The Rabbit and the Wolf (I/I)

“I said no kids,” Vincent tells her.

“Hm?” Melanie says.

He’s such a strange and innocent young man.

“No torturing kids. No making gods. We work with the gods we have. We don’t do this any longer, Melanie. We don’t have to be the monster.”

She blinks at him.

He’s right, of course. She doesn’t have to be the monster. She doesn’t even have to be a monster. She could just turn around and—

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


May 28, 2004

She can’t help giggling at the serious expression on his face.

“Vincent,” she says. “If you want to negotiate with them, you’re welcome to try. You can just walk in and say, ‘Kids, I know you don’t mean any harm, but you’re trespassing on a Central-owned facility, so please vamoose immediately and we’ll move in.’”

“I wouldn’t say vamoose,” Vincent says, even though the word, like his name, begins with V.

“Whatever,” Melanie says. “Or make a deal where she makes gods for us, in exchange for a share of the profits and someone to turn the electricity on.”

Melanie can’t actually order the electricity turned on at the facility at Elm Hill, since the property isn’t in her name, but she can point Threnody at the problem, and that’s practically as good.

Vincent is glaring at her.

“I’m serious,” he says.

“It’s impossible?”

He licks his lips. He glances down at Harold’s head. She’s lowered her arm to her side but the head’s still dangling from her hand.

“Like that,” he says, “it’s impossible. But we could— we could help them. Hide them. We could help them hide.”

“Well, go ask him, then.”

“What?”

She’s gesturing towards the gates.

Micah has come out again.

He’s walking, pale and blood-soaked, from the doors of the facility and down the path to its iron gates. He is standing in front of them, on the other side of those gates, and he is looking at them and he is swaying like the ground beneath his feet has lost the trick of keeping still.

His shirt is different.

It isn’t the same as it was when he was watching from the balcony. There is something different.

He is pulling the gates closed.

She almost laughs at him, at his determination, at the stupidity of it, to close a gate of ordinary metal against Melanie and all her gods.

But she must not laugh.

Not for all the laughter that is filling her, she must not laugh. Not with him so close. She must take him seriously. Micah is weak and pale and shaped into the image of a boy, but Micah is a god.

So she takes Vincent’s arm and she walks towards the gates, and they get close, and he says, “The first of you to set foot past this gate will die.”

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

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

The gate closes with a click.

He’s just a boy. He’s not more than twelve. More likely, he is ten. He looks tireder than she has ever been.

“She said it,” Micah emphasizes. “Liril said that it would happen. So it’s true.”

Melanie steps towards him.

He flinches.

Metal and death between the two of them, and he flinches.

“That’s a fine trick,” she says.

His poker face is bad.

“But she didn’t say that, did she?” Melanie asks. “She couldn’t have. Because it’s not my fate to die. So why don’t you tell me what she really said?”

“It was that!” Micah protests.

But it’s a bluff.

“We can talk,” Vincent says. “We don’t have to hurt you. We’re not him. We can . . . don’t make this a war, Micah. I don’t want to hurt anybody else. Don’t make this a fight.”

It’s like there’s a curse on Vincent’s tongue.

It’s the exact wrong thing to say.

Melanie takes another step, and Micah’s strength breaks, and he runs; but he stops before the doors. He stands there, frozen, because that’s as far as he can run, with Liril still inside, and he hears the gate creak open, and he knows that Melanie is looking in.

“After you,” she says, to Vincent.

Vincent tries to find the word “no.” He tries really hard. But he’s lost it somewhere along the way. Instead, his mouth works for a moment, and to his own horror, he comes out with, “But I wanted to be good.”

Melanie grins at him. She grins wide. She looks at Micah, her eyes brilliant and alive, as if daring him to get the joke; but Micah doesn’t smile.

And Melanie is thinking:

Such a strange and innocent young man.

See also: The Cautionary Tale of Abermund Plain

Anatman (I/VII)

Anatman’s the god of a godless world.

He’s stood against the Devil himself and said, “You don’t exist.”

(And oh! how the Devil laughed; but that’s a story for another time.)

He’s stood against the demons and the fiends, and fought them back; and the angels and the fetches too. He’s won ten thousand different battles against ten thousand different gods.

He’s the man who stands at the boundary of the world and keeps theology at bay.

Here’s how it goes.

801 years into the common era, an octopus-bodied snake-headed bird-beaked hydra god of unspeakable and abominable torments tries to break into the world.

Anatman puts an end to that.

“Those are some pretty abominable torments,” concedes Anatman, “but they’re totally speakable.”

The hydra glares at him.

“You know I’m right,” Anatman says.

It’s not easy to talk about the torments of the octopus-bodied snake-headed bird-beaked hydra god. You have to put yourself through a mental wringer just to figure out where the bird’s beak goes, and that’s before you even get into the torments.

But you can.

And if they’re not unspeakable, then it’s not the kind of octopus-bodied snake-headed bird-beaked hydra god-abomination that it thought it was, and so it doesn’t break into the world.

Later, in 816, the wolf of space comes down to eat the Earth.

It takes Anatman himself to go out there and stop it. Alchemy doesn’t work and people don’t have nuclear weapons yet and longbows are notoriously ineffectual in space, but Anatman, he goes out to where the wolf is ravening towards the world and he says, “The Earth is bigger than your head.”

This brings embarrassment to the wolf.

The wolf says, “It is sometimes difficult to correctly judge perspective when you are in space.”

“See that you’ve learned better, then!” Anatman laughs.

And that’s the resolution for the matter of the wolf.

Finally, there is a firvuli.

To become a firvuli is the destiny born into a girl named Halldis, the purpose seething in the flesh and fire of her, 981 years into the common era and under the Icelandic sun. She is born for no other reason, and to no other purpose, than to one day decide it is better to be a firvuli and cast aside her mortal flesh and ascend to become a great grey god-mountain firvuli that is winter and death and the substance of THE END.

Right now, of course, she’s still a baby girl, because she’s just finished being born.

Anatman slips into the room while the midwives are distracted. They probably couldn’t have seen him anyway, since he’s the person of there-aren’t-really-any-people as much as he’s the god of there-aren’t-really-any-gods, but he isn’t taking chances.

He slips into the room, and he looks down at the baby, and he stares into her fire.

“You’re gonna be a firvuli,” he says, “little girl. And that’s no good.”

It turns on him.

It’s shocking. It’s terrifying. It’s not even technically or literarily possible. It’s like suddenly reading a book that the writer hasn’t even started writing yet—that’s how unexpected the rising of a firvuli can be. It fumes up from her soul like the steam from a fresh corpse’s blood and it looks at him, it looks at him, and suddenly instead of a baby girl or a firvuli he’s looking at THE END.

His senses desert him.

He flails in emptiness.

He remembers suddenly forward to the moment of his death.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


981 CE

“Why, you rotten old Anatman,” he hears future-Anatman say. “You’re a no-person man!”

A no-person man!

A philosophical conceit!

Not a god, not a person, not really anything at all!

And under the power of those words, just like he’s going to do one day, later, on the day Anatman dies, he finds himself unfolding, unraveling, dissolving and stopping being, because you can’t very well be a god of godlessness or a person of no-persons, after all.

Today, though—

Today, he shakes it off. Today, he laughs. Today, he scruffs the baby’s head, and he plucks the firvuli from her soul, and he kisses it lightly on its brow.

“It’s OK,” he tells it, cheerfully, and hugs it close against his heart. “It’s OK. You don’t have to fight me. You don’t have to be afraid of not existing. I do it all the time, and it’s really not so bad.”

So he carries the firvuli away, off to the lands of fable, to live estranged from the humans and the good earth and the wind. He carries it off to the borderlands of the world, to live in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, in the corner-of-the-eye, in the hypothesis, the supposition, and the edges-of-the-map. He takes it away from the earth to the fairy regions, where hydras and great wolves and firvuli were still allowed to be, and he tells it the secret that cuts it off forever from the world and sound: that nothing ever ends.

That everything’s always ending.

That nothing’s ever even really started.

And that might sound like more than one secret, or even a contradictory passel of secrets, if you’re someone like you or me; but if you’re a no-person man like Anatman, all those secrets are the same.

And Anatman and the firvuli become great friends; but as for Halldis, she is empty, she is desolate, she is born to know great suffering, for she is a girl who should be a firvuli, who should become a firvuli, anyway, a great grey god-mountain of THE END, and who can never be a firvuli at all.

Well, that wasn’t the noble truth we were expecting! Still, you’ll probably have to wait another week before we allude vaguely to a different noble truth instead.

In the meantime, you could

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

1. Coffee

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

Our coffee’s not like that.

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

Our coffee’s not like that, either.

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

2. The Merry Christmas Man

The Merry Christmas Man goes to Holidaytown.

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

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

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

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

But Sid doesn’t.

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

Say it,” says the Merry Christmas Man.

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

3. Guilt

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

“I killed me a reindeer,” he says.

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

She’s looking at him in confusion.

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

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

It’s not her fault.

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

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

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

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

There’s more to it than that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Jelly, in the Cold

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

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

Instead, he’s cold.

He’s really, really cold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. The Jinglers

The Merry Christmas Man is fading.

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

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

He thinks with sudden fierce and giddy joy:

I am in luck.

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

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

Damn it, thinks the Merry Christmas Man.

“Hey,” says Sid. “Hey, you OK?”

Sid looks up at the others.

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

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

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

Sid seems even more confused than we.

“Sir,” he says, “you’re overwrought.”

The Merry Christmas Man snorts.

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

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

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

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

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

Sid doesn’t cringe.

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

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

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

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

6. Transcendence

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

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

The world where he was rips open.

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

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

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

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

It’s thus.

O, merrily, it’s thus!

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

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

I mean, it’s pretty good.

We are not knocking a good Frappucino.

But it’s not the thing.

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

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

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

For just 99 cents a cup.

The Eclipse (II/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede - Chapter One]

The air is so full of the purple dust that blows up off the sea from the northwest. The rock of the tower is so old. The sun is so crisp and clear. The sky is so blue.

“I made that,” laughs Iphigenia.

She’s flopped on her back on the grass. She’s wearing a pink long-sleeved top. She’s holding up her left hand. She’s looking up at the sun and the sky, but more importantly, at the day.

It’s a happy kind of thing, to have stirred such a bright day from the ashes of nothingness.

She moves her hand to the left. The sun heats. The sky burns for a moment, rippling with red and orange, and then stabilizes brighter.

She moves her hand to the right. The sun dims back to where it was—to just where she thinks is perfect, on a day like today—and the world goes crisp and clear and calm.

She rests her hand on the ground.

She closes her eyes.

She basks.

And she thinks, I don’t have to be afraid.

Continuing the history of Iphigenia (1, 2)

There’s a place in the texture of the happiness inside her that’s off-tone. It’s not filled with sunlight joy. It’s shaped like an eclipse.

Here is how it is with Iphigenia.

She is on the grass but she is also in a chariot in the sky, pulled by four burning horses, drawing the sun. It makes her hair fly every which way and her muscles ache great achings and there’s sweat on her face and sometimes she’s very tired but she can’t ever stop until nightfall because there are ravening wolves after her from the moment of the dawn.

The glory of it is tempered with her fear of the wolves catching up to her and knocking her from the chariot and chasing her down as she falls to rip into her limbs with their fierce and terrible teeth.

“Rahu,” she names the red wolf, the scary wolf, the blood wolf.

The other wolf does not scare her as much but she is not entirely certain why.

Continuing the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)

Sid and Max are up above, on a second-floor balcony. Sid is sitting on its battlement. Max is leaning against the wall in the shadow of an eave.

I want to take the shadow from them, thinks Iphigenia.

It is a great aching, like in the muscles of her sun-self. It comes across her like a wave and she swallows it in silence.

She is very busy doing very important things, is Iphigenia.

She is laying on the grass and she is wearing a pink long-sleeved top and she is making sure that the sun doesn’t fall down or get eaten which would be bad for just about everyone.

The wolves aren’t the only thing that wants to eat the sun.

There’s Sukaynah.

There’s the solar transubstantiationists.

There’s the sun-eating swallows.

Sometimes Iphigenia gets squiggly icky feelings about the grass that she’s laying on, and all the other plants, like they’re hungry little maggots that want to burrow into her flesh, and sometimes she gets motherly feelings, like she’s a mother bird spitting sunlight into the baby birds’ maws.

Being the sun is surprisingly like being a little prey animal.

But the wolves are what worry her.

So she doesn’t do anything about Sid and Max. She swallows it in silence.

It is June 1, 2004. The sun passes behind a cloud.

Max is saying, “Why do we do this?”

And Sid says, “Hm?”

“Why do we tell all these stories where we’re jerks to one another?” Max asks.

Sid catches a mote of purple dust between his hands, not so much touching it as sheltering it from the wind. He passes it back and forth in the air currents above his hands.

There’s a bit of sunlight in there too. Iphigenia can feel the cracked-clay roughness of Sid’s hands.

“Write what you know?” Sid hazards.

“Ah,” says Max.

The tempo of their exchange is off. That is where Iphigenia feels the pain in it: in the tempo, in the beat. That is what makes her imagine, as she lays there, that they would rather fight with knives than say and hear these words.

I wonder, thinks Iphigenia, if it feels like an eclipse to them.

The thought wobbles in her head.

In that moment she recognizes something that she should have recognized long before.

It is a rising, warbling shriek she shrieks. She does not even realize at first that it comes from her.

“SID!”

He is like a liquid. It is as if he flows from the balcony to hold her head against his chest. It takes Max somewhat longer. Since he is human he is more like a clumpy liquid flowing from a previously unused pipe. He has to stop and dangle over the edge of the balcony for a moment before he can let himself fall. He runs to her like his knees have joints and he sits down to hold her hand.

She does not pay much attention to this but she is unable to stop herself from noticing it because everything is very noticeable of a sudden.

“Rahu is coming,” she says.

The wolf is gaining on her in the sky.

It’s an incredible feeling. It’s like a joy as much as it’s like a bubbling sore squirting fear.

“Rahu is coming here.”

And she is crying and they are gentle to her and she is saying, “Finally. Finally.”

Because when the wolf catches her she can stop running, and better it be now, with Sid and Max right here, than when she is alone.

(April 1) What if the Tower Had a Different Cast?

The slurry of words falls always from the sky.

They are grey.

They are bits of pulp-paper, smeared with ink, torn to shreds and pouring forever over the Buffalo region.

The monster trudges along the road. He shivers in his shiny winter coat. Little grey words accumulate on his shoulders.

All around him there are humans; and there are humans; and there are enemies.

A bus drives by. It splashes him with data.

He looks up.

His eyes gleam.

He hierarchically orders the bus in relationship to evil two-headed wolves that live outside the world.

“Graar!” roars the bus.

It is taking inspiration from the wolves. It is relaying the doctrine of those wolves into the world.

The bus stops at a red light.

It casts its head around. “Graar!” it roars.

If it had a mouth, it would totally eat somebody.

Ezra is a pedestrian. He looks up. His face is in a rapture. The words of the wolves are the words he has waited his whole life to hear.

“I understand,” he says. “At last.”

The bus snarls and snaps at him.

Cringing, Ezra scuttles back. He hulks low to the ground, like a two-headed beta wolf living beyond the world. He makes a low whimpering noise. But he does not go away.

The light turns green again.

Driven by the senseless imperatives of the wolves beyond the world, the bus starts moving again, lurches forward two blocks, and then pulls over against the curb.

Ezra follows, and there is something on his face of peace.

The monster trudges on.

And all around him there are humans; and there are humans; and there are enemies.

“I don’t understand,” Tina had said, on the phone. “It’s raining data from the sky. It’s practically begging for organization. Why don’t you set an order to it?”

“You can’t give things order when they’re asking for it,” the monster said. “That road leads to ruin.”

There’s the Rice Building to the monster’s left. Moira looks down from a window. She is dressed in an evening dress and holding a champagne glass in her hand.

She experiences contempt for the monster in the snow.

He looks up.

His eyes gleam.

He hierarchically orders the building in relationship to Santa Claus.

A cold northern wind blows through the Rice Building. The laughter of gnomes is loud in the elevator shaft. Soft lights twinkle.

And Moira finds herself thinking, “I should give away everything I have.”

The notion is simple and lucid. She has thought herself a good person, but in the grim Santalight she recognizes that in every aspect of her virtue there is also the taint of greed. Clinging to her possessions and her comfort, she has never known true clarity of spirit.

“I should empty my bank accounts,” she says, “and give presents to the poor. And then I should slip from my skin,” she says: “Leaving it behind me as a gift for humanity or for God, and like a moth fly free.”

Ho, ho, ho, Moira! That’s the illumination of the Santalight!

The monster trudges on.

And all around him there are humans; and there are humans; and there are enemies.

Tina hesitated.

“I know a disordered thing that craves not resolution,” she says.

The monster is going to the Vatican Satellite Archive in Buffalo, where the Vatican keeps all of the various secret archives and papers that for one reason or another it prefers to keep in Buffalo.

It is a big metal building, like a bunker.

It has a giant and somewhat tacky cross on the front, and it is protected by the Swiss Guard.

“Hello,” says the monster.

“We cannot let you pass,” the Swiss Guard clarify.

And the monster’s eyes gleam—but:

“It’s all right,” Tina says.

She is standing inside the building. She is wearing a lab coat. And at her words the Swiss Guard stand down and relax.

The monster goes in.

“Come see,” she had said. “It’s the God machine.”

“Take me to it,” he says.

And she leads him down into the bowels of the building, where the deepest and darkest of the secrets that the Vatican keeps in Buffalo reside; and there he sees it, great and bulky and flashing its lights and devouring punch cards and tape—the God Machine.

“It is sick,” she says.

The monster looks at it. He taps it with the edge of his hand. He tilts his head to one side and listens to its bleeps.

“It’s the conflict with the Allah Machine and the Godless Secularist Machine,” he says.

“That’s why it’s snowing words,” Tina says. “And why every third person on the street is an enemy.”

He attempts to hierarchically order the three machines. Tina stabs him with the knife Quicksilver.

He is distracted. He can scarcely tell that he’s bleeding, but there’re grey waves of shock inside his mind.

He blinks. He shakes his head. “Huh?”

“Huh?”

“You stabbed me,” he says.

“Oh.”

“Please don’t stab me,” he says, “while I’m trying to hierarchically order God.”

Tina’s lips are a thin line.

The monster looks up. His eyes gleam. He hierarchically orders—

“OW!” he says. “Fudge!”

“I can’t take responsibility for it,” Tina says, cleaning her knife. “It’s natural that you should experience pain when attempting to place these three machines in hierarchical order.”

“I see,” the monster says. “It’s just the inexorable development of a natural process.”

“Yes.”

He looks at her. She is trying very hard not to grin.

He’s got blood all over his shiny winter coat.

“Well,” he says, “thank you for showing me.”

He turns away.

He walks up towards the street.

“You’re not going to break it or anything?” she asks.

He shrugs.

“It’s just the God Machine.”

He walks out of the Vatican Satellite Archive in Buffalo. He walks past the Swiss Guard. They’re mildly concerned about his bleeding but they can’t do anything about it because he’s not the Pope.

He staggers out among the cold grey slurry of words.

And he stumbles.

He falls.

He lays there, on the sidewalk. The humans step over him. The humans walk around him. The enemies stare at him with their shining red eyes.

And suddenly he understands.

There on the ground he laughs; and he looks up; and his eyes gleam.

And he says, “This is a world that loves not order.”

The slurry falls.

And up above the seraphim sing into the chill void of Heaven, and their words precipitate down; and they had never asked that the people of Earth should understand what it is they’ve said.

He is free.

His eyes gleam.

He says, “Systima.”

And the order of things congeals about the words, and the slurry that falls from the sky begins to bind together as it falls; and paper forms books, and books form corpuses, and even the corpuses submerge into data, and there is a swirling serpent of form assembling from the falling gunk, a mad grey thrashing snake like an elemental of the storm; and where there was emptiness there is now an answer, looking out at him from the serpent’s burning eye.

But it is not an answer that he can understand.

The Clash

“Ho ho ho!”

The Green Giant laughs because he will not weep. He holds the ruined bodies of his clan.

“Ho ho ho! Green Giant!”

He stands in a metal house lit by smoky torches. The great wooden table is before him. All around him are dancing shadows and the bodies of the dead.

It is as if they were struck by a razor wind.

The entrance to the Clan Hall gapes open like a wound. And all around him is the blood: splashed on the walls like the gruesome work of some great mixer.

He has gathered them in his hands, his great large hands, with their dangling heads and their stiff blood-dark bodies and their staring eyes. He is putting them on the table.

They are vegetable men, compost corpses, whose bodies know the trick of taking root and stealing a tainted life force from the earth.

He is chopping them up so that they will not rise.

When he is finished he emerges from the Clan hall and he stands there, head bowed, a giant with no purpose but revenge.

“I will strike south across the lands of men,” he says. “To Greyhawk, that blighted city, whence the killer must have come.”

Ho ho ho! Green Giant!

He is alone now, the giant green survivor of a small and humanoid tribe. The ways of the samurai, that once he practiced, do no longer suit.

He hides his green face behind a mask and he practices a cowardly ninja art.

Men and women in their taverns and their castles, sitting before plates of withered grey vegetables, startle. “Ho ho ho!” booms a voice.

A green shape slides out from the shadows.

“Ho ho ho! Green Giant!”

And everywhere there is red.

The giant moves through the land called Geoff and the dukes and princes of the lands of men fall victim to his sword. Behind him there are other giants whom in his wake grow bold: Hrulgar, the hill giant, whose booming laugh signifies delicious hills. Jarl Jack Frost, the giant of winter. Even Surt, who had given for a time more attention to the preparation of delicious Muspellheim-brand chili peppers than to the destruction of the world, moves in the Green Giant’s wake.

That is why the King at Geoff calls forth the wolf.

The King is a grizzled man on a black iron throne, tired and old and wrapped in winter furs that make the King seem small. The wolf is a woman, short, lean, and intense, with blind eyes and a scar on her face.

“Did you kill the Green Giant’s clan and bring this devastation upon us?” asks the King.

Jane, the wolf, looks shiftily this way and that.

“Look at me when I’m calling you forth,” says the King.

He drums his fingers on the black iron armrest of his throne.

Jane sighs. She makes a face. She looks up at the King. “I did,” she says.

“That was bad,” chides the King.

“It was my iron raker,” says the wolf. “A powerful sword move that explodes enemies in all directions. I developed it to scatter the vegetables from my plate but it works as well on vegetable men.”

“It’s not okay to kill the Green Giant’s clan and bring devastation onto everybody just to avoid eating your vegetables,” the King argues.

Jane hangs her head.

“It was an excess of youthful exuberance,” she admits.

“Then you must clean up your own mess,” says the King.

The wolf slips out.

In the wilderness there is a fire. A caravan has stopped. Its company is eating and singing around the fire. Then a strange chill comes over them. They look around nervously. There is something in the night.

“Ho ho ho!”

The eyes of the caravan master go white with panic.

“Ho ho ho! Green Giant!”

Then what they believed was simply the trees and the night is among them. Then his teeth are grit and he is readied to make his bread from the bones of men.

Then there is Green Giant.

But there is also the wolf.

On the other side of the caravan fire, she casts aside her cloak and says: “Iron raker.”

Enemies explode in all directions, including a mosquito that had intended to bite Jane, a monstrous ogress in a distant hut who’d been planning to curse her, and an evil bee that hadn’t really intended anybody any harm. But the Green Giant does not die. He seizes a wagon from the caravan and uses that to block the force of the wolf’s blow. He skids back. The wagon explodes, showering its cargo to all sides. His chest breaks out in blood. He is alive.

“Green Giant Ninjutsu #9,” he says. “Incarnate Devastation!”

He throws a can of incarnate devastation into the air. Striking its pressure points, he bursts it, showering the wolf in devastation.

“Ow!” says Jane.

She staggers back.

“You got devastation in my hair!” she says, wildly scrubbing at it.

“Ho ho ho! Green vengeance!”

Then he has torn a tree from the ground. Then he is wielding it as a club and it is rushing down towards Jane’s head.

Jane looks up.

“I should probably take responsibility for the death of his clan,” she thinks to herself. “Just stand here and take it. Let the blow land.”

CRUNCH.

But Jane is not between the greenery and the earth. She has rolled forward and she is under the giant and she is whispering, quietly, “Iron raker.”

And it is like a Chili’s Blooming Onion only instead of fried onion curls there is the passage of her sword; it is a death blossom and it opens for the Green Giant; and his head does not stop its rolling to ask her, “Why? Why did you kill them?”

And Jane says, “The clash of vegetables and wolves is savage, on the frontier.”

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.

Standing in the Storm: The Jaguars

Five of Emily’s friends, and one acquaintance, are dead.

“Come on,” says Saul. He rises. He takes Emily’s arm. He leads her out onto the street. They begin walking towards the school where it all started.

“They’re dead!” Emily shrieks. “You killed them! You monster!

Saul doesn’t seem to have noticed her outburst. After a moment she realizes that that’s because she didn’t outburst aloud. She outburst silently, inside herself.

The moment has passed. She can’t shriek at him now. It would seem artificial.

“He liked me,” she says.

She means Fred. He’s one of the dead ones.

“Good,” says Saul.

This is a story about jaguars. Emily loves them.

It’s also a story about death. Emily doesn’t want to be eaten. She wants to live a long time and then die in a beautiful place, surrounded by something wonderful.

Finally, it’s a story about a hat that sorted people into a high pure vision of what they should be, and about the people who thought that that might not have been the best idea.

This isn’t a story about Vladimir or Edmund. If it helps, Vladimir meets a horrifying fate and Edmund lives happily ever after. Edmund would have died, except that Saul sends him to safety shortly after this story ends.

Just in case you really wanted to know.

“There are tiny scales on your skin,” says Emily. She’s looking at Saul’s hands. She’s looking at his fingers.

Saul looks at his fingers.

Saul bites at one of his fingers. It’s a thinking gesture. But pretty soon it turns into a chewing gesture, and then a flesh-tearing gesture. He stops himself with a wrenching shudder.

“Listen,” Emily says. “When people look at other people, they don’t see what’s really there. They see something else. They see reality, but distorted. Like it’s through a lens. The lens is flawed. The shape of that flaw is Gotterdammerung.”

“The apocalypse,” says Saul.

“People kept predicting it,” says Emily. “But it didn’t happen. Because it was something in the world we see. Not in the world that is.

Saul tilts his head to one side.

Emily shrugs.

“You know how primitive people would see lightning and think of gods?” she says. “It’s like that. We’d look at other people and see these alien things. Heroes and villains and trash for the killing. That’s the world we saw. A world where the apocalypse drew ever closer, driven by the marching drumbeats of the heralds of oblivion.”

There is a distant drumbeat in the wind, and the bleat from far Bifrost of Heimdall on the tuba.

“It’s actually a lower-energy state for the world,” Emily says. “Gotterdammerung worlds are easier. The kind of thing God could have done on a lazy Sunday afternoon, after finishing up here. But he didn’t. Your purpose didn’t come from God. Instead, Vladimir made a hat, and it sorted you into his vision for the world.”

Emily might have had more to say. But she doesn’t say it.

Instead, she hisses in air. She bites her lip. She stares.

They’ve just rounded the corner and she can see the Lethal Magnet School for Wayward Youth.

It has, at last, lived up to its name.

All through it the ivy grows and the students are dead, save where the surviving beasts of Hunger run.

Saul isn’t taken aback by the sight. He’s still thinking about their conversation.

“Hats don’t lie about moral issues,” says Saul, uneasily.

But Emily is staring at the dead.

The Edmund-beast snarls. Then it yowls. It’s the kind of noise that reminds you that if the gnostics are right there’s a blind idiot God somewhere in the universe burning popcorn in the microwave before settling in to watch the suffering of your life.

It is answered by howls.

All through the school there is howling. It is a rising voice. The beasts give praise to hunger and to death.

“It’s obscene,” explains Saul, who still hasn’t noticed her horror. “I see a purpose. It is high. It is holy. It is noble. We must develop the hunger until it consumes the world. This purpose is inherent in the universe. The hat opened my eyes to that purpose. It can’t have created it.”

And Emily wrenches herself from the sight. She lowers her eyes. She looks at the shadows on the ground.

“It’s not your fault,” she says.

“But how can I know?” says Saul. “By what yardstick? How can I tell if what I see is universal or delusion?”

“It’s not your fault,” Emily stresses. “It’s too late. You’ve already been assigned. You can’t tell. It was always nothing more than a question of how long we could contain the damage.”

“Oh,” says Saul.

The hunger is rising in the beasts of the school. To Saul, it is the great surging of an endless sea. To Emily it is a concert for xylophone and tuba. It fills the air with the power of it.

And the Keepers’ House is there.

“We’ll hold it back,” Emily says, “for as long as we can.”

Edmund’s broken away from Saul and Emily. He’s loping over towards the remaining Keepers. He’s looking into their faces.

“Don’t eat me,” says the foppish Englebert. “My family has the ear of the Queen.”

“Wow,” says Edmund. “Really?”

“No,” admits Englebert. He slumps. Then he dissolves into a spray of various parts.

“I’ll give you Keeper cooties,” protests Isobel.

“I’ve got some,” says the Edmund-beast.

“I hope the wolf steps on you,” Isobel mopes.

Things proceed.

There aren’t enough of them left to hold Edmund’s hunger back.

It surges out from the Lethal Magnet School for Wayward Youth. The breaking of the Keepers’ lives is a gap in the dike, and the hunger pours down into the world.

“What’s going to happen?” Saul asks.

Emily looks at him bleakly.

“No reason not to say,” says Saul.

“The wolf will come,” says Emily. “You’ll turn into beasts. The boot, no doubt, will fall. The world we’ve dreamed of will force its way in. And I guess I don’t get the death I wanted.”

Saul nods. The hunger rises in him. It is like a flame. It is like a cold and terrible sea. Saul does not hold it back. He opens his fanged mouth. He rears back like a serpent. The Saul-beast’s eyes burn red and its hat is green like a snake’s.

Er, scales.

Like a snake’s scales.

And just before he eats her, three things happen.

The first thing is that a great wolf wanders in. Its binding cord has broken; where the hunger is, the dwarves have no power. Fenrir is curious. The hunger calls it. So it has come.

The second thing is that the House of Hunger sloughs off more of its humanity.

And suddenly Emily is cheerful. She is pointing at Edmund. She is laughing, like a child, like a bright clear bell. “You have spots,” she says.

This causes Saul to pause and Edmund to blush.

“They’re good spots,” the Edmund-beast mutters.

Saul’s eyes are narrowed.

“You’re oddly bubbly,” says Saul, “for someone who’s about to die.”

Emily’s shoulders sink as she relaxes. She looks at him peacefully. “Jaguars are my favorite part of Gotterdammerung,” she sighs.

The third thing is that the great space station, Vidar’s Boot, comes down; for there is something in a boot that loves to stomp, and nothing is quite so stompable as one’s alma mater.

“The wolf’ll eat most of you before it dies,” says Emily, peacefully. It’s not a threat. It’s a gift. She’s giving Saul a chance to react.

WHAM!

The station strikes the ground.

WHAM!

The station strikes the ground again.

WHAM!

The shockwave of the boot’s impact throws the House of Hunger into the air.

Now it’s raining men. Well, jaguars. Well, jaguar-men.

“It’s like Christmas came early!” Emily says, happily.

The boot clips the wolf, and suddenly it is looking for a place to run, and there are howling and yowling and clucking and chittering beasts in its path.

Down fall the jaguars like a gentle rain; and it is there, standing in the storm, surrounded by something wonderful, that Emily dies.

Standing in the Storm: Calling to the Wolf

The Hubble II drifts around the world.

It looks at space. Space is different. There’s something at its edges. Something hungry.

The Hubble II clicks and whirrs. Its great glass lenses roll into position. The frame of the telescope vibrates. It stares harder at the edge of the world.

“This is beyond me,” it says.

So it turns its burning eye on Vidar’s Boot. It sends a message. It opens a link. Data flows.

“I was looking at things,” says the Hubble II. “Space has a texture now.”

It is 2012, and the tape drives of the majestic computerized space station, Vidar’s Boot, begin to spin. The lights on its consoles flash.

Vidar’s Boot says, slowly, “Space is performing work.”

“What does it mean?”

“It means that I am summoned,” says Vidar’s Boot. “I am called to stomp.”

It hesitates.

“You cannot stomp upon the world,” acknowledges Vidar’s Boot. “You are a telescope.”

“I will look at things,” says the Hubble II.

There is affectionate warmth in Vidar’s Boot‘s reply.

“You are a wonder,” the space station says.

Fred and Emily were members of the Keepers’ House. They kept hunger, and torment, and even saintliness at bay.

One of the stories of hunger and saintliness begins here. That’s the one where we meet Edmund, who just ate Fred, and also some other people.

This story begins here. So far, it’s about what Keeping means, but today it’s also about the things that are Kept.

It is 2012, and the doom of things approaches. In Mr. Domel’s basement, the wolf is restive. It is pacing. It is tugging on the cord that binds it. It is whining.

Mr. Domel stands at the top of the stairs. He looks down. His face is affectless.

“Be still,” he says.

Fenrir, unhappy, vomits up a bit of dwarf and various stomach liquids. Then it looks at the ground and sniffs at the puddle. It looks up at Mr. Domel.

“. . . you can’t expect me to clean that up,” says Mr. Domel.

“You left the dwarf out,” reasons Fenrir, persuasively, cocking one ear down and one ear up. “That makes it your fault.”

“I didn’t—”

Mr. Domel founders, hesitates, and then looks disgusted.

“I’m not going to talk about a dead person this way when he’s right there in front of me in chunks,” he says. “What the hell happened?”

“He wanted to check my cord,” says Fenrir.

Mr. Domel steps back three steps. He slams the door. There is darkness for a while. When he returns, he’s pointing a loaded shotgun at Fenrir.

“It’s got wolfshot in it,” he says.

Fenrir tosses its head. It licks a bit at the dwarf, then shrugs. “Do you know why the dwarfs made my cord from things like a river’s stillness and the lightning’s depth?”

“No,” says Mr. Domel.

“In the energy differential between concept and reality,” says Fenrir, “there lies a power. This is the fuel for the dwarven engines, the dwarven smithies, the dwarven works.”

Fenrir tugs on the cord. The cord strains but still it holds.

“Leave me alone,” says the wolf, pettishly.

“Why did the dwarf break into my basement?” says Mr. Domel.

Fenrir looks up.

“He was drunk,” says Fenrir. “Drunk and afraid. He thought the hunger of the beasts would call me. He thought that it would set me free. But it hasn’t, yet.”

So Mr. Domel backs away. Mr. Domel closes the door.

Fenrir tugs on the cord. There is a snap. It’s the nerve of a bear, one of the strands of the cord, and it just broke.

In 2004, Emily met Fred’s mom for the first and only time. Emily and the other Keepers were standing in a spooky circle around one of the poor kids from the House of Torment at parent-teacher night, holding in his pain. And Fred’s mom walked past and suddenly she stopped.

“Oh!” she said. “You must be Emily!”

Slowly, Emily turned her head. She gave Fred’s mom a wicked squint. But Fred’s mom returned a brilliant smile.

“I’m Heather Moorage,” she said. “Fred’s told me everything about you.”

Heather looked Emily up and down.

“But I thought you’d be more talkative,” Heather added.

“I’m keeping him sane,” said Emily. She jut her chin towards the poor kid from the house of Torment. He didn’t even have a name. That’s how much his life sucked. “If his torment really took hold, it’d call the wolf.”

Heather scratched at her head. She looked in at the kid, squinting like she was having a little bit of trouble seeing him.

“Is that really something a girl your age should be doing?” Heather said.

“Do you know what happens when the dike cracks between the Earth and Hel?” Emily said. “Do you know what they say about people who leave the dike to break because they’re ‘girls my age?'”

Heather grinned a little.

Emily looked back. “The pressure would equalize,” she emphasized. “Gotterdammerung is a lower-energy state.”

Heather grinned wider.

“What?” Emily said.

“You’re so serious,” Heather said. She took Emily’s hand, squeezed it once, and walked away beaming.

Eight years later, as Saul drags her out of the coffeeshop, Emily suddenly realizes that Fred liked her.

“He liked me,” she says.

“Good,” says Saul. “It is good to be liked.”

“Don’t call the wolf,” says Emily.

“We’re not going to call a wolf,” says Saul. “Unless that’s an unanticipated consequence of turning into beasts and eating the world.”

“. . . yes.”

“Then today is probably not your day,” says Saul.

Or is it? Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion, Standing in the Storm: The Jaguars!

Standing in the Storm: Their Lives Were Jewels

This story begins here.

“It’s getting harder,” says Emily.

She’s hanging out in a booth in a coffee shop talking on her cell phone to Bertram. Using the phone is pretty much habit. Since they’re not talking aloud, neither of them has actually bothered to turn their phone on.

“Totally,” says Bertram.

There’s a woman at one of the tables. She looks at Emily. She’s generically irritated that Emily is on the cell phone even though she can’t actually hear anything that Emily is saying. But before the woman can comment Emily looks at her with empty, hollow eyes and mouths the woman’s name. That’s so horrifying that the woman shudders and hurries from the shop.

“It’s Hunger,” says Emily. “The House of Torment is still pretty well-behaved. Dreams is Dreams, and I’m not even sure there are any saints left. But Hunger . . .”

“It’s like they’re encouraging it,” Bertram says.

“They can’t do that, can they?” interjects Fred.

Emily hesitates.

“Fred,” she says, “I am trying to impose the context of a phone call on this conversation.”

“It’s a conference call,” says Fred.

“Oh,” says Emily.

Emily shivers away her confusion.

“I think they are encouraging it,” Emily concludes. “I think they are actively cultivating the hunger within them.”

“But it’ll get out,” says Fred. “We won’t be able to keep it.”

“Yes,” says Emily. “But it’s okay, if we tried? I mean, failure’s okay?”

But before Fred answers, Emily suffers a distraction.

“You are a difficult person to eavesdrop on,” says the Saul-beast.

It should never have happened.

The sorting hat was not the first crack in the armor of the world. Through cracks of just such a kind came Fenris Wolf into the world, and other things. It was not the first and it was not the last.

But it should never have been at all.

At the Lethal Magnet School for Wayward Youth, the only British boarding school that doubles as a secret weapon against giant wolves, the sorting hat came into the world. It changed people—into saints, into mad scientists, into tormented souls, into beasts. It sorted them into new destinies. It perverted them to new forms.

One man was sorted twice. He is the head boy of the House of Beasts. He is its visionary. His name is Saul.

The call is like elevator music, like Barry Manilow ballading on the sitar, like a cheerful twanging distant and strange. It is a ballad heard not with the ears but with the heart.

It is how the Keepers know that Gotterdammerung nears.

Emily looks up.

Bertram is there. Fred is there. Morgan is there. All of the others are there. They have drifted into the scene from unknown places. They are standing in the entrances to the coffee shop, outside the glass wall, against the bar. They are watching events unfold.

“Guys,” silents Emily, in profound relief.

“Yo,” says Fred.

And in the silence the Saul-beast opens its mouth.

“Are you still a saint?” Emily asks him, aloud.

Saul hesitates.

“I’ll tell you what we are,” Emily says, “if you will tell me that.”

Then Saul sits opposite her. He pulls the salt and pepper shakers out and sets them on the table between them. He smiles at her.

“Hello,” he says. “My name is Saul. I was sorted into the House of Hunger, but it was my second sorting. Before that I was a saint. I am the last survivor of the House of the Saints. My brother Edmund ate the others. Who are you?”

Emily looks at him.

“Oh God Oh God Oh God,” she is saying, to the other members of the Keepers’ House, because she is terrified that Saul will eat her. But he cannot hear her. She is silent and gnomic before him.

“Saul,” she says. “You have to understand that what you are doing is not in the best interests of—”

The hunger that surges up in Saul’s eyes is like a physical blow. It silences her and pushes her back against her seat.

“Who are you?” says Saul, companionably, again.

“My name is Emily,” Emily says meekly. “I like jaguars and coffee. I am a Keeper. I contain you so that your hunger does not call the wolf.”

“Good,” says Saul.

He leans back.

“Containment,” Saul says, thoughtfully.

Emily reaches out. She touches his hand. It’s a dangerous thing to do. But she wants to tell him a confidence.

“I don’t want to be eaten by people or wolves,” says Emily. “I want to live a long time and die in a beautiful place, surrounded by something wonderful. It is like the Hunger, only it’s not.”

Saul stares at her for a while. His eyes are distant like a snake’s.

“The purpose of humanity,” says Saul, “is to transform into beasts and devour the world. You are inhibiting this purpose. You must cease.”

“That isn’t so,” says Emily.

Saul looks around.

“Why haven’t I eaten you yet?” the Saul-beast asks. It is genuinely puzzled, because it was sure it would have eaten her already.

“Damn!” swears Bertram silently. “He’s on to us!”

“Run away! Run away!”

“We can’t run,” notes Fred. “He’ll eat Emily! I like Emily.”

Fred pauses.

“Not that way,” Fred clarifies.

Emily gets to her feet. She stares down at Saul. The others swell around them, containing, keeping, holding back Saul’s hunger.

The beast in Saul can sense it.

He is catching on.

“Saul,” Emily presses, in her last few moments of safety. “You have been corrupted by the sorting hat. Your mind has been altered. You are wrong about the destiny of humanity, and you will destroy your own House.”

“Make your case,” says Saul.

“I—”

Fred is gone.

Emily looks up sharply. She looks around the shop. Her brain cannot parse what has happened.

Bertram is gone.

There is something warm and wet on Emily’s face.

Morgan is gone. Lisa is gone. Betty and Veronica are gone.

“Go!” says Emily, to the others. Her voice is audible, so shaken is she. “Go now.”

The Keepers’ House disperses, leaving only Emily, Saul, and their dead; and sitting on the floor amidst the blood, chewing happily on Bertram’s arm, is the Edmund-beast.

And there is a burgeoning breath of pain in Emily. And she says, “I—”

“Ah,” says Saul. “I have backup.”

“I—”

“It’s all right to be frightened,” Saul says. “But you’ll need to make your case.”

Emily isn’t frightened. She is staring at him. She is mouthing a single syllable blankly. But what she means by it is this:

“How dare you take them from me and this world?

“Their lives were jewels: unswerving, dauntless, loving, precious things—And they died before they knew how wonderful they were.”

Doesn’t it suck when that happens?

Anyway, now Emily’s alone with the beasts, and also, the world’s about to end. Check back tomorrow or the next day for Standing in the Storm: Calling to the Wolf!