the world.

It’s bad to whisk a duck.

No, seriously. I know a lot of people think it’s hip.

But it’s not.

It’s bad to whisk a duck.

Oh, Hans, it is bad.

Whisking is cool. You can whisk things and make them fluffy. You can whisk them to and fro. It’s good to whisk eggs and make them foam.

But it’s bad to whisk a duck.

When you whisk a duck, it quacks vigorously and flutters, and that part is good. But then it dies, and its spirit can never rest.

Hans’ duck is glowering.

It is hungry.

It is glowering.

It endures its whisked existence:

On Hans’ farm, deep beneath the earth.

The Well

When food is difficult to come by, the animals of the forest make the long journey to the forbidden well.

It’s not easy to get there. You have to climb an interweaving ladder of branches and run along the tops of the trees. You have to wade through mud chest-deep on a deer. You have to crawl into a blind tunnel and squeeze past the insects and the water on the walls. Then you’re there.

There’s a peace that governs by the forbidden well. It’s a tentative peace. It’s not magic. It’s just something that the wolves want.

What the wolves want in the forest, they tend to get.

The forbidden well is always full of sweet nectar. A few sips give enough calories to carry an animal through a day. In a hard winter, or a drought, or in times of plague, the well keeps the animals of the forest alive.

The wolves are supposed to keep the animals strong, and it doesn’t breed strength when animals can sup on sweet nectar all the time. So for the most part the well is forbidden. But the wolves make exceptions, sometimes, when times are hard, because of Mawndrad, whom they’d loved.

Mawndrad was a hero, in clean and billowing white clothes with a sword like a blue nail. He was handsome and bright and sometimes when he was really sleepy or really happy, he’d have a shiny black wolf nose instead of his own.

He loved Tamarella.

Tamarella was stocky and a miracle girl—you know, the kind who could do things that you hear about in the stories. She could throw a charging bull, just catch it by the horns and fall back and it’d go flipping and tumbling by her. She could bake enough for a ten-person feast with just a handful of flour and some water and some spice. If you’d lost a button in a field, she’d tie tiny rakes to dormouse tails and they’d run around until they dragged the button up. That was the kind of girl that Tamarella was.

He saw her once as she was pulling a giant’s plow, bit by bit, with a block and tackle anchored by an oak. She was straining in her plain grey clothes just to get the tiniest bit of movement from the plow, and the giant was laughing and cheering her on, and when she finally got the plow across the field she’d won all the giant’s gold.

And Mawndrad’s heart.

Mawndrad brought her dead animals. He left them on her doorstep. He gave her cute little mice and bits of elk and, once, a bear.

That was the last evening of his life; and this is how it was.

Tamarella’s sitting in her kitchen and she hears him dragging the bear up the walk. She goes to the front window. She puts her hands on the windowsill and she sticks her head out.

“Don’t do that,” she says.

“It’s a bear,” he says.

His chest is puffed out. He’s pretty proud, because it’s a twelve-foot bear and those are even bigger than you might think.

“I don’t need any dead animals,” she says, “There’s a general store.”

“It’s for you,” he says.

And when he’s staring at her, she sees his wet black wolf nose and it’s totally charming. Not sexy, like he looks when he’s got the normal nose and his muscly chest and his loose archaic shirt, but charming. Drop-dead adorable. His ears even twitch.

So she laughs and she says, “Well, come in.”

And he leaves the bear outside and he comes in for tea, and they talk long into the night, and nearing the end of it, they realize they’re in love.

“I love you,” he says.

“I love you,” she says, “but you’ve got to leave.”

“Why?”

“In the morning,” she says, “my father’ll come home.”

Now Tamarella’s father was a priest, a priest of that new Christian God, and he was also a necromancer. Some people found that combination a bit odd, but Tamarella’s father never did. He could reconcile it pretty easily in his head.

“After all,” he’d laugh, “didn’t God himself raise his son from the dead? Well, why can’t I do the same?”

And if you tried to tell him that that wasn’t the point of that story, he’d kill you and cut your bones out to make skeleton monsters from, which goes to show that perspectives can reasonably differ.

So late at night Mawndrad and Tamarella say their goodbyes, and they have a parting kiss; and that leads to a few more words, and a few more, and pretty soon an hour’s passed within the night.

And sweetly they part again, and he goes down the path, and then he comes back and knocks on the door, because it suddenly occurs to him to tell her she has lovely hair, and the words burst up so hard in his heart that he just had to share them.

And one thing leads to another.

And then it’s dawn, and Tamarella’s father comes.

Mawndrad was a scary youth. He wasn’t a pushover. He thought that he could take down a necromancer pretty well.

He wasn’t afraid.

When Tamarella’s Dad came home, Mawndrad didn’t hide in the closet. No.

Mawndrad fought.

He danced at swords with Tamarella’s father. He tried to cut the man. Mawndrad was strong and fierce and he should have been victorious, should have won the day and brought an evil to the end, but things just didn’t go that well. Hands of bone rose from the ground and grabbed his feet. Tentacles of spine wrapped round his arms. His sword fell to the ground and he was helpless.

“Don’t hurt him, father,” pled Tamarella.

And her father looked at her, all cold, and said, “You are mine until I give you away in marriage; and so this night you have defiled me.”

And he chopped up Mawndrad and he chopped up Tamarella and he took their bones and flesh out to the well and dropped them in, this being acceptable behavior under the English law of that time. And he set his snares for ghosts, because he knew that death cannot stop true love; that death cannot even stop puppy love; and that Mawndrad and Tamarella must have dwelt somewhere between.

And in this he was correct.

At midnight on the following night they rose, the ghosts of Mawndrad and Tamarella, briefly stealing back from the other world to exchange a final kiss.

“None of that,” said Tamarella’s father; and he caught the ghosts with snares and chains and pulled them far apart.

He hung them on opposite sides of his dungeon and for years they strove, pulling the chains a little looser every day. When they were within an arm’s length of one another Tamarella’s father swore irritably, chopped up the ghosts, and dumped the pieces of their souls into the well.

The distilled essence of the lovers rose in great clouds from the well. It was no longer distinct in its identities, but it still remembered love; so Tamarella’s father caught it and strained it down to nectar, such that the liquid in the well was a thick sweet concoction ninety-eight parts water and two parts thrice-dead people.

After that no more killing was necessary.

The nectar of Mawndrad and Tamarella was still.

“There,” said Tamarella’s father, with a feeling of completion.

He dusted off his hands and he went home.

The animals drink of Mawndrad and Tamarella when times are difficult. When times are very harsh, so also do the wolves.

“These are the dead who will never rest and never wake,” say the wolves, as they lap at the sweet nectar.

It allows them to survive.

(History: Boedromion 19: Delicious Pomegranate!)

Persephone is dead. She’s a graveyard girl. She’s down in the earth with the seeds of the grain.

“It’s very dark,” she says.

So Hades ignites the air. Billows of flame race through the Underworld, scorching large numbers of the residents.

“My hair!” cries Sisyphus.

He’s the guy damned to push a boulder eternally up and down steep cliff walls. Also, his hair is on fire! Fortunately, he knows what to do. He stops. He drops. He rolls! Then the boulder rolls on top of him.

“Curse you, emergency preparedness manual!” cries Sisyphus.

Cerberus’ nose gets singed.

“Wuf,” says Cerberus, unhappily.

Then his other nose gets singed.

“Rurf!” mourns Cerberus.

His third nose gets singed and he gets four hotfoots.

“Aroo!”

His howls sound through the Underworld.

“I am aflame!” laments the daimon Penthos, in full harmony with that howl.

Penthos is the daimon of lamentation and grief. He is always lamenting about this, that, and the other, such as being on fire.

Finally, there is a momentary delay in the assignment of fates to souls as Ananke takes the actions necessary to avoid burning. One may imagine all kinds of humorous effects but realistically, Ananke, who is Necessity, is extremely good at taking care of herself. If her skirts blow up in the flames or she has to huff and puff to keep her fingernails from catching on fire, it is because she is playing to an audience that loves her. If these things don’t happen, it’s because the viewers would think them undignified; and shame on you, if so, for judging Necessity!

Amidst all of this, Persephone is impressed by the flames, but extremely agitated.

“Too hot!”

She is frantically waving her arms around to keep her dress from catching on fire.

So Hades banks the fires of the Underworld.

It is 1317 years before the common era. Hades has stolen Persephone from the world above. While her mother searches for hope, Persephone looks around and struggles to come to terms with events.

And slowly, with the fire dimmed, Persephone’s heartbeat decelerates.

“It’s so bleak,” Persephone says.

The ghosts who move through Hades’ kingdom are shades. They have no memory and no attachment. They move through a world of grey and shadow and they are not alive.

The soil is dry.

The air is grey.

“It is bleak,” Hades concedes.

He takes two pomegranates from a silver tray that a trudging ghost carries. He hands one to her and bites into the other.

Persephone ignores the fruit.

“But,” says Hades, after chewing and swallowing, “it is your home.”

Persephone gives him a sideways look.

She says, “Can you make it home-like like you made it bright?”

Hades hesitates.

“So tasty,” says Hades. He bites deeper into his pomegranate.

“Mm,” enthuses Hades.

“There’s nothing like a delicious pomegranate!” Hades declares.

(Canon: Boedromion 14) The Growing God

This continues the main Hitherby storyline.

The grangler’s an old ghost. He’s a god of holding on.

His hands are claws, like this—like withered bone with leathery tendons holding it together, cold, damp, and very sure.

He’s the third god to approach Elm Hill in quite some time.

He’s the first that isn’t friendly.

Ahead of him, behind him, all around him dead birds are rising from their graves. They are tearing forth from the rotting earth. They are rising towards the sky.

That’s the sign of the grangler.

“I should never,” the grangler says, “have let her go.”

It is May 28, 2004.

On May 28 in history, an eclipse ended Kuras’ great-grandfather’s war. The Pope married James IV. Scotland and England signed their treaty of everlasting peace. The Chrysler building opened. Liril buried a god in a box—a dead and broken god—and hid it under Elm Hill. An earthquake killed Neftegorsk. Mount Cameroon erupted. People all over the world were born and died.

On May 28, 2004, a shadow lays across the sea; and because he is following that shadow, Truth Daniels is not lost.

He’s thirsty.

It’s been four days since he’s found water. It’s been eight days since the last real bit of land. He’s got legs tight as knots.

He’s really thirsty.

But he’s not lost, because he’s following something, and you can’t be lost when you’re doing that.

“We are following the shadow on the sea,” says Deva.

“Yes,” Truth says.

“We have followed it for eight thirsty days,” says Deva.

“Yes,” says Truth ruefully.

“We should stop following this shadow,” says Deva. “It is not working well for us.”

Truth laughs.

“If we don’t suffer,” he says, “how will we grow?”

Deva considers that.

“Water weight,” he says.

The woman is on the deck now. She has her hand up to shield her eyes from the sun. She says, “I don’t want to be taller.”

Truth frowns.

“You could reach higher up in the rigging,” he points out. “Or, if there were a very low star—”

“When I was a little girl,” says the woman, “I wanted to be taller, but I didn’t want to suffer. Now I’m suffering but I’m as tall as I want to be.”

Her tone changes.

“Truth, where are we going?”

“I’m not lost,” says Truth, defensively.

“It’s hard to be lost when there’s a trail to follow.”

Truth frowns. She’s anticipated his next statement, so now he can’t make it.

“It’s like this,” he says. “I think we’re getting closer to a really horrible place.”

The woman raises an eyebrow. Truth can’t see this, but he knows her well enough to guess.

“With anthropophagy,” Truth clarifies.

“Ah,” says the woman.

So she goes and helps with the rigging, and Deva works the wheel.

She’s not the kind of woman who can just ignore the chance to go somewhere where people might get eaten.

A deadwind rises to fill their sails. It drives them eastwards, towards Elm Hill.

In the facility at Elm Hill, Liril screams.

Micah is bloody and battered. He looks just awful. Haggard, really. But he’s still alert enough to stagger in the direction of the scream.

Liril, Micah, and Tainted John arrived at Elm Hill three days ago.

They were ready to fight, then.

Micah, in particular, was feeling actively enthused, back then, about killing humans and gods until the facility at Elm Hill was nothing but an empty charnel house.

He stood outside the gates of the facility, practically shaking with weariness, and he said, “Okay. Do we get to do it now? Do we get to kill them now? Because this running thing? It’s hard.”

Liril looked at him and her lips were sealed tightly. She walked to the gate. She pushed it open.

The facility was dark.

Everywhere they went in it, it was dark.

And after a while, Liril said, “No.”

It was a plaintive noise.

“They’re all gone and I don’t know where,” she said. “So no killing.”

Then she made the tragic face that all little girls make, when they don’t get the chance to kill.

And three days passed in the darkness while Micah got wearier and the blood that he’d shed getting her there grew cold and gelatinous on his face and arms.

It felt cold and gelatinous even after he found water and washed it off.

His whole body has chills now. But there is still enough in him to run when he hears her scream.

He finds her in the basement in a little crawlspace cradling a dead bird.

There’s a discarded box nearby.

It looks really gross inside, like there’s been a bird buried in it for years.

So Micah figures that she found the box in the crawlspace, and took out the bird, and that’s why she screamed; but he can’t figure out why she’s holding it.

So he looks at the bird. He looks at Tainted John. Tainted John just grins.

“Huh?” says Micah, decisively.

Liril looks up at him.

“I buried it,” Liril says. “I declared the box a time capsule and I buried it. So that it would get younger and younger until it wasn’t dead any more. But I think I did not understand how time capsules worked.”

“Oh,” says Micah.

He looks at the bird again.

“I remember that,” he says. “Sort of.”

The bird is sticky and smelly but it’s really pretty amazing that it’s still around at all.

“The problem isn’t with you,” rasps Tainted John. “It’s with time.”

Micah hesitates.

“Can I fix it?” he says.

He holds out his hands. Liril, gently, reluctantly, passes him the bird.

“What do I do?” Micah asks.

But Liril shakes her head. She crawls out. She stands up. She shakes her head again. She looks sad.

“No,” she says. “It’s okay. You don’t have to do anything.”

The bird has four wings and a really long tail. And maybe a bit more in the way of liver than it should.

It’s twitching, ever so slightly, in his hands.

Here is some of the geography that surrounds them.

To the south there is the road. It curves west and runs through a valley before connecting onto the interstate. That is the direction from which Tina will approach.

To the north and west there is a cliff.

There should not be a cliff. The Elm Hill facility is on level ground in the middle of the city; but there is a cliff, and beyond it the still white waters of the sea.

The ground falls away amidst the graves of children and the swaying elm, down a steep black rocky slope, into the sea.

And the facility at Elm Hill casts its shadow out across the waves.

“Birds,” says Deva.

He takes Truth’s hand and he points it towards the birds.

Truth smiles.

“Good,” he says.

There are birds. There are hundreds of them. They are flying out over the sea.

“They think we might have food,” says Truth.

“They’re dead,” says Deva.

He’s wrinkling his nose. Deva has a bad history with birds, and reanimated ghost birds that smell of ancient graves just aren’t his favorite kind.

“Oh,” says Truth. “Then they might think that we are food.”

“Heh,” says Deva.

The grangler lopes towards the facility at Elm Hill.

Melanie is not that far behind him. She’s discussing things with Vincent.

“It’s the logical place,” she says.

“Is it?”

“We can’t stay at Central,” she says. “But the Elm Hill facility still has most of what we need.”

“No kids,” says Vincent.

“Yet,” says Melanie.

“I meant that as an injunction, not an observation.”

Melanie blinks. Then she laughs.

“Well,” she says. “Let’s start with a temporary operating headquarters and see where things go from there.”

“Death and ruin,” proposes the grangler.

Melanie snorts.

“Nine days of death and ruin, then possibly some sort of delicious cereal,” the grangler says.

It is pleased. It has a fey feeling. It likes fey feelings.

“Git,” says Melanie.

So the grangler lopes off ahead, through the facility gates.

And behind them there are others; walking down the road from the various places where they parked their cars, and some are on two feet, some on four, and others ride the wind.

Down in the basement, in Micah’s hands, the bird-thing is stirring. Micah makes a horrified noise. He lets go of the bird. It’s still stinking. It’s still dead. But it’s stirring, rising, breathing, flying.

It’s whirling around the hall, still smelling of decay.

“Oh my God,” says Micah.

“Hi,” says Liril, to the bird, in a soft pleased voice.

But the bird does not hear her. It is whirling around. It is flying past them. It is flying up the stairs and away.

“What kind of god was it?” Micah asks.

“A growing god,” says Liril.

And it is gone.

The grangler is there when it emerges from the building’s broken door. The bird is raven-sized now, where it was sparrow-sized before. It barely squeezes through the gap in the door; and on the other side, the grangler is waiting. The grangler catches it in his clawed dead hands.

“You’re no good bird,” he says.

The four-winged bird chirps desultorily.

“You’re from someone I let go,” he says. “But no one’s here to make me let you go now.”

The bird twists and shudders in his grip.

The grangler looks behind him. Melanie is not too far away. So he skulks off. He skulks to the cliff. He skulks behind the trees, where he may curl around the bird that is his prize.

He slavers.

“I will eat you slowly,” he says.

The bird is larger now. It’s bucking and twisting in his hands. It has two spare wings to beat at his face with. But the grangler holds tight.

“Wake up,” he says, and certain other words, so that it can appreciate what he’s going to do.

And its mind stumbles back to it from the grave, and Liril’s growing god, killed more than a decade before, wakes to the eyes of an enemy.

And it cannot break free.

There is a ship, the Anna Maria, sailing distantly through the sea.

On it, Deva is frowning, and saying, “You can’t drink the water of a dead bird.”

But Truth is laughing at him, and saying, “Deva, even dead birds mean land and land means water.”

And on the land, above, the grangler is feeling a certain mild concern; because the bird is nearly his size now, and it has two wings for flight, and there is no one there to make him let it go.