The walls were covered with blood. I put my hand on one of the pictures.
No, not blood. Paint. I sniffed it.
They were red walls, which was somewhat normal, all things considered.
“Are you okay?” a voice asked. I looked over and saw that it was one of the Hyalu. She wasn’t wearing a cloak, which was surprising. Didn’t cultists always wear cloaks?
“Yeah,” I said. “Using my elf senses. You know. To smell this wall.”
“Okay,” the Hyalu said.
“It’s an elf thing,” I said.
“Alright,” she said.
“Okay,” I said.
She turned around, grabbing the hands of the two Hyalu closest to her. I patted myself on the back for being smooth. She probably had no idea I was tripping balls.
They formed a circle, which meant they were either about to sing Kumbaya, or try and summon the spirit of a dragon.
Smart money would be on the dragon. I put my hands in my pockets. Damn, no money. If only I had money, I could gamble.
Anlu was in the circle, too. I was impressed by how sober he looked.
“We call upon the extropian elements of the universe. We call upon the successes of the future to wipe out the sins of the past. We ask the future to provide us with a key. The future, which has gotten through the door with this key, must give back to the past. So please, extropian forces, grant us light. Please, extropian forces, build us a dragon. Let us see your plans for us, so we might find the proper soul to fill your vessel.”
Light blue energy sparked up, in the middle of the circle. I could barely see it, since my view was being blocked by the people in the circle. But I saw one of the sparks set off a whole new batch of sparks. The sparks seemed to build, so that each speck of light became the focal point for a new sparking. Eventually I saw that the spark formed a picture.
The picture only lasted for a second. It was a dragon, which flew in the air. Its great big wings stretched out on either side, and out of its open jaw flew a wild spark.
The sparks fizzled out all at once, dropping to the floor, little more than ashes.
“Shit,” I muttered under my breath.
“The future has spoken,” Anlu said. “Who wants to be a dragon?”
“I think dragons are pretty fucking awesome,” I said, “and I don’t like my body very much. Can I be a dragon?”
“No,” Anlu said. His voice wavered a little, and I think he was trying to hide his desire to laugh. “You can’t be a dragon.”
“Boo,” I said. “This cult sucks.”
Finally, Anlu spoke again: “If no one volunteers, the soul will be chosen by us, when the time comes.”
I thought about the silence: there was a sort of understanding in it, a gravity that couldn’t be conveyed by words. Nobody wanted to be the dragon. Which seemed kind of strange. Who didn’t want to be a fucking dragon?
“Alright, then,” Anlu said. “It won’t be a volunteer.”
As if on command, the circle broke apart, everyone letting go of each other’s hands. They looked somewhat dazed — not necessarily confused, but perhaps entranced, as if they’d been operating on a different level and were suddenly forced back down to the planet.
Lusu walked over to me.
“Why wouldn’t you want to be a dragon?”
“Shut up,” she said. “You’re obviously on drugs.”
I cast my eyes about the room, thinking I’d somehow find the inspiration for the retort I needed.
“So?” I said.
She rolled her eyes.
“That was very sad, what you just said,” Anlu said, walking up behind Lusu.
“So?” I said.
“No, before that.”
“Something about dragons,” I said.
“You said you didn’t like your body,” Anlu said. “That’s sad. You really should love yourself.”
Lusu turned around to look at her father. “You’re both on drugs? Really?”
“How’d you know?” I whispered.
“That almost doesn’t merit a response. But if I have to spell it out to you, my dad’s eyes are a pretty good telltale sign.”
I looked at his eyes. They were strange, with patches of white pigment focused right around the eyes, spiraling outwards and dancing all across his face.
I took out my Elf Guard badge: “I’m the motherfuckin’ Elf Guard, and you’re under arrest.” I manipulated my hand so that it looked like a gun. “Pew pew, pew pew,” I said.
“Got me good,” Anlu said, laughing.
“I’ll leave you two to it, then,” Lusu said, walking away from us. “Glad you’re getting along, at least.”
“Sure we are,” Anlu said, “though it’s hard to get along with someone who doesn’t get along with themselves.”
— — —
My hand was a beautiful creature. It started at the palm — the center of it all — then split into five rays of light, five different fingers. I closed my hand, one finger at a time, then opened it up again.
“I think Lusu and Coraline are going to try and kill each other,” I told Anlu.
I didn’t look at him, but merely heard as he said: “You’re probably right.”
“That doesn’t bother you?”
“No,” he said. “It’s the way things are supposed to be. Those two have been at it since they were little.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
I was laying down on the floor, looking up at the ceiling. There was a ceiling light, and I put my hand to block my view of it. Opened the hand up, finger by finger, then closed it again.
“Everything has a beginning, everything has an ending,” I said. “I like how relaxed you guys are about everything.”
“I never said that,” Anlu said. “Nothing ends. There are stopping points — a pause, perhaps — but nothing ever ends. We create, we strive, we build. And we do it because we can’t stop.”
“Sounds exhausting,” I said.
“Not really. It’s just the way life is.”
“Life is exhausting,” I said. “I think Lusu and Coraline are going to try and kill each other.”
“Those two never could get along,” he said.
“Do you know why?”
“It was a lot of things,” he said. “Lusu always had trouble making friends. Couldn’t hold her tongue, and all that. Not that I blamed her for having a sharp tongue. It’s just that it didn’t help her get close to people. I think it would’ve been different if she was male.”
I fought the lump in my throat. “Probably.”
“She and Coraline were close for a while, actually. As close as anybody got to Lusu, at least.”
“It was a lot of things. Coraline began dating elves, which Lusu had a problem with. In fact, I’m somewhat surprised she’s friends with you. That said — and tell me if I’m getting too invasive, here, but you don’t seem to have that elvish soul.”
“What’s an elvish soul?”
“It’s something in the eyes,” he said. “How you’re raised, how society looks at you. The values you’re taught and the values you stuck to. I imagine you were something of a rebel — never able to uphold elven ideals.”
I thought back to Lusu breaking me out of the hospital.
“That’s not far from the truth,” I said. “Lusu didn’t like the elves?”
“She didn’t dislike them openly, at least. She just didn’t care for them much. Think it bothered her that elves always seemed to be in control — to know things she couldn’t. It creates a sort of distance, doesn’t it? One person knows the future, while the other doesn’t. It’s a real-life dramatic irony. There’s a distance that the knower can’t ever overcome.”
“Yeah,” I said, drifting off.
As he spoke, Anlu’s voice began to change in timbre. It became more metallic-sounding, less Hyalu: “Lusu cared for magic. That’s where her real passion lay. Coraline didn’t do too well in the subject, and I think she lost some respect in Lusu’s eyes, because of it. I think–”
All I heard was the sound of a trumpet, blaring away. I looked over and saw Anlu, his mouth opening and closing, trumpet noises coming out. He didn’t seem to notice the oddity of his voice. I wondered if I was going crazy.
He didn’t seem to notice me. It was like he was in his own different world.
Maybe we were separated by a glass wall, which distorted sound. I reached out, trying to feel some physical force separating him from me. But there was nothing. No barrier was there.
His eyes were focused on the wall. It was like I wasn’t even here.
My heart was beating faster. I closed my eyes, trying to get away.
I dreamed. It was a better way of living.
— — —
I don’t know why I was so nervous, but I was. Jazz music played in the background, trumpet roaring, climbing higher and higher trying to reach the loudest note it could. The rest of the band supported it — bass keeping time, drum keeping time, saxophone working some interesting repetition.
Go man go go as high as you can.
We were sitting at a fancy table. Lusu looked at me.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
I was glad she wasn’t speaking in Trumpet, but there was something so uncomfortable about this experience. It was like spiders crawling all across my body. I began patting myself down.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
I looked up at her, confused. I didn’t know what to say.
You killed a man, a powerful voice said. I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from, but he was right.
I’d told a man to kill himself, and he had. Maybe there was no escaping that. Maybe my life was ruined.
His life sure was.
— — —
I opened my eyes, only to see the ocean staring back at me.
Closed my eyes. Darkness.
Opened them again, Saw the ocean again.
Closed them. Darkness.
Opened them for a third time, only to realize that it wasn’t the ocean staring at me. It was Lusu and her father.
“She’s alive,” Anlu said.
“A good thing, I suppose,” she replied.
“She?” I asked.
Anlu looked at Lusu. Lusu wore a poker face, revealing nothing.
“Right,” I said. “I was put into the body of an elf. You were referring to me.”
Anlu looked over at his daughter. “Is that true?”
“Yeah,” she said. “He was a man, once.”
“Oh,” Anlu said, his eyes still wild with white. “Cool.”
“Nobody can know,” she said, putting her finger to her lips. “Shh.”
Anlu imitated the action. “Shh,” he said.
“That’s right,” she said. “Though it’s not particularly relevant to our current situation.”
“Which is?” I asked.
“Dad only rented the boat for a couple days, which means we have to leave here pretty soon.”
“Oh, shit,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. “We’re going to go into town today, and I need you to not look like you’re on drugs.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because there’s going to be an election next week to decide which soul should fuel the body of the dragon. Each of the Death Cult members are up for the vote, as well as me, since I’m the one who asked for the dragon in the first place.”
“Oh, shit,” I said again.
“Yeah,” she said.
“It’s sort of like the opposite of a real election,” Anlu explained. “Everyone argues why they shouldn’t be the one to inhabit the body of the dragon. Then they argue why someone else should be the one.”
“What’s so bad about becoming a dragon?” I asked.
“When you die, you come back as something completely different,” Anlu said. “Usually, Death brings us back as mirrors of ourselves: similar personalities, with similar ambitions. So a Hyalu associated with the Death Cult has a good chance of escaping the circle of reincarnation, so long as they keep coming back as a Hyalu. Eventually, they’ll be in line to truly shuffle off the mortal coil. But if they become something else, all is lost. Worst of all, they’re forced to keep living as something alien, something foreign.”
“Uncomfortable,” I said.
“Right,” he responded, “like you getting in the body of an elf, but even worse. People’s personalities shift, in ways that can feel unpleasant. The discomfort makes many go mad.”
“Only to be born again and again, only to go mad again and again, an ever-recurring cycle of damnation,” I said.
“Right,” he replied. “You know, I think I’m going to invite Coraline to have dinner with us.”
Lusu looked at him, face askew. “Why?”
“Stop the cycle, offer the hand of friendship. You two aren’t so different, in the end.”
“That’s the worst thing you’ve ever said to me.”
“Surely it’s not the worst,” he said. “I don’t think one of the dining halls is being used today. I’ll pull some strings with the boat’s staff and set something up.”