Hacking through the dense forest of mushrooms with my sword proved unusually challenging. I grumbled while I made my way through the multicolored fungus. I couldn’t believe Merlyn had convinced me to go after Ashley in the Nether. The spirit world did not abide by the physics of Earth. Time, distance, and a long list of other things were wrong there. Depending on where Merlyn’s portal dropped me, Ashley could be days away. Combine the wonkiness of the Nether with the fact that I didn’t know where Ashley was, days could easily become decades.
As I exited the toadstool forest, I stumbled into a field of flowers of every color I’d ever seen — and many colors I hadn’t. Smooth white stones dotted the rolling hills. My steps kicked up a rainbow of pollen dust into the lavender sky. Walking by them, I realized the white boulders were the cleaned bones of some massive animal.
A scream rang from over the next hill. I turned to avoid the source of the child-like shout, but then an animal roar responded to the scream. Against logic, I sprinted over the hill. At the bottom of the slope, a woman fought a centipede the size of a city bus.
To say the woman was beautiful would be like calling a flame hot. While true, the description lacked all nuance and ignored the subtle, intricate details that brought the beauty to life. She looked human but vaguely insectorid with hard, angular features and sharpened teeth. Curly raven hair matted against her sweaty brow, framing her emerald eyes. A charcoal dress hung in tattered rags from her milky skin. Jets of fire leaped from her hands and feet as she struggled against the mountainous centipede.
“Are you just going to gawk?” the woman shouted in a melodic accent. “Help me!”
I became aware of how hot my skin felt. Half sprinting, half sliding, I descended the muddy hillside. I fired off blasts of energy, but the attacks bounced pitifully off the beast’s carapace. The centipede dropped the woman and rushed towards me.
The monster’s barbed limbs gained more purchase in the soft, wet earth than my sneakers could. The creature’s mandibles spread open, revealing a writhing maelstrom of spiked pinchers that snapped at the air. I stumbled backwards and slammed my ass into the mud. The centipede bore down upon me. I fired into the nightmare maw. The energy ball exploded in the beast’s convulsing mouth. The centipede reared back and growled in agony.
With the monster distracted, I drew Grasscutter and shoved myself off the ground. I lunged and buried my sword hilt-deep into the thing. The blade met no resistance against the hard exoskeleton. The carapace sizzled with blue flames and turned to ash. The blade slipped through the beast as if cutting air. I hacked at the centipede and streaked its body with rotting, ashen gashes. In what felt like seconds, the centipede collapsed in a heap.
The fae woman ripped away her shredded dress until she was left with a miniscule skirt. I held Grasscutter at arm’s length between she and I. She arched a slender eyebrow. “Have you never seen tits before?” she asked, gesturing at her bare chest.
“I don’t trust faeries,” I said.
“You’ve nothing to fear from me. At the moment.”
“Still don’t trust you.”
“I’m in your debt for saving my life. Let me give you a gift to return the favor.”
“I don’t need anything from you.”
“Of course not,” the faerie said. “But I’m offering anything you want.”
“The only thing I want is to find my friend.”
“You’ll help me find my friend?” I asked.
“I’ll give you the tools to navigate,” the faerie said, extending her hand.
I eyed her clawed fingers as I walked the few steps between us. “If this is a trick, I’ll kill you,” I said. I grasped the fae’s forearm in a handshake.
With uncanny strength, the faerie jerked me towards her. She pulled me down by the hair and kissed me. I melted into her, parting my lips and allowed her tongue to roll over mine. Something slithered from her mouth into mine. I pushed her away, but the faerie’s insane grip held my still. Thousands of tiny pinpricks crawled up the back of my throat and beyond my nasal cavity. I screamed into the faerie’s throat as I felt the thin slide across the inside of my skull.
The faerie pulled away from the kiss. Deep, angry hunger burned in her eyes. She dabbed away what looked like bloody spider webs from the corner of her ruby lips.
“What the fuck did you just do to me?” I asked as I wiped my mouth on my sleeve. “What did you put in my brain?”
“That was my gift,” the faerie said. “You’ll be able to find anything now.”
“That’s not what you said would happen.”
“You never asked how I’d bestow my gift.”
The faerie produced a red, wooden cylinder from seemingly nowhere. She placed the object in my hand as she kissed my cheek. “You may call me Aragnis. If you ever want me, break this and I’ll find you.”
I thought I’d never seek Aragnis out again, but I stuffed the totem in my pocket anyway. “How does your magic compass work?”
“Just think about what you want to find,” Aragnis said. “Though, I’d hurry if I were you. We’re in Telemos territory, and they do not like humans.”
With that, Aragnis vanished in a burst of flames.
I tried to not concern myself with the strangeness of the Fae. Instead, I focused on Ashley and attempted to use the magic compass. A gentle force tugged inside my head, pulling me toward a distant hill. I stomped back through the kaleidoscope fields, kicking rainbow pollen into the air. The faerie’s magic compass provided a constant, gentle pull in my mind as I walked. I simply knew which way to travel.
At the peak of the flowery hills, the land dropped into a deep valley. Cradled in the valley, a dark forest loomed. The black trees stood eerily still, even their gloomy leaves motionless. Burgundy fog oozed from the treeline. The mental compass pointed through the center of the forest. Far to my left, I saw where the abyssal wood gave way to a golden field. It would’ve added several miles to my trip to walk around the woods to those happy-looking fields. Against the urges from a tiny voice inside me, I marched down the slope and into the blackened forest.
I decided to call the woods Death Metal Forest. A symphony of wolves howling and crows cawing echoed in the still air. The red fog carried the scent of rotting flesh. Blood seeped from the trees, and glowing eyes watched me from the shadows. Cold gripped at my bones. On the surface, Death Metal Forest was eerie and uninviting, but posed no real danger.
A low growl vibrated the earth. I grasped a bloody branch to steady myself against the quake. Remaining calm, I scanned the forest and spotted an unsettling blue light. A snarling beast talked through the trees, giving off that azure glow. Taking a wide, low stance on the shaking ground, I eased Grasscutter form its sheath.
The Picasso creature was a wolf made from thousands of jagged, topaz triangles. The triangles moved independently in waves and pulses. Blue slime dripped from between the scales. Five limbs bent at angles that would make movement impossible, yet the dog stalked towards me with jerky steps. Balls of emerald glass shards stared at me from irregular eye sockets. Somehow, I knew the monster wasn’t three dimensional. Pain throbbed behind my right eye as my brain struggled to interpret the side of the dog shifting between something like a piece of paper, a single line, and the horror that faced me.
The origami dog’s bottom jaw detached and floated in the air. A second set of jaws slid forward from the gap. As the second mouth opened, a third extended from the black, sinewy tissue almost a foot in front of the hound. A long, convulsing tentacle sprouted from the third set of teeth and ended in a fourth mouth. From the tentacle mouth probed along, needle-like tongue. The proboscis whipped back and forth through the fog. “You should not be here, Son of Adapa,” the hound hissed.
Ignoring the beast, I unleashed a roaring gale from Grasscutter. The burst of wind shattered the origami hound, scattering triangles of glass across the undergrowth. Not returning Grasscutter to its scabbard, I crept through Death Metal Forest. Shadows and small eyes darted around me in the brush, but the forest creatures seemed more apprehensive about me than I was afraid of them. As I tread through the blood red fog, the forest fell silent except for the faint sound of wind chimes.
“The stench of Chronos permeates your bones,” the origami hound’s voice called out.
Turning, I saw two of the beast’s legs walking between the trees. A swarm of amber triangles drifted through the air. I gripped Grasscutter tighter as I watched the hound reassemble. As the last piece of the hound fell into place, its quadruple jaws unhinged. The hound’s whip-like tongue flicked about, tasting the air.
“What is your problem?” I asked as I backed away from the hound.
“You are an abomination,” the hound’s voice said despite the prehensile tongue snaking in the fog. “The Sons of Adapa were meant to move with the Sands of time, not travel through them.”
“Doesn’t seem like a reason to kill a man,” I said while forming a ball of energy in my open palm.
The hound shouted, “This is our pact! Since the seven sages cast us form the mortal realm into the Dark, we have sworn to destroy all Sons of Adapa who invade our home. Long ago, as children of Tiamat, we stopped those who would control the Sands of Time. You, Son of Adapa, have done both.”
I threw the energy ball. The blast tore the origami hound in two. The beast’s insides convulsed like a mass of black snakes. Slick tendrils launched from pieces of the hound to other pieces like bloody hands. The sinewy webs pulled the beast back together.
“The Hounds of Telemos cannot be stopped,” the creature said.
Leaving the monster to reconstruct itself, I sprinted through Death Metal Forest. Branches smacked me in the face as I sprinted in the direction the mental compass pulled me. Faint windchime sounds drifted through the trees as the hound followed. The gentle music filled my body with dread, but the increased adrenaline propelled my frantic escape.
The treeline broke. Death Metal Forest gave way to an icy field of mauve grass. I hid with my back pressed against a large boulder. Panting, I listened for the hound’s chimes. Over my heart pounding behind my ears, I couldn’t hear anything. I relaxed. I became suddenly aware of the sweat between my shirt and skin and the snot and drool running down my face. Exhaustion settled over me and left my body shaking and hollow. I pushed up my sleeves and took several deep breaths as I closed my eyes.
“Son of Adapa,” the hound said, “you cannot hide.”
The hound stood atop the boulder, its four jaws open and flailing in the air. The hound’s needle tongue lashed out and coiled around my forearm. In one motion, I drew Grasscutter and cut the hound’s head off. I tore the tongue from my searing arm, and I stabbed the hound’s face repeatedly.
Struggling against fatigue, I ran across the grass while the hound reassembled behind me. Red weals grew on my forearm where the hound’s tongue had gripped my flesh. The thick welts throbbed in sync with my pounding heart, distracting me from the soft wind chimes following me. As I looked across the frosted field, the thick scent of mud filled my lungs with every labored gasp. Soon I heard the rushing water and crested a small hill to find the violent stream.
Without a thought I raced into the stream. The rapids tossed me about. Not knowing which way to go, I flailed in the water, frantically seeking the surface. The current bashed my thigh against stones. Ignoring the pain, I latched onto a rock and dragged myself along the bottom of the stream as my lungs blazed in protest.
I crawled from the water coughing. My battered hip throbbed out of time with my infected forearm. Blood spotted my jeans. The whelts left my the hound’s tongue had turned a deep red with streaks of unnatural green and blue. Across the stream, the unearthly beast acted like a regular dog, inching toward the water’s edge and sniffing before jumping back to cautiously approach again. I watched the hound and shouted, “That’s right you magic son of bitch! Good luck crossing running water.”
The ground vibrated with the hound’s growls. The beast paced along the water’s edge. Its shattered glass eyes locked on me. The beast dove into a nearby boulder and disappeared. I turned in the direction of the gentle pull of my magic compass, and the hound leaped from a blade of grass. The monster’s quad-jaw tore into the back of my calf. Screaming a chain of obscenities and nonsense, I unleashed a storm of slashes and energy blasts into the origami hound until all that remained was a mound of glass and slime.
Awkwardly, I used my sword to cut away my jeans. I tied strips of bloody denim just below my knee and over the gash in my thigh. I ignored the lousy condition my body was in and focused on the mental compass. Avoiding the hound as it reshaped, I followed the pull of the compass in my mind. At a determined limp, I walked along the riverbank.
And the hound followed.
My legs protested every step. Stabbing pain in one hip alternated with throbbing numbness in the opposite calf. The origami hound’s body played its eerie melody as the beast stalked me. I tried to speed up, but my wounds fought against my efforts. My spine froze as I felt the hound draw near. I continued to flee until I couldn’t. The river spilled over the edge of a cliff, spiraling down twenty feet through the air and crashing onto the rocks below.
The hound stood before me. “There is no escape, Son of Adapa. Those who toy with Time must be dealt with. There is nowhere left for you to run. Accept your fate.”
“You’ve clearly never met Cletus Francis Clemens,” I said. “I don’t stop running from problems I can’t deal with.”
I threw myself over the edge of the cliff. Time seemed to slow as I drifted toward the rocky earth below. The origami hound launched through the air above me. The creature descended faster than gravity would’ve allowed. Its four extended jaws thrashed. Serene calmness fell over me. I drew Grasscutter and thrust the blade into the glass dog’s chest. The origami hound snapped at my face. With Merlyn’s focus orb clenched in my fist, I punched my mangled arm into the beast’s maw. Blue light and flames leaked form the millions of joints between the glass shards of the hound’s flesh. Time sped back up. The hound exploded, and I rocketed into the wet, stony ground.
I groaned. Pain flared in my side and prevented me from taking a satisfying breath. I puffed shallow intakes until my head spun and my vision swam from hyperventilating. I tried — and failed — to stand. Gritting my teeth, I pulled my body through the mud with my one good limb.
Despite sliding across the ground, I felt as if I was falling sideways. My flesh hung heavily from my bones and weighed my movement. The trees rocked back and forth. A door stood in the forest attached to nothing. The air shimmered for several inches around the door. Gold trim lined the black polished wood. The floating door lacked a handled. A pewter dragon’s head sprouted from the door. The metal beast grasped a jewel-encrusted pentagram in its teeth. Struggling against the pain, I pulled myself up and leaned against the door. I pounded the knocker against the heavy wood, and wind chimes answered.
I slammed the knocker repeatedly. I scanned the trees, but I couldn’t see the hound. Pain strummed in my head as the magic tugged at my mind in time with the beating of the pentagram against the blackened wood. I shrieked and begged the door to open. The wind chimes grew louder and inched ever closer. I pressed my clammy forehead against the sealed door and screamed.
The spiraling feeling of falling in several directions at once washed over my body. I slammed onto a dusty hardwood floor. Groaning, I rolled onto my back. Ashley Skelten stared down at me. Before the bewilderment in her expression spawned a question, I said, “I’m being chased by a mutant origami demon that won’t fucking die. Also may be bleeding to death.”
Blackness encroached around my vision. Ashley said something. I could hear her voice but couldn’t understand the words. Slowly, she stopped speaking. Cold crept deep within my bones. Then, all feeling faded away.
Warmth spread across the surface of my skin. Ashley called to me. I sat up from the milky pool. A thick layer of wax coated my naked body. Wax tore away as I crawled onto the frozen stone floor around the inlaid tub. Where was my sword? I ripped wax coating from my face and scanned the room. Grasscutter was nowhere to be seen. I spun, searching for an exit. Ashley grabbed my wrist, but I shoved her away as I raced around the room.
“Cletus!” Ashley screamed.
Some unseen force lifted me from the ground. My limbs froze in space. I fought against the power but couldn’t move. Setting my gaze on Ashley, I asked, “Where’s my sword? I need my weapon. The hound is chasing me.”
“There is no hound,” Ashley said. “There never was a hound.”
“Of course there’s a hound. The Hound of Telemos chased me across Faerie. It wounded me.”
Ashley lowered me to the ground but kept my limbs magically bound. She rested her hands on my shoulders. “You inhaled a lot of marsont pollen,” Ashley said. “It is highly hallucinogenic. Yes, you were hurt, but you probably did it to yourself.”
“That can’t be right,” I said. “There was a giant centipede, a dancing faerie, Death Metal Forest, and the hound.”
“I don’t know if any of that actually happened.”
I sat on the cold stone and fought against the stream of confusion. The hound wasn’t real? I couldn’t reconcile that idea with my horrid memories of the chase. Emptiness settled in the pit of my stomach.
Ashley brought my belongings to me. Tears littered the jeans in all the places I’d been injured while fleeing. New scars shined pink on my legs and forearm. Merlyn’s focus orb was missing, and the faerie’s wooden relic rested in the front pocket of my hoodie. If the hound hadn’t been real, what had actually happened to me?