THE KINGDOM OF IS
As it's my birthday, I offer you a gift. "The Kingdom of Is" was written for Broken Eye Books' recent anthology of stories based around Miskatonic University in dread Arkham. This story was published in the second volume of the anthology. I offer it to you for only the price of your kind attention.
The Kingdom of Is
by Matt Maxwell
Ryan knew now why everyone was scared of the Linguistics Department at Miskatonic, why physicists and computer scientists, even the weirdos in the biological sciences, cleared a path when the linguists walked the halls.
"Never mess with the linguists," he had been told his first day on campus. "They're feral."
The thought bit down into his skull, those exact words branding themselves onto his brain until they became real and inescapable. He laughed, trying not to maniac-giggle about it as he turned over the paper. His hands were sweat-sheathed, and the note was as sticky as if he'd had sticky frog fingers.
He giggled despite trying to choke the laughter back.
The air above Arkham had grown heavy and dense, starting that morning. Now it was stifling as a coffin lid, bleeding sweat from every pore.
He almost believed that it was the freakish weather driving his perspiration. Down inside in a place that he refused to acknowledge rationally, he knew that it was fear.
Not the fear of the unknown but of something too well known now, too tangible to be written off as freak lightning strikes or gas main ruptures. He knew what had happened ten years ago at the Petersen Obelisk of MU. He knew that it wasn't any of the desperately mundane explanations that had been used to wallpaper over events.
He focused on the paper before him, finding the tiny mark that indicated the top of the page, which way to hold it. That mattered. He stared at the symbol, and it almost made sense.
Ryan wished that he hadn't erased the copy of the sign that had been chalked at his feet not even an hour before. But he had no way of knowing then. And even if Elizabeth had told him, he wouldn't have believed it. Not until he'd seen what a word could do.
His fingers closed around the stick of bright pink chalk in his pocket, and he started scratching out a crude copy of the symbol. Before today, he'd prided himself on his retention and precision, the directness and rationality of his argumentative approach and his grasp of any of the sciences. Now he was hard-pressed to hold a stick of child's sidewalk chalk.
The sun's trek to the horizon made the heat worse, light rippling through the burdened atmosphere like molten glass. But it wasn't just the weather. It was more than that. The way the sky itself rippled and bulged like a tumor.
It was becoming.
He put the thought out of his head and kept working, grinding the chalk to a stump.
A sound slithered through the air, like a snake on a glass window, the susurrus of its scales. He froze in place and was suddenly cold despite the stifling heat. Elizabeth had told him to expect this, only she'd used her weird way of talking, avoiding the dread word is.
Ripples and vibrations of possibility and potential resolved themselves into nightmare.
The monster went from “maybe” to “was.”
It looked like a mucoid rainbow, a spectrum itself given tumorous lesions and left to bubble over into iridescent meaninglessness. A multitude of seven-segmented arms unfolded along its length, hundreds of them in assemblage. Tipping each one was an uneven pair of claws or blades, each snicking against the other in a horrific chain of whispers. The thing oozed through the air itself, undulating and tearing.
It felt him there. It was hungry.
Ryan tried to force himself to say the word from the postcard aloud. He had to be careful. Once used, the word would lose any power. There were only so many words, just like bullets in a clip.
"S-s-s," Ryan hissed. He couldn't speak. The creature swam through water that was not there, an echo of undersea motion. In the last of the sunlight, it radiated gold with a thousand colors beneath.
He gave up and instead wrote the word in crude block letters, each one as tall as his hand. S. His fingers scraped against the asphalt such that the last letter, also a capital S—curves made angles in haste—became darkened with blood.
It was close now, close enough that its legs or cilia or claws—whatever they were, the definition didn't matter—were close enough that he could feel the air displaced as they whipped past him. Ryan sucked in a breath and spoke from his diaphragm like he'd learned in debate club.
"Squamous. You are squamous!"
The leg that raked across and snagged his hoodie was semitransparent and smelled of saltwater and boiled crab shells that had made him sick as a boy behind his uncle's restaurant. Ryan hated seafood and always would. The thing tugged the fabric a little before he crossed out the word with a savage motion of his arm. His knuckles went to fire, but he held tight to the little stub of chalk.
As he crossed through the letters, the thing was un-made. Pieces of glistening shell fell away and rainbow ooze dripped out, evaporating before it hit the asphalt. The legs, once choreographed with an alien grace, fell to twitching and spasming. The thing’s proportions snapped, as a whip in the hand of a giant, and it went straight. The last pieces of it, carapace and scissor feet and undifferentiated chitin and jelly, all of it dropped to the ground and ceased to exist.
He stared at it in astonishment. This thing, whatever it was, its trip to the land of is was over now. It never was.
"Never screw around with a linguist," he whispered to himself.
Ryan looked down at the sigil in chalk, eyes lingering at the dark streak of blood on the final strokes. If someone had told him that he'd bleed for Elizabeth Stokes and be glad for it, even a few days ago, he'd have said that person was insane.
Not so much now.
The sun was down, but the sky still burned orange as if the earth had stopped turning at this moment and the light wouldn't change anymore forever. Over in the direction of the rebuilt obelisk, the highest point on campus, the sky still roiled, and the sunlight came through it like nearly transparent oil in a vortex.
She was still over there with her postcards and chalk and her lighter.
At least he hoped she was. He started to run despite not being accustomed to it. In twenty steps, his sides ached, but he kept running, stopping only to take off his sweatshirt emblazoned with “Miskatonic Phys Ed.”
He ran toward the roil. It would be there. She hadn't been wrong yet.
A few days before.
"Welcome to the Land of Is," Elizabeth said. She stood in front of the chalkboard, which was so anachronistic that Ryan had stared at it for a full ten seconds before realizing what it was.
She had the same phrase written on the board. But then this was a social sciences class, so repetition was going to be key for these dullards to retain anything.
Yes, he was angry that he was being forced to take a course outside his major. Not even something useful like applied mathematics. But linguistics. Theory, outside of any manner of useful application, was anathema. It was about what could be done with a discipline that mattered. Arguing about the fundamentals was useless navel-gazing. But still, he'd dodged the requirement for as long as he could.
He only ended up here when he'd heard that the linguists were insane, and he thought there might be some kind of a challenge. Instead, it was nothing but tautology and emptiness.
But Dr. Stokes was supposed to be a good lecturer, even after her long absence from the school and teaching. An absence that had begun not long after the toppling of the original Petersen Obelisk some ten years ago.
The chalk squeaked as she drew on the board, underlining the is. "I hope you have come to class prepared," she said. Her voice was direct, ringing a unique tone, one of clarity.
Ryan was sure her eyes rested on him for a moment, but nobody else seemed to notice.
"We will spend this semester unlearning some things and hopefully in the process, open up to learning new things." The chalk fell into the metal tray with a tak.
"Language is how we fabricate the world, describing, codifying, hammering into consensus an agreement as to what constitutes reality.
"Language shares in a power that we used to accord to magic."
Ryan stifled a laugh, though no one else in class seemed to get the joke. Magic. Ugh.
She was older than any of the graduate fellows he'd seen. She didn't look like Mom back home with her tremendous wrinkles. Rather, the maturity evidenced itself in her stance, her directness. Though there was something more beneath, which he picked at but could not figure out.
"We shall examine existence under the tyranny of the great king to be, which has proven itself to be a burden and even more has served as accomplice to mistruths and misrepresentation.
"In short. Nothing human is beyond being human. I can say that I am a teacher, but perhaps you sit in a better position to judge. I am a woman, what lays beneath these Levis not mattering. I am a percussionist in a band called Anathaid, which means 'unknown' in Irish, but do you see a drum in my hand?"
Tautology and navel-gazing. And how she harps on the point, ridiculous.
There were perhaps ten other students in the lecture room, all of them lost in rapt attention, hanging on her every word.
"Am and be counterfeit a permanence that humans simply do not possess the capability for. These verbs suggest chains and solidity that do not exist."
"But I am here," Ryan grouched. "I am sitting in this chair, which is in this room."
Elizabeth paused, a smile flickering across her face but that died quickly. "You sit in this room. You sit on that chair."
Her red hair shone with a faint patina in the fluorescent light of the room, skin taking on a greenly radiant cast, feeling unearthly when coupled with her weird speaking cadence and disregard for mere being.
Ryan scooted his chair and let the screech echo a moment. "I am in this room." He let his voice go sour. "I am a man."
Her smile flickered again. "You appear old enough to buy alcohol legally, yes. We'll leave it at that." She crossed her arms in front of her. "I gather that you do not agree with the thesis of this class, which may or may not reflect my personal beliefs. Or the use of is as commonly accepted.
"Where lies your objection? Excessive formality? Over-precision? Disregard for convenience? I have received that last one more than once."
Her smug expectation made him seethe.
The class stared into their notebooks and laptops, wondering if this was part of the lecture or something else.
"I reject the entire notion. You're doing away with being! I've never heard anything so ridiculous."
"Everything that I have said sustains proof. I do admit that this view brings with it a certain... rigidity.
"But you have come to this classroom to learn, yes?" She didn't point or glare or accuse. She only said her piece with a stone confidence.
The same confidence that the insane posses. She really is crazy. Maybe the rumors were more than that.
"Yes. I am here to learn."
Her eyebrow arched. "You exist in this place to learn? Intriguing. And a bold statement."
The chuckle that ran through the classroom shamed him in his seat.
"Enough of that, please," she said, loud enough to be heard in the back. "Mockery brings nothing to our experience here. Instead, Mr., ah... Kolnik, yes?"
Ryan nodded, not knowing how she knew.
"Mr. Kolnik has brought us to a place that I'd hoped to steer us toward. And in this moment, you will find the key to the class and, not without coincidence, your grades."
Another chuckle from the class, this one more nervous.
"The next time you feel hungry, do as my kin in Ireland have said. My elder kin at any rate. Please say the following when your stomach growls.
"'Hunger is upon me.' Not 'I am hungry.' If you don't wish to sound like a Hibernian grandmother, then try 'I feel hungry,' or 'Let's get lunch.' Shift from the tyranny of is to something more open yet precise."
The cadence of her voice and dodging around the simplest verb in the universe ate at Ryan. She couldn't say it without mockery. This was ridiculous. He was hungry. He was sitting in the classroom hungry. He was pissed off that he had to take this stupid class from this dingbat woman who was rumored to have spent several years institutionalized. Perhaps that was part of the glamor.
It was intolerable.
"Shake off the shackles of eternal being," she said with a laugh. "And share in a world that contains more vividness and strangeness than the Kingdom of Is." She hissed out a short breath.
"Now let us take this moment to introduce ourselves to one another before we start into our analysis of Lowery's rejectivist theory of grammar and construction."
It was going to be a very long semester.
But perhaps Ryan could find a way to cut it shorter.
The reconstructed Petersen Obelisk scratched against the tangerine sky like a scalpel, dimpling the skin but not yet slicing. Ryan could see a pattern in the heat ripples and whorls of the atmosphere, not just a pattern but a malignance. It filled him with dread, but he wouldn't allow it to be dreadful. He'd learned that much.
He wondered if it had looked like this ten years ago. He'd never found many pictures. That was before everyone carrying cameras in their pockets and selfies and patchwork recorded history spit out on a minute by minute basis. Just a few tiny photos, hairy and unrecognizable from digital compression and resizing. There weren't any pictures of Elizabeth at the center of the strange storm. But he knew she'd been there. A little digging had uncovered that. She'd been here before her involuntary institutionalization, lasting more than eight years and returning to school only last semester.
She'd told him herself. She even said that she had been there, dipping her toe into the Kingdom of Is.
He kept walking and saw glimpses of distorted faces in the sky above. Whatever existed there, it grew closer. But then she was calling it down to do just that.
Ryan's research showed the original Petersen Obelisk had stood in the central plaza at Miskatonic for nearly ninety years before it had been destroyed in a weird accident. An accident described as a lightning strike during a freak storm early in the fall semester. Though there were no fatalities, a postdoctoral student in the linguistics department had been incapacitated and remanded to the custody of state mental health authorities and then bounced from private clinic to private clinic.
The paper trail was hazy as was the digital one. But Ryan knew that characterizing this as an accident was an error. Elizabeth had been responsible for it. The why of it eluded him.
The more she talked about language and magic in class, the more he wondered. Once was a time that Miskatonic had been famous for the occult: back before transatlantic flight, penicillin, the moon landing, and the internet. Now it was another mid-Atlantic private college, using this mythology to sell sweatshirts and kitschy glasses.
And paperweights. Glass paperweights bigger than a closed fist, a cluster of multicolored globules and trailing tentacles, all made with some abstract blowing technique, all marked with the MU Cephalopods. A funny joke and a very popular souvenir, even if he couldn't identify exactly what kind of cephalopod it was supposed to be (and he'd spent an hour or two familiarizing himself with them).
Ryan had watched Elizabeth buy several of them since he started following her after class.
Just like he was right now.
He knew it was creepy and strange but no less than she was. She was up to something, finishing the work that she'd started years ago. She was still insane, only masking it now.
Not very well. This was the third seemingly identical paperweight she'd purchased this trip. It didn't make any sense. Nor did her selecting postcards out of a spinner rack, apparently by random. She'd spent an hour doing that once, and he'd almost gotten bored of it.
The purchases had to be random because she had her eyes closed when she gave the wire rack a turn, fingers fumbling over it as it came to a stop, selecting cardboard images by touch.
Miskatonic in the winter, the hurricane gates, a clutch of daffodils in a colonial-seeming graveyard. If she came up with one displaying the obelisk, she shuffled it away and never on a rack that it had come from. It didn't make sense.
This trip, she bought her latest paperweights and two buckets of sidewalk chalk from the art supplies department.
He fought with himself over confronting her. But if it was magic, like she blathered about in class, then where was the harm in it? Magic wasn't real.
His mind turned to the newspaper picture of the toppled obelisk, and he thought that she'd been interrupted last time. And how it looked more like it had been flattened by a titanic blow than struck by lightning. If that had come from being interrupted, then what would she be working toward this time?
He chickened out and watched as she walked out with her plastic bag filled with supplies, stopping only to pick up her full backpack from the cubbies out front.
The roiling sky above swelled and pulsed like a heart outside the body. Surging power flowed through it as something seemed to squeeze between the layers in the air like jelly pressing through a screen door, jelly that slowly reassembled itself into something like eyes and mouths, both open and hungry. It was a tornado of appetite bound together only loosely by a string of words that Ryan reached for in description.
He had been well-read once, though he traded that in for the comforting solidity and regularity of code. Code defined a world that could be controlled and harnessed, even if it was through tricks and hacks. As the thing in the sky materialized above him, he reached for words to describe and contain it and found himself without the language to carve it into being.
It could not be named.
He ran again despite the furnace burn inside his ribs.
Pieces in the air moved against one another, diamond facets but organic and shuddering as if sickened. Their translucence made it impossible to tell if there was just a thousand or a million or billions of them, compounded and amplified and...
He fell into it, staring, feeling his feet come to a leaden halt, unable to move ahead, not even wanting to any longer. It was the thing that was. It had always been. It would always be. It was a totality, the only thing that mattered, the emptiness of possibility. And it was the king.
Ryan wasn't even a subject, wholly beneath its notice, but would be obliterated all the same when the king came.
The bookstore had been ready to close, and Ryan had to be sneaky, embody the essence of the thought in order not to be seen by Elizabeth as she checked out.
The obelisk had been toppled ten years ago to the night. He couldn't think about anything other than that and how she had done it. Perhaps his irritation at inconvenience had started this thing. Perhaps it was just that. But that had only been the start. It had grown into a thought that crowded out all others.
He was the only one who could stop her. She was going to do it again. She was going to take the whole school with her this time. Whatever force she had called on the last time, she was going to do it a hundred times over now. She'd been to the far side of crazy and hadn't ever come back, just pretended. That's why she couldn't be sane or be normal. It was pretending. It was all so obvious.
She was going to do it tonight.
And he would stop her. Even if he didn't know how.
She walked along into the early evening, stopping to open one of the tubs of chalk as she paused at one of the granite benches that littered the campus. She carefully removed a blue stick and wrote something out on the bench itself.
Ryan stuck to the shadows and the cover of the greenery as she left, trying to see her work. There was a symbol on the bench, something he didn't recognize but received a sensation from. He was uneasy as he regarded it, unsettled as surely as if he'd been standing on a boat and a wave had risen and fallen beneath his feet. More than that, he was moved, feeling a press of unseen force, gentle but firm, emanating from the sign.
He shook it off and kept following.
She paused and marked several other spots on campus, never the same symbol twice but variations. She consulted a notebook as she drew some of them but not always. She worked quickly but not in a hurry. She never saw him.
The largest of the symbols, one she had to work from her notes or plan or spell or whatever it was, was drawn out in pink chalk at the top of the Chambers Stairway that led to the main ring of Miskatonic's architecture.
The marking was a welcome mat. He knew this as sure as he felt the temperature rise even though the sun was approaching the horizon. The weather change was weird and sudden as a car crash, atmospheric density increasing as if something was rushing in, displacing the air itself.
Ryan looked down at the symbol and a feeling surged in him: disgust or horror or righteousness or all of them. He took the toe of his sneaker and rubbed at the chalk lines. A minute of effort and he wiped out everything but a ghostly afterimage.
He smiled at his work. He thought about wiping out the other markings, really knocking her out, but this sort of paranoid fantasy was easily upset. Just the one would be enough, he thought.
He sweat some as he walked but kept his hoodie on, throwing the hood up, armoring himself. He was ready to face her.
The restored obelisk was marked off with a precise circle as wide around as the statue itself was tall. The rocks in the border were made of the crushed remnants of the original, a memorial or tribute, not destroyed but transformed.
She kneeled within that circle, inside another chalk marking. Beside her was the collection of glass paperweights. She took one of them in both hands, lifted it up as high as she could from her kneel, and dropped it. Ryan saw that it chipped but did not shatter.
Apparently satisfied, she did that with another. And then the third.
"You lost, you know," he gloated as he walked to the tip of the obelisk's shadow. It was the only place to be, filled with portent even if it was meaningless babble. Perhaps it would have an effect on her. "Your game is over."
She kept arranging her chipped paperweights in the chalk circle.
"And you're right. Is means permanence. Like. 'Your magic circle is erased.' The one over at the Chambers Stairway."
She refused to turn, and Ryan grew impatient.
"Haven't you heard me, you crazy bitch? It's over." He shocked himself with his own words. He'd never called anyone that to their faces. In text, online, sure. All the time. But that wasn't real.
"I heard you," she bit.
"Well?" Ryan stamped his foot, begging a reaction.
"I didn't think any of it worth responding to. More pressing matters now." She made a minute adjustment to the paperweights and stood, stepping carefully over the drawing and outside it.
"Aren't you going to do something? I broke your spell! I won! Whatever you did ten years ago and tonight? It's over."
"Ryan, your umbrage at having to endure my class has revealed some strange truths. More about you than me, I'd add." She half-smiled.
The sky went from boiling to transparent eruption. A great swirling commenced, and the wind kicked up, skittering leaves across the plaza like bones scraping against the concrete. Her drawing with the chalk must have sounded the same, desperate and scratching.
Her reaction was saved for the sky and whatever was in it.
"You are insane," he said.
"That judgment does not alter me, Ryan. Nor does it—"
The clap of thunder sounded more like the sky slapping into the whole of the earth. The wave reverberated through Ryan's bones, and he had to fight not to be put to his knees.
When he regained his footing, he saw something rush out from the sky toward the two of them. A multitude of wings, all of them grotesque and diaphanous, buzzed and swooped. They were all clustered to a central object, like a mouth with three arms grabbing into the air, plucking and feeding. It was as big as a car, impossibly flying, impossibly charging toward them. The voice that came from it was hollow and mocking, meaninglessly insane.
"You! You are gibbering and ichorous!" Her voice cut through everything with a dread finality. He'd never heard her say are without anything but ridicule or subversion. She was making the thing real. She was bringing it into the Kingdom of Is and then destroying it.
She held a pair of postcards in one hand. In the other, there was a burning lighter. She played the flame over the cards as the thing angled from Ryan to her, arms working in synchrony as its wings beat and blurred. The cards were consumed in fire, and she dropped them to her feet where they landed as a rain of curling ash.
The thing of wings ceased to be. Like a heat mirage when you step too close, it simply was no longer there. There was a residual humming and smell of burnt honey and bile in the air but nothing else.
"What the hell was that?" Ryan shrieked.
"Two words. I shouldn't have used both. One would have worked. Stupid."
"What was that thing?"
"The word made real," she said like it meant something.
"But it's gone now?"
"That one disappeared, yes. But there will be others." She stepped toward him, simmering with anger but focused and under control.
"Now tell me exactly, precisely which of my sigils you fucked with, young man. In doing so, you have assumed responsibility for repairing them." The firelight on her face transformed her. Whatever gentleness had been there once was lost in the sharp contrast of firelight and setting sun.
"Like I said," he confessed, "the big one at the top of the stairs. I... erased it."
"Congratulations. You have enabled that," she said as she pointed to the sky. "That thing that I just unmade? You enabled that as well. This would have been controlled without your interference. Ten years of work nearly ruined." She set her jaw and waited for a reply.
"I thought you were insane, and I didn't know it was..."
"Real? It only possesses half-reality, Ryan. I tried to unmake it ten years ago.
"I failed then and paid for it."
The dusk light on her face revealed depths that she had hidden before, depths he could have fallen into.
He dry-swallowed, tasting only shame and fear.
The look was gone now, no regret, only certainty. "And I will not allow one pissy graduate student who put his foot in the wrong mess to prevent me from succeeding this time. Now put out your hand," she snapped as she turned away from him and back to her bag of supplies.
"What do you want me to do?"
"Take this," her voice sounded as steel. She shoved a piece of pink chalk into his hand, thicker around than a roll of quarters. "And take this paper and copy this symbol, right side up. Note the orientation on the original. Draw it where the one you erased lay."
"If I don't?" he offered and didn't believe the bluff himself.
"Then your failing my class won't matter. In fact, you won't even remember taking it. But you'll have shown me up.
"So decide what you value more."
He nodded firmly.
She told him what to do if he was attacked. She even gave him a list of words to work from but told him to be careful. Each was only good once, and they needed to save as many on the list as they could for the big one. His way had been opened, and he had been trapped for ten years. Tonight he was strong enough to escape fully into the world, to take his kingdom back.
Ryan stood without any ability to move. He could only stare at what was becoming. It was too late. Certainty filled the moment and expanded outward, becoming hard as diamond. The crushing weight of inevitability bore down on him like a thousand dead stars. He had unmade a lesser creature spawned by the greater, but the chains had been put on reality.
It was, entire and whole. The nature of the thing didn't matter, only its being. Wind-borne debris flowed around it like a tornado mashed flat and spread on a picture plane. At the center of that was the translucent jelly-mass of unidentifiable organs and appendages as meaningless as colored globs trapped.
Trapped in glass.
A tiny voice called to him, miles away. He dimly recognized it. Stokes. Elizabeth. The crazy linguist.
"Come on, Ryan!" she called. "Don't believe the lie. Don't fall for certainty!"
He tried to move, but the weight was too great.
The voice was right next to him now. "You have intelligence even if it exhibits as a dumb kind of smart."
He felt pride in spite of himself, the heat of that flushing into his veins. He raised his left hand, still stinging from the scrape earlier.
"Right. Good job."
Then the weight was gone. He stood, sweat slicked and feeling empty inside.
"Emptiness fills me," he said.
"You have it now. Come on, and let's put a finish on this job."
He heard her speaking with the same precise cadence, almost singsong and lyrical. "The words, Ryan. These words give us power. The whole of my only meaningful teaching, what I learned when I had been broken for those years. The words make the real.
"And those words can unmake."
"You have brought me understanding," he said. "I am..."
"Be present, but don't be a word." She pressed a small sheaf of postcards into one hand, all flipped to the back side, each having a different word written on them.
"Do not speak these words until you are ready to destroy them."
"What do we do?"
"Cataloguing. Definition. Destruction or at least entrapment." She sounded hopeful, but not positive.
The whirling sky howled, and the thing within it struggled to be, struggled to evade precision. It remained glutinous, an aggregate of indistinct appetites, reaching toward solidity.
"Where did you get these?"
"I made them." She marched to a stop near the chalk lines.
Ryan realized that he had only been a few feet away, but it seemed like miles or more. "No, no. Where did you get the words themselves?"
She flicked open the lighter, spilling its yellow glow. "From books. Books I read once and realized they illuminated not a doorway but a set of locks. Locks that had been opened long ago. These protections lay buried under camouflage, the masquerade of fiction. These words, wrought from magic, make keys to relock the doorways left dangerously open."
"And you can transfer that from the word to the thing up there?" Ryan allowed himself to be directed by her, marched over to a nearby wire wastebasket, nearly empty but lined with transparent plastic.
Above them, the thing breathed out the smell of sweet and baking rot as it ate the sky.
"If we hurry and have focus." She stood beside him. "Now do as I do."
She raised her head to address the king in the sky. "You are cyclopean!"
As soon as the syllable rang, she set the lighter to the postcard as before and dropped it into the basket. "Now you," she urged with a quiet resolution.
"You are moldering!" he shouted and added the flame and dropped the card into the bin.
"You are octopodan!"
"You are mammoth!"
"You are pseudopodal!"
"You are recrudescent!"
The fire grew. The words continued in a stream, not mere syllables but things of power themselves.
The sky shuddered in response, electrified and convulsing. The eyes blinked in spasm, but its flailing was only partially real, only half here.
"You are squamous!" she shouted.
"I used that one. Sorry."
She picked the next one without pause. "You are sluggish!"
Vaporous, unclean, yonic, fungous, acrocephalic, antediluvian, bilious, membranous, heaving, oleaginous, nonsensical. All these words and more. Each one of them pinning down and peeling away another bit of its power. This continued for minutes, each word stunning and slowing its vast and drab majesty, squatting in the dusk sky.
Above their heads, the thing seemed to shrink and vibrate, faster and faster, bound to the rhythm of the speech and definition, each of their pronouncements and additions to the fire burning off more of the thing. All it could do in reply was howl and shriek. Uncounted tentacles glistened in the stalled dusk, flailing and skinned into flayed remains. Their castings shone prismatic, like rainbow-hued snail trails peeled off the sky and rained down.
"You are anomalous!"
"You are batrachian!" Ryan flipped the last of his cards into the fire in front of him. The light from it played over him and Elizabeth and the base of the obelisk. "Done."
"You. Are. Zymotic," she intoned. The voice that poured out of her could fill the world, replacing the dreadful certainty of the alien god with possibility, with chance and opportunity. The Land of May. Freedom.
Protective cilia and organelles all but shriveled and destroyed, the failed king flopped and twisted, contorting and shrinking. Its true nature revealed, its form condensed to a single and unblinking eye rendered out of transparent jelly, the king fled. It could not survive here any longer.
The wind sucked inward and held for a moment.
"Hold on!" she yelled and grabbed his hands in hers.
The dusk closed as a massive presence evacuated itself from the atmosphere, rushing past them tangibly. The eye blinked out of existence as something rustled in the collection of paperweights.
Ryan heard the sound of glass on stone and opened an eye.
"I believe it worked," she said and quickly disentangled herself from his grasp. She bent down and picked up one of the rounded globs of glass. There was a faint anti-light within it, not green, not blue, not yellow.
"Is it there?" Ryan asked.
She sighed. "That word again. It resides there. It endures entrapment there. But it does not embody the totality," she laughed. "Honestly. And here I believed that you'd grasped the concept. You may not pass my course at all."
Her laughter was welcome.