Serializations of the Hitherby Dragons novels

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– 4 –

– 4 –

There aren’t very many of them.

“Just three of us,” mutters Saul.

They’re gathered in a nook under the stairs. They’re trying to figure out a pattern to the newly-hatted students. If there is one, it appears to be: saints are peculiarly rare.

“This bothers me,” says Saul. He waves his hand at a passing student and prevents them from later getting gout. As an unintended consequence of this outburst of miraculous energy, that student’s grade in English ticks upwards from a C- to a C. “You’d think that saints would be the most common sort.”

“Really?” says Peter.

“Well,” says Saul, “first, consider that we are disparate.”

“Sure,” says Peter.

“But more than that, we’re generically perfect.”

Saul gestures down his front as if to say: I don’t mean to brag, but seriously.

“You’d think more people would be . . . generally well-meaning, wanting to be good, you know, with a kind of diffuse generic impulse towards perfection . . . than dominated by an urge towards science adventuring or cannibalism. I mean, before the hat comes along and refines it.”

“Yeah,” says Peter, “but that can’t be what’s going on.”

“There are not anywhere near that many people with a generic urge towards cannibalism only waiting for a hat to bring it out,” Bethany agrees. “It’d be . . . I mean, there are a lot of scientists and adventurers in the unaltered population, but hardly any proto-cannibals.”

“Meat-eaters?” ventures Saul.

“I’d love a good roast,” says Peter.

“You can’t get to Lethal valedictorian by being a vegetarian!” says Bethany.

“Maybe some kind of inaccurate kerning engine —” starts Peter.

“That’s not the point,” says Saul.

“No,” says Bethany. “It’s not. It’s clearly some other impulse that’s being sublimated into murder and anthropophagous frenzy.”

“Like, the urge to rock a tight outfit,” says Saul.

“Or collect stamps!” offers Peter.

“Or both,” Saul suggests.

Bethany stares out thoughtfully into the hall. “I suspect decorum,” she says, “actually. They are an oddly polite people.”

Saul raises an eyebrow at her. Then he frowns.

“That is a disturbing notion,” says Saul. “Propriety is merely anthropophagous frenzy in a different hat?”

“And when I am blessing people,” says Peter, waving his hand in a generic gesture of blessing out at the hall, “I’m really expressing the pugnacious can-do sensibility of my youth?”

Under some circumstances Bethany would have answered this; but regrettably, she does not get the chance.

The generic blessing, spread too widely, precipitates a phenomenon.

See, even as Peter speaks, there are three members of the House of Hunger coming down the stairs at the other end of the hall. Keen-sighted Bethany has spotted them; Saul feels them coming and is frowning; but neither of them understands their danger in time to warn Peter away.

There is scarred Sally, with her single eye and her loathsome gait. She’s going to grow up to administer surveys one day, but for right now she’s a cannibalistic beast.

There is Lucy, the evil prophet of space. She’d really just planned to take a few local classes in prophesy while the Earth was still around and then destroy it, but now she’s got wolf-hunger wound through her and within her and it’s compromised her intentions. She is chewing on the inside of her cheek and trying not to eat through to the outside of it and remembering what it was like when she was focused on playing rock-paper-scissors with legendary rock-paper-scissors opponents and goats and not on killing and eating people.

Lastly there is Linus.

Linus didn’t expect to get a white hat. He didn’t expect to get any hat at all. He was just hanging out with Tom, getting really, really drunk in celebration of finding one another again, and it turns out that when Tom is drunk enough he will put a magic hat on the antichrist.

It’s a pretty good party game when you’re really drunk, kind of like pin the tail on the donkey, except that you can only play it once.

Tom has basically ruined it for the rest of us forever.

Not even Eldri, who’d made the Ultimate Frisbee robot, who’d made the perfect bingo robot, and even made Navvy Jim

Even Eldri couldn’t make a robot to play the drunkenly-put-the-magic-hat-on-the-antichrist game now.

Or at least, it wouldn’t ever be as good at it as had been Tom.

Linus’ eyes had paled. He’d fallen over. When he woke, though —

He’d laughed and laughed.

He hugged Tom, who’d tried not to look the least bit afraid while frantically feeling around on his belt for an emergency panic button. He hugged the table and his unfinished beer.

The white dog appeared. The white dog panted.

Linus hugged the white dog and it licked his face.

Then Linus’ vision blurred and the white dog was gone.

“That’s so much better,” said Linus. “I used to have an endless empty hollow in my soul. But now it’s like — it’s where I’m connected to Fenris and to eating people and to the wolf-gold, instead!”

He was laughing and he was crying and it was an absolute and utter relief to him, an end to pain for him, even though in fact nothing at all had changed.

Except that he sort of wants to eat Tom like a steak, and maybe the rest of the bar, stools and vodka and all, now; and he can laugh about that with Edmund afterwards — that’s the good thing, the best thing, the thing that makes it aces, so very, very sweet.

He’s still a boy with a hollow in him, and it’s still bigger than the world, but now it isn’t part of what holds him apart from the world any longer. It’s not a thing of loneliness any longer.

It’s something that brings him and Edmund — and Lucy and Sally and Bernard and all the rest — closer, instead.

So he’s walking with Lucy and Sally, and they’re laughing and talking, and there’s a really good chance that they were just going to walk by the saints without even caring about them, only —

Peter just blessed him, and Linus is, quite frankly, allergic to being blessed.

He sneezes. Vigorously!

“Bless you,” asides Sally.

He sneezes. Vigorously!

“Bless you again!” Sally says, even as Lucy chimes in slyly with a blessing.

“Oh, God, stop,” says Linus, waving and sneezing, which holy utterance causes his tongue to burst into flames.

Linus screams. He begins hitting his face with his palms to try to put his tongue out without actually reaching either of his hands inside his mouth. He appears to be playing the Indian in a quick impromptu game of “Cowboys & Indians,” except (a) he isn’t, (b) he wouldn’t, (c) nobody plays that any more, (d) hardly anybody played that in England to begin with, and (e) his tongue is on fire and he is the antichrist and a white-hatted theoretical cannibal surrounded by two similarly-anthropophagous beasts that are his peers.

Finally Linus begins chewing up large portions of the walls to put out the fire in his mouth. He gulps down most of a priceless painting by Michelangelo that was on loan to the Lethal Magnet School for Wayward Youth. Damn it, antichrist!

“Ah,” mutters Linus, sinking to the ground, his belly bloated. “That’s ever so much better.”

“Peter,” says Bethany, disapprovingly.

“I didn’t mean to,” says Peter, setting his jaw.

“I think you need to give people more specific blessings,” says Saul. “Like, if I point at him and say, ‘gout, get out!’, well, I don’t think his tongue will catch on fire.”

“That’s true,” says Peter. “That hardly ever happens.”

“We should avaunt,” Bethany says.

“I don’t have any toothpaste,” says Peter, who has no idea what avaunting is.

“I mean, we should get out of here.”

“We could probably beat them up,” Peter says, “non-violently.”

“Let’s go,” says Bethany, but it’s too late.

Sally is standing in front of their nook. She is squinting at them.

“Would you like to be protected from bad weather at sea?” says Peter, because he’s aces at protecting people from bad weather, when they’re at sea.

There’s a long, cold silence.


“Actually,” Sally admits, “that would be kind.”



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