Castling: Sixth Interlude: The Path of the Paladin

APRIL 9, 2000

The night began to settle on the city, and the last streaks of dusklight were yet visible from the balcony. Underneath, the streets were mostly quiet, with only a few Sunday evening passerby with no work to sleep for in the morning.

Disoriented, Kilroy looked about slowly. He was definitely on the balcony, and definitely not in a catacomb in Hebron. Light jazz music floated out to him from the door behind him. He pursued it inside, finding himself in a large studio apartment. All around were canvases, painted with strange scenes. On one he saw a Russian soldier and a man in a very sharp suit on a passenger plane, the latter of whom seemed vaguely familiar. On another, a crazed, bespeckled man with a camera around his neck, bloodied and defending a small girl. On yet another, a Mexican standoff between a naked Arabian man, a strange lizard-creature, and a plastic-skinned woman…

"Don't look at that one," a friendly male voice called out, "it's not finished yet."

Kilroy spun around. His eyes met with a slightly stocky, middle-aged man; he was Middle Eastern looking, perhaps from Jordan or Syria, with a bushy beard like Fidel Castro. The man was dressed quite casually, and was painting another of the canvases, his attention focused on his work.

"Where's my daughter?" demanded Kilroy.

"Why should I know about that?" asked the man, still not looking up from his work.

"Where am I?" pressed Kilroy. "Who are you? How did I—"

"Just a minute, please," interrupted the man, swiping a few more touches on the canvas, then standing back, looking pleased with himself. "There. Now it's just to dry, which will be quick enough. So glad I switched up to acrylics this year, much more vibrant colors." He nodded to himself, then turned to Kilroy with a wide, inviting smile. "Please excuse my rudeness, I was very much into that one." He extended his hand towards Kilroy, continuing to grin. "Call me Ben."

Kilroy hesitated, then pressed his hand to the man's. "Kilroy," he replied.

"I see you've found my knife," said Ben, pointing to Kilroy's other hand, "I was wondering where I'd left it." Only then did Kilroy realize he was still holding the Sword of Zion. He looked down at the fish knife, then back up at the man.

"Your knife?" said Kilroy, pondering the implication. "Of course… 'ben'. I've been seeing that word everywhere. It's Hebrew for 'son'. Would your full name be Jeshua ben Joseph, then?"

"Just Ben, please," said Ben, looking slightly embarassed. "You're an interesting guy, Kilroy. You're not realy supposed to be here, are you?"

"I wasn't the one that teleported me here," shot back Kilroy.

"You know what I mean," said Ben. "You're a man out of time, in more than one sense. What are you doing here, anyway?"

"I got stuck," said Kilroy, "and then I fell in love, and then I had a daughter. She's everything I've got, Ben." His voice went low and humble. "Please, tell me there's a way to save her. If you are who you say you are…"

"Everything has a price, Kilroy," said Ben, shrugging his shoulders with an apologetic face. "I wouldn't be my father's son if it were any other way."

"I will pay any price," pleaded Kilroy.

"Any price?" asked Ben, incredulous.

"She's my daughter," said Kilroy. "I care more about her than I care for the entire world. I would dash this planet into the sun for her. I would commit any attrocities, any genocides, any horrors in her name, and happily accept the consequences. I will do anything for her, Ben."

Ben hummed lightly to himself. "She's very important, you know," said Ben. "A real special girl. That's why they're after her. They don't even realize how important she is, but they have a vague idea, and they want her."

"I won't let that happen," said Kilroy.

"Yes, you will," said Ben, seeming to grow larger as he spoke, his voice deepening and widening to fill the studio, "because that is the price. You will let them have her, let them hold her and examine her and interact with her. You will even walk among them in their places as one of them, immune to their rules and punishments, but they will not recognize you. At the chosen time, you will deliver her to my second cousin, Cain ben Adam, and he will see that she commits to the task given to her."

Kilroy stared at him for a long moment. "I will agree to your terms on one condition, and it is not negotiable: she must never, ever be harmed — not by you, not by them, not by anyone."

Ben looked past Kilroy, over his shoulder. Kilroy turned to see what he was looking at; behind him was another canvas, painted with one of the scenes. On it was Alice, grown to a young woman, her body held aloft in a great and beautiful light, and behind her were twenty-foot creatures of crystal and song, and all around her horrible clockwork demons cowered in the presence of her boundless and loving power.

"She will live forever in perfect form and happiness," promised Ben.

Kilroy gazed at the painting for a long while, before turning back to Ben. "What must I do?" he asked.

Ben turned back to the painting he had been working on, turning the canvas to face them both. On it was a simple fish against the white background. Ben reached towards the canvas, and his hand easily passed into its surface as if it were an open space. He took hold of the fish and pulled it out of the painting, and it was real and fresh as if it were just caught by a fisherman. Ben reached out to Kilroy with it.

"I just need you to sell this fish for me," he said.

Kilroy nodded, and took the fish from Ben.

The studio faded away to a swirling vortex of madness and fury, an unholy tornado of pure chaos. Wind like bullhorns and jet engines whipped around Kilroy, and he felt his body being torn to pieces. He could feel himself being taken away, piece by piece, and his body growing so very, very old, older than any man or beast. His old body sagged and ached with the ages and his hair turned to grey, and he screamed in agony and horror in the nightmare winds of change…

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