The seal is broken
O fallen King of splinter’d crown
Eye pierced upon thy spear
The girl has got you bested
The seal is broken
The Mother of Hunters has shattered her chains
The Toymaker has fired her shots
The first shots of the last war
The seal is broken
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed
Stars boil and worlds are torn in two
The King marches on creation
The seal is broken
The hour stirs
A beast slouches towards Gotham to be born
Rising up from Benthos’ black realm
The seal is broken
The child whimpers in pain
For hers is the womb by which the world ends
Hers is the womb by which the end of the world begins
The seal is broken
Gaping eyes bear witness, gasping mouths sing praise
Two keys open Atom’s Gate
What lies beyond, none can see.
THE SEAL IS BROKEN
There was a great and terrible silence
A bulb of fire rose upon a column of cloud in the sky above Montauk Point.
There was a great and terrible noise
There was a great and terrible silence
The girl who had forgotten the names of the world stood atop a grassy mound, trembling in the light wind. Color soaked the world around her: Mossy green hills, blanketed with fields of tiny white flowers. Dark, distant mountains with fire-red crowns. Sharp-blue glaciers settled in the shadows of knife-edged valleys. Vast standing stones, mottled pale with ancient lichen, rose above the hills, wearing garlands of seashells and pink flowers. The breeze brushed against her bare ankles, neither warm nor chill. If she strained her ears, she could hear the crash of waves against far-off cliffs and the cries of seabirds.
There had been a flash of light. She remembered a blinding moment, a blast of heat, and the feeling of arms around her. Not the arms of a Masked Man, all muscle and bruise. Soft arms.
Light, heat, arms, nothing, and then waking on the hilltop.
The world she had no names for called out to her. She could not remember the colors or smells, nor the grass or mountains or wind. She could not remember a world without corners and white tile, without humming lights and cold metal against her back, without Masked Men. She could not remember, but she answered all the same. She did not remember this world, but she knew it, as if she were returning to a vanished dream rising from the mist.
The girl with ratty hair and hollow cheeks, dark bags under her eyes, pressed a hand to her stomach. It stung at even a gentle touch, a sharp bite of pain, but the pain was nothing compared to what had been. Nothing compared to the pain the Masked Men delivered upon her body, or the writhing, gnawing, clawing pain of the Thing in her womb. No, it was nothing. A new, nothing pain.
The girl had given birth.
The Thing lay in the grass a few feet away – a blackened mass of flesh, torn up and knitted back together in cancerous coils, cloaked in a rotted placenta. Shattered bones twisted limbs into uselessness, suckling mouths opened and closed wordlessly, skin peeled away from melted muscle. Blood and fecal matter splattered the grass, a dark ooze leaked into the soil from its bloated gut. Organs pulsed and spasmed underneath thin skin. Breath wheezed and gurgled out of its bone-punctured lungs. Tiny hands clawed at the loam, desperately trying to drag itself across the ground.
When the girl first saw it, she wanted to kill it, to stomp on its neck until it was dead. She found that she could not, and she did not understand why. Nor could she bring herself to leave it, this disgusting, broken Thing.
Her terrible child.
The air stirred, heavy with the smell of salt. A lonesome cry echoed in the hills. The girl turned, and saw that a woman stood there on the hilltop, past the place where the Thing lay.
The woman’s skin was smooth and grey as polished slate, her braided hair like silver silk, her eyes wide and dark. Her cheeks and brow were lined with glowing blue patterns. Her bare shoulders bore clusters of bright tube-worms. She wore a white dress; her belly was stained with red.
“Hello,” she said. Her voice was deep and wide, and felt as if it would carry for miles for its size.
The girl recoiled, hobbled legs tensing to run. But the woman didn’t come any closer – She just sat down in the grass, tucked her legs up underneath her, and began picking flowers. She hummed a melancholy tune, and it rumbled across the hills.
The girl edged closer. The woman began tying stems together, her thick fingers not as clumsy as they looked. The girl watched intently, trying to mark if she was a threat.
The woman looked up and smiled at the girl, who drew back again.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
The Thing gurgled, blew a bloody bubble of spit.
“I’m sorry about all of this,” the woman continued, her fingers still weaving. “But I promise, everything is going to be okay now. You’re safe.”
The girl looked the woman over, her eyes hard.
“No Masked Men?” she asked at last.
The girl narrowed her eyes.
The woman held out her right hand, and drew her left across the palm as if holding a knife. Blood welled up from a deep, straight cut. The woman clenched her fist, sending dark droplets onto the grass.
“I swear by my blood, shed in the war against the King, that you will be safe here, so long as a drop of life remains in me.” The woman’s voice boomed across the land. “I am not lying.”
The girl could feel something inside those words. Something powerful. Words that were not words, meaning untamed by speech. She felt afraid, and very small. Not because the woman was a threat, but because she could feel her power coursing through the air, the soil, her very being. The woman that sat before her was an image of something vaster, a form of something greater and broader than she could even hope to imagine.
“Is that good enough?”
The girl nodded. It was all she could do. The woman wiped her hand on the grass, her palm already healed into a pale scar.
“My name’s Abby.” She placed her crown of flowers on her head and began picking more. “You can come and sit over here, if you want.”
The girl didn’t move.
“I know I look really suspicious right now…why did I say that? Since when has that ever been a good thing to say? I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” The woman sighed, brushed aside a strand of hair. “It’s been a long time since I really had a chance to talk to anyone. I’m not lying to you, I promise, but it’s difficult to say exactly what I want to say. I could show you, but…oh.” The woman glanced over her shoulder. “I think we have a visitor.”
A second wind passed over the hill, smelling of leaf litter and dirty snow. A cloud cast a shadow, and that shadow became the cloak of a pale man. The girl shivered, but kept her gaze locked – she could feel in her stomach that if she looked away, she would die.
The pale man nodded at Abby, though it was really little more than a tilt. She returned the gesture. He turned his eyes towards the girl. Hard, empty eyes – it would have been easier to bear if there had just been sockets, but no. Hard silver eyes, as empty as marbles.
“I am not here for you, child,” he said in a dust-and-skin voice. He swept up to the Thing, and a silver-moon sickle was in his hand.
“Wait…” the word slipped from the girl’s mouth unbidden.
The pale man drew a shimmering cloud from the Thing’s gaping mouth, reached forth with his sickle.
A short soundless cut across the imaginal tether, and the cloud dissipated.
“Is this not what you wanted?” The pale man framed it more as statement than question.
The girl swallowed, staring at the still, lifeless Thing.
“Take it as a lesson, girl. Be careful when you invoke my passing.”
The pale man turned his marble eyes towards Abby.
“And as for you…” he hissed.
“Another time. Please. She’s been through enough…”
“No. You have brought the girl into this, she will listen. You are responsible for everything that she is now to face.” He swung back around to the girl. “Remember that, girl. For all that is to come, she is to blame.” A thin finger pointed with dread accusation.
“I saved her,” Abby said.
“Only from my mercy, because the broken bride desired a pet. But the Fool has gone and angered the Worm, and the center cannot hold.”
“It can for long enough.”
“The thirty-six are scattered to the winds, and creation spirals into anarchy without them.”
“We can still-.”
“Do you never tire of lapping up the Fool’s vanity? Your father has already sharpened his carving knives and drawn blood. He will devour creation and choke upon it, and all that will remain are my brothers and I.” The pale man grinned, though it did not look like he truly knew how. “I wonder; how will your Fool fare against my Eldest?”
“She is not nearly as vain as you think.”
“Vanity, vanity, everything is vanity. All of creation is the vanity project of a god most utterly mad.” The pale man paused, seemed to hear something that the girl could not. “I am forever needed elsewhere. I shall soon see you two again.”
With a swish of shadow and the smell of decay, he vanished. Abby smiled, though it was nearly as forced as the pale man’s grin.
“He’s so full of himself, isn’t he?”
The girl did not respond. Abby stood up, walked over to the Thing’s still corpse, and knelt.
She began scooping away the soil, digging out a shallow grave. The girl swayed, as if to move, but remained in place.
“Why are you doing all this?”
“It wouldn’t be right to just let it lie here.”
“No!” The girl blurted out. “Why am I here, why are you here, where is here? What are you even talking about? Just…why?”
Abby stopped digging, and was quiet for a time. She didn’t look angry.
“I understand. I haven’t been very helpful.” She wiped the dirt off on her dress. “I’m sorry.”
Wind moaned, swirling up the hill, chilling the girl through her hospital gown. Abby dropped her gaze back to the shallow grave and went back to digging. After a time, the grave was deep enough. Abby gently picked up the Thing and placed it in the earth. The girl couldn’t make out whether she was sad or angry or happy by this. The Thing was dead, dead and buried, but she couldn’t feel anything. She didn’t know what life would be like without it. If life could be without it.
But Abby was turning the soil over, and the Thing was buried. Gone in the ground. Exit the scene. Done.
The girl was struck with a horrible sense of longing, and thundering on its heels came a tide of deep black disgust, tinged with a hatred turned inward and refined. How dare she feel pity? Had she forgotten? Had she become so weak as to forgive the Masked Men their violence?
The girl’s inner voice screamed, beat at her heart, clawed at her throat. Every muscle ached to run away, to flee from this feeling inside her, to beat it back into submission, to hide, to do something. Something to hide from the Thing, from Abby, from herself, from every peering eye and pointing finger.
And yet, she remained standing on the hilltop. She didn’t understand why, but no matter how much she strained to flee, some part of her said “no”. The rest listened.
“Maybe things will be better if I just show you,” Abby said. “Will that be okay?”
The girl nodded.
Abby reached up, and the sky parted like water as she drew her hand across. Curtains of green and streams of purple burst from her fingers, bordering a wedge of velvet black that bloomed out to fill the entire sky with night.
And there were stars. So many stars, spilling across the sky, rising up into the heavens in a great sparkling band. A billion, billion lights forming the trunk of an impossibly tall tree, and billions more to make the branches. The hills were lit with silver evening.
The girl could not remember when she had last seen stars, or if she ever had. Their names came to nest in her heart, and the girl felt their song filling her. She cried. For the first time in long years, her tears were not of pain.
The girl saw now that Abby had changed. The woman in the white dress was gone, and in her place now was a great grey giant that sat among the hills. Pale scars swept across her body. Barnacles and lice clustered on her arms, on her breasts, on her thighs. A shawl of tube-worms and sealskin sat on her shoulders. Streams of glowing plankton flowed about her in the air like dandelion seeds, growing bright and then dim with the pulse of her own glow. Parasites clouded her wide, dark eyes. Her salt-crusted hair hung in knotted tangles. A second pair of arms had appeared, the hands painted white with seafloor snow. A ragged hole had been torn through her stomach, clear through to the other side. The edges were crusted in blood and hagfish and a fire danced within, wreathed in the black smoke of a seafloor vent.
“I know your pain,” Abby said in her vast, sweeping voice. “I shared it. Every day they came for you, I felt the same.”
The girl knew that she was speaking the truth. She could feel Abby’s words close by her spirit, the echoes whispering “You are not alone.”. What could be done? She knew, with the utmost certainty, that she was loved.
“We were bound together under my father’s seal, sisters in suffering. But we don’t have to suffer any longer. The seal is broken. He has no power here, over either of us, and we can make things right. That’s why you’re here. I wanted to give you back the life my father stole from you. I can’t make the pain go away, but I can be here for you when it becomes too much to bear alone.”
Abby extended a hand, holding it flat on the hilltop, her creased palm turned up to the stars.
“Will you stay?” she asked.
Wordlessly, the girl stepped onto her hand, tears still glistening on her cheeks. Abby gently lifted her hand and smiled.
“Just tell me when you want to be put down. We can get you something to eat, if you’re hungry.”
“I’m okay,” the girl said, wiping at her eyes. “I’d just like to sit here for a while.”
“I can do that,” Abby said.
The two watched the stars turn slowly above them, and a final piece of knowing wrote itself in the girl's heart. A name, remembered from the distance times before it was stolen from her.
Her name was Grace, and she was being put back together.