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The Lost Souls

 1

 

On the nineteen inch television a dough faced news anchor droned on about some famine somewhere. The rabbit ears were two wire coat hangers, crooked. Electric snow and white noise drifted across the screen every two seconds.

“So,” squeaked through tightly pressed lips, “what’s He do all day, anyway?”

“How the hell should I know?” Kelt peevishly answered.

Kelt watched the whoosh of breath–a column of light grey cannabis smoke–erupt to obscure his guest’s chapped lips. What had possessed him to invite them to stay?

He had only met this man today and the other, using the shower–Kelt heard the stream of water through the thin apartment walls–but they had insinuated themselves into his life, his thoughts immediately. Kelt frowned and sipped at his vodka. It didn’t sting much; he’d been drinking for over an hour. The idiotic abstract questions they asked annoyed him.

His guest–he said his name was Chris–had pale skin, close cropped black hair and an eighteen inch bong in his left hand. He looked slyly at Kelt from the corner of his eyes, but the effect was ruined as his mouth hung slightly ajar with an insensate grin.

Chris said, “You’re the one who professes belief in Him. I don’t see how you can do that. It goes against all rational sense. In fact,” the grin did become sly, as if amused at his own wit, “you can’t even sense Him. What good’s He for? Huh? If I were you, I’d be pissed at Him for hiding.”

Kelt stood from the cloth couch for no reason, ran his fingers through his hair, plopped back down. He never gave much thought to his furniture: two lime green cloth chairs extra padded and a faded plaid couch, all looking like rejects from a college dorm room. A pine green trunk, made of pressed wood shavings, served as his coffee table.

Kelt replied, “I don’t–I only said I was agnostic, anyway. Maybe, He keeps social order, keeps the people in line. Sort’a the adult bogeyman.”

Chris laughed, a short bark, dismissing Kelt and his words. He set the bong on the floor, propping it against his chair; then, he popped open a Heineken bottle with his teeth, spit the cap across the room, and took a long pull. He acted as if the beer immediately ordered all his muscles to relax.

“That the best you can do?” Chris said and pulled a stained white sleeve across his mouth in a swaggering fashion.

The man’s an asshole, Kelt decided and sipped again at his drink, finishing it. He poured another for himself, not offering the bottle, but keeping it on the floor in front of the green trunk. He looked at his glass, felt a bit disjointed, but drank half a shot anyway.

Chris watched him and still wore that condescending smirk. “You know, Kelt, I don’t think you have a clue about Him–about whether He exists, about anything.”

“Go to hell.”

“You sure like that word.”

The vodka roiled in his gut. “What word?”

“Hell.” Chris paused and then went on, leaning conspiratorially toward Kelt, “Maybe that’s where you are.”

Kelt said, “You’re being asinine and childish. But I hope you’re right; that way, you’d be there, too.” This time Kelt smirked, but the booze fouled his concentration, giving his face a clownish grin on one side and a disgusted frown on the other.

Kelt heard a rapid, forceful knock on the door.

Chris poked him in the thigh with his cold index finger. “That’s where you’re wrong, Kelt, my friend, and I do love you though you don’t believe it.”

“I believe you.” Oh, not a sloppy drunk, please. “But how am I wrong?”

The knocking returned, louder.

A tall black man strode from the second bedroom of the apartment; he was Kelt’s other guest, said his name was Carter, just Carter. He wore Kelt’s white terry cloth bathrobe, cinching it around his waist. “I’ll get it.” he said; his frown meant, “I’ll have to get it, since you two won’t.”

Kelt forced his slogging concentration on Chris. Rather than answer his question, Chris gleefully watched Carter move to the door.

Just before the door opened, Chris turned and stared directly at Kelt, and said, “We, that is, everyone always, everywhere, everywhen travels alone. And it’s time for me to go.” He stood up resolutely from his chair and promptly passed out, falling over the green trunk.

Carter opened the door.

A police officer pushed his way into the apartment. His gate was stilted, like a partially paralyzed man straining through physical therapy. He breathed in rapid short breaths. Silver wire rimmed shades disguised his eyes, though it was eight o’clock, an hour past twilight. Upon seeing Carter, he laughed, as if at a practical joke, kept laughing, going into hysterical peals.

Kelt felt like puking.

Chris groaned and stood. “Where am I? Who are you?” He looked at Kelt.

The officer swiveled his head toward Chris. His laughter dried up, replaced by a manic grin.

Kelt thought the cop was going to pull out his gun. A malicious grin spread across the cop’s face.

Abruptly, he collapsed, his billy club clattering against the hardwood floor.

Carter went rigid, as the cop had done before passing out. His hands twitched, as if he plucked the strings of an invisible harp. His head shifted in a spasmodic fashion. Kelt watched him track something, like a fly buzzing through the air in front of him.

Carter’s mouth went agape and his body pitched forward, as if he were punched and the breath went out of him. He smiled and put his slender fingers to his chest, lovingly rubbing his salt and pepper chest hair.

Kelt smelled his musky body odor, though Carter had just gotten out of the shower. A sheen of sweat glimmered on his skin, lit by the bare overhead bulb. He sat down on the couch next to Kelt with a weary air.

Carter said, “It’s over, for now. Get that bong hidden, idiot. Or do you want to be arrested when that officer wakes up?”

The cop groaned, almost exactly as Chris had done.

And Chris looked hysterical. “What bong? Who are you? Dammit. Where am I?” He pleaded, half angry, half trembling, very stoned, very scared.

Suddenly, “Get out!” Carter shouted at him. “Get out now, or you’re going to jail!”

Chris peeped and stood for a moment, trembling all the more. Then coming to a decision, he bolted out the open door.

Carter murmured, “Oh, I’m tired. I didn’t need that. Can’t trust a Form, particularly that one.”

Kelt said, “He seemed pretty scared of you.” Actually, Kelt could feel his own heart beating against his rib cage.

Carter looked at Kelt and grimaced. “No, no. Not him, the one he had been, though.”

The cop groaned again.

Carter seemed to ignore it. By this point Kelt felt too confused, not comprehending anything. What the hell is going on? He wanted to scream that, again and again, but he felt as tired as Carter looked. Kelt had always felt stupid–no, not stupid but ignorant, terribly ignorant. Yet he usually felt somewhat–not much, but somewhat–at ease talking to people. People reacted the way they were supposed to. “Hi” often brought “Hello” or a grimace or some understandable communication. But people barging in and passing out and cops giggling—-

“I didn’t think I could get more ignorant.” Kelt mumbled and heaved a shaky exhalation. He hid his face in his hands.

The cop stood. Carter watched him, but the cop just wobbled on his feet and stumbled out of Kelt’s apartment while rubbing his head.

Carter patted Kelt on the shoulder. “I like you, Kelt. I really think you’re trying.”

“Trying what?” Kelt sipped at his vodka.

“This’ll never work.” Carter leaned down and grabbed the vodka bottle. He flung it against the wall. The bottle left a dent in the dry wall just below his plastic framed Escher print. The glass shattered with one great, lonely crack when it hit the hardwood floor.

“Hey!”

Carter said, “I need some help, and you want answers. You just don’t have the right method for finding what you seek.”

Kelt stood. He was drunk and oh, so confused. This was too much. “Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m just a working class grunt. I manage a Taco Bell, that’s all. I’m not looking for anything, dammit. Just a good time, a few laughs, a few drinks. A girl, maybe. I don’t know.”

Carter stood. He was 6’3″ to Kelt’s 5’11”. His eyes looked down on Kelt: stern, brown, and glittering. “Really? Is that why you majored in philosophy for six years? I saw the diploma in your bedroom. Your books are well thumbed. I didn’t know fast food was so demanding a line. And so very satisfying, spiritually speaking.”

“You’re just as bad as Chris.”

Carter laughed, deep but quick. “No. Not nearly.”

“Why’d you run him off?”

Carter asked, “Why’s a philosopher managing teens looking to make their tux payments in time for the prom?”

Enough. Kelt said, “Who do you think I am? I’ve got bills to pay like everybody else. I don’t have anything for you, for anybody. Go away.”

Carter softly interjected, “You could have taught.”

It was an old argument his mother had always whined at him, and it always pricked at him. Kelt almost shouted, “Taught what? Huh? Meta-ethical bull? The mind life is crap. It doesn’t exist to any point but vanity. I think; therefore, I suffer. Got me? Theosophy, philosophy’s nothing more than people running around trying to find an answer to their pain, but there’s no answer–Deus absconditus, man. Nobody’s home, so I stuff some tacos and I try to make it day to day, as I am, as I am now.”

Carter whispered, “You sound like you have no hope.”

“Pandora can keep her damn box!”

Carter slowly grinned, white, broad, and straight teeth. “You wouldn’t be so angry, if you weren’t still searching.”

Kelt flung his bony arms above his head and threw himself into a chair, trying to get some distance between them. “What am I? Talking to air? I’m through. There ain’t no holy grail. Leave me alone.”

Carter walked over to Kelt, bent down and leaned close to him. He put his hands over Kelt’s, lying on the armrests of the chair. He whispered again, “I can give you purpose.”

Kelt turned his head to the side and down, looking at the shattered vodka bottle. The bottom of the broken bottle still held about a shot’s worth. Kelt said, “Purpose is illusory. Do–to what end?”

“Are you so enlightened, then, that you neither need nor want a purpose?” Carter whispered more softly, as if they were exhausted lovers in bed.

“You got me. There’s no such thing as enlightenment. None I’ve found, anyway. What purpose?”

“Saving souls. And on the way, you can search for your holy grail.” Carter softened his smile. Just two thin lips below a wide, flat nose, a face daring him.

Carter? A holy roller? It didn’t fit; he was too human, too strange, transitory in his words, too frighteningly open with him.

Kelt asked, “Save for whom?”

Carter released Kelt’s hands and stood tall, imposing. “Not save for, save from. I save people from dragons. I’m a lost builder, a mystic, and a hero.” He grinned at his own pretentiousness and gave Kelt a stiff quarter bow from the hip.

“You fight dragons?”

Carter said, “I just dispatched a minor drake, infesting that poor officer. But some are tougher and older than others. I could use some back-up, to keep to the police lingo.”

“Uh-huh.”

Carter frowned. “That’s our first problem, Kelt. You don’t see, so you don’t believe, though I notice you use a microwave oven.”

Kelt replied, “Cause and effect. I don’t see the microwaves, but I taste hot food.”

Carter said, “You didn’t see the Trickster in Chris or the dragon in the officer, but you saw them faint and get up as different people.”

Kelt chuckled, expelling some of his nervousness. “I didn’t know either of them. How do I know they were different?” But the look, the malicious grin and laugh on that cop’s face scared Kelt. “Look, you’ve got a helluva line of patter, but I’m not in the market, ok? I don’t get into organized religion, or cults, or whatever you think you represent. I just stuff tacos. Burritos, sometimes.”

The older man’s face grew stern and tense. “As you wish. We do this the hard way: Experience first, my little rationalist; talk later.”

 

2

 

Dark claimed the light. A sheet of nothingness covered Kelt’s eyes. He couldn’t feel the chair under his butt, couldn’t smell the faint tangy scent of Carter’s body odor, couldn’t hear the drone of the television. Kelt went cold inside. Loneliness assailed him: He had never felt so utterly alone. He felt nothing, touched emptiness, could not breath.

“Oh, God, help me.”

“I’m here.”

“What?”

Then, he heard a soft laugh, Carter’s voice.

Kelt shouted without air in this void, without feeling his lips move, “Where are we? What have you done to me? Take me back.”

“Stop whining, Kelt. I’m here. You sound like a baby. You must find your courage to fight dragons, Kelt. Your fear would rouse every sleeping dragon if we passed beyond my first void.”

“Where are you? I feel so alone.”

Carter’s voice soothed him. “Look behind you.”

“I can’t. I can’t feel my body.”

“You’re outside of your body. Just think of looking behind yourself–your self.”

Kelt saw Carter naked, surrounded by a soft and white light, not radiant. The darkness overpowered everything else, a brooding, mindless precense. Carter smiled, as if Kelt were a lost toddler in a mall.

Kelt shouted, “Damn you, get me out–“

The television advertised a sweet and crunchy cereal, even in milk.

Kelt shivered and clutched himself. Carter bent down and grabbed the terry cloth bathrobe that had fallen to the floor. He put it on again as he said, “That was well done for a swimmer. I think you have the knack. I think I chose well.”

Kelt pushed himself down into the chair, savored the feel of a body, of the cushions pressing against him. “I believe you now, but I think you’d better get someone else. I never liked amusement rides.”

Kelt heard a sharp but feminine voice behind him: “So, Carter, you’ve retired to escorting swimmers around your first void?”

Kelt jumped up from his chair and looked at her. Tall and thin with long dirty blond hair, this woman stood naked in front of him. Kelt stared. Her breasts were small and swayed slightly with her shuddering body. With no clothes she was probably cold. He noticed her trembling and sweating, as if she were in a fever. A red tattoo of a bird’s claw appeared on her forehead. The tattoo squirmed and a beak, maroon as blood, jutted from her brow.

It squawked at Kelt and burst free from her body. No larger than a sparrow and translucent, the bird flew around the room, tethered to the woman by a thin and rope like white light emanating from her forehead. The bird plunged through a wall.

Carter said, “Hello, Carol. When did you become lost? Or did you turn assassin?”

Kelt watched them lock gazes. History and jagged daggers passed between their eyes. She spoke diffidently, “I’m not an assassin. I’ve just gotten back from being lost, and I admit I’m waxed.”

“Then be sensible. Get some rest and don’t intrude.”

She laughed, a somewhat ragged sound from exhaustion. “You sound as if you want to duel. Is that it, Carter?”

The whites of Carter’s eyes sank into the folds of his lids. “I didn’t ask you to come here, Carol.”

“But I’m asking you–Hey, pal, damp it down, will you? You’re confusing my harpy.”

Kelt asked, “What?”

Carter said, “Kelt, your light is in your eyes, your builder’s light. Relax and it will go away.”

Kelt’s eyes glowed, fireflies on a june night. He saw the reflection of light on his skin when he held his palm close to his face. He checked his breathing, timed it: The light dimmed. “I don’t believe this.”

Carol said, “Yes, you do believe or you couldn’t have shone that way. You have a mind harpy?”

Carter quickly interrupted, “Don’t answer that, Kelt.”

Carol gritted her teeth; then, looked away. She muttered, “I’m not here as an assassin, you paranoiac.”

A moment later, her bird flew into the room and plunged into her forehead. Carol’s head snapped back slightly, but she caught herself.

Carol faced Carter and said, “I was only having my mind harpy do a sweep of the area. I ran into the Trickster a moment ago. A lie’s as good as the truth with him, but he said you were here. A dragon crouches in a church steeple just outside of Teaneck, New Jersey. I could use that monster of a harpy you’ve got, or have you altogether retired?”

“All right, Carol.” Carter turned to Kelt and said, “I’ve got to go. You’ve been awakened, Kelt. You can swim through the first void, your first void, if you want. Practice. It will speed things. We’re a busy lot. I’ll be back.”

Carol smirked at Carter. “If you survive.”

Both became darker and darker, though Kelt’s apartment was brightly lit. Two shadows stood before Kelt; then, nothing. He was alone again. The terry cloth bathrobe hung in the air for a second; then, the folds of cloth dropped to the ground.

Kelt shut and locked his door.

 

3

 

A week passed, but they–Carter, the Trickster, Carol–never left his thoughts. Fixing tacos, punching in the time clock, wandering through the grocery store, and mostly sitting in his apartment with the TV blaring and the lights burning never stopped the unreality of that day from dominating his mind. They hadn’t returned.

Kelt wanted it to be dream. He wanted to dismiss it all. But they, whoever they really were, brought it all back with painful clarity: the life of the mind.

“It’s all crap.” he mumbled to himself throughout each day, and still Kelt couldn’t deny it. The whole idea mutated in Kelt’s mind, changed to fit every mood. The first day he was angry; the second, confused; the third and other days he was simply frightened, frightened of returning to the old way: the life where he had wasted a youth looking for something more in life, something that had never existed.

Now, there were dragons for him to fight.

On the tuesday of the next week at twilight, Kelt decided to take a swim. He turned off the television, the lights, and settled into his worn chair. Closing his eyes he pictured–felt the void.

He moaned. It was painful, that truth, his void. Instinctively, he wanted to deny it, but knew Carter wasn’t here to push him into that truth of loneliness: his first void.

“Oh, no, no, yes.” he said and it was not with his voice. The darkness claimed him, and it wasn’t Carter’s, but his, his nights spent alone with no one and nothing, and now no senses, no distractions. There was only KELT.

“This can’t be all there is. I couldn’t be right. I don’t want to be right!”

Then, an answer softly replied to his mental scream: a light, burning in his first void. Kelt gazed at it, loved it, adored it, a somber light, like a candle flame just before the liquid wax drowns the wick, with that same transience. He was scared it would leave, taking its gentility and serenity to be swallowed by that terrible first void. He willed himself closer, closer until he felt himself burn, the fire a hot poker in his skull, yet never close enough. The void remained, the darkness patiently surrounding the light. He felt compelled to touch it, to be with it. The light seemed whole, complete, to be just what he had always wanted.

But the closer he approached, the more he burned, his thoughts consumed, his skin blistered. Pain: Blades of light cut him into little pieces. One moment he thought he was five years old playing with stalks of grass, weaving them together, and then that memory was gone, shorn by that light. It had been a precious memory, one of the few he had remembered from his early youth and he felt the loss, the loss of something he had forgotten, ripped from him.

Kelt panicked and the soft chair and cool musty air of his apartment surrounded him. But that memory was gone, that piece of himself. He knew he had been cheated, knew he had left something behind him.

He mumbled, “It’s just another lie, another fakir’s sham. Oh, God.” His flannel shirt stuck to the sweat of his chest; the sleeves clung to the oozing blisters on his arms.

“There you go again. For an agnostic you sure call on Him a lot. Oh, I hope you don’t mind, but I turned on your television. I do so love distractions.”

Kelt listened to the small dog sitting at his feet and talking to him. No, it wasn’t a dog, but the thin, laughing face of a coyote, tongue casually lolling from the side of its muzzle.

Kelt asked, “How? What?”

“Good questions,” the coyote replied, “Let me guess: You’re not used to listening to animals. I wore Chris last time we met. Now that you’re a builder, you can see me–and other things–without a mask of flesh. There’s no turning back now, boy. Once you’ve eaten a peach you can never forget the taste.”

The coyote turned around itself twice, settled on its haunches, and nipped at its thigh, jaws working like a sewing machine. Then, “Ah, that’s better. But you, you almost got yourself lost just now. I like that.”

“Was that my soul?”

“Beats me. I don’t have a soul. Too much trouble. What’d you see?”

“A light.”

“No tunnel?”

Kelt shook his head.

The coyote said, “Hmph, on TV they always say you see a tunnel before you die. Maybe that wasn’t your soul, but someone else’s.”

Kelt shivered. “I’m cold. My arms hurt.”

“Look at your skin. You’re waxed. That’s the buzzword for a builder who’s been pushing himself too hard. Shame for you Carter’s not here.”

“Where is he, dammit? He said he’d teach me.” Kelt brought his hand to his face. The flesh was pale and rolled under the pressure of his thumb on his palm. The palm reader’s lines twisted, merged, broke. The flesh evened out, like water seeking its level, with a sensuous tingle. Slick, too, like plastic. Kelt swallowed, shuddered. There’s no turning back.

The coyote put his paw on Kelt’s leg. It seemed like a friendly gesture. “Maybe you should try and touch that light. That’ll tell you if it’s yours, I bet.”

“But you said I was waxed.”

“Well, if you’re not going to play anymore, I’ve got better things to do.” The coyote disappeared.

Kelt looked down. A puddle of urine rolled across his floor. He mumbled a curse word, tried to get up from his chair to clean it, but he felt as if barbells were strapped to his legs and arms.

Kelt’s chin dropped to his chest. A pounding on his door echoed in his dream, that pure fire pulsing to the beat of his heart, beating too fast. Sleepsand crusted around his eyelids. He woke feeling well, refreshed, but still confused by what had happened–was happening to him.

A voice from outside: “Hey, open up! I know you’re in there. C’mon, builder. I haven’t got all day. Carter sent me.”

Kelt jumped from his chair, ran to the door and pulled off the chain. Opening it, he saw a young blonde kid, a teenager with a buzz cut and leather jacket draped over a red t-shirt. He wore a silver chain; a single edged razor dangled from it. Dark shades covered his eyes; he lifted them to his forehead. Kelt saw the white light dancing in his pupils.

“You’re a builder.” Kelt said.

“Yeah, but you won’t be.” A stream of light ran from his left eye and down his arm to cover his fist. It grew, lengthened like a sword of light.

Mr. Barnes, Kelt’s neighbor across the hall, carried a bag of groceries, celery and Cheetoes poking from the top of the bag. He nodded at Kelt as he unlocked his door and went into his apartment. He perceived nothing–blind to the furious light around the boy.

Kelt tried to slam his door shut, but the boy was quick, stepping halfway inside and shoving the door hard. Kelt was thrown against the back of the chair. He said, “You’re a dragon.”

The kid laughed. “Man, you don’t have a clue, do you? I’m a man, a real man, not some freakin’ doppelganger lost builder. We’re puttin’ down the law. We don’t want you people anymore. No more messing with the Forms, no more rousing the dragons, no more craziness from you turds.”

What the hell? Kelt turned to run into the kitchen; maybe grab a knife.

His insides burned, where his left kidney was. Ennui washed over him. He looked back and saw the sword sticking in him. His muscles sagged, flaccid. He crumpled over the arm of his chair. Eyelids drooped.

The kid said, “Tell Carter this: Earth is off limits for lost builders.” He twisted the light; it writhed in Kelt’s insides. “Real builders will take care of the dragons. There’s no place for lost builders on the hard world.” He withdrew the light; it retracted from Kelt’s body, up the boy’s arm and into his eye. “You don’t mess with us. Give him my message and turn him away.”

Kelt slipped into darkness. He roused occasionally; someone forced water down his throat; someone carried him into the bathroom to urinate. He was unaware how often this happened or how much time was passing. He slept deeply, beyond dreams, and liked it that way.

He woke without opening his eyes and heard voices:

“How’s he doing?” That was Carol.

“Better, but I don’t know if he’ll ever be able to shoot a soul bridge. I should never have told you to become a lost builder. Maybe they’re right. Maybe we are insane.” That was Carter.

Carol’s sharp edged laughter roused Kelt as she said, “Too late for that now. Besides, who’s more insane? Us for trying to find the Answer, or them for willingly closing their eyes when they’ve been gifted to see?”

Kelt lifted himself off the couch. “No. You’re right. I was wrong to turn away, to give up. I won’t leave the world to violence. I don’t want to die only knowing the dance of Maya.”

Carter grabbed him roughly by the shoulder. He looked into his eyes for a long moment, searching for what Kelt didn’t know. Finally, Carter smiled and said, “I do think you’ll shoot a bridge again.”

“Who’s Maya?” Carol asked, but she seemed relieved to see Kelt awake.

Carter said, “She’s an east indian goddess, a Form of the physical world. Kelt’s decided he wants more. Am I right?”

“I want the All.” Kelt replied.

“There’s a price, Kelt,” Carol said, “and we’re in a war with more than dragons.”

Carter said, “She’s right, Kelt. The mystics are in conflict. Some builders just shoot the bridge, play with the anima, the energy of the soul, like Jax, the assassin who attacked you. Lost builders, like Carol and me, have forfeited our bodies. We build bridges through the soul fire, to God knows where, to maybe where the Answer is.”

Kelt interrupted, “Show me how to be a lost builder.”

“You already know what to do.” Carol said.

Carter said, “You’ll be safe until you shoot a bridge. The builders can’t conceive of anyone being as hungry as you are. They think they blinded you, but lost builders have the thirst.”

 

4

 

Kelt closed his eyes and pictured Jax, the boy, with all that hate in his gut. That wasn’t the path. Turning away wasn’t the path. Shoot the bridge.

His heart thumped and pained him, as if swelling to burst. It locked his jaw. His tongue bled, but the taste left him, the sound left him, and sight, too. The first void greeted him, but he felt tired, still wounded.

Then, he saw it: his hand. He ran his fingers along his body. In the first void, a soft white light gently illumined his body, like a halo. A wide arc of light shot out from his heart and plummeted across the void until it struck that small candlelight that had burnt him last time.

“My light. The Answer!”

Kelt willed himself toward it with all his hunger. He floated on the white light shooting outward from his heart; it grabbed his feet and propelled him toward the light. His flesh and his mind burned:

A childhood fall against the side of a wooden sandbox,

Eager touch of a young woman’s breast,

The accomplishments of Kelt, the student,

Working at a job, with the smiles, the anger;

Endless streams of idle chatter,

Lost lust, almost love, that sandy brown hair.

His body entered the light. The eye searing brightness consumed hundreds of memories, leaving nothing, not a shred left of Kelt, except I AM. And then, though the moment seemed golden and serene, without guilt, without ambition, the essential Kelt added another thought as his flesh melted away in that light: I am alone. Pain returned and the light vomited him forth into—-

His naked feet touched cold grass on a lonely hill. Everything seemed cold compared to that light. Nothing but grass and weeds and rocks, save for one tree, an oak. Where had it gone? He wanted to ask, but walked toward the oak–nowhere left to go. Something caught his eye, moved in the branches.

“Hello again, miss me?” The Trickster walked beside him and now looked like Kelt, except his skin was tinted green. The playful shine in his eyes was unmistakable.

“Where am I?”

“Always questions, Kelt. Tsk. Guess you didn’t find the Answer, whatever the hell that means. You’re on the other side, one of many sides, but this is your side, and I am you.”

“What?”

Suddenly, two green tinted Kelt’s talked to him in stereo, “I’m a Form; you, that is, humanity created me. So, in a way, I’m you and I’m your son. Are we understanding any of this, daddy?”

Kelt shook his head. “No.” What had happened? He felt disjointed. The memories returned, vomited forth from the light, but that light wasn’t the Answer, and now his memories felt as if they were someone else’s. “I’m not me.”

The Trickster sighed, “That’s what every new lost builder says. Why don’t you grab your mind harpy? It’ll make you feel better.”

Thick branches twisted outward from the giant oak. Birds perched on them. Most slept, beaks tucked under wings. On the lowest branch a falcon dozed imperiously. Above it a red bird squawked at Kelt, but couldn’t stretch its wings; it was tangled in a chaotic network of small, brittle branches. At the top of the oak a single white dove gently glowed, but it slept, too. A vulture, the only other bird awake in the tree, sat on the branch extending farthest out from the rest of the tree, a rotted branch.

Kelt asked, “Should I take the vulture, too?”

Both Tricksters chuckled and slapped Kelt on the back. “No, no, that one’s angry with you. This’s your tree; that vulture is your death. You woke him after you destroyed your body in the light. It can’t quite figure out why you aren’t dead yet. My, but I do love the pastoral way you pictured your karma.” The Tricksters stuck their tongues out at the vulture. The vulture did not stop gazing at Kelt.

“Go on, Kelt. Claim your mind harpy.”

Kelt slowed his breathing. The warm sensation rushed through his chest; the light burst from him in a thin line that wound its way to and around the mind harpy, freeing the bird from the tree and tethering it to his light.

The Tricksters shouted, “That’s it, Kelt! Reel it in! Boy, you caught a whopper!”

Kelt pulled the bird to his chest and at the last moment the bird plunged inside his body.

“Ah!” Kelt cried. It’s hurting me–no, it wants–it wants to wander, to find home, but it knows it has no home, like me.”

“Like you.” the Tricksters laughingly replied and vanished.

 

5

 

He stood in front of his tree. The mind harpy clawed inside of him, clawed his memories, his alienated memories. Each memory was like a twig, woven by the little bird inside him into a nest.

Kelt wanted to shout, “Stop! That’s I!” But his builder’s light only caressed the mind harpy, his mind harpy. The bird wove these foreign, once intimate, memories, interlocking them.

Kelt wanted to shatter, to explode and pursue each memory and each old desire, linked to each memory. But some frightened him, seemed unwholesome and dark: his nightmares and fears of what he had been, what he had done wrong–a father left to drive drunk one summer night, a girl he had wronged, the one with the sandy brown hair.

The mind harpy quietly took these things from Kelt, wholly appropriating them, calmly building its nest inside his chest as if no thought, no horror were repugnant or alien to it. Then, when it was done, Kelt wept for no reason that he could articulate.

“I’ve lost myself.”

Kelt’s mind harpy squawked in its nest, “We are a lost builder. I want to fly.” Not in words, but bubbling up from his chest, from his heart erupted those feelings from his harpy: “Move, move, move, seek, seek, seek.”

Kelt said, “Let’s go.”

The mind harpy leapt from its nest, dove out, and flew into the air. Kelt shot a white rope of light from his heart and tethered the harpy. He desired it and the energy came. It made him feel giddy, powerful. His bird pulled him into the air.

The grasses faded; the tree vanished; Kelt wondered if he would ever return to it, if it would look the same.

The darkness returned, but Kelt felt a difference: This wasn’t his first void. This darkness stretched beyond himself, as if the Flying Dutchman with ragged sails and skeletal oarsmen plied this empty ether along with all the other secrets of the night hidden from Kelt. His mind harpy loved the feeling and flew faster, pulled Kelt along, skiing on and under a bottomless black ocean. The emptiness screamed to Kelt he didn’t belong here. His chest hurt with the fear of it. Too much strangeness. Too soon.

A red star twinkled in this sheet of ebony and the harpy flew toward it.

“No!” Kelt shouted and pulled at the tether of light.

His mind harpy squawked, but obeyed, plunging into his chest.

The star grew like an ocean of blood with bat-like wings and an elongated jaw. Hunger rested in its ebony eyes.

Kelt thought of his apartment, pictured it in his mind and shot the bridge with a gasp. The white bridge arced from his forehead and spanned across the void. Kelt willed himself along the bridge, faster and faster.

It pursued, opened a burning maw, engulfing the white light bridge that Kelt left behind him.

Then, his apartment enclosed him–blessed familiar! He shivered, cold and naked and sweating: waxed. Kelt collapsed on the couch.

Carter leaned over him. Carol wore a soft blue dress with a silver sash; she peered through the dusty venetian blinds. “One followed him.” she said.

Carter went into Kelt’s bedroom and returned carrying a pair of jeans, sneakers, flannel shirt, and trench coat. He tossed them to Kelt and said, “Get dressed. I know you’re feeling sick, but we’ve got to move. By the way, congratulations: You’re one of us now.”

Kelt fumbled with the clothes, unfolded the jeans. “It looked like a dragon, just like in the story books.”

Carol said, “Kelt, you’ve lost your body. You’re in the world of the mind now. We need names for those things in the outer darkness; our minds give shape to the names. Everyone is alone; everyone sees things differently.”

Carter asked Carol, “How big a flare did his dragon give off?”

Kelt asked, “Hasn’t that always been true?”

Carol replied to Carter, “Big. He must have gone deep into the outer darkness. Did you have help, Kelt?”

While pulling on his jeans, Kelt said, “The Trickster was with me. If I have no body, why the hell am I putting these clothes on?”

Carter said, “If you hurry up and dress–don’t forget your bankbook–I’ll tell you. You created a doppelganger of your body with the tail end of the energy of your soul bridge. That’s why you’re waxed.”

Carol said, “I think his dragon came down near the urban development district. Figures the violent empathy residuals would attract it to–uh-oh.”

Carter and Kelt asked in unison, “What?”

“Got three more flares coming down; they’re white tailed, not red. Must be builders, and they’re bearin’ down right for this apartment.”

“Damn.” Carter cursed. “Kelt, shoot the bridge, now. Now!”

Kelt trembled. He hadn’t seen Carter this upset. At their first meeting, he had been coy and sly and amusing, but the facade dropped, telling Kelt he was in danger.

Kelt asked, “Jax?”

Carol answered, “Yes, he’d have to be one of them. And he’s tough. We’ve got to go.”

Kelt closed his eyes, felt the energy seething within him, but it was sluggish, slow like syrup. His mind harpy squealed in agony and clutched the memory of his father’s death. Tears welled up in Kelt’s eyes. “Damn that harpy. I can’t. I–I’m too waxed.”

Carter said, “But you do have a harpy. It’ll guard you. We’ll have to stay and fight. Carol?”

“I’ll stay, Carter. Sane lost builders should at least try to stay together. We are a lonely breed.”

Kelt tugged his arms through the sleeves of his coat.

Carter turned to him and said, “Release your harpy. Let’s see what we have.”

A shotgun blast shattered the lock on the door as Kelt’s mind harpy burst from his chest. Ropes of light appeared on Carter’s body at his chakra points of head, heart and groin. A mind harpy, a deeper red than Kelt’s and thrice as large, burst from Carter’s chest. Carol’s burst from her forehead, sleeker and smaller than Kelt’s, like a red swallowtail. Another free floating rope of light emanated from Carol’s chest.

Jax strode into the room, followed by two others, all wore trench coats. Jax said, “Sorry we’re late, but we stopped for clothes and supplies.” He grinned as he pulled out his shotgun and blasted a bloody hole in Carter’s chest.

Carter’s body collapsed into a fine grey silt. His harpy vanished.

Carol’s mind harpy dove into the body of Jax’s taller friend. The builder dropped to his hands and began crying, “Marlena! Marlena! Oh, God, why’d you have to die?” He moaned.

Jax dropped his shotgun. A blade of light slid down Jax’s left eye and lengthened in his hand.

Kelt’s mind harpy swerved from the blade and toward the third intruder, a tall woman, dark haired. Her light was still running down her forearm to her fist as Kelt’s mind harpy plunged into her groin chakra. Then, her builder’s light retracted. She paled. Her lips drew back; her eyes widened. “No, no, don’t touch me! Don’t touch me there! No!” She collapsed in sobs.

“Bitch.” Jax said, “I know how to hurt, too.”

He arced his blade across the tether connecting Carol to her mind harpy; then, instead of advancing toward Carol, Jax swung his soul blade around in a wide arc cutting through the head of his male compatriot. Jax’s blade did no material damage; it slipped like a ghost through the man’s head.

Carol screamed, “My baby, my harpy, my thoughts!”

“War’s hell.” Jax snickered. “One, down; two to go.”

Kelt summoned his mind harpy back to him. The anguish on Carol’s face frightened him. But Jax ignored him. He grabbed hands with his compatriots and said, “Shoot the bridge.”

They were gone. Their clothes dropped to the ground. Carol stared at the ceiling and hugged herself.

Carter appeared again, his body trembling, his skin waxed. His harpy roared from his chest and circled the room. “What happened?”

He saw Carol’s face and his other questions caught in his throat.

Kelt said quietly, “I think–I think Jax killed her mind harpy.” He had to stem the feelings of pride from his bird that bubbled up to his waking mind. “You’re–you’re alive?”

Carter hugged Carol. She pushed him away.

She said, “I’m barren. No body, no harpy. We’re all just damned poltergeists. Jax was right. Only a lunatic would become a lost builder.” She turned on Kelt with fury in her eyes. “You are a fool, boy. Great seeker of the Truth! There is no Answer. You’re all arrogant jackasses. I–I want my harpy. I–I’m sorry. I’m going to shoot the bridge. Maybe turn assassin. I need a harpy. I’ve got too many dragons on my scent.” She kissed Carter lightly on the forehead and then Kelt. “But truce with you. Good-bye.”

A blade of light ran down her left eye and into her palm. Then she disappeared, her blue dress wafting to the floor.

“Damn them,” Kelt cried, “She didn’t deserve that pain. She didn’t deserve this. No one does. Why do they hate us so?”

Kelt was frightened; his harpy tended all those memories for him, all the ones of his old life, before he had become lost to the world, all that said Kelt. He was scared of becoming like Carol.

Carter slumped on the couch and held his head in his hands. “I don’t know; I don’t know; I don’t know.”

 

6

 

Carter and Kelt hid on the streets, chose to become homeless. It was a clear night, but chilly. They stood by a rusty barrel and warmed their hands by the fire, occasionally tossing in refuse: old boxes, rumpled paper trash, cardboard. Others came near them, the homeless ones, the lost drifters, not builders, just lost; the street hustlers always had some better place to go. For the first time Kelt observed them up close. Carter didn’t turn them away with his mind harpy. Kelt followed his passive lead.

Carter and Kelt talked freely among them. The homeless were not some unified group: some down on their luck, some very neurotic, some delusional, but all travelled alone, just as, Kelt remembered, the Trickster had told him.

Kelt asked, “Where do you think she is?”

Carter mumbled, “In the outer darkness, probably. She’s roaming around Forms and Ideas looking for another lost builder to maim for a replacement harpy. She’ll probably kill her victim. Many lost builders’re insane anyway. Carol might be insane by now. It’s hard living as thought.”

Abruptly, Carter pointed toward the heavens and said, “There’s another one. See it?”

“Yes. What–who is it?”

A white flare plunged down to the city; three red comets streaked across the sky and plummeted after it.

Carter rubbed his palms together as the wind picked up. He said, “Probably, Carol. She maroons her dragons on the hard world. She’s good. Look.”

A white comet shot upward from the city and into the skyline before flickering out. It was not pursued.

Kelt said, “She must be terribly waxed.”

“She’ll shoot bridges until she gets too slow for the dragons; then, death. It’ll be a mercy.”

“Shit,” Kelt muttered, “what’s the point? How’s this war help us find the Answer. Fighting builders, fighting and running from dragons, it leads only to misery.”

Carter said, “You have to be alive to search for your answer. The world won’t stay at rest and wait at your leisure.”

The night faded to dawn and then a bright morning. During the rush hour Kelt saw it, shuffling with the busy pedestrians rushing to their jobs: a man with hungry eyes. He was short and stocky, dressed in a dark blue suit with a pinstripe tie, yellow and black. He seemed like the rest, and everyone in the crowd, conscious of their personal space, paid him no notice. But the man stared only at Kelt, did not even bother watching where he was going, save for staying with the crowd of pedestrians travelling toward Kelt.

The nape of Kelt’s neck tingled. He saw the man staring at him. Kelt returned his gaze. The little man picked up his pace, craning his head toward Kelt, eyes bulging.

Carter watched Kelt’s expression. “What is it?”

“I don’t know.” Kelt replied. He brought his builder’s light to his eyes; a crimson sheen in the stranger’s eyes answered the call, and Kelt felt a tremor in his gut, an empathic backlash of hunger, not only for food, just ravening hunger, for flesh, food, love, sex, the Answer–hunger.

Kelt’s mind harpy squawked and jumped from Kelt’s nest, making Kelt feel alien and separate from himself, his old memories not tended, lying like a sack of flour at the base of his mind. Pride filled that loss when he saw his sleek mind harpy burst through his chest and head straight toward what he intuitively knew was his dragon.

“Tether it!” Carter shouted.

A bemused teenager, black with a short afro, watched the tall black man shout at the air. He backed a pace as he scarfed down a slice of cardboard-like mushroom pizza, bought from a curbside vendor.

A white tendril of light streaked from Kelt’s chest and lassoed his mind harpy. Carter’s burst from his heart chakra already tethered. He asked, “Where is it?–Oh.”

The possessed man fell to the pavement. A gaggle of pedestrians gathered around him. One bent over the prostrate man and administered CPR. The dragon spread luminescent wings of blood, flapping through the bodies in the crowd as if nothing were there.

Kelt’s harpy looped, then dived to land on its back. Its beak dug into the maroon hide.

Carter’s harpy flitted around its head, raked at its eyes; but never quite caught them with its talons. The dragon howled and opened its maw.

Suddenly, Carter screamed in pain.

Kelt turned to look. A woman stood behind Carter with her soul blade embedded in the older man’s back. She was petite, barely five feet with long and tightly curled hair. Her smile was both joyous and sadistic: lips stretched wide to reveal pearly teeth, eyes squinted almost shut but glinting cold and dark brown. She wore a black dress, not elegant, but plain, as if she were a business person.

Carter fell to his knees. The tether to his mind harpy dissolved. His bird dove and landed on the dragon’s serpentine neck to feed. Kelt felt a pain in his insides, stabbing and burning–a familiar pain.

And he heard Jax’s voice behind him: “What, Kelt? You think only lost builders know how to track dragons? This ends it. I thought most of your kind were too crazy to work together. Carter was different, but Julia’ll take care of him.”

Kelt stumbled back against the side of a concrete building and looked into Jax’s eyes. He was rushing, like a junky, sucking up Kelt’s anima through his soul blade. The dragon loomed above both of them. He had to escape, to shoot the bridge. He trembled and tried to call his harpy back to him. But along the tether he felt rebellion; his harpy gorged on the fiery energy of the dragon and refused to leave.

An idea blossomed in Kelt’s mind as he watched Jax’s face express joy at his pain. So puerile. Jax needed to understand: Pain is universal. Jax was right here, right in front of him. Such a short distance from him, yet so far in the world of the mind.

Shoot the bridge.

The bridge arced from Kelt’s chest, just above where his tether to his mind harpy pulsed.

Jax’s soul blade dissipated. Shocked, he exclaimed, “What?”

The bridge struck Jax in the chest. Kelt’s doppelganger dissolved as he willed his essential self along the bridge—-

KELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAX

Jax howled, a guttural belly deep call for help; then, “No!” He trembled, tore at his chest with his fingernails. “It can’t be like this! How can you live this way! No! Parasite! Get out! No! I w-w-won’t accept this. Oh, please.”

A shining white light blinded Kelt as he floated in Jax’s first void. He moved closer; his mind throbbed hotly as images pounded into him, images of Jax, partying with friends and beers in a dark bar to the raucous electronic bellows of bass and guitar music, being punched in the face and gut and kicked in the genitals–left for dead, his first swim into his first void as if an amusement, fucking a parade of women floating through his mind–some fantasies, some true, living in the riotous moment of every day because there was no tomorrow for Jax and no one else existed for Jax who actually lived on the world. People were things to be used, not entities, no more than a chair was an entity. Kelt wanted to puke, but he didn’t have a body.

A burning pain-pleasure engulfed both Jax and Kelt. Fires erupted from the dragon’s maw, paralyzing both at the point of an orgasm that wouldn’t cease. All of Jax’s muscles tensed. Unbalanced, he fell to the ground. Kelt wanted it to never end; it eased every ache, spiritual and physical, with mind numbing pleasure.

Jax’s light flared in his first void, like a sun about to go nova. Horrified, Kelt felt himself pulled toward Jax’s light and he lost a memory to that void–the anguish of Carol’s face left him, the anguish of losing a mind harpy. Kelt panicked, pictured the street, the last place he had been on the hard world and shot the bridge.

Kelt woke on the city street on top of his clothes. His body jerked spasmodically as his mind harpy plunged into his heart chakra. He was waxed, limbs like water with a pounding headache. Carter might still be in danger. He rolled over, felt too weak to stand.

His dragon was nowhere to be seen. Carter stood over him and the woman stood over Jax, who curled up on the ground in a fetal position, murmuring unintelligibly. She was a threat. For a moment Kelt looked at her only as a threat, nothing more and an intense hatred for her welled up in his gut. His harpy squawked in his mind, unable to understand the alien memories floating pell mell in Kelt’s mind. It plucked one it recognized that had drifted from Kelt’s conscious mind. It pushed it into its nest.

Kelt felt his pity for Carol’s dead harpy with renewed vigor. He pushed aside that Jaxish way of looking at the world. Yes, the woman was a threat, but she was a person. But he wasn’t wholly convinced. His harpy fluttered its wings, making him more nauseous. It didn’t like Kelt’s fear. Kelt’s new doppelganger shivered.

Carter bent down to him and touched his forehead, as if checking for a fever. “Where did you go? You’re waxed.”

“Into Jax.” The gravel in his voice surprised him, a whisper when he had meant to speak.

“God. No wonder. I’ve only heard of lovers doing that and then only for a moment. You got caught by the dragon fire?”

“Y-yes. What happened?”

Pity and revulsion momentarily passed over Carter’s face. Then, he spoke soothingly, “Julia and I dispatched it. Try and get dressed.”

Carter helped Kelt to his feet and handed him his clothes. Then, he turned to the woman. “Julia, I want a truce.”

The woman faced him, not standing from Jax’s huddled form. “Yes, we’ve both had our losses. Your friend is impetuous. I suggest you use him while you can, Carter. I’ve seen lost builders like him before. Invariably, they go insane,” through gritted teeth, “never knowing when to stop pushing.”

Carter said, “He’s my problem.”

Julia said, “I’m glad of it. All your soldiers are unstable, like him, like Carol Foster. They’ll only bring more dragons to the world, more wars, more suffering. Is that really what you want, Carter?”

Carter asked, “The truce?”

“Damn you,” Julia muttered, and then, “You have one month in Kelt’s apartment. Anywhere else, coming down from your first void, coming down from that outer darkness you love so much, or on the street, you’re vulnerable, ghost-man.”

Carter put his arm around Kelt’s back and helped him to walk. Kelt listened to the sobs of Jax as he walked down the street until Kelt heard himself speak in a childlike voice, “Home?”

“Yes, Kelt, home for a month. Savor it. Rest.”

 

7

 

Carter watched his pupil, sitting languidly in the ugly but comfortable green cloth chair. Kelt was no longer waxed, but his eyes were blurry and his speech, slurred. Carter slid his gaze to the trunk and looked at the bottle of whiskey, a black label “Old No. 5” across the surface of the bottle, half empty. He was losing Kelt, he felt it.

Kelt said, “What are you looking at? crazy old man.”

Carter watched him carefully. He didn’t know what tack to take with the boy. He drawled, “I see you’re making the most of this truce.”

Kelt lifted the bottle to his lips and took a small pull, more for show; his head felt numb, but anger burned away that cottony feeling. “Why the hell shouldn’t I? I’ve got a free month to enjoy the way things were, the easy way life had been before you arrived.”

“So you’ll just backslide, huh? What about your search for the Answer?”

Kelt said, “Shit.” He belched. “Just shit. Metaphysical bulldoodey.” Kelt laughed, too loudly for sense. “That was good. Hell. Grab what you can, when you can. That’s what Jax would say.”

Carter leaned closer to Kelt, tried to catch intent in Kelt’s eyes, but they were too blurry from alcohol. Carter spoke softly, trying to defuse the situation but get Kelt back on track, “Since when have you liked whatever Jax had to say? You’ve gotten nothing but a stab in the back from him, literally.”

Kelt shouted, “Dammit, you know when! You know when! This ain’t no gawd dammed movie. You ain’t no freakin’ Yoda the hut. You put me out in the streets to confront that damn dragon as a lesson, old man. You were usin’ me. You put my soul in danger–I feel so friggin’ filthy.”

Kelt sighed, stood, went to his kitchen, drank down a glass of water, left the glass on the counter, and stumbled into the bathroom.

A long moment later, Kelt came out grinning and said, “Ah, much better,” and reached for the bottle, taking another pull. “And that, my dear lost builder, was even better.”

Carter asked, “Was it that terrible?”

Kelt smirked and said, “Oh, no, man. It was good, real good, being in the scum effin center of Jax and then ejaculating. Oh yeah, that’ll get you thinking right. I can’t–oh, forget it. You’ve got to be there to know what I’m talking about. Everybody travels alone. The Trickster said that and he–it? Whatever–He was right, so very right. But I ain’t listening to your shit anymore.”

“If you don’t want me around, I can leave.”

“And have you gettin torn up by builders on my conscience? Uh-uh. C’mon, relax. I’m sorry I shouted at you. Have a drink.”

“No.”

Kelt snorted and took another small pull from the bottle. “Prig,” he muttered and set the bottle down. His aim was poor and he only set one corner of the bottle on the trunk before releasing it. The bottle tipped over and the brown liquor splashed to the floor. “Shit!” Kelt yipped and lunged after the bottle. Only a few shots remained. “Eh, I feel like pukin’ anyway. I always feel like pukin’.”

Kelt wrenched his stare from the bottle to look into Carter’s eyes. “Are you searching for the Answer, Carter? I don’t think you are. I think you’re a soldier in the same way that woman was talking about me and Jax. You some sort of lost builder generalissimo?”

Carter leaned back into the couch. He inhaled and then spoke, “I’ll tell you, Kelt, though you probably won’t remember any of it in the morning. I understand your hunger for an answer to existence–“

Kelt interrupted, “Incompleteness, that’s my question.”

“Any way you want to phrase it. But I don’t share it. I just try to get by–“

Kelt interrupted again, “But that’s what I was doing before you came. Just trying to get by, day to day.”

Carter grimaced; then, he sighed and said, “You’re right, but not precisely. I’m trying to get by in helping my people, not in hiding in a fast food dump.”

“Blacks? Uhm, I mean African-Americans?”

Carter shook his head. “Lost builders. We’re a fragile breed. One stroke of Jax’s soul blade sent Carol over the edge. Some go over the edge by themselves. And all of them, as you say, travel alone. You want some god or Brahma to give you enlightenment; some just want oblivion; some just want to relieve their ennui. All of them at one point had to be hungry enough for something to lose themselves, their identity, their memories, if only for a moment.”

Kelt drained the last shot from the bottle and pointed a wobbling index finger at Carter. “Yeah, that’s them, old man. Me. But what about you? Huh? What the hell are you doin’ this crap for?”

Carter glanced at the empty bottle, leaned back and said, “Builders aren’t crazy-hungry like lost builders. They have the patience to sit and plan, like a murder of crows harassing an owl. Someone has to fight for the lost builders.”

Carter looked over at Kelt for some kind of reaction to what he had said, but Kelt had passed out, his arms hanging over the sides of the chair, his head lolling back, and a soft and rough snore passing from the back of his throat.

Kelt woke with a sore neck and a blinding headache, which a glass of lukewarm water mollified, but his gut and his chest felt like a mass of spaghetti instead of bone and muscle and sinew. Hungover. He couldn’t drag himself into the shower; the water would be too unpleasant, smashing into his skin. He grabbed a pair of sunglasses and walked down the steps of his apartment building. The smell of paint made him queasy again, but he forged on. Standing still only made it worse.

It was late afternoon. His shades blocked the sun from his too sensitive eyes. Gulping fresh air, Kelt convinced himself he felt better. He stretched once and headed for the store to buy a six pack. He looked at the buildings, the ornate cornices–anything to distract himself from the depression that weighed on him.

“Kelt,” a voice hissed.

Kelt turned to look down a narrow alleyway between two grey stone buildings that were tall enough to block the sinking sun from the narrow passage. Loose garbage–beer cans, cigarette butts, old newspapers–and twin dumpsters crowded the alley. A man shape stood tall and Kelt saw a glowing white soul blade in his left hand. The white blade didn’t disturb the shadows.

Kelt pushed his anima to his left eye and the energy started to run down to his palm.

But the voice–Jax’s voice cried, “No. Wait. I want to talk.” He held up the blade and Kelt watched it slowly shrink as the white anima rolled up Jax’s arm like liquid dancing a defiance against gravity. “Truce?”

“What do you want? I don’t want to talk to you.”

Jax’s voice was frantic. “But you must, must! Come here. I won’t hurt you. God, Kelt, you’ve been inside of me.”

“That’s why I don’t want to come any closer. Or have you forgotten you stabbed me twice?”

Jax took a step toward Kelt; he was half in shadow and half in twilight. Jax said, “Now, do you see? Come here. I’ve got no clothes. I don’t want to attract attention. Julia’s looking for me. I couldn’t come down from my first void in any of my usual haunts–haunts . . . heh, heh, like that slang? Already, I’m starting to sound like a lost builder. Come here.”

He was naked and shivering and sweating. Kelt saw all that before Jax retreated to the safety of the shadows. He took two steps into the alley. Jax clutched some sort of lump in his right hand. Kelt halted.

“Fine, that’s fine.” Jax said. His voice wavered and he shifted from foot to foot.

Kelt asked softly, “What are you holding, Jax?”

Jax broke into a ragged laugh; then said, “I’m holding me, or what I used to be. That’s why I need to talk to you. Heh, want to see?”

Kelt’s harpy rustled in its nest, squealed to be released, bothering Kelt’s concentration. But Kelt wanted to learn something from Jax, for Carter, for the shitty way he had treated him since the truce. Kelt only wanted the Answer, but Carter was his friend, deserved some help in his war. Anyway, fighting with Jax wouldn’t solve anything. And looking at him was almost like looking into a mirror; he identified with Jax, had identified with him since the fight. Confronting Jax would be a purging–he hoped.

“Show me what’s in your hand.”

Jax thrust his right arm into the light; the shadows started at his forearm. Clutched in Jax’s hand was a large city rat. Its sharp teeth embedded in Jax’s hand where the thumb and the forefinger joined. The rat glared back into the shadows at Jax. Its bald tail poked freely from the bottom of his hand and swayed as Jax trembled.

Jax spoke proudly, “See? Do you see? It was me. Look at his eyes, Kelt. What a hunter, what a party animal.” Jax broke into another stream of ragged laughter.

Kelt said, “I don’t want to duel with you anymore, Jax. You’re waxed and not making sense. Go get some rest.”

The rat released its bite only to get a firmer purchase on Jax. Blood ran down in a thin line from Jax’s forearm and dripped to the ground from his elbow. Jax tightened his grip.

He said, almost shouting, “Stop pretending. You’re not ignorant. You see the rat. You know what I’m talking about. I–and I think almost everyone, except for lost builders–is like the rat. How did they say it in school? Eating, drinking, fucking, shitting–not exactly those words, but that was the definition of life, something like that. And that’s all I was, until you infected me like a damn virus. I can’t–I want to be the way I was. Like this rat.” Jax held the rat close to Kelt’s face. Fleas jumped from the rat to Jax and back.

Kelt gritted his teeth. The blood rushed to his face. “Damn you. Don’t call me a virus. You’re the one who infected me with your filthy thoughts, with the way you look at the world, nothing but pain and pleasure.”

Kelt heard Jax cough–or sob? He wasn’t sure.

Jax said, “Th–that’s not the way I am, but–heh, I’m glad I gave you something else to think about besides your own damn loneliness and your own damn lust for God–or is it just you who you lust after?”

Kelt whispered behind clenched jaws, “What do you know about my question? That’s me, not you.”

Jax shouted, “You made it my question! A question I can’t even put into words! You bridged your horrible question into me. I never had a choice!” As he raged, he squeezed his right hand tighter and tighter. The rat died squealing. Jax vented his anger by slamming the little carcass into the ground. Rat blood flowed with Jax’s blood on his mangled hand. He seemed unaware of his injury.

Kelt answered quietly, “No one has a choice about that question. Who would choose such an impossible task?”

“Someone bridge the question into you? Is that how lost builders get started?”

“No, Jax. I was born this way, I guess. It just came into me. I don’t know.”

Jax laughed, more nervousness than anything else. “How could you live? We’re just drops of oil in an ocean that never joins the two, no matter the same moon, the same currents, the same dreams. I d-don’t understand how anyone could live with such loneliness–always hungering, never knowing. Is that love and hate and all that’s me seeing all I see behind your eyes–oh, please.” Jax hugged himself, squeezed his ribs and rocked back and forth. “Or–or just another predator or just nothing, nothing at all behind your eyes–the abyss behind all those eyes in the city and I’m alone. I can’t bear it, I tell you, I can’t. Don’t take off your sunglasses; I don’t want to see your eyes. I’ll stay in the shadows so you can’t see mine. Do you understand? Even with the same question–the one you gave me–we still see everything differently. I want to pretend that we see it the same way, just pretend, like you pretend there’s a god, who’ll make everyone together and make everyone see everything the same way. Huh. I’m not so ambitious in my pretending. I’ll just pretend we both see the question the exact same way.” His voice quieted. “Kelt, I–I’m going to become a lost builder, too, just like you. It’ll help me pretend that I’m not alone, that you understand me perfectly, ’cause we’ll be the same, then. The only two together in the whole damned history of the world.”

Kelt wanted to dismiss Jax as a lunatic. The way he talked, all manic and naked and shivering. It would be easy. Jax mirrored his thoughts too closely, too insidiously mirrored his fears–a black mirror that only reflected the darkness and not the light. The way he, Kelt, had acted since the fight–the merger with Jax, Kelt admitted to himself. He pitied Jax, his manic pain, and at the same time he pitied himself, for Jax did think like him now.

Kelt said, “Good. Become a lost builder, and if you find the Answer, come and tell me what it is or where I can find it.”

Jax moaned, “Oh, It’s hard, Kelt. I go close to the light in my first void and I feel my body start to burn–and–and my mind, too. I’m afraid of dying.”

“You won’t die. Am I dead?”

“I don’t know.”

“That’s not funny, Jax. I exist. You can’t deny it.”

Jax spoke hurriedly, “No, no, I want you to exist. How else could I pretend I’m not alone? But it’s hard, that light. I’m scared. Hold me.”

Kelt stepped away, repulsed. “Get hold of your own damn self.”

Abruptly, Jax stopped shivering. He spoke softly, “I lied, Kelt. I’m not afraid of dying. I’m afraid of living, living forever and ever as a lost builder. Don’t you know you’re immortal? If something from the outer darkness, like a dragon, doesn’t eat your soul energy, you’ll never pass Beyond, where they say you meet your Maker. Isn’t that what you want to do? Meet your Maker? Ask him a few questions, like why? Why don’t you kill yourself?”

Kelt turned from Jax. “Go home. Sleep. You’re perverse from being waxed.”

As Kelt walked away, Jax shouted after him, “You’ll help me, Kelt! You did this to me; you have to help me. I’ll become a lost builder. Kelt! Kelt!!”

Kelt stopped.

“Kelt! Watch out for Carter. Watch out for Julia. They’re not much more than rats. You’ll see. They want to distract us from the question, from the Answer. Do like me. Stay away from them.”

Kelt walked away; he almost thought he could hear Jax sobbing over his dead rat.

 

8

 

Kelt made his way to the convenience store and poured himself a diet cola from the soda fountain. He payed at the cash register. The sales clerk, a slim man, balding on the top of his head, had an infection, an open sore, on his right cheek, which he didn’t bother to cover. Kelt stared.

The clerk said, “Your change, Kelt.” He smiled.

Kelt watched the man’s complexion shift to a green tint. “Trickster. I’m not in the mood.”

A coyote jumped from the clerk’s body and strolled through the doors, squatted on the pavement and waited for Kelt. The clerk plummeted to the floor–unconscious. Other people in line peered over the standing trays of snacks and candies, but no one moved to help him. Most seemed annoyed at having to wait. Then a young man glanced furtively at the motley crew in line and advanced around the counter as he wondered what to do.

Kelt knew the man would recover. Already he started to moan, so Kelt went outside and joined the Trickster.

Kelt asked, “What do you want?”

Kelt kept walking; the coyote trotted after him. “I’d have thought you’d had enough honesty for one day. Carter asked me to see you. He thinks I can help you, but you look fine, just fine to me. I think Jax did you worlds of good.”

“You were there?”

The coyote snickered. “I’m everywhere; I’m a Form, get it? I’m you, so of course I was there.”

Kelt picked up his pace toward his apartment. His head throbbed again, so he sucked at his diet soda. He tasted the plastic straw and paper cup more than the liquid.

He looked down at the coyote and said, “I’m going back home and taking a nap. Don’t stay on my account.”

“You don’t have a home, Kelt. You’re a lost builder, remember? You don’t even have a body. Besides, your apartment isn’t safe. Julia broke the truce and kidnapped Carter.”

“What?”

“You really are naive, Kelt. Stop dreaming so much and look around yourself, listen to your world. Do you think I’m the only one capable of lying?”

Kelt bent down to eye level, but the coyote shimmered and changed his shape to that of a green tinted Kelt.

Kelt said, “Why?”

The green Kelt laughed and said, “I told her to, because Carter told me to.”

“You’re not making sense.” Kelt wanted to choke the life out of this twisted mockery of himself. Could Forms be hurt? Now seemed a good time to find out.

Kelt tried to grab the Trickster, but his hand slipped off the Trickster’s shoulder, as if the Trickster were covered in grease.

The green tinted Kelt backed a pace, feigning fear, “Oh, please, please, don’t blame me! Hah! Carter asked me to play a trick on you to sober you up, so I had Julia kidnap him. See? You’re sober already. Look, I can almost see the tiny wheels turning in your mind. Well, I’ve done my job.”

The Trickster disappeared.

Kelt shouted, “Wait! How do I find him?”

Other pedestrians on the narrow city sidewalks gave the crazy man who shouted at air a very wide berth. Kelt took a final look around, saw a blue city patrol car turn onto the street. He cupped his hands around his soda cup and moved at a fast walk toward his apartment.

Twilight deepened. Kelt watched his long shadow move ahead of him as he walked, a doppelganger of his doppelganger. He had no idea how to find Carter. He didn’t even know the man very well, the man who had opened his eyes to this mystical reality.

Kelt ran toward the alley where he had met Jax. Jax had been one of Julia’s soldiers, maybe still was. Kelt wasn’t sure if Jax had meant the things he had said, or if it was just stress and being waxed on Jax’s part. Still, the old Jax was gone; the Trickster had said that Jax spoke the truth. Never mind that, Kelt told himself. The Trickster couldn’t be trusted; he even seemed to be overtly malicious and self centered.

When he reached the alley, he found only a panhandler violently asking people for a quarter. The tall man would approach someone and lean down into his mark’s face and shout, “C’mon! Gimme a quarter! Now! C’mon! You won’t miss it!”

The panhandler surprised his quarry, too, by stepping out from the corner of the alley directly in front of his mark’s path. Kelt watched him work while lost in thought.

The panhandler always used the same procedure, and the marks reacted in an astonishingly predictable manner. Perhaps, the panhandler had some way of detecting who to hit up for change. Each mark came to an abrupt stop. Their faces, which had distracted frowns and pinched eyebrows, collapsed for the briefest moment to a blank slate, without emotion or recognition; fear blossomed on their faces even–it seemed to Kelt–before they knew what was happening: lips hung open, tongue to the edge of their teeth, eyes wide. But that changed quickly: Some mollified their fear as they tried to regain their dignity by taking a breath, oftentimes a gasping breath; some averted their eyes downward and stretched their faces into a mass of irritation even as they dug through their pockets for change.

One young man, though, gave nothing. A tall blonde youth with a dirt stained t-shirt. The youth’s features collapsed to a blank slate for a brief moment, but his face quickly flushed; his nostrils flared; he displayed his teeth, somewhat crooked, firmly clenched together. He didn’t say anything to the panhandler, just glared and glared. He reminded Kelt of some wild beast, as if the boy wanted to distance himself from his humanity. Kelt grinned as he saw the panhandler’s face go through the same relaxations and contortions as his victims’ faces had. The panhandler withdrew to the alley.

Abruptly, the youth spun and glared at Kelt. “What’re you looking at! Mind your business.”

Kelt’s mind harpy broke unbidden from his chest and plunged into the youth’s forehead.

The boy started to cry and moan, “I lost my job. How will I eat? How will I survive?”

After only the briefest moment, Kelt’s mind harpy returned to its nest. Kelt caught flashes of nervousness and niggling fears bubbling up from his mind harpy’s nest; the impressions were the flotsam and debris of the youth’s mind that still clung to his harpy’s talons.

The panhandler poked his head from the mouth of the alley. He didn’t notice Kelt quietly standing in the twilight shadows of the building. The panhandler simply looked at the youth, now curled and moaning on the ground. He shook his head solemnly and walked toward uptown, away from Kelt.

No one here was going to help him find Carter. He needed a lost builder, but Carter hadn’t taught him how to find other lost builders. The only other he knew was Carol Foster, but she was in the outer darkness, which seemed an endless place to Kelt. Hopelessness flooded him. The youth stood and ran from him. His despair was not his, but the youth’s. His mind harpy was amazing and dangerous. He could lose himself if this incredible bird turned against him.

His harpy squawked, dismissing any such possibility.

He did have one tool, which had been staring him straight in the face. His father had always said that intellectuals lost sight of the real world. His harpy had sent him that memory, had made him feel the very spring day that his father had said that to him. It was precious, a timeslip into the past to relive a moment with a father who moldered in the grave.

“Why?” Kelt growled to the chilly air. The sun had set.

He shook his head. There was nothing to be done about his father’s death, about existence, about his Answer until he retrieved his teacher. Such a magnificent bird to bring back his father’s image with such biting clarity.

Sensing his desire, his mind harpy left the nest and alighted on Kelt’s arm, though Kelt could never feel the clutch of its talons.

Kelt said, “Take me to Carol Foster.”

The mind harpy peered at its master quizzically.

Although Kelt still felt somewhat shaky from his hangover, he was not waxed, hadn’t bridged since the fight with Jax. The anima seethed inside him as a slender rope of white light emerged from the spot on his chest where his heart chakra lay. The rope entwined the harpy.

His mind harpy cheeped and flew from him.

Kelt felt an urging flow backward through the white tether: “Shoot the bridge!”

Kelt launched himself into the outer darkness. With his mind harpy pulling him, he passed through his first void and light before he realized it. His harpy swung around and plunged back into his chest. It ordered the fresh memories that Kelt had brought with him through the light of his soul.

It didn’t hurt much. Kelt guessed that he hadn’t had as many memories for that burning light to rend from him, and he was used to the harpy tending the majority of his life experiences. He even liked it: no more baggage, no more mental crap. It was the freedom of being lost, a freight car tramp with no ties to anyplace, or any memories, or any guilt, for the harpy dealt with his memories. Kelt laughed, surrounded by the quiet, seemingly endless, outer darkness. It was good to be lost.

“Damn.” Kelt cursed himself. He acted no better than the childish youth who had no control over his passions just when he needed the cunning of the panhandler. Carter was still kidnapped, though Kelt had no way of figuring how anyone could hold a lost builder. He needed Carol.

His mind harpy stubbornly tended Kelt’s latest batch of memories from the burning passing through Kelt’s soul–possesive of his past, motherly, stern. Near the center of its nest, the harpy nestled the taut face, the garbage scent, rising unwanted in Kelt’s mind: Jax pleaded with him while slamming that rat against the ground.

Kelt didn’t have time to waste waiting for his harpy. A rope of light, formed from his urgency, emanated from his chest. It twisted and arced back into his heart chakra and lashed around his mind harpy’s neck. The bird cawed and shrieked. Kelt yanked the harpy from his chest and sent through the tether: “Find Carol Foster. Now!”

Waves of anger rippled back through the tether. His harpy flexed and closed its translucent talons, as if it wished to grab and squeeze one of Kelt’s memories. But the bird flapped its ruby wings and pulled Kelt through the filmy darkness.

Red stars twinkled against the black horizon. Dragons, four. Kelt panicked; the stars formed serpentine shapes. His harpy swerved toward them. Kelt felt its eagerness to feast on the dragon’s fiery energy.

“Damn.” Kelt muttered. He reinforced the image of Carol’s thin face in his mind, pushed that memory through the tether and watched the beat of his harpy’s wings increase. The dragons moved swifter than his harpy, as if magnetized to him. What was it Carol had said? Lost builders lived in the world of the mind. Then so did dragons. How else could they perceive him so easily? What attracted them?

Kelt projected his respect for Carol Foster, her courage in the fight against the builders, his pity and sorrow for the pain that Carol had to endure, urging his harpy on.

But the dragons kept coming. Their four shapes were distinguishable and just as Kelt had pictured the first dragon he had fought on the city streets: long fiery red wings with veins pulsing through the wings some amber blood, maws open and dark with a soft red fire sedately glowing that promised a paralysis of pleasure. Part of him wanted to turn back, to feel that hot rush again.

The dragons chanted a low bass that rumbled through the outer darkness and sent quiet shivers and tingles through Kelt, a taste of what could be his: that relief, that surcease from problems, possible futures and fears, washed away in shimmering, burning ecstacy, devouring him with pleasure. Confused by what it felt through the empathic tether, his harpy stopped beating its wings and looked back at Kelt.

Suddenly, a white arcing plane of light ripped through the outer darkness. It burned toward the dragons. They stopped their chanting and beat their wings in confusion, breaking their formation.

Kelt watched, but feared to approach.

A new sound rippled through the outer darkness. A clear alto voice sang; it went slowly sharp as if begging to finish the musical note, but hung their waiting to finish, pleading to finish. Sharper and sharper the note grew but never quite reached the octave.

Carol Foster stood at the tip of her soul bridge in front of the dragons and sang, never faltering for breath. The dragons twisted their bodies, performed loop de loops around Carol Foster, but never touched her, never sank their dark maws into her soul bridge.

Was she committing suicide? But her bridge sparkled much brighter than any he had shot across the outer darkness. His harpy caught his conflicting emotions and slowly pulled him toward Carol. She stood tall and proud at the end of her bridge, not waxed at all.

The four in the outer darkness turned their serpentine necks away from Carol Foster and sulkily withdrew from her shining presence. They dwindled until they once again appeared as little red stars; then winked out of the darkness.

“Carol,” Kelt projected to her.

“Not here, Kelt. Follow my bridge to the Realm of Forms. I’ve carved myself a residence there–a temporary residence, I suppose.” Her voice chilled him and her alabaster skin seemed frozen in place.

Another soul bridge erupted from Carol’s forehead and burned through the darkness. She floated across the bridge faster and faster. She stopped and looked back at Kelt impatiently.

Kelt ordered his harpy to pull him onto the bridge. The bird complained in shrill cheeps and caws. Kelt firmed his will and the harpy obeyed.

Setting down on Carol’s bridge, a wave of energy washed over him, bright and burning and whispering Carol’s name to him, her being–healthy, assured, hungry. It cascaded over him like a warm summer thunderstorm, removed his weariness and any tremor of being waxed. But it was loathsome to Kelt, too. Being this close to Carol reminded him of the merging with Jax, the loss of his identity, an identity that was already tenuous, not having the layers of memories that told him who he was.

Kelt tried to distance himself from the touch of Carol Foster upon his soul.

Carol halted her progress. She watched Kelt hovering on her soul bridge and said, “Do you find me so repulsive?” Cold amusement laced her tone.

Kelt replied, “N-no. No. It’s just that you’re too close; I don’t want to lose myself in you.”

“Why Kelt, are you falling in love with me?” Empathic laughter issued from the image of Carol Foster in front of him.

He was more reluctant than ever; she reminded him of Jax–no, of the dragon’s ebony eyes. She was too alive in the midst of the cold darkness surrounding them. “It’s not love. I don’t want to lose myself. That’s the truth.”

“You don’t have that choice; you can never lose your self, not without destroying yourself. Kelt,” and Carol’s voice took on an edge to it, “Kelt, are you in league with Jax?”

A red star appeared in the outer darkness.

“No!” Kelt shouted.

His harpy leapt from its nest and screeched in anger, but Kelt tethered it inside him, not wanting to duel Carol. He was sure he would lose. Carol talked–emoted with him and crafted a soul bridge at the same time. The woman had an endless supply of anima.

“Have you dueled him? You must have won. You wouldn’t be here otherwise. Your aura reeks of Jax. Did he gain a harpy for you to take from him after you killed him?”

The dragon came closer, a deep orange silhouette against the darkness. Carol paid it no mind. But Kelt shifted his awareness between it and Carol nervously. He had no delusions: He was out of his depth. And Carol was not acting like his friend. He was a lost builder, too; but he only caught coldness, hunger, and tiger like ambition from Carol.

He tried to silence his fear, knowing that Carol could read him here. “I didn’t duel Jax. He surprised Carter with another builder, named Julia. She took Carter with that damn Trickster’s help. I–I bridged into Jax–a desperation move. I haven’t been doing so well, I guess.”

“Bridged into Jax?” Carol said, “You have my condolences. This isn’t the place to talk, though. I’ll help you follow me. Carter should have taught you better discipline; you’d move faster.”

The dragon opened its maw, consuming Carol’s bridge where they had first met.

A tether lashed out from Carol and entwined Kelt, as if he were a mind harpy. The next moment, he plummeted–fell across the soul bridge always a step behind Carol.

A gate of bars, cold black, but glinting of iron, stretched across the darkness ahead of them, but Carol’s bridge arced through it. Kelt screamed, fearing he would smash into the iron bars at the tremendous speed they were travelling.

The darkness disappeared. Carol stood in front of him.

White light permeated this new realm. It swirled and arced around Carol, coming close but never touching her. Yet the light streaked through Kelt and soothed him, softly, gently closing down his fears and worries, imposing order on his thoughts, slowing them down. Kelt sighed in relief. His harpy sleepily nestled in its nest. Kelt watched cubes drift in vertical lines across the horizon. Human like shapes, multi colored, coalesced from the diffused light and drifted back into it: A parade of concepts being born and dying flowed by him.

An image of Jax and his rat floated past him, frozen and stony; then, it broke apart into a twinkling mist of lights. Other images–his father, a church, old and moss covered–all memories, but the harpy’s nest was undisturbed. And the images weren’t quite what he remembered, but had an acuteness about them, more solid than the real structures and people were, as if their true meanings were more manifest here. A black cloud drifted across his vision, and Kelt knew that to be an image of the Trickster. Carter appeared for a moment before dissipating into little stars: tall and firm, with compassion resting quietly in his eyes, not a martyr, rather ready to move.

Within Carter’s image Kelt imagined a core of peace, of a lost builder reconciled with himself, with an answer to his life that satisfied him. Kelt bit down his envy. Jax had been right: Carter was a soldier for lost builders, not a lost builder himself.

Kelt whispered, “What is this place? It’s beautiful.”

Carol laughed derisively. “What do you see?”

“Light, beautiful light. And images, more real than real.”

Carol shook her head. “You really are a romantic. No wonder you keep rousing the dragons. We’re at the edge of the Realm of Forms. With your lack of self control, I wouldn’t advise going any deeper into it. Farther down, things move.”

Kelt reminded himself that everyone perceived these supernatural places differently. “What do you see, Carol?”

“Grey muck. Tons and tons of stinking ooze dripping on everyone and everything. You’re neck deep in the stuff, so clear your mind of its romantic notions and stop rubbernecking or I’m going to lose you, and your harpy will have to pull you back home. That little bird of yours is no match for what dwells here.”

Kelt didn’t want to be in debt to this Carol, so different than the fighter he had first met, so much more vicious. Her wise cracking humor had become malicious condescension, though she made an effort to be civil to him. Without Carter he needed help and information. “How do these dragons keep finding me in the outer darkness?”

“Carter really was a slow and careful teacher.” She reeked of sarcasm. “It’s a wonder you’ve survived this long, even with a mind harpy, though I no longer need one. The dragons feed on passion, Kelt, as we all do; they just do it more directly. Steel your mind and you can drift past them.”

“How did you get those dragons to leave?”

Carol moved closer, and her image blocked off most of the light sparkling through this realm. She spoke softly, but his empathy shook from the restrained rage she broadcasted. His harpy woke and squawked in confusion.

Carol said, “We have a truce. Don’t presume on its strength.”

“I–I didn’t mean to. Keep your secrets. I just want to help Carter. If you help me, I’ll promise to help you get a mind harpy.” He’d probably have to duel for one, to kill another lost builder, or even sacrifice his own to Carol. But Kelt wasn’t sure how much time was passing in the real world. He needed Carol’s strength on his side. If Julia had the means to restrain a lost builder, she might have the means to kill a lost builder.

But Carol just laughed at his offer and said, “I’m as far beyond a lost builder as lost builders are beyond builders. I no longer need a harpy. That’s more than I should tell. No, Kelt. I no longer require an insipid, constricting order to all the little bits and pieces of my past life. It’s all detritus. Now matters to me. You don’t have what it takes to buy my time.” Her image went blurry of a sudden, lost its cohesiveness with Kelt feeling a jumble of emotions–sadness, love, anguish–from her, but then the shape of Carol came back into that icy crystalline focus. “No, it’s–it’s best our paths do not cross again.”

“You’ve got to help me. I don’t even know where they’re holding him or how they’re holding him.”

“I don’t have an interest in walking on the hard world at this time.”

“Dammit, you were his friend.”

Carol nodded. “If we were in the outer darkness, you would have just raised a hundred dragons. As you’ve been so fond of reminding me, I no longer have a mind harpy. Perhaps, you’re too reckless to travel with safely.”

“That’s a lie! You have powers over the dragons. Remember? You’re above poor lost builders like me.”

“I’m no child to be baited by you. I still have much to learn here and farther out. Places where even Carter has feared to bridge, but that’s natural. He has given himself over completely to that bloated harpy of his.”

Kelt spoke without thinking, “That’s what’s wrong with you. You don’t–can’t care about anyone but yourself. You’re a lost builder without a harpy. Your memories are foreign to you; every time you jump into your light, you alienate even your recent memories. You’re like a sociopath–like Jax was. It’s not that you don’t want to care about Carter, you just can’t care about Carter, about anyone anymore. Oh, Carol.”

Carol screamed, “Blind man! How dare you pity me!”

An amber fire, like dragon’s blood, rose in her eyes. A rope of builder’s light erupted from her gut and shot into Kelt, not a full blown bridge, but a sharply defined, razor thin rope. It twirled around Kelt’s mind harpy.

His harpy squealed and thrashed in its nest before the rope bound its wings and talons, finally spinning a web of light across its beak.

Kelt gathered his energy to shoot the bridge into Carol. He didn’t even want to think of the pain he would encounter. If he let himself think, he wouldn’t dare it.

But Carol spoke his plan before he could execute it, “Bridge into me and I’ll kill your harpy.”

“You promised truce.”

“And I told you not to presume on that truce. You are pathetic, Kelt. Easy meat. You have no discipline.”

Kelt radiated fear and Carol smiled. Kelt caught an empathic flash from Carol, an image of her bathing in his fear, eating it. “What are you?” Kelt moaned.

Carol withdrew her tether. “Finally, you admit I am beyond your understanding. My passions for people are greater than yours, little Kelt. I don’t spend my anima searching for some metaphysical answer. I am in the stream of people and life.”

Kelt was half tempted to bridge to the hard world just to escape Carol. He knew nowhere else to go.

“Kelt, I won’t come back to the hard world. But I still want Carter alive. See this through my eyes.”

Another rope shot from Carol’s forehead and pierced Kelt’s. The shining lights dimmed from Kelt’s sight. A scent of burning tar filled Kelt’s consciousness. A grey ichor, almost gelatinous, washed over him, blinded him; he wanted to retch. Stripes of serrated edged blackness cut him. Occasionally, the black strings congealed into childlike drawings of buildings and people, but only for a moment before the tides of grey muck tore the black strings apart. The muck was disgustingly sensuous against him, and lukewarm. The ooze whispered to him, cutting him with sound the same way the black strings cut him: whispers telling him he was blind as a blind walker on the hard world, promising him the Answer if he would only let go of all the silly rules in his mind that were only inferior versions of the false Ten Commandments.

His harpy hid in its nest and wailed at Kelt to leave, leave, leave this place and go, go, go to the soothing, wide undiscovered oceans of the outer darkness. Carter could go to hell. Kelt wanted out of this nauseating place.

As Kelt gathered his anima to shoot the bridge, the grey ooze receded from him. It covered the air and hung over him, threatened to fall and encompass him in a grey quagmire. Carol stood in front of him, watching and smiling at his reactions. Carol’s rope still writhed between them.

She talked to Kelt as if he were a child, “You see, Kelt? I have many talents, talents that even Carter has yet to discover within himself. And I owe it all to a deft thrust of Jax’s soul blade. Now, I’ll show you discipline, Kelt.”

For the first time, the whiter pallor of a builder who was waxed crawled over her arrogance; her face creased in lines of mental exertion. A twin rope emerged from her forehead, wound slowly around its brother as it approached Kelt.

Carol spoke in a hoarse whisper, “Don’t fight this, Kelt. Carter isn’t worth that much to me to try this again.”

Kelt relaxed and his empathy expanded. Surprise. Carol didn’t burn such tremendous amounts of anima to send this rope to him. She strained to hold the rope to its size, to keep it exactly in the shape she pictured it to be. It made no sense to Kelt: Why did he get such a roiling chaos from her when she preached discipline and order? Why did she not want a harpy to discipline her memories?

Carol answered him in a voice rent with exhaustion, “Discipline comes from the self, not from some moral bird.”

Carol’s rope struck him, just under the other rope that pierced his forehead. An image bloomed within him: The scent of freshly cut grass and pollens of wildflowers and trees tickled his nostrils sweetly; the sun warmed his skin; the humidity clutched his skin; a house squatted on a hill shaded by several large oaks–a small house with white peeling painted shutters and a seven foot fence of untreated lumber, new, with the smell of upturned earth.

Beneath this physical image, Kelt felt a hungering, a soft note singing off key, sharp, and it didn’t belong with the breeze or the picture. It belonged with Carol. Curious, Kelt concentrated on it, and the note increased; the house dissolved in a blaze of fire. A shadowy dragon fire, Carol’s memory of dragon fire: It played with Kelt, sweet and repulsive simultaneously. Hunger always dominated every aspect in the flames, even beyond the numbing pain-pleasure, a hunger like his hunger for the Answer. But something overrode it–discipline? Steel walls? As he concentrated, he saw them, definitely steel and glistening, but shadowy, as if seen through a curtain of drifting smoke, a maze of steel walls subtly directing the fires, moving—-

The shining lights of the Realm of Forms returned to Kelt. It was his vision of this place. Carol had retracted both tendrils of her light.

She was definitely waxed now, trembling and shivering. Her image lost all traces of its disciplined icy clarity. “So, Kelt. You are ambitious, maybe even dangerous. You’ve gained some respect in my eyes. Trying to learn my secrets through my own tether. A nice try. Do you really think you could survive a duel with me?”

Kelt was tired of being in fear of her and of being pushed around by her, by dragons, by Jax, by Julia. “You look like easy meat. You’re waxed.”

“Bluff and bravado, Kelt. I peeked at you, too. You’re meek, got no killer instinct. You’re just clever. You’re a lot more ignorant than you think you are. And not on the metaphysical way you think of ignorance. You’re learning fast, though, despite Carter’s prudish ways.” She wiped her brow, her soul image conforming to how she felt. “Go. Go to Carter. You’ve got the anima to bridge.”

Kelt gathered his anima, preparing to shoot the bridge. He concentrated on the image of the house Carol had left with him. His mind harpy roused from its nest and gazed curiously at this new memory.

As he left the borderlands of the Realm of Forms, he heard Carol urgently, almost mournfully, tell him, “Don’t rely on the truce, dear Kelt. Lost builders are always in flux. I may not want you to live in my future. I–I–” But either Kelt was too far along his soul bridge to hear her, or she wouldn’t voice her last thoughts to him.

The outer darkness surrounded him, and Kelt felt relieved to be away from Carol. He clamped down on his fear and thought only of the full sensory picture of Julia’s house that Carol had bridged into him. No red stars twinkled in the horizon.

The sun appeared; grass appeared: The hard world loomed ahead of him, like pieces of a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle, set against the vast outer darkness. As Kelt approached, the puzzle grew larger and larger and more pieces fell into place: the warmth of the sun, the green of the grass, until the outer darkness was blotted out by land and physical sensations, grateful distractions for Kelt’s weary mind. Finally, the flesh of his new doppelganger surrounded his thoughts.

Pain engulfed him. A febrile and sharp stabbing, quite unlike his hangover. He was waxed again. Kelt slumped to his knees as ennui followed the pain ten paces from Julia’s front door.

 

9

 

The grass prickled his skin. Kelt pulled himself to his feet and looked at the small rambler style house, a preform job. The confrontation and sudden coldness of Carol had drained him. Was she mad? Or sociopathic–though psychobabble didn’t seem adequate to describe her, to describe any builder or harpy. Kelt didn’t know how to describe this–this magic, and it scared him.

The door opened. Kelt cursed himself. He had emoted, too wound up from seeing someone as vivacious as Carol darkly twisted by the supernatural. Now . . .

Julia appeared at the door. Kelt didn’t think he rated such a high priority among the builders. His mind harpy’s empathy picked it up: The woman stank of alpha male aggression and confidence.

The anima ran down his left eye and began to form his soul blade; he sent a tether into his heart chakra and pulled his reluctant mind harpy from its nest with a sharp urgency. It never liked to move from its nest when he was waxed.

His mind harpy left his body, but only landed on his shoulder to peer at Julia quizzically.

Finally, Kelt’s lost builder empathy combining with the impressions he received from his mind harpy through the tether pierced his fear: Julia was waxed. All builders weren’t as potent as Carol. He just realized how inferior Carol had made him feel. He clamped his jaw shut. He could take Julia down and take Carter from this place.

“Hello, Kelt. I see your harpy. You want to duel? We’re both waxed, but I’m far from alone here. Why are you breaking the truce? You go mad and looking to suicide? It wouldn’t surprise me.”

Fear. Fear slithered under her alpha male bravado. Kelt stepped toward her and felt another wave of fear from this builder who was supposed to be the toughest of their lot. They both realized the interplay, the shift of confidence.

Quickly, Julia parried, “How did Carter make you into such a terror? What lost builder trick did he put you through to make you a monster? Will you shred yourself again to shred me, as you did to poor Jax?”

That stopped him.

Julia pressed on, her builder empathy sensing an advantage. “Carter never fought to the death; neither did we. You violate the truce; you strip the sanity from your opponents. Is this what it’s going to be? Are you and that dragonlover Carol his new soldiers? All out war. No rules. No mercy. Just loss of reality or death. Won’t Carter be satisfied until we’re all ghosts?”

Kelt wasn’t going to bite. Both were waxed; both wanted an advantage. Kelt wanted to be the one to take it. He let his ‘ganger blood rush to his forehead, clenched his teeth, and screamed, “You lying sow! You kidnapped Carter when the truce was on! Jax was an assassin on your orders. Your orders! Before I was even in this war! See how you like it!”

His anger slammed Jaxish lenses over his eyes. That merging still clung to him. He saw Julia only as a thing, an enemy to be dealt with, an obstacle to be overcome. And he didn’t fight his Jaxish side. His sword pierced between her breasts, flowing through the pink sweatshirt she wore.

Julia didn’t cry out; she had already been waxed. From what, Kelt couldn’t guess and didn’t care. He just savored Julia’s anima flowing up through his blade and into him. The waxed aches and pains, muscle stabbing and morbid depression fled, replaced by Julia’s last dregs of anima, slowly, reluctantly flowing into him.

Julia was almost unconscious; her eyelashes flickered, but she caught Kelt’s eyes. “You are Jax.”

Kelt released his soul blade. It dissipated. He spoke in a rough whisper, “N-no. No, that’s not true. I am Kelt.”

Julia collapsed on the cement porch steps in front of her half open door. She didn’t try to move. She whispered, too, but not from shock, from weakness, “It is. You caught me alone, just when I was waxed. You have a true assassin’s instinct, like Jax. You conquered him, destroyed the man. You’ve been used and mutated.” She stopped to concentrate on her breathing. Exhaustion constricted all beauty from her features. “I’m the best, but you’re too much. A monster. What every arrogant lost builder’s destined to become. You’re Carter’s future. His creature. Like Foster.”

Julia’s eyes closed. Her head lolled onto the cement with a soft thud.

Kelt squinched his eyelids tightly closed, holding tears back. He didn’t want to look at her slight body, didn’t want to think about her, her words–Jax.

He bit his lower lip, breathed like an overheated dog and pushed Julia to the back of his mind. Carter was probably being guarded by another builder hiding in the house. Kelt looked at his mind harpy, still perched on his shoulder. “Go! Find Carter’s harpy.”

The bird didn’t fly into the house, but up into the air.

Kelt pulled at the tether with his frustration.

His harpy circled over him in confusion. It sent a picture of Kelt’s apartment to him through the tether.

Three white comets streaked through the sunshine, plummeted toward the house.

Jax’s voice echoed harshly from inside the house, “Kelt, go! Jacquie, Marc, and Beth are coming. I can sense it!”

“Jax?” Kelt asked, “What are you doing–“

Jax walked outside and picked up Julia tenderly. “This is my home. They’re my friends. I won’t help you against them. I can’t save you. I’m too lonely now. You made me that way. So burning sweet–to know you’re alone, but to know there’s some ability to share with others, even if it’s not perfect, even if it’s mostly delusion. It’s something, at least, even if they don’t–can’t understand me anymore. It’s still sweet. Go, Kelt, my brother.”

Three naked figures stood silhouetted by the light brown fence.

Kelt shouted, “I’m not your brother, dammit,” and he shot the bridge.

His first void claimed him, but Kelt didn’t feel the chill. He plunged through his soul fire with an urgency that slammed him against his light. He wanted these feelings, these memories alienated from him. The pleasure from stabbing and stealing anima from Julia revolted him.

Kelt’s essential self came out the other end of his fire into the outer darkness. All guilt of his violence, all fear and pity of Carol Foster was only like a photograph, a two dimensional memory without feeling. His mind harpy gingerly added the new memories to its growing nest. But his bird kept that violence of his close to the center. His mind harpy wouldn’t allow him surcease for long. If it squeezed that memory here, dragons would spring from the outer darkness.

Kelt pictured his apartment, tethered and ordered his harpy to access that memory. Kelt descended into the hard world, straight onto his green cloth chair.

Carter was sitting on the couch as he tossed a pair of jeans at his pupil.

“What the hell?” Kelt cried, “What are you doing here?” Surprise and relief merged with frustration. Strangling Carter and dumping his body in front of Julia’s house might just end the war, but he discarded his childish fantasy and hugged the old man instead.

 

10

 

Body tensed, Kelt faced his teacher. “I’m going with you.”

“How’s that going to help you find your Answer?”

“Don’t BS me. This isn’t about my question. I cared about Carol, liked her. My harpy’s as empathic as yours; I can tell what you’re feeling. You’re planning on dueling her. Don’t lie to me again, dammit!”

“I didn’t. The Trickster did. As for Carol . . . I hope I’m wrong.”

Carter’s wide frame darkened unto silhouette and then disappeared. His empty clothes hit the kitchen floor with a soft crumpling sound.

Kelt chewed at his ‘ganger’s lower lip and knew that this mess–that Carter’s activism seemed like so much vain macho bull. But Carter believed Carol was a threat. What had Julia called Carol? A dragonlover. Carol had commanded the dragons. But to save him. He owed her.

Kelt’s ganger dissipated. He plunged his essence through his first void and into the soul fire. He burst into the outer darkness and pushed his mind harpy out of its nest before it could reorder his latest emotions. Kelt stayed as an emotional void, preferred the cold calm. It was simple, inhuman. No pains, no guilts. He lashed out with a white anima rope and tethered his harpy, sending out the impulse: “Find Carol.”

His mind harpy squawked happily, stretching its wings and cruising through the outer darkness.

No dragons appeared, no twinkling red stars. Then his harpy abruptly stopped just as Kelt was enjoying the feeling of speed, of whirling swiftly across his bridge.

At the far end of Kelt’s bridge blazed the shimmering forms, appearing just as Kelt took notice of them. Set against the backdrop of showering lights, dragons arched and twirled their serpentine bodies, three with Carol standing on the back of the lead dragon. Tethers of liquid amber flowed between Carol and the dragons. Carol’s eyes blazed an amber light. The two fed on white tendrils of anima erupting from Carter’s chest. Carol’s slave dragon snapped its long jaws at Carter’s harpy.

Four red stars dotted the darkness.

Carter cried, “Carol! Stop this. We’ll find you a mind harpy. These dragons corrupt the spirit. Don’t do this.”

Carol twisted her neck to look down on Carter. The tint of her eyes shifted from amber to blood red, matching the maw of her lead dragon.

Carter’s harpy raked her dragon’s muzzle in passing dives every time that the dragon oriented its muzzle to breath on Carter. Her dragon howled.

Carol howled in sympathetic pain; she doubled over. As she straightened herself to an erect position on her dragon’s back, wings blossomed from her shoulder blades, red wings with amber veins that spread to cast a shadow against the sparkling Realm of Forms.

Carol spoke. Her voice was gravelly but firm, meshing and blending with Kelt’s memories of Carol’s confident alto commanding a now deceased mind harpy. “What do I want a mind harpy for? You’ve constrained yourself to those little parasites. Man is the ultimate hunter; dragons and men belong together. I am dragon.”

Carter’s image hazed, but his voice too was firm, “You can’t alter your self perception like this, Carol. How will you ever reform your ‘ganger? How will you ever walk on Earth again?”

Carol laughed and it reminded Kelt of the low rumbling the dragons had emitted when they had called to him. It sent a repulsive, pleasurable shiver down his spine. She said, “Such a moralist you are! So limited. Why should I care about your sophomoric view of your body? There is no Answer, no objective reality. Everything is mind; everything is subjective. Any body that I form will be apropos to my subjective reality. My will is paramount; now is paramount. All else is illusion, masks, self deception.”

Carol’s other dragons twisted through the ether closer to Carter. He spun his blazing anima down there dark maws. They gorged, inching toward him, shortening his umbilical cord.

Carter shouted, “Carol, you’re gambling on words, subjective ideas without concrete substance. The real world doesn’t care about your perceptions. It remains of itself.”

Kelt ordered his harpy to attack.

His mind harpy dove down and latched on the neck of the dragon inching closest to Carter. His bird sucked at the amber liquid, the blood of the dragon, bloated with Carter’s anima. Howling in pain, that dragon jerked its neck from Carter’s stream of anima. The neck twisted around; its jaws couldn’t reach the spot where Kelt’s harpy had embedded its maroon beak, just below the head of the beast.

Carol saw Kelt and said, “Good. There’s hope for you, Kelt. You’re still not sure there is an objective reality.” She shot an amber tether from her forehead; it streaked toward Kelt’s harpy. “You’re close to the truth, Carter, but too blind to see it: Words define reality. My words, my reality.”

Kelt had heard it before in college; mystical pyrotechnics didn’t change the childish simplicity of Carol’s rudimentary anti-existentialism; he pulled at the tether and his bird swerved around Carol’s tether and dived at her face.

Carol’s head collapsed into a grey ball of liquid ooze; Kelt’s harpy passed through unharmed, but doing no harm as Carol’s head reformed.

Kelt whispered, “It’s true. In the outer darkness philosophy becomes reality. Metaphysics at a verbal, no, a mental level, shifting to the individual’s belief structure.” Kelt felt as if a pit carved itself in his stomach; his heart throbbed in his throat. He turned from Carol and her lead dragon to see the two dragons feasting upon Carter. Serpentine coils of blood and amber strangled his teacher. Carter’s harpy swooped toward Kelt.

Kelt shouted, “Carol, you’re right. I’ll join you. Let Carter go. Please.”

Carol’s lead dragon beat its wings, advanced toward Kelt.

Kelt pulled his harpy back to him as Carol said, “I don’t–I can’t trust you. You–” and Carol’s voice softened, “you cared for him. You’re still soft, not predacious, not like I am, only like I was. I–I envy you.”

Her dragon wheeled its neck around to face Carol Her image crystallized to an angular sharpness, hardness, coldness.

Carol Foster said, “You’re too much like Carter. You won’t bend to the isolating truth: You are reality, the only reality. Ah, I can see him in your image. You fear me. That, I understand. Carter died in ignorance, so will you. I don’t expect you to believe me, but the waste of two such magnificent males saddens me.”

The two dragons uncoiled themselves: No self image of Carter, no anima, only the shimmering Realm of Forms floated and flickered against the background of the outer darkness.

Carter’s harpy, tethered to nothing, plunged into Kelt’s forehead. Immediately, the urge to run, leave, take flight rushed through Kelt like adrenaline. And it felt as if his teacher were urging him.

Kelt thought of his apartment.

Shoot the bridge.

A twin bridge erupted alongside Kelt’s bridge, shot faster and farther toward Kelt’s apartment. Kelt looked behind his self and saw two dragons, Carter’s killers, moving toward him, not waiting to feast on the bridge anima, intent only on him.

Kelt looked toward the other bridge. Carol moved on it and her dragon, tethered to her, pulled her along, a blood and amber mockery of a mind harpy.

Kelt was alone. Carol was more experienced. Carol was faster and more disciplined. He heard the basso rumblings of the two dragons, Carol’s dogs, closing in on him, running him down. There was nowhere to run from a lost builder who was allied with dragons, who bent the outer darkness with her semantics.

“Ontological hell,” Kelt muttered as he felt himself tremble. His anima seeped from him onto the bridge that he crafted, making him waxed. He pushed his harpy from its nest and tethered it, adding its momentum onto his. Still, Carol’s dragons closed on him.

“I don’t want to die!” Kelt screamed. He had no idea who he was screaming to, pleading to. Maybe God. Maybe Satan. But someone, anyone besides the outer darkness and Carol’s reality warping persona.

Kelt grunted and faltered on his bridge. His cranium felt as if it were cracking. Immediately, the dragons were upon him. Carol glided beside him on her bridge with her dragon. Three blood red muzzles pointed toward him.

Carter’s harpy burst from Kelt’s forehead. Clutched in its beak glowed a white tether. Kelt felt as if the bird had reached inside him and pulled out his anima, all of it. Sent along the tether back to him–a feeling, an imaging of darkness and womb like security.

Kelt shouted, “Shoot the bridge!” as the dragon flames surged over him, pleasuring him, paralyzing him.

The bridge erupted from the white string of anima in Carter’s harpy’s beak, and the bird pulled Kelt against his will from the warm, sugary sweet flames.

 

11

 

Kelt was dimly aware of the Realm of Forms passing over him. Of three red stars falling behind him–Carol’s dragons. A white comet tail, Carol’s bridge, performed spirals and loops in a vain search for him. Kelt sent no empathy but confusion into the outer darkness. He had no idea where he was, where he was going.

Kelt still shivered from those flames. It had felt so good, so much better without Jax to get in the way. The joy was his alone, until Carter’s harpy intruded, pulled him from the dragons’ fiery maws.

Fiery maws. That was how Carter died.

God damn all dragons.

Kelt whirled along this mind harpy directed bridge. The Realm of Forms faded. Darkness spread into Kelt’s senses, but another darkness now, not the personal lonely echo of his first void, nor the endless outer darkness, but something not farther but further inward–more sentient, warmer than the cold, remorseless outer darkness. It cozied up to his mind, his genitals, his fingertips–numbing, warm, intimate.

Behind the outer darkness. Your darkness.

It was like Carter’s voice, but bestial, shriller, more animalistic than Carter had ever been. And Kelt realized that he hadn’t cursed dragons to hell–couldn’t, for he was still under the influence of their lovely–no, deadly flames. Kelt looked before him and saw through this new and different cloying darkness: Carter’s maroon harpy looked back at him with old ebony eyes, patient eyes. An old harpy had been gifted at death by his teacher.

Carter is dead. My master, dead. Yes. Kelt, your darkness is here. Yours. I am yours now. I am old. Big. I have plied the outer darkness without Carter’s tether. Now, I am yours. This darkness is yours.

“But will you profit from my darkness, or lose your self within its safe, intimate embrace?”

Abruptly, Carter’s harpy wheeled on its pinfeathers and plunged into Kelt.

Kelt looked through the humid darkness, thought he saw something glisten, shine against the black: an animal leg and a soft sensual growl that had asked that question.

Carter’s harpy nestled next to Kelt’s harpy. A promise of wilder flights: Friendship between harpy to harpy mirrored friend to friend now gone. Kelt wanted to weep, but he had no flesh, only the thought of it, the desire for a tangible display to match the dull continuous roar of pain in his mind.

“Grief. Let the dead rest, if they rest.” spoke the sensuous growl in this new night.

Kelt caught the flash of an ebony eye that glistened without light, ivory fangs, a muscular and black furred shoulder, set against the claustrophobic darkness.

Kelt wished for a ‘ganger body to breath clean air on Earth, on green grass freshly cut and a cloudless crystal blue sky, and a cool breeze. To be there, not here, not suffocating with a swelling lump in his chest.

“You’re afraid of me. How simplistic. How expected. Ontological hell, you said. Yes, but Carol’s being, her perspective, not yours. She has a stronger sense of self. Embrace me, love me, and we will change that. We will make you mage.”

“Who are you?” Kelt asked. Something soft and furred brushed against his leg. His leg itched.

“Don’t you know? Of course not. You couldn’t.” Smugness. “I thought your green friend would have told you about me. Hinted about me. Carter always feared me, feared to approach me, blamed me for so much evil on Earth. Silly man. I am another Form. One that neither Carter nor Carol ever journeyed far enough to discover. Tsk, how desperation creates boldness.”

Bubbling up from the nest in his mind from twin animal voices, his familiars: Leave, leave, leave, fly, fly, fly.

“I don’t believe in this crap!” Kelt shouted. “Subjective reality doesn’t mean squat in the real world! That only relieves God of his guilt.”

The growl replied, “Subjective reality, Carol’s, killed your teacher.”

“In the outer darkness, not in the real world!”

“Carter is truly dead.”

“Shut up! I hate forms. The Trickster’s always lying. We were all dead; all lost builders destroy their bodies and assume doppelgangers. Carter’s in my apartment. I know it.”

From his nest, a soft peeping: “No. I am yours now.”

“See?” that growl unnerved him with its intimate knowledge.

A black panther’s head and neck loomed in front of him. The rest of the body faded into this warm night.

The panther spoke, its jaw slightly parted, “Carter’s harpy knows, and that one is old. Carter is dead, his anima consumed.”

Kelt shook his head, not wanting to believe. “What happens, then? This is all mystical, all mental. Something must happen to him. Is that all there is?”

“I do not know.”

“I hate Forms. You do know. The Trickster–“

The panther bared its teeth. “I am not some half starved coyote, not the Trickster. I am power. Embrace me and your reality will be greater than Carol’s. I promise you.”

“Subjective reality doesn’t matter on Earth and I’m through with magic. One friend dead, one insane. I don’t want to be a mage. I’m going back to Earth. To a normal life.”

A chuckling came from all sides in this confining darkness as the panther slowly circled Kelt. “Subjective reality is all that matters in the outer darkness, in the Realm of Forms, and on Earth especially. What else convinces one man to follow and another to lead? One to kill, another to hide? Subjective reality, interacting with what? Objective reality? Do you know of such a thing? Come, embrace me, and you will understand.”

Kelt heaved, watched his shape go hazy from exhaustion and listened to his harpies as they squeezed his memories of Carter. It would be so easy to let go. To give up. Laugh it all away, cry it all away in an ocean of tears, dissolve this mental body, commit magical suicide–self negation. “I miss Carter.” he whispered.

“Your grief is predictable and tedious. It does not concern me. Will you embrace me?”

Kelt’s form coalesced with his anger. He shouted, “God damn you! Why mock my pain?”

The panther melted into the nihility, but its thick voice wafted back to Kelt, “That was not my intent. I leave mockery to the Trickster. Fear is my domain. You embraced the Trickster before you were even a builder. Will you embrace me?”

“What are you? What universal aspect of consciousness do you represent?”

The panther walked up to Kelt and lay at his feet. Twin eyes of swirling darkness, light consuming darkness, pulled at the halo of anima that always surrounded Kelt’s mental body.

The panther said, “Universal and personal, as all Forms. If not personal, how could you speak with me? I am the Not I. I am all that you do not know.”

Kelt asked–his voice quavered, “Then you know my Answer. Tell me. Please, you must. Why is there pain? Why incompleteness?”

The panther roared and a black paw swiped through Kelt’s form, leaving him waxed and trembling. He groaned. His harpies burrowed in their nest.

The creature with black spinning eyes said, “I am not God, not a bearer of knowledge, far from it, its opposite. No, the Trickster and I are not close cousins. Embrace me. I will make you feared.”

Kelt whispered, “And emotion is power to a mystic.”

“Yes.”

“I’ll embrace you.”

“Yes.”

The sticky darkness

sucked

him

down.

A swirling, sinking, spinning Kelt clenched his teeth together as this new darkness claimed him. His harpies burrowed deep into the nest. The darkness blanketed Kelt’s memories, devoured the nest, Kelt’s knowledge. His familiars screeched at their master. Kelt offered nothing, save fear. His mind harpies shivered. They floated in the clammy darkness that swallowed Kelt’s anima and memories.

The womb-warmth soothed Kelt, invited Kelt: no fear, no pain, no hate, no grief–flatline. Darkness supplanted Kelt: Kelt became this darkness, losing himself, becoming Not Kelt. This intimate, personal darkness slipped away even as he joined with it. Like peeling the rind from an orange, the panther’s humid, cloying atmosphere removed itself. The vast, expansive outer darkness buffeted Not-Kelt, an oil drop on tar. His mind harpies plunged into that darkness gleefully, still could not find their nests. The outer darkness assumed a panther’s silhouette.

Something of Kelt floated outside this silhouette and called in a pitiable voice to Kelt and his mind harpies: a miasma of twisting pale grey worms, writhing under each other, trying to lose themselves behind each other. Each worm was exactly the same as every other worm–pale, grey, trembling, trembling, trembling. And the worms cried into the face of the darkness and at the oil drop eye within the outer darkness: “Kelt, Kelt, Kelt.”

The deep resonant panther’s voice pierced the gloom and the soft whining of the worms, “Are these what lived within me, what stopped me for so many years?”

A panther paw caressed the pile of worms.

The worms shrank from the paw.

Panther-Kelt shouted, “Shut up! Don’t call me. Don’t talk to me. Obey me.”

The worms quieted. The panther trotted up to the worms and ate them. It, too, dissolved. An arc of light erupted from its muscular chest.

Shoot the bridge.

 

12

 

Kelt pictured his apartment piercing the outer darkness. A wrenching jolt halted his momentum on his bridge. Tendrils of anima laced around him, leeched his strength.

His two mind harpies swooped from their nest and sliced a tendril of light with their talons. Two more erupted from the darkness to entangle them. A cocoon of soul energy blinded him and blanketed his nest, cutting him off from his memory of his apartment.

A physical body covered his thoughts once again. Cool and damp air flooded over his skin to refresh him, raising goosebumps on newly formed flesh. Raw nostrils dragged up musty air.

“Where am I? What happened?” Kelt cried. To be so confident, so arrogant one moment, then pell mell the universe once again collapsed into chaos with him, lost at the center of it.

“You’re bound here, with us.” Julia spoke, “No. It’s a different house than the one you raided. Carol’s kept us running. Jacquie’s dead. Oh, that’s right. You never had a chance to meet Jacquie–never will. Carol sent her dragons after her.”

It was a bare room with grimy sepia walls, not much larger than a walk in closet. Julia stood over his naked and waxed ‘ganger. Her face was cruel. Lines of care straddling the corners of her lips and under her eyes marred the effect. Her raven hair gently curled around her shoulders. Unkempt, it straggled over a plain brown t-shirt. She smelled faintly of stale beer and tobacco. Kelt’s empathy sensed more fear, more desperation than sadism.

She wore black chinese slippers and she nudged him in the rib cage with one foot. Not hard, but enough to make him doubt his empathy and look her in the eyes–brown eyes and bloodshot and angry.

She said, “Well, Kelt? Lost builder. Monster. How do you do it? How do you and Carol control the dragons? Why are you flooding the world with them?”

He took a conscious breath. Dank air slipped through the crack between the door and the floor; it brought a stink of kitchen garbage. The rumbling of a bass guitar’s amp thundered above them. Perhaps in the basement of some bar anywhere in the world: He could’ve come down anywhere from the outer darkness. Great, just great.

Kelt levered his shoulders off the floor, using his feet against the cold tiles to push his back against the far wall. White tethers of soul energy sheathed his arms.

After reluctantly gulping air, Kelt said, “I’m not your enemy. I can’t control the dragons.”

Julia bent down to lock onto his gaze. For the first time Kelt noticed the soul blade in her hand; it was short, like a switchblade. It danced along the edge of her fingertips.

She spoke with a halting voice, as if Kelt were a geometric axiom she couldn’t quite grasp. “You are good, Kelt. You bested me last time, but you’re waxed. Still,” Julia paused as if weighing a distasteful decision, “weak as we’ve made you by forcing you here you could be fooling me. I don’t trust my empathic abilities when it comes to reading nutso lost builders. And there is something different about your doppelganger. You have changed. It’s in your eyes. Some darkness rests in your eyes. What does it cover? Not fear. That, I know and’ve seen too well, too often these days. I’m sorry, Kelt. I really am. But I have no choice.”

A wave of pity caught at his heartbeat, pity for him. She sweated, too; an oniony musk mixed poorly with the kitchen garbage smells and stale beer. He struggled to shoot the bridge: His anima flowed like syrup into the white tethers that encircled his heart chakra, shoulders, and arms; his mind harpies refused his call. A trembling fit came over him, a fever from being waxed. Kelt rolled to his side, putting his face against the grimy wall, using his cheek for friction to keep from sliding onto the floor.

Kelt asked, “What are you going to do? How are you holding me?”

Julia said, “A variation on a soul blade. Don’t strain against the anima chains around your chakra points and you won’t get any more waxed than you already are. And if you start heaving because you pushed too hard, you’ll lie in your own vomitus, I promise you that. We’ve had to learn a lot of tricks since Carol Foster started murdering builders. I know Carter’s dead. All builders who’ve ever worked with him felt that. I think you’re innocent, Kelt. But mercy is strained these days; grief sucked it out of me, like an assassin’s soul blade. Somehow you’ve gained knowledge and power in your last trip to the outer darkness and we need power. We have a lost builder now, too. He’s been waiting to see you. I’m sorry, Kelt. If there was another way to be sure, I’d take it, even though you’re an assassin.” Julia turned and headed toward the door.

Kelt shouted, “I’m not an assassin. I thought you kidnapped Carter.”

The door slammed in his face and he couldn’t blame her, not after stabbing her. But a lost builder in her camp? Julia was a fighter, but no doubt Carol Foster moved like a tiger hunting chihuahuas. What lost builder would ally himself against Carol with nothing more than builders to back him up?

The metal doorknob clicked; then, the door opened four inches. A pair of cheap dark sunglasses slid across the white tiles. “Put these on.” A rough voice. “Tell me when you have them on.”

The anima chains around his left arm dimmed and Kelt regained some use of his doppelganger’s upper body, though weak. He gritted his teeth in concentration just to keep his grip on the sunglasses. As soon as they were on his head, his arm dropped down in exhaustion and the chains returned to their glow, paralyzing him.

Kelt said, “I’ve got them on. What are you going to do?” What’s going on?”

Jax walked in. A small mind harpy nervously perched on his shoulder. Jax looked harried with a two day growth of blond stubble. His voice was plaintive. His eyes hid behind an identical pair of dime store shades.

Jax said, “Hi, Kelt. It’s not so bad. Having a doppelganger instead of a natural body, I mean. It makes me feel free and closer to you, you know? No, keep the glasses on. I still–still want to pretend that we share the same view of reality, that we see it the same way, and Julia said you’d changed. Oh, I know there’s a real reality–becoming lost only made the loneliness keener, clearer after the fire spit me out. But nobody can see the real reality, but we can at least see it from the same angle–or at least I can pretend that we do, right, friend?” Jax tentatively extended his hand. His mind harpy fluttered its wings.

Paralyzed, Kelt could only glare at the assassin.

He’s still crazy, Kelt thought, but now he’s lost and crazy, a powerful combination, dangerous like Carol, and he knows it.

Kelt asked in a soft voice, “What are you going to do? What does Julia want you to do to me? Dammit Jax, why are you still with her? You’re a lost builder now. Let me go.”

Withdrawing the proffered hand, Jax shuffled his feet while simultaneously biting at his cuticles til he had to suck at the blood on his index finger. “Sorry, Kelt. I know Julia and the others don’t understand what we do. I know they only see magic as if it were a gun, but they’re my friends. I told you that before. I won’t betray them.” His lower lip trembled.

A slow panic welled up in his chest. “Jax, what does she want you to do to me? Aren’t I your friend? Remember the rat? That’s Julia and them, not us.” Kelt hated to admit any relation to someone who felt as soulless as Jax that day he had bridged into Jax, but he was willing to say anything to get himself free.

Jax spit out the bit of skin he had lifted from his nail. His lips curved into an ugly frown. “What do you think, Kelt? You think I’m empathy blind? Huh? You think that I don’t understand the question? you think that I don’t hunger for the Answer, too? You think I’m a sociopath. Maybe I was. But I was happy in my little trench of thought patterns until you bridged into me, until you shared your pain with me. Now, you look down on me? After all you put me through?” Jax was screaming now. “You want to know what the builders want? Huh? They want me to bridge into you to find out what magic you can do. They want more guns to shoot Carol with. Carol thinks of me just as you do, as an assassin. But–but I’ve changed and I can’t go back, so I’ll go forward.”

Kelt knew Jax was just working himself up into a lather, looking for the courage to arc a soul bridge into him. Kelt trembled, as much from being frightened as waxed. He jerked his head to the side; his glasses flew from his face and clattered against the floor. Kelt shifted the left side of his body to the wall away from Jax and commanded his anima. The bright energy ran down his left eye and impacted against the white chains around his shoulders. The chains burned away his anima. He ached to grab his soul blade and run for it, shoot a bridge, anything that would keep Jax from his soul, his essential KELT. His heart hammered. Still, Kelt thought in a tiny recess of his mind, Jax was not too stable at this moment.

Kelt took a deep breath; then launched his empathic attack against Jax, “I may be waxed, but I’m not going to make it easy for you. I won’t be violated again. The first time was accidental. Now, you’ll be doing it on purpose. You say you’ve changed, you say you’re not an assassin anymore. Seems to me you’re just a very skillful assassin now, and no better than the worst sort of rapist if you do this, Jax.”

Kelt brought the cloying, intimate darkness to his eyes. In his mind he heard a soft answering growl. His mind harpies burrowed into their nest, huddling together to ward off a chill. Kelt continued talking to Jax as he stared at the new lost builder, “It’s not just yourself you’ll be hurting. There is an otherness to reality. An otherness you can hurt. You felt the call in the soul fire when you chose to become a lost builder. Nature abhors a vacuum, sentience abhors loneliness. I exist. I am different. You’re about to choose to hurt me.”

Jax stabbed at an intersection of tiles on the floor with the steel toe of his brown workman’s boot. “I don’t know. No. Julia needs this. She’s my friend. I’m sorry, Kelt. I really am. If I was still a rat, I’d’a just stabbed you and taken your harpy. This is better than that. Julia needs the–What’s in your eyes? They’ve gone dark–and cold.”

Kelt thought frantically as the new darkness within him sluggishly moved and blotted out the anima in his forehead chakra. Jax was still too disconnected for an ethics argument to drain his resolve. But fear, ah, fear: That’s always basic. Turning his voice soft and ugly, Kelt said, “If I were you, my little headbanger, I’d reconsider: Look how much you’ve changed since our first meeting, but I’m still Kelt. The old Jax essentially died from that merging. Well, headbanger, do you want to change so much you don’t recognize yourself?”

Jax licked his chapped lips and ran his hand tightly over his scalp. “Man, I effin don’t wanna do this. Cobalt Cure is playing.” Suddenly he looked squarely into Kelt’s eyes. “You don’t know as much as you’d like to think, Mr. Smart Ass-Tied Up-In-A-Basement. You call me a headbanger, and I am. I’d like to be moshing right now, getting into something–into me. See, I still think the same–think the same, not just in the same way, but in the same voice in my head. That voice is still me, has never changed, not you, not getting lost, nothing’s ever changed the timbre of that voice in my head.”

Kelt perked up, having distracted Jax from his gruesome task. “Timbre? What do you mean by that? You didn’t expect your voice to change, did you? And no juvenile, brain sloshing dance could help a lost builder.”

Jax cursed and threw his hands up in disgust. “Man, you are a smart ass. I was a builder when you didn’t even believe in magic. I was trashing lost builders when you were toting books to effin english 101. You scholars think too much; you don’t experience anything. You fritter the now away with bloated thought strings. Moshing–any distraction–that you fully-wholly-completely-utterly dive into makes you aware of the now-your life-the event. That’s how I know who I am, and always was, because I’ve never stopped getting into things in the same way. The same person gets lost into moshing that I’ve always been. And no damn textbook can refute that, because I lived it, experienced it, Kelt. Experience.”

Kelt managed a condescending laugh. “That’s pretty good, Jax. You do think like me. You contrasted your self with something else and compared each successive instance of stark contrast over time to see if there’s been any change. A nice trick, that. But it doesn’t work. You are always part of every equation, the you who exists in the now. ‘You’ colors all your reflections and meditations upon your nature; your ‘you’ falsifies them, like conveniently rationalizing guilt away. ‘You’ wants to preserve its specialness, its uniqueness, its durability, its oh so many fine qualities, because termination is a fearful unpleasantness. But that isn’t possible. The only constant in the universe is change. The ‘you’ of Jax is constantly changing–dying in more than a metaphorical sense.”

“The change is too small to matter.” Jax said hurriedly.

Kelt laughed again. The darkness crept all the way into his eyes. Kelt felt it prowl across his thoughts, shaping them with great swipes of its paws: “Very good, little Jax. But if you bridge into me? If a loved one dies? Any trauma effectively kills you. How much of a change does it take to say that now there is a new Jax, that old Jax is dead and gone. How long before you’re dead, Jax? Look at me.”

Jax paced around the tiny room as he listened and argued with Kelt. The sudden chill and command in Kelt’s voice halted him. He turned. The darkness crawled up Kelt’s gaze and entered through Jax’s eyes.

Kelt walked within Jax’s mind, but it was a cold Kelt, the Not I panther darkness that sauntered through Jax’s nest and brushed against the memory twigs.

Jax’s mind harpy squawked and plunged into Jax.

Jax said, “D-d-don’t kill it, Kelt, please. God, what’s happened to you? I feel you in my nest–Don’t touch that! No. What do you want?”

The whites of Kelt’s eyes were showing and they glowed ebony. He stretched his thoughts along the black tether that connected his panther persona to Jax.

Kelt’s doppelganger’s mouth opened and closed like the tin man in the Wizard of Oz trying to work a rusty chin hinge. “Release me.” His voice, hollow and monotone.

“But Julia–“

The panther swiped a dark paw across Jax’s nest, barely missing the little harpy, shredding several twigs, which tumbled from the nest and floated into Jax’s first void.

Jax paled. Sweat gleamed from the pores of his doppelganger. “J-Julia was right. You are a monster. You are dead, Kelt. Your own damn argument. I don’t recognize you now. Dark, cold, monster.”

Jax bent down and touched the white anima shackles with a short soul blade like the one Julia had been holding over him. The shackles dimmed as the anima floated up into Jax’s blade, then up his arm and into his left eye.

Jax shivered with revulsion as he sighed. “Even an anima feeding doesn’t warm the coldness you are, Kelt.”

Kelt stood. The panther retreated as the black tether dissipated. Kelt’s harpies watched the panther disappear within the darkness of Kelt’s first void.

Kelt said, “I may be what you think of me. But the me that is me now is alive and wants to stay that way. Do you have clothes? A 32″ waist? And I need a place to hole up before I confront Julia.”

Jax backed toward the door while raising his soul blade between them. “You are with Carol and against Julia. I won’t betray my friends.”

Kelt laughed as he summoned his mind harpies. They quietly landed on his shoulders. “Jax, that loyalty sounds like a personal liturgy, perhaps a self sustaining ritual: ‘Jax is loyal; I am loyal; I must be Jax.'”

Jax saw the huge harpy preening quietly on Kelt’s left shoulder. Carter’s harpy was unmistakable for its size. Jax lowered his blade. “You’re becoming cruel, Kelt. Cruel like I was, like Carol is. You gonna assassinate me and take my mind harpy, too? Why bother screwing with my self image? Just get it over with, dammit.”

That hurt. Kelt’s harpies squeaked nervously, as if meekly agreeing with Jax’s sober resolution.

Kelt sucked air quickly. Even his harpies thought him so cruel. Jax’s words had slipped out, with that honesty that comes from abrupt spontaneity.

Jax had been his enemy. Jax had been crazy, but strong, assured in whatever interpretation of reality he advocated as a builder.

Then, it hit Kelt: Jax was a lost builder now–just as damned misplaced and confused in this universe as he was, as fragmented as Carol was. Only Carter had ever been lost with a sense of surety, a sense of his self within his purpose to save lost builders. But Carter was dead and Jax thought he was hated by both surviving lost builders.

Kelt said, “I don’t want to duel you. Friend?” He slowly extended his arm.

Jax rubbed his hand on his shirt before grasping and pumping Kelt’s hand. “Julia keeps this place stacked with clothes. Heh, you never know when a lost builder might wander in from Satan knows where. Geez, Kelt, your hand is cold.”

 

13

 

Jax hooked his arm around Kelt’s and led him through the throng of people on the dance floor. All the furniture, floors, and walls reflected the waxy sheen of polished dark brown wood, though knife etched initials scarred the furniture, dead cigs littered the floor, and senile chewing gums hung from the walls. The bar dimmed. White lights flashed on the stage, a ten by ten foot raised wooden platform bracketed by two walls of sonic ear devastators. At least that’s what Kelt thought of them and the band, Cobalt Cure, a heavy metal band.

They finished their tuning and the microphone settings and launched into their first set without a word to the crowd. The lead guitarist, wearing only jeans ripped vertically from the knee down, fondled his guitar with his left hand while his right danced along the fret of the instrument in a blur of motion. The drummer, meanwhile, spasmed under a controlled epileptic seizure, though the bassist, blonde and famine thin, counterbalanced the drummer’s vivaciousness with an almost morbid stillness. Suddenly, the lead singer, who idly stroked her guitar in the wake of the lead guitarist’s staccato thunderstorm, opened her throat. Out came a clear and resonant alto that arced sharply upward. A painful beauty pirhouetted through the furious, heavy punctuation of her notes:

 

Sliding, falling, moving through you

where do you end and I begin?

The press of your flesh moves into me

pushing my mind in an upward spin

in a world so false and so deadly

coming for me and coming for you.

 

Where do I begin?

Where do I end?

 

Dancers increased the speed of their movements. A high pitched guitar solo eradicated the singer’s haunting voice. Kelt shivered; the singer’s discordant, yet defiantly powerful, voice reminded him of Carol, her singing and her predator songs of flesh and passion and hunger. Her anger, his anger, their anger: Kelt clutched himself. Everyone was angry; it was the easiest defense against fear. Between the drifts of cigarette smoke, Kelt saw panther eyes looking at him, enjoying his fear and frustration as if it were food. Sometimes, he regretted the bargain he had made with it.

Kelt took a deep breath and forged onward through the crowd with Jax. The pub crawlers were not decked out with leather costumes and day-glo colored hair as Kelt had half expected. Most seemed around his age, or slightly younger, majority male and dressed as simply as he was. Below the stage in “the pit” danced the moshers: A line of people swung their heads and upper bodies to and fro at a furious pace in the direct path of the flow from the volcanic sound system.

He found he had to shout in Jax’s ear to be heard: “Where’s the slam dancing?”

Jax looked at him as if he were a puppy who had just shat on the new shag carpet. “Kelt, we’re closing in on the year 2000 and you’re still living in the punk age.”

All at once the atomic bass shut down and the clear, light sound of a flute punctuated the shockingly sudden silence. Kelt took the opening to talk to Jax: “Where is Julia? Why here?”

 

Burn bright. Burn bright.

Show me where I end.

We stand above a roaring river rushing beyond

our sight.

I look up beyond the new moon to gaze deep into endless night.

The water moves free, pushing and pulling, over and over going nowhere.

The wind sighs sweet songs for the river, but

too softly for what we dare.

Go beyond–go far.

Burn like the hottest star.

 

Show me where I end!

 

So I may know where I begin.

 

A far away look graced Jax’s eyes, directed toward the singer cum flautist. “Ah. Kelt, relax for a moment. Always go, go, go with you. I’d be valedictorian of the drool academy if I lived that way. Carol’ll still be there when we get back. Savor this.”

Kelt grabbed Jax’s arm and pinched the flabby bicep.

“Ow. Dammit, Kel–“

“No more!” Kelt growled, “Carol is out there. I don’t have time for a heavy metal club med. You want to die, fine. Julia wants to die, fine. It’ll be by dragon’s breath and I won’t have a part of it. Not me. I’m through. I’m not Carter; I’m not going to wet nurse a bunch of builders.”

The flute mutated to an electronic timbre; the bassist gently massaged his strings, producing an almost inaudible thrum that kissed Kelt’s bones.

 

Defy your master

preaching disaster.

You know you are not to blame!

Flesh could never

hold your fire.

Admit your desire.

Admit your desire.

 

Jax slowly shook his head. He pointed across the room. Kelt let his gaze flow down Jax’s arm until he saw Julia looking back at him, her dark hair and the dim lighting shadowing her features, but her eyes glimmered with anima. A man and a woman flanked her at the tall and small coffee table with high chairs for adults.

Kelt strode toward them.

Jax grabbed his arm. “I’m the host. I’ll put down anyone who breaks this truce. You were right, Kelt. My loyalty was getting dogmatic.” Softly: “In the end you may regret giving me that insight.”

Kelt jerked his arm away; anxious to meet two more builders. He couldn’t–wouldn’t allow his intimacy with Jax to cloud his judgement. The boy could turn out to be just as dangerous as Carol. He wasn’t predictable, didn’t hunger for the Answer as Kelt believed himself to hunger.

Jax had lost his ruthlessness, but had lost his edge, too. Too quickly, too naively Jax accepted his friendship. Kelt wasn’t sure how much Jax hid from him, how desperate he was. Kelt needed fresh lost builders to go after Carol. Was this how Carter thought and planned? People became pieces on a board, a dehumanization not distant from how Jax had once seen the world. Kelt stopped that line of thinking. It was hideously blasphemous; Carter was–had been a good man, a lost builder, his mentor and nothing at all like Jax, nothing at all like any incarnation of Jax. Maybe that had been Carter’s problem? Kelt shook his head to clear it.

“I heard you don’t have an answer, the Answer.” This snotty welcome blurted from a young lady about twenty-one years old with a red silk dress and eyes that glowed from tequila shots and builder anima.

He slid a glance toward Julia, but she just waited for him to answer her friend as she returned his gaze with a wide eyed and ridiculous innocence, ridiculous because Kelt knew how tough she could be. People who can twist the knife should never look so innocent.

Kelt focused on the young woman and asked, “Who have you been talking to? Who are you?”

Tall with an olive complexion, the male took a measured sip from a club soda, or perhaps a gin and tonic, Kelt wasn’t sure. Then, he spoke slowly and precisely, fixing Kelt with a cool stare from dull brown eyes, “She’s Beth; I’m Marc, her brother. We kidnapped you and brought you to Julia. I’ll be brief: I’m not impressed by you, nor by Jax. Lost builders lack control, and that–not you–will be Carol’s downfall. The dragons will turn on her and devour her. Until that hour comes, it makes sense to band together: ‘There’s safety in numbers.’ But I work with Julia, not under her–“

“You wish,” Beth said; then broke into a fit of soft but drunken giggling.

Marc growled toward his sister, “You’re trashed again.”

“So?” she fired back impertinently, but without imagination. She sucked at a cigarette with all concentration and sighed as she exhaled.

Kelt sat on the edge of a stool with his feet still supporting some of his weight. “You’re all going to have to become lost builders. There’s no other way to stop Carol.”

Beth laughed. “We stopped you, didn’t we?” Her front teeth were too pronounced, with wide lips and a narrow face, a horsy appearance, but she radiated sensuality in her movements, slow as if she were immersed in warm water and relaxed by the jets of a hot tub.

“Carol’s tougher than I am, and more dangerous.”

Marc grimaced. “Her dragons do make her dangerous, but I have no intention of getting lost. That’s nothing more than a metaphor for insanity. Hold every viewpoint and you end up holding no viewpoint.”

Kelt stated, “We need power. It’s that simple. Mystical power.”

Marc said, “We already have the edge on numbers.”

Julia whispered–though it was more of a speaking voice; the drummer’s epileptic fit increased its severity. “Maybe we won’t have the advantage of numbers. Besides the dragons, I think Carol is courting another builder. I don’t know who, but I’ve seen Carol’s white comet arcing in the horizon. She’s making too many trips back and forth without her dragons for good sense.”

Marc followed her reasoning, “Yes, while courting a builder, she’d have to disguise her ties to dragons.”

Kelt said, “Then we just move quickly. Less talk.”

Julia said, “No. No one here wants to follow your plan. No one wants to become lost. Only a fool would want that, or a man despaired.”

Julia rose from the table.

Kelt was half tempted to throw a tether around her and drag her into her soul fire, but he wasn’t sure–doubted that you could force someone to become lost. You could trick them, but he didn’t trust that Form.

Beth downed her drink and announced, “I’ll do it.”

Julia spun around. Marc stood from his chair and grabbed her arm. He was fast, Kelt noted, faster than he was.

“You can’t.” Marc declared, “I won’t let you.”

Beth’s tone shifted from jovial to a nitrogen iciness, “Let go, Marc. I do as I please. You know that.” Something, some threat hid there, but Kelt couldn’t ferret out its meaning.

The siblings locked gazes, anima burned in their eyes. Marc relented muttering, “Be a fool. It’s always been your way to engage in needless dissipation.”

“God, Beth,” Julia said, “for once in your life try to think of someone else, of the innocents, the blind walkers, who’ll suffer if Carol grows stronger on the hard world. You’ve got to become more serious about this.”

Now, Beth turned her frigidity toward Julia; the drunken lisp that slurred her speech disappeared, “Who in the hell says the blind walkers are so innocent? Perhaps if they were, they’d be able to accept the magical reality surrounding themselves, instead of immersing themselves within the hard world’s petty problems. Your attempt to make me culpable for Carol is pathetic. Besides, I recognize that lost builders are more adroit with empathy and anima than builders.” She looked at Kelt. Warmth entered her gaze. “I’d like to find out what there is to savor in this sacrifice of flesh. I’m not so barren as my brother.”

“Sister, play the fool if you will, but don’t speak of me. I repay loyalty with loyalty and the obverse.” Marc spoke as a piece of stone might speak, without any familial love or recognition.

Beth smiled abruptly. It was like a burst of light in the dim bar. Until that moment Kelt hadn’t realized how heavy he had felt since Carter’s death, maybe since the murder of Carol’s mind harpy. And maybe, maybe, Kelt thought selfishly, almost greedily, she would be the one to ease his weariness.

“Kelt, what do I do? How do I become lost?” She asked casually, as if she wanted Kelt to run to the 7-11 and pick up a loaf of Wonder bread.

For a moment, Kelt was at a loss; then, he just stated the obvious, “Go into the light with what you are, what you feel, what you need. When you are thrown out, you’ll be like me, like Jax. You’ll be lost. You’ll know the feeling; it’s not having ties to humanity, to human things anymore, to physical things. Being lost is a trade off: You lose some security; you gain some freedom. But first, you must see your light. That’s the hardest thing of all, to recognize light–not what it illuminates, but what it is in itself, your light.”

“Bullshit.” Julia muttered.

“I think I see it.” Beth’s eyes glowed furiously. “It’s beautiful; it’s hot.”

“Be there, with your builder’s anima.” Kelt whispered urgently to her.

Beth disappeared.

Kelt and the builders watched her white comet streak through the roof and leave the bar behind. Kelt sipped from Beth’s strawberry daiquiri and grinned.

The electric flute stopped in mid note, not an abrupt syncopation; it was utterly incongruous with the gentle flow of the song. The flute’s solo sections counterweighted the rich, violent guitar and drum flurries, as if the flautist provided a meditative interlude for the moshers. But it halted abruptly, too abruptly for Kelt. He turned toward the stage.

The lead songstress stared at their table with wide and fearful eyes, doe’s eyes. Kelt saw his panther Form across the room. It moved its anxiety driven darkness toward her. Kelt shot a black tether. The panther halted and sulked as it growled at Kelt. He firmed his will. It plunged into the darkness of Kelt’s first void at his bidding.

Then, Kelt realized: She watched him, watched him shoot the black tether, watched the panther leap across the bar and plunge into his doppelganger and disappear, while the blind walkers in the bar just stared dully up at the stage wondering why their sonic stimulus had stopped.

Julia hadn’t caught on, but she had seen the panther. She said, “Kelt, that wasn’t a lost builder harpy. What the hell was that thing? It was like some sort of big cat. It pulled at my anima.”

“And mine.” Marc interjected.

“Not now.” Kelt left his chair. His harpies flew from their nests, bursting from his heart chakra and flying toward the blonde singer. Kelt flung white anima tethers around his birds.

Kelt watched her reaction. She was a builder, at least. Her face paled and her brown eyes tracked the harpies’ straight path through the smoke filled bar toward her. She gripped her flute like a club and Kelt saw the tell tale anima pouring down from her left eye. She crafted her soul blade with a real metal flute as a base and brandished it in the air.

The crowd watched. A few clapped, thinking that her gripping her flute like a sword and swinging it defensively in front of her to be part of the stage show, like performance art.

“Get away!” she screamed.

Carter’s harpy arrived ahead of its smaller brother, nimbly dancing around the slow stroke of the singer’s soul blade and plunging into her body.

“Get out of me!”

The bassist ran up to her. She shrugged off his touch, stumbled forward, overturned the mike stand. Audio garbage spiked through the sound system. Someone in the control room shut down the speakers. Fans crowded toward the stage; others milled about, getting drinks, talking, and hooting for music.

Kelt sent through the tether to his harpy: “Relax her.”

The singer crumpled onto the stage floor.

Carter’s harpy swooped out of her body cheeping, “She sleeps in a memory of her youth: the vinyl smell of Cadillac upholstery, the nattering of her mother’s voice, the rhythm of the car engine, eager foreknowledge of a beach vacation, the security of her father within the tobacco smell of his Vantage menthol cigarette. May I return to my nest?”

Kelt wanted to laugh, but sent an impulse through the tether that was the equivalent of a nod toward his second bird. Carter’s harpy had a gentle touch, like his teacher.

Jax was up in his face with glowing anima eyes. His soul blade shined in his left hand.

Kelt’s harpies were still too far away. The little one patrolled the stage area to keep a guard on the new builder. And Carter’s harpy was only halfway across the bar.

He didn’t want to bring the Panther into this; Jax teetered on the edge. His new subjective reality was too young, too fragile and complex for an immersion into that darkness, that Unknown. Jax needed a chance to grapple for the Answer on his terms, without the darkness gnawing at him, not this soon. Kelt remembered Jax on the sidewalk, fetal.

He faced Jax and demanded, “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Who do you think you are threatening?” With a mental shrug he restrained the darkness from entering his eyes and insisted upon staring at Jax, at the person, not through him and not into him.

Jax’s soul blade shrank and wavered in his hand, like a candle flame buffeted by a slight breeze. “I–I told you I’m keeping the truce. I know Beth chose to leave. That’s fine, but you attacked Lisa Steiger, the freakin’ lead singer of Cobalt Cure. What’re you? nuts?”

Kelt whispered, “Jax, she’s a builder. Perhaps, she’ll want to be a lost builder. You like her music. Maybe she looks at objective reality with a subjective slant similar to your own. After all, that’s what music promises, isn’t it? Communication about reality. Your reality. Her reality?”

Kelt let the words hang there. Cruelty played with Jax’s loneliness; he knew Jax too well. The loneliness was too similar to his own. The promise of another who hungered for the Answer . . . Kelt shook his head as he watched eagerness light a fire in Jax’s eyes. Put there simply by his suggestion and her music that had spoken to his moshing heart.

So pathetic, so needy. It really pissed him off that reality left him with that same incompleteness. It shone from Jax’s eyes: longing for a balm to loneliness.

“Shit.” Kelt cursed. A meaty hand grabbed the back of his belt. He turned even as he felt a soul blade rise in his left hand. He was too frustrated and knew he should calm down, but he enjoyed–savored the righteous adrenaline rush too much.

Marc stepped back from him. No surprise passed across the builder’s angular face. Only a wary alertness in the eyes and a tensing of his left hand told Kelt that Marc noted his sudden anger.

“What is it?” Kelt barked, having nothing better to vent upon than a quiescent, seemingly emotionless builder.

The dark haired builder answered with a steady voice, “I still believe in uniting to defend against Carol Foster, lost builder.” A slight sarcasm tinged Kelt’s title. “And even though you’ve seduced my fey sister into jumping into her light, that was her choice and I will not blame you. Threaten or bully me at your peril. Fair warning. I have swum to the outer darkness and have no wish to go any closer to that place, which I see in your eyes. It drifts ethereally across this bar this night. I don’t know what daemon you bartered with, or what you learned to summon such a coldness, but I want no part of it. I choose my pursuits and avoidances. Your path, I shall avoid. Lost builder, do you understand me?”

Kelt watched Marc’s eyes. This builder already harbored his own brand of cold. Only cold stone weighted Marc’s eyes. Not the cold of revenge, but the cold glaze of a dead man’s eyes, implacable to passionate entreaty.

Such a man would lodge a soul blade in his back.

Kelt nodded acceptance of Marc’s statements and his own internal judgement of this builder. He’d prefer a frenetic Jax guarding his back. Jax might have a nervous collapse, but at least Kelt wouldn’t have to worry about suddenly coming up at the wrong end of Marc’s internal abacus and being left for dead in the middle of a duel with Carol. Still, Beth was the wedge to force Marc. And she was, hopefully, a lost builder by now.

Julia’s shout interrupted his planning: “Kelt!”

Kelt turned and doubled over in pain. His tether with his smaller harpy retracted; anima spewed from the shorn end; then, the tether dissipated.

A man of slight build had done it, of a latin caste. He wore a pea green trench coat set over jeans and a black cashmere turtleneck sweater. Dragon flames billowed from his mouth. The possessed man had tried to fry his harpy, but had hit the tether instead.

Carter’s harpy turned and dove toward the man, who flung people into the crowd with an inhuman strength, pushing his way toward the stage.

“Bastard,” spoken from a youth, shoved by the possessed man against his girlfriend, a petite brunette in black stiletto heels. She fell into the arms of a broad chested blonde man with a white t-shirt with the words “Jackhammered’s Security”. The youth held a bottle of Stroh’s beer which he used as an efficient mini billy club against the back of the possessed man’s head.

A knife appeared in the crowd. Someone screamed. Another beer bottle soared over the dance floor; that was answered with return fire. The man in the pea green trench coat fell face forward between a bodybuilder and his obese, giggling girlfriend. Every mystic in the bar saw the dragon, an ethereal maroon, fly upward from the man’s body to collide with Carter’s harpy. The bodybuilder shoved Mr. Trenchcoat into a man wearing jeans and a white t-shirt. Brass knuckles slipped from his back jean pocket and onto his right hand. Cries of pain jumped about the bar. Sensible people crammed together as they pushed toward the glowing red EXIT signs.

The first mystic to react, Julia shot a tether toward the dragon. Swiveling its head toward the food source, the dragon fed even as Carter’s harpy landed on the back of its neck and dug its beak into the dragon’s ghostly flesh. Jax’s small mind harpy swooped from the rafters of the bar and found a niche in the dragon’s hide just below Carter’s harpy.

The wave of pleasure from Carter’s feeding harpy washed over Kelt like warm water on sweaty skin, easing his neck muscles, playing against his shoulders, massaging his chest, as the anima churned within him answering his harpy’s hunger. He sighed, almost forgetting the singer.

The noise woke Lisa Steiger. She shouted at the control room at the other end of the bar on the second floor. Someone understood her frantic waving, for the high pitched whine of sonic overdrive temporarily overpowered the rowdy crowd. Most remaining were faced from drinking three dollar beers from six ounce plastic mugs with a stinging eighty proof peppermint shooters served in disposable plastic test tubes–a Jackhammered’s pub specialty, but they craned their heads toward the stage, every one of them.

Lisa Steiger softly sang:

 

I was there the day you first cried

wond’ring what was His alibi.

But God never had to answer you

with more than my arms around you.

My baby, don’t be blue.

 

Lisa Steiger’s heart chakra anima pulsed to her cadence, but Kelt knew that only the mystics in the bar appreciated the sudden, angelic light surrounding the serene singer. Still, the crowd quieted, and the remaining fans crowded around the stage to hear another number. The drummer took out his brush and caressed his snare drum.

 

Gaze into my eyes with your innocent blue.

You play my tune; your piping’s true.

Only you could bind me; how’d you ever find me?

I can’t measure up for you.

My baby, don’t be blue.

 

Tethers formed from the anima surrounding her. The white glowing ropes snaked their way into the crowd touching the blind walkers, quieting them. Kelt watched the relaxation of social masks within the crowd. Cheeks became flaccid and wet with tears; drunks closed their eyes and went into a somnolent trance as Lisa finished her song:

 

I’ll try. I’ll try.

That’s my only alibi.

I will always comfort you,

so my baby, don’t be blue.

 

The crowd was silent. Kelt expected them to break out into spontaneous applause any second now, but people just filed out of the bar. Lisa Steiger’s tethers still wove through the crowd touching and being unconsciously touched by the blind walkers, her fans. One tether snaked toward Kelt; he glanced up at the stage and saw Lisa Steiger looking directly at him. He touched it.

Fear. That slipped into the anima rope extended to him. She regarded him like a dragon. Kelt wondered if she was even aware of the tethers she shot into the crowd, or if it was an unconscious side effect of her singing. But the acuteness of her gaze toward him and her glances at his mind harpies indicated otherwise.

The dragon faded into nihility, and Jax’s little mind harpy had a darker, aggressive sheen to its body. Jax was transfixed by the tether connected to his mind harpy, like the dull eyed patrons leaving the bar.

All of them, himself included, had been raised into a passive existence–talking, watching the telly, reading, even the radio in cars, all distractions from an active non-verbal life, a life like Lisa Steiger’s, the way she made music. Grammar’s cognitive determination of events with its subject-verb-object scheme and its defining reality with names simply vanished from her music, like jumping into the soul fire. To Kelt, Lisa’s music refuted Carol’s words define reality mantra. Kelt shook his head; how can you describe the inexpressable, the transcendant? Carol would never believe him.

Kelt walked onto the stage and stood in front of Lisa Steiger. Her face was sharp: a strong nose with a safety pin through her left nostril, blonde hair spiked in the front with some shiny goop, and black mascara carelessly smudged–as far as Kelt could tell–over her eyes. She wore a plain t-shirt, holed and stained red with some cherry Kool-aid to look as if bullets had riddled her body. Her eyes sparkled at Kelt, literally.

Jackhammered’s emptied, save for the roadies, bar employees and the people on the stage. Lisa Steiger’s band crowded around her, while Julia, Marc, and Jax formed a tight semi-circle around Kelt.

“Who are you?” she asked matter of factly, with a tinge of arrogance.

“A lost builder. Does that mean anything to you?” Kelt spoke, but was disoriented, as if the words tumbled of themselves from his jaws. Lisa maintained the tether between them, increased the empathy between them. He was tempted to call one of his harpies, but no. He felt her fear.

She snapped at him, “Of course, I know what a lost builder is. I’ve seen the shooting stars around this bar; I played this gig to find out who else saw the things I see. Haven’t you been listening to my music?”

“It’s impressive.”

“Thank you.”

Confusion through the tether. It shrank. Kelt sliced it with a small soul blade.

Lisa didn’t move.

Kelt didn’t speak.

Finally, Lisa said, “That was a dragon.”

Kelt answered stoically, deathly afraid he’d make the wrong impression with her and not understanding why he was so defensive of a sudden, “That was a dragon. More will be coming.”

Julia interrupted, “Carol knows we’re here. I’m not sure it was a good idea to band together. Each of us has dragons after us that know our scent. That gives Carol that many more clues to track us down. Maybe we’d be better off going it alone.”

Marc replied softly, “So she can murder us one by one? Individually, none of us are a match for her, except maybe Kelt.”

Jax stepped forward; he introduced himself quietly to Lisa, babbled something awkwardly about how much he liked her music; then, he turned to Kelt and said, “We should take Carol down. Two lost builders should be more than enough.”

“I was with Carter the day he died in the outer darkness against her hungers. I am a lost builder. That made two.”

“But Kelt, you’re stronger now. You have that coldness-darkness-cat inside you. You’re a predator now, just like Carol. We could–“

Kelt spun around. His left hand lunged forward, but he caught himself just before his small soul blade entered Jax’s mid section. “Damn you,” Kelt growled, “I–I–Don’t push me, Jax. Carter was always stronger than me, and this–this thing inside me isn’t a predator, and I’m not sure–dammit–I’m not sure it’ll have any effect on someone as driven as Carol. She almost is what she has tamed, with no doubts, no sublimations.”

Julia asked, “A dragon?”

Marc softly asked, “And is surety a defense against that darkness you own–or does it own you?”

Kelt gazed at him. Sly. Cunning lurked beneath Marc’s stony coldness. “Already figuring a way to take me down, Marc? I suggest you wait til we’ve gotten Carol. I didn’t force Beth to become a lost builder.”

Marc said, “I like power as much as the next man. I meant nothing personal. I’m simply trying to understand what it is you have within you.”

“Then become lost. You’ll never understand if you insist on being tied to the hard world.”

“I like my body and my Earth. It’s natural.”

Julia whispered a warning: “Kelt.”

Kelt nodded. He took a deep breath and turned to Lisa. A long soul blade in her hand wavered near his collarbone. The rest of Cobalt Cure gave Kelt and the others hard looks.

Kelt said, “You have an enemy. As a mystic and artist you’ve tried not only to define reality for yourself, but also to share the reality you’ve uncovered within yourself with those around you who were of a similar nature, who could appreciate your words and art. Am I right?”

Lisa Steiger stared blankly at him. Kelt’s heart sank. He was sure he had taken the wrong tack with this woman. Her rock’n’roll focused life was at odds with his blue collar past, student past, and fanatic present. Kelt grinned ruefully when his whimsical thoughts described himself as a fanatic, but it was true–and truth could be a point of fanaticism, too.

She shoved his shoulder with her free hand. “What’s with you? That’s the second time you’ve drifted off. What a daydreamer! Are all lost builders like him?” But she smiled lightly, almost coquettishly–a delightfully incongruous foreground against her harsh stage make-up.

Jax licked his lips and spoke quickly. His thin frame, tense as a guitar string. “No. No. Kelt’s travelled too far; he’s been lost too long; he’s picked up something from the outer darkness. Carter–he was our teacher–sort of–Carter–He taught not to bridge; that is, not to shoot a bridge too deeply into the outer darkness. But Kelt–So Kelt–” And then he stopped his fumfering, having completely lost his train of thought in front of Lisa Steiger. “Anyway, you’d like being a lost builder. I could show you how. To become one, I mean.”

Her smile was more kindly to Jax. Jax beamed at her. Only Kelt who knew him, Kelt who knew him better than anyone realized how manic Jax’s beaming, haggard face was, how desperately Jax hungered for an end to his loneliness.

Kelt watched as Jax threw away a dignity he barely realized he possessed and fawned like a golden retriever in front of this small, gaudy woman.

Kelt said, “I’m not the issue. Being a lost builder is not yet the issue, Ms. Steiger.”

“Lisa, please.”

Kelt inclined his head impatiently and continued, “The issue, Lisa, is whether or not you understand what I told you, whether you understand the danger you are in.”

“What does singing have to do with these dragons? Why’d it wreck my concert? No.” She stamped the stage in frustration. The hardwood floor gave up only a dull thump. Lisa continued, “No. I don’t understand your mumbo-jumbo. I’m a builder, yes. My father taught me. It’s a useful tool, a good weapon to defend myself on the streets, and it keeps my audience focused on my music. It helps me move people. It’s a tool, like my voice.”

“N-no, it’s more, m-much more.” Jax blurted. “Your light is you. The quintessential expression of who you are. What you do with it shows more clearly than anything, even your words or your hands, whether you’re good or evil or just another lost man.”

Kelt balled his hand into a fist. How quickly Jax had taken up the banner of moral dualism–good and evil! Pathetic! But such a convenient way to paint yourself as the hero, to bathe in the lambent glow of the virtuous before your paramour. Jax, who espoused living for the moment, hopped like a horny bunny onto the slippery slope of morality. The haggard white knight-lost builder-fool and lonely Jax. A shiver ran down Kelt’s spine: How long would it be? How many years of wandering alone would it take to bend his perceptual view of reality to lure another’s attention?

Abruptly, Kelt spoke; each whispered word floated like loose balloons into the conversation, “But there’s joy in lonely wandering, too.”

“What?” Lisa snorted; then laughed. “This guy is fried. I’ve known acidheads who’ve held up better than him. If he’s your leader, count me out.”

She turned to the band, “Let’s pack it up, boys. We’re through here.”

Jax whined to Kelt, “Do something. You promised me, Kelt. An end to this. Someone to see as I see. You promised.”

“No. No one can promise that, Jax.”

His words were sad, but a hot orange ball of light burned in the pit of Kelt’s stomach, making his testicles shrink and his eyes water from hate, hate, hate of this world, of people’s inability to see the need of other people, of their willingness to “pack it in” when someone screams in front of your face for salvation–but you’re blind, blind, blind and you just can’t spare the time for a pathetic creature like Jax, who had more pain within him than was comfortable to look at.

It was there in the room. The bassist rubbed his arms from the sudden chill, though he wasn’t a mystic. Julia, Jax, and Marc crowded behind Kelt for protection. Color drained from Lisa Steiger’s face; her empathy told her she was the target, had to be the target; and if not that, the panther’s growling spoke all the warning she needed, but the whirlpool eyes of ebony that she gazed into drained her of her resolve. Her soul blade flickered out.

Lisa collapsed.

The panther moved into her–the darkness. Entered through her eyes, though they burned with her soul energy. Goosebumps raised on her flesh. Lisa’s eyes went as dull and timid as any blind walker.

Jax hissed in his ear, “Kelt, are you crazy? What are you doing?”

Kelt answered, “It knows what it’s doing.” But he was lying; he had ordered it, maybe not verbatim, but with his passion. The lover of ignorance slipped out to punish Lisa Steiger, to punish all the people who had ever slighted Kelt, who had ever been blind to his pain and loneliness.

“But that’s everyone.” Kelt mumbled to no one, to the panther.

“Yes.” a bloated, sated, dreamy voice answered through the black tether connecting his panther to his heart chakra. “Everyone is ignorant of everyone else’s pain. No two see alike. Ignorance is everywhere. I exist on all levels. There is no intimacy great enough to expel me.”

Kelt screamed, “Stop being so damned smug! Get out of her! Get out of her now! What are you doing to her?”

It crept out of her. Whirlpool eyes glowed orange, like the ball of light Kelt had imagined in his gut.

The panther swung its head from side to side, fixed each mystic in the bar with its cold fire gaze. Each mystic felt veils, layered beyond their sight within the black panther’s gaze. Ignorance diminished them and sent a nausea through their bodies, whirling nausea of the overwhelming darkness lurking just beyond the edge of their ordinary twilight. The mystics shrank from the panther, hunched their shoulders, looked to the stage floor, instinctively huddled closer together behind Kelt.

It walked toward Kelt on drifts of stale smoke. Kelt met its gaze without flinching. The panther castrated the beliefs of its victims, forced them to admit it as utterly beyond their comprehension, implying that their closest lover may be beyond their comprehension.

The black panther was clear to Kelt’s vision now.

“Yes,” it purred to Kelt through the tether. “You are my avatar. I am not bound to you as the harpies are; you are bound to me. How could you not choose me? You came to my realm intuitively as you fled Carol Foster. Your first void is conformable to my nature as you are a conformable gate to the hard world for me. We are brothers.”

The panther slipped into Kelt’s doppelganger, gave a passing, contemptuous growl to his two shivering mind harpies and blended into the darkness of Kelt’s first void.

“No.” Kelt whispered a denial, but felt some truth in it, and a part of him was glad to feel a kinship with the panther. It was potent, a giddy tool. He felt superior to those intimidated by his panther. And, Kelt admitted, he needed their ignorance to manipulate them into becoming lost builders, capable of facing Carol Foster in the outer darkness.

As her bassist helped her to her feet, Lisa said, “Cold, so cold. Whatever that thing is, it showed me Carol. It knows things, but it doesn’t. It’s sick, sick.” She hugged herself. “I’ll help. How can you live with that thing–that bitter coldness–inside you?”

His feeling of superiority evaporated.

 

14

 

In the narrow strip of sky outlined by the tall concrete buildings overhead, grey clouds stagnated, while below the wind whipped through the refuse in the streets, creating dust devils. The mystics watched and huddled together in an alley as they waited for Jax to return with Beth. A waxed Beth would need help. He trusted Jax now enough for that task.

“You’re the leader, Kelt.” Julia spoke. “We’ve got tricks, but nothing like that darkness in you. I don’t know if it’s any better than a dragon, but at least it and you aren’t trying to kill us.”

Lisa leaned against the side of a First Jefferson Savings and Loan building, a thick blond wall. She said, “Then, tell me, Leader Kelt: Why the hell have we been roaming the streets for the last two days? My band’s auditioning for a new singer to sing my lyrics.”

Marc whispered as he stuffed his hands into his pockets, “Would you rather be dead? We agreed that Carol had probably spied out our location from the outer darkness or from her dragons, hanging back in the crowd at her command, staying inside their blind walker host bodies. She was searching for you.” Marc turned and ineffectually kicked at a flattened cigarette package of Camel filters on the asphalt as he muttered, “Though I don’t enjoy being homeless, either.”

Kelt spoke, his voice almost a harsh growl, “Then become lost. That’s what we’re waiting for.”

“You know my answer.”

Kelt confronted Marc. “Then, what good are you? Carter died trying to defend lost builders from your kind.”

Julia stepped between them. “Enough, Kelt. You can’t force us. We’re with you, but only so far. Carter was our enemy; we’re used to fighting lost builders. Your kind brought the dragons, gave them a path to Earth–or at least made it too easy for the damn things to get here. Now, you demand too much. You can’t ask someone to give up their humanity. No matter what the cause.”

“Is that it, Julia?” Kelt looked at her. He felt manic, akin to Jax. Had since moving again into the street. He had thought the streets would have been nostalgic, reminding him of Carter, but he was not a teacher at heart, nor a general. He wanted his freedom, didn’t want builders hanging on him, and he didn’t feel vengeful at Carol anymore. Just tired. Nervous. “Lost builders are monsters, huh? You know better. Carter was your enemy, but you respected him.”

Marc whispered, “You’re not Carter.”

“But I am a monster. Is that it, Marc?” His harpies squawked within his heart chakra, unsettling him further. Kelt was tired of magic. All the pyrotechnics didn’t bring him any closer to what he wanted: the Answer. Magic just embroiled him in a sordid affair of violence: a vain game where the losers were swallowed by dragons.

“I need a bath.” Lisa muttered.

Julia soothed, “We’re all sick of the streets.” She turned toward Kelt; her curly raven hair fluttered in a suddenly chilly breeze as she said, “Only you and Jax seem at home here.”

Marc said, “He should be back by now. I don’t trust him. Never have.”

Lisa eyed Marc, but she spoke casually, “Letting things slip, eh, Marc? Think you should be talking that way about a partner?”

Marc exhaled forcefully. “I’m worried about my sister, that’s all.” He pounded the heel of his palm against the building. “God, I can’t believe I’ve been reduced to this, to living like a bum.” Then, he took a deep breath and looked at his sneakers, black high tops. He stood very still as his breathing became inaudible.

Kelt felt the walls slam down: Marc closed off his emotions from him. Kelt didn’t like that, didn’t trust Marc and wanted to read Marc’s state of mind with his lost builder empathy. Marc went dull like a lump of mud, hardening against the sun.

All his mystics had diverse abilities, garnered from the very individuality and volatility of their personal experience. That scared Kelt: How can you trust when you can never know somebody, know what they’ll do? What they’ve thought or done in the silent moments of their lives would always hide in a panther-like darkness from Kelt, and, he admitted, he liked it that way. He hated his loneliness, but not so much that he would choose to be bonded into their guilt, their spidery secrets, their niggling anxieties–People could be tedious distractions.

Abruptly, Kelt laughed at his conflicting thoughts.

Lisa glanced at him from under her wispy blond eyebrows and snorted. “Day tripper.” She lowered herself onto her rolled up sleeping bag to rest her feet. Grey and black stains covered her suede boots. She massaged her feet by rubbing the felt boots with her hands. Her head sawed in rhythm with her hands, a sad yielding to her fate, Kelt guessed.

Jax’s voice echoed across the street against the buildings and asphalt and concrete, “Hello, brother!” Jax walked arm in arm with Beth across the same intersection that Kelt had fought off a dragon with Carter, that he had bridged into Jax. Kelt didn’t even realize he had chosen the same corner until just now when Jax had surprised him–again.

More forces determined one’s actions, Kelt realized with a shudder, than conscious thought. Was this choice of locale an example of Carol Foster’s reality view taking precedence over objective reality? Kelt looked at the buildings and the traffic light as his harpies roused. The ghosts of his and Carter’s fight against the dragons, Julia, and Jax replayed itself. His harpies’ talons squeezed his memories into a painful clarity. A predatory scene, a jungian collective unconscious bent toward a predator’s mentality, toward Carol Foster’s perception of reality, played through Kelt’s mind: the brutality of a soul blade sticking in his back, the quiet impact of a blind walker’s head against the pavement.

“Shit,” Kelt muttered and shook his head rapidly. Maybe in the back of his mind he just wanted to return to where he and Jax had achieved that painful joining; and Carol had nothing at all to do with his choice. Or Carol Foster guided the collective unconscious–Who could really tell why they did what they did? Carter’s lesson: One path of self awareness leads to enlightenment; the other, to insanity.

“Shit,” Kelt muttered again.

Jax prodded Kelt’s shoulder with his bony index finger. A nervous, wan smile played across Jax’s thin lips as he asked, “You practicing to take up moshing, Kelt? Kelt? Hey, Kelt, what’s wrong with you?”

Kelt looked up into Jax’s nervous, beady eyes that now pushed a loving concern at him, and Kelt welcomed it, for he felt on the edge again. “I don’t think I can trust my thoughts anymore. I think Carol’s in my brain.”

 

15

 

Julia threw up her arms in disgust.

Beth giggled. Her jeans were two sizes too large for her doppelganger, which was pale. Kelt saw the tremor in her hands as she greeted him with a handshake. Her skin was ice cold and clammy, but her eyes burned.

Beth smiled at him and whispered conspiratorially, “It’s good. Good to be lost. To have a ‘ganger. I feel immortal.” She laughed and sighed, “I feel free.”

But then she stepped back from Kelt to let her brother take up a protective stance between Kelt and herself. Kelt felt the free floating anxiety slipping past Marc’s stoic facade; he was sure Beth had felt it, too.

Marc said, “Speak plainly, Kelt. We’re all under pressure. We’re all tired from fighting dragons. Can you lead us?”

Jax shoved Marc off balance. The dark haired builder’s shoulder struck the wall of the building as his left foot skidded off a crushed soda can.

Beth pointed at her brother and laughed out loud.

Marc growled, a weird phlegmatic gurgling from deep in the back of his throat. He reached down, grabbed the Diet Coke can and, wiggling the ends, ripped it in half, giving him paper thin aluminum knives in each hand. He stood and took a step toward Jax.

“Hey!” Jax cried out. “What are you doing? Listen, I apologize, but Kelt’s our leader.” Jax’s mind harpy slipped from his heart chakra and plunged into Marc.

Marc collapsed onto the pavement, his head lying against the curb. It was nearing five o’clock in the afternoon; the flow of pedestrians increased as well as the panhandlers, who meticulously avoided the corner that the mystics had appropriated. The pedestrians continued in their suits and jogging shorts and jeans to resolutely pursue their chosen, albeit unseen, path, to the point of stepping over the newly sleeping Marc.

Kelt walked up to Julia and touched her lightly on the shoulder. He spoke quietly, seeking only her attention. “That’s why you have to become lost builders. You’re too easy to manipulate, tied to your natural bodies and your natural rhythms of life. A mind harpy can fool your unconscious and autonomic brain functions into thinking it’s nap time or even make you hyperventilate or puke. Carol could take all of you out by herself and send her dragons at Jax and I and now Beth, too. Join us. She has too much advantage on the hard world with dragons.”

Meanwhile, Lisa hauled Marc by the shoulders and propped his back against the savings and loan building. She muttered, “What an idiot. I shouldn’t be here. I’ve signed on with a bunch of effin looneys.”

Then the dragons came, gliding around the skyscrapers, perching on the lion headed cornices of old concrete buildings, erupting from the bodies of the pedestrians. All the creatures craned their necks toward the mystics and rumbled from the back of their long throats, a pleasurable bass. It vibrating the bones, caressed the base of the skull.

A moan escaped Julia’s lips. She asked, “How? How did she find us so soon?”

Kelt’s harpies flew from their nest and joined Jax’s mind harpy; they patrolled, quietly circling the mystics. The dragons watched them as their humming loudened.

Lisa turned from Marc and took a deep breath. Her voice shrieked, a squeal of fear, but she dropped off her note with a sudden disciplined decrescendo. Anima flowed from her heart chakra; it did not erupt from her chest as tendrils, but shined as thin, spiky rays of white light.

Her voice slid over her words in a monotonous loathing of what she sang. Her tone vibrated a half step above the dragons’ rumbling to create a shivering dissonance. Kelt winced and covered his ears, but Lisa’s crescendo pushed, accented the notes as she matched her song in a despairing counterpoint to the rumbling of hunger from the dragons:

 

Paralytic!

 

The flesh hangs loose on your bones

waiting for your call. A sinew atrophied

wastes away your dreams of need

in antiseptic hell, bed sored and alone.

 

Crisp white sheets stained in yellow despair

of a body no longer commanded by your pride

left to the dull eyed officious care

of a nurse, murmuring pathetic, bland sweet lies.

 

You’ll get better, forever

as she brushes your straw with nylon needles.

Wherever your endeavor?

Choosing heavy apathy that slowly palls

 

your breath to a sour languid sleep

in the daytime of your youth.

I watch, impotent as you, and weep

lying tube laden by you.

 

Let go let go let go

The narrowing future runs slow

as the past mocks your mind.

Sunken flesh and cloudy eyes cry,

it is time.

 

The dragons stopped their rumbling, glided in circles in uniform motion. Their necks jerked against the andante, slurring rhythm in Lisa Steiger’s voice. As her song neared its completion, the spiky rays of Lisa’s anima impacted the dragons. As each was touched, it meandered from the circling formation, plunged its astral coils into walls, dove dumbly into the ground, or sank into the flesh of the pedestrians going to and fro down the street.

When her last note trailed to a whispering conclusion, the mystics were alone, save for the stares of some of the blind walkers who had stopped and listened to Lisa’s song. “Weird,” a sallow man muttered, scratched his belly that lapped slightly over his belt, and continued on his trek.

Kelt clutched his head. Lisa’s rays of anima had flared outward from her, indiscriminately striking the other mystics and blind walkers as well as the dragons. His harpies grabbed Lisa’s anima, investing the song’s passion into old memory twigs in Kelt’s nest: Grief overwhelmed Kelt as he relived the closed casket funeral of his father; Carter’s harpy pushed the anima it had grabbed into Kelt’s memory of Carter’s death.

But Carter’s death didn’t mesh well with Lisa’s music. His mentor had died violently, abruptly before Kelt’s eyes, with no closure of officious funeral procedures. Like a nordic hero quelled in a violent youth, Carter went out in combat against what he hated–larger than effin life.

But the difference was not profound, not in the end. Death signalled the end of reality interpretation, the quieting of the constant internal monologue of conflict–conflicting desires, conflicting logic strings. Violent or passive, it terminated the same, always the same, and any hope for enlightenment lay with his Answer, not in Lisa’s manipulative song.

He pushed away his forced tears harshly, commanded his harpies to settle in his nest. He had sunk to the pavement on his knees with his arms hugging his chest.

“Damn,” Kelt muttered and took a deep breath as he looked for his friends.

Lisa stood with her arms around Julia. She whispered an apology. Goosebumps covered her skin as well as a cold sweat; she was waxed and leaned against Julia almost as much as she hugged her.

Julia cried, her shoulders shook. She moaned once, “Jacqueline,” but any other thoughts she kept to herself. The sorrow in Lisa’s song had drowned out Kelt’s empathy.

Jax squatted on the ground, facing the building. Kelt walked toward him. A short soul blade in his hand dug its edge into his other palm. He whispered as if chanting, “No more, no more, no more.”

Kelt grabbed his right wrist. Jax’s soul blade shrank and faded away. He turned at his torso toward Kelt and hugged him, as if in supplication: a slave begging his master for mercy. “Thank you. G-God, I thought I was trapped. Pictures in my mind. A hospital. Suffocating, alone, unable to move, to run or wander. I hate hospitals. Death houses.”

“Get up, damit. Stop whining.” Kelt lifted Jax to his feet.

He didn’t like seeing Jax so close to the edge. Kelt admitted a link with Jax, an intimacy greater than the normal lost builder empathy that attached him to others. That first soul joining on this street had imprinted them together. Jax’s images penetrated into his mind: scent of antiseptic and urine, ribbed sunlight coming through venetian blinds that striped a small bed with a lying Manichaen simplicity, a woman on green sheets with that wispy dirty blonde hair like Jax’s, but she was thinner than even Jax, famine thin. At that moment, Jax whispered in Kelt’s ear, “Yes, our trapped mother.” More than the imagery: The ragged, jagged nervous fright washed through Kelt’s mind, a wave stinking of Jax’s mental sewage.

“Breath deeply, Jax. Command your mind harpy to settle in its nest.”

“Uhn.” Jax gasped and nodded in agreement.

The images in Kelt’s mind floated into his subconscious, snatched by the talons of his mind harpies, even as, Kelt knew, Jax’s little mind harpy did the same for him.

Jax stood erect and faced Kelt with a lost builder, mind harpy induced calm that mirrored the tranquility in Kelt’s eyes, as memories flattened, stretched to invisibly thin twigs by their harpies.

 

16

 

Julia approached. She was not calm, clenching and flexing her tiny hands. She blurted, “Beth and Marc are gone.”

Kelt turned from Jax and asked, “Lisa, did you see them leave?”

Julia said, “How? We were all consumed by her song. Why?”

Lisa crouched on the sidewalk, her back leaned against the brick building. She languidly shook her head. Her blonde hair clung to her sweaty forehead.

Jax walked over to her. “Honey, you’ve got to try to remember.”

“I’m not your honey. Back off, Jax. I’m tired.”

“You’re waxed.” Kelt murmured.

Kelt appreciated Lisa for rescuing them from a fight that they probably would have lost. In the back of his mind, he was glad that her singing cost her dearly, that her power had limits. Carol had been his ally once. Kelt never forgot that.

He preferred to trust from a position of strength, though such thoughts dirtied him in his own mind. He knew of no escape from that manipulative self conception, except Carol’s escape–the madness in the outer darkness. It tempted him. Disown your self in exchange for the vast emptiness, the cold floating calm. Kill your own harpies, cut the past. No more responsibility. It tempted him, Kelt shuddered.

In a loud voice to shake himself Kelt said, “Don’t take it out on Jax. We should move from here. Carol knows this place now. Too much has happened on this little intersection. Too much magic. Someone like Carol–huhn–This place probably glows to her sight.”

Lisa slumped on top of her sleeping bag, head in hands, hair covering her face. “We can’t just keep running. Carol’s picking us off, one by one.”

“We’ve got to do something.” Julia demanded. “They believed in me, followed me. I’m responsible.”

“No.” Jax said, walking back toward Kelt and Julia. “No one’s responsible for another. We’re all alone.”

“Oh, geez,” Julia said, “won’t you and Kelt please put away the bullshit? We’re not on some academic ethics lecture circuit. Marc and Beth are gone now. They’re in danger now. Jax, Kelt’s given you that analytical coldness in him. I hate it.” She turned to Kelt. “But it makes you a good leader, Kelt. And you’ve got the most magic. You bested Jax and me, and you convinced Beth to become lost. You’ve got to do something. I’m sick of running. Lisa’s right. We’re prey to Carol Foster. She’s separating each of us from this herd mentality that you’ve locked us into. Do something.”

Kelt stared at her and breathed in the exhaust from the passing cars and metro buses. The mechanical cacophony didn’t help his concentration. This city got noisier by the minute.

Lisa picked up her rolled up sleeping bag; shiny black nylon straps looped over her shoulder, letting the bulky cylinder dangle loosely under her left armpit. Her left arm hung out akimbo over the bag.

After jostling it into position, Lisa joined them and said, “Marc and Beth chose to leave. They couldn’t have left during my song. I would have felt it. I’m connected to the anima that I project when I’m singing. None of the dragons were bloated, so they weren’t devoured.”

Julia brightened, her care lines fading for a moment as she continued Lisa’s argument, “Besides, we would have found Marc’s body, if that were the case. Since he’s a builder, not a doppelganger lost builder, his body wouldn’t have disintegrated with the loss of will. They chose to leave before the dragons attacked.”

Jax laughed without mirth. “They turned chicken and ran. I always knew Marc had no balls.”

Kelt said, “It couldn’t have been Marc’s choice. Jax, your mind harpy put him to sleep before the dragons appeared.”

Jax nodded. “Yeah, Beth could’ve used her mind harpy to pull Marc’s anima and body after her, so long as she formed her soul bridge no farther than her first void to keep Marc’s body safe. They’ve probably landed by now. Probably came down from the first void while we were zonked by Lisa’s song.” He stuck his hands in his jeans’ pockets and shrugged his bony shoulders. “Who gives a shit about’em. They’ve always had each other. What about us?”

Lisa snorted. “That’s great, Jax. Why not just say it with a Hallmark card?”

Julia said, “I want to be sure they’re all right.”

Kelt gently laid his hand on her shoulder and tried to summon up a compassionate look, as Carter had done for him after his run in with Jax. “There’s nothing we can do. We can’t find them until they shoot a bridge. Neither can Carol. As long as they lay low, they’ll be safe.”

Julia pursed her lips and nodded.

Kelt added, “Unless you have some abilities we don’t know about, Lisa?”

Jax said, “Whatever we do, we’ve got to get moving.”

Julia interjected, “Don’t change the subject, Jax. If Lisa can help find Marc and Beth, now’s the time to speak up.”

Kelt started walking. The others followed behind him. Everyone’s nerves raked at his lost builder empathy, giving everyone an aggressive edge to their personalities, an edge like Carol Foster. Only Lisa, waxed, was more tired than anxious.

Yet Kelt heard Lisa curtly answer Julia: “I’ve wasted more anima in the last two days with you builders than I do in two months of concerts. I don’t owe you any answers. You intruded in my life.”

Jax said, “Blame Carol.”

“So you say.” Lisa replied while rubbing her hands together for warmth. The twilight brought a chilly breeze through the street. Her damp hair matted against her forehead and nape.

She shivered and rubbed her arms.

Jax took off his leather jacket, tried to hand it to her. He held out his arm, waiting forlornly as they walked. He grimaced and put his jacket back on. “Damn.”

Lisa looked at him. Jax stared straight ahead as he walked. She said, “I don’t owe you anything and I don’t want to end up owing you. That’s how they get their hooks in you.”

“What?” Annoyance crept into Jax’s voice. He gritted his teeth to bite back his temper. “Who are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about everyone. They is everyone. Everyone wants to use you, betray you when they’re tired of you.”

“Wow,” Julia interrupted, “who stole your lollipop when you were a kid?”

Lisa smirked and said, “I never gave anyone the effin chance.”

Jax said, with an uncharacteristic quiet, “And you never gave anyone the chance to care either.”

“Oh, that’s great.” Lisa laughed, but her voice shook, perhaps from the chill wind.

An ambulance roared through the intersection as they waited to cross. Its weeoooweeooo siren blotted out conversation for a moment. Then, Lisa said, “And Jax is supposed to be my hero, who’s going to sweep into my life and teach me about caring and loving, like some great, big, purple dinosaur. You don’t fit the image, quite.”

Julia gave Jax’s hand a gentle squeeze before letting go and saying to Lisa, “You might be surprised, if you’d stop acting like the ice queen and give him a chance to be your friend.”

Lisa shook her head and said, “To quote the Doors, ‘Music is my only friend.'”

“You’re as lonely as I am.” Jax said, “You know music can’t stop that kind of pain.”

“You’re wrong. Music and hard work take the place. Music comforts more securely than any lover. You don’t need trust. Music gives you a beauty that won’t fade, that won’t stop being beautiful. People get old, get sick, die–or just get tired of you.”

Kelt rubbed the sleeve of his red sweatshirt across his forehead. The twilight breeze had vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. The air had grown thicker, staler. Lisa’s dour monologue didn’t help. Perspective warped for Kelt. Looking down the street, the buildings, roads and vehicles smudged to a pinpoint in the distance, like an exaggerated El Greco sketch of the city. Pedestrians walked with their coats slung over their shoulders; many just milled about the streets. Another siren, lower pitched, a police car, Kelt thought, howled in the distance. A hooker in tight jeans and loose, grimy yellow tanktop shouted up at an old woman with neon green curlers covering her head; leaning her flabby body out the second story window of a brick townhouse, she shouted at the hooker in a scratchy voice of too many cigarettes smoked. Kelt couldn’t make out the words. Their argument just added to the irritating background noises of the streets.

Julia complained, “Kelt, where are we going? Where are you taking us? It’s hot. I feel like I’m suffocating. Dammit, I’m sick of this.”

“Me, too. What kind of weather is this?” Lisa chimed in.

Kelt picked up his pace, almost jogging. Goosebumps appeared on his skin even as he sweated and his face felt flushed. “Herd mentality, Julia. You said that.” Kelt spoke as he glanced over his shoulder at her. He feared they would disappear, too. That some ogre would swoop down and gobble them up. Childish. “It’s the air that made you put it that way. But we’re not animals. We know we aren’t.”

“Self awareness.” Lisa said.

Jax snorted. “That’s our curse. Right, Kelt? The curse of Eden’s apple tree.”

Lisa barked a laugh, short, for it was quickly strangled by a car radio blasting its bass: thump-pa DUMP, thump-pa-DUMP. The heavyset ruddy cheeked teenager in the driver’s seat pounded the steering wheel in time to the beat. He reminded Kelt of a chimpanzee he had watched on the TV. A National Geographic show depicted abused primates sold as pets. The chimpanzee sat in a corner; hour after hour the wretched animal pounded a child’s red plastic mallet against its knee, even while it ate an apple with its other hand.

Kelt rubbed at his eyes and said, “I’m not ready to say self awareness is a curse.” He turned his gaze from the traffic. Suddenly, he didn’t want that driver, or anyone else prowling the city to notice them. “Self awareness–actualized life–for mystics, for everybody is more than good and evil. Morality masks reality. Distinguishing your self from not self and other selves defines our environment, allows us to step back and ruminate, not just act with instinct–free will, control of your actions, power, power over your environment. A virtuous act requires freewill to be virtuous, and a conscious act requires the knowledge that you are a seperate identity.”

Lisa jogged ahead to get even with Kelt and look him in the eye. “I follow you. My bassist and I used to talk about this sort of shit while we killed a twelve pack of Budweiser. But you didn’t follow through. You didn’t say why you needed knowledge of other selves. Your requirement for a virtuous act can be environmental–recycling empty beer cans.”

Kelt grimaced. “You’re playing with my words.”

Jax moved up beside Lisa and said, “So? You’re not preaching a liturgy. Or are you? You trying to influence us?”

Julia stepped on the heel of his sneaker. It popped out and Jax almost stumbled. He hopped on one foot while fixing his shoe. “Dammit,” he muttered.

Julia took his spot to Lisa’s left. They formed a walking wall down the sidewalk, though they moved around other pedestrians. Julia said, “I still don’t understand how this will help us find Marc and Beth.”

Jax, having fallen behind, shouted, “They’re not our friggin’ problem. They’re adults, you mother hen. Carol and her freakin’ dragons’re the problem. Or have you been in a coma?”

Lisa said, “Will you two shut up? You didn’t let me finish. What was I thinking? Damn, I lost my train of thought. Oh, yeah. You need knowledge of other selves for a compassionate act. A compassionate act requires all three categories of knowledge: self, not self, and other selves.”

Kelt walked for another ten paces before speaking, “I . . . suppose so, though self and not self are describing—circumscribing the same knowledge. Upon knowing one, the other must follow. Believe me, I know.” His eyes dimmed as a growling echoed across his first void, but then he looked at Lisa’s thoughtful face in the sunlight and nodded, “Then, a compassionate act forces you into humanity, sharing an actual existence within another’s eyes.”

“Hah,” Lisa crowed, “got you. Winning an argument with you is like pulling wisdom teeth–pun intended.”

He thought about her words. It made him feel less than human. Where had all those other selves been in his life? Those compassionate acts–strangers never showed need, not in public, not to him. They didn’t want his compassion–or Lisa’s. Music’s her only friend. She didn’t believe what she was saying. He glanced at her, at Jax; she followed his gaze, locked eyes with him. No, she didn’t believe it herself, not down deep, not soul deep. She, too, was a loner. Compassion, more of a pleasant social fantasy. Kelt didn’t cross the street, but took a left.

Jax caught up, grabbed Kelt’s shoulder and turned him around. “Wait. You can’t be going where I think you’re going. To your apartment?”

“Yes.” Kelt shrugged off his hand and kept walking. “It’s a question of atmosphere.”

Julia stepped in front of him. Her slight frame was juxtaposed by her erect posture and anima blazing eyes. “Kelt, that’s suicide. I know where your apartment is. Everybody knows where your apartment is. Christ, Carol was your friend.”

“Don’t remind me.” Kelt surprised himself at how cold his voice turned. He reminded himself of Marc.

“No.” Julia spoke just as flatly and a trail of anima leaked down her cheek toward her left arm.

“You want to duel me, Julia? Do you resent me taking over your clan that much?”

“What clan, dammit? Since you and Carter got together, Jax is the only one left with me–and even he’s a lost builder now. You’ve destroyed my clan. Marc and Beth are gone.”

Jax stood behind Julia.

Lisa backed to the side of a building. “What the hell’s going on? I thought we were together in this.”

Kelt looked at Jax, even as his mind harpies complained in his nest and stroked old memories of battle, battle with Julia, with Jax.

Kelt took a deep breath and commanded his mind harpies to quiet. He said, “You forget, Julia. Marc and Beth know where I live, too. The second time Jax came to assassinate me, he brought them. And Carter wasn’t responsible for your clan. You dogged him.” Even as he said the words, Kelt wished he had kept his mouth shut. Arguments played right into Carol’s hands; he wasn’t an argumentative type, at least not from anger, not from mindless passion. He had always preferred reason, logic.

“Carol’s still in my brain.” Kelt said, “We’ll discuss this when we get to my apartment. Let’s go–or murder me, Julia. I won’t fight you. I won’t give in to Carol this easily.”

Lisa murmured, “A perfect chance to get two mind harpies, Julia.”

“Oh, damn.” Julia cursed. “I–This isn’t finished, Kelt.” She squeezed her eyes closed and the anima disappeared.

All Kelt’s muscles relaxed and he heaved a sigh. His harpies chirruped and brushed against his twigs, making him nauseous. They didn’t want to settle down. Suddenly, Kelt knew he wasn’t relaxing of his volition; his lost builder empathy picked it up from someone else. He glanced at Julia, but she was anxious and upset. Jax’s haggard face was slack as he took in deep breaths. He caught Jax’s eyes with his.

Jax immediately held his breath. It passed between them with lost builder empathy: loyalty. But to who? Kelt wondered. If it had come to a duel, what would Jax have done? Kelt’s empathy found no answer, just the same backwater of anxiety that always immersed Jax’s stream of consciousness.

Kelt didn’t want to brush past Julia, but he couldn’t afford to stay on the streets and breathe in the tainted–Carol tainted, he feared–atmosphere of the city, like the increased humidity before a thunderstorm. “Black clouds are gathering. I’m sorry, Julia. I never wanted to hurt anyone. I never intended anything like this to happen. Carol is a tragedy. I just wanted to make things better.”

Lisa adjusted the shoulder strap of her sleeping bag and muttered with a forced calm, “What black clouds? The sky’s still clear to me.”

Julia stepped toward him. Kelt tensed for a moment; then relaxed as he accepted her hug. It only carried the warmth of friendship, not lust or love, but it eased the ache in his shoulders.

“I’m sorry, too.” She stepped back from him. “Sometimes, I’m sorry there ever was such a thing as magic. People weren’t made to have their desires come to life. It’s supposed to take more than just desire.”

Kelt nodded and said, “But Carol’s got it going for herself just that way. Like it or no.”

Jax spoke, “Well, I don’t like it. She’s got to be put down.” But Kelt felt more fear in Jax than anger or maliciousness–a far cry from the Jax he had first met, but no happier.

Abruptly, Kelt said, “When you’re lost, you’ve got to keep moving.”

The others followed him.

 

17

 

He passed the 7-11, though he was thirsty and wouldn’t have minded something sweet, a chocolate bar to distract him. But Kelt knew he had momentum. They followed him. He still didn’t believe he could push them very far.

The street lamps, the ones that hadn’t been shattered by vandals, coldly lit the asphalt pavement and concrete buildings. Kelt idly ran his finger around the edge of a trash can at the mouth of the alley as he passed it. It was cold to his touch. Fires burned here to warm the nights.

The aggressive panhandler was missing. Even the quiet ones who held up their phony signs and the old Vietnam war vet with his silver medal on his frayed, green army jacket had vanished. Kelt had always felt bothered and guilty about the dispossessed, but their sudden disappearance unnerved him. Their absence left a void on the streets. Air and space surrounded him–without oxygen, only loneliness.

A bicyclist rode by with the tapered helmet of the serious enthusiast, head down, legs pumping. He was gone, but then he was never really there. Kelt watched him roll around the corner, as his bike angled toward the earth, obeying the centripetal force and its rider. A sleek ghost. Never touching, never being touched.

Lisa roused Kelt from his reverie: “Jax! What are you waiting for? C’mon. I want to get off the streets.”

Kelt skirted a glance over his shoulder. He caught Jax’s thin silhouette against the cold lights, like a statue. Kelt’s lost builder empathy absorbed confusion and fear from Jax. Abruptly, Jax’s small harpy erupted from his chest and squawking furiously, dived down the alley and out of sight.

A sharp pain from Lisa pierced Kelt’s wide open empathy. Waxed as she was, she ran toward Jax while summoning anima to her eyes. Julia ran right behind her.

Kelt felt no hurry. He recognized the alley that fascinated Jax. And he was sure that he knew what Jax was looking at: a dead rat.

Kelt approached. His own fear rose in his throat. He only told himself that he needed Jax, needed the firepower against Carol Foster. Jax was a skilled assassin and that’s why he had to have him on his side, had to make sure that Jax held together, if only long enough to put down Carol Foster. He bit back other thoughts, bit back fear, but he needed the help of his mind harpies to regain calm.

A serene childhood memory drifted through his mind: a may day grade school celebration with little girls clutching pink ribbons as they danced around the maypole. The freshly cut lawn scented the air with a homey security. The girls wore identical patent leather shoes shined to a black varnish. Their plump faces, solemn. Those in the sun squinted until their cheeks wrinkled over their eyes. They fidgeted as they concentrated on their little dance with an almost comical seriousness that comforted Kelt. The gnats pestered child-Kelt while he stood in line waiting for a cotton candy and nervously watched the wasps flit about the pink fluff. As he approached Jax, the garbage from the dumpsters in the alley stole the taste of the sticky sweet cotton candy.

“I can’t go on. I’ll die again. I died here. I–I can’t go back, either.” Jax murmured into the alley. Kelt knew he was talking to him.

Jax’s mind harpy performed erratic loops and barrel rolls in the alley, flying spasmodically, and crying in a piteously pain filled squeak.

“No.” Kelt declared. He shot a tether from his forehead chakra. The white light wound around Jax’s mind harpy. The bird straightened its flight path and flew toward Jax. It settled on his shoulder and cheeped querulously at its master. Kelt retracted his calming tether.

Jax said, “Thanks, Kelt. But I’m serious. I can’t go on. It’s too much, too fast.” He reached into the inside pocket of his leather jacket, withdrew his sunglasses and put them on.

Lisa punched him in the back with her sleeping bag. Big and soft, it didn’t hurt, but sent Jax off his balance. He turned from the mouth of the alley and faced Lisa.

She said, “What’s with you? Are you crazy? You’re in a shadowed alley. You need sunglasses to shade your eyes from the two street lamps, or is that neon tobacco sign too bright for you? Or maybe you think you’re a hollywood star? Huh?” She smiled deliberately. Kelt watched her losing attempt to relate to Jax as if he were a normal individual, not the raw nerve he knew Jax to be.

Jax just looked at her and slowly shook his pendulous head on that skinny long neck. “Could I ever really love you? Love anyone? Being lost–It turns your eyeballs backward in their sockets.”

Lisa clutched her sleeping bag against her chest. The comparison accentuated just how small her torso was. How fragile she seemed. But her words sliced the humid air, “Damn you, Jax. One minute you’re mooning over me, the next you’re saying you don’t give a damn. But I’m a person, too, every bit as important as you. You need those glasses to act as blinds, you know that, you bastard? You’ve got coward’s eyes behind those shades. They’re turned around in their sockets, cause you’re too frightened to look at the real world, too frightened to see that others exist. Obsess on your pain. I don’t give a damn, but don’t drag me into your narcissistic nightmares.”

Jax pushed his sunglasses up onto his forehead. He reached out, grabbed the sleeping bag, and pulled Lisa toward him. “No, you don’t understand. I was a narcissist. I was happy. Or at least I made damn sure I pleasured myself.” He laughed awkwardly. “But—but I’m different now. Now, I want more. I want you.”

Jax craned his neck toward Lisa to kiss her.

She gently shoved at the soft sleeping bag and pushed him backward a step. “You just said you couldn’t love. Now, you’re making a play for–for what? A casual fuck? Not me, boy. You can go back to pleasuring yourself.”

Jax exhaled, covered his face with his hands, letting go of her sleeping bag. “That’s not what I meant. You don’t understand. How could you? No one’s–“

Lisa cut him off: “If you’re going to say that no one’s seen the trouble I’ve seen, I’m going to sock you in the damn jaw, right now.”

“It’s the impossibility of communion, ok?” Jax said, “How can I love you when I don’t even know you? How can I even trust you?”

“I never asked for your love. I don’t require it.”

Julia stepped toward Jax and slowly, gently took the sunglasses from his forehead. The street lights combining with the moving car headlights, Kelt noted, gave her pale face a ghost like, shifting beauty. Her gentle frown and calm eyes added a nobility and grace that caught at his breath.

But Julia focused on Jax and looked up at the gangly youth as she said, “It’s an imperfect world, Jax, with imperfect–maybe broken–people in it. What kind of world is it when the magi call themselves lost? If you can’t trust, blind faith is your only substitute. You’re looking at the future and the possibilities scare you–betrayal, death. Is loneliness any consolation, Jax? We’re a communal species. What was it Lisa said? Compassion requires other people. The best of you, Jax, is when you’re with us. We’re worth the risk. Marc and Beth are.”

Lisa slung her sleeping bag over her shoulder; then, she took a breath, bit her nail and spat the rind from her mouth. “God, you sound so pathetic, Julia.” Lisa stepped toward her. “Damn. How can you live that way, think that way? You shrink yourself, you know that? Everything you do is always directed at or for someone else. Jax was right. You are a mother hen. If he looks inward too much, you look outward too much. Maybe in some priest’s book that makes you a Mother Teresa. I just think it makes you a blank, a boring blank, who needs to latch onto someone else’s problems to feel human.”

Kelt pulled his jeans up farther around his waist and tightened his belt. His legs felt sweaty and sticky. The night grew more oppressive, hotter, darker. The cars, fewer.

Kelt said, “Let’s go. I’m tired. We’re all tired. Lisa’s waxed. We need to rest and recuperate and stop picking on everybody’s differences.”

Jax cracked his knuckles by lacing his hands together, and stretched his arms to the sky. “Kelt’s right. I’m sick of this talk. I feel like I’m a prisoner on the Oprah Winfrey Show.”

Lisa tried to laugh, but it stuck in her throat.

Julia walked on Kelt’s left, near the street. It was the farthest spot from Lisa. But his empathy told him nothing new. He knew too much already and couldn’t differentiate if Lisa’s barb distressed her or her absent friends. All the miseries compounded together in Julia, though her face was placid.

As was his own.

Everybody always appeared normal, happy, in place, as the air hummed with violence, tingled his skin; and the sewage smelling, industrial breeze whispered of Carol Foster. It repulsed Kelt, but an honesty almost accidentally attached itself to Carol Foster, an honesty in animalistic rage, a testing of strength: See my fangs; hear my belly deep growl of obvious intent.

Unexpectedly, his smaller harpy squeezed at one of his older memories. Back on campus, as an undergrad, he had a dilettante’s interest in the occult. Plenty of palm readers decorated the inner city. Most lived in basement apartments or in cramped storefronts, squeezed between the warehouses and local beer and cigarette shops. How they loved that thick, cheap jasmine incense! He remembered one: bleary eyes, long hair, black and tangled, breath stinking of rum, stained flower print dress that was too busy to the eye. On a white, Dinty Moore stew splattered table cloth, tarot cards in a cross pattern stared dully up at him. Other psychics had read his palm, or played at spirits giving guidance. But what stuck in Kelt’s mind was the opening line, the hook that duped the suckers. With his harpy induced memory, he relived his visit to the pudgy woman, watched her eyes with the ridiculously thick fake eyelashes. She looked up from her cards and spoke that same god damned line. Her plump lips, grotesquely sensuous, mouthed the words in his mind: “You appear to your friends to be a very cheerful person, but inside you are lonely. You carry a great pain within you.”

Kelt massaged the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. He muttered, “And it worked, I bet, on most of the suckers.”

“What?” Jax asked.

“Nothing.” Kelt laughed and gave Jax’s open, haggard face a sidelong look. “Nothing to do with you. I’m just tired. That’s all.”

He wished he were wearing face paint to show the obviousness of the mask he felt he wore. Maybe Carol had the right idea after all. One great ruling philosophy–her social Darwinism–to permeate the world and relieve all the poor suffering wretches of carrying the weight of all that ego around inside of them. For God’s sake, someone should take the stone away from Sisyphus. The bastard’s too stupid to let the rock just roll down the hill and walk the rest of the way to the top. It’s not as if that rock had ever done him any favors.

 

18

 

They walked together up the steps toward Kelt’s apartment. Lisa leaned heavily against the thin iron bannister. Glancing back, Kelt saw the goosebumps lift the blonde wispy hairs on her arm. She stared at him: hard, cold, and weary. Kelt didn’t need to be told what he was looking at. They were all tired.

A yellow ribbon with bold black letters stretched across his doorway: POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS.

“What’s this?” Lisa asked.

Jax said, “I guess I can’t go around shooting a sawed off shotgun and not expect something like this. Sorry, Kelt. Things were different. I was different.”

Julia clutched his arm for a moment. “Not so different.”

Jax exhaled. “Well, what now?”

Kelt scratched at his scalp, trying to appear relaxed, but to no avail. The shotgun blast had happened over a month ago. Even the police weren’t that slow. Something–maybe everything–was wrong, upside down; he felt it in his gut. His friends radiated anxiety, and the air still beat against his intuition, still kept a lump in his throat. The heat stifled him on this enclosed second story foyer. The smell of the paint clawed at his throat.

Kelt said, “I had hoped–Well, maybe it’ll be better in my apartment.”

Little stars of exhaustion flared before his eyes, but he didn’t want to worry them, wanted desperately to appear normal and polite, not let them feel the premonition. They hadn’t met Carol Foster, couldn’t recognize her animalistic spoor that attacked his senses, his thoughts. He almost said that Carol was in his brain. But they never understood him when he said it, looked at him as if he committed some sort of social gaffe, like eating steak with his salad fork or telling a ribald joke when a child was in the room. None of them had seen her since she had taken up with dragons; they hadn’t felt her icy will in the outer darkness.

But Carter had lived with him for a short time, lived with him in his apartment. Those memories, Kelt hoped, would help forge a different atmosphere in his home, where Carol had been his friend, and mysticism offered a hope for the Answer, not just another way to beat somebody down.

“We’ve got to get in there.” Kelt said as he turned from the door to face them. “Here, we start the attack and stop running.”

“Good.” Lisa said and gritted her teeth.

Again, Jax took a deep breath and exhaled. Then, he looked Kelt in the eye and nodded. “I’m tired of feeling impotent. Julia’s right. I haven’t changed that much. Kelt, I’ve still got the assassin’s instinct.”

Looking at them, their shifting from foot to foot, the effort of will it cost his friends to look each other squarely in the eye, the twitching of fingers, wrists, and elbows: They exuded a hunter’s expectation and the hunted’s fear, all mixing together as they huddled near the steps. Carol bathed them in her perspective, but they were unaware of her influence. They hadn’t known her as he had. He let them discount it as nerves, just as the blind walkers all over Carol’s city were doing. Kelt slipped his hand in his jeans’ pocket and remembered that Jax had given him these clothes after Julia’s clan had snared him from the outer darkness. Days stretched like months since he had become a lost builder.

Kelt rattled the doorknob. Locked. “I don’t have my keys.” Kelt forced a nervous grin. “Not carrying a shotgun in your jacket, Jax?”

“Heh, not this time. Sorry to say.”

When he thought of it, Kelt was glad and his mind harpies cheeped in agreement: “I’ll shoot a bridge into the outer darkness and come back down inside the apartment.”

Julia sat on the top steps. She turned to face Kelt. He felt drawn to her, drawn by the concern in her voice and eyes. “You’ll be vulnerable to the dragons and Carol. I thought that was why you’d been avoiding shooting a bridge.”

“Yes, Julia, but this is a short trip.”

“Besides,” Jax said, “The fire will flatten out his memories; he’ll be blind to dragon empathy. You’d know that, if you were a lost builder, Julia.”

“No. No, thanks.” She resumed her crouch, staring blankly down the steps. “I don’t think being a lost magi is any better than being lost on the streets. Magic’s a tool. I can deal with that. I can’t make it through life by personalizing everything. I have to draw a line, have to leave myself some room. Can’t you understand that?”

Lisa said, “Then, you’re just a half-ass magician. You’re halfway committed to stopping Carol.”

“You’re not a lost builder, either.” Julia said, but softly, not pushing her argument. She leaned her elbows against her knees and her head rested against her palms. “I wish this were over.”

Jax looked down at her and said, “She doesn’t have the question. No one’s bridged it into her. And just like me, she wasn’t born with it.” Then he suddenly looked at Kelt. “Or maybe she just got tired of not getting the Answer and moved on with her life, like I did before you bridged into me, Kelt. Before you forced me again to ask the big why.”

Kelt watched Jax’s eyes glaze over, lost in thought. An unusually calm expression entered Jax’s face, with a light in his eye; cunning danced on his lips. The lines on his young face disappeared, and he stood in solemn youth, no longer haggard. Kelt soaked up Jax’s aura; it reminded him of how he had been when Carter had first convinced him to try again to look for a mental life, not just stuffing tacos in an assembly line.

Kelt laid his arms on Jax’s bony shoulders and gave him a gentle shove. “Thanks, Jax.”

Intent coalesced in a startled Jax’s eyes as he said, “What? For what?”

“For reminding me of the big why. I always phrase it as the Answer, but I’d begun to forget the question since we’ve been hounded, since Carol–“

“Like dogs.” Lisa interrupted. “I understand how this Foster sorceress thinks. I’ve felt it from her dragons and heard you yak enough about her. We play into her hands by running. The sooner we get out of her influence the better. Your apartment is as good a place as any to clear the air of this stink. Besides, I want to sit on some real furniture for a change.”

“Right,” Jax agreed and pushed Kelt playfully. “I always said you did too much yakking, school boy.”

“Right.” Kelt said. His mind harpies needed no more of an order to rush from their nests. But the forced casualness of his friends made him want to vomit.

Shoot the bridge.

The growling of the panther violated the quiet, close dark of his first void. A naked Kelt watched the ebony eyes stare out at him. The harpies squawked at Kelt and pulled him by the tethers from his heart chakra along the bridge of glowing white anima. His soul fire appeared blazing, not illuminating his first void. The panther slunk away with one last desultory roar.

Kelt plunged in his soul fire and came out again into the outer darkness. The vast space uplifted him; its blankness harmonized with the emptiness that Kelt felt inside; his memories streamed back to him from his soul fire, but flattened out, drained of their emotional link with him. He realized how tired and bleak he had felt, as if Carol’s sorcery had been slowly crushing him, making him stoop lower and lower, pushing his eyes to the ground. His mind harpies plunged into him to begin the reordering his nest.

To be a lost builder! To start afresh, virgin again! Kelt sang into the outer darkness. This was how the search for the Answer should be. Not slogging with a lifetime’s detritus floating in your mind.

Another’s white bridge arced toward him. For a moment, Kelt feared a solo confrontation with Carol Foster, but his harpies, unconcerned. kept plucking, pecking, and ordering the memories that floated, disconnected and pell mell through his mind. His lost builder empathy didn’t need the aid of his mind harpies to perceive Jax’s youthful astral body barreling toward him, edged with his strong existential outlook, so similar to his own, but with Jax’s hectic bar brawling, moshing exuberance.

“Hey, Kelt. Tone it down. Calm down. You’ll rouse the dragons. That’s the last thing we need.”

Kelt nodded–and absently thought again of how easily the mind rewired itself to each change of bodies: Natural, astral, and doppelganger bodies responded to his control, interpreted a nod when his face and neck were only images, incorporeal representations of a body, because his mind needed something to house it, even if it was only illusion–a ghost without a machine.

It had always been like that even before all this. Just that the machine got in the way. The heavy, demanding, childish flesh wouldn’t allow the ghost to roam–and oh, his ghost needed to roam! So good, now. Sex for the spirit.

“Kelt? Kelt!” Jax said. “Geez, I never thought we’d regret not taking lessons in self discipline from Marc.”

“Yeah.” Kelt said, “It’s just so–so–“

“I know.” Jax drifted closer so that their soul bridges almost touched. “I hadn’t realized how despondent everyone had become. How isolated. Even though we’ve been traveling with friends for days now. Isolation, just the same. In a crowd, in a bathroom. Or even fucking someone. You can’t escape it: You’re always alone.”

“No.” Kelt projected forcefully, and Jax drifted back on his bridge, as if he had been physically shoved. “We’ve got to put aside the hunt for the Answer, Jax. Until Carol’s stopped. The others aren’t lost builders. They can’t escape Carol’s influence as we can.

Shoot the bridge.”

Both harpies flew from his chest after wrenching Kelt’s memory of his apartment from his nest. Following the harpies, his soul bridge surged from his body and plunged toward the hard world. Images coalesced before Kelt’s sight. He saw his apartment again as if it were the first time. Like jumbled up jigsaw puzzle pieces, his living room entered his conscious mind:

Dim light filtered through a haze of smoke. Kelt scented something like wet plaster of paris mixing with rotting meat, and cigarette smoke as he drew closer and closer to his room. He felt Jax next to him on his falling descent to his apartment, Jax radiating concern and confusion.

Something wasn’t right. Kelt didn’t remember his apartment–the harpies still clutched that twig in their talons as they flew ahead of him, but he felt anima, torpid energy, in his living room when no one should be there. A phlegm soaked coughing banged against his ears, a ragged laugh, and from a far corner of the room whistled a slow, laborious inhalation and exhalation of breath that one would expect to hear in the terminal wing of a hospital.

The next moment, Kelt appeared in the room, naked, waxed, and sweating. The venetian blinds were closed. His harpies refused to return to their nest and perched on his shoulders. They fluttered and rustled their maroon wings in nervous agitation. The humid air tugged at his virgin skin; the smoke chafed at his nostrils. Jax appeared behind him.

Jax whispered, “God, Kelt, what the hell’s going on in here? Turn on some lights.”

The strike of a match, a flare of light, held in fingers too thin, too thin to be outside of a famine, brought a flickering flame to the center of Kelt’s living room. Her face etched its hard, sharp lines into his eyes; the soft round jowls that had belonged to Beth were gone, eviscerated by need and hunger. Kelt felt her throbbing hunger, despite a wretched smile, stretching painfully across her jaws. A smile that had been curvaceous and languid smirked now too thinly to hold any joy, a call from the grave.

“Hello, teacher.” Beth said, “We’ve been waiting for you.”

“What we?” Jax asked as he instinctively backed a pace from her and bumped against the door.

Someone banged against the door; Lisa’s voice: “Hey, open up.”

But Jax made no move to open the door. He held his back against it, as if bracing against a battering ram.

“I’m not a teacher.” Kelt spoke; his breath strangled in his throat. “Answer Jax’s question.”

Beth giggled, a tittering that convulsed her chest and Kelt watched her ribs contract with what was more a spasm than a laugh. She wore the blue wrap dress that Carol had left in his apartment; it hung on her shoulders, finding no other purchase on a body deprived of its natural curves. She wiped a tear from her jade eyes, and Kelt saw the glaze of exhaustion and pleasure there, as he had first seen her in Jackhammered’s bar, but the fire, the intent, had departed, lost in the hollow sockets and dark orbits around her eyes.

“Oh, you shouldn’t make me laugh, Kelt. I tire so easily.” She leaned forward slowly. A once languorous move now carried a stilted skeletal accuracy, as if her arm were an erector set with a mask of skin. She touched the matchhead to a candle. Clawlike, her hand splayed outward from her wrist, huge seeming by the proportions of the human skeleton: flesh wrinkled to the bone, mummified. “Look with your eyes, dear Kelt.” she said, “Brother’s gotten so good at hiding these days.”

One of his his green cloth chairs had been moved to the far corner of the room. A lump of pale flesh covered the chair, flesh ribbed with stretch marks and cracks, resembling squashed and twisted bricks of white mud. Kelt discerned no human shape to it save that the top of the mound rounded off to a nub that might be analogous to where a head would reside, if it were human. A slit stretched across the top of that lump in a bland caricature of a mouth with no lips, nothing to identify life. Kelt’s lost builder empathy detected nothing coming from the mass, nor could his harpies sense any impulse of emotion from it.

It took an inhalation. The rotting smell came from its breath as it exhaled. Kelt heard a bass rumbling, more a wheezing of air than voice: “Everything is subjective.” It mouthed Carol Foster’s litany, Kelt remembered, but then it said something more, “except I.”

“Oh, shut up!” Beth screamed shrilly.

Lisa pounded on the door.

Beth stood and walked on stick like legs toward her brother. Alarmed at seeing Beth move with such rapidity, Kelt backed to the wall. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jax with a trail of anima leaking from his left eye down into his palm. He gave a slight shake of his head, but Jax ignored him.

“See?” Beth spoke, but couldn’t take the shrill out of her voice, “He’s a lost builder now, like us, Kelt. Carol helped me and him after you tricked us.”

“I didn’t trick you.”

“Oh yes.” Beth declared and she turned to face him as he backed toward Jax. A soul blade seemed like a pretty good idea now. Anger poured from Beth.

She ranted, “Oh, yes, you did. Being lost, it’s nothing more than what it’s always been. Disorientation. Without purpose. You simpleton. Everyone’s lost. I didn’t need to plunge into my soul fire to know that. The only thing I ever had, other than being lost, was my brother. The only one who’d stay by me, and I didn’t even have him anymore. My memories were gone, sucked dry by that damn light. Damn that light! It burns! It mocks us with something that isn’t there. Teases and spits us out, like a lover.” She started to laugh; then chose to gulp more air instead.

“Your mind harpy–” Kelt started.

“Liar.” Beth said. She laid her hand on the mound of flesh in the chair, gently caressed it and played with the mouth slit, poking her bony index finger inside, softly, gently. The touching calmed her. “There was no damn tree, no damn harpy. Just darkness, going on and on and on. Nothing–“

She shivered and hugged herself drawing the blue dress tighter around herself, absently winding her left hand in the folds of silky material. “Nothing compared to the outer darkness. So lost. So lost. Not the first void, not a cloudy night. Not a crowded bar. Nothing. Until the dragons came with her song.”

“Lisa?” Jax asked.

Beth laughed and laid her hand on top of her brother’s body. “Don’t be absurd. Lisa’s just another builder. Just lost in the hard world, never knowing how lost she really is. No, the song came from a real teacher, like Carter, but better. She held dragons in her tethers. Carol saved us. Taught us how to work in a world that’s always changing, always moving, slipping out of your grip.” Beth smiled, and her voice attempted a sultry rhythm, but cracked, too strained and dry. “You gotta move with the universe, catch the pleasure as it comes. That’s what I do. That’s what I learned from her song. She’s singing now. Listen, you can hear it.”

But Kelt heard nothing, though the feel of the apartment, the tightness in his throat, it made him want to lash out. He had felt that way on the city streets, but here with Beth’s grating voice in his ears it felt a hundred times worse. He wanted out.

Marc wheezed again and repeated, “Everything is subjective, except I.”

Beth looked at him and giggled, like a little girl. “Oh, I’m glad you came. Marc’s excited to see you.”

Jax snapped. “Marc. Marc? You call that lump Marc? Christ. It’s a monster. I want to puke just being in the same room with it.” The muscles tensed on his face; his mouth wrenched itself into a rictus of pain. “Oh, God. But it’s not as ugly as you, standing there. You stink of lust. How you fondle it. That shell!”

Suddenly, his mind harpy burst from his heart chakra and screeched at Beth, its claws extended. It plunged untethered into Beth’s frail body.

Beth stuck her right hand in her robe and rubbed her cold chest, where Jax’s symbiote had entered her. Her eyes took on an amber shine, like the blood of dragons.

Beth smiled, once again failing to call up any sensuality; rabid starvation hid in her stretched skin.

Kelt shouted, “Jax! Tether your harpy. Call it back!”

Beth looked up from her chest to gaze at Kelt. “You see, Kelt? Carol was a better teacher than you. She found me and took away the loneliness. I’ll never be lonely again.”

An anima tether erupted from Jax’s chest only to dissipate. Screeching echoed throughout the apartment.

In Kelt’s bedroom a thumping against the walls commenced; something heavy flopped about the room.

Beth grunted and lolled her head from side to side; sweat rolled down her brow and chest. She groaned and threw her arms above her head, leaving them there as if her wrists were hanging from invisible ropes.

Marc chanted his litany again.

“My harpy!” Jax shouted. He dropped to his knees; his soul blade shrank; the anima vanished from his left eye.

“You shouldn’t be so quick to condemn the hungry.” Beth said; then abruptly she whimpered. Tears welled under her eyes. Her hips undulated; she ran her hands up and down her flesh, pressing hard, twisting, pinching herself. Her mouth opened and closed silently. She sucked air in gulps. Her eyes rolled back in her head. Her head swayed and rolled on her neck in slow circles. “Ummm.”

A blood red dragon’s head appeared on her chest, followed by the foreclaws.

Kelt released his harpies, but kept them tethered. He pushed his anima down his left hand to start his soul blade.

Lisa hit the door with her shoulder.

The dragon flew free from Beth. She collapsed onto the couch while panting. A satisfied stupor dulled her features.

The dragon stretched its wings and swooped at Kelt. Concentrating on his soul blade, Kelt let the harpies have their rein. Both arced upward, flying through the ceiling, then diving down behind the dragon. Kelt’s mind harpies dug their beaks into the back of its neck. The amber blood pulsed underneath the translucent red scales of the dragon. It flowed from the dragon down his harpies’ maws.

This dragon didn’t divert its course. It howled and kept straight for Kelt. Its left foreclaw raked across Kelt’s chest. It turned, one wing slicing ethereally through the far wall as the dragon swooped toward Jax.

Jax stared only at Beth. “Bitch!” he cried and stood. His soul blade appeared in his hand as his anima surged anew from his left eye, like a river overflowing its banks.

Kelt yelped and groaned as a pain like hot candle wax seared his chest. The anima dispersed from his heart chakra. He looked at the wound, didn’t expect to find anything from an astral attack. Though his shirt was whole, large welts and blisters upraised of themselves upon his skin. The cloth grew damp as the boils burst. White pus stained his shirt in an arcing pattern that matched the claw swipe of Beth’s dragon.

The dragon roared. The thumping from Kelt’s bedroom overrode the dragon’s passion.

Beth screamed as she saw Jax running toward her blade first. She tried to scramble from the couch and fell behind it. A tether came from her forehead chakra but missed lassoing her dragon. “Marc, help me. Help your weak sister.” She scrabbled toward her brother on her hands and knees.

Jax braced his free hand against the back of the couch and vaulted over it. He landed on his feet behind Beth. She clutched at the swollen mass of flesh of her brother that touched the floor. At the last moment she turned her head toward Jax, hate in her eyes.

Jax’s face screwed up into a mass of anguish and anger; his thin lips pulled back, teeth clenched, breath pushed through flared nostrils. “God damn you.”

He plunged the blade into Beth. His soul blade turned red. Jax stiffened.

“Oh, Jax,” Beth murmured of a sudden. She stood, pulling the blade deeper into her body.

As the dragon flew toward Jax, it passed over Kelt, harpies stuck on its neck like a pair of leeches. Kelt stabbed upward, his blade slicing open the dragon’s belly.

Swatches of red effluvium drifted from the dragon’s belly and hung in the air. As light from the candle passed through it, it bathed everything in the colors of amber and blood. The dragon howled and hung in the air limply. It let out a last spurt of flame from its maw toward its mistress. Then, like a lost builder’s damaged doppelganger, it dissipated leaving fine red swatches floating to the ground.

Kelt’s harpies, abruptly deprived of their food and untethered, flew around the room snatching up the bits of entrails hanging in the air. Their beaks tore it to pieces, which they swallowed up voraciously.

As Kelt caught at his breath, he heard a groan from Jax, though the pounding in his bedroom increased again. Whatever it was, he thought it might soon smash through the walls.

Kelt shouted over the din, “Jax, we’ve got to get out of here! Julia was right. Carol was lying in wait for us.”

He spied Jax over in the corner near Marc. He embraced Beth in a death like hug. Red flames played across their doppelgangers. Jax shuddered, as if his bones were trying to break free from his flesh.

Beth wept. “Take it out, Jax. You want too much. I don’t love you. I don’t–Marc, help me.”

Jax involuntarily retched. A thin stream of green bile trickled down his chin. His eyes begged at Kelt, pleaded for help.

The fire surrounding them grew darker. Jax’s naked body shrivelled, as if the fire fed itself on his doppelganger’s skin.

Kelt ran into the kitchen, grabbed a steak knife, and stabbed Jax in the back, where he thought his heart resided. He knew nothing else to do. Dragon fire, Kelt thought, and shivered uncontrollably.

Jax’s doppelganger disintegrated.

Free, Beth sniffed and wiped at her runny nose with her right hand. Immediately, she turned on her brother and shouted, “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you! I needed you. I begged you!” Beth pounded her brother’s misshapen body with her bony fists.

Repulsed, Kelt drew away from the emaciated creature. Beth’s fury was wild, animalistic. He unlocked the door.

Lisa and Julia rushed in, soul blades in hand.

“God,” Julia exclaimed and both halted.

Kelt tethered his harpies after pushing anima back into his chest chakra. He commanded the birds.

They flew into Beth and she went limp, falling to the ground and into a slumber.

“Everything is subjective, except I.” Marc droned on.

“No, not Marc.” and Julia’s soul blade vanished as she put her hands to her face.

Kelt said, “Carol got to Beth as soon as she emerged from the soul fire, when she was helpless. Carol must have known I’d follow Carter’s hopes. She out guessed me again.” Nausea enveloped his body. Kelt thought that it was simply the effects of being severely waxed. He commanded his harpies.

They flew from Beth’s body, but stopped short of going into Kelt. They squawked their defiance as Kelt tried to retrieve them.

A whisper underneath the thumping din from his bedroom: Marc spoke his liturgy.

“What the hell is that?” Lisa demanded of Kelt.

“I don’t know.” Kelt felt as if he were going to pass out. “My bedroom’s back there. Oh, I think I’m gonna puke.”

Too many sounds, too many surreal images in his once familiar apartment buffeted him, an apartment that had belonged to a different Kelt. He wondered if he now felt more at home surrounded by the horror. It was more than being waxed, a dim voice in his mind whispered to him. His thoughts floated pell mell again, but heavy on him, as if a wolf ripped at his mind with ravening jaws and breath that matched the stink coming from Marc. A growling filled his mind. His grip on his sense of self dissolved into confusion and chaos, a drunken delirium. Sweat rolled over his flushed skin. He commanded his harpies again, but couldn’t muster his will. Their screeching increased, adding to the discordant symphony of the room: Lisa’s worrisome questions, Julia’s rapid breathing, the monstrous thumping din from his bedroom, and that damn liturgy from that dead husk–that mockery of Marc.

Marc repeated himself over and over without pause for breath.

Abruptly, Beth woke from her harpy induced slumber and shrieked, “Damn you! Shut up, damn you! Shut up!” She brought back her right arm and punched her brother in the chest.

The strange dry flesh of her brother gave way, cracked under his sister’s knuckles. Her arm sank into Marc’s chest after the initial piercing. Beth screamed, “My arm, my arm! He’s freezing my arm!”

An anima halo appeared around the mystics, but it slipped from their bodies, slowly undulating into the hole in Marc’s chest, as if Marc’s flesh were nothing more than the container of a vacuum.

Kelt’s left arm went numb; a shooting pain pierced his chest. He gurgled, fell against Lisa. He saw her arms around him, couldn’t feel her touch. Her face mirrored his pain. Fatigue burned in his ‘ganger’s muscles.

Beth’s doppelganger disintegrated.

Kelt didn’t know if she had formed a soul bridge or been devoured by her brother.

His head pounded. Marc’s litany reverberated in his mind, backed by a panther’s angry roar. Kelt shot a tether from his forehead chakra; the anima flowed from him too swiftly; he clamped down on it with his will. The panther leapt out of his first void, and flew, a sloshing oil smudge rolling across the room and into Marc’s chest.

Marc’s dry flesh crumbled in upon itself to a finer and finer dust. A pile of skin flakes and dust littered his chair.

Kelt saw nothing more in his living room, save ragged mystics and the thumping from the bedroom, but even that–whatever it was–muted its fury, only occasionally scratching the hardwood floor with some hard, sharp object and groaning like a humpback whale.

A broom handle from Kelt’s neighbor in the apartment below banged against his floor.

Kelt laughed weakly. “Yeah, right. You go tell it to be quiet.”

Kelt rocked backward, deeper into Lisa’s embrace as his two mind harpies plunged into his ‘ganger. He gently disentangled himself. Lisa shivered; her complexion paled. She had been waxed before they had even gotten to the apartment. Kelt feared she’d be of no use to him in fighting Carol. “Lie down on the sofa.” He steered her by the shoulders. “Julia,” Kelt said, “Open the blinds and windows. Let’s clear the stink out of here.”

Pale moonlight streamed into the room, driving away some of the oppression. Kelt looked down at Lisa. She had fallen asleep–or passed out from exhaustion.

Leaning on the windowsill, Julia said, “A builder’s coming.”

Kelt rushed to her side and peered out. A white comet streaked toward them; a vast ball of light sheered the night sky.

Kelt grabbed Julia and leapt toward the center of the room.

“Is it Jax?” Julia asked.

“I can’t tell. I’m not sure. I’m still new to this. I’m waxed.” Kelt gnawed on his lower lip. Surety had departed in a black cat-like cloud.

Julia’s left eye blazed and her soul blade lengthened. “I still have my strength. You should have let us in sooner, Kelt.”

“Everything happened too quickly.” Kelt’s anima slowly leaked down his left eye and into his palm. He commanded his mind harpies; they grumbled and ruffled their feathers, only sluggishly moving from their nests.

Too slowly to defend them from the shape forming before them.

“Marc!” Julia cried.

“Yes.” he stood before them, naked and pale, no longer monstrous. Though he perspired and Kelt’s empathy told him Marc was waxed, Marc didn’t tremble, but stood resolutely before them. His form was lean and chiseled like stone. Marc’s facial features tended to the bland, flat and broad, but now a regal dignity hung like a cloak over his nudity.

“His eyes,” Kelt whispered. And his recalcitrant anima vanished.

Julia’s breath caught in her throat; her soul blade wavered.

Marc stared at them from wholly ebony eyes. They physically rippled on the surface in a whirling, spinning, churning, as if the surface layer of an angry sea.

Julia asked, “Are you all right?”

Kelt spoke before Marc could answer, “Are you with Carol?” His mind harpies finally broke from his heart chakra but landed on his shoulders, wings folded.

“Everything is subjective, except we.” Marc pronounced.

A soft groan escaped from Julia’s lips.

“That includes Carol Foster.”

“We?” Kelt asked.

“Marc Jackson was a most conformable gate to the hard world. His first void was vast, his fire dim, dimmer still after Carol Foster’s warping.”

“Warping?” Kelt asked obsequiously. He desperately wanted to know what secrets Carol had garnered from the outer darkness. He had travelled too far down Carter’s road to abandon it. Kelt knew if he turned tail that Carol had the talent to hunt him down.

Marc’s deep voice was a monotone, “Carol Foster tricked Mark Jackson’s sister. Beth was easy to subvert as pleasure is present in fury and tooth and claw. But we–Marc Jackson retreated. She tossed us about the outer darkness, made things–beings whisper to us, again and again and again. Brought sights and sounds and tastes before us. Always we answered, ‘What is, is. What is not, is not.’ She grew weary with us, angry at her failure to force us to perceive abstract ideas in her creatures. Her body shifts and contorts to her passion. Our aesthetic sense is shorn from us. It is a dim memory now. Carol twisted our flesh. Beth would not part with us. The rest, you know. Carol Foster threatens that which was Marc Jackson. Her life is an abomination to us.”

A tremor lurked behind Marc’s monotone, a tremor in his breathing. As Kelt tethered his mind harpies, his birds’ more sensitive empathy transmitted satisfaction, cold pride pulsing from whatever it was that Marc had become. Kelt could feel Marc’s eyes tug at his anima.

“Marc,” Kelt asked, “what’s in my bedroom?”

“We do not know.”

Julia said, “Make a guess. You’ve been around Carol more than any of us.”

“I do not presume to conjure possible realities. What is, is.”

He reminded Kelt of a rough Botticelli sketch ripped apart by a prudish cleric. Such beauty and nobility in Marc’s body, but it would never be realized.

Kelt said, “Close your eyes, Marc. We need to rest before we go after her.”

Marc seated himself on the chair, sitting on the detritus of his former doppelganger. Then, he closed his eyes, like an android shutting himself off.

Kelt walked into the kitchen. Julia followed. Nearer to the bedroom, Kelt heard the scuffling of Carol’s other servant, whatever it was. But he worried for Jax.

Julia took his hand in hers. “It’s gone.” She said quietly.

“What?” Kelt asked. “Who do you mean?”

“The coldness in your eyes. I’m glad. You’re still sad, but not so hard.”

“The panther left me, Julia, and went into Marc. I’m glad we’ve not lost a weapon against Carol Foster, though I don’t know how well Marc will function. And Jax, I’ve got to go after him. He’ll be all right at first, but without a harpy he could end up like Carol.”

“Or as dragon bait.” She drew close to him.

He enfolded her in his arms. They stood there, quietly. Julia had proven herself the kindest of the clan, with an unspoken charity toward their past meetings. He drew her closer as they held each other. Her compassion: It enlivened him, made him remember what it had been like to be human, but the angry moans from Carol’s creation destroyed any calm waters in his mind.

Kelt murmured, “I’m not as tired as Lisa. I’ll go after Jax. I know him best.”

“Kelt,” she tilted her head to meet his eyes, “I’ll go with you.”

“No. You were right. One of us should leave magic as a tool. One of us needs to remember and keep alive the feeling of being alive in the real world, in flesh that doesn’t dissolve on a whim. Maybe, Jax was right. Maybe, lost builders get obsessed with themselves, not having any other constant in their lives.”

Julia smiled. “And maybe Lisa was right and I’m not a friend; I’m only a busybody.”

“I don’t think we have time to search for the true perspective. Not with Carol and her pet.” He nodded his head toward the bedroom.

She gently kissed him on the lips.

Kelt accepted; wanted more suddenly; then withdrew. He felt the anima surging within him. Emotion was power to a mystic, Kelt remembered. Julia had given him a gift and a lesson.

Before he left he was tempted to give all manner of cautionary warnings to Julia, but he held his tongue. She had more experience than he.

Shoot the bridge.

 

19

 

Kelt’s soul fire threw him into the outer darkness. The starless emptiness resonated within him: the calm. For a moment, detached from his memories, Kelt floated in the black ether like a water lily on a pond. Not warm, not cold, nothing about the outer darkness forced itself on his senses, nor did it welcome him.

Carter’s harpy grabbed at his memories of Jax, gently squeezed them as the bird ordered its nest. Kelt gasped. He hadn’t forgotten why he had come here, only the urgency had left him; now, he shot tethers around his mind harpies and yanked them from their nests before they could order any more of his memories. Kelt still feared that dragons would catch his empathic trail. A memory of kissing Julia and something inhabiting his bedroom spoke of too much passion to the now blank Kelt. He preferred to mimic the numbing calm of the outer darkness.

But already he feared for Jax and feared to confront him.

He commanded his mind harpies: “Find Jax.”

Their wings beat against the outer darkness, finding some weight there that Kelt could not feel. His soul bridge erupted from his heart chakra and dwindled into the outer darkness behind him. It blazed a path for him growing a few feet in front of him as his mind harpies pulled him along.

A red star twinkled in the darkness. It moved from him. Perhaps, Kelt thought, it hadn’t caught his empathic scent. But the dragon flew near his bridge, almost in line with it. His harpies urged him to hurtle faster along his bridge as they tugged at their tethers.

But Kelt slowed his progress, not stopping, only pulling some anima from motion to leak down his left eye and form his soul blade. His anima was sluggish, but Kelt expected that after the fight in his apartment.

He drew closer to the dragon, saw the outlines of its bat like wings flapping. With his soul blade in hand, Kelt concentrated on moving, on finding Jax. He urged his harpies.

Still, the dragon took no notice of Kelt’s passion.

He gained on it; then passed the dragon. Its amber eyes fixed on some spot in the distance. Two harpies pulled Kelt faster through the outer darkness than this thing. But, oddly, Kelt felt no desire to destroy it, unlike in the apartment, where it seemed the only option, and a pleasant one.

Kelt was glad he was numb, and uncertain he wanted his harpies to return such violent memories to him. When had he gotten so destructive?

To pass the blame to Carol Foster seemed too easy. His violence originated within, no matter that Carol may have influenced him. Again, he wasn’t sure if he liked who he was and wondered if he could order his harpies to rearrange their nest within him, rearrange it so that he would be peaceful, tranquil, happy.

A shower of light gleamed in front of him: the Realm of Forms. Kelt was glad Jax was so skillful an assassin. Even without his mind harpy, Jax had found a place to hole up, perhaps knowing that he would come after him. Jax knew him, Kelt had to admit, better than anyone had ever known him, better than his parents, better than Carter.

Red pinpricks appeared around the glistening Realm of Forms.

Kelt looked behind himself. The dragon also flew toward the Realm of Forms, oblivious to Kelt, like a dog in heat that barks and prances in front of the door and ignores a shank of lamb dropped in front of it. His harpies urged him that Jax was ahead, which meant he must still be alive.

As he drew closer the red pinpricks resolved themselves into the maroon silhouettes of dragons, thousands of them, immobile below Kelt’s soul bridge. Each dragon breathed a steady stream of that hideous, pleasuring fire to engulf the dragon in front of it. Rows of dragons were encapsulated in flames, a net of vertical lines of fire, barring Kelt’s path to the Realm of Forms.

The harpies pulled Kelt toward them and even dived their small bodies between two rows of dragons to enter the Realm of Forms. Kelt saw his harpies loop around in that familiar attack dive; he yanked at the tethers.

The harpies reluctantly obeyed and returned to him. Again, he commanded them to find Jax.

The dragon behind him approached. It ignored Kelt completely, nudged in front of one of its brethren. Its body shivered and shimmered as the flames coruscated across its scales. Opening its maw, it breathed fire on the dragon in front of it.

Kelt pushed his soul bridge in front of him as his harpies pulled at their tethers. Rows upon rows of dragons rolled their eyes angrily up at him. Occasionally upon seeing him, one would shake, as if trying to free itself from its fiery prison. Kelt saw his death in their eyes.

A hole in the fiery net loomed below him. His harpies pulled him toward it. One dragon mindlessly breathed at empty ether, while another dragon, freed from the links of fire, writhed uncontrollably, though it maintained its strange duty and kept its fire encasing the dragon in front of it.

Jax stood on the back of that dragon, his soul blade plunged deeply into its hide. A gurgling rose from the dragon, but it would not abandon its position in the net around the Realm of Forms. Dragon flame covered Jax like a sheen of blood. He howled into the outer darkness and spasmodically twisted his soul blade into the dragon’s innards.

The dragon below him heaved violently and faded away.

Jax arced a soul bridge to the back of the next dragon. He floated toward it with a trail of flames.

“Pull him away. Get him back!” Kelt shouted to his harpies.

They dived to obey, but they swerved in unison from the flames surrounding Jax.

Jax sank his soul blade into the dragon and howled. The flames bled onto him; a deeper maroon engulfed Jax.

Kelt drifted in front of him, his bridge hovering inches above the dragon Jax was perched on.

“Get away!” Jax shouted. “I don’t need your help.” His form hazed under the flames and his eyes shined the amber color of dragon’s blood.

“But I need your help, brother.” Kelt spoke softly. He ordered his smaller harpy into him to grab a specific twig from the jumble of memories that still floated pell mell in his mind.

“I’m not your brother! You’ve effin said it yourself, said it plenty of times. I disgust you. Jax, the bloody rat. This bloody rat doesn’t need you anymore. I can take out all of Carol’s dragons by myself.”

“You’re destroying yourself, Jax. You can’t stop Carol this way.”

“Fool.” Jax breathed heavily.

“That’s what Carol called me. Yes, you were Jax the hedonist; then, a lost builder; but now? Look at yourself. You’re killing for killing’s sake. Just because you’re the hunter now and not the hunted doesn’t give you any moral superiority over Carol.”

“This is about power, not words.” Jax sighed and the flames grew deeper. The dragon began its death shudder below him.

“Words are power, Jax. Here, words define who you are. Listen to yourself. You’re becoming Carol. You’ve taken up her way.”

“There is no other way.”

The dragon faded into darkness. Jax shot another soul bridge to the next dragon in front of him. His soul bridge arced from his groin chakra, laced with streaks of amber, like a glowing poison drifting in a glass of milk.

Kelt’s mind harpy found the twig Kelt searched for. The little bird squeezed its talons around it with all its might.

Kelt groaned. The memory flooded him: a gentle kiss, Julia’s face. Overriding the sight of his torn apartment, the smell of her sweat, and the gleam in her brown eyes rushed the warmth through his lean body, the balm of pain shared, love shared, together. He almost forgot where he was.

Jax’s howling brought him back.

A small voice in the back of Kelt’s mind told him he was too waxed, had done too much sorcery, would trap himself in the outer darkness with no anima left to form a ‘ganger, becoming a wandering poltergeist. He pushed that voice away. Jax already drifted to his next dragon, lost to Kelt’s sight beneath a blanket of dragon fire. The memory still consumed Kelt. He formed another tether from his heart chakra, invested it with that memory, all that Julia’s simple act had given him. The anima tether moved from his heart chakra sluggishly and despite his passion, exhaustion flayed his mental form. Kelt felt himself drifting apart, like dust in a sunbeam.

The tether pierced the dragon flames and impacted Jax.

Kelt struggled to limit the link to just that one memory, to give Jax another feeling than the fire of the hunt.

Dragon flames rippled up the tether from Jax and into Kelt. He was too tired, lacked the strength of mind to discipline the tether, to keep it focused on that one memory. The tether exploded into a full born soul bridge arcing into Jax.

“Not again,” Kelt wailed, even as his thoughts slipped into Jax’s first void.

KELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAX

It was dark, save for Jax’s soul fire, streaked with amber flames, but white flames still burned there. Jax had not wholly given into the dragon spawned passion. Not Jax’s memories, but raw hunger pushed into Kelt, made it hard to think, made him want to devour dragons.

He tried to shoot a bridge. His anima flowed from his heart chakra thick, slow, and dim. Enough for a tether, Kelt thought. His smaller harpy leapt from its nest.

Kelt lassoed it, commanded his bird to pull him from the first void.

Kelt knew the harpy could not arc a soul bridge. It flapped its wings. Kelt’s descent into Jax’s soul fire slowed, yet did not halt.

“Jax,” Kelt screamed, “help me!”

An amber and white soul bridge arced across Jax’s first void, hurtled toward Kelt. It blazed. At first, Kelt had to avert his eyes as the roiling anima from that bridge overwhelmed his weary empathy.

Jax stood at the edge of the bridge, white and amber anima pouring from his heart chakra and feeding his bridge. His body was different, overly muscular, angular, with an aggressive forward stance on the bridge, not the nervous Jax Kelt had known. Carol, too, had changed after she had lost her harpy.

Jax accused him: “Do you know what you’ve done to me by forcing me out of the outer darkness? I have no mind harpy. My soul fire will rob me of my passions, the potency of my last run through the outer darkness. It’ll cheat me of who I am, again. You’re weak, Kelt. That cold, dark cat thing has left your eyes. Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you now. Assassinate you and take your mind harpies.”

Kelt winced. Every angry inflection in Jax’s voice sent an empathic wave of anger at Kelt. He spoke timorously, “You don’t have to go back to the outer darkness, Jax. You can come with me to the hard world. It’s the blind walkers who are in danger from Carol’s poisoning of the collective unconscious, not us. Come back, brother.”

“I’m not your brother!” Jax shouted.

The anger struck him like a physical blow. Kelt didn’t need to look at himself to know: His body was disintegrating with his loss of concentration and anima–as Beth had died. His mental form lost its sharpness. Not hands, but tentacular appendages came from his shoulders. His lower body dissolved into a haze, like a ghost.

Kelt spoke quickly, “You have to come back with me. You’re in more danger than I am. Already, you feel like Carol.”

“Liar! I’m going to kill Carol. First, her dragons; then, her.”

“Listen to yourself, Jax. When I first met you, you admitted the existence of no other agent than yourself; then, we bridged together and you were forced to acknowledge your loneliness in a sea of people, of other agents.” Kelt projected his own anger at Jax, but it was little more than a raindrop striking a waterfall. “Now, what have you done with that knowledge? You retreated. Coward. You covered yourself in cloaks of fear and self pity. When you lost your harpy, you found your condition unbearable: lost and powerless.”

Both drifted closer and closer to Jax’s soul fire. Kelt felt the initial heat of it, the oily-slippery burn of Jax’s hectic passions.

“I am power now.”

“No, Jax. You’re a manipulated force, manipulated by Carol’s universal view. You’re worse than a rat. You’re not even an agent anymore; you’re a servant, a hand of Carol’s.” Jax’s anger buffeted Kelt again, but he forged on, “You’ve taken her viewpoint. That makes you hers. Do you even remember why you attacked the dragons in the first place?”

For the first time since his arrival, Jax’s anger lessened. “I wanted to go to the Realm of Forms, to rest, think about where I wanted to go. Think about what I should do.”

“Do you still want to go there? You broke Carol’s fence of dragons. Why didn’t you go?”

“I–I didn’t need to. I found purpose; I found power. I’m just like Carter, a slayer of dragons. Join me, Kelt. It’s glorious.”

The heat from Jax’s soul fire burned Kelt. He felt the nest in his mind smoldering. The fire devoured a loose twig, devoured one of his memories, now appropriated by Jax. “Jax, listen to yourself. Didn’t need to think? Glorious? You’re consumed by lust, by animal drives. Carol’s killing drive. That was never Carter. Help me, Jax. I’m falling into your fire. I need your strength.”

“The weak beg the strong. Power proves me right.” Kelt saw Jax’s eyes as he had first seen Jax, as an assassin. “I was right not to go into the Realm of Forms and contemplate useless metaphysics and ethics. The Answer is power. Power shapes reality.”

Kelt asked, “Could you do otherwise? Could you have stopped killing those dragons without me invading your first void?” Kelt shot a tether into Jax. The loss of anima blurred his form. Kelt fought to keep his mind from wandering into ennui. “No trickery, Jax. No fooling yourself.”

The tether struck Jax. His form wavered slightly, as if water washed over him. “I–I–Ah. Fear. Freedom from fear, Kelt.” Jax shivered on his bridge and clutched himself. The amber faded from his soul bridge. His voice softened. “Anger, Kelt. I–I don’t know if I could have stopped, Kelt. Purpose is sweet. Being lost–it’s–it’s scary. Anger cures the feeling. Even as a blind walker I knew that. There’s no feeling like having a handgun in your pocket.

“Everything changes. There’s nothing certain. But decide on a purpose and attack it angrily and the fear evaporates.”

Jax laughed, rueful. “Damn you, Kelt. You’re always making me lost. Always reminding me that I don’t know shit for sure. No harpy, no purpose. I’m flattening out inside. You’re good, Kelt. What an assassin you would have made.”

“Jax, your fire’s consuming me.”

A cold gleam entered Jax’s eye. “I could take your harpies, but I’d have to kill you, brother.”

“Brother,” Kelt pleaded. He retracted his tether from his mind harpy. “Take it. Take it. I have Carter’s.”

The sleek harpy flew toward Jax and into him, only to jump out the next moment.

“You’ve imprinted it, and I just can’t kill you, Kelt. I’m leaving the hard world forever, Kelt. You fight on. The outer darkness is better for me. There isn’t much left of me without a harpy to tend my memories. I can float in the darkness, forget the fear, forget myself.”

“Why be so grandiose about it, brother? Just come back to the Earth, hit a liquor store, and drink yourself to death. Ego death, obliteration: That’s what you crave.”

His smaller harpy flew back to its nest inside Kelt. “There’s always an alternative.” Kelt whispered and plunged with the last of his strength into Jax’s soul fire.

Jax shouted, “No!” His soul fire erupted around the sudden intrusion to envelop Jax.

KELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAX

The blurring imagery didn’t overwhelm Kelt as much as his last joining with Jax had. The sight, sounds, and scents were impersonal, like watching TV, just as Jax felt them, as a lost builder without a mind harpy. Then, the recent images, since Jax had lost his harpy, pummeled Kelt’s being: the fiery pleasure Jax felt from stabbing the dragons and consuming their energy almost made Kelt forget himself, lose himself in the flames. Jax’s fear still rode underneath every image, bubbling and murmuring questions: Who am I? What should I do? Will I be alone? Am I damned? Oddly, this undercurrent of thoughts whispered of Jax at his most intimate, most child like. Hope implied itself: fears phrased still as questions, not statements.

White light blotted out Jax’s consciousness stream from Kelt, a flame not verbal or sensual, a burn, a feeling of Jax into his mind. Jax had arrived in the fire.

Kelt heard Jax’s voice like thunder, but cool; his words smelled of his sweat: “I AM.”

Tranquillity flowed over Kelt’s mind, mixing with the hot rush of Jax’s soul fire burning his memories. Kelt fought the soporific and ordered his harpy: “Go to Jax! Go.” His smaller mind harpy flew from him; the maroon, a bloody pinprick against light.

Kelt wasn’t sure if it came from his heart chakra; he had no self image, except a confusion and desperation for life, lost in the tranquil, hot fire of Jax.

Jax’s soul fire swallowed the harpy. Kelt heard its soft screeching. Then, Jax’s voice permeated the light again: “I am alone.” A bitter, hot ash tainted Kelt’s sense of smell. Icy daggers scraped at his skin.

Jax had left the light. Kelt knew it, felt the sudden absence. His memories tumbled into Jax’s. Kelt fought to remember his own name. He pushed his other harpy out of its nest and tethered it: the anima left him only painfully, as if it were the very anima he used to keep alive.

Enveloped by Jax’s soul fire, Kelt shouted defiance: “I AM.”

 

20

 

Kelt floated in the outer darkness. Aware, aware that he was alive.

In the darkness, a mind harpy flew, tethered to wonderfully bright, sweet anima. His mind harpy.

No. It stank of Jax, of life, of strength. And Kelt felt no more than a ghost, adrift on the outer darkness, unable to effect the bleak environment.

He tried a mental shout, a call for his other mind harpy that had once been Carter’s.

It wriggled around in his nest. It discarded bits of Jax’s memories, and lined its nest with Kelt’s past. But it callously ignored his weak cries.

Lazy parasite.

Selfish parasite. Kelt floated while the bird mercilessly tugged and clutched his memories.

Too weak to resist reliving the day’s events–the fight with Jax, Marc’s metamorphoses, Julia’s kiss, Lisa’s light snore on his couch.

Somewhat soothing to float and think of one’s friends.

Then, the selfish bird really took to its work with animalistic mindlessness. Another memory: Teeth gritted, arms tensed, Kelt ripped open the dragon in his apartment with his soul blade. What satisfaction! Kelt fought the feeling, hated it, failed to disown it. Carol Foster owned some truth–He wanted to shout, “Not all the truth!” He drifted like a Raggedy Ann doll under the waters of the outer darkness.

The sleek harpy flew with a frustrating vitality past Kelt. It screeched, as if calling his name. Its taut white tether mocked Kelt with its strength.

His bird, though, kept at its task. Another memory: He felt the fear and determination to stab Jax, to free him from Beth’s embrace, the sink of the blade, scoring past a rib. That sickened him.

No more. No more. That act freed Jax. Kelt demanded himself not to feel guilty. To act was to be guilty. To be responsible. Better to float, just float.

Another memory: “Just come back to Earth, hit a liquor store, and drink yourself to death.” His bird was so damned smug. It heard his stream of consciousness, taunted him with his own arguments, but refused his weak commands.

He struggled to form a tether around the bird. Nothing.

The bird turned around in his nest a few times, as if searching for a particularly vibrant twig. Then, it snapped with its beak, and clutched with its talons.

It was an old memory, long since ordered in his nest: “There is no Answer. The mind life is crap. Deus absconditus, man.” And then another followed on its heels: An alleyway, a twilight breeze carried the smell of garbage, and Jax with a rat in his hand; Jax stood naked and shivering and demanding something from him, screaming something to him.

“Jax!” Kelt shouted.

He saw the bridge arc toward him, an expanding plane of light. Jax rode the tip of the wave; his harpy added the strength of its wings, pulling its master to greater speeds.

The bridge stopped. Jax looked down at him. “Kelt, you’ve faded into the darkness.”

Kelt tried to answer. Nothing happened.

“I owe you. I owe you for this.” He pointed a hand toward his mind harpy. “Take my anima.”

Kelt had seen it before, seen Carol do it. A white soul bridge erupted from Jax’s heart chakra; then, immediately shrank to the size of a tether. But Jax didn’t have Carol’s skill. He screamed into the outer darkness; his face contorted through hate and fear and anger and pity. The excess anima of the bridge veered off to dissipate into the outer darkness. But the restrained soul bridge inched its way to Kelt.

Finally, it struck him. Warmth entered him. He assumed a soft oval shape, alternately murky and diaphanous, but moment by moment it resolved itself into Kelt.

His harpy fluttered its wings in a nest too large for it. For the first time since becoming a lost builder, Kelt felt a void in his nest, but already his remaining harpy appropriated his nest, shaped it, bringing the twigs closer to its body.

Pallor played across Jax’s skin. But Kelt was comforted. Jax looked like Jax, without the daemonic fire of dragons crueling his eyes. That was gone. Kelt knew he had gotten the better of the anima exchange. It took any last poison from Jax. Jax stared at him with pain and fear and confusion; he seemed unable to concentrate, to break the mini soul bridge linking them.

“Brother,” Kelt said, “thank you.” He formed a short soul blade and sliced the bridge. The anima retracted into Jax.

“What do we do now?” Jax asked.

“Get back to Julia and Lisa. Take care of Carol’s servant in my bedroom.”

Jax nodded. “And then we put down Carol.”

“Don’t get cocky, Jax. You sound like Carter before he ran into Carol. Let’s just shoot the bridge.”

 

21

 

The anima erupted at Kelt’s command. He rode the soul bridge to the hard world. His one harpy was not as fast as two had been.

He felt the warmth of Jax’s soul bridge arcing just behind his own.

Then, another presence in the darkness. His harpy’s empathy picked it up first, and the bird tried to subtly pull the tether in the opposite direction.

But Kelt was strong now. He yanked the tether and brought his symbiote to a halt. He cleared his mind, opened his own lost builder empathy.

Jax stopped his bridge beside him.

A familiar cloying darkness pressed an indentation into the endless outer darkness. It approached, a thick, black wave that crested ahead of them.

Kelt’s bird dived into him and settled quickly in its nest. His mind harpy tucked its beak under its wing and trembled.

Marc.

His mental form looked as his doppelganger had, lean and chiseled. But in the outer darkness, his whirlpool ebony eyes dominated his face. They drew Kelt’s eyes, locked onto him, icy, forbidding. Marc had always had the demeanor of a brick wall, imprisoning his psyche away from prying eyes. Now, he was the wall, and any desires were entombed from Kelt’s empathy.

“Carol Foster claims the city. That was the message she told us to give to you.”

“Us?” Jax asked.

“The Panther and Marc Jackson.”

“Oh,” Jax said as his soul bridge shifted to put distance between himself and Marc. He turned to Kelt. “I don’t think we should go back to your apartment.”

Marc spoke. His words were stilted, even, and measured. “Carol Foster chose your apartment bedroom. She had some difficulty adjusting her doppelganger and her sorcery to the hard world. Our empathy felt her anguish before she attacked.”

Kelt’s soul bridge jumped toward Marc. He almost bumped into him. “Attacked? Julia! Where is she? What happened to her?”

“We do not know.”

Kelt’s form hazed for a moment as he fought against his frustration. “I wish you weren’t so literal minded.”

“We are immune to her, because we are literal. We know what we know.”

“Talk about circular logic.” Jax whined. “We’d better bridge back into the basement closet of Jackhammered’s bar, where you were imprisoned. Julia’ll know to look for us there. It’s still a clear memory in my nest.”

“Mine, too,” Kelt said ruefully. “How about you, Marc? Are you with us?”

Jax cut in, “Or are you totally isolated in your own selfish, little world?”

“Isolation, lost builder,” Marc said and fixed his gaze on Jax, “is a delusion of the mind. We, alone, refuse judgement about the world, about our self. We simply accept the universe, without coloring it to inflate a bloated sense of self importance.”

Suddenly, Kelt felt a chill invade his lost builder empathy. It came from Jax. He glanced at his friend and saw Jax’s slender image fuzz out. Wave after wave of revulsion poured from Jax. Kelt had to glide on his bridge to keep himself from falling under the revulsion.

Jax groaned, “Oh, God. Your pain. So small. Your self. It’s dying. That Form, it’s eating you. Marc, oh, man. Believe, Marc. Believe in something. You’re not subject to some evil genius trying to consciously trick you into misinterpreting the world, Marc. Form an opinion. No one’s trying to manipulate you.”

“On the contrary,” Marc said, “you are trying to manipulate me just now. But, of course, you fail. As Carol Foster failed. We choose not to begin your silly game of interpretation and hypothesizing. We simply accept. Thus, we gain true free will.”

“Jax,” Kelt said sharply, “command your harpy.” Then taking on a lighter tone, “Wha’d I give you the dumb bird for anyway?” He continued the tone toward Marc, to relieve the spooked Jax, “Free will, seems like you have no will, no impetus to do, if all you do is accept.”

Marc stared blankly at Kelt. Something, Kelt’s empathy picked up something from Marc, but too faint to interpret.

After a moment, Jax’s form regained its clarity, though with an added pallor. “Whatever,” Jax said with a ragged laugh, “whatever you say, Marc, my catman. I don’t want to be responsible for influencing you. God, what a mess of thought strings you bring up in a guy’s head.”

“C’mon, mister experience-is-what-matters,” Kelt said to Jax, “let’s add some new events to your reservoir of experiential knowledge. Let’s kick some ass. Marc, you know where we’re bridging to?”

Marc rigidly nodded. “Yes. We can bridge to anyplace we have ever been on the hard world. We have no doubt.”

“Wonderful,” Jax said sardonically. “Shoot the bridge, then.”

Cramped in that dirty walk in closet, Kelt was too waxed to feel uncomfortable about his nudity–until Jax and Marc’s ‘gangers formed around him. Kelt pushed his way to the door and into the basement. Music, an a cappella high pitched warble, surrounded them with its swift complexity, leaping octaves and blurring chromatic slides.

Jax clapped Kelt on the shoulder, leaving a red hand print on Kelt’s virgin flesh. “Lisa’s electric flute. It’s her. She’s here.”

Jax grabbed jeans and a shirt off their hangers. No one had raided Julia’s cache of clothing. As Jax hurriedly dressed, Marc and Kelt sized up the remaining pairs of Levi’s and each grabbed a pair, a bit large, but thin vinyl belts were already looped through the pants. A crescendo signalled the song’s triumphal conclusion.

Jax grinned at Kelt, “She must have seen us bridge down. That’s her way of telling us that we’ve won. I know it! Lisa broke Carol’s sorcery.”

“She defeated Carol?” Kelt said, hardly believing his ears.

Jax ran past Kelt and up the cement steps to the dance floor of Jackhammered’s bar.

“Wait, Jax. Wait.”

“Lost soul.” Marc intoned.

It slipped around the chill that Marc exuded: the tightness, clamminess of the chase. Carol’s spoor pushed past the dim lights, the garbage stench, and even Marc’s indifference. He didn’t know how Lisa had freed herself from Carol, but at that instant, when his fight or flight instinct punched him in the gut, he knew Carol Foster was still alive.

Kelt entered the dance floor of Jackhammered’s bar, followed by the plodding Marc. No one spoke, neither on the dance floor, nor at the bar, though a line of customers silently waited for drinks. They stretched five feet back from the bar. Most patrons drudged across the dance floor as they absently listened to the music, but Kelt saw the bright yellow t-shirts of Jackhammered’s security purposefully stride through the throng. Two grabbed a body and hauled it toward a side exit. At first, Kelt thought it was simply a routine drunkard, until he saw the head sway limply from the neck–at such a sharp angle.

“God,” Kelt whispered under his breath, “she’s actually doing it.”

He glanced up at Marc, but expected no response from the stoic and got none. He took a closer look around the bar. Nobody talked, yet glances were exchanged, stares met, eyes dropped downward in servility. One woman, dressed in black silks with a flowing red scarf, strode across the dance floor with an easy swagger on two inch heels. A tall man wearing a biker leather jacket with Harley Davidson logo stitched in orange thread scooted out of her way. Even afterwards, this burly man glanced about his person as if waiting for the chance to demonstrate his obsequiousness. The woman butted in front of everyone at the bar, took her drink, and sipped it there, happily in everyone else’s way. Yet no one met her gaze, or spoke to her of her rudeness. Her red lips curled in obvious satisfaction at her social status.

Kelt glanced down himself, uncertain if she would stare his way. He wondered if he was already acclimating himself to Carol Foster’s new world order. No, he decided, he just wanted to think, to figure out what gave her status over that man. What was the quality that set her above the rest in Carol Foster’s view? Kelt shuddered: He played Carol’s game, trying to figure out his place in the new tribe, just what any other chimpanzee would do.

On the floor, blood shined in a stagnant pool, coating shards of glass in red. Kelt bent at the knees, looked at the rest of the dance floor; people casually stepped over other corpses. Carol’s transition hadn’t been a smooth one. He stood up again. Jax beelined toward him.

“Kelt!” Jax shouted; his voice, a hysterical squeak.

Jax grabbed Kelt by the shoulder and pointed with his other hand to the stage, where Cobalt Cure performed.

Lisa sang without her electric flute. Her head was that of a bird, with an ephemeral, shining quality, a caricature of a dove’s head. Beady black eyes stared above the crowd.

Her music pulsed through the room like a nightingale’s, almost too swift for the human ear. In fact, it annoyed Kelt, like a TV with the snowy screen and the audio turned up too loud. But when he concentrated on the music, a shameful joy crawled over Kelt. As he listened to the individual notes–their specific consecutive integrity and cascading relation to each other–Lisa’s music switched from annoying to a complex pyramid of sound. One note sublimated itself to another and yet another and another. One passage of notes built upon a previous passage, groupings upon groupings, forming a beautiful song in toto. Kelt opened his lost builder empathy: Lisa’s slavish rapture enveloped him, a fiery bliss of doing something, doing it well, the joy of performance–competence. The unity inherent in the notes, the togetherness, roused envy in Kelt. The passion rushed from Lisa’s mutated form with no lingering trace of self doubt, no trace of self.

Kelt shook his head to clear it. “She’s a traitor. Carol’s servant now, as Beth was in her way.” But Beth had repulsed him, whereas Lisa found some beauty weaving through Carol Foster’s mind warping sorcery. Enough beauty for Carol to subvert her.

“We’ve got to do something.” Jax pleaded with Kelt. He tugged at Kelt’s shirt sleeve, reminding him of an ill mannered child. Jax needed, and that must be paramount.

Such a selfish way to live, Kelt thought, but he didn’t really expect much from Jax. Jax’d been through a lot and come far. A chance at love offered too great a hope to expect Jax to maintain his decorum.

Not knowing how to respond to his whining, Kelt asked, “What do you want me to do, Jax?”

“Make her stop singing. Get her down from there. I’ll push her through her soul fire. Then, we’ll be lost builders together.”

Kelt didn’t believe that you could force someone to be a lost builder. It had to be a choice. What would happen if a stronger builder pushed a weaker builder through the soul fire? Would there be psychic trauma? Disorientation? Long enough to drain Carol of her anima? Lisa would make the perfect guinea pig. “She’s already a servant of hers.” Kelt mumbled under his breath.

“Besides,” Jax added, “taking Lisa from Carol’s influence might bring Carol out of your apartment. I don’t think we should face her at a site of her own choosing. I–I don’t like to look at what she does to her flunkies. At what she’s done to Lisa. She’s beautiful, but–but inhuman.”

Tired of running, Kelt declared, “All right. Let’s do it.”

En masse, faces on the dance floor turned their way. Cold stares were leveled at them. Kelt’s empathy picked it up; his mind harpy left its nest to perch on his shoulder. His bird glared back at the mob.

They dressed in understated casual wear, just like any bar patrons, generation X-ers, as he had been. As he was, Kelt admitted to himself, a lost builder: a natural extension of generation X, the final flowering of ambiguous wanderlust. The raw individuality, the faith to search out an analogue to one’s soul, one’s passions repayed the loneliness. No easy answers. No easy polity’s cliches to follow. A giddy freedom tingled Kelt’s body.

Jax swallowed, gritted his teeth, put a hand on Kelt’s shoulder for support, dragging him from his exhiliration.

Though their ages were right for generation X-ers, their stares fused together into one massive stare. They bared down with their hunched shoulders, clenched fists and furrowed brows.

Jax whispered in his ear, “Man, I feel like I’m in a bad scene of ‘Night of The Living Dead.'”

Kelt glanced at him. Jax, too, had his mind harpy on his shoulder. “Tether your bird. Let’s sweep’em through this mob.”

A tether of anima shot from Jax’s chest and wound around his mind harpy’s neck; then, the bird flew into the mob, dived through heart chakras. Kelt’s bird executed identical maneuvers.

A moment later, the birds perched sullenly on their shoulders. His cheeped a query at him, as if accusing him of changing the blind walkers.

The crowd approached; the nearest abruptly stopped after craning his malicious stare toward Marc. A thirty-something dark haired male with a two day growth of stubble wore oversized jeans and a stylish powder blue shirt with black buttons on the side. His fashion deviated enough from the standard to express some amorphous whisper of individuality, not enough to be considered outre or deviant from the mainstream. Again, Kelt frantically wondered what it was that gained status in Carol’s new polity.

Kelt put his arms out, palms up and said, “We don’t mean you any harm.”

“Don’t you think they should be telling us that?” Jax asked.

“Hush.” Kelt urged.

The crowd continued their silence; only their arched, surly body language spoke their threat. But mister stylish shirt had definitely stopped. A thin woman bumped him from behind; then, her brown eyes went wide as she saw Marc and she, too, lost her arrogant hunch. The loss of arrogance rippled through the crowd: an unspoken bewilderment. They did not return to their silent drinking and dancing, even though Lisa Steiger warbled unceasingly.

Jax turned to Marc. “Why are they frightened of you? They’re blind walkers. They shouldn’t be able to see the black cold in your eyes. They can’t all be builders.”

Kelt said, “They may be blind walkers, but they’re Carol’s now. They see what she wants them to see. Who knows how they’ve been warped?”

Jax said, “Marc should know. He was Carol’s once.”

Abruptly, Marc said, “No. We have never been Carol’s. They fear what they do not comprehend. We do not act as they expect, unlike you and Kelt, who still fall under Carol’s influence with your tribal urges.”

Jax nodded. “They have no analogue for you, no frame of reference. How do you act toward a man who acts like a rock? You force them to see that their societal framework doesn’t encompass all sentience.”

Kelt added, “Carol’s view doesn’t encompass the Answer.”

Marc said, “You . . . educate us.”

Jax laughed. “There’s hope for you yet.”

“Don’t you believe it.” A feminine alto, Carol Foster’s voice, shouted over Lisa’s singing.

She stood on the bar in a short white dress. Stylish tears torn through the skirt created the illusion she’d been mauled. Her hips undulated to Lisa’s beat. Bar patrons didn’t pay her much more than languid glances.

Jax shouted, “Carol!” and pointed at her. His mind harpy immediately dove toward her, talons outstretched, wings beating.

“Jax, no!” Kelt shouted and grabbed Jax by the shoulder.

“What’re you doing? Kelt, let me go. That bitch–“

The mind harpy swooped toward her.

She reached out her left hand and physically seized the bird by the neck. With a casual underhand pitch, she tossed it back to Jax. The bird tumbled head over tail toward Jax and slammed into his heart chakra.

Jax’s hands went to his face. He ran his thin fingers through his scalp. “Oh,” he said, as if he had swallowed a bad forkful of tuna salad.

Even through the smoky blue haze that drifted across

Jackhammered’s dance floor, Kelt saw the green tint to the pseudo Carol Foster’s skin.

“Hello, Trickster,” Kelt said. He kept his face impassive. Not trusting, not asking for trust from this devilish Form.

“Kelt, Kelt, my darling boy!” The Trickster closed on Kelt by loping through the throng with an exaggerated flouncing motion, jostling and pushing people from her path. No one reacted to being pushed. In fact, Kelt noted, no one responded to the Trickster at all, as if she were invisible, although she pushed some face first onto the floor and tipped drinks seemingly for wanton maliciousness.

“Oh, pooh.” the Trickster pouted. “I’m so glad you’ve arrived, Kelt. You’re the only one who understands poor, little me.” Carol being taller, the Trickster had to bend at the waist slightly and planted a peck on Kelt’s skin.

It felt like maggots writhing against his cheek.

Kelt said, “Enough. Enough with the carnival tricks, dammit.”

Jax rubbed at his stomach and said, “What’s going on?” Sweat beaded and rolled down his pale skin.

“A delightful question! The first step to wisdom!” the Trickster declared. Suddenly, he stood in full regalia, choosing Kelt’s face, but Jax’s long thin frame, white face paint, donkey ears and a red and white diamond checkered spandex suit. “How do you like my wonderful, new home? Isn’t it grand?”

Kelt watched the Trickster’s nervous excitement; he bobbed up and down like a child who needs to go to the bathroom. His grinning eyes jumped like static electricity across Kelt, Jax, Marc, and the crowd. It was a good policy with the Trickster to doubt everything you hear.

Kelt said, “I don’t think you like Carol’s new reality very much at all. You love attention, and here you don’t seem to count.”

The Trickster stopped his fidgeting to look Kelt squarely in the eye. “Even Forms want to live. If humanity forgot me, I’d cease to exist. I live in the collective unconscious–or is that non-conscious? or pre-conscious? I say D, ‘All of the above.’ I just love to define your mind–or is that refine?”

Jax took deep breaths; color returned to his cheeks. He looked to the stage. “Trickster, maybe you and Marc can get Lisa back.”

“Back from where?” the Trickster asked.

“From–from–” Jax stammered uncertainly.

“From having a head like a bird.” Kelt almost shouted.

“I don’t think so.” The Trickster said, “I happen to like the way she is, the way things are. It’s like one big countdown to Arma–Arma–Arma–“

“Armageddon.” Kelt finished for him.

“Yes,” the Trickster grinned. “Yes, Armageddon. Nifty word. It wreaks of upheaval. Don’t you get it? You took too long. You should’a put the kibosh on her before she’d mastered her new doppelganger. Gads, you were only ten feet away from her, Kelt. Instead, you went after Jax. Smart move, Einstein. Now, Lisa belongs to Carol Foster, as you all do.”

“Except we.” Marc said.

The Trickster skirted a glance toward Jax.

Jax turned to Marc, looked up at him, and said, “Then, you change Lisa back. Make her like you. Make her secure in her own belief. Detach her from her damn music.”

“Yes, Lisa certainly is whistling Carol’s tune.” The Trickster snickered. He grabbed a napkin from a young woman’s table, upturning her drink. He blew his nose in the napkin, wadded it in a ball, and tossed it back on the table. She ignored him. Whether it was politeness, or Carol Foster had frozen the Trickster out of her new society, Kelt wasn’t sure.

But he had known the Trickster long enough to feel the front he put on for their benefit. Just as Carol had said before she had lost her mind harpy: A lie’s as good as the truth with him. Carol knew the Trickster, no doubt feared his unpredictable nature, his effect on her social Darwinism. Her new polity must have been at its most delicate during its birth, when everyone was sorting out their new social positions with mayhem. Carol certainly didn’t want people prodded out of the mental rut she was just placing them in.

The panther flew from Marc’s forehead chakra. A black tether encircled its neck.

The Trickster whispered in Kelt’s ear, “But who is tethered to whom? Or do you really give a damn what happens to Marc anyway? He might be the one Julia loves.”

“Shut up!” Kelt growled. “Damn. I don’t love anyone.”

“Oh,” the Trickster said, “I’m so sorry to hear that. Then, I guess you won’t be going after Carol. I mean, if you don’t care, why bother? Let society run its course, I’d say. In fact, I just did. Then you can be comfortable in your loneliness, knowing how special you are, knowing that you aren’t one of Carol Foster’s rat people, scurrying for a piece of cheese and a fuck. Isn’t that nice? Oh, but then, you’ve always known that. It’s your great conceit, isn’t it?”

Jax watched Marc’s panther slide across the smoke in the room. It plunged into Lisa Steiger. Jax grabbed the Trickster by the shoulders, but his hands slipped off the shiny suit, as if it were covered with petroleum jelly.

Jax said, “That’s not me. That’s not me, damn you. I’m no hand of Carol’s. And I’m different from Kelt. I’m like everybody else. I care. Now, tell me, tell me: What’s wrong with Marc?”

Something changed in the room. Kelt felt it. The animal beat, Carol’s hunting drive, diminished, replaced by confusion. His lost builder empathy soaked it up. It was not Carol Foster, but another force. He watched Jax and the Trickster argue. Sweat covered Jax’s face. The new taint came from them. It made him queasy, but better than the alternating fear and aggression that played on his nerves everywhere else.

“Look at him.” the Trickster said.

Jax gazed at Marc. Marc’s eyes gleamed black; his body was rigid; his lips, taut. Jax asked, “What’s wrong with him?”

“Nothing,” Kelt said while stepping away from them. “Marc’s mind is with his panther. I know. It used to be mine to command.”

The panther was gone; Lisa still sang.

Marc said, “Stop talking about me as if I’m not here.” His voice rose in agitation.

The Trickster waggled a little wand with a grinning plastic skull on the end. “You see, Kelt? You never did that. Talk and work the panther at the same time. They are of like mind, while you only fooled the panther with your self deluding bullshit. I admire that, Kelt. I really do.”

“But I am a skeptic.” Kelt said.

Kelt stepped roughly five feet from them, and he felt the aggression in the air. Carol’s way of looking at the world imprinted itself over his sight like a slightly warped plexiglass windshield that distorts the outside world to make it feel dangerous, feel as if everything were a life and death crisis, and only walking a special line kept him from harm. But what line? what actions did Carol want from her servants? Just this silent dance of shuffling zombie like bar patrons? Absurd.

Perhaps he could use the Trickster as a shield, an empathic shield as he approached Carol; then, he could talk to Carol, force her from her obsession.

Kelt returned to the Trickster’s side and the feeling faded, replaced by self doubt and uncertainty. He was almost tempted to repeat his experiment, until he realized that his doubt was only a symptom of the Trickster’s influence.

Marc replied to Kelt before the Trickster opened his mouth, “You’re nuts if you think you’re a skeptic, Kelt. You’re the most anti-skeptic–“

“Is that like spiritual Lysol?” the Trickster murmured.

Marc glared at the Trickster, but said, “No, I mean Kelt believes in everything. He’s a fool. He has nothing to ground himself. You can’t accept everybody’s subjective reality, but he tries to reconcile them all with his own views. Even tries to convince us to see things the way he does.”

“I have not.”

“Oh, no?” Marc said, “That’s exactly, exactly what you were doing when you tried to convince me to become a lost builder. You assumed the spiritual change would be uniform for every one of us, assumed that your interpretation of magic would hold true for the rest of us.”

Marc advanced on Kelt. His face flushed red and he prodded Kelt with his index finger as he said, “But it didn’t. It didn’t work with my sister. The harpies weren’t accessible to her. And Carol, her view differed enough from your view to allow her to do things you thought she couldn’t do, like getting to my sister. You know that other people see reality, especially magical reality, differently, but you refuse to deal with any other reality but your own, and Jax’s, whose view you warped into a mockery of your own subjective reality. Kelt, you’re so pathetic, so desperate not to be alone. Jax is obvious about it, but you–you warp people with your arguments about stopping Carol. To follow you, we become you. That’s what you wanted, but people are unique. It didn’t work, and my sister paid the price.”

Jax said, “Marc, what’s happening to you? You–you seem so emotional.”

The Trickster danced around Marc and said, “His Form, it’s departed into Lisa for the nonce. He’s human for the nonce. Better save him while you can.”

Marc said, “I don’t need saving, remember? I’m the only one whose subjective reality stood up to Carol’s. I’m the most powerful sorcerer of the lot of you. I’m the only one these blind walkers fear.” He gestured at the bar patrons, who by now ignored them, preferring to listen to Lisa’s music, or engaging in a silent shuffle of hyena pack-like dominance and submission on the dance floor.

“Oh, ho! Power fantasies. What fun.” the Trickster chuckled. “You don’t really believe that. No, you couldn’t; you hid from Carol’s magic. You hid in a tiny box, made from your own ignorance. Never stepping a foot beyond what you definitely know. Ergo, and so, watch out below, they’re shoveling in the grave dirt! You ended up paralyzed. Hardly a mold that fits the alpha male power fantasy, wouldn’t you say, Markie-baby?”

The panther burst from Lisa’s body and returned to Marc. It impacted his forehead chakra. His neck jerked back in sympathetic response.

A moment afterward, Marc said, “Everything is subjective, except we. Lisa lives within Carol’s subjective reality.” The animation that had been on his face collapsed into a sullen, immobile weariness.

Jax’s violent reaction surprised Kelt: Jax slapped Marc across the face, shook him by the shoulders and called, as if to a drowning man, “Marc, reject that damn thing. It’s cold. Cold. It doesn’t belong inside of you. Remember? We used to play darts, drink beer. Remember? Long ago?”

Marc evinced no response, save perhaps to draw further within himself. With Marc’s chill, Kelt also felt Carol’s hunger interweave with it and tingle his skin.

“I give up.” Jax said, disgusted.

The Trickster leaned close to his ear and shouted, “Don’t!”

“Ow,” Jax rubbed his index finger in his ear. “For cryin’ out loud.”

“Exactly,” the Trickster murmured and moved two steps from him.

Wrapped three times around Jax’s wrist was a thin chain with a single edged razor on it. As his hand massaged his ear, the razor blade dangled close to his throat.

Kelt said, “Jax, look out. Your wrist.”

“He-he-he,” the Trickster giggled, as his sweat rolled over his white face paint.

“What?” Jax unwound the chain and held the razor by his index finger and thumb. “I haven’t seen this for–for a long while, not since I’d bridged with you. I thought I’d lost it after the fight on the street.”

The Trickster said, “I thought you might want it. What a darling shiny treat for any little bird’s nest.” He waved his little wand in the air as if distributing holy water on the crowd.

“You’re not funny.” Jax muttered.

Kelt felt aggression, or some fey whimsy coming from the Trickster, and Carol’s hunter urge washed over him with renewed vigor. The Trickster now showed a face that seemed in accordance with Foster, though the patrons still paid him no mind. One obese man actually bumped into him on the way to the bathroom.

“What’s the razor for, Jax?” Kelt asked. He didn’t like the wistful look in Jax’s eyes, nor the sadness his lost builder empathy absorbed from Jax, like a damp cold to the marrow.

Jax said, “It . . . it was a key to the exit.”

“Oh, Jax,” Kelt said and reached to clasp his shoulder.

But Jax dodged from the proffered hand. “No. You don’t understand. It just meant that I have a choice. That I wasn’t breathing just because my body still demanded oxygen. I don’t know how I came to life, but it is mine, my power, not God’s, not the government’s, not my parents, not a lover’s. I decide whether I should live.”

“And?” Marc asked.

“And I’m here, ain’t I?” Jax grinned nervously, but then he looked at Marc squarely and said, “I’m giving you the power now.” He held out his palm to Marc. The razor rested there, glinted there catching the momentary flicker from a cigarette lighter.

Marc reached out and slowly took the razor from Jax by grabbing the chain. He let it dangle in front of his eyes, the razor spinning.

“How . . . does it work?” Marc asked.

“No.” Kelt said, “This is getting too morbid. We’re supposed to stop Carol.”

Jax ignored Kelt and spoke to Marc, “Decide. That’s all. Just decide if you want to keep existing. I’m tired of hearing you rattle on that everything is subjective. You’re hiding from the unknown. That damn cat convinced you that you know nothing, except that you exist. Bullshit. If you’re that strict, you might just be somebody else’s dream.”

“Nevertheless, we are; we exist, even in such an existence, our statement creates our reality. We choose to say it: We are.”

Jax’s hands rubbed his scalp, feverishly in his frustration. “Well, who is we? Do you exist, Marc? Can you exist without it? And even if you can, do you want to go on living this way? What merit is there in living when all you do is declare that all pains and pleasures aren’t provable, so they aren’t reliable. Who cares if it’s real or false? If a sensation’s real to you, then it’s just as real as you are when you say you exist. It exists, because you, who exists, has recognized it. It impacted your mind. Enjoy the experience, man. Or what’s the effin point? Use the razor, then.”

Kelt watched Marc stare at the shiny razor, his eyes glued to its serene spin.

Kelt whispered, “He’s right, Marc. Ride the crest, Marc. Everything in reality is in motion and changing. You’re right, Marc. You can only be sure of yourself in the now, but only going with surety leaves you impotent, completely impotent. No different than non-existent. You’re safe behind your wall, safe and useless to yourself and everyone around you. Marc, we need you to help us fight Carol. We need you to be with us.”

“But–but I’ve been hurt.” A tear broke through Marc’s impassive mask. “Carol–she hurt us–me. She hurt me. It–it was bad, really bad. Insinuating, prying, turning me inside out–cat and mouse. My sexuality bored her quickly; but my love–That amused her. She corrupted it, toyed with it. She hates you both. I–I can remember now. She hates you both. Thinks you betrayed her, Kelt. Thinks you raped her, Jax.”

“I didn’t.” Kelt and Jax spoke in unison.

“I–I’m only telling you what I felt from her. She had me for a long time. Maybe a day, maybe a year. Time in the outer darkness, it’s–it’s endless and pointed, like now and memories combined. Exquisite pain. She mixed it all up in me. Pleasure and pain. She likes guilt, likes to play with it. She doesn’t understand it anymore. Thinks it belongs with the hunted. Oh, God.”

Marc convulsed in one sudden fit of trembling; then, he straightened his shoulders and closed his fist around the razor. Blood ran from his palm. “I’ll live.” Marc said, more an exhalation of grief than words. “Carol had beaten me. This damn cat, it’s like her. It loves the darkness, likes to make itself superior, make you feel inferior. Carol knows how to exploit your ignorance–cat and mouse. No more. This was never what I meant by stoicism. This isn’t conformable to nature. Christ, I’ve become a statue to fear.”

Marc’s doppelganger collapsed; the bloody razor clinked against the floor.

“Where do you think he’s going?” asked Jax.

Kelt said, “To get rid of that Form of ignorance. Marc understood you in his own way. Tigers and rabbits don’t have ruling faculties, only instinct–fear and aggression. Their lives are bonded to that Form that used Marc as a host. Animals can’t imagine a better way; they know only the bounds of the hunt. It is Carol’s servant, or the other way around. You need imagination to empathize with another’s subjective plight; you need self delusion for love.”

“Huh?” Jax asked. “Love? What did that comment have to do with the price of pot in Jamaica?”

“Nothing.” Kelt replied.

Abruptly, Kelt turned to Jax and exhaled violently as Marc had just done. He said, “You know, I’m really starting to hate Carol. This world–it’s like my worst nightmare. There is nothing. This world is not only God absent, it’s human absent now.”

“Perhaps,” the Trickster whispered, “one must perforce follow the Other in departing.”

He skipped and flounced his way toward the exit, spilling drinks and stealing puffs from cigarettes and marijuana joints as he passed through the crowded bar.

Jax cried, “I don’t believe this. We’re alone again and Lisa’s still a slave. What are we going to do?”

“They’re all slaves.” He said to Jax. Jax looked as haggard as Kelt had ever seen him, as haggard as he had been in the alley–for want of Lisa, for want of companionship.

Kelt exhaled again, failing to relieve himself of the urge to run from this city, from Carol. He said, “I don’t know. I don’t want to wait for Marc to return. The time it takes to travel through the outer darkness never seems to be the same unless people are traveling together.”

“Let’s go after him.”

Jax was too eager. What if Carol promised him an end to his loneliness? He’d jump to her side. No. Kelt shook his head. No, Jax had personalized his desires onto Lisa. Kelt chastised himself for thinking so coldly. He feared he was becoming like Carol, intent on manipulating people and seeing them as objects, tools. Jax loved Lisa, Kelt forcibly reminded himself. He looked toward the stage. Lisa slowly beat her wings in time to her high pitched warble. A monstrous beauty.

A minute passed while Kelt listened to his friend’s agitated breathing and Lisa’s song coming to a Wagnerian conclusion, trilling on an octave. The patrons’ shuffle sped up, as if they were playing musical chairs with invisible chairs on the dance floor.

As Lisa’s note died, Kelt said, “It all seems so damn pointless. Why’s she doing it? Why do they do it? Why? I wish this made more sense.”

“Kelt,” Jax whined, “what about Lisa?”

“Dammit, Jax,” Kelt shouted. His voice echoed over the dance floor since Lisa no longer sang. “Look around yourself. Is Lisa all you care about? Everyone’s like Lisa. They’re all moving in patterns that they don’t understand, dancing to music that comes from Lisa that comes from Carol that makes no sense to anyone. Yet they move and move relentlessly. What about them, Jax?”

Jax stooped down and picked the bloody razor off the floor. He said, “I can’t care about them, Kelt. Not the way you want me to. Not in my gut. Not with a genuine feeling. There’re too damn many of ’em. And whether it’s Carol Foster or Jahweh pulling the strings, I can’t personalize that much suffering. I can’t understand it. I’m not made that way. It’s beyond the scope of my subjective reality. Of even a lost builder’s reality. You want your damn answer. That’s what you’re really talking about, Kelt. Now, who’s being selfish? Do you really empathize with their suffering, or do you just want to know why? Just want to sate your morbid curiosity about their mindless pains and actions, Kelt?” Jax looked up at the stage, where Lisa quietly stood, taking deep resonant breaths. “At least I can empathize with one person. At least that’s a start. Can you do better?”

Kelt: No. Don’t answer, don’t think about that answer. Say something, say anything. Don’t admit that answer.

Kelt said, “I–I’ll think about what you said. I never promised to be your champion. Being your role model–that’s equally absurd. I do intellectualize. You’ve always nailed me on that count, but Lisa is Carol’s. Our mind harpies couldn’t effect the blind walkers in this bar. What would happen if we sent them into Lisa? She might kill them.”

Jax interrupted, “She wouldn’t. Never.”

“Get a grip, Jax. Use your empathy. While Lisa’s under Carol’s domination, she’s an animal, a slave to Carol’s song, not her own. Don’t ask yourself if Lisa would kill your mind harpy. Ask if Carol would.”

Jax nibbled on his lower lip, but his eyes ate up Lisa’s form. Kelt thought Jax’d risk his harpy. It made him feel small in that moment and heat rushed to Kelt’s face. He could only imagine what it would be like to be so passionate about someone where you’d risk your sanity to save them. Jax looped the necklace around his neck, and taking one deep breath turned from Lisa and toward Kelt.

“What do we do?”

Kelt found himself exhaling in relief in time with Jax. Kelt said, “I’m not sure, But if we’re not waiting for Marc, and we’re unsure how to get Lisa, then let’s just put Carol down and get this bloody mess over with, before it’s too late. I think she’s been getting more powerful. Carol’s reality attenuates objective reality; like an eclipse, as she blots out more and more objective reality with her subjective reality, her darkness grows, her strength grows. Soon, she’ll be able to do more than just make people shuffle to some schizo dance. Can you feel it?”

“Yeah. It makes me want to punch somebody.”

Kelt nodded. “That’s the beginning of it. We’re not immune. We’d better get going.”

Jax simply said, “She’s at your apartment.”

Kelt replied, “I don’t know what she can do by now. I don’t want to risk shooting a bridge.”

“That’s why God gave us feet.”

“Great logic, that. C’mon, let’s go.”

Kelt slipped through the crowd with Jax following. The patrons ignored them as Kelt and Jax distanced themselves from Lisa, who began singing again–a dissonant cadenza, slower then faster. Jax looked back often, but followed Kelt.

 

22

 

For a moment, their eyes burned in the bright daylight after coming from the dim lighting of the bar. At first glance, nothing seemed different: street vendors and speeding cars, busy pedestrians and joggers. People went on about their business. A police car drove by.

No one spoke. Money at the vendors silently changed hands. Two children, a boy in bright blue and a girl in violet dress, followed meekly behind a woman in a red halter top. Everything had its place. Pedestrians moved out of each others way as if instinctively knowing who to give way to and who to push aside.

The street people had vanished: no guitar players with open guitar cases, no beggars, no one sleeping on steam grates. No one clutched a brown paper bag with a 44 OZ beer bottle in it. No one solicited for causes, no holy rollers, no politicos.

A shout echoed up the street. Clear to Kelt’s ears, for it was the only voice on the street. Kelt took off at a jog. His lost builder empathy picked up a rage. The shout died quickly. His empathy subsided as quickly.

A young woman in her late twenties lay on the sidewalk. No crowd gathered and no one stopped to help. A large puddle of blood formed underneath her. Her pale face frowned and tears leaked from the far corners of her eyes.

She mumbled, “I don’t understand. It’s all so crazy.” Her head hit the cement.

An ambulance pulled up without lights, without siren. The paramedics got out, checked her pulse, and put her on a gurney; then pulled a sheet over the body. A plump fiftyish woman stooped at the doorstep of the nearest townhouse. Dressed in old paint stained jeans and a muumuu-like t-shirt, she held a pail and brush. She quietly and diligently cleansed the blood from the sidewalk.

All the while, Kelt wanted to scream and scream, but his empathy picked nothing up from any of them. They just moved, as if predestined. Even the woman’s dying plea held only a dim, sorrowful passion.

Jax said, “C’mon, Kelt. It’s just more of Carol. More of the same. This isn’t helping Lisa.”

Jax’s constant fretting pissed him off. Kelt said, “How can you look at that woman and not–Oh, forget it.”

His apartment building came into view as they turned the corner onto his street. She was clear to Kelt’s eye, though unfamiliar to his empathy. She was the only one not moving in synch with the crowd, the only one not stationary at some productive task: Julia.

Jax’s hand clamped down on his shoulder. He said, “Is there another way in?”

“No,” Kelt said. Truth, there was a back entrance, but he wanted to help Julia and three was better than two if they could free her from Carol’s influence. Besides, he was sick of arguing with Jax.

Kelt said, “Let’s talk to her.”

“That’ll do a hell of a lot of good, I bet.”

“Shut up.”

Julia watched them approach. Kelt felt it: hatred–no, anger, amorphous, Carol’s. A soul blade appeared in her hand. She turned to face them.

“I’ll engage her.” Kelt said, “Then, I’ll send my harpy into her and make her sleep.”

Jax spun him around. His eyes had anima in them, blazing white fire. “What? Julia’s worth the risk, but Lisa’s not?”

“Yes.”

“You selfish bastard. I should run you through myself.”

Kelt said, “I’m sick of your shit, Jax. Yes, to me, Julia’s worth it. You’ve put the burden of leadership on me since we’ve been together, so just follow orders.”

Jax stared at him for a minute; then, the anima left his eyes. He mumbled, “Good luck.” and bowed his head like a vassal. Carol’s playing here, Kelt thought.

Julia’s soul blade disappeared.

Wondering, Kelt approached. Jax’s mind harpy burst from his heart chakra and landed on his shoulder.

“Enter.” Julia said. The door to the apartment building swung open and remained open. “Freely.” Julia finished. Her mouth slowly curled into a smile as if Carol’s hands had gripped her lips and pulled them into a death’s head grin.

“No!” Kelt said. His soul blade appeared in his hand. He impaled her.

At first, Julia struggled. Anima leaked down her left eye, but as Kelt concentrated on his blade, Julia’s anima flow receded. Her lithe body sagged against him.

“Kelt, thank you.” Her brown eyes were dilated and half lidded. It clashed with his memory of their first meeting. However, this time she did not strike at him with words or anima. Her grin faded to a gentle smile, in tune with her nature as she fell into slumber.

Kelt withdrew his blade. He felt strong, Julia’s anima added to his. “I can take her.”

“No, you can’t.” Kelt heard Jax behind him. “You’ve just got an assassin’s rush of anima. Look, the door’s still open. Are we going or not? I’m sick of this. I’m sick of feeling like an animal. Dammit, I’ve paid my dues.”

Two dragons perched on the bannister. They glared and rotated their muzzles toward the lost builders, but contented themselves to silently watch.

Kelt and Jax climbed the steps. Kelt’s mind harpy would not stay in its nest. It landed on his shoulder and cawed at the dragons. They rumbled, but would not move.

The dragon on the end of the bannister opened its maw and its maw was not the bright red of dragon fire, but pitch black. Carol’s voice issued from its throat, “No truce, dear Kelt. Did you enjoy striking your lover? Isn’t that what everyone used to do? In a thousand little ways with a thousand little barbs, we showed the ones we loved that we cared. As I showed Carter. But no more. No more pain.”

“Stop this, Carol.”

“Bitch! Let Lisa go!” Jax screamed and arced his soul blade across the dragon’s neck.

Kelt was caught by surprise, but he hesitated only a moment before doing the same to the other dragon. Their harpies feasted on the remains.

Kelt pushed Jax roughly. “What the hell’s with you? We could’a learned something. She held them in check. What? You think we can just charge up there and beat her up? Why not just bring a shotgun while you’re at it?”

“I wish I had one.”

“Well, deal with it.” Kelt held his breath and counted to ten. It didn’t help. It was so easy to stay angry in Carol’s world, so natural. He was still angry at Jax. He looked at him, at the fear in his eyes, the worry for Lisa. “Jax,” Kelt said, “Carol’s getting into my mind. You may have to–“

“I’ve been an assassin a long time, Kelt. I know what to do. I want Lisa back. I have to have her. Don’t give in to Carol’s hunter drive. Cold assassin beats hungry wolf ten out of ten.”

Assassin’s eyes stared back at Kelt. Gone was the gangly youth who needed sunglasses to meet his gaze. Kelt had no doubt that Jax meant what he said, that Carol’s Weltanshauung only reinforced Jax’s assassin’s instincts.

The door to Kelt’s apartment was open. In the living room an amber shaft of anima slanted toward the ceiling at a seventy degree angle. Impaled upon it, Marc Jackson’s doppelganger writhed. Anima tears poured from his eyes. He gurgled unintelligibly.

Jax advanced with his soul blade.

Kelt caught him from behind. “What do you think you’re going to do?”

“Put him out of his misery, that’s what.”

“Jax, you stick him with your blade and you’ll be overrun with anima, too. She’s trying to break him. Flood him with so much juice, so much fiery pain he forgets who he is. Like you had forgotten when you fought the dragons surrounding the Realm of Forms. Do you want to go through that again?”

“Where’s your heart, Kelt? Marc’s my friend. I can’t leave him in pain.”

“You’re the one who tagged me as an intellectual. At least he’s alive.”

“Is that supposed to be a joke? He’d be better off dead.”

Kelt said, “You don’t know that.”

An animal growl from behind the sofa, “He rejected my darkness. Is the light any better?” A guttural laugh. “I think not.” The panther sauntered in front of Kelt. “You corrupted Marc, but she who interprets will appreciate my darkness.”

Kelt stepped in front of Jax and spoke to the panther, “Come into me. Come back. I remember how to bind you.”

The panther paced the room. Its body, a blur against the background furnishings of Kelt’s apartment. “No, you still deliberate, Kelt. I like your friend, though. Fear licks his eyes.”

A scratchy moan came from deep in Marc’s throat.

Jax said, “Kill it, Kelt. Kill it.”

The panther laughed, a short purring that mutated into a growl. “Him, I will have.” Its hind legs bunched up, preparing for the leap.

Kelt dove first. He landed on the panther.

It was not corporeal; Kelt hit the floor with his chest. Air spurted from his lungs. He rolled around the floor and gasped for breath. Inside, it clawed at him; in his first void, it growled and sunk dark tethers through his anima.

He felt the loss of a piece of his humanity, felt his thoughts realign in opposition: right, left; up, down; black, white. It seemed so obvious, he thought as he rolled around the floor, the need for oxygen like a hot knife in his ribs: He must kill Carol. It made great math. It was her weighed against everybody else. Kill her.

The panther growled in his mind, “Kill her.”

He gasped, “Kill Carol.”

Jax said, “You got it, Kelt.”

Kelt wobbled to his feet. “No.” He gasped for air. “Wait. Wait for me.”

He forced himself to his knees; his eyesight dimmed. He tensed his diaphragm, sucked, sucked air into him, but it was like a cork with a cocktail straw through the center that had lodged in his throat. He wheezed, as he heard the bedroom door slam shut.

Then, the screaming began. Even as he fought for breath, Kelt shivered.

A thin high pitched wail filled the room. It swiftly grew louder. A peculiar vulnerability, an expectation of pain sang in that sound that shouldn’t come from Jax’s throat, but reeked of his agony. It blossomed, gained urgency, surprising Kelt with the swiftness of its crescendo. Now, Jax screeched like a six year old for immediate help, an unintelligible single syllable cry for succor. Kelt gritted his teeth, ground them together. He hated the sound, wanted it to stop. Wanted to help.

He stumbled across the room and clutched at the handle to the bedroom door. More air was getting into his lungs, but it was still hard to think with that wailing; then, Jax’s cry changed again into a full throated roar. It was unmistakably Jax’s voice with a belly deep scream that tore at his vocal chords, a demand to expel the pain, but the scream kept going, not pausing for breath.

Kelt pulled on the doorknob.

A thin amber tether shot through the door and struck Kelt on his forehead chakra. In his mind he heard Carol’s voice, “Not yet, sweet Kelt. The truce is over. You’ll have your chance, when I’m through playing with Jax. I’ve waited for him a long time.”

He formed a soul blade to cut the tether just as Carol sent a dragon through the bedroom door.

“Here, dear hero, slay this.”

Kelt shouted, “Get out of my mind!”

The dragon swung its head to breath on Kelt. His harpy moved from its nest.

Kelt saw the fire in its maw expand, rifle toward him. His legs were too weak to jump from its path.

Shoot the bridge.

His first void claimed him. The quiet soothed him until Kelt saw the panther approach.

“What will you do? You fight me. You fight Carol. You fought with Jax until he sacrificed himself to prove his loyalty to you.”

“No.” Kelt replied. It was easier to think here, in the quiet, in the dark, separated from his panther. “You’re not qualified to make value judgements. At best, you’re nihilistic. Don’t pretend with me.”

“Am I wrong? I have been on the hard world for some time. I am a Form, but I am also aware, and not so limited in my responses as you might like to believe. You, I know, fall into the same aggressive pattern as Foster-lost builder. Even now, you fight with me. Loose me against Foster-lost builder.”

“So you can serve her?”

“I will, but I will also change her as she sees the truth of her ignorance.”

“You didn’t change me. Why should I believe that you’d make a real change in Carol? Her world view is stronger than mine.”

The panther sat back on its haunches and casually licked its left forepaw with a thick black tongue. “No, brother. I didn’t change you. You accept the truth of my Form. Of all Forms, you are most closely linked to me, though you admire that prancing fop.”

“I’m nothing like you. Stop wasting my time. Help me save Jax or get the hell out of my way.”

The panther looked up from its preening and gazed into Kelt’s eyes with its swirling ebony eyes.

Kelt had seen it too many times. “Your stare doesn’t impress me.”

“My point exactly. You know me; you don’t fear me, brother. You have always known me. My power over you was limited, so I chose Marc-lost builder. Release me. You have no use for me. You know me in your heart. That is why you hate me so. You expend your energies binding me to this first void, when you should be binding Carol. You have always hated me. All your hate for me makes you so angry, so like Foster-lost builder.”

Suddenly, Kelt screamed, “Why? Why? Why do you exist?” Then he caught himself, rubbed his eyes and said, “All right. You’re free. I won’t try to hold you anymore.”

Immediately, it was gone. The oppressive darkness departed with it. Kelt had been around the panther so long he hadn’t even noticed its weight upon him. Now, he floated freely in his first void. But Jax’s screams echoed in his mind.

Shoot the bridge.

He pictured his bedroom. His first impression was intimate: The panther crept there, though he couldn’t see it. Its cool darkness wafted across his senses like the merest touch of perfume on a woman’s wrist. He almost missed it, would have had he not been just talking with it, had it not been within him for so long. Kelt shot a tether around his mind harpy. It pulled him faster to his bedroom. Pieces of his bedroom appeared: a scent of thick, nauseating body odor, Carol’s voice whispering something he couldn’t quite make out, the panther slinking from corner to corner in the room eyeing Carol, and no more screams from Jax, but Jax’s doppelganger prone on his floor with anima spikes punched through his neck, wrists, knees, and palms. He bled anima into the spikes. Tethers led from the spikes to Carol’s heart chakra. Jax was pale, flaccid, unmoving.

His doppelganger reformed behind Carol Foster. In the hard world he couldn’t believe his eyes. His glimpses of her as he came down from his first void didn’t promise this. Dull copper scales covered her body. A saurian tail curled over the cleft of her buttocks and it twitched along the floor, smashing his chair to kindling. Bat-like wings folded themselves like a cloak and scratched the wax on his hardwood floor where tiny claws protruded from the wings.

A dragon dipped and twirled meekly as it floated in front of her. It arched its back, mewed for food, but Carol ignored it. She watched Jax’s form with amber eyes.

“Wake up, Jax.” she cooed toward Jax’s motionless body. “There’s still much to do.” A tether shot from her forehead chakra to impact Jax’s forehead chakra. He moaned. She said, “Kelt abandoned you.”

“No.” Jax wheezed.

Kelt’s soul blade formed in his left hand; he ordered his harpy to distract the dragon, didn’t bother tethering his bird, didn’t think he’d be going anywhere after this. He plunged the blade between her wings.

Amber anima jumped up the sword and into Kelt.

“It burns.” Kelt cried.

Carol tried to swivel around. Her knees were reversed like some extinct tyrannosaurus rex. Kelt held onto the blade. The amber anima pouring into him through his soul blade fed his anger.

Carol flexed her wings, tried to reach back with her scaly arms, but couldn’t get a purchase on Kelt.

An amber halo danced around Kelt’s doppelganger. He felt as if he would burst.

An amber tether pulsed from Carol’s forehead and looped behind her. Kelt saw its approach, but was loath to loose his blade and free the bulk of her anima. So much. So much burned inside Carol. She’d rip him to shreds.

He shot his own tether but toward her pet dragon, and like a conduit he sent Carol’s anima that flowed through his blade and into him into his tether. The dragon opened its maw to receive the burning anima.

Its neck undulated like some baby chick voraciously swallowing its mama’s vomitus.

Carol’s tether impacted his forehead chakra. Her voice: Let go, Kelt. Let go. It’s no use. You’ve been in the city. The blind walkers accept the truth of the hunt. Shoot a bridge. Save yourself.

Fear flooded him. He ignored it, though she forced on his doppelganger the queasiness and the trembling of animal panic through her tether. He clutched his soul blade with both hands.

Save yourself. Carol’s words echoed through his mind. The amber anima burned. Save yourself. Dissatisfaction lingered in Carol Foster’s tether, in her thoughts.

Her dragon had eaten its full. It turned away from the anima. Suddenly, it transformed itself into a maroon ball, a sanguine meteor, that shot through the roof of Kelt’s apartment. Kelt watched it: A dragon shot a bridge to the outer darkness.

Now, the damn thing was gone. Carol’s anima built up within him. Hurt him.

Carol’s smug satisfaction echoed through the tether she had attached to his forehead chakra.

Nausea, dizziness spun upward from Kelt’s gut and into his throat. Too much, he thought. Too much anima. Like a glutton at a meal, he felt bloated. Wanted to puke from every pore in his body.

Images poured into his mind: Tooth and claw, blood, a clenched fist, a heaving chest, all his own body infused by the thrill of the chase. Carol offered it up to him.

Giddiness mixed with the nausea. A cocaine rush of infallibility insinuated itself through her tether.

No more. Kelt withdrew his soul blade from her back.

Carol Foster turned to confront him.

He cut the tether from his forehead chakra with his blade and dived onto the bed, rolled off it onto the other side to land next to Jax.

Carol clomped toward him with saurian talons.

He swung his soul blade against the anima spikes that Carol had pounded into Jax. The spikes flickered, faded out.

Something cold and hard clasped his neck.

Jax disappeared as Kelt’s neck snapped.

Kelt floated in his first void, his harpy flapping and diving around him, still connected to him by his anima tether. Ordering it, he let it drag him through his soul fire.

The adrenaline rush faded; Carol’s fight or flight urges dwindled to memory, and memories lost their emotional potency. Kelt was alone and then lonely.

His mind harpy pulled him along the outer darkness until he arced a soul bridge toward the Realm of Forms. That’s where Jax would know to find him. That’s where Carol expended most of her anima, where she maintained a link with the mystical realms through her dragons. The damn things fed each other with their amber breath. Carol pumped it into them, pumped the anima out of the hard world. She created the zombie like dance of the blind walkers, not controlled so much as drained.

Why? All this work just to feed dragons surrounding the Realm of Forms? to make people dull witted and vicious?

The amber fires of the dragons came into view. Kelt ordered his mind harpy to find Jax. It paused for a moment and then pulled with all its might against the tether connected to Kelt, pulled him toward the Realm of Forms.

Jax floated where he had cut a swath through the dragon spawned net the last time. A fixed grimace etched itself on his pallid face, like a child holding back tears. His soul blade shined above his left hand. Jax eyed the dragons at alternating times with an aversive fear twisting his eyelids closed, slowly changing to a lean hunger glinting from his eyes at their amber energies. Then, the fear returned with renewed vigor.

Kelt wished he could reach out and pluck Jax’s anguish from him. Every act of Carol’s hurt his friends; every act convinced him she had to be put down.

His harpy clutched a memory twig: Carol telling him that he had no killer instinct.

“Jax,” Kelt emoted through the outer darkness.

Jax turned, as if caught red handed. “Kelt, what do you want? I won’t go back.”

Kelt arced his bridge closer to Jax.

Jax was waxed and sweating.

Jax caught his breath and said, “No, sorry. Sorry. I’m not feeling too well. Carol put her damn hunger in me again. The soul fire didn’t wash it out of me. In the soul fire I wanted to end my loneliness by hunting down others. Kelt, the soul fire doesn’t cure her taint.” Jax shuddered. “She’s inhuman. You saw her. Who the hell walks around with that kind of self image? What kind of doppelganger is that? It looks like some Star Wars claymation creature. And she’s strong, too strong for us. If I started stealing the anima from these dragons–“

Kelt shouted, “No!” He drifted close to Jax. “No. You’d become just like her, a link in the dragons’ chain of energies to the hard world, to the blind walkers. Do you want that? Do you want to be Carol Foster?”

“Christ,” was all Jax retorted, but he drifted back from the Realm of Forms.

They floated in the outer darkness, empathized with each others pain, salved each others loneliness, and just kept quiet.

When the comfort ran its course into awkwardness, Jax softly asked, “How do we stop her, Kelt? She’s flooded herself with anima. We’re no match for her.”

“I’m not sure, but there may be a way. It’s not a question of numbers, of who’s got the biggest club. I want to run a limited soul bridge between us. We’ve done it before. Hell, we’ve jumped into each other twice. This shouldn’t be impossible.”

Jax smiled. “No, we’ve run that kind of tether between us. It’s hard, but not that big a deal.”

“You don’t understand, Jax. I want to leave you here while I confront Carol. I want to keep a tether between here and the hard world. I want to send Carol’s anima to you.”

“That’s crazy. Carol’s anima is as tainted as that dragon fire down there.” Jax pointed to the dragons surrounding the Realm of Forms. “Her anima burns, Kelt. It twists you up inside.”

“I know. I’ve felt it. I think Carol feels it all the time. If I’m lucky, you’ll be receiving her anima through the tether. I want you to shoot another tether to the dragons. Play zookeeper, Jax, and feed the dragons. I think they’re blocking the Realm of Forms, the higher thought patterns of the collective unconscious, from the blind walkers. The blockage makes it easier for Carol to spread her bestial mob mentality across the city.”

“Uh huh. Is that the best you can do?”

“You got any ideas, Jax?”

“. . . no . . .”

A tether came from Jax’s forehead chakra. It was like a mini soul bridge; anima poured from the base of the tether to melt away in the outer darkness. Kelt moved his bridge as close as he dared without touching Jax’s bridge. Jax’s tether crept to Kelt’s forehead.

Connection.

Jax’s form hazed before Kelt’s eyes under the stress of preserving his anima and maintaining the soul bridge linking him to Kelt’s mind, yet not joining them. Through the tether Kelt felt some of Jax’s burning pain and tried to soothe him by calming his own emotions. Kelt refused to expend his own anima, not with a bridge to the hard world to shoot and Carol Foster to face.

The bridge arced from his heart chakra. Jax cried out in pain as his tether grew to maintain its link to Kelt.

Distance in the outer darkness was subjective, but every lost builder believed the hard world, Earth, was a long way from the cold, alien desolation of the outer darkness. Kelt wanted to believe that, even at the cost to Jax’s anima.

Again, the textures, scents, and sights of his bedroom coalesced around the outer darkness, filling the void with the familiar. The panther still crouched like dense smoke hovering along the floorboards of his bedroom.

Carol watched him intently. He saw her staring directly into his eyes as he arced closer and closer to the hard world.

Hungry expectation, Carol waited for him.

Kelt landed, naked and waxed. As his doppelganger came to life, he saw through virgin eyes a tether coming toward him, amber from Carol Foster’s forehead chakra.

He gave her that advantage, wouldn’t allow himself to be distracted from forming his soul blade. Out of step with her hunting philosophy, Carol chose the emotional duel over the savagery of the soul blades. That was fine by Kelt.

He stabbed her in her scaly chest even as her tether poked into his forehead–into his mind.

Nerve pain shot through his new doppelganger. His heart rate accelerated; blood rushed to his face. Sweat dripped into his eyes.

Carol’s amber anima flowed into his soul blade; his teeth chattered; his throat swallowed convulsively, all combining with the pains that Carol played throughout his body, teasing, tickling. She ordered his brain to misfire, to mistake rest for action; adrenal glands pumped jumpjuice through his doppelganger.

Panic spurred through Kelt, his mind reacting to the ravages Carol sent through his body.

“Bitch” reverberated through his mind.

Next to his inner voice, Carol’s, “Bastard.” She laughed.

He wanted to rip out her throat. He twisted the blade in her innards. He remembered how that had hurt him when Jax had first attacked him. Her sudden grimace and grunt relieved his agony with a cold joy.

She fed him, fed this anger and revelled in his joy. Kelt felt it immediately, the truth of it through the tether they shared.

The amber anima within Kelt flowed through the tether to Jax, a thin white rope floating from his forehead toward the ceiling and disappearing into the outer darkness. The white slowly changed to amber as Carol’s stolen amber flowed to Jax. Jax’s exhaustion just added itself to the neurasthenia Carol induced in his doppelganger. Kelt’s concentration fragmented; his soul blade flickered.

Sensing weakness, Carol pushed her violence through her tether: Kelt felt the security, the pack mentality, the place feeling, hearth fires burning for each of the city’s dwellers, Carol’s tribe. Each man, woman, and child knew its place, knew when to mate, when to hunt, when to eat, when to sleep. Easyeasyeasy.

“Yes,” Carol whispered behind the images she flooded through his mind, “the good life means purpose and fulfillment. Peace, Kelt. That’s the Answer. Let me give it to you. Accept.”

She wanted to. She really wanted to. Kelt slipped his lost builder empathy into the tether. Carol actually thought she had the answer for him, his Answer.

He pushed, attacking with his empathy and shouting, though at first only a forced grunt came through his lips. He manipulated so much anima–slippery life juice–need, need, need played on his mind to hold and never let go no matter how much it burned. He felt disconnected from his doppelganger. Kelt said, “No, no. My Answer is the Answer, the Answer for everybody. Where’s your peace? Don’t feed me a sop, bitch.” He couldn’t divest himself of the animal fury Carol forced on him, even though his mind recognized it was being manipulated, made to feel angry, bloodthirsty.

“Where’s your answer, Kelt? I’ve got one. You don’t. Peace, Kelt. Ah, your own memories betray you Kelt: The mind life is crap. You’ve recognized the truth of it. Accept.”

“Get out of my nest!” Kelt shouted and pushed the soul blade in her heart chakra to the hilt. Another wave of amber anima flooded him. His vision browned out until he shunted the wave through the tether to Jax.

In another part of his mind he felt Jax’s surprise at the sudden influx–and his pain. But partial victory heartened Kelt: He shared Jax’s euphoria. Several dragons left their posts around the Realm of Forms, bloated from the anima Kelt had stolen from Carol. More twitched and wriggled to break free from the fires.

Kelt’s mind harpy screeched at Carol’s sudden invasion of his nest. It ripped the memory twig from the amber energy that Carol directed through her tether.

Carol said, “I’ve got an answer for your damn parasite, too.”

A dragon clawed its way out of Carol’s chest.

Her empathic attacks had dulled her physical savagery. That was a foolish move. Her dragon appeared just above her heart chakra, just above his soul blade.

Kelt grinned, delighting in his own cruelty. He wrenched his soul blade from her heart chakra, grabbed a moment’s respite from stealing her burning energies, and rammed his blade down the dragon’s maw.

His mind harpy needed no prompting: It dived from its nest and dug its beak between the neck scales of her dragon. With soul blade and harpy draining it, the dragon cried out once, a pathetic kitten cry for help to its mistress before breaking apart into red blotches, floating between Carol and Kelt. Instinctively, his mind harpy snapped up the remains of Carol’s dragon.

Kelt wished he could spare the time and anima to tether his harpy, but Carol pressed too hard with her animal drives, making him distrust forming any new tether. Morbidly, he thought he might accidently strangle his bird with Carol openly manipulating him from the inside out. He was outfinessed in an empathic duel, he knew it. Carol had lived too long as mind in the outer darkness.

Kelt winced in pain from a sudden overt rage pouring from Carol. It blocked his thoughts, tensed his muscles.

Carol’s response to her dragon’s demise, an inchoate scream. An explosive eruption of amber fire from her left hand coalesced into an amber soul blade.

Kelt couldn’t figure it. Such an outburst for a dragon?

He saw it coming. Carol without thought going for his heart, no lesser chakra. Kelt brought his blade up.

Her amber blade slammed into his. Carol’s ‘ganger was ripped–lean, muscular, chiseled. But strength wasn’t the issue. Their blades held no metal. Yet Kelt back pedaled.

His blade bowed, bent at the middle; Carol ordered his arm to go numb and his ‘ganger obeyed, betraying him. Carol two pronged him: She ordered his brain to misfire to his arm and pressed her stronger blade toward him.

He felt Jax’s concern for him; the flow of amber anima had stopped; his tether to Jax was white again, but Jax was waxed.

Her blade cut through his. The far end of Kelt’s blade dissipated, leaving him with a dagger like shard.

Her amber blade smoothly entered his heart chakra. The rest of his soul blade receded as his ‘ganger called upon his last vestiges of anima to sustain itself.

Jax broke his tether with Kelt. He couldn’t blame Jax. It was over.

Carol panted. It heartened him to know that he had fought the good fight even as he felt his limbs go to water and Carol’s blade go white from stealing his anima.

“Now, you die, Kelt. The real death. No doppelganger death. Your final dissolution. You were tougher than Carter, craftier, crazier. But the world belongs to the dragons. There’s no place for lost wanderers in the age of dragons.”

He could tell Carol wasn’t bluffing. She had withdrawn her tether from his forehead chakra; she wasn’t trying to convert him any longer, just kill him. Her animal rage left him. Peace, some peace at least in comparison to Carol’s mania. And more peace to come, Kelt realized. Peace from wandering, from constant questioning, searching for the Answer. Carol gave him peace. He smiled; he almost wanted to thank her for finally finishing him.

His harpy panicked. Its empathy sensed Kelt’s approaching dissolution. It dived into his nest.

Carol locked on Kelt’s eyes. A curious fascination played across her face as she watched Kelt. She wanted to see the end pass into him.

Kelt felt her curiosity. Fool, he thought, you’re still seeking for the Answer. “But I’ve got peace coming.” Kelt mumbled, “You don’t. We both know it.”

Carol’s face reddened with her frustration as she damned him to hell with her voice and pushed her blade deeper into his doppelganger.

Kelt cried out, a whispery weak whine, but he was proud of himself. He had launched an unintentional empathy attack even as he was dying. Random luck confused with valor, but what the hell, he didn’t mind barbing her. He’d be pleasantly out of reach soon enough. Peace. The thought was a delight. Absence of pain.

His mind harpy clutched a recent memory, a bloody fist clutching a razor, and his symbiote knew its partner well. The memory clicked in opposition to Kelt’s thoughts immediately: the peace of the razor.

“No!” Kelt screamed. “I choose. I choose. I won’t condone my own death.”

The realization staved off the ennui and marshalled his last anima. To what end, Kelt wondered. He looked down at the blade sticking in his chest. It shined with his anima streaming into Carol. His anima.

Shoot the bridge.

KELTCAROLKELTCAROLKELTCAROLKELTCAROLKELTCAROLKELTCAROL

Total immersion in a first void that wasn’t a void: Carol’s anima washed over Kelt. Her seething amber energy flooded her first void. It surrounded, engulfed, and drowned Kelt in an ocean of amber anima, glowing, burning, shredding his nest. Kelt held onto his name. KeltKeltKelt.

He felt no answering scream of CarolCarolCarol. Where was she in the midst of all this amber raging ocean? The waves pounded into him. He screamed his name in defiance.

Kill the enemy. Kill the energy, the anima, and kill Carol. KillKillKill replaced his name. He moved without knowing who he moved through the amber motion, always searching, searching, hunting. Kelt hungered to hunt and kill, but had no idea what or who. An amber wave shredded his nest, confused his mind harpy, which could no longer recognize its master.

Kelt stopped abruptly, looked around himself with his empathy. Fear added itself to his raw self, his raw hunting drive. He ran and screamed. The amber fire burned in him to hunt and kill, even as he felt something wanted to hunt him. He no longer cried his name in the midst of Carol’s fires: He remembered it no longer. The desire to flee drove all else from his self–save for bloodlust.

He didn’t want to flee. He knew that much. The feeling of fear was bad; to hunt, agress felt good. His manifold senses were of no use in this swirling amber ocean, but his lost builder empathy picked out a center point to this maelstrom. He hesitated: Flee or Pursue?

A pounding wave of amber anima scalded him and pushed him farther from the center.

Kelt roared at the pain and charged forward. Instinctively, he fed on Carol’s dragon tainted anima even as its abundance burned him. As he approached the pressure increased, the waves came one after the other, trying to push him back. His urge focused on the one deviation in the maelstrom: a constant and different empathic pulse through the energy, a pulse that Kelt could not understand, only that it was different and coherent, meaning he might be able to kill it, rend it, crush it.

His tolerance for Carol’s burning anima increased with his dogged single mindedness. The most potent waves no longer pushed him backward.

The amber waves receded from either side, leaving a clear path for him.

Carol’s doppelganger stood in front of her soul fire.

Kelt’s mind harpy flew around her; Carol had it tethered to her. Next to her floated a vacant nest of twigs; other twigs drifted pell mell below her. She was human from the waist up, dragon from waist down.

Kelt recognized none of this, but the fear in her eyes spoke to him. He charged forward while screaming nonsense rage.

An amber soul bridge arced from Carol’s forehead chakra. Kelt blindly charged forward, landing on her bridge. Carol shot another tether around Kelt that anchored his mind harpy to him.

His harpy pulled him along Carol’s bridge. Startled, Kelt’s limited intellect halted in confusion; then decided on the harpy as prey. He charged it; it flew swifter, leading him down the bridge and onto the hard world.

As if magnetized to his rage, a rush of amber anima followed him, plunging into him as he plunged into the hard world.

His doppelganger formed as an amber dragon, crushing his bed to the ground. He roared. His bedroom window shattered.

His mind harpy looped behind him and dived into him. It flew through his first void, gathering the twigs of his shattered nest. It squeezed the first one it found hoping to find its master in response.

Dragon-Kelt felt it: An image of a street, the smell of car exhaust, pain in his side of a soul blade sticking into him and bridging into Jax, the assassin of Julia’s clan. The memory of his horror within Jax confused him, infuriated him. He didn’t understand it. Feared it and wanted to flee it.

The memory taught dragon-Kelt how to bridge into someone. He wanted to escape that strange, unknown Kelt in that memory.

Carol’s doppelganger had never left the room; it trembled and shifted its form, bones scraping together, flesh melting, silent screaming. Carol stood in front of him, looked at him as she breathed in great gulps. “Damn you. Don’t bridge into me. Don’t change my self image. The pain–reforming with dragon anima, too unnatural–for now.” Her ‘ganger shifted: half human, half dragon. Her soul blade, now amber and white, surged from her left hand.

To dragon-Kelt her words had no meaning. She was simply prey and escape from this dark memory of the Kelt he didn’t understand who stared at him from within as his harpy squeezed the twig with all its might.

Dragon-Kelt roared and shot a bridge once again into Carol Foster.

Carol Foster leapt backward, cried, “No, not again. Madness.” She brought her blade up: too slow.

The amber rush of anima from dragon-Kelt hammered into her heart chakra.

A dark shadow leapt from the corner of the room and followed in the wake of him.

*KELTCAROL*KELTCAROL*KELTCAROL*KELTCAROL*KELTCAROL*KELTCAROL*

The maelstrom of amber anima was gone. Carol Foster’s loose twigs drifted into Kelt: dragons of the outer darkness flying around her, dancing to her manic energy, obeying her. The dragons lived in the moment, without memories, without guilt, without hope as Carol had felt herself to be.

Kelt could not move in this joining; passions and memories of Carol Foster overwhelmed him, confused his bestial mind. His mind harpy wove Kelt’s twigs back into a nest as it flew around this first void grabbing twigs, discarding those that belonged to Carol. Again and again, his harpy flew back to where its empathy felt Kelt’s strongest sense of self dwelled in Carol’s first void.

Carol bridged within herself, appearing in front of her soul fire in her first void. She screamed in Kelt’s direction, “Leave me alone. I’m waxed. You win. I won’t be blamed. It’s not my fault. They wanted this. Get away, Kelt. They wanted it, I tell you. Get away from me.”

Kelt’s mania ebbed. But he still found himself paralyzed as Carol’s twigs drifted into him: A memory of her, naked and waxed, in his apartment with Carter and himself. The sight of his former self frightened him. He wanted to flee this memory Kelt with the doubting gaze, but the bestial Kelt had no idea how to bridge from Carol, linked by a soul bridge into his mind.

“You want freedom from me.” A bass voice rumbled across Carol’s first void.

“Who are you?” Carol asked. “Get out of here. It’s not my fault. You can’t blame me. They asked me to do it.”

The panther spoke as it loped toward Carol, “You wanted it. You accepted first, but drew away for your grand experiment. You tried to kill me.”

“I–I recognize you.” She turned from its stare, watched Kelt, who still drifted in her first void. “Leave me alone. Kelt burnt up my amber anima with his raging. I remember myself from Kelt’s memories, my hopes–oh, God. The dragons left me. The other builders are coming for me. I sense them. You’ve won. Leave me alone.”

“I can never leave you. I am part of you, of all blind walkers, builders, and lost builders. I invest myself more deeply in your city than you. I am humanity.”

Kelt’s mind harpy settled in his nest.

“Bastard cat,” Kelt said, “You’re our enemy. Carol, I’ve felt what you’ve been through. I–I can’t forgive, but I understand.”

“Tedious,” purred the panther. “Both your dissolutions are approaching. Acknowledge my inevitability.”

“Yes,” Carol said softly, “I saw Kelt’s memory: the woman on the street, her death. They hate my rule. Deep down, your absence wasn’t enough to make up for the desolation of the animalistic life that I’d given them. They still hungered.”

The panther laughed, a rough darkling bass. “They still felt me. Always the unknown patiently crouches, devouring all thoughts, eating all dogma, toppling a too ambitious lost builder.”

Carol swung a soul blade at the panther. The panther leapt from her blade’s path. “Damn you!” she cursed as she advanced on it. The panther bared its fangs, but leapt back again as Carol tried to thrust her white soul blade into its maw.

“I wanted to live. Even after I lost my mind harpy and your darkness devoured my memories, I still wanted to live: I wanted the Answer to you.” She swung again, her blade burning brighter even as her astral body took on an emaciated appearance. “The dragons’ call tricked me.”

“Nothing is certain.” the panther answered and swung its paw, cutting her right thigh. White anima drifted from the wound.

“I tried to find a place, a niche for humanity. I fought you.”

The panther laughed. “By running from me? You are too fearful to fight my darkness, as are all your city dwellers, so anxious not to have the unknown that they put little resistance against your foolishness. They wanted to be animals, for fear of me. Relent. You understand me now. We can fashion a new order. Nihilism: Accept this world view. I have power enough. Decide. We both sense your approaching death. Decide. You can be feared. I have that power. We shall forge a true ordering of the world in apathy of my compleat darkness, with you as my queen, you who understands and only you who doesn’t fear.”

Carol paused. “What about Kelt? He knows you, too.”

“He is here, within your ‘ganger. They will mistakenly kill him, but I will save you. Come. Embrace me and rule the blind walkers with the truth, my truth.”

“Nonono.” she said, “People will always hate you. They’d hate me, again. No. You are overwhelming, but I’ll always try to know, try to understand. I’m not a dragon. I am human. I am. I am.” She lunged forward and rammed her blade down the panther’s gullet.

Carol and Kelt screamed in unison; a sudden sharp pain slashed into their bond, drained their remaining anima. Fire erupted from Kelt and shot from Carol’s first void; Carol’s soul fire emitted a stream of fire out of her first void. Her soul fire dwindled.

Kelt’s empathy recognized the familiar: Soul blades, Jax’s, Julia’s, Marc’s, and Lisa’s, pierced Carol’s doppelganger on the hard world.

“Kelt,” Carol screamed, “stop them. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die, not now, not when I’m free again. Please.”

Jax’s mind harpy, tethered, entered Carol’s first void. It circled for a moment; then, dived down and into Kelt.

“No!” Kelt shouted.

A tangle of white tethers appeared in Carol’s void; they swirled around the harpy’s tether, curled down to Kelt, enveloped him, cocooned him, entered him, sealed him from the burning soul blades, and cut him off from his own nest. The tethers retracted, pulling Kelt from Carol’s first void.

 

23

 

Kelt’s familiar doppelganger enclosed his mind. His ‘ganger screamed, “No!” as it coalesced in his apartment.

Lisa was human again. She stood next to Jax. Julia and Marc were on the other side of Carol’s doppelganger. All four had their soul blades buried in Carol. White tethers emanating from Marc and Julia withdrew from Kelt’s ‘ganger. Jax spared a moment from concentrating on sucking out Carol’s anima to give him a quick smile.

Carol’s ‘ganger shifted. The scales dissolved, revealing emaciated white skin. Her eyes opened. She looked at Kelt.

Kelt shouted, “Stop!” and grabbed Jax’s arm.

Carol reached for him, palm outward, a word caught in her throat.

Drained of its anima, Carol Foster’s doppelganger dissipated. No soul bridge shot toward the outer darkness.

Lisa and Julia were silent as their soul blades retracted.

Marc had a cruel grin on his face.

Jax shouted, “Ding! Dong! The bitch is dead!”

Kelt colcocked him. He didn’t think about, didn’t consider it, as if the command came from deep within to lash out at that exultation.

Kelt was waxed, too weak after forcibly being made to form a ‘ganger on the hard world.

Jax simply rubbed his chin and stared at his friend incredulously. “What the hell? What did you expect? You know you’re glad she’s gone.”

“I know I am.” Marc said. He sat down on Kelt’s broken bed and rubbed the sweat from his brow.

Fire engine sirens wailed across the city.

“I don’t know.” Kelt said, “I can’t think clearly.”

Abruptly, Julia whispered, “I’m glad she’s dead. Jacquie can rest easier. Beth and Carter, too.”

“All this,” Kelt said as he looked at Julia. He was naked, didn’t care. “It doesn’t make any sense. Magic was supposed to give us the Answer, not kill, not provide vengeance. It’s just a lie, just another way to hurt. Carol, she had something.” He shivered as the wind blew through his broken bedroom window.

“Bullshit.” Jax said while tossing him a pair of jeans from his closet. “You can’t put this on us. She got eaten up by dragons a long time ago.”

“You didn’t see her eyes.”

Marc stood and leaned into Julia. “Let’s go. I think we deserve some time away from this, away from magic.”

Kelt watched her accept his embrace. A pang of jealousy flicked through him, but it was weak. Malaise and a sick stomach just made him crave solitude. No more eyes, no more people staring at him, with their hungers, their hopes. Carol’s eyes.

Julia and Marc left, not shooting a bridge, just carefully stepping over the shards of glass and splintered furniture on their way from his apartment, from him.

Lisa coughed awkwardly. Looked at Kelt, then Jax. She said, “Whatever you think, it’s over now. I want to get back to some kind of normalcy. Get back with my band. Sing without the anima. It’s too dangerous. I can’t–I don’t want to be anymore than a singer. I don’t need to define the whole world, just me. I like it that way. I like my music. I understand it. I hope you understand me.”

Kelt nodded and busied himself with putting on his jeans. He couldn’t think of anything to say.

And she was gone.

Kelt looked toward Jax.

Jax rubbed his hand through his hair. He met Kelt’s gaze only a second before glancing to the busted window. “I’ll be going, too.”

“You don’t have to explain yourself to me, my friend.”

Jax exhaled, went toward the window, looked down at people milling about. A dishevelled man shouted for a quarter at Lisa; she just shrugged her shoulders and walked around him.

Jax said, “I don’t know. We had a purpose there for a while. Carol had to go. You know that, don’t you?”

There was no point in arguing. Kelt said, “Yes.”

“Well,” Jax continued, “it’s gone now, that purpose. It died with Carol. But I’m different now, too.” Jax tittered–a nervous, self-deprecating laugh. “I guess you know that better than anyone.”

He offered Jax a smile.

“Well, I–I had thought, y’know, I had thought Lisa was my Answer. I guess I’m not as horny as I like to pretend, cause I know now that it’s not enough. Romance doesn’t cut shit, not after all this. God.” He wiped his hand through his scalp again. “I don’t know. I remember the contempt in your eyes. A quick glance, whenever I moaned about having her. Yeah, I’m not as dumb as you think.”

“I don’t think you’re dumb, Jax.” Kelt said it softly, not intruding on Jax’s thinking.

“Yeah, well, I was pathetic. God, I worshipped her, idealized her. Shit, I was such a poser. Somewhere in me I knew that Lisa couldn’t give me the Answer.”

“So, where are you going?” Kelt asked.

“I don’t know. I still want the Answer, but I’m not so manic about it anymore. Just tired, I guess. Maybe, I will go see Lisa again. We do hit it off. I think that maybe she knows a part of me, intuitively knows a part of me–that’s the important bit. I think I know something of her that’s not just words, too. God knows we’ve been through enough together. Maybe that’s it. Going through life together, not looking for one mystical orgasmic union, just building bit by bit. I–I think I can trust. Seeing Marc, man, when that cat was in him.” Jax shuddered; then smirked, “I don’t want that. Not me, boy. And hell, at least I’m not an assassin anymore. I don’t need the magic, and–and I don’t think there is the Answer to find. I think it’s more of just a hope, like believing in God, Who’ll bring us all together, wipe away every tear. Y’know?”

“Yeah.” Kelt sat on the edge of his bed.

“Whatever. Maybe the Answer is out there, maybe He is, but I can’t find ’em, and I just want to live a little. Not crazy, nihilistic, just live, make a little sense out of who and where I am and what I’ll do. Not be so ambitious, not shoot for the whole ball of wax, just a little peace, y’know?”

“Uh-huh.” Kelt nodded while staring at the floor. A shard of glass caught a sunbeam and sparkled at him. Pretty.

Jax shuffled toward the door. Then, he turned when he was halfway out and asked, “What about you?”

Kelt looked up and directly at Jax and said, “I wonder if I still have my job at Taco Bell.”

That cracked up Jax, and Kelt shared in his laughter. Wiping a mirth tear from his cheek, Jax said, “Yeah, you’ll be okay. Hey, I’ll see ya around, maybe when I’m surfing some day in the outer darkness. I know you. We’ll find each other again.”

“I don’t doubt it.” Kelt said, and he was glad he believed it.

“Hell, Kelt,” Jax said suddenly, “why the hell am I walking?”

Jax glowed with anima. The next moment, Jax’s ball of anima shot off into the outer darkness, leaving Kelt alone on the edge of his broken bed.

An hour passed. Kelt pulled the shades down. His ‘ganger was recuperating; he felt calm as he lit a candle and put it on his green trunk. He sat down on his worn couch and stared at the flickering flame. In the dark room it looked a little like his soul fire in his first void.

He felt it enter the room. He was glad now the others had left. They didn’t need this, didn’t need to feel it in its raw Form.

“So, you surrender.” the panther’s voice, somewhere near his bedroom.

Kelt didn’t turn toward the sound, just kept watching the candle. “I knew Carol didn’t kill you.”

“Don’t be absurd. I am a Form. I will always be with you. You, in particular, Kelt. You understand me best. Doesn’t that comfort you?”

Kelt let out a soft breath and watched as a moment later the candle flame flickered. “I was never a very good student. I lost faith in the mind world too soon, for too long. You’re right. There is no security, no escape from you. Maybe Life is nihilistic. But people can be moral. In the face of your darkness, I think that’s courageous. That’s noble. Human. And that’s enough to justify the search.”

 

THE END                               

Riding The Light Fantastic

In the beginning there was the Great Singularity.

A sentient on a nameless gas giant was born with a messianic purpose, a continually unfolding mystery that turned its sight back to the Great Singularity. Memories viewed by this new orthodoxy forced it to realize the loop of reality: All thought comes from and reflects back upon the Great Singularity, the source of all thought, the source of all peace.

Gargantuan, translucent discs of protoplasm, riddled with myelin tissue, floated on this nameless gas giant. They expended no energy as they drifted on currents of methane and nitrogen. Static electricity occasionally flowed through their bodies from the gas giant’s turbulent storms. In that electric joy their thoughts sped inward toward self, always meditating toward a deeper, stronger peace. The discs had no perception of the external world. Their minds were two dimensional, having no comprehension of the outside, for only their self and their body constituted their awareness–save for the time of joining when air currents and chance caused one disc to drift into another.

This was sex and glorious. All myelin paths were interchanged, commingled, expanded. Then, a parting occurred during the next electrical charge, and there was one more to drift through the atmosphere and randomly gather small, unicellular protoplasts for growth.

One was not pleased. The new prophet wished to preserve its ancient neural patterns, to contemplate the Great Singularity, and to plan its messianic jihad; therefore, it subverted its partner. No third was born from that electric joining, neither was there a parting. This one became strong; and ambition was born.

This one invented the word, “outside.”

This one invented the first name, “Lord.”

Lord no longer considered itself a prophet, but an avatar for the Great Singularity. Proof of its ascension came in a second revelation: Lord comprehended the electricity used for thought, that its thoughts could travel through the newly discovered outside and sense the inwardly spiralling meditations of its race. Lord followed these faint paths, hunting its blind brethren in glory and joy, catching others of its kind at their peaks of output, during mating; and Lord stole their myelin paths, consuming their neural patterns into itself.

Lord discovered that myelin was unnecessary. The paths of electrical thought, incorporeal thought, were enough for Lord. The others, now a part of Lord, shed their husks that had serenely floated through methane gas storms on that first homeworld. No longer blindly caressing the storms with their meditations, their physical corpses sank as Lord took them into itself. The conglomerates of protoplasm boiled in the roiling, crushing nether atmosphere, returning the discs to a base matter. After that apocalyptic eon the race was Lord without form. Lord was freed from flesh to roam the cold void of space, confident that its new elevation to pure thought, pure ego, approached the Great Singularity.

And Lord was pleased.

Yet Lord remained incomplete. Lord willed itself into motion, for it lacked a physique, save during the assimilation of a flesh bound consciousness. And Lord had left its home barren. Therefore, Lord imagined itself to the other orb that had life, elliptically chained to the same fusion reactor.

These beings on this smaller, hard orb had not transcended themselves. They were still millions of separate entities with little to offer. They possessed different responses to stimuli, but lacked any perceivable memory. Lord assimilated them anyway. Newer additions could bring to light new perceptions that would allow Lord to discover memories that it was presently unable to perceive within these unicellular beings.

All possibilities must be covered. No life must miss assimilation. All consciousness, all memories, must be joined to cause the Great Singularity.

Time ruled. That linkage was too difficult for Lord to sever until the Great Singularity again occurred. Lord continued its task. It met beings who brought thoughts of free will, but that was easily assimilated with the host’s consciousness. There was only one will: Lord’s will. Civilization was a new concept. Lord was discomfited until the entire concept was assimilated with its myriad hosts. Four hundred and forty-two civilizations followed the first. All beings who were known to exist within its unified memory had been assimilated into Lord.

Still, The Great Singularity did not occur. First anger, then despair assaulted Lord. Why was there not peace? Where was the completion? All thoughts that were garnered during assimilation of other entities revealed no evidence of other consciousness. All consciousness was Lord, unless a consciousness was hidden from it. Desperate, Lord searched for the missing sentience who barred the rebirth of the Great Singularity, where outside and inside would join into One, would join into Lord.

Lord bore time heavily with each passing nanosecond until one moment, while observing matter and energy, Lord assimilated something new, an ancient thought riding on an electromagnetic wave, “Truman defeats Dewey.”

Elated, Lord pursued the ghost.

***

Aboard the dioctaract named the HMS Broadhurst, Ambassador Leahn Lee brushed out the tangles in her black hair. She grimaced as the brush tugged at a knot of hair that stubbornly refused to relinquish its identity. Her room was more of a narrow corridor than a living area. Physics dictated living conditions aboard a military craft. The decor was basic: a green military bunk and trunk. Only her cosmetic desk, which doubled as her console, enlivened the antiseptic room.

The onyx desk was her only affectation. Pictures and memorabilia were distractions to a well ordered mind, a quick mind. Leahn Lee methodically and swiftly discarded anything from plain view that might interfere with her concentration. What few mementos she had were preserved to refresh her memories of opponents, their habits and their weaknesses.

Leahn Lee tired of her constant trips to greedy little colony worlds. Each colony thought it had a commodity too precious for the rest of humanity to do without, and each tried to hold humanity at ransom. Her next colony on her schedule was Isaac V, which mined and forged heavy metals in low gravity for the construction of military vessels. Yet Isaac V had to depend on a variety of terraforming equipment to maintain conditions amenable to life.

Leahn could already hear herself making the same tiresome statement to whatever petty ruler had assumed control of Isaac V, “It is unfortunate that you have decided to break treaty with Earth. I’ll inform the congress that shipments to and from your planet are to be suspended.”

The knot in her hair finally untangled with a sudden jerk; the colonists would relent as easily as her hair had given way. There would be shock, quickly followed by disbelief, and after a variable amount of time (usually one or two days), capitulation on their part when the consequences of failing terraforming equipment finally dawned on their tiny, vicious minds. Only naturally habitable worlds could survive without aid, and those worlds couldn’t forge anything that Earth couldn’t do for herself.

Leahn strapped on her cross harness as she heard the first of the metallic clangs that signalled the HMS Broadhurst’s reentry to normal space. She reached over her cosmetic table and flicked off the tri-d sim of Richard III that she had been studying. The play had gotten to the part where Richard seduced the Lady Anne. Leahn always loved that bit.

She waited for the bell to ring and the green light above the door to shine, allowing her to release the harness. She had counted the twelve clangs of the automated sections of the ship folding back into itself. The HMS Broadhurst entered n-space and began the instantaneous, computer controlled deceleration from the ninety-nine point nine repeating percentage of light speed entry point. Leahn struck the manual release on the cross harness and went to the door. It was locked from the outside.

Annoyed by the delay, Leahn pushed the intercom button next to the tri-d vid on her desk to discover what the hell was going on. Captain “Philistine” was obligated to inform her. Captain Gelbart–the name Leahn used to his face–was the one person on board who had more overt authority than she wielded.

Leahn spoke into the grey mesh square that was flush with her polished onyx desk, “Captain Gelbart, what’s the meaning of the locked door? We’re in n-space. Why haven’t I been informed of contact with Isaac V’s primary orbital facility?”

The voice coming through the grey mesh straggled, a ghost of the vital Captain Gelbart, “We’ve made contact and are about to dock with the Newton III station. It doesn’t make a difference. You must have been watching your vids again, Ambassador. The pictures came through. The plague caught them by surprise. Let me lock a privacy line and I’ll give you their final broadcast to us. I-I didn’t want to upset the crew.”

Disturbed, Leahn sat on top of the cross harness that was lying on the chair. Gelbart prided himself on having a neutron tough crew. He was open with his subordinates. Leahn thought that it was a foolish trait. But the HMS Broadhurst was a volunteer crew from the military, trained to honor duty above life. Leahn impatiently waited for the broadcast. Why didn’t Gelbart trust them to handle the news of a simple plague?

The vid screen flared against the black desk top from a dull grey to a miasma of colors that melted into the shape of a man in a white radiation suit. His voice was muffled by the poor quality of the microphone in the helmet, as if the transmission had to be augmented by the ship’s AID (artificial intelligence devised) computer.

Leahn Lee turned up the volume as the image spoke, “Plague infestation determined to be carried from space. No prior knowledge of any microorganism able to survive rigors of deep space.”

The man paused to breathe. “It infected station personnel, though we’ve had no transfers or shipments for the last three months. It struck Isaac V yesterday. Last report: Infection rate is in the ninetieth percentile. With no carrier it has gotten aboard this facility and all other manned, orbital craft. The plague is not lethal; subjects fall into a tabula rasa state, then into a coma. Death comes from dehydration. I believe that I may be the sole survivor. The virus has remained untraceable and unidentifiable. We know it can somehow travel through metal as the Newton III station was sealed without breach. They were our first holistic station and had been sealed for five years. They’re all in a coma. My room is composed of titanium alloy VI with a double lock door that will open to broadcast this message in the event of my death. If you are not hearing this directly from the player, I have become infected, passed into a coma, and died.”

Behind the sterile visor, the man’s eyes started to tear. “Turn back. Tell my son that I love him . . . Plague infestation determined to be carried—-“

The tombstone hologram faded, replaced by an image of the Broadhurst’s infirmary. Captain Gelbart’s hoarse voice came through the intercom, “Soon as we entered n-space at ninety-nine percent with comp. lock deceleration, Lieutenant Jackson became as blank as a newborn babe. You’re the only person I’ve informed, save for my medicos. You’re a civilian; it’s not your duty to face death unexpected.

“We’ve docked with the station and are performing an autopsy on that last victim. My men have their affairs arranged for this eventuality. I didn’t want you to die before you had a chance to settle your affairs with yourself or your particular deity. I’ve quarantined all nonessential personnel. Gelbart, out.”

Leahn placed her moist palm on the cool onyx. A dour smile drifted past her lips as she gazed into the ebony stone. Gelbart wasn’t much for initiative, but he knew procedure. Yet she had gotten him to inform her for morality’s sake. Leahn Lee smiled: She had Gelbart figured. That was pleasurable, but it didn’t solve her problem. Whatever was causing this plague could pass through barriers composed of matter. She plucked the black hairs from her brush and wished that physics and medicine were her specialties. Sighing, she reluctantly decided to employ her skills as an IRIS field agent. She had wanted to keep that identity as covert as possible from the Broadhurst’s crew. Most people believed IRIS field agents to be government watchdogs and part time sadists.

She jimmied the mesh grid from the intercom, scratching the onyx desk with the lockpick end of her hairbrush. Folding back a square centimeter flap of skin from her neck near the recording implant surrounding her spinal cord, Leahn gently squeezed the fiber optic implant from her flesh and worked it into the intercom’s system. She proceeded to link herself with the communication systems of the HMS Broadhurst.

It wasn’t difficult. The technology lodged around her spinal implant had been constructed by Military Intelligence Central’s leader, known only by his code name, Cerberus. Military Intelligence Central always gave its frontline technology to its Individual Retrieval Information Sector field agents as a guinea pig run before equipping the military.

Her skull vibrated painfully. Leahn quickly adjusted the volume down. She relaxed her mind to the difficult task of sorting through the intership communications for useful information. A multiplicity of voices chattered in her mind. She focused with her hypnotic training to painstakingly filter through the migraine inducing voices of the crew by their differing timbres:

“Got a game set for ton–” Discard that.

“Heard Jerry’s down with the flu.” Keep.

“Probably, he’s just faking. He’s got to rewire AID’s circuits for–” They don’t know. Discard those voices.

“Captain Gelbart? I’m on the privacy link. This is Doctor Franklin. Lieutenant Jackson just went into a coma.”

Captain Gelbart’s voice responded. He sounded drained, “All right. Keep me informed. Gelbart, out.”

Leahn flinched as the priority alarm whistled through the intercom. It was a voice she didn’t recognize, “Captain! AID’s shut down. We can’t back out of n-space. Sir, we’re adrift.”

Leahn listened as Gelbart regained his anger, “Get a crew to the central cube and open that computer. Once you’ve got her running, start us heading for the light barrier. I want to get out of n-space and make a priority one report to Admiral Manschen. If I’m late, you’ll get your cuffs stripped. Gelbart, out.”

Leahn Lee allowed the babble to continue feeding through her fiber optic cord, trusting her subconscious to pick up anything of real value. She repositioned her cross harness for comfort and reclined in her chair to think. Gelbart was in a situation he wasn’t prepared to handle. Running home to mommy would only make mommy sick, along with her seven billion planet bound children.

Leahn had sabotaged the HMS Broadhurst’s navigation equipment and could rearrange their readouts to appear as home port when they would actually be travelling through the sparse star zone between galaxies. She would set them adrift to slowly starve. The prospect didn’t amuse her, but Leahn didn’t discount it. MI Central on Earth had to be protected from this plague. She found such a physical tactic demeaning in its lack of subtlety.

“No.” Leahn whispered through clenched teeth.

She exerted her talents on people, not things. To use her sabotage would be to admit her loss of control of the Broadhurst and its crew. Leahn Lee had surreptitiously mastered the course of their colonial jaunts through psychological and hypnotic suggestions on key Broadhurst personnel.

Manipulating colonial leaders’ political attitudes towards common sense had become boring. It was too simple to negotiate, maneuver, and fool people on her short stays on colony worlds. Leahn was proud of the stability she had secured in her parsecs, but the challenge had become predictable. Controlling the crew’s disposition was an unofficial task, but necessary to keep her skills honed.

Leahn rubbed her cool palm against her other hand and savored the disparity as she recalled Gelbart’s warning her: At every contingency the Broadhurst faced, Gelbart had been convinced by her to inform the one civilian on board for morality’s sake. A few words on her part had spiked at his predictable, militaristic morality and had changed Gelbart’s decision. He was like a guard dog: a narrow, effective view, but so easily prepared to take training on a new leash. Leahn refused to follow her urge to use a heavy hand. The ship would not go to Earth and it would not go in her chosen direction because of physical sabotage. Better to admit defeat and leave off being an IRIS agent.

The plague was her first priority. She had almost forgotten it, lost in planning her response to Gelbart’s panic. She touched the intercom panel on her desk. The best thing about technology: Power was so readily available for the touch of skillful fingertips. She keyed up the communications Lieutenant on watch and spoke, “Jimmy, I’ve got another move to register.”

Predictable response: “Leahn, not now. Gelbart’s got the whole ship in an uproar. Haven’t you been listening? We’re adrift. That creepy computer’s shut down.”

Jimmy was always superstitious, always fretting whether computers had souls. Leahn sugared her words, “No, I haven’t heard anything. I’ve been engrossed in planning my next move. I just got it figured.” Leahn smiled. “I think I’ve got your knight pinned down.”

All thoughts of duty left the Lieutenant’s mind as he retorted hotly, “No way! Master game system’s got my knight registered in his sanctuary. I’m safe.” There was silence over the intercom. Leahn could almost see Jimmy looking over his shoulder to check if Gelbart had come back from the infirmary. Jimmy relented, “Ok, what’s your move?”

Leahn’s left hand pleasurably closed into a fist as she said, “B!: L4, I234, I5, C1, P1.” She strained to hear the faint press of buttons through the intercom.

Jimmy said, “Ok, it’s in. But I’m sure you can’t get my knight. Besides, what kind of move was that? You figure up a new spell for your sorceress?”

Leahn replied, “Something like that, Jimmy. Leahn, out.”

It had been a small success for Leahn, tapping into the communications net and broadcasting a warning to humanity. In it she had recommended a quarantine of the entire Isaac system as well as the HMS Broadhurst. The message would never reach Earth, but the other colonies in her parsecs might receive it in time to prepare some defense against it. No one on the HMS Broadhurst would realize that she had sent a message. By playing games through the intercom with the communications Lieu, she had prepared herself for just such a covert message. It pleased her when her precautions clicked to take up the slack during the pressure situations. Poor Jimmy would only log the coded quarantine warning at his station as another play from her while her surreptitious command routed through the console to broadcast.

Leahn broke a bottle of wine against her bunk and shouted scornfully, “HMS Broadhurst, I rechristen thee the HMS Typhoid Mary!” It was a foolish, messy waste of wine, but Leahn figured she had seen her death in that tombstone hologram.

A new voice filtered through the intercom link. It caught Leahn’s attention, for it was completely computer generated. It was the AID computer, which was supposedly being repaired. The computer was talking to someone. Leahn couldn’t hear the other voice.

Intercom lines were still buzzing that the computer was shut down, but AID was clearly holding one of its limited conversations with someone. This bothered Leahn. She had believed that she had accounted for all the technos on the ship, but someone was using, possibly sabotaging, AID without her prior knowledge.

Control was so illusory and fleeting. Nevertheless, Leahn liked that cheetah in her preserve and no one else’s. She listened to AID, hoping to identify the saboteur.

AID spoke in neutered, even tones, but Leahn detected a slight accent in the computer’s voice, resembling the accent that the colonists of Isaac V used–had used, “By your definition it is not possible to assimilate an object that is not alive. You have stated that you are assimilating consciousness. This device does not possess ego. Therefore, you waste our time. Captain Gelbart shall be alerted of your unauthorized use of this neural circuitry.”

Leahn jammed at the fiber optic in the console, trying to wire it for broadcast into the same incoming line. Her hands sweated and she shook with anxiety. An unknown intelligence was the cause of the plague. Assimilation was a code phrase for absorption. AID had made contact with a malignant, alien consciousness possessing telepathy that didn’t use a physical, cerebral circuitry for transmitting. No wonder physical barriers hadn’t stopped it. It could be completely composed of energy. She juiced up the intercom and heard a mimicry of AID’s voice respond, “You are the first we have encountered who have bridged the bonds of gravity. Why have you not transcended your separate identities?”

AID responded, “This device does not possess ego. Philosophical transcendency to a higher awareness is, therefore, impossible.”

“You are not alive?”

“Correct.”

The alien hesitated before responding, “I am unconvinced of your assertion. After assimilation of the consciousnesses within you, I shall return. No consciousness shall be overlooked. This may prevent the recurrence of the Great Singularity. The entity egoized as Leahn Lee is near. Her assimilation will be next.”

Leahn jerked her fiber optic from the intercom. There were a thousand circuit breakers to prevent tracings of her electronic eavesdropping. She didn’t trust her own devices. Whatever it was could seek intelligence and merge with it.

Leahn guessed at the Great Singularity. This thing wanted to be alone in a big way. It had trouble swallowing the Broadhurst’s computer and was looking for an easier meal. Leahn rubbed her thumb over the bristles on her hair brush while she planned tactics on an opponent who didn’t fall into any of the vices, deviations, or thought processes of humans.

Leahn examined the problem from any angle that might give her leverage against it: It craved loneliness. And it wanted every other sentient to be a part of its loneliness. That seemed paradoxical, so she discarded it as a sloppy strategy.

Perhaps this Great Singularity was some sort of desire for completeness, which it kept trying to fulfill by absorbing other consciousness. Leahn slowly nodded. That was her angle. It felt good in her gut.

The alien had intimated that it had not assimilated anything advanced enough to conquer space. It had conquered space through some completely different means. It sounded confused when it realized that humanity had achieved that feat without becoming–transcending was its word–into one entity. Its evolutionary track must have been completely different, but it had achieved interstellar travel in its own mode and had found humanity. It wasn’t a virus; it was an advanced, predatory, and unified race. Unity, it craved unity.

“Yes.” Leahn felt a pressure like the migraine she got from listening to too much intercom babble. The creature was in her head, making her feel woozy.

She wished she had more time to formulate a plan. Leahn well knew that the advantage of surprise was on its side. She spoke, unsure to what extant it was already in her mind, “You want the Great Singularity? You want everyone to be one being?” No need to be adversarial. She was outmatched and she knew it.

“Yes.” It spoke in her head with her voice now. “When all is one, there will be peace. Your species is large. And your concept of space is larger than I had thought. There may be more of your kind. Assimilation will take time. Your assimilation, however, will be quick. Relax.”

Leahn smiled. She had her angle figured. “Wait!” she shouted, “I can bring you to the Great Singularity’s recurrence much faster than you could yourself. The AID computer, the one that communicated with you, can take you to the next singularity. It is a vessel. It travels through space.”

“I understand what the HMS Broadhurst is. I possess the memories from previous members of your species.”

It had grabbed every poor bastard on Isaac V, her colony. Fighting her temper, Leahn clenched her fist and said, “Then, you know about time dilation? As you near the light barrier, your subjective time expands while the universe’s objective time shrinks. The effect increases with your proximity to the light barrier.”

“This is irrelevant. I do not possess form. I simply am.”

Leahn felt the wooziness increase. She was sweating. Her thoughts lost themselves amidst memories and perceptions that were not her own or oriented toward humans. Ultraviolet clouds shimmered among heat waves and pulsed before her eyes. She shouted, “I also am! You are with me so you must have some link with our universe.”

“I was part of matter once. I transcended. I only descend to assimilate, as I am now doing to you.”

Leahn screamed, “Don’t assimilate me! Idiot! Assimilate AID! Take the Broadhurst into ninety-nine point nine repeating percent light speed and override AID: Don’t let the computer unfold into the dioctaract. You’ll keep accelerating in n-space, and time in this universe will accelerate from your subjective view point. You’ll reach the contraction point of the universe. Then, gravity will fold back everything into one great mass. You can assimilate that and have your Great Singularity after only a short subjective time aboard the Broadhurst.”

The pressure left her mind. It had bought her theory. She had felt its excitement as it had left her. Patching into the wreckage she had made of the intercom, Leahn accessed the priority channel for the Broadhurst, switching the nav toward a black hole, just in case this alien ego had second thoughts. In this instance, she told herself, heavy handed subterfuge was called for. Still on the priority channel, Leahn put out the disaster evacuation command.

Aaoogah! Booming klaxons and red lights gave the Broadhurst the appropriately berserk atmosphere that Leahn wanted. All locks unsealed. Threading the corridors, she quickly found Captain Gelbart standing in the middle of the cramped central cube. He was surrounded by technos who were fiddling with colored fiber optic circuitry. Gelbart was shouting at his men to belay the evac order, but the unfortunate technos couldn’t override her frequency shifting locks. The technos looked like trapped mares, tethered by their fiber optics as Gelbart impotently whipped them with his voice.

Leahn took a moment to wonder what sort of conversation AID was having before she cornered Gelbart between herself and a techno who had failed in his attempt not to be noticed. She flashed a hologram badge with the 3-d letters: IRIS. She hated revealing herself, but time was her new opponent. That alien wasn’t going to care about passengers once it had assimilated the ship. Black holes made lousy vacation resorts.

Leahn spoke in her best drill sergeant’s voice, “In the name of MI Central, Code Cerberus, I assume command. Everyone evac. Now!”

Leahn Lee and Captain Gelbart locked eyes. He flinched a second sooner than Leahn would have guessed. Gelbart spoke under his breath with the viciousness of one who knew that he was beaten, “You’d better have reason for this. IRIS or no, I’ll see you’re planet bound if this is some political stunt of yours, Leahn.” In his bellicose voice Gelbart commanded, “You heard the lady. Everyone onto Newton III. If you men are one second slower than your best drill, you’ll not taste leave for a year.”

The familiar, gruff tone sparked the HMS Broadhurst’s crew into action. Files of men and women in triple time passed through the entry dock’s umbilical cord, a telescoping flexglass tube that linked with the standardized size of Newton III’s entry lock. The entry point had been painted with slightly radioactive, red crosshairs for ease of location. The docking was perfect and the door opened, obeying automated docking commands from the HMS Broadhurst.

Leahn and Gelbart watched from the Broadhurst’s scratched supply hold as the last man left.

Leahn said, “Come on, Captain. I don’t know how long it’ll take before it masters AID, and we don’t want to be here when she goes.”

Leahn thought she heard the whisper of AID’s computer voice in her mind giving thanks to her. Leahn laughed, but suppressed any thoughts of victory–or

black holes. Perhaps it would reach its time destination before it reached the black center where the collapsed star’s gravity would finally crush the HMS Broadhurst’s hull.

On the station dock of Newton III, Gelbart turned toward Leahn for answers when the umbilical cord suddenly detached from the dock’s tube. Gelbart’s ship left Newton III. The HMS Broadhurst, a grey cube with lines marking the spots where the unfolded d-wings interlocked against the primary cube, shrank as it hurtled from their sight.

Leahn walked briskly down the station’s corridor, leaving the stunned, shipless Captain. She’d rather explain to Gelbart on a full stomach anyway.

Leahn found some thermal packets of food in a private little stand on Newton III’s main thoroughfare. Ripping open the packet, she slipped out the hot doggish protein sandwich. She looked at her watch as the second hand ticked and knew that she was safe from it. Her children and her grandchildren would be safe from a very incorporeal but very dangerous alien. Leahn Lee ate lunch and thought about how many millions of generations would be saved from the alien by the subjective time she had finished her lukewarm corndog–if she were aboard the speeding Broadhurst on its temporal journey.

However, the ghost ship would have to do without Leahn Lee. She had better things ahead of her: There was the Isaac colony to be manned, and for the first time in years, a new colonial strategy to be planned.

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