T E A R S
N E V E R
Artemis blinked sleepily: a yawn scarce contained. Those caffeine tablets, truly, were not as effective as Father had claimed—
He shook his head, like a wet dog shaking off water—weariness, however, was not quite comparable to water. Water is easier to dispel.
Butler played the sentry in the next room over. Juliet left the cleaning supplies by his door by request; she had been too happy to oblige. Mother had bad memories of his room now from all the times she had left it crying; Father had worse yet. They feared the pain, now, that he poured upon them like the richest of wines; they never intruded upon his work.
The seemingly peculiar recommendation of caffeine tablets had been one of Father's little schemes—pathetic, really, a Fowl plotting encounters with his son rather than bank robberies. An… interesting exercise, perhaps, but hardly logical. 'Caffeine pills' were a questionable alternative to sleep.
But why trust Father on such a matter—? His own blind acceptance of the gift, without even a thread of reluctance woven into his polite tone, made his brow crinkle like wet paper. Even in trivial matters Father was a degraded man, hardly someone to idolize. Fathers were to be idolized; his fell pathetically short of the task.
Finally, there's your father. According to this, he wasn't much of a role model, even when he was alive.
The voice seemed real: he looked around, then faced the screen again, pretending he hadn't done such a reflexive thing as that. Artemis Fowl believed in his security systems; his faith was unassailable. None could break in short of supernatural means—many of which he had already explored.
The temptation to yawn rose within his throat. He broke this one with a whiff of his oil paints, closing his eyes to take in the full, metallic scent of first the vermilions, then the indigos and the ivories. Strange to think, the beauty that could arise from such a horrendous scent—
He opened his eyes.
A solitary lightbulb made poor mockery of the sun, casting mad shadows on the floor as it flickered in a petty sort of Apocalypse. A bed occupied one corner like a bunker of silk; his computer another, making a slideshow of the security footage throughout the Manor. This left a space in the center of the room, where he stood now, alone, wearied, and very very old.
It had started as a simple forgery, which were becoming quite profitable, of a Sendak piece. A profit to counteract Father's schemeless spending would be slim at best: and now impossible by its duration. Rather irrational of him, but he didn't like to think about that.
It depicted a stylized fairy with silver-metallic wings, seemingly suspended by torrents of smog-laced wind. Below was a metropolitan area—Chicago, perhaps?—and the fairy seemed to contemplate this with the curious expression between pity and disgust. Rather than the conveniently placed tatters of traditional female fairies, it wore something straightforward: rather like a jumpsuit, now that he thought of it, the green sort worn by mechanics.
A smile tugged at his bloodless lips, followed in quick succession by a yawn. Holly hated Mud Men with a fervor that rivaled his own desire for gold—and what had he always said? Aurum potestas est had only earned him irreverent abuse before. Perhaps he really should
He stopped short. Holly…?
He ran several self-diagnostics. Reflexes substandard; slight pressure to cerebellum; eyes defocusing; apparent loss of equilibrium.
He reached up, prepared to self-induce vomiting for fear of poison, but then—stopped.
He put his hand down and treated himself to a small, tight smile. How foolish of him. He was simply… tired. He hadn't slept in several days; his work on the painting had brought him into a curious sort of trance, not dissimilar to meditation, but—
He scowled at the painting, which only slipped a little more out-of-focus. It was his own fault; he'd stay away from forgeries for the time being. They were an inefficient way to recoup losses due to Father's hapless donations, in any case.
Despite his resolve to sleep, he found it difficult to do anything beyond an extended blink. Perhaps it was due to a suddenly naïve imagination: in every shadow he saw monsters, strange hybridizations of elephants and very unhappy gorillas. Where he came up with these things, he could only imagine: bringing the loop full circle.
And what could he do—sleep comes to us all, as it did him, tossing and turning, lost and alone and not even realizing it.
"Queen to D-eight," Artemis stated, observing his opponent. Sitting opposite him was Holly.
He didn't even know if that was her real name, but her mere voice tugged at his mind in a most distracting fashion. Her hair was that shade undecided between red and brown, auburn, and her face had a fine, elfin look to it only emphasized by a pair of faux pointed ears. She wore a green jumpsuit that hugged her lithe frame in a way older males would have thought very attractive. Small, callused hands lay clenched in her lap, the only outward sign of any self-control. However, the thing that Artemis noticed the most—the thing that sealed her likeness to his painting—was her eyes. Darting, hazel eyes.
She tipped one of his pawns over and grinned; he returned it with one he kept for special occasions, the taut one that revealed just enough teeth to revisit the possibility of vampires.
Females were distracting. He was making mistakes. They were not mutually exclusive.
But who was she, really…? His needed to know his opponent: attempting to read her name badge. He never trusted his instincts since the Santa Claus incident when he was two: he had been inconsolable when he had learned of his parents' trickery.
'Holly' gave a roguish wink, one that she obviously used to giving freely to comrades. "Can you read it, Artemis? Or has your—Almighty intellect failed once again?" She threatened his bishop with a rook—a monster, the sort children imagine live under their beds, behind the drapes, in the shadows, in the mind.
some sort of grinning maniac with a nasty-looking gun and a parka—to threaten his bishop.
He frowned, peering closed at the threatened piece. Was that his mother?
Holly shifted; when he looked across the table to investigate, he found himself the victim of a kick to his knee, the only limb Holly could reach from her perch on top of the milk crate.
Her grin broadened to an all-out smile when she caught Artemis' wince. Ignoring her childish action, he moved to guard the bishop—not to defend, but to promise revenge.
She moved the knight forward, placing the bishop in a form of check. "You owe me, Mud Boy. I brought your mother back to you, and I can take her back just as easily."
Artemis found himself answering in a most peculiar manner: "I paid you for her sanity years ago."
She smiled again, but it was mocking smile, a mordant smile like cheap wine. "You put a price on a soul, Artemis. Gold is worth no one's soul."
"You accepted it," Artemis pointed out—despite years of collective practice, he could not keep the grating sound of panic from his voice.
Holly's smile could not have been colder, could not have been as terribly familiar, as it did when she took the bishop.
"Give her back." Panic eroded his voice to a rasp.
Holly smiled again, bitterly, impossibly. "Why?" Her voice seemed far away, echoing in the surreal grasslands surrounding them. "Why not before; why now?"
Artemis blinked away some sudden irritation in his eyes; but when he opened them again everything was gone.
"Mother?" he inquired the darkness.
Silence; between his heartbeats, like timpani beats, he bled logic out into the void, trapped and suspended between the finite and infinity, now and forever, until, at last, nothing remained but Arty.
"Mother, are you there?"
Juliet's voice slid through the darkness, flat yet accusatory. "Madame Fowl is not here. May I please take a message?"
"I need to speak to her." His voice trembled, as if with an amateur vibrato.
"I'm sorry, but she's not here right now. May I please take a message?"
"Where is she?" Had he fists in the dream, they would have curled in fright.
"Lost in herself. May I please take a message?"
The irritant returned to his eyes; he resisted the urge to wipe it away. "When is she coming back?"
There was a large pop, like the sound bubble-gum snapping. "Never. May I please take a message?"
"Bring me to Mother!" The irritant flowed openly down his face; he could not name it, he could remember the feel of it the taste of it, as if it were at the end of a dimly lit corridor—but what was the name?
"Perhaps Monsieur should have called earlier?" she suggested, detached. "Maybe you could have caught her—on the way out."
Artemis was reborn; Arty slid into the back of his mind, crying like the lost boy he was. "I was otherwise occupied."
And—something strange: "I pity you, Artemis." Now sharp, sharp like a razor's edge, slicing delicate incisions to the flesh, just to see the blood well up; sharp like the world crying out and not a damn soul hearing; sharp like a bullet, not for you, but yours anyway, just because. "You never gave a damn about us. Maybe I shouldn't care, but I do. You pay me a shitload of money, after all. "
"Liar," he said, and faded away.
He ought to be winning—but Holly played like some of the more annoying grandmasters: instinctually, making her moves in flashes of unpredictable insight. They were formidable opponents, more so than those who planned hours in advance: fighting the instinctual player was like fighting his former self.
She made a beeline for his remaining bishop; within five moves it was completely surrounded.
She swung her legs over the edge of the milk crate. "Give it up," she said. "He's lost."
Artemis made no response; his mind swirled with impossible plans. They slid by his conscious mind, stating their conclusions, rejected, only to circle back again, one after another after another like keys on a piano.
One caught his attention; he jabbed forward with a pawn, threatening her parka-garbed rook.
Holly found a way out; she took his bishop with the rook.
Impossible, Artemis thought as he pulled the pawn to safety, bloody impossible…
No, he corrected as she took his pawn as well, merely improbable.
He sunk back and analyzed his losses. He had been very, very stupid, and victory was going to be very, very hard.
"You should have just given up," said Holly; in her hand, two ebony pieces glinted, freshly slain: Fowl and Butler, Artemis I and the Major.
Artemis looked up and met those hazel eyes. "Never," he said, and moved a pawn forward to the eighth square. "I want Father back."
Holly laughed; the chessboard dissolved.
Ireland is the greenest place on Earth. Artemis appreciated this fact now; he could see Father's black suit as if emblazoned gold upon a black standard.
He walked towards the black silhouette; for every three steps he took Father took one. There was no hurry, for there was peace in the grass, silver-sheened as the wind plaited Celtic knots, only to unweave them again on whim.
Father was ascending a fairy fort. He reached the crown and stood, silhouetted in clouds and summer sky.
Yet—as he stood, as he gazed down upon his son, the clouds boiled around him. Thunder rolled; lightning whipped out towards the fairy fort, irrationally slow, yet slow enough that he could see its aim—
He cried out and began to run. The rain was hard and cold. He felt as if his back would bruise; he slipped, and felt the sharp tang of blood in his mouth. "Father!"
He reached the top of the hill. Father was gone; but a rainbow stretched out before him, up, up, up and over the rain, passing into some realm beyond the even the fairies.
Father was a thread of black, already so far, so close to the clouds—climbing the rainbow.
He followed; the rainbow felt hard and smooth beneath his feet as he ran. He felt as if he flew, for the ground spun beneath him, and wind twisted past him in mad whirls.
"Father!" he cried out again—he stood there, gasping, as Father stood before him upon the slow arc..
"Father, we should leave."
"Father, I don't trust this."
"Then why did you climb?" Father turned—the rainbow disappeared into the clouds, red and orange and yellow and green and blue and purple, the colors of the world. "You believed in the rainbow before."
"I didn't believe in the rainbow," Artemis replied. "I believed in you."
Father began to walk into the clouds, suspended between Heaven and Earth. "Don't believe in me; believe in the rainbow. I think too much."
"Do you believe?"
Artemis looked down. Ireland stretched out like a map; his head spun like a frenzied top. "Yes."
He stepped into the clouds; Artemis looked down again, wondering, wondering—
Father disappeared. "Father!" Artemis cried out, and stepped forward, stepped down, passing through the rainbow, into the hard rain falling like a cascade of tears.
Artemis moved a knight, a great hulk of a man.
"Oooh, bad move," Holly mocked; a knight of her own, something between a gorilla and an elephant that would make Darwin scratch his head. It and another, more humanoid knight formed a fork around his; she needed only strike with her Queen.
This gibe struck deeper than most: "How so?" he demanded. "He is protected by my King." The King did not look like either knight's physical match; indeed, it resembled one of his earlier sculptures of himself—but rules were rules, and children could defeat even the greatest of their monsters with a single move.
"So," she exclaimed sarcastically, "the great Artemis Fowl would put himself in danger?" She traced the crown of her Queen; Artemis noted the same dimple on their respective right cheeks.
"Knights are powerful," he replied. "They are not to be sacrificed lightly."
Flat anger in those hazel eyes; it was disturbingly familiar, almost, how they glittered and gleamed. "Why sacrifice him at all? Save him; sacrifice your pride in its stead."
A crescent of an eyebrow raised. "Men are bought easily; slavery does indeed exist in this day and age." He gestured towards the scattered ranks of pawns. "I need only stretch out my hand and—offer."
Now those eyes were as he had never before seen them. "You buy human souls with your gold and then you cast them aside. Tell me, what will you do when you discover some souls can't be bought?"
He stiffened. "What do you mean?"
"I won't play games, Artemis." The Queen moved in; Butler—no, but a knight—slipped into her hands. "He is mine now, by life and honor twice-over, and I keep him." Bitterness slipped into her voice: "But you, you, my dear Artemis, have some demons to face."
It seemed little more than a piece of Japanese history: polished hardwood floor, golden with the warm light that filtered through the paper-screen walls. There were two in the center:
The Samurai had the helmet of a Shogun, all dark leather and stained steel that made his skin glow like the moon at night—but little, for the armor made the Samurai an impersonal figure. This image was only aided by his slender blade, a silver silhouette against the gold of the walls. One had Samurai-like armor on it, the helmet obscuring his face with the dark leathers and metals. He stood very, very still, still as dust in a tomb.
The Gladiator was all gold and bronze; a son of Rome, colored by the Italian sun and polished by war. His leather sandals were laced the knee; above, he wore a skirt of leather flaps, imbedded with lead spikes. His tunic was creamy and clean; Artemis was certain it would not remain this way. The helmet could not disguise his thin smile: in one hand, lean and strong, he bore a bronze trident, and in the other, a net of woven roots.
Each raised their respective weapons.
"Veni, Vidi, Vici," said the Gladiator—and lunged, three points gleaming.
The Samurai pranced back, not even needing to parry. His every move was fluid, elegant, conserving. He did not strike: his parries, graceful, articulate, when necessary, turned back the fierce twisting blows of the Gladiator, unbalancing him at times. His dark eyes were withdrawn, detached—one would say uncaring, but for the sweat beading on his pearl-white brow.
The Gladiator was a blur, little more than a gold smudge as he struck and struck again, circling the Samurai as hunter and hunted. He spun, he whirled; the trident sliced the air, the tattered fragments drifting down about his feet. His eyes were dark; but these were angry, seething, the blue-black of a storm's roiling heart.
Artemis was mesmerized by the battle, the streaks of silver and flashes of bronze. What dance was this, what marvelous variant on chess?—alas, he could not tell, only watch as they swirled into an inexorable climax.
The Gladiator fell; all stopped for a moment as he raised himself and stood apart. "How honorable," said the Gladiator—"how honorable, to let the foe rise."
And he stabbed, twisting the trident to capture the leaping blade between its prongs.
The Samurai made no response but for his prance to the side, escaping the trap.
The Gladiator's grin was like that of wolf—he pivoted, dealing a vicious slash but receiving an evasive leap. "You Samurai, you always think you are honorable—but what samurai has not played the game of words, what samurai has not taxed the poor to pay for unneeded steel?"
That blow struck home, if not that of the fist. The Samurai's eyes darkened to that of a black hole, beyond the event horizon, beyond redemption. "We have our cause. Where is yours?"
The Gladiator smiled his scimitar-smile. "You claim honor; I claim glory. Are they not the same? We live on in those who fear and idealize us; I fight for Caesar's smile, and you, for your Emperor, as he lays there, untouched by care or sorrow in his palace, the epitome of all you yearn to be, giving out the word of your god—and you obey without question! for he is god, is so perfect, so innocent, so…" He paused and withdrew. "Pointless."
"It is not so!" the Samurai cried; and lunged.
The Gladiator leapt aside and slammed the face of the trident into the exposed backside. The Samurai fell like rain in a summer storm; the Gladiator splayed the net over him. The net was like lace across the dark armor, ensnaring him as if a deer in a trap.
The Gladiator saved gloating for later: he stomped down on the Samurai's right hand, drawing out a cry of pain.
"So noble," the Gladiator murmured. He stomped down again; his hobnailed sandals made a trickle of blood on the floor. "So noble." A pause: he plucked the Samurai's blade from the ground. On whim, he spun it through the air—and with a twist, into the Samurai's side, and out again, as if it had never been there. The blood gave the armor a crimson sheen, the sort found in only the deepest of rubies. "You could have won."
The Samurai could not hold back a low moan. The blood seeped onto the floor, red like passion, red like death.
"You have never abused power, and that is your weakness."
The Gladiator took the blade and slipped it into the other side, now, between the armor plates with ease.
"You have never killed, and that is your weakness."
The blood spread out in thin puddles, spreading like geisha fans.
"You have never hated, and that is your weakness.
The sword found home in the Samurai's torso; he lay, impaled, scarlet butterfly wings exuding from his sides.
"I beat the slave that stares at me on the street—I loathe the woman who flits beyond reach with her wide Ethiop eyes—I kill the man that refuses me gold. I serve only myself, and that is why, my dear foe, I shall always be better than you."
The Gladiator turned away; it was dying, not death, that interested him.
Artemis stared out, trapped, watching a movie without rewind, without pause—a spectator, incapable, immobile—voiceless, he could not even cry out as part of him lay there dying—slain by sanity, slain by self—
It wasn't fair.
Artemis had never handled a sword before; but the Samurai's was light, and he wielded it with a form of his own, over, over, over and through—
The Gladiator fell backwards, knees folding slowly, too slowly; he and the Samurai were so close now, so close that their blood mingled into a single ruby pane.
Artemis dropped the sword. It glinted like red Aldebaran on winter's solstice, smoldering bright and dark and terrible.
"There are less honorable things to die for," whispered the Samurai—his mouth was stained red, red with his lifeblood, dripping down across his jaw as jewels spilling forth from a string.
"Touching," rasped the Gladiator—and he saw Artemis, and smiled, mouth red as a split cherry. "Let us be together, all of us; there is the blade, just lie down, here, in our blood,and let it all be over—"
Artemis saw the blade; he could see other worlds traced out in the lees of blood on its surface, other places to see, other things to be—
He reached for the blade; was this right?—he could not tell.
It was close now, like a kiss on his flesh, soft and cool—like those Mother used to give him as she tucked him. The slain men became one through a haze of tears.
He gave out a cry; the blade fell; the world swirled and was not as it was before.
Nothing—nothing stopped. His hands were full of blood—he had fallen, fallen so far from a rainbow—and, Mother had left.
Holly smiled across the chessboard; tearless yet as bitter as orange marmalade. "Your move."
They slipped through his mind; but they would not come back. He grasped at them but they were like water. He was thirsty; he tried to drink but they kept going away, falling back, back from his hands, his lips, he tried to drink and they—seeped, seeped slowly into the ground, mud, earth, dust—blown by the wind, far away.
Artemis made a move.
Holly looked down. She was as old as the world. She tipped her King over; checkmate. "We did this to ourselves," she murmured—and, began to fade.
Artemis stared across—she was crying, tears slipping down her face only to fall into nothingness as she dissolved, splashing like solitary raindrops to the chessboard: one, two, three, hate, love, hope.
Artemis gazed at his picture. Another day, another trance; this will be last of them, he promised himself. His hacking algorithms awaited: he need only finish.
The fairy was of the more traditional sort now. Butterfly wings, big almond eyes, translucent clothing, the like. Her hair was a violent shade of red that itched to clash with her violet eyes, but the way she looked out, out of the painting, played the peace negotiator and kept signs of such battles from reaching the viewer's brain.
It was perfect—he frowned, sipping his Darjeeling. She appeared to be holding a chess piece of some sort, a black king. That would have to go, of course.
Satisfied, he returned to breakfast.
To Dim Aldebaran, protogée, who goaded me into reposting; to Blue Yeti, who inspired the original.
Previous readers will notice several major modifications, as well as the addition of an entire dream sequence. The metaphors, before overcomplicated and cumbersome, have been streamlined and trimmed. Saeriel, Mithostwen, Telpyvien and Dim Aldebaran assisted in polishing the piece, and require special thanks considering the late notice.