The Obligate Carnivore
Beads of rain like cut glass slammed his cheek. Littlefield cracked open the door to his motel room and slithered inside. He slammed it before the night rain and the dirty amber light from outside had a chance to expose the worn, low pile carpet and the pilled bedspread on the lumpy mattress. He turned the bolt in the door, fastened the hasp, fumbled for the light switch. He walked to the bathroom, grabbed a bath towel and came back to the door. He sealed the crack at the bottom to keep the air in the room inside, and to keep all the other air outside.
Littlefield ripped open the drape and made sure the windows held their seal. He pulled duct tape from his medical bag and sealed the edges of the windows, just to make sure. He drew the drapes shut and taped them to the walls. He taped the heat registers and the intake on the air conditioner. He exhumed wads of cotton from his bag and plugged the faucets, then taped them, too.
Littlefield stared in the mirror. Yoke-colored eyes followed his gaunt fingers as they swept his dirty gray beard. The hair swirled out of his nose and ears. The dewlaps and goiters and pock marks, the ochre-yellow parchment of his skin no longer disenchanted him. He hadn’t bathed in years but he’d long ago grown immune to his own stench. It kept people at bay; people who might ask questions. He’d grown calloused to the motel clerk’s flinch or the little girl’s point and whisper in the line at Walgreens where he’d go for hydrogen peroxide and cotton and duct tape.
Littlefield no longer craved the company of the human, much less their approval. Luxuries like reputation and companionship mattered nothing when you scrapped for your soul every day, when you fought for the soul of every man, woman and child on the planet.
Littlefield sat on the edge of the bed and listened to rain thrum the window while the wind shuddered the door. He waited for Koinet, his Spotter, and sometimes he would wait days, weeks. A Spotter’s methods were obscure and tedious and the Spotter could not be rushed. The Spotter’s quarry, the geist dieb, was extremely difficult to detect. In different cultures, that quarry went by different names. In Peru, the shaman called it el ladron de la alma. The Romans called it anima praedonis. Each of the 7,000 tongues of humanity had its own name for the soul thief. To distinguish the matured organism from its nymph stage, some just called it soul-thief. It had spent over a billion years evolving to hide in plain view.
5,000 years ago, humans became aware of the soul-thief, first along the East African rift, then along the Yellow River, the Indus River Valley, and the Nile. Men devised means to detect their ancient enemy. A special caste of mystics, the Reclaimers, rose up to hunt them down. Reclaimers were either Spotters, like Koinet, or Deliverers. Littlefield was a Deliverer. Each Deliverer had a Spotter, and only death would separate them.
While he’d still been a boy, the elders of his Maasai tribe had selected Koinet to learn the divining method by which he could detect a soul-thief. It had taken 25 years to perfect his craft. The Spotter seemed a cross between a spy’s handler and a shaman. He combined the methods of a tracker with the rites of a witch. He kept secret the ceremony he used to find his prey. It remained arcane and foolproof. Koinet could not be rushed. And once Koinet found his victim, he contacted Littlefield. No matter what continent Littlefield happened to trek across at that particular moment, Littlefield had to go.
“Professor Littlefield,” Koinet would say in his fluid African English. “We have found a target for you.” That invitation filled Littlefield with terror no matter how many times he heard the words, for Littlefield knew what came next: he would rendezvous to the safehouse where Koinet directed him. And he would bring his duct tape and his cotton balls and his disinfectant and especially, Littlefield would need to bring his killing tools with him, the ones with which he had liquidated many thieves of the soul. The duties of a Spotter included keeping a kill count for his Deliverer. The medieval English had called it a devil’s tally. To the ancient Han, it was a ghost count. The pre-colonial Hindu called it the unnumbered unborn. All of today’s Spotters, no matter their culture, called it a kill card. But Littlefield did more than kill. He liberated. He delivered. His act was at once destructive and creative. When a Deliverer liquidated a soul-thief, the Deliverer reclaimed the soul of the host. The Spotter then released it according to the strict prescriptions called for by a secret Book of the Dead shared by all cultures for over 5,000 years. Because of this release, Spotters and Delivers called each successful hunt, a reclaim.
Littlefield, now the oldest and so the loneliest and wildest of all the Deliverers, also owned the longest kill card. In a world where the humans whom they parasitized didn’t know that soul-thieves even existed, his feat earned him neither accolade nor recompense. Littlefield roamed his world as an alien.
Over time, a Deliverer suffered dilution effects. He had difficulty recognizing his own reflection. His signature bore no resemblance to itself from signing to signing. Fingerprints and even DNA became indistinct. So much the better, in case he ever was caught. But the soul of a Deliverer leeched away. His personality spread thin across his face until he neither smiled nor grimaced. Food became tasteless. Color faded from the eye. Music ceased to stir the heart.
Littlefield lived only to burnish the hope that one day, he and his kind would eradicate the soul-thieves and their kind. Then, his own dark caste would have saved the human soul from a perpetual parasitism. And so, as Littlefield hunched at the foot of his bug-riddled bed and his dirty pewter skin met no boundary with the darkness which devoured his vision, he kindled yet a stick of hope.
The phone rang. Littlefield flinched and his limbs felt pricked by a million needles from the shock of the blare.
"It’s me," the caller said.
Littlefield hung up.
The knock came a few moments later. Littlefield wouldn’t have opened the door unless the call had come first. He cracked open the door.
Koinet, ‘the Tall One,’ in Maasai, occupied the whole doorframe. He walked in without invitation. Spotters didn't need inviting.
Koinet dropped down into the pea green chair in the corner. His huge palms splayed on the armrests and seemed to read the pilled texture like Braille. His dreadlocks, tinged with the rusty hue of the soil from his homeland, swept over his rippling, weathered forearms. Those hands had once hunted a lion as Koinet's rite of passage into manhood. But something had gone wrong during the hunt. Koinet's lion, a prideless, two-year male with a scruffy black mane, had wandered the veldt in a sibship coalition of two other males. That lion had killed and eaten his own brother.
Then, the lion had nestled at the base of an acacia tree and made itself easy quarry. Someone from the right-handed side of the Maasai people, the Enaloishi e taene of the six clans, competed with Koinet's hunting party and killed the young male before Koinet had a chance. This someone, Simel, did a bad thing after he killed the lion. He sold the carcass to a poacher for bushmeat. Koinet and his clan were left-handed side people. They would never do such a thing.
All those who ate the meat of that lion became cursed. For the lion Simel killed had not been a real lion after all. It was a demon, a soul-thief, and its whole end and aim within the body of that lion was to see itself captured, killed, and eaten. Then, it became the creatures that ate it; from the inside-out. Cell-by-cell, it became the men who partook of its flesh, beginning with their hearts, turning their blood to a soulless and tepid soup. Then it moved up, washing out the tints of their eyes, rewiring their neurons, reordering the hippocampi and amygdales in their brains, recreating in perfect symmetry the ability of the brain to perceive a world in color and in three dimensions, yet not one of beauty or ugliness. Nerve cell by nerve cell, the infection worked from the bottom up to reconstruct an olfactory sense that sniffed at almonds but could not work up a desire for them. Those who ate of the lion became men without souls, and so men without any desire but one: to hunt down and kill and eat another man as their own rite of passage. They became carnivora obligata, the obligate carnivore.
The soulless thing, the creature in its inchoate phase, had various names. In the days before science, they called it a foundling. Today, ‘nymph’ was a more popular term, borrowed from the word used to describe the pre-adult stage of some insects which underwent an incomplete metamorphosis. The nymph searched out another of its own species and consumed it. It assumed the soul of that animal which it killed and ate. Then, it worked its way up the food chain by allowing itself to be eaten by animals more highly evolved than itself. When the nymph, maybe in the body of a lion or a cow, permitted itself to be consume by humans, it became human. Then, inhabiting the body of a human, it ate another human to acquire its soul. It became a soul-thief.
From the day when he’d witnessed the curse take hold among those who ate the meat of that lion, Koinet’s life changed. He would do anything to prevent more soul thieves from entering the world through the bodies of men.
Dr. Benjamin Littlefield had tried for tenure at Columbia University 30 years before, but a professor needed to publish, or perish. With dueling PhD's in evolutionary biology and cultural anthropology, Littlefield attempted a great synthesis of the two fields. He pioneered the field of evolutionary anthropology, yet no one ever saw his work.
Thirty years ago, Littlefield studied traditional medicinal practices along the Albertine Rift of East Africa. He had paid a tribal elder so that he could witness a ritual of which he had heard rumors, but that no outsider had ever witnessed; at least not one that the outsider had survived to tell others of.
Back then, Littlefield had received a night message from a boy who had run many miles to deliver it, along with a package.
“I don’t eat bushmeat,” Littlefield told the child after he opened it.
“He says you must,” the boy told him. “Or you cannot see what you wish to see.”
Littlefield sniffed the meat. It was just a small strip, a few bites worth. He knew it was duiker, an antelope. Its dark color suggested it was fully cooked.
“It is safe to eat,” the child insisted.
“Okay,” Littlefield replied. “I’ll have it a little later.”
“He says I must watch you partake of it.” And he stayed until Littlefield pulled at the delicacy with his teeth, straight from the cloth wrapping. He chewed the tough steak, swallowed, pointing to his throat in an obvious way. Then the boy took the cloth and ran off into the night.
Littlefield then drove far west, to a village in the Congo basin that sloped from volcanoes separating the Great Lakes like beads along the Rift.
Littlefield parked his Rover. A man leaned beside the door to a grimy hut, dangling an old revolver from the colonial era, a ten-shooter. The man stood guard against hyenas which may come in the night to pick through what lay inside. It didn't take the nose of a hyena to smell the rot of meat on the other side of the door. A film of blood cast over the guard’s eyes. On his breath rolled a storm of gin. The empty bottle leaned against his gym shoe. His angular body wasted away. In form and in function, he seemed more scarecrow than man.
Littlefield heard the chant of a lonely voice from inside the single-room shanty. Iron grating barred the only window. The guard opened the door, a heavy, steel-plated panel out of place on the hut. The chanting stopped.
He ducked in past the guard and saw the body laid out on the table, candles casting its shadow against the white-washed wall. The dancing flames made the profile of the face seem to gesticulate, its lips to protest. But the face had no eyes; the ocular regions wiped to black spaces, just apertures with striated tissues embroidering the edges of the sockets, caused by a violent lobotomy. Through the eye sockets, the space inside the skull floated dank and empty like the ruins of an abandoned church. A blowfly crawled out from the socket and flew off.
The chest of the corpse bore a long and wide wound from the Adam’s apple down through the genitals, enlarged into a valley where the heart had once beat. The region between the legs was a bloody hole. Someone had gelded the corpse.
Littlefield spotted a shadow in the corner and wheeled quickly. A man sat in dirt, a dirt wetted to paste by a goo which dangled from between the man’s fingers. The man kept his face down. His jaws balanced over his hands. The man chewed on the organs exhumed from the corpse.
Littlefield stilled his breath, his body. He closed his eyes, swallowed, a little boy hiding from a monster in the insufficiency of shadows. He glimpsed the monster’s face. The candles' amber flickers painted the gray matter and blood smeared across the lips the uniform color of bile. The eater hunched with a plump belly, and didn't even seem to notice him.
Littlefield reached into his pocket, pulled out a notebook and wrote down everything. He described in detail the strange, claw-like tapering of the creature’s nails and the remnants of flesh which still clung to them. Those nails had gouged out the eyes, the brain, and sliced open the sternum of its victim like a crude knife. Dewclaws on the insides of the creature’s wrists made it into a were-thing.
After about an hour of writing, as quietly as he could, Littlefield moved to the door and gave it a nudge. It wouldn’t give. Through the crack in the door, he saw that the sentry had gone. Littlefield pushed and pulled on the knob, making more and more noise. The creature in the corner didn’t seem to hear Littlefield shout for help. Someone had paid the guard, not to keep hyenas out, but to lock Littlefield in. That someone was Koinet.
Littlefield took up the opposing corner in that shack and kept himself awake that night. Someone had left a pail of water for him to drink. The foundling opposite him fell into a torpor, its head down, its limbs limp. Over time, the claws shriveled and fell off.
Flies lit upon the corpse on the table. The reek grew so heavy that Littlefield threw up. The sunrise that flowed through the barred window revealed a dark triangle shape near the door. In the night, someone had slid something under the door: a leather holster, an old, old revolver, the one the sentry had held the night before. Heavy, iron-forged, it felt too big for one hand. Littlefield fiddled with it and opened the wheel and saw the 10 chambers, each with a bullet docked inside. He sighed, relieved. He spent the next three days and nights locked in that hut, practicing how to use it.
Littlefield had a watch and he noted the changes like a researcher would describe mold on a petri-dish: the skin of the foundling hardening, desiccating, and waxing over in a thin film. The face and body became blunted. Gill slits slowly appeared, then just as gradually disappeared, on the sides of its throat. The features sharpened into a man again. It was difficult to tell, but it seemed at one point that the body on the table and the nymph in the corner had the same face.
Finally, after 73 hours, in a moon that washed through the window and etched the shadows of the iron bars onto the opposite wall, while Littlefield fought sleep, the foundling’s head rose. The uniform gray in its eyes coalesced into irises. The statuesque face came alive with winces of pain, with frowns and smiles alternating in rapid sequence, like a robot testing its equipment.
The blind eyes now saw. The ears pricked to the distant bark of a hyena. The face brewed with intention. This marked the final transit of the soul from the corpse which lay on the table into the nymph which had eaten it. This marked the time when the nymph changed from an it into a he, into a soul-thief.
The soul-thief’s eyes lit upon Littlefield. His mouth stretched into a leather-lipped grimace. The soul-thief stood. His joints crackled. He walked toward Littlefield in painful steps.
He reached down toward Littlefield and grabbed his neck. Littlefield didn’t realize how hard it would be to fire a weapon, even at a monster. The soul-thief strangled him with wraithlike fingers, his lion’s breath heaving in Littlefield’s face.
Littlefield jabbed the weapon into the belly of the geist dieb and fired once. The skin split as if the man’s integument had been fabricated of wet paper. Cold, moonsilvered blood leached onto Littlefield’s fingers. Viscera spilled onto the barrel of his gun and lubricated the old metal. The soul-thief fell in a blanket over him, the arms sprawled on the hut’s floor in an unintentional embrace of his own killer.
Littlefield pushed the starved body off of him. It seemed flimsy, made of paper machete. Littlefield wondered if he couldn’t have killed the creature with his hands.
He tried the door again, cried for help, but only heard the night croaks of giant bullfrogs in a nearby slough, the warping cry of the hyena far off on the savannah. He wiped the flesh of the geist dieb from himself.
The soul thief’s body lay on its back, its lower abdomen a concavity. Littlefield thought of all the tales of were-things and vampiric forms, of zombies and golems, which crossed from the deep past into now, migrating from village huts into the cities of men. Men’s minds had dreamed them up. Only myth had dressed the phantasms with muscle and skin. Never had the demons which Littlefield studied stood before him in a scientific sense, and looked him in the eye, and breathed their rancid breath over his face like the kiss of death’s angel.
He had to make sure that this creature wouldn’t move against him. He emptied the remainder of the bullets into the corpse’s chest, hoping that the sound of gunfire would draw a villager to the shed. Then, like a samurai in the method of seppuku, he stabbed the long barrel of the ten-shooter into its belly and traced the four sides of a square, excavating wider and wider until he’d eviscerated the creature.
Littlefield stumbled to the far side of the shack, as far from either corpse as he could get. In the gloom, he heard carrion beetles scratch across the soil to and from their finds. And, hoping for morning, he curled into a cat’s shape and fell out over a great hole into sleep.
Koinet had needed an outsider. He’d needed someone who could comprehend this terrible mystery, and who would join the war against the soul-thieves.
On his third fevered night in that shack, Littlefield wrestled back and forth between the hypnogogic remains of consciousness and horrible dreams of dismemberment. He struggled to stay awake ‘til dawn, but the visions sewed shut his eyes and pulled him into their smothering quietus. Shorn images of Littlefield disemboweling the man-thing, holding its heart to the sky like a grail, blood snaking down his arms. The wet sounds of the ravaging of a body, the warping snarls of mastication punctuated the fevered night vision.
After a time he could not measure, light pried at his eyes. His fever had broken. Sunlight flooded the shanty. The door stood open.
Flies swarmed everywhere in uneasy waves, making chainsaw noise that built into a rile when he rolled onto his hands and knees.
He looked over at the body of the cannibal. It was not as he remembered it. Sometime during the night, the hyena had come to do its work. The scavenger had gnawed off the face. The hyena dragged the corpse around the shack, painting a messy trail of blood and remains.
The flies flowed in currents and lighted on Littlefield, mistaking him for one of the dead. He crawled toward the day, cloyed at the doorframe, pulled himself up, and shambled into the sunlight. He escaped across the deserted village with his tattered and blood-soaked journal in his back pocket.
He had seen all that Koinet had wanted him to see. Through the bloodrite, Littlefield had become Deliverer.
On a cool savannah night along the upland shores of Lake Albert, Littlefield hid in his own hut. He shivered and recollected what he’d seen the nights before. A fever came upon him again this night, and he knew he had caught some disease from the cadavers in the shanty while he’d been prisoner. The nearest doctor was in Goma, a city too far, too dangerous to visit. He drank water and it tamped the heat in him, and he felt a small calm over the fact that he kept the water down. At least he wouldn’t die of dehydration.
A wrap on his door and the wind rose and the door seemed to open on its own. So many things acting of their own volition, from the lifeless body of a man to a door in the wind. Littlefield’s science meant less and less.
Koinet stood in the doorframe. He walked in without an invite and sat on the thin, plastic mat raised on wooden blocks that served as Littlefield’s bed.
“Is it alright with you if I sit here?” he whispered kindly.
Littlefield stared at the man. Was he the guard who’d kept Littlefield in the hut the last three days? No. No, this man stood tall and muscled.
“I have a gun,” Littlefield croaked.
“You will need an army.”
Littlefield chuckled in fragile self-defense, too delirious to really care.
“Not an army against myself,” Koinet elaborated. “But against what you witnessed over the last three nights.”
“What I saw…” Littlefield murmured, fumbling for a response. He suspected Koinet might be a government officer, maybe a policeman investigating cannibalism. Maybe that duiker meat he’d been tricked into eating before the ceremony had been an entrapment. He’d blame Littlefield for setting the whole thing up and Littlefield would die in prison. “What I saw over the last three nights was part of my research.”
Koinet toyed with a tassel that hung from the corner of the blanket on the mat. “What you saw was part of something much more glorious or horrible than research, depending on your perspective.”
“What do you want?”
“It takes two to make one, Doctor.”
In his delirium, Littlefield interpreted the cryptic statement as a request for a bribe to keep himself out of jail. “How much? How much do you want?”
Koinet laughed loud enough to shake the stale water in the drinking glass on the corner table. “Every Anglo thinks every African is corrupt.” He laughed again, this time softer, getting the last of it out, sending a distant gaze out somewhere through the window into the night.
“Once one of them enters the body of a man from a lower creature of which the man has partaken, it destroys. It enters the body of its host in a way that rewrites the soul, and a soul rewritten is a soul erased. Since a body needs a soul to truly live, it eats another man in the ritual way you observed three nights past. In so doing, Doctor, the cannibal acquires the spirit of the one consumed. This transit of the soul from the consumed to the consumer requires a rite, and yet, your science can explain it just as well from the opposite pole of perception,” Koinet said. He betrayed in his erudition a formal education from a South African university. “Only someone with your own background could accept this.”
The wind moaned, shaping its fingers around the hut, flinging open the door and bleeding the pewter gloom of night on the dirt floor. Koinet stood and closed it.
“Only I would accept what?” Littlefield said.
“That the being which you witnessed three eves past is a primordial one, more ancient than man himself. Much older.”
“I don’t believe in the voodoo rites,” Littlefield said, ”except as an object of study.”
“Then believe in this: a creature that jumps from one species to another by allowing itself to be hunted and consumed by its predator.”
“That would be a form of parasitism.”
“And is not the parasite an ancient creature?”
Littlefield knew that in this part of the continent, a parasitic hookworm stopped children from growing, and turned them into ‘zombies.’ What if other parasites could induce the trancelike state he’d witnessed in the hut?
Koinet was dressed in boots and a black leather duster. His clothing marked him as a traveler, not a villager. He pulled out a Meerschaum pipe that he’d strapped to the inside of one boot; a teak-stained, African block bowl carved in the shape of a lion’s head. He retrieved a pouch of Latakia tobacco from inside the other boot. He lit the pipe. The heavy smoke lingered blue in the moonbeams.
“The organism has a goal: to become apex predator of each niche it occupies,” Koinet said in crisp whispers that danced in and out of the smoke. “It works its way up, rather than down. It evolves, becoming the creature which consumes it.”
“Evolution can’t work that fast. You don’t know. You’re not trained,” Littlefield said, wary of dismissing such a large man.
“Evolution can happen in a single generation. You know this.” He puffed on his pipe.
“A mutation can. But mutations are random occurrences, and most are selected against. Most mutations are harmful, or at best, harmless. Few are actually beneficial. That’s why natural selection takes as long as it does to produce changes.”
“In the way most understand it, yes. In classical evolution. Yet you were chosen, Doctor, you were selected in part because of your openness to new understanding,” Koinet said. He breathed out the smoke which seemed like dust recycled from the floor. “A creature that shifts shape, that assumes the form of the organism which consumes it, that creature simply employs the device of accelerated mutation, which is always beneficial. Bacteria can mutate into new, drug-resistant forms in a few generations. A virus can mutate millions of times within a single host due to its inability to replicate properly from one generation to the next. This means its transmission vector can change from, say, blood-borne to airborne in a few days.”
“But that doesn’t apply to multi-cellular organisms,” Littlefield said, relaxing, intrigued, his sense of danger passing.
“Open your mind, Doctor.”
Littlefield knew that all organisms that possess bilateral symmetry – the trait of identical appendages on both sides of the body – were very similar genetically. In the Cambrian profusion in which these creatures arose, more and diverse life forms came into being that at any other time before or since. The most successful body type to arise back then possessed bilateral symmetry. The bilaterians gave rise to the arthropods, the amphibians, the reptiles, birds, mammals, and fish. They’d been wildly successful. Genetically and developmentally, all bilaterians were closely related. Only a few mutations made all the difference between a spider and a monkey, or between a spider monkey and a man. In the prenatal development of a human, the fetus seemed to undergo the course of the evolution of all of life, even developing what appear as gill slits at one point. A few mutations on key switching genes, called epi-genes, could transform a frog into a horse if it happened at the right phase in the prenatal course.
Still, Koinet’s shape-shifting hypothesis fit more into mythology than science. Littlefield shook his head.
“Amongst all the creatures,” Koinet said, “human beings possess the impermeable quality of closed-mindedness, be it in their theology or their science.”
Littlefield smiled and wrapped his hands around the armrests of the wicker chair in which he sat. “Prove it.”
“Ocham’s Razor,” Koinet said. “You are familiar with it?”
“What scientist isn’t? The Law of Parsimony holds that the simplest explanation to describe a phenomenon is the most plausible, and is to be applied to explain that phenomenon. The law is medieval.”
“The law still holds?”
Littlefield gave his acknowledgement with a slight nod. He sat as a one-man peer review committee. He had the power to accept or reject a hypothesis for a change.
“The creature of which I speak has existed as a life form since the very beginning of life. It is neither supernatural nor alien. It is wholly ordinary and even commonplace. It has evolved along with us, evolved with and into and out of every life form which has ever existed, creating phantom copies of each living thing. How can you question that which predates you, and that which has been a part of the background of life since its inception?”
“And its method of assimilation?”
“It invades the body on a cellular level as a strand of RNA coated in material designed to conceal it from the body’s immune system. It hijacks the reproductive machinery of the cell and makes a copy itself.”
Littlefield knew that a virus did something similar. So did the ant mimic, a spider which wore the chemical signature of an ant colony as a form of chainmail, then proceeded to devour its hosts, one at a time.
“And when did this bizarre ritual of viral cannibalism evolve into the man-eating form which you made me watch?”
“It evolved the consciousness of a lion when lions evolved, the consciousness of an ape when apes evolved, and the consciousness of a human when humans evolved. All it need do is be eaten by its host, then eat another of the same species to acquire its soul.”
“It doesn’t explain the rite I witnessed back in that hut.”
Koinet finished his smoke and emptied the dottle from the heel of his pipe on the heel of his giant boot. He crossed his long, heavily corded arms in front of his chest and put his hand to his chin, propping it up studiously with his fingers.
“Oh, but it does explain the ceremony you saw, Doctor. The human needs to eat no less than the ape or the lion. Yet the human designs rituals to go along with the hunt, to assure its success. And the human fashions great ceremonies around the eating of its kill. If human’s need ritual, why wouldn’t something that hunts us and assumes our form and our very spirit also use rites?”
“And partaking of a creature’s vital organs to assume its soul? Why would a thing need ritual for that?”
“The paramecium, a single-celled creature, may not have a soul, or at least a soul to our way of thinking. But a man is of another order. When the creature of which we speak assumes the form of zebra, becoming it from inside-out, one cell at a time, it wipes away the conscious template of that organism. In humans, this sentient template has assumed its most potent form, a form we call a soul. Without a soul, an organism is no more than a numb and purposeless entity. And so, the creature which you observed in that hut consumed another member of its own species in order to acquire its soul.”
“Then it moves up the evolutionary chain,” Littlefield concluded.
Littlefield settled into a contemplative quiet after that, fitting together incongruent pieces of knowledge: why those under the spell of what Westerner’s called the voodoo cult became zombies; how viruses took over a cell; how master genes – epigenetic switches – could dramatically alter the form and even the species of a creature simply by turning on and off at the right time in development; how other genes turned caterpillars into butterflies at crucial larval instars; why cannibalism was practiced in almost all pre-agricultural societies since the beginnings of humanity; and why cannibalistic behavior could be observed in many other species.
All of this could be explained with what Koinet had told him. It consolidated and synthesized a vast body of disparate phenomenon. Yet the confirming proof for which Littlefield searched had taken place over the span of the last 72 hours, while he watched a spellbound man eat the vital organs of another man and then assume the particularities of a personality.
Over the next few days, Koinet would return to Littlefield’s shack many times, bringing fresh water and medicine to help Littlefield over his sickness. When Littlefield returned to America, Koinet visited him at the university, and they had long discussions over pipe smoke and brandy in which Koinet answered every question Littlefield had about the soul-thief. Only Koinet could satisfy Littlefield’s curiosity in fields biological and anthropological. Slowly, he drew Littlefield away from his chosen profession. Koinet then turned him out in the way a pimp may convince a mostly innocent woman to become his whore.
Koinet became Littlefield’s handler, assigning him spook hits all over the world. He provided Littlefield with passports, credit cards, names, addresses. Over the years, the reclaims, and the manner in which he killed the soul-thieves, had whited Littlefield’s hair to ash and flushed his eyes the color of glass reflecting back an overcast sky. A Deliverer could never marry or have children. He could only have his Spotter. He owned nothing except the silver tape and the cotton balls and the disinfectant of which Littlefield always reeked – the peroxides and alcohols and iodines or whatever seemed handy to prevent the infection of his body on a cellular level from microscopic creatures that floated like motes in the blood. More than anything, Littlefield was terrified of contamination, for it was said that, as dementia crept up upon the senile without the sufferer knowing, so the geist dieb took over the body without the foreknowledge of its host. You became it without knowing that you became it. Or rather, you became ‘not yourself,’ as the Reclaimers referred to it. The soul thief destroyed your personality molecule by molecule.
So Littlefield prepared his own food. He prayed over it and irradiated it as Koinet had spent hours instructing him to do. He did this to kill off whatever errant rods of RNA may have wafted from a soul parasite onto the sleeve of his jacket or the lash of his eye during a kill. Littlefield’s hanging face, his swollen gums, and yellowed eyes betrayed the lack of meat in his diet. Once the soul-thieves established themselves in the food chain, they became harder and harder to eradicate as one went up that chain. Their RNA became stubbornly embedded into the complex proteins of the meat of vertebrates. The process was called bioamplification. For reasons unknown, plant life remained immune to the virus.
As their common name implied, soul-thieves had souls. Filled with intentions and plans of their own, aware of their own lurking status among humans, the soul-thieves tracked and hunted their pursuers, the Spotters and Deliverers, and tried to destroy them before the Deliverers murdered them.
To live and move and succeed in such a world, the Deliverers needed to believe they did not wage an unwinnable war. They had to convince themselves that the soul-thieves could be defeated. After all, the geist dieb were just another life form. So the Deliverers lived by an ancient maxim which they chanted before a reclaim:
Behold, the parasite dies. While the host survives.
How many soul-thieves lived in the societies of people, Littlefield knew not. Their only transmission vector from host to host was through ingestion; the host had to eat the flesh of an infected animal to become infected itself. Soul-thieves entered the human race by ones obligated to consume another human in a laborious ritual of man-eating, then waiting in a vulnerable torpor for three days. The transit of the soul from host to foundling, first described in the Common Book of the Dead, the secret text, was a delicate process. Many a soul slipped off into the ether before it moved involuntarily into the parasite which consumed the body in which that soul rightly lived. And so many of the eaters died in their pupa stage, without ever becoming soul-thieves. For these reasons, Littlefield assumed that the numbers of soul-thieves remained a relative fraction of humanity. After all, he only killed them one at a time, traveling across the globe from one hit to another. He thought of the mantids, the efficient predators of the insect world which had evolved so lethal a method of hunting, and which remained so voracious, that they cannibalized their own species at great rates, leaving their numbers reduced. Littlefield read the papers like everyone else and knew that cannibalism remained a rare practice. He could only guess, but he believed that the soul-thieves concealed themselves in all the other species in relatively low numbers; at bay, but preying upon their hosts nonetheless. The Spotters and the Deliverers arrayed themselves like macrophages in a vast immune system to ensure that the armies of the soul-thieves stayed small.
Littlefield sat across from the Tall One in the cold and murky motel room, the wind a choir of shrieks, the night and storm assuming the forms left to them by more solid things, defined by what the world of matter was not. Koinet dangled in his hands a purse-sized leather bag lined on the outside with chainmail. Littlefield drew back in his chair. He knew that the steel bag protected the world from what it held inside.
“Say what you need to say,” Littlefield told him. He hated Koinet for what Koinet had groomed him into becoming. And at the same time, he needed Koinet. He looked forward to seeing him and telling the story of his last reclaim. What else did a Deliverer have?
“We’re retiring you,” Koinet said with some reticence.
Littlefield’s eyes brightened for a moment before dying down to coals.
Koinet fiddled with the end of the bedspread as he had twiddled the tassel in that Lake Albert hut many years before.
“We’re not allowed to retire. We’re allowed to die,” Littlefield replied. “I’d rather that.”
“What, die instead?”
“You know, Ben, you’re the closest thing to a friend I have.” Koinet had never called him by his given name. The uncharacteristic familiarity suggested that Koinet prepared his Deliverer for bad news.
Littlefield felt the ire simmer and flush his countenance. Loyalty muddled with betrayal within him, belonging with hate. He guessed that most whores felt that ambivalence toward their touts.
“The next kill will be your last,” Koinet whispered. “I promise.”
“Well,” Littlefield whispered in the scratch which his voice had become from disuse. “That’s only the second promise you’ve ever made in 30 years.”
Koinet reached out with his long arm that seemed to bare the runnels of age despite his young face. He touched Littlefield’s hand, another uncharacteristic charity. “Even old soldiers come to peace,” Koinet said with a smile.
Littlefield pulled his hand away and stared at Koinet as if he were soul-thief. The alienation showed itself in the twisted bark of Littlefield’s face.
“Where?” Littlefield said.
The storm clawed the roof as it passed over the small town. The Tall One crossed his leg and pulled from his boot legging the same old African block Meerschaum pipe from which he'd smoked the first night he and Littlefield had met. From the other boot shank, he pulled out his pouch of tobacco, dipped the stem inside and fired up. As he sucked hollowly through the stem, the draft hissed the bowl’s fire. He managed a compassionate smile as he drew smoke into his cheeks.
“You’re the closest thing I’ve had to a friend, too,” Littlefield admitted.
A Spotter was trained not to form an attachment to his Deliverer, but when you worked together for as many years as Koinet and Littlefield had, you couldn’t help developing at least respect for each other, and in some moments more than that. Littlefield had made dozens of kills for Koinet over the years. That reflected well on the Spotter.
Littlefield held out his palm, as if begging for coin. Koinet reached into his glittering, chainmail bag and pulled out a wooden death mask in the shape of a skullface. With sunken eyes which reminded Littlefield of the first corpse he’d seen in that Congolese shack, the skin on its cheeks cracked and held tears in its furrows. The red clay surface gathered light in an unexpected way, as if it were a filter that veiled another dimension. The vacuity of the eyeholes held back a dark energy, an anti-soul so cold and dark that it still made Littlefield quiver when he looked into the sockets. The mask maker had outlined the eyelets with coal.
“Have you erased its memory?” he asked Koinet. He always asked Koinet that question, even though he knew the answer. Koinet would never give his Deliverer an unclean mask.
Koinet nodded and his own face seemed to dissolve in the murk of his smoke. “This will be the last time you’ll need to deploy it.” His eyes peaked up through his curtain of smoke and studied Littlefield’s face. Koinet shrouded the mask back in the mail sack and handed it to Littlefield, who disposed of it in his black satchel, handling it as if it were a poisonous snake.
Littlefield’s own eyes darted back and forth between the smoke-shrouded face of his Spotter and the floor. Littlefield’s lips slivered open. “Retirement. What does that mean?”
Koinet straightened up to his full height in the chair and dug his hands into the armrests to support his weight. He listened to the wail of the wind and watched it jolt the door, wanting in. “There is an island. It is a peaceful place. Like heaven.”
“Heaven and hell are just dreams,” Littlefield spat in a tart murmur.
“When a man sleeps, dreams always come."
“And you? Do you retire, then, too?”
Koinet shrugged. “To be retired is an admission of uselessness.”
Littlefield smiled. Better to be useless than used.
“You and I are like spent shells – good for nothing,” the Tall One remarked. He shook his head and knocked the mouth of his pipe against his heel, letting the spent shag spill to the carpet. “We have been given the privilege of pulling the trigger one last time.” He held the pipe like a handgun, and it reminded Littlefield of the revolver he’d used back in the Congolese shanty to kill his very first soul-thief.
“And then we rest,” Littlefield said, relieved. “Finally.”
Littlefield would not look his Spotter in the eye. That would amount to a tacit admission of conscience for all the murder the two of them had conspired to commit. For soul-thieves were humans, of a kind. They’d as much right to life as the other species of hominid. Nature had selected them to live, too, side-by-side with other humans. The life of soul-thieves had roots more ancient than the ancestry of ordinary men and women.
Littlefield worked up the spit in his mouth as an oyster would a pearl, drawing up the courage to stare hard into the tender eyes of his handler, a man who at moments like these seemed to read his thoughts.
“We were always just following orders,” Koinet replied to the gaze.
“Did you ever think about their orders? They have a mandate, too. The geist dieb is just trying to survive, just like us.”
“They have a conscience.”
“They have feelings.”
“Yes. They do.”
“They have been around longer than have we.”
“Don’t patronize me, friend,” Littlefield said.
“Lobsters have been around longer than the human,” said Koinet, “yet we routinely boil them alive and listen to their screams as we wait at table to consume them.”
Littlefield felt a fool for ever believing that this war, waged man by man and stone by stone, ever seemed winnable.
We were always just following orders. Trapped in the logic of battle which only made sense to a warrior, Koinet’s fatal and twisted rationale took on an internal consistency like a kind of mathematics. Only a philosopher could question the initial assumptions of that logic, and Littlefield knew that he and his tall friend had grown too old and long in the order of battle to question the reasons for war.
“We are hereby charged with crimes against the life force,” Koinet whispered. “Being that all life has an inalienable right to exist, regardless of origin or form, we are therefore charged with the crime of extermination of that life force called anima praedonis, also known as the soul-thief.” In announcing his indictment, Koinet had lost all pretense of his usual mordant mien.
Now, they looked into each other’s husked eyes as old friends might.
“You and I shall prosecute this final reclaim. Then, I’ll meet you on that island, Ben.”
The storm finally passed. Koinet slept in the chair in the corner, covering his long legs with his leather duster. Littlefield lay on the bed, closed his eyes. All he could see were the fires that lapped the bodies of his dead like the tongues of lions. The brightness jarred his eyes open. When he dreamed, it was always of fire.
The last winds from the storm rankled the door one more time. Littlefield watched the door. Soul-thieves had their own Deliverers, their own Spotters who tried to slay the Reclaimers before they themselves were slain. A rare meeting between a Spotter and his Deliverer marked a prime chance to kill two for the price of one.
The Spotter tracked the quarry. The Deliverer moved in for the kill. A Spotter spent more time tracking than a Deliverer did in the hit. The foundling, the soulless man, owned neither a name nor a number. He didn’t marry or work. He lurked in alleys, under bridges, squatted in burned out buildings, waiting for his prey - usually a homeless man or a tweaker, sometimes a whore – the kind of people who died anyway, who wouldn’t be missed, at least for a while. The soulless one in his nymph stage stalked the kind of human who didn’t attract much attention.
The foundling didn't choose its victim rationally any more than a snake did. A nymph in its instar of incomplete metamorphosis had no logic to deploy. Its brain was offline, awaiting the animating principle of the soul which it hunted. Like a snake, it could only behave according to a preprogrammed survival structure housed in the brainstem. The nymph could detect a victim of its own species. It could “interrogate” a soul in the way a viper could detect the heat off a dormouse with the piths in its cheeks.
The foundling then waited until that organism was alone. Then, it liberated the soul of that animal by releasing the force centers – the whorls of energy which corresponded to the crown and third eye chakras, the heart chakra, and the sacral chakra. The chakras had different names in different cultures, but mystical bodies of knowledge in the Dharmic as well as the Abrahamic traditions recognized these vortices of subtle matter.
The chakras served as fulcrums of energy. The heart chakra corresponded to the human heart. The crown and third eye vortices corresponded roughly with the brain, the sacral chakra with the genitalia. The brains and the genitals were the rough organ analogues to the chakras themselves. By partaking of these organs in the correct order, the soulless creature liberated the spirit from the man it consumed. And so, its ritual served a logical purpose.
The Reclaimer caste learned about the bardo from the Common Book of the Dead. In the various dimensions of the bardo which souls inhabited after bodily death, the disembodied souls searched for new bodies to which to adhere. Some call them walk-ins, others refer to it as possession. The lost soul craves corporeal form. Once the nymph pried the soul from the body of its victim by opening the chakras, that soul transited to the nearest body. The homeless soul, like a homeless person, will seek shelter, and the body of the pre-metamorphic soul-thief was the nearest dwelling.
Koinet would provide Littlefield a rough location of the nymph. He would give Littlefield the death mask, and the death mask did the rest of the tracking. By placing that horrible mask over his own face, Littefield could detect the imago – the aura of the human soul - as easily as the soulless one could. During this phase of the Deliverer’s hunt, the mask served as a detector. Through the apertures in the eyelets of the mask, Littlefield saw the auras of normal men. Every living thing possessed this aura, all except for the nymph, the incompletely metamorphosed soul-thief.
Only eyes without a soul can detect a body without one. When Littlefield put on that mask, his own soul abandoned him. The terror of that abnegation, of knowing in the pit of your pit that you are no one, couldn’t match anything Littlefield had ever felt. In the Common Book of the Dead, this bardo was described as a dreamstate of hell. Yet, it was the only way.
After he’d surveilled his victim, a Deliverer needed only to wait. He appropriated the very method of predation as the soul-thief. He became prey, his own lure. He was the goat tied under a tree, waiting for the tiger. He was the hunter in the blind, waiting for his tiger.
A soulless foundling required human bait. Littlefield was that bait. When the Deliverer acted as bait to attract his prey, he was called the Devil’s Decoy. He followed his prey until his prey followed him. He lured the foundling into an abandoned building or under a bridge, always to a lonely place, and waited. When the unsouled creature tried to kill and cannibalize, Littlefield would strike first.
Sometimes, Littlefield arrived too late. Sometimes he walked in after the soulless one had already killed someone else, and the three-day transit of the victim's soul had already begun. In that metamorphic stage, the soulless one was called a quiescent. The quiescent would lie dormant in the safest place it could find, usually with its gaunt arms wrapped over a down-dropped head, its legs folded against the abdomen in a protective pose.
Then Littlefield would deploy the death mask in a different way, as a false body. The soul would transit from the original victim into the mask instead of transiting into the body of the quiescent. The Spotter imbued the mask with an attractant that made it irresistible to the disembodied soul, and so the mask collected souls like a spider’s web collected flies. The false body held the soul.
The false body could create very bad trouble for whoever held it, unless the soul which it trapped was exorcised from the mask. More than a few times, when a Spotter did not correctly perform this expulsion ritual, the soul remained in the mask and killed the Spotter or Deliverer who next put it on. But Koinet was a good Spotter. He performed his expurgation rites with a precision that would impress any shaman.
Spotter’s were medicine men. Deliverer’s tended to come from science backgrounds. The compliment to a Spotter’s traditional medicine was the science of his Deliverer. Subjects like anatomy, epidemiology, and infectious diseases came in handy for Deliverers. They needed to honor universal precautions to avoid contamination. They needed to reclaim clean, and a decontaminant death was similar to one which would leave no evidence – cruel and sterile.
Since the soul-thief existed – lived its life – on a cellular level as well as on the order of a multi-cellular creature, all of its body, every single cell, needed to be completely eradicated. Several methods existed among the Deliverers to effectuate this: acid baths had been popular in the 20th century. So were explosions which vaporized every cell. In modern times, they'd even experimented with encasement in amber and other hardening polymers. Yet of all the methods tried, the simplest, most effective way to ensure the complete destruction of a soul-thief’s tissues was through immolation. It had remained the most common method of extermination for over 5,000 years. Since the dawn of this ancient war, Deliverers burned soul-thieves as they'd burned witches. A small fraction of witches persecuted since ancient times had, in fact, been geist dieb. Men often laid the bricks of their superstitions over meager laths of truth.
Over three decades, the method of Littlefield’s hunt did not vary: Koinet would identify the target and its location. It took a long time to identify the gesit dieb from among the throngs of normal humans. Littlefield would then kill the body in ways that minimized blood spatter and the dispersal of human tissue. Sometimes he'd strangle them; sometimes he'd suffocate them. He'd used poisons, crossbows (too messy). He’d used his old revolver. He’d buried his victims alive, burned them in vats of acid. It seemed cruel, but the stakes were the survival of the human race.
The good news for a Deliverer was that the soul-thief did not possess superhuman strength. It had no physical ability that an ordinary human did not. Rarely, Littlefield made of his victims a living pyre. But to burn it alive, the victim needed to be away from combustible materials so that innocent lives weren’t sacrificed in a larger conflagration. Littlefield found live immolation too difficult and he’d only used it twice: once in a desert in Mexico; another time on a Russian freighter in the Southern Ocean. Littlefield didn't know how other Deliverers executed their prey since he'd never met one. Each Spotter made sure that the Deliverer he managed stayed away from other executioners.
No matter how Littlefield killed them, the fire always came after. Burning the kill remained as important as the kill itself. If even a single cell survived, that cell might infect a rat, which would contaminate a cat, which would transit up to a dog or a pig, then a man. In the inverse world of the soul-thief, prey hunted predator.
So when he’d finished the kill, Littlefield doused his victims with accelerant, usually carbon disulfide if Koinet could get a hold of it. Carbon disulfide had the lowest ignition temp of all the commonly available accelerants, and it had a relatively low flash point. Littlefield hated the smell of it, but every guild had its standards and the Deliverers used carbon disulfide in great quantity.
Ice storms that took out power over hundreds of miles on the Plains battered Littlefield’s Greyhound as it made its way to an abandoned steel town: Gary, Indiana. Koinet had told him of some old ruins in a deserted factory district near the Chicago, Illinois border. There, Littlefield snaked down November streets, turning his collar against the sidelong rain, the heel of his boot sticking now and then into the rebar and cobble that wore through eroded pavement. The tarred edges of rain-soaked roofs rippled where they’d caved and water poured into abandoned industrial graveyards.
Littlefield passed the mossy, oblong facades along the de-peopled street. A pre-metamorphic creature, one without a soul, hid in places like these, waiting for a person without refuge to take refuge there. But the lair Koinet had described wasn’t a factory. It was an edifice at the dead end of the street – a church with rough cut limestone walls and a black slate roof. Mullioned glass had long ago taken leave from the sockets of the side windows and clerestory, and stained-glass had flown from the rose window like a butterfly from its chrysalis. The windows were boarded up.
There he will be, in the church, the Tall One had told him. And Koinet was never wrong. Littlefield had broken into many such derelict places. He reached into his satchel, put on calfskin work gloves and pulled out a pry bar. In an expert, surgical way, he levered open the boards from an entrance into a side chapel, and stepped inside.
Water poured in rivulets from holes in the roof; a barn owl roosting inside flew off through open clerestory, the floor below its nest at a station of the cross spotted with guano and the skulls of pigeons and rats. At the crossing where nave and transept met, a giant aperture opened to gray sky and water dropped in long beads, seeming on a string. Below the hole, a small buckthorn tree grew on the floor of the church in a miasmic mound of mud and tile.
Littlefield surveyed for hiding places. He still had enough light from the afternoon to see without his flashlight. A naked altarpiece with empty nooks for statues loomed on the marbled altar. Someone had removed all the iconography. No Jesus, no Mary for the soulless creature to use as a blind whilst Littlefield set up his own trap. But the confessionals – they seemed a problem. These were immovable wooden chambers built like pillboxes into the grottos of the side aisles. Littlefield would need to check them for an ambush.
He kept his crowbar in his hand. With his other hand, he unholstered a long-barreled, large caliber weapon from under his trench coat. Like a police clearing a suspect’s apartment room by room, he coaxed the confessional doors open with the crowbar one by one and peered inside. Mice crawled in and out of the walls within the penitential chambers, squealing like the damned.
He creaked open the final confessional door, but it resisted. He pried it open with the business end of the bar. The must of muttered sins reached his nose. The leaves and duff that had carpeted the floor beside the old kneeler had been swept aside. Something had disturbed the hoary detritus, and only hands could have opened the door. Maybe a homeless had used the confessional for a few nights. Or a foundling.
He withdrew his pry bar and the door squeaked to a reluctant close. Until it acquired its own soul, a foundling couldn’t dream, so it didn’t need to sleep. A nymph couldn’t eat normal food until it first partook of a man. So a foundling would have only gone inside to use the confessional as an ambush point. Like the spider which spins a barren web and then moves on, the nymph might have stayed for a few days and left to find better hunting grounds. Or it might kill and bring its meat back here to consume. There was no way to tell.
The wind wailed outside like a clan of hyenas. The water fell in cataracts from the crossing where the knave and transept intersected. Littlefield pulled out his old issue canteen and set it down underneath the water until it filled. The mist and dank from the gray afternoon swirled through the gap, not sparing the church from the elements. The sky belched out fog which reached through the hole in a lone finger into the church. The frost of Littlefield’s breath mingled with the damp air. It reminded him of the smoke from Koinet’s pipe.
He surveyed the church for a suitable hiding place. Deliverers often appropriated the methods of their enemy. He would hide in the confessional, hoping that the nymph would come.
He slipped inside the chamber, drew his weapon and exhumed the death mask from the bag of chainmail. He set them aside. He pulled out his other tools – accelerant, a flare gun, his flashlight. In an abandoned church, soaked with rain, Littlefield would immolate his final prey.
He picked up his canteen, then withdrew into the corner of the chamber and waited still and cold in the dark. The space under the door let the grayscale light leach in across a small band of dirty marble. The walls of the confessing chamber insulated him from the shriek of a remorseless wind. It seemed almost cozy.
He only hoped that if the foundling came, it would come while the daylight lasted and while Littlefield stayed awake. A closet-sized space like this was dangerous otherwise. No way out but one.
He set his revolver in his lap and cocked the hammer and it slept there, a coiled and waiting thing. He would disable the creature with a bullet, and then set it afire. Littlefield uncapped his disulfide. Deliverers never used matches. Too small, too unreliable, especially in the wind. He readied his flare gun.
He sipped the cold, dirty rain from his canteen. He unscrewed the metal lid from an old jar and spooned in his cold, mashed beans. And he waited. And the old Deliverer fell asleep.
The heavens rained fire on the earth, magmatic chambers flooded it with lava from traps below. Ash sealed the green world into a sarcophagus of bone and graphite.
The ash chalked the skies in a low ceiling of mammatus clouds, seeming to drown Littlefield and Koinet beneath roiling, inverse waves. In a vast plain coated with a dark manna, the two men held their fire guns. They stood as destroyers side-by-side.
People surged at them in vast swells, begging rescue from the dying land. Littlefield and Koinet aimed their flamethrowers and torched the people – blackening in a mindless indifference the skins of children and old women as easily as they burned the hides of once-hardy men. Littlefield aimed into the sky and scorched flocks of fleeing birds, lighting the black shrouds of the murders of crows.
Littlefield charred every leafy remnant with his long pulse of fire until the air swirled with cindery motes and the atmosphere heated his skin to near its own flashpoint. The lash of the flames drowned the screams of dogs. And the air, sullied and roasted, thinned.
A lone sheep staggered through a field of ash, its coat blackened by fallout. It bleated for something to destroy it, and Littlefield doused it with liquid fire, watched it fall over like a wooden horse and burn without a scream. The ambient flashpoint of the air exploded the sheep’s carcass as if lightning had struck. The fires became self-reinforcing as they burned the air.
Then, even the fires themselves began to die. The flames devoured the superheated atmosphere, the very thing they needed more of, just as the soul-thieves had consumed so many men that they, too, began to die, as the virus dies when its host is wracked by sickness unto death. The world charred down to clinkers.
Littlefield and Koinet roamed through the chalk ash until nothing remained to kill. The reports of distant explosions wobbled their knees. Relict soil swirled and roiled and crackled, as if giant moles patrolled beneath the carpet of ash which subsumed the worldskin.
The air was pent of fuel, and Littlefield and Koinet choked and drowned in it. Littlefield felt his soul ebb into the ebon earth. He turned the flamecaster on himself, but his fuel was spent.
He woke, coughing for air.
The band of daylight that marked the threshold of the door had dissolved into darkness. He could still hear a broken shard of slate on the roof flap in the wind like the far off reports of the explosions in his nightmare.
The moan of wood, soft and wet, ended with a crack. Something had pried a window board loose. Something was coming.
The shuffle of footfalls through debris. Littlefield raised his weapon. He fumbled for his torch but couldn’t find it. The footsteps. A door opening, but not his own. Bright light from a torch lit the threshold under Littlefield’s door. Something searching the confessionals.
The first door squealed closed. The light outside his chamber swayed. Another door opened, then closed.
The march of steps moved to the next confessional. Doors opening and closing twice more. The unnatural violet, brilliant and hellish, swayed closer, guttering the threshold under his door back and forth. The dull shadows of boots outside his door reflected against the marble. Littefield’s gun held steady.
The door opened. A giant’s silhouette towered over him, holding its torch like an acolyte might. Littlefield felt the gentle, steady squeeze of his finger on the trigger. He aimed for the heart. The foundling stilled.
“Ben,” a voice whispered.
Littlefield’s eyes adjusted and he saw the face of the thing.
“Koinet,” he whispered back.
The face framed by long, thin, red dreadlocks. The wide shoulders robed in a black leather duster.
“What are you doing here?” Littlefield said.
“Your last job, remember?”
Littlefield’s hand shook. “I reclaim . . . you?”
The head shook once, back and forth.
“I reclaim you,” said Koinet.
“You can’t reclaim a man.”
In the penumbra behind the flame he held, Littlefield made out Koinet’s sad smile.
“What’s to stop me from killing you?” Littlefield said as he emphasized his aim.
“You didn’t even want to live as a man. But as one of them?”
Koinet waited for Littlefield to understand.
“I am your Deliverer, Ben.”
Beads of water dripped from the long tails of Koinet’s coat while drops of rain set themselves as amethysts in his hair.
“But I feel things, Koinet.”
“They feel too, remember?”
“I’m your friend. They don’t have friends.”
Koinet just waited.
“How long have I been?” Littlefield wondered.
“Since the very first night.”
Littlefield tried to remember those three nights in the shanty back in the village when he’d witnessed the transit of the soul, but 30 years was a long time for memories to form and break and reform again. He recalled dreams of dismemberment, of the sickening snarls of the hyena as it devoured the soul-thief in the hut.
“But I didn’t kill that night. I didn’t eat.”
“A hyena did not raid the corpse of that soul-thief, Ben. You did.”
Littlefield’s aim trembled.
“I can’t be. I’ve killed them.”
“The best way to do in your enemy is to make him kill his own kind,” Koinet said. “I am sorry, Ben.”
Littlefield recalled a species of fungus that parasitized ants. It would infect the brain, drive the ant up a tree, where the ant would explode and infect other members of the colony.
He holstered his weapon in the sling under his coat.
Littlefield stood, took off his trench coat, let the gray vestment fall to the floor like the surplice of a priest.
“An island. A peaceful place,” Littlefield said. He put out his arms, opened his palms toward his Deliverer.
“Yes, of course.”
“You’re going to meet me there.”
“Yes, I will, Ben.”
“A place where we both can rest.”
Koinet nodded and wiped a tear with his sleeve.
“You’re my friend, aren’t you?” Littlefield wondered.
“I am your friend.”
“Behold, the parasite dies,” said Littlefield.
“While the host survives.”
Tears fell, in Littlefield’s eyes, in the eyes of the Tall One, too.
Littlefield remembered a promise that Koinet had made to him 30 years before, after Littlefield came back from his first kill. Koinet had promised him that if he ever became infected, Koinet would be the one to reclaim him.
“You’ve kept your promise then,” Littlefield said.
Koinet’s image blurred as the colorless carbon disulfide doused the eyes of Dr. Benjamin Littlefield. He saw only the flash of light from the flare as it ignited his skin. Then only an uncreated light shone. Littlefield knew; a soul-thief had a soul, too.