Chapter 9 – Team of Five

After the dinner trays had been cleared for the evening, the long cafeteria tables had been folded neatly against the walls. The chairs had been set up to face the far wall, which was long and white. A projector was being set up on a small table near the back of the room, a cream colored sheep was tinkering with it without much success, stroking his chin, staring helplessly at the blue screen and error message that was being projected on the white wall.
Patients where wandering in every few minutes, their figures bathed in the blue ambiance of the projective, shuffling about in apologetic murmurs, excited as small children and with the lights turned off. There was plenty of room for them to roam without feeling claustrophobic, and there where more staff roaming the cafeteria keeping on a watchful eye. The traumatic time in the showers that morning had shaken up a lot of patients, some of them still smelled like sulfur, but soon the excitement of the movie was displacing that. They where invited by a staff to find themselves a seat, or to get in line for a snack they could eat during a movie.
The sweet and salty scent of popcorn had filtered through most of the asylum, so those who where not there where aware that ‘something’ special was going on tonight. Almost everyone was invited to the occasion.
The flavor of popcorn reminded Brune a little bit of when she was young and her parents had taken her to the fair. She remembered that there were little turbines that spun sticky pillows of cotton candy and ethereal rides with electric lights. She had always wanted to go back, so when she was ushered into the cafeteria, she felt as if she where walking right into the Big Top again. She noticed almost all of the staff where dressed in either stripes and polka dots and had white paint on their faces.
’There are different types of clowns you know.’ said Twenty Four Hours, who was perched on her shoulder.
’There is Whiteface, Auguste, Contra-aguste, the Character Clown, Pierrot or Pirouette, and the Halequin. Keep a sharp eye out for them Brune, maybe you can tell which ones are the real clowns and which ones just have interior motives.’
The moth waited patiently in line for her little bag of popcorn, staring blankly at the blue error screen, transfixed (as many insects tend to be) by the glow of it. She had to be given a little tap on the shoulder to be reminded that it was her turn and she watched as the woman with the piggy nose fill up her paper bag with a silver scooper. “Just like the fair!” she thought to herself. As she reached out to take the bag, she looked more closely at the hog that was handing it to her…
“White face!” the moth chirped before she padded cheerfully away.
She found a seat at the end of a vacant row of chairs and sat with her silky nightgown-dress and wings draping over the side. She licked the salt off of her little fingers, eating the kernels one by one. Dark splotches formed on the bottom of the bag where the oil was sinking through the paper.
Even as others filed in around her, she continued to stare at the enchanting blue screen, as if the movie had already started and only she could see what was happening.

Jaciam began to smell the popcorn a quarter of an hour before anyone came to get her, but she hadn’t realized the strength of that butter-salt smell until the soft thud at her door broke her concentrative haze. Jaciam’s tail twitched in irritation at the rude interruption, and she walked over to answer the intrusive disruption. As she opened the door, the warm smell of summer nights spent at the movie theaters washed over her in a swift rolling vapor, and Jaciam became keenly aware that something special was going on that night. A staff member was standing impatiently in the doorway, beckoning to her.
“C’mon Jaciam, there’s going to be a movie tonight. A lot of people are going to be there.”
Jaciam hesitated with indecision. She almost would have rather settled back into the musical flow of her artwork… the isolated haze would have been less energy-draining than sitting in a room with tons of other people whispering and crying and talking loudly. “Is Nox going to be there?” she asked without thinking.
The staff person looked startled. She had never known of Jaciam having any opportunities to spend any time with Nox outside the single group therapy session they had. Several other patients shifted down the hall with wide, childlike eyes, shepherded by another orderly. “Well… I don’t know,” the staff member finally said hurriedly. “Are you coming or not?”
Jaciam looked torn and then finally shrugged with ambivalence. “I guess so.”
She followed some of the other patients down the hall. A tall saber-toothed cat ran by her laughing loudly, jostling Jaciam aside. “Watch it!” she grumbled fiercely, already feeling overstimulated by all the other people. An orderly from the other side of the hall shouted “Walk! Don’t run!” but the patient that had almost knocked her down was long gone.
The room was beginning to look quite full by the time the gryphon arrived, and she glanced at the wall bathed in dripping blue light. Large white letters at the bottom declared “NO INPUT.” They clearly were having some technical trouble.
Jaciam looked around, but she couldn’t see any glowing green fur that would indicate the presence of her brother. In fact, she couldn’t see anyone she knew… until she peered closely at the moth, Brune, that she had met earlier. Brune had just popped several kernels of popcorn into her mouth with apparent relish, her eyes glowing with the reflection of the blue screen. With some relief at actually knowing someone else in the room, Jaciam made her way towards the moth girl.
“Mind if I sit here?” she asked in a voice that was tentative, almost timid, taking the edge of the plastic fold-out chair to the direct right of Brune.
From behind her, a person leaned forward and put his crossed arms over the back of the seat to Jaciam’s right with a movement so sudden that Jaciam visibly flinched away, nearly knocking into the moth. “Hey!!” the man said loudly in a voice bursting with exuberance. “I know you! I bowled you over in the hall! Hahahaha!!” He laughed in a wild voice. “Fuck, I’m sorry about that! That must have been awful! I’m the worst!! Hahahaha!! Just kidding, I’m not really the worst, but I shoulda been watching where I’m going. Sometimes that’s hard for me. Like one time I tripped over my own kneecaps—like who even does that shit besides me?—and my mom was like “jesus Wickett, you’re such a fucking spaz!’ I’ve always been like that though, that’s my point. Oh and my name is Wickett, obviously! Hehehe! It wasn’t my real name though, everyone just kinda called me that because I was a ‘tricky wicket.’ God you look so fucking tense, can I give you a backrub?”
It was the saber-toothed cat that had nearly knocked her over in the hall. His eyes were an oddly light amber color, his face a sandy grey with striped patterns running symmetrically across his checks. His teeth came to a point about an inch below his furred chin. His face shone with a kind of childlike wonder and unquenchable enthusiasm.
Jaciam froze, her beak parting in near shock, unable to mobilize a response. “Uhh…”
Wickett put his muscled hands over the tight muscles in her shoulders despite her hesitation, rubbing in circles with his thumbs. “People say I give the best massages, you know, I would be surprised if you’ve never heard of Wickett’s massages—“

“WICKETT!” A staff person shouted in exasperation from the nearest doorway. “No PC!”
“Oooh right, no personal contact, I keep forgetting! Sorry Pam!” he called back to the mare, who rolled her eyes in agitation.
“That’s okay,” Jaciam said, smiling shyly. She was beginning to warm to Wickett’s apparently guileless nature. “My name is Jaciam. Nice to meet you.”

Brune looked up at her hallway acquaintance and smiled fleetingly, tilting her head sideways a little as she looked her over without commenting about what she saw. The body that Jaciam donned seemed to have gotten worse since their past encounter. A plush tail, like that of a gigantic green and black raccoon, arched with regal strife behind Jaciam’s slim, avian frame. The bold shock of blonde hair that waved down to the woman’s shoulders did not coincide with the tentative fashion in which Jaciam asked Brune if she could join her. It was like looking at a Dr. Frankenstein creation.
The moth leaned aside for her to sit. She had been brainstorming quite a bit today and was certain that she had hatched a scheme to get the original body back to her hallway acquaintance. She leaned in near towards her purple- green and black friend, so she could whisper it to her before the movie started. However, her plans where destroyed by a loud voice, coupled with Jaciam’s sudden movement that she nearly toppled the insect from her chair.
She whirled to face the new intruder with narrowing eyes. The words that he spoke became entangled in her antennae. A pair of hands jumped to the feathery structures to comb out the broken phrases. As she she rocked a little back and forth on her seat very slightly, she watched the stranger, a wrinkle forming on the bridge between her eyes. She was drawn to the oversized fangs curving over his chin, the pearly whites appearing somewhat blue with the glow around them, and the his lips darted and danced excitedly about them both. Brune didn’t forget what fangs that size where made for….
“You say ‘fuck’ a lot.” she noted shortly
A staff member had given Nox a shot of something in his arm that made him feel woozy, but, disappointingly, it didn’t last as long as some of the past dosages he’d been given. A nurse came in to wash his face of that red grime from the shower, but he made no response to her attempts at small talk. She left him with his damp hair smelling of sulfur and soap and left behind a small pile of books that he’d been reading while he’d been in the White Room.
He picked up a book and began to read. Every once in a while Nox would feel a gentle shift in his guts and his eyes would flick over to the wall that separated him from his sister. He kept wanting to say something to her, but he couldn’t think of anything. He sank further into the recesses of the book he was reading. and into the philosophies of René Descartes.
“I think before I am.” It was one of his most famous philosophies condensed into five words. He’d been trying to read about it for months, but hadn’t been sober enough to retain the information.
Finally, when he thought of something to say:
“While you are dreaming that you are a fish, you thoroughly believe that you ARE a fish, because everything around you in the dream feels real to you, all of your senses TELL you that you are a fish.”
“Until you wake up.”
“Then you realize that it was only you dreaming that you where a fish.”
“But how can you tell if you’re Jaciam who has just awoken from being a fish, or a fish that is now dreaming that they are Jaciam?” he paused
“This kind of sounds like what Lokivu is doing. I can’t help but feel like she’s trying to change who we are- so we don’t know what is a dream or not.” He waited for a minute, but received no reply through the wall. He slid up out of bed and walked over and gently tapped on it.
“Jaciam?” he asked, and put his ear to the wall, before realizing that there was someone standing in his doorway. A nurse was watching him with a curious look
“A movie going to begin in a few minutes, if you want to go you will have to come with me now, your friend left a little while ago.”
When he arrived, he stood for a good minute or two- not knowing what to do. He hadn’t been in a crowd like this in a while- and when he was in a crowd in the past he usually had a lot of unwanted attention. Tonight, the sedative had toned down his glowing features. Tonight he was just another guest to enjoy a feature film. He finally spotted found the familiar, twin arches of his sister’s folded pinions near a near secluded row of seats. He approached from the aisle and was about to slide his way inward when there came a startled gasp and a sudden CRUNCH of a paper bag. The girl sitting beside Jaciam had leapt to her feet.
“What on earth happened to your WINGS?” she asked. Nox’s ears would’ve cocked forward in surprise if they where not padded down by the helmet. He hadn’t noticed the moth before, and just now was confronted with a explosively emotional, round, flat face that was neigh impossible to ignore.
“Your wings- why are they tied up like that?” she pointed at him “Did the doctors do it to you? Why aren’t they dipped in metal like Kate’s here?” she pointed to the metal sheathes that adorned the tips of Jaciam’s wings. Nox looked perplexed
“What do you mean-? I don’t… have any- wait- who are you?”
Brune sat down again, sniffing
“If you don’t want to talk about it you could just SAY so.” she sniffed, looking agitated. “My name is Brune. I know who you are already, I know everyone here.”
“I wasn’t aware… that I had wings.” Nox looked at Jaciam for some sort of verification.

Wickett looked startled at this passive observation of the frequency of his cursing, and he smiled broadly. It made his teeth look even longer when his lips curled back. It would have been a decidedly threatening gesture had there been anything other than ingenuous surprise in his face, but as it were, it could barely be perceived as hostile in the slightest.
“Well, you’re right, super-smart-moth-girl! I never even goddamn noticed that before! I hope it doesn’t bother you or anything, it’s really awful, I should really stop, just a nasty fucking habit of mine. Oops, there I go again, what a tricky fucking Wickett I turned out to be, hahahaha!”
Jaciam stared in numb silence at his smile, her eyes pinning wildly and the feathers on the back of her neck beginning to rise of their own accord. She didn’t hear anything that the sabertoothed cat had just said. The edges of her vision blurred, and there was a flash—no longer a skull draped in fur of sand and grey, but one of slick skull bone with strands of desiccated sinew clinging to the ridges, of black holes of eye sockets so wide they could have been halved pomegranates. Another flash and a hollow ringing in her ears and the hallucination was gone. Wickett’s head was fixed firmly back on his neck, and his wide amber eyes arranged back in the sockets in which they belonged.
“The… Doppler?” Jaciam said shakily, staring at him as if she had seen his true form.
“What the…” Wickett stared at her for a second and then promptly burst into raucous laughter. It was so cacophonous that several sensitive patients even across the room turned to glare at him. “My God!” he burst. “No one has ever called me that one before! Jeez, you can call me that one if it suits your boat or whatever, seriously, I don’t mind. Shyah, really, have you ever heard that one? The Doppler? Like the weird noise distortion? Hahahahaha what a riot!” He had turned to the woman sitting next to him to speak his last statement—the woman, Jaciam assumed, that was named Shyah.

Jaciam had not noticed the arctic fox’s thin, wraithlike frame until the moment that Wickett spoke to her. The girl was so unobtrusive that she literally seemed to fade into the background. Despite this odd effect of her demeanor, her eyes were fixed on Jaciam in the most disconcerting of ways. Those eyes were so dark they seemed back… like pools of liquid ash that had spread out from her pupils to fix on Jaciam unblinkingly. Her figure was so thin that she appeared almost starved, and Jaciam sensed that her fur might have been wonderfully silky and white but for the fact that Shyah had clearly stopped caring for it a long time ago. It was stained an unappealing yellow in places, and the fur stuck together in wavy, unwashed clumps. Despite the unappealing state of her pelt, her facial features were so finely chiseled and delicate that Jaciam could not help but admire the beauty of her countenance. It was impossible to tell how old she was.
Jaciam thought that Shyah would introduce herself, but after a moment of that staring, Jaciam took it upon herself. “Nice to meet you, Shyah,” she said tentatively.
Wickett laughed again, quieter this time. “Don’t go expecting a response now,” he assured her. “Shyah doesn’t say a damn thing to anyone else but me.” Shyah turned her gaze of black to Wickett, staring solemnly at him. Wickett continued, “But she told me to say hello to you back, and that she thinks that I am not this Doppler of yours.”
Jaciam blinked in surprise. “But she didn’t even say anything.”
Wickett and Shyah shared a look of grim amusement. “But she still said it,” Wickett said with a grin to Jaciam, baring his incisors. “Hahahaha! She speaks with those pools of gasoline that she calls her eyes.”
The gryphon cocked her head to the side in a decidedly avian gesture, staring at them both. It was at this moment that Nox slid into their aisle. Although she initially flinched with surprise at another’s presence, once she recognized who it was she gave him a weak, relieved smile.
At Brune’s outburst, Jaciam jerked away from the girl, staring with her beak open at what she had said. A kind of hollow numbness spread out from the center of Jaciam’s chest and she felt strongly as if she had just fallen headfirst into a gaping hole, that swooping feeling in her belly screaming to her vestibular system that she was spinning wildly out of control. Is this a dream? she thought with a kind of frozen shock. I am having another dream.
The depersonalization tore her out of her body, rendering it into a piece of empty meat. Jaciam’s anesthetized fingers curled and uncurled, and she wondered who it was that was controlling her body.
“Wings…” she said out loud. “Wings… oh god… do they have rocks… does he have rocks…?” Her voice was so leaden that it was frightening to hear her, all her thoughts rendered emotionless by the flurry of her backwards nightmare.

Brune’s eyes expanded like macro sized droplets of water, reflecting Jaciam in their resplendent surfaces. The insect looked suddenly extremely uncomfortable, as if she were staring into the face of a specter.
“Cut that out,” she warned in a low tone “Get behind your own eyes missy, or someone else will take the wheel.”
“Rocks? What rocks?” Nox was still asking, his voice in a haze of confusion while he shifted his gaze between the moth and the gryphon. Acute weariness tightened its grip around his mid-section as a wave blank, somber personality seeped into his sister’s face. It was as if she was recovering from a scare so immense she became frightening herself, it became permeable to him and his confusion grew ever more profound.
“For a twin brother you’re kinda oblivious aren’t you?” Brune whispered to the feline, her face scrunching up as if irked by his incompetence “Your sister is floating around the room right now, I can see her stuck on the ceiling.” She made a gesture above them “I don’t like talking to bags of meat without a spirit inside. It’s creepy; like talking into a tape recorder. I will wait until she comes back down again.” Nox was shaking his head at Brune’s words- looking up bewilderedly to where she was gesturing as if trying to spy a purple winged phantom staring down at him. While his dark eyes darted back and forth in endless pursuit, his lips crinkled back to reveal his black gums. Thus he made an involuntary clicking: “kch-kch-kch”, the kind of noise a house cat creates when tracking the movement of a spider in the rafters. 
“What ARE you doing with rocks strapped to your wings anyway?” Brune asked. The direct question caught him entirely off guard; it was as if being asked of something in class where he hadn’t been paying attention. He didn’t know how to respond, and the more Brune’s eyes probed him the more blank his mind became.
“I don’t remember putting on rocks this morning.” he hopelessly tried to regain his monotone edge; it wasn’t boding well. An unbidden image of Virginia Woolf kept surfacing in his mind, and it was just as Jaciam had described. As the woman waded ever further into the water, the rocks pulled her down further and further.
“Do sit down Kaji.” Brune whispered seriously, and Nox slumped into a chair beside Jaciam with his head bowed, marvelously folding into his impressive height.
The blue screen around them suddenly flickered into a bright green- a preview screen for an upcoming movie. A ripple of happy cheers came from the surrounding crowd, at which point Brune turned to face the company behind her.
“These two are brother and sister.” She explained to the seat mates, “Don’t you dare tell them otherwise; it’s a delicate situation.” She looked at the saber-toothed cat with a stiffened upper lip and skeptical eyes “That warning was mainly for you Carrots.” She then turned her attention to his companion, the slender, arctic fox, and the moths face seemed to become less harsh.
“I like people who don’t interrupt me.”
Nox stared blankly at the back of the seat in front of him before tilting his head to observe his sister in his peripherally. After a moment he reached out and lightly touched her hand. With a tentative gesture he ran his finger over her ruined fingers, cut by mirrors, and his face became decidedly sad.
He couldn’t remember what he was going to tell her. Everything about René Descartes had been completely lost.

“I won’t fall, if you don’t.” he said in an undertone.

Brune’s voice initially didn’t mean anything to her—it was the sound of a disembodied robot, the monotone words excluding anything of tone or texture or inherent humanness that might have accompanied her voice. Someone else getting behind the wheel… behind the wheel… behind the wheel… it echoed dully in Jaciam’s head, like a lulling, thumping noise. She watched sadly from somewhere outside of herself, that body that was Not Her, as Nox sat next to her. She felt suddenly unfair, as if she had abandoned her brother, through no wrongdoing of his own. She wondered if he sensed how alone he was in that moment, that moment where nothing occupied the space behind her eyes, where her body was a puppet that jerked and spasmed along a stage where the audience had long since fallen asleep.
She watched helplessly as the face that was Not Hers glanced directly up at her, smiled mischievously, and winked.
It didn’t happen with a swift, sudden movement, like a rubber band snapping, but slow and uncertain, like lowering oneself into a too-warm bathtub. She began to feel Nox’s hand on hers. At first it felt disconnected and strange, like the sensations that might happen in a dream, but eventually she felt it pull her behind her eyes again. She eased back into herself the way someone puts on a bathing suit that doesn’t quite fit—bunched up in some places and too stretched in others.
Jaciam released a sigh and her muscles seemed to melt into her chair. With an expression that seemed almost surprised, she glanced down at Nox’s hand. It was a vivid, blinding white, contrasting starkly against the poisonous grey of her feathers and the thick, oily black of her cuts. Everything in her vision seemed sketchy and repugnant except for the twisting, dancing glow emitted from her brother’s fur.

“Nox…?” she asked tentatively in a whisper, knowing that the movie was about to begin. “Where did you get all that light in your fur? It looks like you captured a piece of the sun.”
The implications of his last statement arrived at her brain seconds later and she smiled at him in almost palpable relief. “I won’t if you won’t either. Let’s not leave each other alone again.”
Wickett was chuckling loudly in the chair behind them, unable to control the volume of his voice. “Shyah, did you hear that? The moth called me CARROTS. That’s the best nickname I’ve ever had! She’s clearly a goddamn winner, I agree Shyah.” The arctic fox stared at him solemnly, but there seemed to be a twinkle of a smile in her black coal eyes.
“So… Jaciam, Kaji, and moth-girl,” Wickett announced, pointing to each character in term as he announced the names that he had gathered. “We have moved from a team of two to a team of FIVE.”

Nox would never be able to describe the comfort that soared in his chest once Jaciam alighted inside her own head. It was like watching someone come out of a very strange daydream- the small cluster of feathers on her shoulders settled, and an alertness returned to her face. He watched the episode passively, but couldn’t help but allow his eyes to trail the charcoled feathers that zagged from her eyes and face and arms. They reminded him of lightning, and he mused for a moment that Jaciam manifested herself in lightning’s essence. She could emancipate herself from her body- like a band of free energy- to wander in a new perspective. Like lightning’s character- which constantly searched for an egress to return to the ground. For Jaciam, her body was like the lightning rod- and she was drawn to it again and again.
Now feeling her presence beside him, he wished to put a dome atop her and not let her slip helplessly like a marionette on strings, but perhaps she wished it that way. He strengthened his grip just slightly about her fingers, but in due consideration of her injuries. Her hand felt tiny and delicate in his own- like the skeleton of a bird.
“Agreed.” his voice came out so horrendously tender that Nox hardly recognized it. He decided it was nothing to worry about. In this room of broken people, he got a strong sense of belonging… and how could such a feeling possibly be wrong? This felt like the start of a family- a family that he could relate to in some way. He heard someone chuckling and saying something behind him- he looked over his shoulder to take in the two sitting there; for the first time actually taking note of them.
“Hmm?” he looked at his sister, eyes soft and far away, then followed her gaze to his hand, a toothy smile beguiled him.  “I glow the brightest when I am happy.” he explained methodically. “Sometimes I bundle my feelings inside to hide them – and they have no choice but to leak though my skin. I’m sure your feathers would glow too if you had habits like mine.”
“Team?” Brune demanded with some incredulity, as if mocking Wickets enthusiasm. She frowned at the pointed finger that seemed too close to her face- as if that action had conjured self consciousness she immediately withdrew into herself, drawing her eyes away. She faced the screen which had begun to play some music. Her phrase- “does he even KNOW who are we playing against…?” was mouthed silently as her train of thought became captivated by the overly vibrant colors of the animated feature.

Jaciam squeezed her hand correspondingly with Nox’s, and although she felt the cuts tighten, they were not painful. She was left with a sense of tired gladness that she had returned to her body again. What if The Doppler had again gotten behind her eyes and wrecked havoc with her brother’s trust, tearing him with the poison tongue she knew the bizarre cat skill possessed?
“Don’t bundle your feelings, Nox. I think your light has the power to bring a sense of… calm… to others. I think you have a gift that no one has quite figured out yet.” She turned towards him with a slight smile lit on her beak. “If I glowed like that, I wonder if just the jagged lightening edges would shine. Wouldn’t that look strange?”
“Wickett, Jaciam, SHHH!!” came an irritated voice of a staff worker behind them. They had arrived at a part of the movie involving lots of quiet dialogue. Jaciam turned around, clearly startled, but Wickett only laughed out loud in the sound of his brash guffaw. She was quiet for several more minutes, but then leaned towards Nox again, clearly unwilling to wait until a more appropriate time to talk. Thoughts reverberated in her head, frantic to be let out.
“What do you think about Dr. Kuin?” she whispered to him, her beak clicking on the ‘K’ sound. “Or, maybe I should ask… what do you know about her?”

“Dr. Kuin…”  his voice came out rumbling with his low volume “She is an eye in the sky, forever watching over from a distance never being able to come close to what she loves.” He leaned in closer to Jaciam, feeling a wave of ease wash over him as he began to divulge his thoughts. Although he was calm and collected- he was as keen to speak with her as she was with him-
“I think, in a way, she is like a bridge with a foot planted in two different worlds.” he nodded to the figures in the surrounding crowd “I think that her brain has fermented to be a bit like ours. She understands the logic that the outsiders can’t cope with; at the same time she can see the world that the doctors perceive. She understands THEIR reality along with ours… but she feels the need to keep her insight quiet. I noticed that she never reveals everything she is aware of in its entirety.” he was quiet for some time before braving to mutter in an even lower tone- “I was with her for a while, right before I came here. It was as if she knew that something was following me from city to city without me even saying so. Altogether- I’m sure that she is conscious of a larger picture that no one else can see- but doesn’t want to say so because she is so small- and no one is mighty enough to grasp at the entire concept. Dr. Kuin may have knowledge to accept what we say- but not enough knowledge to make her completely insane in the eyes of her peers. Her fermented brain allows for her to walk the path between the opposing worlds and not be pulled completely into one of them.”
His voice trailed off, for he was becoming aware that someone was watching him intently. He turned his meet the unsettling gaze of the little moth girl, who could hear every word that he had been mumbling as perfectly as Jaciam might have.  He made a face at her- watching as his twin reflections of scrunched up their feline noses and waggled their whiskers in those strange- glass-like eyes.
“I have something important to add-” Brune began- but fell silent because a nurse had just swished by their aisle, a bushy tail brushing against the leg of Jaciam’s chair. After this the moth kept her lips pressed tightly in a line, appeared to be trembling, containing an excitement. Finally the energy became too much to bear and she swiveled around in her chair to face Wickett- her face aglow.
“How do you understand her?” she gestured with her stumped arm to Shyah “You said through her eyes?” she spoke so quickly, low and fast that her words where clipped. She whirled around again “And Jaciam- you can leave your body behind… not on your own of course- but something needs to happen to make you leave.
And I can see other dimensions.” she spoke now to herself- wringing all three of her little hands together “Would it not be impossible to combine all three gears into a new machine? Could we not leave our bodies behind for a while? I could take us into the dimension where we would be safe and not float away. Then we could hear each other at the same time- because with Pixie’s gift we could see into each others eyes- see what each other sees and speak without speaking.”
She was rocking a little in her seat- tugging at the folds in her dress … a couple of bright yellow scales tumbled from her wings to the linoleum. “Yes yes… it could work…  we would need to weigh anchor to our bodies somehow…. Something like a homing beacon…” Nox watched as the moth-girl continued to mutter and fidget- and his confusion waned the more he digested her words, his tail unwound itself from the leg of his chair and he shifted to face her more.
“You want us to leave our bodies?” he asked
“Gosh you’re slow.” The moth reproached “Not leave entirely- or else someone could get in through the back door. Kate has the lightning- Pixie has the access code, and I have the portal…” she paused- and plucked at a tuft of green hair on Nox’s hand “I think your sister has a point about your glowing fur when she said it was some kind of gift. YOU could be our lantern- we need a light to see our way back to the portal anyway.”
“What about him?” Nox nodded to Wicket, to which the moth turned to- as if realizing that the saber toothed cat was still sitting behind them. She considered him over her shoulder- wrinkling her face just slightly- before brightening “He can be our interpreter, for he’s the only one that can crack Pixie’s access code.”

Jaciam listened intently to Nox’s explanation, wanting so badly to know how he sensed so much about Dr. Kuin. At the same time, she knew that he must be right. The longer he spoke, the more she craved to know; his explanation simply seemed to raise more questions than it answered. “Dr. Kuin… is both us and them,” she sounded out, and immediately hated what she said. Why does there need to be an us and them? Do they all understand each other any more than they understand us? And do we make a uniform group? We are all so fragmented and broken and spun away from each other that there is no meaning in a framework that makes an us and them.
She saw The Doppler in her mind’s eye for a moment, that grinning cat skull staring with its eye sockets deep and silent as a starless night. A blind cat had wound out of one of its eyes, staring plaintively at Jaciam. There was something bitterly lonely in that sightless gaze, as if it understood all and yet nothing. “Does she understand more? Or does she just see farther…?” Jaciam muttered to herself out loud, and it was not yet clear whether she spoke of Loki or Dr. Kuin. Her mind returned to the present, wondering out loud to Nox, “I wonder if she knows about Loki, if she was following you from place to place. And if she does, why hasn’t she approached you to help you? Does she maintain that division and fragmentation of knowledge for a reason, or does she simply not have the answers that would help us understand?”
As Nox turned with a blank stare towards the little moth girl sitting by Jaciam’s side, she also followed his gaze. Brune looked far more excited than Jaciam’s idle musings would have warranted, and initially Jaciam thought that Brune must know something about Loki or Dr. Kuin that she wished to share. When she turned around and spoke in that animated, fluttering voice to Wickett, Jaciam blinked. Shyah continued to stare impassively at her, but she shifted in her seat and raised an eyebrow in a way that indicated interest.
Jaciam grew increasingly nervous at Brune’s proposal. “But I don’t know how to leave my body. It just happens. And…” She had a vivid, violent memory of a mirror smashing, bloody hands tearing away the glass. The mirror wouldn’t stop lying to her. “How would we not entirely leave so that someone doesn’t enter the back door?” She had begun to use the language of the odd little moth girl. “Part of us would have to stay behind?” Jaciam was uneasy at the prospect of furthering her structural dissociation so far as to split her into separate, shattered parts.
“Hah! An interpreter! Love it! I am so GAME guys.” Wickett burst forth in an enthusiastic whisper. It was incredible that the manic saber-toothed cat could even whisper at all, given the erratic and expansive energy he possessed. “And this wouldn’t be any old fucking joy ride, you know.” He turned towards Shyah with a suddenly sober expression, before a hint of a mischievous smile lit the side of his maw. “I know a place that all of might want to see. And I’ve never even been there with special glasses, so this is gonna be a goddamn blast for me too.” Shyah leaned forward, her expression virtually unchanging, but somehow it was clear by the perk of her ears that she had assented to this odd, backwards dream-journey.

As if she had finally made up her mind, Brune closed her eyes and her face became abstracted. She seemed to ignore the questions that was proffered and the excitement being bestowed in favor of her growing self confidence.
“We will have to be smooth, like guests sneaking away from an objectionable party…” she said “This may not work the first time around, it is not an exact science you know.” she was silent for a while, but when her eyes parted again her pupils had dilated considerably- to the point of where the pink was pushed to the very rims, almost matching the darkness of Nox’s eyes.
“I’ve opened a portal.” her tone was strangely sequestered “Pixie…” she didn’t turn around to face the fox but extended all of her pink arms- two of them to Jaciam and Nox, the other and the stump of an arm slipping through the space in the back of her chair, groping. Nox wordlessly took a hand, and marveled at its small structure, and the short fingers that were coated with a texture that reminded him of fur.
“Pixie…” Brune said again “You have the access code for us to understand. Try and locate the coordinates of the portal, its energy signature will be marked by silence. With all of this noise around us, the noiselessness of the portal is like temporarily sinking into a pothole when your gaze passes over it. When you are ready, relay your findings to Carrots.
Carrots- your job is to put this into a context that we can understand. Like a computer can take a code and turn it into a picture, so must you with Pixie’s short codes, she may offer you a little or quite a lot… but let it consume you until the words spill out easily, even if it sounds like gibberish- the words will soon take on new meaning.
Kate- you must listen to the interpreter- not too hard nor anxiously. Hold his relation in your mind like one holds a little birds egg, too hard and it will  break, too light and it will slip from your grasp. Allow yourself to lift away and on your own- not ripped away, but following a destination. Do not leave entirely, you must leave an imprint of yourself behind, like a stamp lifts away to leave a distinguished design. Nothing will be able to reproduce that seal, therefore it will remain there safeguard your body. You will not be broken into shards remember- you are just willing your free spirit out of its cage for a little while.
At this point we will all be feeling what Kate does, but Pixie, you musn’t stop relaying to Carrots, and Carrots, you should not stop either, until Kate has catalyzed the final reaction.
Kaji, you will feel your sister and the rest of us start to slip, but we cannot leave without you, because it will be dark all around us and we cannot see where we are or each other. You must illuminate the path for us. Let your emotion slowly rise, like a waking creature from the deep dark depths- until we can see each others faces in the opposite world. You are the one that can snap us back into our own bodies- so be on high alert.” after this Brune fell silent and still. She could have been a life sized doll the way she sat so still, unblinking- unflinching.

Wickett eagerly grasped one of Brune’s preferred hands (a mite too tightly, Jaciam would have guessed), and moments afterwards, so did Shyah. Jaciam looked anxiously at Nox, her doubts etched plainly on her face. Jaciam was someone who typically was led by her intuitions like a traveler is led by a bobbing lantern in the fog… and she had a dreadful feeling about how this would end. She caught a memory of her treacherous reflection in the mirror, smashed into thousands of shards, her reflection smiling in seditious cynicism, a not-her doppelganger that had stolen her mirror image.
But Jaciam was also curious despite her clear nervousness, and it was impossible to hide the burgeoning intrigue in her face. She knew it would end badly, and part of her didn’t care. She wanted to do it so that she could find out more about what kind of secrets this place hid behind the walls. What the Doppler couldn’t say with its lipless mouth. Why the cat had no eyes.
With a heavy sigh and a kind of helpless shrug to Nox, Jaciam grasped Brune’s hand with shaking uncertainty.
For a moment, nothing happened, and Jaciam was almost relieved to think that perhaps this would not work as the moth-girl had anticipated. The fighting sounds from the movie began to peter out from her awareness, cushioning her in a cocoon that made ordinary sound meaningless.
Shyah heaved a deep sigh, almost startling the gryphon, and the arctic fox’s chin dropped to her chest, as if she had simply fallen asleep. Wickett, silent for once, turned towards Shyah with ears perked in preparation. He closed his eyes, and he looked so peaceful in that moment he almost seemed to be an entirely different character.
Wickett began whispering fervently, in a dispossessed voice that sounded strange and hissing. Several other patients nearby looked at him oddly and almost fearfully, but he was too quiet for any staff members to overhear.
“Are you asking is it easier to go? It is to leave the lights on behind us, feel a filter in us, see a traitor go free right into the ether. They have twisting names inside of them with their cold minutes of sleep. You’re a lie. You’re a lie. In my eyes. You’re a lie. If you stay with me under these waves tonight you will not know what you asked for. Come with us and don’t forget your ring of scars, shackles of guilt. You underscore them are stuck inside while the mind will fly. Oxygen will push on the window, holes in the palms let us find a way, all faces grey and looming downwards.”
His word were hard to understand and impossible to hear, and all at once Jaciam realized it was her turn to do something but that she quite certainly did not know what to do. She had never willed herself out of her body before like a floating sprite, but had been shorn without effort or consciousness. Jaciam’s pulse began to hammer in her ears and she tried to let Wickett’s words wash over her and hold them as Brune suggested, but she had already forgotten what she said. It was at this moment that Jaciam realized that she was already gone. She was perched somewhere behind her chair, staring down at her anxious body. Somewhere Jaciam was confused at how this had happened when she hadn’t followed Brune’s directions, but a deep chuckle from a place unknown to her made her realize that something inside her, something that did not need words or time or a name, knew how to read Wickett’s strange language without the rest of her even trying. It was that forceful, intuitive place that was hunched behind her in space, while the rest of her still sat in blank confusion in her seat.
True to Brune’s words, the room had gone dark and quiet, and the entire cafeteria looked as if it had long been abandoned. Half the floor curled towards the ceiling in appalling evidence of water damage, but past that in tilted space, the air was without oxygen or light, a massive, sucking blackness. There was a steady drip of water from the ceiling, and this new version of Jaciam wondered what this place was.

Nox watched passively as one by one- each companion dropped into their own task. He could see the last vestiges of Jaciam being culled right from her body. He had spied the look of anxiousness on her face, and on some level Nox had felt it too.
“Anapanasati.” he muttered- breathing in slowly through his nose and out through his mouth- becoming quiet and calm and ready for passage- but when he realized that he could still hear Wicket’s mutterings in his right ear he knew that he was doing something wrong. Brune had instructed to “let his emotion rise” not to cover it up. This was the opposite of what he was accustomed. Of what meditation techniques he had been taught; ‘chod’ was a word used to describe a process of removing attachments to body and ego- to endorse calm and passivity. But Nox wasn’t looking for a place of enlightenment nor nirvana, he was diving head first into a place no one wanted to be- where he suspected, something terrible was sitting and waiting for him.
He closed his eyes and tightened his grip slightly around Jaciam and Brune’s hands.
“I see what you’re dong you know.” he muttered- barely imperceptible because it was scarcely above a whisper “You think that you’re so clever, you think that you’re winning this sick game of yours. I’m not going to let you win.”
This elicited no response- and he felt satisfaction in his stomach like a cold stone “Can’t come up with anything? You call me a coward- but yet you don’t show your face to anyone who isn’t looking for you. Why don’t you just prove that you are here? Because to the rest of the world- you’re just an insane nightmare. And nightmares always have an end.”
Nox had succeeded in making himself so upset that his fur was now glowing brilliantly- every hair fiber vibrated with lime splendor. His face was almost featureless because the light made the convex and concave shadows disappear completely. After a moment- his head dropped to his chest as if in slumber- and if someone had been tempted to poke him he wouldn’t have responded. As far as Nox‘s knowledge- he was still talking away at the same volume as before- but the world around him had faded like sophisticated holography- and familiar figures became ambiguous for a moment as a new scene arose before him.
It was the same room but the lighting had changed- the chairs where still lined up facing the wall- a few toppled over- but all had put on a fine coat of dust. The projector- amazingly, was still on, but clicking heavily so that the faded light flickered on the wall- but instead of a moving picture it left a magnified projection of a bloodstain…. For something dead was lay to waste across the light able at the back of the room.
Nox found himself hunched over on all fours instead of two- and his legs where bent the wrong way- and thick silver claws his giant paws scraped against the peeling floor- chipping off a flake of rust. As he turned to inspect himself further, his oddly placed tail slapped against the legs of the chair behind him. A charcoal colored mane now grew in thick tufts along his neck and framed his face like a heart, trailing down his spine. At first the change was rather startling, but Nox immediately sensed that he had undergone a mental change as well. He felt- primal. Something civilized had been completely removed from him- it was still sitting demurely in a chair in another dimension. Nox felt as if he no longer wore the starch colored uniform that he‘d tailored and re-tailored for himself, he finally matched what he felt like in the interior.
Without warning his jaws split wide to let out a laugh, which came out as a growl. This felt GOOD, not to be trapped inside an emotionless cocoon.

There was a harsh whisper that tore at the fabric of this odd place, and Jaciam knew that these were hissing words escaping from Wickett’s widely spaced incisors. It lived in the corners of this cafeteria like rats scuttling through the walls. It was the massive strings of ones and zeros that constituted this program. It was the ghost that lived and built this place with every fleeting exhale.
Jaciam let an uncharacteristic grin crawl languidly onto her face as she stared down at a brightly glowing figure in the shape of a large cat. She felt different. She felt good. She felt herself. Jaciam peered behind her shoulder at the flickering light and shadows cast by the large cat’s fur, and she spread her wings. They were massive, the muscles at her shoulders strong and defined. They were much larger than their diminutive and atrophied cousins back in that trapped artist’s body. They looked like the wingspan that might have been appropriate to a winged horse—huge, beautiful, and untamed.
The entire place looked to Jaciam like a gritty, high-contrast movie set, shadows spilling out from overturned chairs like long, slippery strips of oil. She sat perched on a rusted table, the legs nearly buckling out from under her slight weight. Her legs hung off the edge, ankles crossed near the bottom.
Some undefinable temporal break later, Wickett and Shyah had materialized into the room, somewhere near the wide-open double doors of the cafeteria. Paint peeled from their surfaces of the doors in narrow slivers and littering the floor. Beyond the doors was a blank, empty shroud of silence. The light from Nox’s brilliant fur did not extend beyond their immediate environment.
Shyah had a hand on Wickett’s elbow, gently guiding him closer to the other two. Although his physical appearance was the same, Wickett almost looked like a different person. His face was drawn and empty, and he carried himself in a slow, hunched shuffle. His tail dragged on the floor. He bore almost no resemblance to the impulsive, energetic embodiment of mania that still lived inside the Wickett in the other world. Although Jaciam could no longer hear the words, Wickett still let his translation dribble lazily from his jaws, and he would continue until the moth-girl was safely ensconced into their dangerous doppleganger of a world.

There was a rustle and a rattle, like someone opening a very large fan- or many at once. A great shadow eclipsed the green light that Nox had given the room- stretching over the walls and ceiling. He turned to see that it was Jaciam, and he was struck by how different she seemed, perched there as if she had just shed a skin that was too tight for her. He tilted his head and then smiled at her… before turning to face Shyah and Wickett. They too had changed, Nox had immediately noticed how Wickett appeared- almost like a little old man, muttering something in his senile age.
But the mutterings where another matter, they seemed to coalesce around the room like a wreathe, and Nox looked about as the mutterings of Wicket continued to churn, he could hear the chips of paint on the wall and the linoleum on the floor curl and writhe as if in response to the words, and then a crack appeared between Nox’s paws, and then split open like a ravine. Nox stepped back, for a clawed hand had appeared, followed by a feathered arm, and then a pair of great- yellow eyes. The strange creature that emerged looked nothing like Brune, and yet Nox felt as if carried an air of familiarity. The face that stared at him had no mouth, just an angry line of stitches, and there was a coat of pink feathers lining the entire bipedal frame save for the raptor-like feet, with sickle -like claws clacking against the dry ground.
Something else was stirring in the corner, and box of blue light flickered on in a dark reach of the room. A TV- it seemed, had switched itself on, but then the TV moved, and as it stepped into the light, an old mans body emerged supporting the head of the Television screen.
“I” said the telecaster on the screen- then the channel quickly switched- cutting off the rest of the sentence “am” came a blip of a colorful cartoon with bright- anime eyes- before it cut to a commercial with flatscreens “TV.”
And yet another sound… like the dragging of scales. A spider like movement approached them from across the threshold, a visage of multiple limbs and pale- shining eyes of a creature that was difficult to frame with description. It was a woman, but her legs fused to a long, serpentine tail. She had arms on her back, and smaller, deformed ones near her stomach, making her appear “centipedish” as she crept along, her long, hair dragging along the floor.
“I am Myriot.” she said in a silken voice. She was pale- like some cave creatures tend to be- save for varying bands of of red orange and yellow in her hair, tail and arms. And still, more shuffling, it seemed that there where more characters lurking in the shadows and darkened corners of the room just waiting to be introduced, but restraining themselves for the time being.
“Where is Brune?” Nox growled with suspicioun- turning to face each of the new arrivals. Like his appearance and mind, his voice had changed as well. It had lost it smooth and even luster, and how sounded gravely and virile.
“She is here.” they said simultaneously (except for the pink one- who had no mouth). The one named Myriot raised a pair of arms and cupped them to her wide mouth, hunched over, and seemed to “regurgitate” something. As she drew her hands away from her face, she lowered them, unfurling her fingers for all to see. There- nestled in the depression of her palms was a small insect, at first, appearing quite ordinary, but then it unfurled and looked up with large- silent eyes. It was Brune, but now she seemed entirely different. Other than the obvious difference in size, there was something strikingly different in the way that she stared at Nox, and everyone in the room in turn.
Nox had noticed that in the other dimension, Brune had a very dominant personality, a self-assuredness of which seemed infectious to others- a strong denial to her position of sanity, and an acceptance of herself. But now, as he looked at this small creature, he glimpsed something that he hadn’t noticed before. Within those blank pink orbs there seemed to be a hopelessness- or loneliness. He saw a strong spirit that had been broken and was accepting of an irreversible fate.
And then Nox understood what he was seeing, it seemed that Brune understood that she was nothing more than a puppet to her hallucinations, and that they where the more powerful extensions of her mind. Even in this refuge- they would never cease to control and overwhelm her.
“We always keep her close to us- no matter where she goes.” the Naga of old seemed to confirm this thought as she lifted Brune to the top of her head where the little thing settled herself and looked around passively. If Myriot had not introduced her, the moth would have been quite imperceptible to anyone’s eye. Nox saw that her lips where moving, but she was so small and quiet that she was unable to be heard.
“She wonders where we shall begin?” the naga spoke for the moth, having understood what was spoken. It seemed, that she had taken on the role that Brune once played, having to relay the thoughts and words of her hallucinations, the hallucinations now had to relay the very words of Brune.

Jaciam watched with unfurling curiosity the appearance of multiple figures: the pink-feathered figure that looked almost feline, the TV with a man’s body, the woman-centipede with a length of slippery hair, and then the wrinkled moth that rested on her head. Brune looked almost like a newborn, new and sad. Jaciam let a wild grin drip from her face in a way that looked almost feral. It was a strange feeling, this wildness, like a part of her that usually was there to inhibit that wild animal had been left behind in that empty shell. Her huge wingspan, like a prehistoric bird’s, was evidence of an unrestrained intensity that filled her now.
Jaciam’s eyes traveled casually to watch Wickett and Shyah. Wickett’s eyes were closed, as if in pain, as he hunched over himself in quiet misery. He had aged years. She could not explain it, but she felt very strongly that she was looking at a walking corpse. That he was truly dead inside.
Shyah stood closely beside him, as if she were there to protect him in this realm, her steadfast translator and friend. Jaciam’s stomach gave a jolt of revulsion as she realized that Shyah’s eyes and mouth were completely sewn shut with thick black plastic thread, the skin and fur bunched all around the stitches. In the same moment, Jaciam became aware of the fact that Shyah no longer had any skin, fur, bone, or any protective covering over her chest whatsoever. Her ribs and sternum were exposed raw to the air, and they were curved outwards, as if someone had literally plunged their hand into the casing of bone in her chest and ripped them outward as if the metal bars in a jail cell. Or, alternatively, as if a wild animal had been encased before behind her sternum, and had been unable to be contained, ripping out of its jail cell and into the unknown. Shyah’s heart was shriveled and black, and pumping lethargically within the wide-open space of her thoracic cavity.
The gryphon’s feeling of abject repugnance suddenly peaked as she realized that small black insects—no, spiders—were crawling spastically out of that empty chest region, falling with little pindrops to the ground, crawling down Shyah’s arms, dropping off her hands. There did not seem to be an end to the steady flow of arachnids that steadily skittered out of Shyah’s body, as if she had been infested with something rotten and evil and only in this slippery, backwards dimension could they bleed out of her. Jaciam gaped for a moment at the scene, and almost retched with disgust.
At Brune’s query, Jaciam looked back towards the wrinkled lump on top of Myriot’s head and dropped to the ground with a soft ‘flump.’ “There’s something in this building that we have to find,” Jaciam spoke with authority, and the room rang in mute echo with the volume of her voice. “But we don’t know what it will be. If anyone sees a cat with upside down eyes, everyone needs to be immediately aware. As we move, look for anything—records… anything unusual at all.” Jaciam had an odd sense of foreboding at this growing adventure, but for some reason she felt invigorated by the thought of challenge, and she let a grin unfurl across her beak again as she gazed with camaraderie and exhilaration at Nox. “Nox, you will lead the way. Everyone has the responsibility to make sure that everyone else stays with the group. If one of us is separated from Nox… we may never find the way back.”
Jaciam nodded her heard towards the open door with the curling paint. “Go on Nox, we trust you to lead us.”

He felt a creeping sensation in his gut that he had been informally been elected a ring leader of a informal parade, though he skulked beside Jaciam- hearing their procession of paws crackle on the paint- like treading on dead skin. He wasn’t sure whether or not he liked his new position. For so long he felt as if he had been fighting for his right to not be controlled, that to suddenly be put into the position of authority was like flipping an image over to be viewed in the inverse.
Would he lead his friends to enlightenment, to discovery?
Or would he march them all to their tragic doom?
A small part of him was well aware of what was to come. Like his purple feathered sister- he felt a thrill swill in his chest of their unraveling story- a story with an unpleasant ending.
Their route to their undetermined destination seemed like it had taken the wrong idea for their adventure. That was Nox’s first thought when he arrived at the archway, observing their current course with obvious distaste. He remembered that red water had leaked all over the asylum, but he had no idea how bad it was in THIS dimension.
The hall before them looked slanted, like a long ramp progressing into a red concrete jungle. The pads under Nox’s paws could feel the moisture curdling under them like little wet earwigs. The moisture only looked like it became worse as they progressed until little the little mite-like, pin prick of droplets exploded into generous puddles. The puddles where not only in their path but clustered about on the walls and ceiling, like reflective ruby mirrors. Their network grew large and close together until eventually, the entire hallway seemed to be shimmering in that strange scarlet curtain.
But that’s not what had unsettled Nox. He was quite sure that he’d seen something far ahead, a distortion in the water. Was that a pair of eyes that peered from a puddle on one of the walls? At this distance it was hard to tell. Perhaps it was just the unnatural pulsing movement of the puddles that made his gut tighten.
“Brune.” he growled to summon her to his side. “Is that a friend of yours?” Myriot’s scales scraped against the moist rust as she settled beside him.
“Oh yes…” the naga hissed in reply, her forked tongue slipping through her wide lips “that is Besclin that you see. Take pity on her Kajji, for her habitat is shrinking and all attempts at conservation have failed. Behold.” one of her many pale ringed arms gestured to the far reaches of the hall. Nox now noticed that the dripping dampness was sliming its way into one direction, as if it was being sucked up in a malevolent current. His gaze followed the begrudging movement of water until he settled at the end of the hallway, and there he paused. It ended not in a door, but a mouth. It yawned wide like a cavern, with its blocky teeth lining the top and jutting up from the bottom- beckoning in an eager, hungry gape. Glistening rivulets formed around those strange, blocky stalagmites, passing into darkness of that gigantic maw.
“The water is being sucked away from this dimension and into the one we came from. The mouth swallows all things. It will swallow us too, and take us where we want to go.” said Myriot.
“It doesn’t look like there is an alternative.” said Nox, glancing back at the group, wondering if someone might object to it. He didn’t like the idea himself- any type of water he didn’t like. He remembered how he had sunk so desperately into the ocean waves, and how no hands had reached to pull him up.
He frowned and walked stiffly forward, like a housecat before bath time, his tail was hiked as high as a banner. His paw sunk into the first puddle he couldn’t avoid; it was warm, and possessed a slimy, fleshy quality. The touch of his claw was unwanted here, and the ground seemed to ‘buck’ under his weight. Even in its shallowness he felt the pull push “pulse” of the current. To him at least, he recognized the rhythm of a heart beat.
“This river feels alive.” he noted.
“Indeed it is.” said Myriot. He heard the ‘shloop’ as the red water sucked her in as well. “This river is dying, but clings to life still. Perhaps we shall encounter the Maestro of the river’s cardiovascular system once we enter. He guards the river’s heart from the mischief of the Cat Man.”
Somewhere up ahead of them, an excitable Besclin burst through one of the wall-puddles and dove into the one on the adjacent wall, the tips of her razor fins made the upside down river cajole and glimmer maliciously. It seemed that the mer creature was eager for their company.

Jaciam had paraded along quietly, following the shimmering light cast by Nox, that reflected in a toxic green glisten across the surfaces of the puddles lining the walls and floor. It seemed that they were entering a giant artery, the red water the building’s lifeblood that pumped lethargically even as it was slowly dying. 

“Is this what you go home to…?” Jaciam wondered, and it was only a second later that she realized that she had inadvertently spoken out loud. 

She stopped beside Nox as the river stretched out before them into the twisting liquid halls. They both gazed into the gigantic maw, needle-sharp teeth extending from below and above the flowing stream of vermilion. Jaciam sensed Nox’s reluctance to continue, and she thought she knew why. 

Wickett and Shyah had shuffled along behind them, silent. Jaciam wondered why it was so quiet before she realized that Wickett had stopped muttering; he no longer needed to translate the physical reality of this backwards world. It had been set into place already. Jaciam glanced back at them. Wickett did not even seem to notice that anyone else was there, staring forward with a kind of tired hopelessness. Shyah turned her switched eyes towards Jaciam, as if even in her blindness, she knew Jaciam was looking at her. The spiders crawled from her chest and fell with sounds like plinking raindrops into the puddles below, drowning instantly. 

“The mouth swallows all things…” Jaciam echoed out loud, thinking. The red water was being sucked from this dimension and deposited in their own. Is it possible that other things could be bleeding from this dimension and slowly gathering in there’s, growing in strength? “Brune… Myriot… TV… dammit, I don’t even know who the hell to talk to,” Jaciam’s voice brushed momentarily with irritation, something that she would have never felt in her sad, lonely artist’s body. “Where does The Doppler live? Where does the Cat Man live? Do they live here and have they sailed through that mouth into our tired dimension along with the red water?” Jaciam stared in momentary transfixion at the centipede woman with the wrinkled newborn moth positioned on her head. “Things… things are supposed to stay where they live. What is responsible for this?” 

Jaciam shook her head, filled with a fierce nostalgia and a notion that things should remain where they belonged. Where they were at home. What must that red water feel, forced out of its natural homeland and into its refugee camp, dying and lonely? She felt very strongly that the natural order of things had been reversed, and there was no reason for it. 

There was a sucking sound of quicksand as Myriot was swallowed into the pit of twisting crimson water, the sound of a boot being drawn out of gasping mud. The feathers along the back of Jaciam’s neck rose and she growled with sudden apprehension. Wickett bent down, and with one swooping motion, lifted Wickett into her arms as he if were nothing but a little boy. He automatically lifted his arms and clung to her neck, despite being jabbed in the side by her broken, twisting ribs stretching outward. Jaciam wondered where Shyah had gotten that kind of wild strength, before the arctic fox launched forward and dove shoulder first into the scarlet whirlpool in front of them. 

Glancing at Nox dipping his paws distastefully into the rushing fluid, Jaciam placed her hand on his left shoulder blade that jutted from his back. 

“Don’t worry brother. I will catch you this time if you can’t make your way to the surface. I won’t leave you.”

“The thing lives wherever it can squeeze itself.” Myriot conceded thoughtfully “It clings in the shadow of our world, squeezes inside of the phone lines, and feeds upon our anxieties. Why did it come to our world I cannot say- I do not question the Cat Man because it must understand its own logic. Though one thing is for sure, it can see us when we walk past the screens, and hear us while we whisper our secrets, and speak with us while we dream. We have forgotten to close our windows, so why wouldn’t he try climb through?”

Nox had set his jaw and felt his teeth crack.

“Lokivu always wanted to come into our world for as long as I’ve known her, but she never gave me a reason why. Maybe you should just go and ask her.” His anger melted with Jaciam’s comment and touch, and he looked back at her, his eyes deep pools of emotion, reflecting the red flicker of water. He had no words to offer, but his usual coldness had been transformed into warmth that he rarely expressed freely.

The water became waist deep, and soon was reduced to pushing off from the floor and gliding forward through the slime. It was quiet now, it struck him that neither Wickett nor Shyah where there with them. They must have already went ahead of them… Byrd was making the noise of a perturbed chicken, peering to where they had disappeared.

Nox wondered if the mouth would snap shut on him, crunching down on his metal bones. He saw Besclin’s fin rise up briefly inside, and without pause, she too dove down the throat and vanished, and the mouth did not move. It was as if it where paralyzed in a state of horror. It reeked like something hot and rotten inside. When it was his turn to cross the threshold of incisors, the tongue didn’t so much as twitch, as if it where a lump of dead flesh. The hole at the back stretched deep, he could hear the water plummet into the unseen abyss, it sounded like a well, dank and dripping. His light didn’t reach very far.

He didn’t have to think about it much, Nox took a breath let his grip slide as he slipped down… down… down…. It became oppressively dark, and he felt his sides being pushed down by muscle, taking his breath and forcing him to gulp down something that made insides go numb. Then for a moment he was free falling, he felt no support from anywhere, nothing to tie his body to, his paws flailed in the air as he fell towards the never ending scar, feeling himself expand like water with no container to hold him in.

And then he was standing again. He sputtered miserably, and when he was able, took in his surroundings to realize that he was standing on a disembodied spinal column. The vertebrae were gigantic in size, the coccyx jutted into the air like the stern of a boat. He slipped past its colonnade like pedicles, wondering what creature it must have once belonged to. Red water had licked its sides clean, leaving it strangely dry. All around him was water as far as he could see. It was deathly still, not unlike that of a night when there is no wind. The sea was red, he could see his light lancing off its surface in a gaudy way that made him feel like an invader; he was the only complementary color in this world. In the distance he could see a lighthouse… it, its red light was dim, and of each revolving turn its beam stretched on forever and ever, into the horizon beyond. As he listened, he thought heard a sound, like a far away musical note every time the red light swept overhead. The noise wasn’t comforting, it sounded strange to him, because when the noise pulled away, it distorted in a strange impersonation of the Doppler effect.

He looked up for any sign of the group, but he couldn’t see any indication of where he might have come from. The cloudless sky was red baron; like the sea it too stretched on forever, the two red planes met in an almost imperceptible line. The dim light glowed from golden gashes in the sky, holes glimpsing an unreachable beyond, like galaxies. The more that Nox watched them, he realized that they where fires. At once, it filled him with a sick wonder.
There was a war going on in the heavens- so large and vast that it could be seen on a universal plane, but so far away that its effects played nary a role to his existence- like simply acknowledging the death of a star in a distant galaxy. He tried to imagine the cosmic chaos and drama that must have been unfolding while his existence would remain virtually unknown.

“I’m down here!” His own voice startled him; he had expected it to resonate in the large space, echoing forever on the waters and into that distant horizon. Instead he found that when he had yelled, it sounded like he was in a small, boxed in room. An unnatural feeling of claustrophobia seized him, and he knew then that he wanted to go to the lighthouse to ease his mind.

Jaciam watched Nox plunge under the red water’s spiraling surface with a seizing sense of trepidation in her chest. Something wild burst in her head like a firework, screaming we are supposed to stay together! She reached forward to grasp his jungle cat foreleg, but it was too late. You were the light! her feral mind shouted in angry protest, and she instantly felt angry at Brune for letting this happen. But Brune was not the leader anymore, and she hadn’t been since she had been transformed to the sickly newborn moth resting on the head of her own embodied hallucinations. Was it Jaciam? Was it Jaciam who had let this happen? 

“Goddamn,” she said wildly, angrily, as the chartreuse light quickly fluttered out of existence, like a flame that had been instantly extinguished by a cruel wind. She turned back towards Brune and her sad troop of characters. There was now only the rusted red glow of the red water that flickered on the wall like the undulating diamonds cast by swimming pools. “This should not have happened. He was supposed to be the light that would hold us together. Carrots and Pixie are gone too, off to who knows where. Now what are we to do? I am going to find him and bring him back. Try to follow Carrots and Pixie… they will find something deeper to this place. I am going to find Kaji.” 

Jaciam folded her wings tightly against her back, imagining huge pieces of tape keeping them pinned to her slender body. Hate the water hate hate hate it she thought furiously as she threw herself into the pool as if she were throwing herself from the edge of a cliff with rocks tied to her wings. 

Everything disappeared in a whorl of rusted black and liquid pressed against her face, grains beating against her nares and eyelids. She didn’t know where she was going, she was being spun in a riptide out to sea… her lungs were going to burst, water trickled into her lungs and she almost suffocated on the grit… 

She landed in a tangle of limbs, and was surprised to find that she was completely dry. The rusted water had disappeared. With a sense of dawning surprise like a pair of eyes that had opened itself wide, she realized that she was lying on her back in the middle of a forest. Trees stretched with broken, twisted fingers, bending their twig-knuckles into impossible angles. The sky stretched in a swathe of darkness. At first, she thought there were snowflakes falling on her face from the forever-yawning sky, before she realized they were little pieces of white ash. They crumpled into dust as they fell softly onto her prone body. Ashes of the late world… she thought to herself with a sense of burgeoning world-pain. These are ashes of the late world. 

Jaciam rolled upwards into a sitting position and slowly pushed herself to her feet, her head filling with coldness and snow. “Kaji!!” she shouted into the woods, and she was surprised to find that her voice was muffled, as if she had yelled into a pillow. The words came out garbled and strange. How was he supposed to hear her now? 

There was a ephemeral orange flicker that painted itself on the smooth bark of the trees, and her gaze jumped to the light with a sense of leaping hope in her chest. Was that the light that would bind them together? She began to follow it, knowing somehow that it would lead her somewhere.

Impending doom seemed to unfold before them like a scroll. Myriot tilted her head at Jaciam as her anger flared, curiously confused.

“What did you expect?” the naga crooned, and it sounded as if she where surprised by the gryphon’s anger “You bodily folk are so worried about how things will work out.” Behind her, the two other characters nodded in agreement. Byrd chittered like a squirrel, like mocking laughter. Despite their amusement however, they seemed to be in consensus of Jaciam’s commands to bring everyone back together.
Brune only looked sadly at her friend, helpless against the frustration that blazed behind those turquoise eyes, set loose in the dream that they where in.

“Ok chief, see you later!” TV called as they watched as the last few feathers of the gryphon’s purple wings where swallowed up by the dark, and peered over the edge after her. The throat stretched languidly down. Brune grasped a pedipalp on each side of Myriot’s head and egged her onward, until Myriot tottered and pitched into the gullet.

An unknown amount of time had passed, and they where deposited in the cold, wet tiled floor of an unfamiliar room. Like an infant still trapped in visceral fluid Myriot flailed her limbs, drawing herself up, rivulets of red sluicing from her tresses of coral banded hair. Her eyes appeared like raw searching mirrors. The palms of her hands stretched out and spider crawled across the floor, searching, feeling.

The moisture here ebbed away in a thin film of grime and oily residue to the trenches of the building. The naga lady seemed to sense this, her forked tongue sluiced out between her lips as she twisted her head around, craning to see who had made it down with them, finding the familiar forms of Shya and Wickett already there.

“Kate is angry with us.” TV said; his collaged voice made little sense in the small room.

“Well then let’s still have fun while we still can.” Myriot hissed, and she dragged herself forward, but something happened. It sounded like wet paper towel was tearing, like cans of tomatoes spilling over the lip of a bowl, the slop of something messy and terrible. As Myriot dragged herself forward, only half of her came with her, the rest of her disengaged in a gory display of tinseled innards, legumes and gooey spider webbing. At first the naga didn’t seem to notice this until she looked over her shoulder.

“Oh… oh my… sorry about that…” she pouted “I seem to be divided on whether or not we should proceed. Oh well, carry on without me.” On cue, Byrd plucked the moth from the handicapped Myriot’s head and cradled her in her palm, her claws becoming like the pointed bars of a fence.

“Let’s go you two, I want to see these secret places.” TV said, turning his attention to their companions “We are still technically a group of five aren’t we?”

They were standing in a cold, dark room. It smelled vaguely of rust and metal and fragmented memories that had been buried underneath the floorboards. Wickett hunched over upon himself, old and lost and lonely and impossibly slow. He had not been whispering for a long time, and his eyes had adopted a frightening, deadened look. It was impossible to tell if he was still with them at all, or if he had gone somewhere else entirely. 

Shyah looked around at their divided group with her eyes sewn shut. TV looked eagerly at them and Brune lay curled up in the claws of the pink-feathered beast like a fetus lying in a cage. Spiders continued to spin threads of silk from her chest cavity, spilling and floating to the floor to skitter away into these forgotten corners. It was impossible to tell where they were… and when they were. 

All of a sudden, Wickett spoke, and it was with a robot’s tongue; something flat and spineless and utterly bereft of hope. “Can you all see the fire everywhere? There’s something hot in this place. We need to find the cat without the eyes. We need to find its secrets.” The voice didn’t sound like Wickett’s and it didn’t sound like Shyah’s, but somehow it was evident that the sabertoothed cat was translating every word of the arctic fox—her makeshift transcriber that painted her mental images into words for all to hear.

“Fire?” said TV curiously. He was looking at the translator, then to the one whose words he’d spoken and there was a repeated “Fire?” bright images of the plasma flickered across his screen of a face.

“Fire!” barked the army officer
“Fire!” hollared the fireman
“Fire!” screamed the children
“Fire.” the reporter said calmly

“She isn’t here.” TV continued, in between clips of burning bridges, buildings, and oil rigs “I can see… she’s on the outside right now- so we won’t find her he-“

Then TV’s screen flickered to static. He stood perfectly still for a few seconds, then, as if it could no longer be contained behind his face- his entire box of his head ignited in an angry SWOOSH of heat and flames. The tv frame splintered, exploded into smoke, sparks and ember. When the inferno subsided, cinders spiraled around the room, and the headless TV stood for a few seconds, smoke curling from the stump of his neck before he his nude body slumped, then fell sideways, breaking into charred wreckage, adding to the layer of the ash that already covered it.

Myriot’s body was no longer anywhere to be seen. After a minute, Byrd clacked her sickle shaped claws against the floor, and in her moorse code- she tapped out

-Better keep those images to yourself next time-

Down the hall there came a noise, as if the building itself had shifted just slightly to their commotion. A disembodied voice spoke something, but what it was that it had said was quite indiscernible. A dim light panned down the hall, a bloodshot eye passing in their direction, and beckoning.
It was the opposite color green- it looked like a darkroom light, casting a ruddy countenance to anything it touched.

Jaciam wound through the forest, following that line of faint pale light that had turned from faint orange to a thick, violent green, painting lines of ephemeral luminosity over the trunks of the trees… and now, as Jaciam peered closer in between the flecks of ash that fell hopelessly from the sky, she realized that the trees were made not from bark and wood, but from bone, smooth and dessicated and wholly free of the flesh that had originally encased it. The knuckles of the trees stretched toward the sky that was falling into pieces were made from lies and skeletons. 

“This is not the way out…” Jaciam whispered to herself as she followed the toxic green light stretched against the trunks of solid bone. All at once, she wondered if this were real at all or if they were simply enveloped in yet another one of their married dreams. And what was to divide them between falsity and reality? Was this a dimension that Brune spoke of, or was this something else entirely? 

She felt stripped of everything that made her whole and sane (or insane?), and she felt more like a wild animal than ever—alone, wary, wild. She felt herself beginning to lose the language and the story that made her Jaciam. Only one command reverberated violently inside her head. Find my brother. Find the light. Find him. 

The wood of bone broke into a clearing, illuminated by the shreds of toxic green light. There was a large bonfire in the center, and a figure sat opposite. 

Haven’t I played this story before? Am I in the wrong play? I thought we had already drawn the curtain… 

All at once, she felt angry at the green light, as if it had deliberately deceived her. She thought she was finding her brother… but all it was was this ridiculous green fire that made her burn with a sudden violent anger. 

“Don’t be angry, Jaciam,” said the figure at the opposite end of the fire, and his voice was devastatingly familiar. 

Jaciam froze and instantly became nothing like herself—her body was a strange alien, a robot, a machine, an automon… cold and corpselike. Her voice that now suddenly erupted in a shrill hawk scream of rage was not hers at all, but a voice she was borrowing. A voice perhaps that belonged to the blue body of a dead man on a gurney in an institution that she was supposed to live in but had entirely left behind. 

She peered over the edge of those writhing flames, pinpricks of green sparks erupting in front of the figure’s face. He was a dead body, but at the same time, he was something else entirely. The entire right side of his face was gone. The left side of his face was distorted and waterlogged, dripping with cold liquid. Spatters of brain and blood littered his body, and something black oozed out of the hole that made up half of his head. What once was a beak was now only a twisted piece of hard protein. He used to have red feathers. He used to have blue eyes that smiled at her. Now he was only a piece of meat that no longer functioned. 

“Were you happy to leave me?” she burst in that wild animal’s cry. “I’m married to someone else now. You’re dead to me. You’re dead. You left me here in this world of chaos and bloody fucking written things and lies and bone.” 

His face was not even a face, but a pitted cliff the rusting sun set over. Ashes of her late world fell in between them in the silence of her voluminous rage.

It was still quiet in the realm of endless red plains, and it began to dawn on him that perhaps his friends where not going to follow him. Like a caged animal, he began to pace back and forth on his floating craft, first slowly, then with growing anxiety. He kept looking up at the sky. Its vastness captivated him, but it was beginning to make him feel strangely numb from his body, as if that if he stared at it too long, he might pitch forward and fall up into it forever (was this how Jaciam often felt? He wondered). A large, sharklike fin broke the surface of his thoughts. He stared at the insidious triangular object in the distant water, his head tilted to the side, uncomprehending. He remembered that Besclin had plunged down the throat before he, and now he was alone on this vessel… alone with her.

As if realization was a cue, the mer creature lunged at him, her mouth spread unnaturally wide. Splashing, scratching she beached herself, rocking the skeleton craft, pulling herself like a seal, twisting, writhing, her eyes set on him like redrum. Nox clamored backwards to the very top of its spine- which was strange and pointed, like the bones of a friend that he one knew. As the sea creature continued to try and reach him, she trashed and snarled, pushing the craft closer and closer to the lighthouse. Nox noticed with some alarm that it was startlingly too close for comfort. All too soon it struck him that when he had left a part of him behind, he had abandoned whatever defense he had left. The excuses, the lies, the stoic mask that he’d worn to disguise his anger and primitiveness also left him vulnerable to his fears. There was no point in pretending that he was brave anymore, and so he shrank back, allowing the shadow of the lighthouse pass over him like a deathwish.

The spine had bumped into the shore of the island, where the singing in the air strong, begrudging, chugging with each revolution of the light. Nox leapt from the bones of his vessel, leaving an infuriated Besclin behind. He watched as the fish woman sunk back into the depths, and he could have sworn that he’d glimpsed a look of sadness in her face…

He turned his attention to the place that he now inhabited. It was hazy, and reminded him of a campground of sorts, but the tent poles moved and bent strangely. Everywhere around him he saw Hieronymus Bosh’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Strange, sinuous figures bent and arced in a strange dance that he was an intruder. The air curled with the smog of hookah, sweat and unsettling mewling moans. As he inched slowly forward, avoiding the gazes of the creatures that surrounded him- as if if he looked at them, he would become their prey. He didn’t go unnoticed. All around him the grain of civil nature slithered toward him with her ravenous appetite eager to devour him, to integrate him into something that struck with such contempt that he felt paralyzed with a terrible anguish that left him very much alone.

Green orbs turned in his direction as he passed, something mewled softly in his ear- but he didn’t look. He heard her mewl again, like a kitten vying for his attention. He could see the tattooed koi fish- flowers and dragons peeling off of her skin and encircling him- gracing him with desperate affection as her mewling became more distressed the farther he walked. Soon she was yowling after him. It was a horrible sound- like the death of a rabbit- something being torn away from its parent- it almost stopped him in his tracks. He almost turned to look at her to say “I am here- stop crying I am here” – but knew once he did he would be trapped there – and only a sad death would await him. More green eyes arose, a kitsune dashed nearby- giving him a worried look. He wanted to chase her.. knew he would never catch her. More green eyes turned on him- he saw the glimpse of a white body of a manticore reclined nearby, watching him with burning green orbs- volatile- forever out of reach. A flush- feline body of a milky white – with the face of a man that he once thought that he had loved, entangled in the embrace of two others…

And then for a moment everything around him melted away as he drew all his attention to that one spot, recognizing that it was his sister that he saw wrapped around the manticore. It took all of his strength to move his feet forward, his eyes beholding nothing but her, but when he came closer, he felt the hope that had been beating in his heart freeze stiff.

Jaciam’s wings arched from the body of the sphinx entwined with the other two beasts, absurdly beautiful, like a bizarre erotic painting. It wasn’t Jaciam that he was looking at… and as he stood there, any vestiges of his sense of solace cracked and fell away- replaced with a slow panic. He felt himself shrink back, faced with something that was too divine for him to gaze upon.

The sphinx spotted him, and arose languorously- her long shape distorting like a ludicrous marionette. All Nox could see where these… pools of green eyes- that all Nox could see emerald where he could torturous green these intense everywhere all consuming haunting green him that he could obsess pathological eyes.

Nox could only look at the approaching Venus sideways, his head bent so low to the ground he was almost dragging his face across it. He caught the bend of her arm, the swing of her breast, the gigantic striped tail that flowed behind her a banner of her prowess, gleaming with neon green bands that burned his retinas and left an imprint on his eyelids.
When he knew he could back up no further, he kept his gaze leveled to her golden hair that trailed on the ground. He felt those green orbs trained upon him, and all around came simmering laughter (How did they know? Could they sense the blood of a child amongst them?) He knew that he could stare at the ground no longer, so, unwillingly, he lifted his gaze, traveling up those long tresses of luxurious golden hair that was nearly feet away from his nose, until he stared her in the face, transfixed in morbid shock.

Her head was upside down on her neck, her chin pointed to the flaming sky- with the corners of her sultry lips pulled to the ground, eyes dripping with oil.

“So you finally came.” She purred “I’ve been waiting for you.”


~ by komicks on December 1, 2011.

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