Harbinger

as narrated by Mrs. Schiff

People say that he’s a Harbinger of bad news — that where he goes misfortune follows.

“If you see him,” they say, “turn away. Don’t look. Go somewhere else, if you can.”

When I saw him I decided they were wrong.

It wasn’t a big philosophical thing. I mean, people have argued — people with real blogs and stuff — that you can’t change fate just by deciding. If he’s there for you, he’s already there for you, before you turn away or go somewhere else. If he’s not there for you, then turning away won’t change anything.

But even people like that, they agree, you don’t talk to him.

You don’t make a point of interacting with him.

That’s just making trouble for yourself.

He moved so gracefully.

It’s hard to explain if you’ve only seen him on television or in frozen pictures. It’s not like you’d expect.

Harbinger doesn’t fall into any uncanny valley. When you see him move, it’s like it frees up your own limbs — it’s like when the Wrights looked at birds (or maybe stiff-limbed trees with engines on them) and learned to fly. He’s beautiful.

So I said, “Hi.”

He gave this big delighted grin and moved to me and said, “You talked to me!”

There wasn’t any loneliness in his eyes. There weren’t any marks of it. He’s not like Emo or the Ice Guy. There was just this transformative joy of human contact.

But now that he was there and happy I was talking, I didn’t know any more of what to say.

“You’re Harbinger,” I told him, on the theory that perhaps he didn’t know.

“The very same,” he said. He looked away for a second, then smoothly back. “I was blessed by my godmother to be a hero — to have the speed to go where I am needed before it is too late, and to save the day once I am there.”

I set my purse down because I wanted my hands free, but then I didn’t have anything to do with them.

“Really?”

“Really,” he said. “But then I was cursed to get there before the trouble happened, and leave before it arrived. It’s all —”

He gestured like somebody trying to draw a Rube Goldberg schematic with club hands.

“It’s all in the order you get your blessings, with fairies. The right order and you’re a hero, the wrong order and it’s not so good.”

“Well, you could warn people,” I said.

“I don’t do that,” he said.

“No?”

“That’d be trouble,” he said. He spun around uncertainly like a top. “I mean, not the same kind of trouble that happens after I leave, I hope — oh, God, paradoxes would suck — but the thing is, it’d just mean that my warning came too soon and that people would forget it just in time to need it. I don’t want anyone kicking themselves on my account, and they always would. My name is Jason, by the way.”

“Eileen.”

“No,” he said. “I don’t warn people. I don’t do anything like that.”

“Oh.”

I hesitated.

“But I’ll be in trouble?” I said.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “You’ll need a really fast guy to save you — well, plus my other godmother gifts, like strength”

and beauty

“and laser vision,” he said. “But I’ll have already left, to get there before a big building fire or drowning puppy or something.”

“That’s too bad.”

“But listen,” he said. He took my hands. “Listen, it’s okay.”

I was blushing. I thought about yanking my hands away. I didn’t manage to decide to do it. It’s probably part of his supernatural powers.

“I wanted to quit,” he said. “I thought about it for a long time. But finally I realized that there was still something worth doing. I mean, when people don’t go all ‘run away, it’s Harbinger.’ on me. I figured out that everything I’m supposed to stop — that it can all be okay. Even though I can’t.”

I pulled my hands back.

“Not drowning puppies,” I pointed out.

“We make our lives really hard,” he said. “When bad stuff happens, we tell ourselves that we’re part of why; or we hurt ourselves extra, struggling against it or trying to hang on to what we had before. We don’t — people don’t — focus on the fact that part of being a person is that whatever is immediately in front of you, you can handle it. That’s what it means to be a consciousness in the world — that there are paths that you can take, and one of them is as right as you can get, and if you take that, it’s okay. And even if you don’t take that, as long as you have a good reason to take a different one, that’s okay too. Or if you learn better later. Whatever. There’s only the options we have in front of us, so it’s okay if we don’t have other ones.”

“That’s okay as far as it goes,” I said.

“I realized,” he said, “that maybe if I told people that, then they’d remember it when their suffering came. Because it’s not like there was any other way it could have been, not like the trouble is something they could get out of, not when they needed me and I’ll have already left.”

“You could tell them to blame you,” I told him.

He smiled and stopped smiling, smiled and stopped smiling, three or four times. “But it wouldn’t be true,” he said.

Then he looked up and away, sharply, like a dog that’s heard some hidden sound.

“They will need me,” he said.

Death and death and death; I could feel it. I could taste it, metallic in the air. It hadn’t even happened yet and it was calling him.

“Wait,” I said.

“Oh, my heart,” he said. “I wish I could.”

Then there was nothing left of him but my brain’s stubborn reluctance — for nearly half a second — to recognize that he was gone.

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.

What Wistful Sally Says

Immortal Ken never has to die!

That’s why he’s packaged differently from Mortal Ken. Mortal Ken dies every time you press the button on his back! That’s his special mortality action. It’s easy to kill as many Mortal Kens as you want, and it’s a great opportunity for kids to learn the ins and outs of serial killing.

Reviving Stacy is a special Stacy who can bring Ken back from the dead. This changes the underlying morality of killing Ken. If Ken can never come back, then killing him is wrong. But if you can revive Ken with a Reviving Stacy doll, then who knows what moral rules apply? It’s like with Tickle Me Cthulhu—his life and death are meaningless and the human condition doesn’t apply!

If Mortal Ken has an Immortal Soul, which you can buy with the Immortal Soul Play Kit, then reviving Ken ensures that he’ll never go on to his glorious afterlife. He won’t have a harp like in Christian Heaven or many sloe-eyed virgins like in the Great Church of Sloe Heaven. He won’t shuffle emptily in Hades. He won’t earn his way into the Elysian fields. (Admittedly, that wasn’t really going to happen anyway except to Greek Hero Ken, that barrel-bodied Ken of legend that strides through the battlefields of Siege-Time Ilium.) In short, reviving a Mortal Ken renders the Immortal Soul meaningless and chains him immanently and externally to the cycles of the Earth.

Immortal Ken differs because it is the nature of Immortal Ken’s existence that he does not have to die. His purpose and definition transcend time, negating the moral argument for evolution, death, and change. No matter how hard you push the button on Immortal Ken’s back, he just won’t end! Philosophers suggest that Immortal Ken expresses a certain Zeist-Geist of denial popularized by evangelical toy companies and the makers of Highlander 2.

People in backwards regions have taken to eating parts of Immortal Ken dolls in the hopes of longevity or sexual prowess. In general manufacturers provide a heavily diluted shaving of plastic taken from the outer epidermis of a Ken doll, sometimes mixed with bits of the sea and the sky, which customers drink down to become homeopathically immortal themselves. Many young children deplore this practice as it is disturbing to try to play with dolls when there are always practitioners of homeopathic medicine lingering about.

More forward-thinking people do not consume Immortal Ken in any concentration. It is better, assert the monks, the priests, the intellectuals, and the old women in their huts, to hold tight Wistful Sally to one’s chest. Shunning Ken, shunning Stacy, they pull the string, and listen to her words.

She says, “Let’s go shopping!”

Or “Math is hard!”

Or “No one should ever have to die.”

Sometimes, but rarely, she says, “Yo Joe!”

On the Endings of Stories (2 of 3)

“Where were they,” Martin asks, “when we left off, yesterday?”

“It was cold!” Jane says. “And dark! And ominous!”

“That’s a good word,” Martin agrees. “Ominous.”

On Wednesday, the 12th of May, 2004, the basements under Central are cold and dark.

“This is the last place in the world I want to be,” says Jacob.

Jacob walks beside the angel in the basements under Central. He carries the spear that killed him in his hand. In the dark, his foot bumps against his runt. He growls and curses and reaches for it with his free hand but it is not there for his hand to find.

“The last place,” Jacob emphasizes.

“It is generally true that success is best achieved by pursuing the least pleasant course,” the angel says.

“That seems implausible,” Jason notes.

“There is the most progress to be made,” the angel says, “in those directions where we have made the least; that is to say, along the paths we are most loath to travel.”

Jacob nearly stumbles again. “Filthy runt,” he mutters.

He can see the angel’s eyes on him, even in the dark.

“Pardon?” the angel asks.

“I keep tripping on my runt,” Jacob says.

The angel watches.

Jacob gestures indistinctly with one hand. It is the gesture of someone who cannot easily explain.

“It is something the director gave me,” Jacob says. “A . . . thing. A horrid thing. A vessel for my imperfections.”

“Ah,” the angel says.

“I was very young,” says Jacob. “I was very young and I loved it very much. Because it made mistakes for me so I wouldn’t have to. It learned how to do math wrong when I learned how to do it right. It stumbled and crouched and scurried and spilled and I ran like a gazelle. When he kept me awake it was the runt who grew tired and weak. And I forgave it its errors and I kept it close and one day it went mad and began to rot so that I would not have to.”

The angel walks for a time in silence.

“It is a difficult thing,” says the angel, “to be a man; but sometimes it is harder to stand outside humanity and know that you can only grant those wishes that are possible to grant.”

I do not want to be this, Jacob thinks.

“I do not want to be this,” says the runt.

“Did you know,” asks the angel, “that when you were young, I thought you’d be a hero?”

Jacob shakes his head.

“You still have that choice,” the angel says.

Jacob laughs.

“Everyone does,” the angel says. “Everyone has a path to grace. You are never so far fallen that you cannot find the dharma within you, the thing that you can be, the brightness, and give yourself to it in sacrifice and joy and be a thing of beauty in this world. That is why I answered your call, Jacob. That is what I want for you. That is what the door to the right was meant to bring.”

“Then show me,” says Jacob.

The angel holds up the thousand shards of palm and fingers that are her hand and in it is an image of a fire and a light.

“What is that?”

“Coretta’s fire,” says the angel. “Dharma. Dragon’s light. The beacon towards the road that you should walk.”

Down the corridor Jacob sees the maw.

It is a characteristic of angels that their words are most difficult to understand for those who need the most to hear them. Thus one may reasonably say that the message the angel gave him was gibberish; that her words were incomprehensible; that it was not his fault that he could not understand. Still, he sees something in the light she holds, and gropes towards it in his mind.

But Jacob does not have much time.

The maw is like a serpent’s mouth, corded and fanged, but it has no inside or outside. It is not a physical thing. It is a principle of devouring.

Inside the maw,

Of course,

It is empty.

And the maw drives towards Jacob like the hammer of a god.

“Heroes can kill monsters, can’t they?” Jacob asks.

It is a distant, distinct question. He knows that his runt is scrambling and squeaking away. It has probably wet itself; it is certainly ungracious in retreat. But Jacob is perfect by the virtue of its imperfection, and he is simply thinking and gliding back, smooth as silk, his spear rising.

“Yes,” says the angel.

It has been two and a half weeks since Sebastien came to Central. It has been thirty-eight years since Jacob died. But what he is thinking of now is something that came between.

It was only six months back.

Iris was one of the children that Central held. The case review for her was on his desk. Her keepers recommended her release:

“. . . even in severe duress, the child is disinclined to issue supernatural manifestations. It is recommended that she be released and monitored rather than continuing to spend Central resources on her care and training. . . .”

Jacob knew better.

It was obvious for anyone who knew these children, for anyone who’d been one of these children, that Iris was falsifying her duress; that she was presenting as a child broken to fend away the chance that she would break; that she was suitable and strong but clinging to the power to feign weakness. Such gambits cannot last forever.

Release approved, he wanted to write. That’s what his runt was muttering.

But to write that would be a lie. It would be unprofessional. It would be false. It would not be correct for a man in his position. If he wrote that he would be forced to take up arms against the things that Central stood for, against the men who paid him and who’d tortured him and who’d killed him nearly forty years before.

He could not do that. That would be more false. That would put meaning to a world that had none and assert the humanity of an empty, worthless girl.

Jacob watched himself write the letter that condemned her to further pain, and then he went back to the games of Tetris that helped relieve his stress.

The runt was sniffling and crying and mouthing at Jacob’s hand, so he slapped it away and it stuck onto the wall.

Six months passed.

Jacob’s spear, sharp as a thorn, comes down. It pierces the maw and pins it to the floor. Jacob reaches for the fire within him, the waking of his dharma, the path that leads him from that place.

It is with a still small terror that he sees that the runt is caught in maw and spear.

They are thrashing together like the synchronized shuddering of the dead.

“It is hungry for you,” says the angel, “because of your contradictions.”

“Is it?”

“To exalt the sense in which things have no meanings,” says the angel, “is to create a contradiction. It overwrites the rules of meaning with imported context from a world that has none. That contradiction is like a knot: pull and twist at it, and it grows tighter until it resolves down to a single flaring NO at the center of your world. Pragmatically, this leaves you with two choices: accept oblivion, or grant things meanings. My ability to save you is entirely contingent on your doing the latter, and choosing a life in which salvation is coherently defined.”

Jacob struggles to keep the maw pinned down. The floor is writhing and shaking.

I will shoulder this burden, he thinks. But he does not say it.

“Shoulder,” mumbles the runt.

Then it coughs up blood and dies.

Jacob’s vision of the fire blinks out.

The maw bucks him off, and Jacob falls against the wall, and it is with a clockwork grin that he smiles at the angel.

“I’m sorry,” Jacob says. “I wasted your time.”

The angel’s voice is strained but the word she chooses is almost insanely polite. “Pardon?”

“To be perfect is to be unredeemable,” says Jacob. “Eternal. Unchanging.”

Imps eat the soul that you cannot bear to keep.

“When I took my runt,” Jacob says, “I lost the power to be other than what I am.”

The maw rises.

“But thank you for telling me I will not end,” says Jacob.

The maw falls on him.

Jacob feels himself dissolving and

“And?” Jane asks.

“The end,” says Martin. “The justification for eternity has ceased for Jacob to apply.”


See also The Fable of the Lamb,
Tigers in their Cages
Coming Home (a legend about Iris)
Saturday
Priyanka
and Jacob, His Runt, The Angel, and the Maw.

Jacob, His Runt, The Angel, and the Maw (1 of 3)

“Once upon a time,” says Martin, “that is to say, right now, there was a man named Jacob who should have been a hero.”

“Why wasn’t he?” Jane asks.

“Because sometimes things that just should happen, don’t.”

“What I fear,” says Jacob, precisely, “is the emptiness that follows life.”

His runt is down on the floor. It is pushing its face against Jacob’s leg. Jacob kicks it, and it scurries off into the shadows.

“It is unacceptable,” Jacob says, “that my personal story should end.”

The angel is a cloud of wings and faces. He can see her only as pieces. It is like looking through a broken lens.

She is wearing a jacket.

“It doesn’t ever end,” the angel says. “That is a fallacy.”

“Why so?”

Jacob is gray. That is because he died. He must take great care at all times lest he rot. He brushes at his cheek, his fingers checking for flaws or damage. He brushes off the leg of his brown suit pants.

“You cannot have the experience of no-longer-having-experiences,” the angel says.

Jacob hesitates. “That is not reasonable,” he says.

“You impose beginnings and ends on things,” says the angel. “But in this world only the perfect things are finite. In this world there is always an imperfection that leads into the beginning of each story. There are always dangling threads leading out the end. There is no thought that you can have that is a final thought. There is no action you can take that is your final action. There is only the point where you choose to say ‘the end’ and that is not the end.”

There is a clank. Jacob looks over. His runt has upset the coffee mug. It squeaks in horror and scurries away.

“Why are you here?” Jacob asks the angel.

“For you.”

It has been two and a half weeks since death came to Central; since the avenging wind that was Sebastien came; since everyone working in that foul place was given a choice: to speak their words of repentance, or to die.

Jacob stood before the men and women of Central, and he said of his sins, “It was wrong. It was vile. I had no right.”

Then he walked through the door of life, which lay to his right, and Sebastien stayed his hand.

The runt skulked through after him.

Others went left and died. Others repented and they lived.

But Jacob had not repented.

He simply spoke the words.

It is Wednesday, the 12th of May, 2004.

“I know what will happen,” says Jacob.

“Do you?” the angel says.

“I have been dreaming every night of the maw. It is down there.”

Jacob taps the floor with his foot.

“The basement goes ten layers deep. Somewhere in it there is a maw, a devouring god, and it is loose. After Sebastien freed the children we keep here, he freed the gods. And one of them is the maw, and it will hunt us down one by one and devour us, each of us that spoke the words of repentance but did not repent.”

Jacob looks around his office. There is a desk of fake wood. There is a coffee mug, now spilt. There is a narrow window and his rolling chair. Against the doorframe the angel leans.

“I cannot afford to end,” he says. “So I wished with my all heart and then you came.”

The faces of the angel shift and tilt.

“I think,” says the angel, “that if you fear divine punishment for your hubris, that the first step should be curtailing your pride. You suffered in this place. You died because of this place. Is it unworthy of repentance, what you have done in its name?”

Jacob holds out his hands. They are gray.

“It has been almost forty years since the director tore out my heart and shoved a spear through my brain,” Jacob says. “Here is what I learned from the experience: that those who imagine that they are people are wrong. Those who think they are more than mere machines are wrong. We are all horrors. We are all machines. We are a joke. I did not want to die. I lay there with my heart beating in his hand and his face shining with vindication and the pointed end of the spear sticking out from my mouth and I did not want to die. But when I got up again afterwards I knew that I was dead and everything I imagined about my life was false.”

“And yet,” says the angel.

“I cannot repent,” says Jacob. “I do not believe that anything I have done was wrong, for there is no wrong. The world has no deeper purpose and our actions mean nothing and the universe does not care what you or I imagine is unjust. There is only the question of survival: what is the most effective path for staving off the end?”

His runt is amongst Jacob’s papers and reports now. It is evaluating one of the client studies. It is writing down its observations. They are false and wrong and with a growl Jacob seizes it by the neck and hurls it against the wall.

The angel does not seem to see.

“It is regrettable,” says the angel, “that you will be judged by a moral standard that you do not hold.”

“Yes,” agrees Jacob. “But the gods love poetry.”

“It will be elegant,” says the angel. “Elegant and inevitable; something brought on you by the manner of your rejection; an example made of you in fate and blood that realizes the worst of all your nightmares. There are no kind fates for those who refuse their chance at grace. There are few enough for those who choose acceptance.”

“So,” says Jacob. He looks at her and his eyes are open and calm. “Save me.”

I entrust myself to you, he wants to say.

But he does not say it.

The strategy of the game is better played this way, he knows. The weight of his struggle must fall on the angel, and he must not make himself vulnerable before its grace.

“Entrust,” mumbles the runt. “Entrust.”

“Then we must go down,” the angel says.

On Wednesday, the 12th of May, 2004, the basements under Central are very cold and very dark.

Remus

The day is hot. The hills are covered in flowers. A peasant’s hut sits beside the grain fields.

Romulus is Emperor of Rome.

Romulus is wandering. Romulus is haunted. But Romulus is not haunted today.

Today is a good day. Today there is beauty and there is magic and everything is wonderful except that he is hot.

Romulus is sweating.

It is the Italian summer.

“If only I had some artificial fruit refreshment,” says Romulus. “Then my day would be complete!”

A creature bursts through the wall of the hut. It has three jackal heads and seven serpents growing from its back. Its legs are the legs of a wolf, and it has six of them. Its stinger is like a scorpion’s, but leathery and with a whip-like flexibility. It charges onto him like a storm, and he is flung backwards by its impact. His right arm tries to keep its snapping heads from his throat while his left hand fumbles for his sword. He is driven backwards into the hill, and rolls desperately to the side, and then his sword is up and the creature is gutted.

“You are a fool,” says Romulus, “to challenge thus the son of Mars.”

The creature bleeds. Brilliant red gouts onto the ground. “Oh, yeah,” it whispers, in a voice that is like the voice of men. Then it is dead.

Romulus cuts out its heart. He takes its heart to Rome. He cuts open a trench in the earth. He plants the heart in the earth. He grows a Granarium. This is where Rome will store its grain during the long winter months.

763 years before the common era, Mars impregnated Rhea Silvia.

Rhea Silvia birthed twin sons, Romulus and Remus. Mars claimed them, played with them for six hours, and then abandoned them on the banks of the Tiber.

2.8% of the infants exposed in this manner are suckled to maturity by a passing animal. The remaining 97.2% die.

Romulus and Remus were among the lucky few.

Romulus sleeps in Rome that night, among his concubines and his servants, but he does not rest.

In the morning he sets out again.

By the banks of the Tiber, Romulus sits down, and he weeps.

The nymph of the river sits beside him. She is a creature all of reeds and grass, and she is nourished by his tears. “Why do you cry?” she asks of him.

“You are beautiful,” says Romulus, “and I am sad. Must everything have reasons?”

“No,” says the nymph. And they sit there for a time.

“I would—I should—”

Then Romulus shakes his head. The nymph is sleeping, and she cannot hear what he might say.

“If only I had some artificial fruit refreshment,” Romulus says. “I would share it with you this day.”

In the first days of Rome, these are words to call forth horrors.

The river boils. The river seethes. A great hand of mud and silt rises from it; and then its arm; and then its body. The creature is tall and apelike, and in its muddy mass Romulus can see the eyes of old drowned men.

It roars; and in that roar, Romulus hears, “Oh, yeah.”

“Peace,” Romulus says, and lowers the nymph’s head onto the grass so that she is not jostled as he rises.

The silt-ape pounds the ground with one fist. The earth shakes. Distant from them, the Roman coliseum cracks.

“Oh, yeah!” screams the ape, in its brutal rage. It lunges at Romulus. A wave of water, filth, and the stench of death precedes it on its charge. But the sword of Romulus is in his hand, and it casts aside the wave, and the spray touches him not, the spray touches not the nymph, and as the silt-ape lopes towards Romulus the beast meets for the first time the sting of mortal steel.

“I am Romulus,” says the man, “Emperor of Rome; son of a god; and I will take your head to form my city’s walls.”

The silt-ape hesitates. It is fond of its head. But silt-apes are vicious and belligerent, and so it does not cease. It casts forth a terrible wave and lopes towards the man again; and Romulus surfs that wave, riding backwards towards Rome with his shield and on it, and at the city limits Romulus’ blade lunges out and pierces the silt-ape’s brain; and the ape falls, and its blood is brilliant and blue, and Romulus cuts off its head, and he carries it into Rome.

“This shall be our city walls,” Romulus says. He digs a trench in the ground. He sows the head in the trench. He covers it in dirt. He builds City Walls. They rise, stern and rocky, to surround the city of his name.

Romulus and Remus grew strong. Romulus and Remus grew powerful. They loved one another as brothers do. They learned the arts of the sword and became great heroes.

It was a golden time.

Romulus’ chief concubine pleads with the Emperor. “Sleep with us tonight,” she says. She would very much like to give birth to his heir.

Romulus goes pale. He shakes his head. He pushes her away.

“No.”

Romulus goes to a new-risen tower in the city walls. There on the barren stone he palely awaits the dawn.

At the darkest hour the shade of dead Remus stands at his side.

“This is a fine city wall,” Remus says.

Romulus does not respond.

“It will keep the city safe,” Remus says. “But it would be better if you upgraded it to a Spiked Wall.

“I was thinking of working on Imperial Tactics next,” Romulus says.

“What if someone attacks?”

“I just . . . I don’t want . . . I don’t have to kill something for Imperial Tactics. I just have to steal the fruit of the tree of ruthlessness.”

Remus sits down beside Romulus. His spectral hand touches his brother’s back. It is cold and warm together as Remus tries to rub some of Romulus’ tension out.

“I do not wish to see the city lost,” Remus says. “Is all.”

There is something unstated between them.

“You’ve worked so hard,” Remus says.

Spiked Walls,” Romulus agrees. He shrinks away from Remus.

“It doesn’t feel good?”

“I—”

“I’ll let you rest,” says Remus, awkwardly.

Romulus is silent.

Remus ghosts away.

Romulus and Remus decided to build a city. They dreamed of it together, but to Romulus the dream was dearer.

They planned the streets. They planned the buildings. They desired an empire as their legacy.

What they built was Rome.

It is the next day.

Romulus staggers from the tower stiff and haggard.

There is a gentle rain to lift his spirits, and the smell of white flowers on the wind. Romulus walks through valleys and through hills. He sleeps at night and wakes refreshed at dawn. Finally he comes to a place of honeysuckle and stone, where milk leaks from the calcium walls in that ancient geological process most like a cow’s.

“Ah,” says Romulus. He drinks deep. Then he shakes the milk from his beard and stands tall, with chest thrust out, in the fashion of the ancient kings.

Romulus cries, his voice stentorian, “This milk—I am not satisfied! Ah! Ah! If only I had some artificial fruit refreshment!”

The walls of stone around him shudder and shake. There is a charnel stench that seems to Romulus to leak straight upwards from the gates of Hell. The calcium splits and crumbles as a drake buried in the wall spreads its wings. This is no living dragon but an ancient drake dead since the dawning of the world. The mouth that comes down towards Romulus is foul and toothless and Romulus is gagging too hard to draw his blade. Into darkness the corpse-drake swallows him.

“I am Romulus,” gasps out the Emperor of Rome, twisting and writhing in the corpse-drake’s narrow throat. “I shall not turn to oil in the belly of a beast!”

Romulus’ battle aura flares. Romulus is strong, because he has been drinking milk. He slams his arms to the sides and the beast bursts into ten thousand thousand flakes. Its blood is a viscid translucent orange. Its pieces flutter down onto the earth like a gentle snow. Romulus seizes in his hands, for lack of a dragon’s fang to sow, a bit of corpse-drake palate.

Romulus takes the palate back to Rome.

Romulus affixes the palate to the City Walls. The walls become Spiked Walls. A plaque on the walls reads, “These walls have been spiked with the fermented essence of a long-dead drake. They are exceptionally good at repelling enemies.”

“It is well,” says Romulus, exhausted.

Then Romulus leans his head against the stone and cries.

In the early days of Rome, Romulus and Remus quarreled. Only one could be Emperor. Only one could found a nation. Only one could have eternal glory and endless fame.

Romulus slew Remus. He sowed Remus in the earth and the Roman forum grew.

Thus it is that Romulus was emperor, and not Remus.

Thus it is that Romulus could name the city “Rome.”

Night falls.

Remus’ shade stands beside Romulus. The ghost has an diffident look to him.

“You are pushing yourself hard,” Remus says.

Romulus sits down.

“I remember when we were young,” Remus says, “and we would drink the milk of the she-wolf, and then you would chase me and I would chase you all through these hills, and for days and days we would run with the wind in our face, laughing, and never did you get so tired as this.”

“I—”

Romulus swallows his words. He will not say them. He will not tell Remus how much harder it is, alone.

“It will be a grand city,” Remus says. He looks out across Rome. “It needs an Onyx Library, I think. That’ll show Alexandria what for.”

Romulus gasps out, “Forgive me.”

Remus looks blank.

Romulus shakes his head. Romulus gets to his feet. Romulus staggers out into the night.

“Great,” Romulus says. Romulus is sniffling. It’s not self-pity, it’s just that his nose is still congested from his tears. “Just great.”

Then Romulus laughs.

“All I need now is some artificial fruit refreshment. That’d make my night complete!”

There are screams in the night. There is the sound of wings. Romulus cannot see these noises’ source.

Then there is white in the darkness and Remus is there.

“What are you thinking?” Remus demands. “It’s night time.

“Brother?”

Remus looks around. “They are all around you,” Remus says, “not in this world but the next. Oh, brother, why have you risked yourself so?—but you must flee!”

“Brother? You cannot be away from Rome—”

The rake marks of claws appear down Romulus’ side. He did not feel the blow; he did not see the blow; he only sees and feels the pulsing of his blood. Romulus casts about him for his enemies.

“There,” cries Remus, pointing.

Romulus lunges, and his blade breaks through something’s heart, and the wine of a dead man’s libations bubbles up from the ground.

“There!” Remus shouts.

Romulus stabs. An ethereal white liquor, raspberry in flavor, drools now down his sword.

“There!”

The blade of Romulus, who is a son of a god, spins and dances in the night; but then the horrors turn aside from him and retreat to a place he cannot go. Romulus watches, Romulus can do nothing but watch, as the hands of dead horrors drag his brother’s ghost away.

“Remus,” Romulus pleads.

“Be well,” Remus says, and the gibbering of the horrors and the light of Remus fade away, save for one last scream in the night:

“Oh, yeah!”

For more on information on the invocation Romulus uses in this story, see Claire and KA

.

(Good Friday – Hitherby Annual #1 – I/I) Tre Ore

Once upon a time, the world had a purpose.

Back then, everything did.

Everything had a purpose, and a truth, and a dharma.

This time was full of sorrow. If a banshee howled, then someone would die. If a mermaid called you, you would drown. If a witch cursed you, you would shrivel and suffer ill fate. Such was the nature of the banshee, and the mermaid, and the witch. If Coretta’s Lion had your scent, then it would hunt you down, and eat your skin and muscles, bit by bit, and you would take three days to die. The world was full of things like that.

But these sorrows were small.

The worst of the predators of this time were the predators of truth. For there were things, things like Death, and Sickness, and Old Age, that declared their truths supreme. It did not matter what your purpose was. Theirs would overwrite it. In the end, you could not defeat them, because it was the nature of their truth to mean more than your own. They were a very exclusive club.

The monster was such a thing. He was such a predator. And he was undefeatable. And it is because there were monsters, and because there was death, and because there were truths like theirs, that the world was broken, and the gods were cast from the world of truth into the heart of emptiness.

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

Martin stumbles against a man, and his touch does not turn the man to dust. After a long moment Martin realizes that this is so.

“Hey,” Martin says, and refocuses his eyes.

This is a place of deep water, but the man is parched and dry. Fruit is dangling from the trees all around him, but he is terribly thin. His name is Tantalus.

“Hey,” Tantalus says.

Martin backs away a step, tilts his head, and frowns. “You’re not like the others. You’re not a broken god.”

“No,” Tantalus says. “I am a man, and I am dead, and I have been consigned to torture here in the Underworld for roughly three thousand years.”

Martin whistles. “Harsh.”

Tantalus shrugs.

The deepness of the water has put a silence on the woglies, but Martin still feels edgy and twitchy down in his soul. “Hey,” he says. “What makes that okay?”

“Okay?”

“What makes it okay to torture someone for three thousand years?”

“Ah,” says Tantalus.

Then he laughs.

“It didn’t matter,” Tantalus explains. “Zeus sat on the throne of the world, you see, and it did not matter which of his dicta were okay.

Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit

540 BCE

“It would have been better to kill him,” Mylitta admits.

Mylitta sits tailor style on the dust and grime and brushes White Lion’s fur.

“But the problem with heroes,” she says, “is that monsters have an answer to them.”

White Lion lowers its head to the floor.

“A hero is a storm,” Mylitta says, “and storms are terrible. But there is a place above the storm where the air is calm. And I do not know how. But I could feel it, like I could feel the wind and the sunlight. That he had found that place. And so there was no single specific moment in which the monster could be killed. ”

“I thirst,” rumbles White Lion.

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

There is a silence.

“I had fruit,” Tantalus says, “Only a few decades ago. But I would still like some water. If you could hold up some water for me to drink, I would love you.”

“My hands are full of dust,” Martin says.

“Oh.”

“I thought they were people,” Martin says. “I thought they were my predecessors. But when I touched them, it turned out that all they were was dust.”

“It’s the Underworld,” Tantalus says. It’s an explanation or a dismissal; Martin is not sure which.

“My sister keeps making gods to save her,” Martin says, “and all of them fail, and all of them wind up as mud and dust.”

“I remember that,” Tantalus says. “The gods were severed from the world.”

“Severed?”

“In the face of the monster, they were lost,” Tantalus says. “They had no meaning that could compare to his own. So they were cut from the Earth, torn away, and made into isn’ts, lest the monster’s dharma set a new order on the world. It was my doing, in a way; my children could not have learned the truths that make a monster had I not stolen the secret of the gods.”

Martin frowns. “The secret?”

“If you accept a purpose;” Tantalus says. “If you declare something to be your answer to the emptiness; then you must accept the consequences of that answer. It is desirable, for gods as for men, to shrink from that burden; but in the end, it always catches you, and, if it so pleases, it tears you apart.”

Tantalus sits down heavily, and the water sinks into the dust lest he should drink, and the woglies surrounding Martin are in the air once more.

Behold, Your Son (X/?)

546 BCE

“I am born to answer suffering,” says Siddhartha.

Siddhartha and Yasodhara travel through the city. Yasodhara is very pregnant.

Her answer is light and teasing. “And who is not? If you were born to cause suffering, my love, then I should name you a monster.”

Siddhartha says:

Let us speak of death, then, as a monster.
He may be fought,
But the terms are his own.
Each time you make escape from him
He claims his due.
Thus it is that no man may fight death.

Let us call illness a monster.
It may be fought,
But the terms are its own.
We do not choose the behavior of purity.
Even touching a man,
In exercise of compassion,
May bring on sickness.

Let us speak of age as a monster.
She may be fought,
But the terms are her own.
The more you fight, the more she grips to you.
The more you fight, the more she claims her due.
Thus it is that no man may fight age.

This is the flaw in the world.

How can I answer suffering?
Monsters have no remedy.

“The root cause of suffering,” Yasodhara observes, following the train of her own silent thoughts, “is that no one wants to suffer.”

Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise

539 BCE

Nabonidus is educing a god from her when Mylitta breaks.

“Sometimes,” Mylitta says, clearly, “it’s like there’s this thick yarrow stick in my chest, going through where my heart used to be, stretching from my spine to my ribs. And now, suddenly, it’s like it’s just split, and blackness is leaking out all over me.”

Nabonidus blinks.

There is a light that roils under Mylitta’s skin, and then fades. There are great wracking coughs that shake her, and violent seizures. Then Mylitta stops. Her head lolls to one side. Her eyes dim.

Nabonidus looks blankly at her. He steps back. His arms fold around himself for comfort.

“Um,” he says.

Mylitta sleeps.

There is a great bulk behind Nabonidus in the room. It is white, like a maggot, like the wriggling young of flies. It is leonine. It is soft. Its name is White Lion, and it is a god.

“She will not wake,” it says.

The creature pads forward. It says, “I have asked her to leave this place, to come away with me, a thousand times. But she has always said no. I do not think she will deny me today.”

It leans down. It takes Mylitta in its mouth. It turns to walk away.

“She’s mine,” Nabonidus says.

White Lion looks at him.

“She’s my husk,” Nabonidus protests. “I broke her.”

White Lion leans its great head down. It drools Mylitta onto the floor. It looks up. It opens its mouth. It roars.

It is a terrible thing, that roar. It is like a wind tunnel that blows away the qualities of the world. Nabonidus cannot see. He cannot touch. He cannot taste. He cannot smell. He cannot hear, save for the roar.

.
.
.

Nabonidus is on the floor. He does not know how or why he is on the floor. But Mylitta is gone. So he does the only thing that he can do, in answer to her emptiness.

He makes a god.

Behold, Your Son (X/?)

546 BCE

“Ah,” says Yasodhara. “There is a monk.”

Siddhartha follows her gaze. He frowns.

Who is this, Yasodhara?
This man—
His head is shaved,
He wears a robe,
He has a strange demeanor.

The smile on his face
Seems more
Like the one I seek
Than the smile of my father Suddhodana.

“He is a monk,” Yasodhara says. “He lives in the temple and he travels the kingdom, teaching people how to be good.”

“And what is his answer to suffering?” Siddhartha asks.

Yasodhara studies him with the eyes of a goddess. “A very small fiend,” she says. “It lives in his gums. It locks his jaws in that smile. There are bone passages connecting his teeth to his ears, and this allows it to whisper to him constantly, ‘people need not suffer.’ It is a painful fiend, but it has convinced him not to mind.”

(“If only ancient India had had proper dental hygiene!” Jane exclaims. “He could have brushed the fiend right out and put it to use saving the world!”

“There are many tragedies,” Mrs. Schiff agrees.)

Siddhartha opens his mouth to speak.

“Oh,” says Yasodhara, interrupting him. She has gone pale. She leans against him.

Her labor has begun.

Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise

539 BCE

Exhausted, weary, broken, and warm:

Nabonidus is crying.

It has cut him raw, to make a god. It is like being a skinless man, for him, naked in the face of everything he is.

It does not hurt terribly. But it stings.

It costs him that control that would keep him from his tears.

There is a snuffling in the room, and the clicking of nails on stone. A cold wet shadow passes over the footprints of White Lion, the altar of Sin, the blood Mylitta left behind. Then the creature he has made, the Dog of Nabonidus, brushes past and around him and leans against his side.

“Why couldn’t I keep her?” Nabonidus says.

The Dog looks at him. Its eyes are expressive. It is almost as if it wanted to say, It is the monster’s nature to consume his victims.

“She was strong,” Nabonidus says. “She could have fought. She could have kept herself unbroken.”

The Dog pants, quietly. If it could speak, Nabonidus thinks, it would no doubt say, She did not wish to. In the end, she chose to leave you with the burden of the contradiction of your lives.

“Why?” he asks.

Because it is the only answer she could find.

So Nabonidus goes home to Babylon, and he whispers to Mylitta’s absence, “You’re right, of course.”

Mylitta’s absence remains constant.

“One of us must pay the price,” Nabonidus says. “And you think I’m not strong enough. You think I’ll bend. But I won’t. I’ll make a host like you have never seen, and send them after you, to make you whole. You won’t escape from me. I will fix you.”

There is a void in the room, an emptiness, a devouring. For a moment, Nabonidus thinks it is his heart, but then he realizes that Belshazzar has let himself in.

“I will help you, father,” says Belshazzar. “If you let me.”

“Help me?”

“I have seen how it is that one pulls forth gods.”

Behold, Your Son (X/?)

546 BCE

Siddhartha is in the garden. The midwives have chased him from the room where Yasodhara is giving birth, explaining:

Every child we pull forth
Is an answer
To the suffering in the world.

You are Prince Siddhartha,
And we glory in you,
And one day you’ll turn the wheel
And conquer all the world
But you will never be a midwife.

Your fussing distracts us!
Your philosophy confuses us!
Out! Out! Give us space
To answer the suffering in this room.

“Midwives are intimidating,” concedes Siddhartha.

He sits in the garden, under a tree, and thinks about the monk, and suddenly he realizes:

I am suffering.
I know the meaning of it!
And it is this:

From the beginning of my life,
I have made observations
And conclusions regarding the nature of the world.

These carry me along
Like a river
Each new truth means another thing is true.

I have built a world
From premises I’ve found
And premises I’ve made

And this is my suffering:
A flaw has crept in.
A wound has snuck into the world that I have made.

Dukkha.
There: I have named it.
Somehow suffering is intrinsic to my world.

To deny suffering
Is to find contradictions—
We can’t have everything we want.

Maya is in the garden. She sits down beside him. Her eyes are shadowed. She says:

I am here to offer you the treasure wheel.
It is power.
It is truth.
It is the nature of the world
And where it goes, it conquers.

If you take it I can let you live.

Siddhartha says:

I am glad you are not here to kill me,
Mother,
But to bind me to that wheel—that is crueler.

It is beautiful
But it is the cause of all my suffering.

“It is not the cause of suffering,” Maya says. “It is the answer to it. If you have power to dictate the ephemera of the world, you may release things from their suffering.”

Siddhartha reaches out to touch her hand, but she drifts away. She is standing now, slightly out of his reach, staring out at the world, holding the jeweled treasure wheel in her hands.

Siddhartha asks:

If someone is wounded, mother,
What would I use the wheel for?

To heal them, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If someone is being tortured, mother,
What would I use the wheel for?

To save them, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If they are tortured again, later, mother,
What would I use the wheel for then?

To save them again, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If they suffer in the meantime because they remember torture, mother,
What use, then, is the wheel?

To heal them, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If someone suffers, again and again, mother,
What use is the wheel?

You may end or prevent that suffering each time, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If there are conditions in life that make future suffering inevitable, mother,
What use is the wheel?

Maya frowns at Siddhartha. She says:

It is life itself that makes suffering inevitable.
If you end all life, you will end all suffering
But this is not the Maya-Dharma.
And this is not compassion.

Siddhartha says:

If there are conditions in life that make future suffering inevitable, mother,
Is the wheel then no use at all?

Maya says:

We suffer because we love what might have been.
If you end love, you will end all suffering
But this is not the Maya-Dharma.
And this is not benevolence.

Siddhartha shakes his head. He says:

If someone wounded says,
When I bring the wheel to them,
‘This wound is inevitable,’ mother,
What must I do then?

Maya says:

Such a person has lost perspective.
Ignore their words and heal the wound, Siddhartha.

Siddhartha says:

You have lost perspective, mother.
The world is a wound.
The nature of things is a wound.
That suffering is inevitable, this is a wound.
Do you understand?
Even if I must shatter love,
Or shatter life
To heal them,
I will end that quality of things that makes us suffer.

Maya lowers her head. “So ruthless,” she whispers.

Siddhartha reaches out to her. He says:

If I did not know the Maya-Dharma, mother,
I could not transcend it.

Maya says, quietly,

O Prince, O Prince,
In your rooms
Your son is born.

Will you look upon him?
Will you go, and look upon him,
And know the reason for this world?

“Sons are an impediment,” says Siddhartha.

Maya looks wry.

I shall not. Siddhartha rises, and turns, and looks towards the gate. I will seek an end to suffering.

The wheel burns in Maya’s hands. It is a jeweled treasure wheel, thousand-spoked, with two winky eyes; and now it is on fire. It grows great and terrible, and there are wheels within the wheels, and wheels within those, and it rolls towards Siddhartha like the coldest and deadliest of the killer-gods. And as it touches him, and burns his arm, he falls back; but it is Maya, and not Siddhartha, who screams.

A spoke of the wheel has broken free and fallen to the ground.

There is a hissing inside the treasure wheel of the world, a hissing and a shuddering, and the world has cracked.

Eloi, Eloi, Lema Sabachthani?

Present Time

Sebastien emerges from the shower, wrapped in a towel and using another on his hair. He is almost clean, but not entirely.

The monster is waiting outside.

“I’m not intimidated by relative nudity,” Sebastien says.

“Did you ever wonder,” the monster asks, “why it is that you’re something that can kill monsters, and not something that does?”

Sebastien scrubs at his hair a bit more, then shrugs. “No.”

“I’ve thought it might be,” the monster says, “that we’re difficult to kill.”

“No,” Sebastien says. “It’s just that if you’re someone who kills monsters, then there must always be a monster to kill. You can’t fix anything, you can’t solve anything, you can’t make any kind of difference unless you’re lucky enough to do the matter-antimatter thing and burn out with your enemy in a blaze of glory. It’s safer to be someone who can kill them. And even then—”

It is very important to Sebastien that he not turn away from the monster, and so the pain in him is a crisis point; and in the end, though he does not turn away, he does look down.

“To go all the way means being death. It means being a killer. Even if it’s someone who kills things like you. And it means being part of things like you, even if it’s the part that ends them.”

The monster’s smile is brilliant and white.

Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise

539 BCE

It is the seventeenth god.

Belshazzar pulls the seventeenth god from Nabonidus, a great and terrible phoenix shape, a yellow and red effluvium that pours forth from Nabonidus’ chest and mouth.

“Go,” says Belshazzar, and it is gone. It seems to Nabonidus that it is following Mylitta into emptiness, as if Nabonidus’ own strength is pouring after his victim into the void.

Belshazzar leans down again. His face is terribly earnest and clinical.

Nabonidus is weak.

“Wait,” he says.

“It is necessary,” Belshazzar says. “We do not know how long until her heart will cease to beat.”

“No,” says Nabonidus. His word is binding, and Belshazzar stops.

Nabonidus is weak.

“Lift this burden from me,” he begs.

So the teeth of the devouring god close around him.

The nature of the monster ends.

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

The idea that comes to Martin is as inevitable as the rain.

“This is a place that takes everything from you,” he says. His voice is thick and heavy. “I came down here, and I was strong, but I can’t keep that. Not in the Underworld.”

The woglies are closing in on him, but Tantalus stands up, and the water washes in, and over them, and they grow still.

“I have to give up more,” Martin says. “Somewhere, there is something I am clinging to, that I have to give up, and it’ll be the thing that hurts the most to toss away.”

Tantalus looks at him. “Why would you surrender the thing you love the most?”

“Because there cannot be a poor rich man,” Martin says. “There cannot be an earthworm in the sky. There cannot be a man who is not a man, or a bird that is not a bird, or a void that is not empty. I am the architect of suffering, I am its source and its foundation, and I am good; and because these things cannot share one form and nature, I am severed from the world. My purpose fails because it is a contradiction, and contradictions cannot endure.”

The woglies are buried in the water, and they do not speak.

“There is no birth,” Martin says, “that has no pain.”

Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit

540 BCE

Mylitta leans over White Lion, her face in the creature’s fur.

“This is the secret of the monster,” Mylitta whispers to him. “It is not random. It is not chance. And none of it is blind. The line of Amiel could not escape her oath, but they could twist it, and they know the secret of the gods. They know that we exist for a reason, that we respond to purpose, that we are bound by the laws of our nature that we cannot break.”

“Leave here,” says White Lion. “Leave, before he shatters you.”

“So they chose a dharma for themselves,” Mylitta says, “that we could not answer. They chose a dharma that redefines our truths.”

“Leave here.”

“That is the reason for Belshazzar,” Mylitta says. “He will not answer the monster. He will break the question. He will destroy what it means to be a god, and I shall have my Elli.”

She is silent for a moment.

“If he is weak,” she says. “If he is weak, before I die.”

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

Martin opens his eyes. He releases a burden, or accepts it; they are one and the same.

“It’s not the monster who’s hurting Jane,” Martin says. “I won’t claim that. I won’t be a passive observer. If I’m going to shape the world through suffering, I’m going to be the one who shapes it; and the monster’s responsibility won’t ever negate mine. It’s my job to make sure that suffering transforms.”

There are fewer woglies now. They are skating off through the water, like toroidal tropical fish or evil aquatic froot loops that have been startled by a splash.

But one remains.

“Do you have the right?” it asks.

“Ye—”

Martin comes very close to nonexistence.

Then he shakes his head. “That’s not important to me,” Martin says.

It Is Finished

539 BCE

There are some who say that Chen Yu broke the world. There are some who lay the blame on Belshazzar in Babylon, or Siddhartha Suddhodana’s son. A few blame Mylitta, or the monster, or even Maya, for all that there was nothing she feared more.

In the end, that the world should break was inevitable.

The weight of its suffering was not a thing the world could bear.

Martin and the Woglies (III/III)

It is March 25, 1995, and Martin is in the Underworld.

The Underworld is a place where awful things happen. For example, Martin’s got cooties, and he’s turned someone he loved to dust, and he’s started to understand why he isn’t.

(Isn’t what, you ask?

Isn’t anything.)

Worst of all, though, there’s a wogly.

It floats near him on the mud. It’s a hollow thing, shaped like a torus. It has soft ruby skin and two winky eyes. It hisses.

Inside the wogly it’s empty.

“I know why you’re there,” Martin tells it. “It’s because I believe in the kind of love that has teeth, but the toothier it gets, the more it resembles a monster’s love. It’s because I think suffering helps people, but there’s a lot of suffering in the world that isn’t doing anyone any good. It’s because I’m not some pathetic kind of angel, wringing my hands and hoping that someday people will grow without a shove, but I can’t figure myself for a sociopath either. I know.”

The wogly, impartially, rotates right.

“I’ll get to the heart of the Underworld,” Martin says, “and learn how to fix things, and then everything will be okay.”

The wogly rotates left.

It devours a bit more of the integrity of the world.

From every direction, now, Martin hears the cries.

“Help us. Save us.”

The air is full of these cries; they come from every direction; they ring through Tartarus. They are a sound attuned to the resonant frequency of Martin’s soul.

It is March 26, 1995.

The cries are silent, and Martin’s hands are full of dust.

There are many woglies now. They crowd around him like the end of Martin’s world.

(But it’s okay!

Just in case you were worried.

We already know he survives.)

Martin and Thess (II/III)

On March 22, 1995, Jenna receives a certified letter. It has her full address on the front, including “The Firewood World” at the very bottom. It is delivered by postal jet. The letter reads as follows:

Jane,

I hope you are well.

I had never thought to let you go. You were close to my heart, and I thought that you would die or remain with me forever. Yet life takes funny turns.

Still, I have need of your services again. I hope that you’re available. I know that you’ve been confused and angry and acting, well, as one would expect Jane to act. But you should visit me soon.

You belong to me.

On the letter is drawn the crest of the monster’s house.

Three days pass, and most of another.

It is March 25.

Martin, stumbling through the mud of the underworld, meets Thess.

Thess is a young man, with clear blue eyes, angel’s wings, and a jacket.

“People loved me,” says Thess.

Thess is building. This is his punishment. He is building creatures, always, making new kinds of life.

Then they die, and turn to dust, and the dust blows away.

Thess is steeping in mud and failure and it has not improved him yet.

“I radiated it,” Thess says. “It was my answer. ‘You can escape your pain. Just love Thess!'”

“Oh,” Martin says.

“It was a clinging love, a reaching love, a scrambling love,” says Thess. “It was more real than the world. It was an awakening love. I was going to walk right into Central and they would have loved me. And I would have asked them to let her go. I would have told them that I was her brother. And she would have come and taken shelter with me, and them too, and she would have been safe.”

“What happened?”

“I died,” Thess says. “In a little town, by a little school. A faceless god bound me to the earth, cut my ribs out, and pulled my lungs out my back. Then love died and the world was hollow.”

“I’m sorry,” Martin says.

“Help me,” says Thess.

“I could leave you here to suffer, thus allowing you to transform into something better,” says Martin.

Thess looks at Martin. It’s a very sardonic look.

“Yes,” says Thess. “That plan is certain to be effective.”

Martin looks down.

“It’s what I know how to do,” Martin says.

“Nothing?”

Martin hesitates.

“If you leave me here,” says Thess, “I will suffer eternally and gain nothing from it. Then one day you will go and face the monster, and he’ll point his finger and laugh. And you’ll say, ‘watch out! I’m going to leave you alone so hard your head will spin!'”

“I’d planned to revise the speech a little,” Martin says, “First.”

“Give it a few drafts?”

“Yes.”

Thess looks at Martin, and suddenly Martin loves him so much his heart hurts.

“I made a glorious frog-thing,” Thess says, “I called it Alitheia. But it died. They all die. Each of my children. I grow hollower and hollower but there is no end to me. Help me.”

So Martin reaches out for Thess, and at his touch Thess turns to dust.

Martin and Lisa (I/III)

It is 1995. There is no sun in the Underworld.

Martin finds it creepy that there are portraits along the stairs.

One of them is a picture of Frederick. He looks a lot more like the hero than Martin does. But Martin knows him. He was Jane’s brother before Martin was.

“I wonder why you failed,” Martin says.

Then he takes out a bit of charcoal and scribbles a moustache on Frederick’s face.

“Now you’re an Archduke!”

Archduke Frederick, presumably of Austria, looks out impassively at the world.

The next portrait is a picture of Tad. Tad was Jane’s brother after Frederick but before Martin. Tad’s got a smooth smile. He’s pretty cool. Martin isn’t cool yet, so Tad’s coolness annoys him. He turns Tad’s picture around. He writes ‘kick me’ on its back.

Martin descends. He reaches the bottom of the stairs, and a land of mud and darkness.

“I have no idea where to go,” he says.

Nothing happens.

He clears his throat. He says, loudly, “I have no idea where to go! If only there were someone who could help me!”

The world shivers.

Light condenses from the darkness, and ten thousand miles of shadows grow deeper. The light is a girl. She’s carrying a jacket, and her name is Lisa.

“Hey,” she says.

“Hey.”

He looks her up and down. They could be siblings. They could be twins. She’s his height exactly, and she’s got his hair, and she’s got his smile, and she’s got his eyes.

“You’re kidding,” Martin says.

“What?”

Martin looks hesitant.

“She made me,” Lisa says, “a long time ago, to be her older sister. I was an answer to her suffering. I said, ‘maybe it’s for the best. Maybe suffering is transformative. Maybe if I leave her there to suffer, she’ll become something grander, something better, something new.‘”

“Yes,” agrees Martin.

Lisa grins at him. “It makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s a perfect answer. People die in droves, children lay in piles with their arms twitching, dogs starve, and it could all be part of a glorious purpose. The engine that drives the growth of the world. The answer to the Dukkha Call. And I was part of it.”

Lisa turns. She looks out at the mud. She slings her jacket over her shoulder and begins walking.

Martin follows.

“I, um.”

Martin clears his throat.

“That’s why I’m letting her suffer,” he says, “too.”

“Redundancy’s good,” Lisa says, cheerfully. “Hey, do you have a wish?”

Martin looks down. His eyes are in shadow. “I want to win,” he says.

Lisa grins at him. “That’s a good wish,” she says.

“Can you grant it?”

“Maybe!” Lisa grins at him. Her teeth are very white. “If nothing else, I can raise your hopes.”

Martin is not entirely sure how to take that. He retreats in the general direction of sarcasm, but doesn’t quite make it there.

“Yay,” he says.

In the distance, he hears a cry. “Help me!” it says.

“Ignore those,” Lisa says.

“Illusions to lead me off the path?”

“Dead angels,” Lisa says. “Probably some other gods too. They’re steeping in mud and failure until they become something grander, something better, something new.”

“Yay.”

“Do you know the rules of the Underworld?” Lisa asks.

“No,” Martin says.

“They’re like this,” Lisa says. “It’s easy to get into the Underworld. There is no body that does not have its personal gate of death; no soul, without its gate of emptiness; no mind, without its gate of deepness. That’s three whole gates per person, and girls have a fourth, so you can see how easy it is. Getting out, on the other hand, is hard. You can’t leave unless you’re the child of a god, beloved by the one who sits on the throne of the world, or a person inherently good.”

Martin looks wry.

Lisa grins at him. It’s a charming expression. “I know,” she says.

He snorts.

“I do,” she says. “I had the same dream you did. But then I got stuck.”

“I’m inherently good,” Martin bluffs. “Unlike some people.”

“Nice trick,” Lisa says.

They walk on for a bit.

“I mean,” Lisa says, “considering.”

Martin looks up, sharply. For a moment, there’s a force in his eyes. Then it fades, and he bursts out with a question that’s been nagging at him.

“Why are you a girl?”

“The monster isn’t as fond of boys,” the angel Lisa says.

“Oh.”

They walk on.

“People who don’t suffer,” Martin justifies, “remain small. They’re weak. They’re isn’ts. They’re shadows. They’re firewood people.”

“That’s true,” says Lisa.

Then the most remarkably clever and cruel expression comes on her face, and she leans close to him, and she whispers, “So are people who suffer, mostly.”

Martin makes himself walk on.

“Maybe you’re a stillborn thing,” Lisa says. “Like a fire made of wind, like a voice crying in the emptiness, like a dream in the mind of an uncaring man. Maybe you’re down here because you died. It’s the path most people take.”

“Maybe,” Martin says.

Lisa stops.

“Anyway,” she says. “This is your place.”

She gestures ahead of them, where the mud stirs in unseen currents.

“You’ll spend eternity drowning,” she says. “You won’t be able to breathe. Your struggles will be muted. You’ll never know what happened to anyone else you care about. There’ll be no boundary between yourself and the pain. Like with her.”

Martin looks at her.

“It’s not what I’m here for,” he says.

“It’s nicer than being a light spread through ten thousand miles of darkness,” Lisa argues.

“But is it right?”

“I hope so,” Lisa says.

Martin hunches his shoulders a bit. He looks out at the mud.

“I don’t want to drown in mud forever.”

“Enh.”

Lisa shrugs.

“None save the monster,” she says, “may choose the circumstances of their lives.”

Martin looks at the mud. He looks at Lisa. He looks at the mud. He looks at Lisa.

“Don’t ever tell her I did this?” he says.

She looks at his eyes. Then she grins to him, even as she tries to brace herself for war. “All right,” she promises.

PUSH!

Martin pushes Lisa. She falls backwards into the mud behind them. Then Martin runs.

There’s something on his hands. It might be dust. Or it might be Lisa-cooties. Martin can’t tell. So he scrubs his hands vigorously on his legs as he runs.