An Unclean Legacy: “The Duel”

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Once upon a time, the last of the blue essentials returned to the mushroom village and found Gargamel there.

“La, la, la la la—oh,” said the essential uncomfortably.

Gargamel unlimbered his great tall legs and stood.

“Your name is Vanity,” said Gargamel.

“Yes.”

“You are the last,” said Gargamel.

These words struck Vanity like a blow. He stared up at Gargamel blankly.

Gargamel strode forward and his footsteps were like the beating wings of the apocalypse. In his hand was a butterfly net. His eyes were hard.

“Wait,” said Vanity.

“Hm?”

“I don’t deserve to die,” Vanity said.

“You are not alive,” said Gargamel. “You are an alchemical matrix crafted to contain the energy of the blue realm. Where is your soul, Vanity? Where is your humanity? Whence comes the deservingness of life in the mockery that you are?”

“I don’t have those things,” Vanity said.

And he looked down.

“But there is a purpose for my life,” Vanity said. “The deep and surging purpose of the blue. That is why I have admired myself, though I am small and unremarked upon. That is why I claim to virtue.”

He stared into his hand mirror.

“Isn’t that what a soul is?” he asked. “A purpose? A meaning? A reason to exist? Don’t I have these things as much as you?”

Gargamel considered this.

“It is said,” he said, “in A Field Guide to the Blue Essentials, that the blue realm possesses the character of intentionality; and that you creatures are the knifepoint of that purpose’s expression. But tell me, Vanity, why should I value that intention more than I value my own?”

“Because it’s blue,” Vanity stressed. “Blue intentions are more important than just any old intentions.”

“No,” said Montechristien Gargamel, and the net came down.

//We do not know how Montechristien Gargamel came into his power. His origins are a mystery. How such an ungainly, strange, and immoral man could rise so swiftly to prominence puzzles even the greatest scholars of our time. Of his life once established in Castle Gargamel, however, certain facts are known.

He took to wife the Lady Yseult Gargamel, one of the great beauties of his day; and though many a rival pressed for evidence that he’d bewitched or stolen her, none was ever found. They had and loved six children of their flesh, until the seventh, Elisabet, killed Yseult with the complications of her birth. Each of these children was a prodigy, possessed of astonishing talents. When at last Montechristien stumbled towards the grave, the talents of his children turned against their siblings, every hand against the other, until at last they could dispose of the matter of their legacy.

This is the twenty-first installment of the story of that time.//

Sophie stares thoughtfully at the Devil.

“I’m glad that I can be what you want,” she says. It’s an honest statement. “But I don’t think I will. Because it seems unlikely to be a desirable outcome for me.”

The horned man considers. He rubs his chin.

“I’d never really thought about whether it was a desirable outcome for you,” he says.

He pulls his shapeless white hat down low over the tops of his eyes. He rocks back and forth. He is clearly thinking very hard. There’s even a little bit of smoke.

“I think you would be happier,” he concludes.

“What?”

“I think you would be happier,” the Devil says, “if you lose this struggle, and help me damn the world, than if you win, and go on like you are.”

“Oh,” Sophie says.

She thinks about that.

“Well, I still can’t,” she says. “I mean, you’re the Devil. It’d be bad.”

“Yes,” the Devil agrees solemnly. “It would be a sin.”

He’s mocking her, because Sophie is, of course, incapable of personal sin and grace. This is why the best reply Sophie can think of is “Grarh!” and standing up with her sword in her hand.

“Oh, come on,” the horned man says. “I’m not the one who didn’t give you your own soul at birth. That wasn’t even God. That was just physics.”

“But I’m still supposed to be good!” Sophie protests.

“No,” says the horned man.

“No?”

“What you’re supposed to do,” says the Devil, “as an individual without a soul, is to define your own purpose for yourself, instead of staggering around in a metaphysical system that doesn’t care about you. What you’re supposed to do is take advantage of the fact that you’re not being judged by the standards of God’s kingdom. And if you’re desperate to adhere to His plans and purposes, you should assume that He has good reason for making that exemption—that if you’re not being judged by the same standard, that that is quite possibly intentional. And what I insist is that in this situation you choose my purpose, and remake yourself as an incarnate thereof, allowing me to dispose of this troublesome struggle and free up the energy I spend pursuing you so that I may focus it instead on killing Montechristien Gargamel and subverting the court of Prester John.”

The Devil is standing now. He is facing her. He is intent.

“Oh,” Sophie says.

She’s a bit dizzied by this, having never thought about her life or her position along anything even a cousin to these lines.

“So,” the red thing says, “we’re going to duel. And if you manage to win, I’ll give you some of my power and leave you alone until Montechristien’s dead. And if I win, I’ll remake you as I like and you’ll stop struggling to stay the Sophie that you’ve been. That’s the deal.”

Sophie stares at him for a moment, thinking.

“All right,” she says.

And they are in motion.

An Unclean Legacy

“The Duel”

It is by unspoken agreement that they shelter their power as they begin.

The Devil is in the form of a red youth eighteen apples tall, with a shapeless white hat and white bootied trousers. Sophie is in her human shape, save for the sword of bone growing as an extension from her hand.

She strikes at him. He blocks it with his palm. There is the flare of a spirit mandala as the sword touches him, parallel to his palm; the blade stops as if it were hitting stone. He spins inwards and elbows her stomach. A similar mandala forms; she absorbs the force of the blow by taking for an instant the shape of a jelly, but only by that measure does she keep her innards from rupturing. She pulls the sword inwards to cut his throat. He seizes her arm and applies a constellation of forces. She avoids having her bones splinter in his hands but finds herself off balance and flung through the air to land rolling on the road. She does not bother to roll to her feet; she simply changes herself so that she is standing, one leg extended back.

“That throw was a ninja technique,” Sophie accuses.

The Devil stares at her for a moment. Then he shakes his head. “No,” he says. “Just—just, no.”

Sophie lunges. The explosion of power that goes into her lunge is driven by the strength of a kangaroo’s legs, a falcon’s wings, the long muscles of a dragon’s back, and the terrible force of the bounding bear’s jumpsprings. She is long and lean and the arm that drives forward the sword is the arm of the stone-born giants that walked the earth of old.

With his forearm he blocks it, bringing his arm before his body, twisting it to catch the blade. It is absurd that the blade skitters from this block, that Sophie finds herself off-balance and falling, that the horned man is coming down towards her, falling onto one knee with his red right hand extended to catch and crush her throat. It is absurd and maddening that flesh could block her so.

But Sophie does not despair, for now she knows the source of that ungodly strength.

In the spirit flare that blocked her when her sword touched his arm she saw it: a line of red power leading to some other realm.

And as she skids to a halt she is a wolverine, a grendel, a hungry lizard-thing, and she is a red essential with immortal power in her veins and a strength to match his own.

As her claw touches his chest her spirit flares red and he is flung through seven trees and deep into a hill. His lung is cut and he is bleeding black half-clotted blood from the score marks of her nails.

He is smiling.

“It is possible,” says Sophie, as the red realm fills her, “that that was a mistake.”

That’s not good, is it? But we won’t have the final part of Sophie’s backstory for a little bit longer.

Instead, it’s time for a heartwarming tale of romance and machinery in an Unclean Legacy special: “Grinding Samael!”

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