Plugs

After the Confusion and the Scattering, Gether son of Aram remained a farmer in the plains of Shinar in spite of the hardships:
* First, there was always having to mime everything because, no matter how loudly you shouted, no one understood anything you said.
* Then, there was the soil. The earth had been stripped to bedrock to make bricks for the tower, so Gether and his sons plowed narrow bands of silt either side of the river.
* Now that Nimrod had scarpered off to found other cities, there was no royal treasury to disburse subsidies to those farming in the tower’s shadow.
* Also, when Nimrod had been around, mighty hunter he was, lions had been scarce. Now it was Gether’s goats who were scarce.
* Finally (and this annoyed Gether so much that he tugged the curl right out of his beard) the tower was full of noisy ghosts who chattered all the time in that language that had once seemed as natural to Gether as thought, but was now as unintelligible as the hooting of baboons — and far more depressing. What with the lions, however, the tower was the only place to live.
Gether called his sons together, and they debated over cups of weak wine. The more they drank, the harder it was to interpret each others’ miming. He tried to convince them that it was time to round up the last couple goats and move to Ninevah, and they finally seemed to get it. They packed up their belongings at met Gether at dawn.
To his chagrin, they didn’t follow him out, but began climbing the vast spiral stair that led around the outside of the tower. He hurried after them through the overgrown remnants of the hanging gardens. His sons’ gestures made no more sense than their words.
They climbed. As they approached the summit, he readied himself for a smiting from above. When his sons picked up discarded tools, he seized his beard with both hands in panic.
One son whacked bricks loose from the topmost wall; the other shoveled them over the edge. Still no smiting, and the too-near sun seemed to beat a little less harshly on Gether’s head.
One of his sons said something nearly intelligible, and Gether picked up a pry-bar to help with the deconstruction.
After that, the ghosts made a little more sense every day.

He first saw a manticore in the pages of a children’s bestiary: bright colours in a cartoon outline, with a smile on her face that made him doubt the text’s description of the manticore as ferocious. Amid the chaos of his sister’s playing, he sat with the book in his lap and ran a finger across the manticore’s bright red lion’s body, the scorpion tail, the face of a woman with long hair like his mother’s.

For many years he did not see the manticore again. Textbooks passed under his eyes — geography, history, biology, chemistry — and every one dealt with the real.

Then, in his twentieth year, he saw her three times. A girl in his politics lecture doodled her in the margins of her notebook. A boy he loved and lost across the marketplaces of Turkey carried her in a tattoo on his dark hip. Finally, in a quiet temple, he looked up at a bell hanging from the roof and saw the flick of her tail, the smile on her face.

Something in the tilt of her eyebrows convinced him that this was the same manticore, staring at him from these varied media across the world.

He looked for her, afterwards — peering inside stray books, examining murals, watching the movements of a painted woman. He saw her more frequently.

In a London market, after sampling a row of wines as pale as his hair, he thought he glimpsed a scorpion tail disappearing into an alleyway. Abandoning the final glass, he ran into the alleyway and saw it again: a tail flicking around a corner. He followed, not even noticing the burst rubbish bins under his clean shoes.

Five streets later, he cornered her.

Baring her teeth like a lion, raising her tail as if she would strike, she faced him. “Leave me!” she shouted, a wild voice from her woman’s mouth.

“I… you’re real!”

“I won’t be caged, I won’t be held up like a trophy. Stop following me! Leave me alone!”

“That was never my aim,” he managed, and took a step back. “I was only curious.”

“And then you’ll want to look at me always, keep me by your knee like a good little cat.” Her tail flicked. “Go away!”
He stammered, more confused than he’d ever been. “I will, I will. I didn’t expect to find you. I… I’m sorry people cage you. Can I… stop that happening?”

With narrowed, untrusting eyes she said, “Tell everyone I am a story. Never real, never. Never something to look for while I seek out your nice food.”

“I will.”

He did better than that: he never mentioned her, except to tell excited children that it was only an old story and that manticores never existed. Whether they believed him, he never knew.

He kept the memory of her to himself.

“Red tape! Red goddamn tape!” And with that, ribbons of red silk burst from Gorman’s fingers and wrap me up tighter than a pair of earrings on Christmas Eve.

See, the thing about battling occult threats to Britain’s shores is that, despite the getting-to-fight-tentacle-monsters-with-a-flaming-sword bits, and the using-knuckle-dusters-that-punch-holes-into-alternate-dimensions bits, it’s still just a job. There are still timesheets, emails about missing staplers, annoying co-workers. Gorman was always an annoying co-worker. And there is the red goddamn tape.

Honestly, half the time something’s eaten most of Essex before I’m even able to get all the signatures I need to get my hands on the flaming sword in the first place.

Must have been worse for Gorman being in accounting. And apparently he really wanted to touch the flaming sword. Got himself fired over it. Submitted everything right but they rejected him anyway. Course they did. He was an accountant. Still, Gorman looked at the form with the big, “rejected” stamp and a gear slipped. Tried to grab the sword out of the safe. Didn’t get far. Course he didn’t. He was an accountant. And they fired him.

Apparently Gorman’s made use of the spare time. Who knows where he found the grimoire. The cape is a little more obviously Halloween gear, but it’s hard to poke fun when a chap breaks into the office and takes you out in under ten seconds.

The air fills with red ribbons. More people are bundled up. I lose sight of him in the blizzard of it. We lie there. I hear crackling in the distance, can smell something burning.

And then I see him. He’s holding the sword in both hands, hacking a path through the jungle of red tape he himself has created. Tape curls back as the flame licks through them. And he smiles like a kid with his hand in the cookie jar. The cape suddenly looks a little bit awesome.

Gorman gets to the door. Looks back at his, at the now limp strands of red tape, and the grin stretches wider. He buries the sword in the floor. And he walks away.

Eventually someone finds us, works us free. Someone, some civil servant, looks at me as I stand up and says, “Well, aren’t you going to go after him?” But, honestly, after that example, there’s no way I can be bothered to do the paperwork.

I trudged for a day in a direction that had not existed the day before.  Tramping to the bleak beacon was like plowing through mounds of slushy snow seeping through your boots.  When the pair of shining black beams smote me, the going slowed to a crawl.

I’d passed beneath the lower angle of the beacon’s lantern room’s reach before the sensation in my goose-pimpled flesh returned.

A white-bearded dwarf exited the base of the beacon waving a lantern, a replica of the one squatting on the beacon.  “Turn back!  Look not into eyes!”  His voice was mechanical, gear-grinding.

The journey had worn my patience so I toppled him.  He fell back flinging his lantern behind.  He hit with a clang; the lantern’s hinged glass door swung open and cracked against the rocky soil, and the cold, coal-black flame soared, guttered, and winked out in the indifferent wind.  The man groaned as I carried on.

Years of severe weathering had pocked the formerly sleek obsidian surface of the beacon.  I ran my hand along its rough flank and steered myself up the inner winding.  The rotting wooden planks protested the load as I pushed wide the trapdoor.

Inside the lantern room, I swung open the glass lens and slid shut the iron vent to suffocate the coal-black flame.  Ice crystals formed in the cracks spread across the vent.

The lens separated into smaller, distorting glass blocks–each chanced to point at the spire that had been my home since my days as unformed crockery.  From this vantage, it looked little more than a mossy screw, but each lens block also pulled it in some direction that made my attachment to it laughable–fat, skinny, hour-glassed, warped.

I pivoted and found myself gazing, across a broad desert, into a land leviathan’s slow blinking gaze.

“You fool!”  The dwarf was hoisting himself up on the floor.  “You’ve opened the gate to misery!”  He brandished a dagger, slashed and thrust.

I dodged.  “Wait.”  Again.  “I see your point.  Please.  Let me open the door, so the flame can breathe, and men do not look.”  With an elbow, I broke the ice and slid the door open, careful not to let the chill black light fall on me.

The dwarf tilted his head back and absorbed the light.

I threw his heavy metal frame into the flame and slammed the door shut.

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