Chrono Trip 5

With a blinding blue flash, I crashed into a sea of sand. I groaned as I struggled to my feet in the loose earth. I wore a ridiculous smorgasbord of clothes from various cultures and times, no longer concerned with remaining inconspicuous as the chronometer repositioned me throughout time. I wore cowboy boots and a massive leather gun belt. My pants were green and black tiger-striped military fatigues with a large green sack strapped to my hip. My shirt was black silk and very loose. Strapped over my eyes I wore old, WWI era aviator goggles. Atop my head rested a giant, straw sombrero, and over my shoulders hung a massive red cloak.

I looked around. Numerous, mostly naked, men with various weapons surrounded me in the sand. They looked around in confusion. Above the walls stood massive stands filled with people. Someone far off shouted. The armed men cautiously stalked toward me.

“Gladiators,” I snarled as I drew my weapons. I clenched a revolver in my left hand and my tsurugi, Grasscutter, in the other.

For a brief second, I saw a completely different landscape. The people disappeared and the stadium turned to crumbling stone. My head swam. I dropped to one knee. When my vision returned to normal, the gladiators were almost upon me. I swung my tsurugi, unleashing a powerful gust of wind that kicked a wave of sand into the air. The tsunami of loose silt buried the gladiators.

I searched the arena. I spotted a gate far to the right and sprinted toward it. As I neared the gate, the metal bars slowly raised. When the gate stood half-open, a monster of a bear lumbered into the arena.

“Oh, holy fuck!” I shouted as I skidded to a stop and ran in the opposite direction.

The bear roared and gave chase. My vision flickered again, and I tumbled into the sand. The bear pounced. A baseball glove-sized paw swiped at my face. The bear burst into a storm of blue smoke and lightning.

I reappeared and hit the wet ground rolling haphazardly. I lay in a village street on a foggy night. The tiny huts and houses around me all had massive plates of food sitting outside them. I picked myself up and scavenged food from the abandoned dishes. What I could not eat, I stuffed into empty pouches and pockets of my bags and clothes. With a stockpile of food, I casually strolled through the silent village. As I walked, the faint splash of dripping water range through the fog. The drip-drip-dropping grew louder and more disgusting until I stumbled upon the beast in the village square.

I giant blue lion with tufts of green fur and a golden mane sloppily ate from a dish placed against a well. As the beast finished the meal, it turned away from the well and trotted rhythmically toward the houses. Its face was demonic, almost dragon or ogre-like with enormous, burning eyes. Drool sloshed from its tongue over dagger teeth. As the creature traveled further down the muddy road between homes, it finally saw me.

The monster roared. It hunkered down and continued to snap at me as it slowly backed away. I walked toward it, and the beast scampered away faster without losing sight of me. I pulled a fistful of firecrackers and matches from a bag. I threw the small explosives to the ground where they burst into balls of sparks and cracks. The monster retreated further. I chased the creature out of the town using the fireworks. Once we reached a safe distance from the nearest hut, I pulled a metal ball from another sack. Pulling the pin from it, I tossed the grenade at the creature. Immediately, I dropped flat against the ground with my arms covering my head. The explosion shook the ground and pelted by back with chunks of dirt. When I stood, no sign remained of the beast. I dusted dirt off my chest and legs. Turning to leave, I found a small, Asian kid behind me. I stared at the child with one eyebrow raised.

“What?” I asked.

The boy said nothing. I shrugged and walked off. A few moments later, I vanished in a maelstrom of blue light.

The time machine dumped me out into a wasteland filled with metal scrap and garbage, probably back in the future. Within seconds I became aware of the ridiculous heat in the sea of trash. I quickly sought shelter deep within a shaded area beneath what looked like the remains of an aircraft. I stripped my clothes off and set about altering them for the hot environment. I tore apart my boots, shaping them into moccasin-like leather slippers. I trimmed my pants down to shorts and stuffed my shit into a bag. I draped my red cloak around my shoulders, pulled the aviator goggles down over my eyes, and put on the sombrero before venturing back into the scorching steel jungle.

Based on the scenery and temperature, the chronometer had deposited me in the future, some time beyond the clathrate event. The best course was to head north to get as far from the equator as possible in an attempt to escape the dangerous heat. I wandered the metal wasteland for hours, stopping in shaded areas to rest when it became too hot to continue. As night fell, the ferrous desert cooled dramatically to a comfortable level. As I scavenged the endless junkyard, I noticed a light in the sky. An eastern glow bathed the horizon in white and blue. Adjusting course, I set out across the night toward the light.

I traveled like that for weeks. At night, I walked toward the light while sleeping through the hellish days. As I traversed the ocean of futuristic garbage, I gathered any scraps I deemed useful that were light enough to carry. I killed and ate insects the size of footballs, rodents larger than my thigh, and other peculiar creatures to survive. I collected water wherever I could, but also learned to stomach the habit of collecting and filtering my piss when water was scarce.

The strange hallucinations of seeing other points in time continued and worsened. Visions occurred more frequently with more detail and lasted longer each time. Sometimes it felt as if I slipped through the time stream despite the chronometer on my wrist never activating. At other times, I spent several minutes in a feverish daze, lost in a landscape that existed centuries away. During the worst of the spells I’d stop to rest until the vision passed, but when faced with mild episodes, I blindly continued east. Nothing could halt my pilgrimage toward the light.

Early one morning while munching on the lobster-like meat of a super cricket, I found the light. A fortress loomed beyond the edge of the junkyard. Elaborately detailed statues of angelic knights stood guard atop the stone walls. A dome of hard, blue light rose from the walls into the sky.

I didn’t sleep that day. I pressed on, stumbling through the scrap heaps in a delusional trance. Heat pounded against me as I walked until my skin burned and stretched against my flesh. At some point I stopped sweating, but I powered forward. The landscape constantly changed as hallucinations of different periods flickered before my eyes. I ran with buffalo, crossed rivers, dodged traffic, and saw a herd of brontosaurs in the distance as I raced toward the light. I smashed into the infinitely high wall and beat away at the smooth stone. The hallucinations intensified. I cried out until my throat ached as the wall flashed in and out of existence every other moment. I collapsed to the baked earth and sobbed.

I awoke in a white room on a cold, metal table. Almost immediately, the nearest wall slid open. A tall, slender man in grey scrubs stepped into the room. Despite his perfect smile, I couldn’t help but feel offput by the man. His milky caramel skin, sharp features, and impressive height gave the man a strikingly handsome appearance, but something wrong lurked behind his dark grey eyes. The man spoke in a melodic language that sounded almost like English.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

A silver device around the man’s neck glowed green for a moment before blinking blue. “Do you understand now?” the man asked, the neck-band flashing blue with each word.

“Yes.”

“Good,” the man said. “I am Dr. M’humad Won. Do you know where you are?”

“No,” I said.

“You are in a treatment facility at Avalon Observation Colony. I have cared for you, treating your chronal devation syndrome.”

“My what?”

“Chronal devation syndrome,” Dr. Won said. “A form of time sickness caused by Clemens radiation produced by the device on your wrist.”

I didn’t say anything. The the doctor said didn’t truly sink in.

“You should be fine now,” Dr. Won said. “However, you will suffer further radiation poisoning if you continue to use that crude temporal device.”

“Seeing as this thing’s damaged,” I said, “what happens with untreated CDS?”

“One would simply cease to exist. Those suffering from Clemens-induced chronal devation blink in and out of time until they eventually disappear completely.”

“So, they spontaneously time travel until they get stuck somewhere between two times?”

“Spontaneous temporal transference is a symptom; however, the afflicted do not simply become trapped in time. Sufferers of CCD reach the point where they skip so rapidly and randomly they become undetectable within any point throughout the know timelines.”

I left the questions there. Dr. Won provided me with a jumpsuit and shoes similar to his own. With the push of a button on the wall, a cube hovered from the floor. The cube opened on its own, and I dug through my things inside the cube. I strapped my military bags around my waist, pulled my aviator goggles over my forehead, and tied Grasscutter to my hip. Dr. Won led me through the immaculate hallways. The doc put me on an elevator and directed the computer console to transport me to temporal engineering.

The majestic city of Avalon sped by through the transparent walls and floor of the tiny room. Instead of an elevator, apparently I stood in a pod that launched through a series of tubes around the colony. The trip induced sickening dizziness as I watched the outside world move by at breakneck speed, but I never felt any movement or acceleration.

I stumbled into the engineering department. The engineer Vazmone — Vaz — greeted me with a perfect smile. The only thing that differentiated her from Dr. Won was her blue jumpsuit, breasts, and her hair. Cropped black hair covered the top of Vaz’s head with intricate, triangular waves shaved into the sides. A ponytail sprouted from the crown of her head and fell to her hips. Much like Won, Vaz looked strikingly beautiful, almost angelic. All of Avalon’s inhabitants had been genetically engineered to survive Earth’s volatile climate. Clearly, aesthetic adjustments had also been made in the process.

“I have to admit,” Vaz said as we sat at her desk, “I am profoundly excited. The physicians estimated that you’re from the twenty-first century. You’re like a pioneer of time travel. Also, working with temporal devices is exceedingly rare since they’re heavily regulated and illegal to use without approval. This is something I’ve only dreamed of doing.”

Vaz took my hand and examined my chronometer. Her eyes tripled in size. Vaz pulled on a mask and gloves from her desk. “Unsurprising you had cids,” she said. “That is an immense piece of cletonium. That mineral fragment could power this whole city for at least a month, if not longer. It’s not shielded at all. I’m surprised you aren’t dead.”

“How do I shield it?” I asked.

“Ryanium didn’t exist yet in your time,” Vaz said. “I suppose any precious metal could filter the radiation. Platinum or paladium work best, but you could get the job done with silver, maybe.”

“You’re saying I need to build a catalytic converter for my time machine?”

“I don’t know what that is.”

“Nevermind. Filter with precious metal. Got it. Can you fix it?”

“Yes,” Vaz said, “without question.”

Vaz opened the faceplate on my chronometer. She pulled a monocle over her mask that from my point-of-view seemed to give her diagnostics and magnified views of my device. Vaz spent an uncomfortable amount of time examining the inner works of the crude machine. I tried to tear my hand away as Vaz reached for a small piece of copper in the machine, but I was too late. Vaz’s tweezers touched the bit of metal, and a wave of blue light engulfed us.

I slammed into soft sand on my back. The entire Milky Way spread through the night sky in all its glory. Vaz had shorted a regulator in the chronometer, overloading the machine. The device emitted a constant screech and the cletonium crystal flashed electric blue light. Vaz sat in the sand nearby, sobbing. She had probably just ruined her life, but hey, I got something great out of it. Now I knew my TDS could transport multiple people at once. I was sure Vaz would not care about that.

Sitting up, I leveled my meanest glare at Vaz. “You done fucked up,” I said.

“Where are we?” Vaz asked as she tore her mask off.

“No idea. Maybe really far in the past. Maybe really far in the future. Maybe it’s the eighties and we’re just in the middle of Arizona. I don’t rightly fucking know, Vaz.”

Vaz continued to bawl. I tried to orient myself, but all the stars looked off. I was completely lost, and now I had additional baggage. The chronometer still whirred and vibrated constantly on my wrist. I’d probably jump any second without warning. Fuck me.

I sat in the sand with Vaz and wrapped my arm around her shoulders. “Cheer up,” I said. “We’ve got this beach all to ourselves. I could build us an ocean-side cabin. We could live here, maybe pop out a couple kids.”

“I’m unable to sexually reproduce,” Vaz said while she wiped tears and snot from her face. “All Avalon citizens are sterile.”

“Well, that’s probably for the best.”

“I could fix your device still.”

“You’re not touching this thing.”

Leaving Vaz, I walked inland. Black sand dotted with random patches of stones stretched to the horizon. I found a small cave dug into the sand deep enough to park a school bus inside. If I could find something to burn, the cave would make an acceptable place to sleep. As I climbed from the cavern back to the sand, a blood-curdling screech ripped through the air.

The creature looked like a plump, spike-covered tick the size of a car. Giant pincers and tentacles surrounding its mouth convulsed wildly as it stormed across the sand. When the beast came within a few yards of me, I drew my sword and swung with all my might, unleashing a wave of blue light at the monster. The blast sliced through the air, hit the creature’s hard exoskeleton, and bounced into the sky. I rushed the demon tick and buried my sword hilt-deep into the mass of teeth and tentacles I assumed to be its mouth. Tentacles lashed and beat against me. One tentacle stabbed into my side below my ribs. I wailed in agony. I dragged my sword across the beast’s face and unleashed a wave of energy on the animal’s innards. Blue light tore from the demon tick’s side.

I weakly ran away as the demon tick screamed and bled on the sand. Pain shot in waves from my bleeding side with every step. I repeatedly jammed the button on the chronometer trying to jump through time to escape. Bleeding from its facial fissure, the demon tick bellowed and charged. I screamed as I pulled on the power deep within Grasscutter. A torrent of wind issued from the blade. The gust launched the tick across the sky.

I sprinted back to Vaz as best I could. “You’re severely wounded!” she said with wild eyes.

Sliding to my knees in the sand, I latched onto Vaz’s should and frantically tried to activate the chronometer.

“C’mon,” I begged, “work. You toss me through time constantly. Just do it right now, goddamn it.”

“What’s wrong?” Vaz asked as she press her hand against my hemorrhaging side.

I recoiled. Agony pushed me across the sand. At that instant, the cletonium in the chronometer glowed the brightest it ever had. The crystal exploded. Magnificent blue light bathed me. I burst into several million bits. The bits rose into space. The swarm of particles flattened and wound into a single string thinner than an atom. The string launched across and out of the universe.

I watched and felt myself be born and die. I saw and experienced everything. Flashes of fire and the smell of brimstone filled me. Glowing beings with four heads and six wings flew across the Nothing. I was reborn with the universe. Everything became me as my string spread throughout Nothing. All of time flashed around me like a maelstrom of light made from trillions of snapshots.

Something tore me violently from the Nothing. I slammed onto a stone floor, dazed and hyperventilating.

After seemingly hours, a voice asked, “Are you still in shock?”

I looked up at an insanely old man in green and silver robes. The pasty, leather-sack of a man carried a glorious gold and crystal scythe with an infinity symbol etched into the blade. A silver hourglass filled with electric blue sand weighed down the ancient man’s neck.

“Who’re you?” I asked.

The living fossil pulled me to my feet with surprising ease. “My name is Chronos,” he said in a voice that boomed but soothed. “Elder god. Lord of Time.”

“You’re real?”

“As real as you are.”

“Where am I?”

“My demesne, the Sands of Time,” Chronos said. “I observe all of Time from this point. You’ve been quite busy since that old hag damaged your device.”

I shuddered. “I had sex with that hag,” I said.

“What’s your point? You’ve lain with plenty worse all over my precious Time.”

Chronos pointed behind me. I turned to face a giant ball of light floating at the center of the room. The shifting sphere looked like a living, convulsing mass of electric blue plasma. Random arcs and offshoots came to life, branching off the main body. Other tangents collapsed, disappeared, or simply broke away from the sphere before evaporating.

“Before you and those like you came about,” Chronos said, “time was like a spider’s web. Time was an intricate fractal like a chain of snowflakes. Multiple branches and paths existed, but ultimately all the timelines reconnected at one of just a few inevitable outcomes. Now, thanks to temporal travel, that beautiful fractal has divided and sprouted off so many timelines the stream has become a giant sphere of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.”

“Timey-wimey stuff?” I asked. “Seriously?”

Chronos looked at me crossly. “On a positive note, fusing with Time healed your wounds. I’m surprised it didn’t kill you.”

“I fused with the time stream?” I asked in bewilderment.

“Indeed,” Chronos said. “For a moment, you were Time. Unfortunately, I’ve no idea what effect it’ll have on you since you’re the first that’s happened to. There’s a chance you might age a thousand years at any point. Maybe you’ll turn to dust or revert into a sea monkey. Who knows?”

“I’ll take my chances,” I said. “Any chance you could send me home?’

“Typically, those lost in time simply remain that way,” Chronos said. “Although, I suppose you’re not a typical case. I’ll send you.”

Green light poured from the ancient god and spilled over me. With a loud pop, I landed on my feet inside the elevator-like time machine. I stepped out into the lab. I breathed in the musty basement air, pulling in the smell of books and rust and sawdust. Something caught in my throat, and tears rolled down my cheeks.

After several minutes of gentle sobbing, I collected myself. Back in the Temporal Displacement System, the lock on the chronometer disengaged. I hung my sword and goggles on a workbench with the chronometer and left the lab. I climbed the stairs into the house, stopping to grab a drink. I went to my bedroom and sat at my desk.

I turned on my computer and dug through the back of my closet. Buried under shoes and old school awards, I found a bundle of charcoal cloth. I had never worn the gift from my friend, Ashley. Bright red letters spread across the dark chest of the hoodie spelling out B-B-J-C. I pulled the hoodie on. The material felt like the softest, most comforting thing I’d ever experienced.

I sprawled across my bed. How could I possibly go back to just being a high school student after all I’d experienced? I jumped from the bed and spun around in my desk chair. I drummed my fingers on my desk while contemplating how boring normal life must be compared to what I’d done. I opened the browser and searched for cheap sources of precious metals.

Chrono Trip 4

Long, long ago, the great god Susanoo encountered a grieving family. The family had been ravaged by an eight-headed serpent that had eaten seven of their eight daughters and would soon return for the last. Susanoo agreed to defeat the monster, but in return he desired the eighth daughter’s hand in marriage. The family quickly accepted the god’s demands. Susanoo transformed the girl into a comb he wore in his hair during the fight to keep her by his side and bring him courage and power during the fight.

Susanoo prepared eight vats of sake. He placed each vat behind a fence with eight gates. When the serpent came for the girl, it push one head through each gate to drink from the barrels of sake. Susanoo closed all the gates at once and trapped the beast. With the beast ensnared, Susanoo chopped off each head and the serpent’s tail. Within the tail he discovered a brilliant sword which he gave to his sister, the sun goddess Amaterasu.

At least, that was the story told to me by the priestess who gave me my sword. The tsurugi sword appeared to be made from a single piece of black metal with a circular hand guard and a plain blade. Aside from the near constant headaches and the occasional hallucinations, living in feudal Japan wasn’t too bad. Better than some of the other places I’d been trapped thanks to the malfunctioning time machine, such as Rome or the American Civil War. Since receiving the sacred sword, I’d wandered the countryside as a mostly mute swordsman on account of not speaking Japanese. No job was too great. No task was too simple or menial. I did everything from cleaning stables to slaying demons. Sometimes I’d get lucky and deal with someone who spoke English, almost always a Portuguese trader. I considered myself the Gentleman Swordsman, working mostly in exchange for food and shelter.

Through a combination of selfless service and sleeping with his daughter, I angered a local warlord. I heard the warlord hired mercenaries to kill me, but I remained mostly unconcerned. I walked around in a WWII flak jacket and helmet while the locals used arrows and spears. I assumed I’d be fine. One night, while riding my horse through a field, several dozen men surrounded me. A massive spear pounded into my horse’s head. I leaped from the dying animal as it collapsed in the high grass. I firmly grasped the hilt of my sword. I plucked a weed from the waist-high field and clamped it between my teeth. I said, “You fuckers have no clue who you’re dealing with.”

Hundreds more men appeared from the woodline at the edge of the field. Nearly a thousand tiny flames sparked to life in the twilight as warriors lit arrows aflame. A wall of fire soared through the sky. The arrows crashed down maybe one hundred feet from me, turning the field into an inferno. I frantically swung my tsurugi, cutting the grass around me. Waves of blue light danced from the blade to speed up the process, but the massive pyre drew closer. I slashed violently at the grass, desperate to escape the blaze. With my next swing, a massive gust of wind exploded out of the sword like a sonic boom. The burst of air blew out a large portion of the flames.

I examined the blade for a long moment amidst the chaos. The priestess had said the sword’s strength could arise from necessity and its true power from love. Clearly I needed the blade’s strength now. Concentrating on the sword and wind, I slashed at another section of the fire. Another explosive gust of wind erupted from the blade and blew out flames. I hopped around, shooting bursts of air from the sword until the fire died down.

I softly swung the sword in upward arcs from many angles. Gentle breezes came forth, mimicking the sword’s movement. The small winds charge the fire in the field, forcing it to grow into a massive tower of flames. The winds from my sword pushed the fire toward the treeline, engulfing the attacking army.

I sheathed the sword and walked quietly on my way. A horrible sound and vibration rang from the chronometer on my wrist. I crossed my arms over my chest and said, “Here we go again,” as blue light swallowed me.

With a blue blaze, I launched across the sky into a field. I had stopped keeping track of how much the device tossed me about the timestream. Although, it seemed to be happening more frequently the last few weeks. Brushing myself off, I found a dirt road and followed it to a small town in the distance. Just outside the village, I stumbled upon a lone farmhouse bathing the path in warm light from the windows. I walked around the perimeter of the home a few times before creeping up to the back of the house.

Peering through the window, I spied a table covered with tools, knives, chunks of meat, shattered bones, and copious amounts of blood. A grizzly man wearing an apron hacked at meat, cleaving it into smaller pieces. A woman walked in behind the man and watched him work. She asked the man something in what sounded vaguely like Italian. The butcher responded with a long rant while gesturing at the meat. As the man rambled on, he dragged a carcass onto the table. The bloody flesh was clearly that carved torso of a small child.

I pushed away from the window. I wanted to scream, but the words wouldn’t come. Instead, I ran away. I tucked my chin to my chest and sprinted into the darkness. Seconds later, I slammed into an old man, throwing us both to the dirt. I apologized and helped the old man up. I dusted off his ornate red and white robes and handed him the golden staff he’d dropped.

“Oh, man,” I said, voice shaking, “I’m really glad I ran into you. We’ve got to find the police or something. We’ve got to get someone to that house as quickly as possible.”

“Calm,” the old man said. “I am not concerned with the house at this moment. I came to investigate the blue fire in the sky.”

“Well,” I said, “That was me. Long story, really. There are more pressing matters. The people in that house are cannibals eating children.”

Ignoring what I said, the old man asked, “Do you have a name?”

“I’m Cletus. That’s really not important right now.”

“I’m Nikolaos of Myra,” the old man said. “Now, what is the problem with the house.”

“I already told you. Some guy cut up a bunch of kids and is going to eat them. We have to do something.”

“Yes,” Nik agreed, “I can feel a horrible darkness within that home. Come, child, let us go check on this butcher.”

I followed Nik back toward the house. “You are aware that there’s a guy who just diced little kids into pork chops in there, right? Yet you want to go to the house? You can sense something dark, but you want to go towards it. You’re insane. It’s best to avoid weird shit, not seek it out.”

“I do not speak Inglese well,” Nik said, “but think I understand. Perhaps I am strange to go to this house when I know it to be dangerous. Perhaps I simply feel a duty to help others.”

“And if this dark presence tried to kill you, what then?” I asked. “I’m not going to save you. I’m tired of fixing other people’s problems. I just want to go home.”

“You claim to be tired of helping, yet you too return to this house with me,” Nik said. “If the need arises, I can stop whatever we face without your aid.”

He had a point. I knew cannibals filled the house, and I still found myself heading back to help. “How will you stop the darkness?”

“Magic,” Nik said calmly as we moved off into the butcher’s lawn.

“Magic?”

“They call me Wonder-maker,” Nik said.

Nikolaos knocked on the door of the house. A few moments later, the short, grizzly butcher greeted us at the door.

“What brings you at this hour, bishop?” the butcher asked, somehow in English.

Magic, I thought.

“You know why I have come,” Nikolaos said with a strange glint in his eyes.

The butcher fidgeted with the tails of his shirt for a moment. He slumped his head and shoulders down in shame as he said, “Yes, bishop, I know why you are here.”

“Bring them to me,” Nik said with a soft, fatherly voice.

“It is too late,” the butcher said with a wild grin. “I’ve already cut them up! They’re meat now.”

“Bring them to me,” Nik repeated.

The butcher laughed maniacally as he disappeared into the house. A moment later, he returned with a large wooden barrel filled with fresh chunks of meat and salt. “They’re curing,” the butcher said gingerly. “I’m going to make ham out of them. I’ll sell the meat to the village.”

Nikolaos raised his left hand. A blast of magnificent, white light shot from his palm, knocking the butcher several feet away into the grass. Nik knelt down by the barrel. Holding his right hand over the bloody mess inside, Nikolaos began to murmur. White light poured from his hand and filled the barrel. The next moment, three young boys climbed out of the container and ran away.

I felt the hair on the back of my neck raise as a chill rushed down my spine. I turned to search behind me for any danger. A mass of black smoke rushed violently from the butcher’s mouth and eyes. The smoke swirled savagely in the air, twisting into a humanoid shape. Over a dozen black wings sprouted from the smoke creature’s back. Countless eyeballs filled the air around it. All those eyes turned to lock onto me.

“Hey, Nik,” I said as I tapped the old bishop on the shoulder with one hand and drew my tsurugi with the other. “We’ve got a problem, Nik.”

The bishop rose to his feet and faced the monster. “This is no problem, Cletus,” Nikolaos said. “This is merely an annoyance.”

Nikolaos held his staff high in the air and muttered enchantments. Beams of white light sprang from the staff and engulfed the creature. As the light trapped the beast, it wailed so eerily that I could feel the sound in my bones.

“While I’m holding it, boy,” Nik said, “do away with it.”

I slashed the air with my sword as hard as I could. A powerful gust of wind combined with a wave of blue energy erupted from the tip of the sword. The blast struck the monster and became a vortex of horrid wind and energy that ripped the smoke monster apart.

“Good job, my son,” Nik said as he lowered his staff.

“All in a day’s work,” I said while sheathing my sword.

“You’ll be on your way soon,” Nikolaos said. “Just remember, Cletus. Never forget who you are. Regardless of what you tell yourself, you care about others.”

“Nah,” I said. “People are awful and manipulative. I just want to go home.”

Nik said, “I’ll be putting something nice in your stocking this year. Maybe it will help you realize the good you do. Be careful on your journey. Know that home is never too far from where you are.”

“And what will you be doing, Nik?” I asked.

“Well,” Nikolaos said, “I know a very poor farmer who can’t afford a dowry for his three daughters. The only work for young, unmarried girls is not so good. I’ve got three bags of gold to toss through a window tonight. Of course I’ll throw a little extra in to pay for the broken window. I also have a bag full of gifts for all the village children that have remembered to wash their boots and leave them outside.”

“You’re a weird old man,” I said as my chronometer began to whir.

The next moment, I disappeared in a blaze of blue light.

Chrono Trip 3

I bounced around the time stream. My chronometer had malfunctioned again. On one hand, I learned the device still worked, which was wonderful. On the other, the device had activated at an awful time. Moments before being transported again, I had been deflowering England’s Virgin Queen. I assumed her first lover disappearing in a flash of blue light mid-coitus influenced her decision on lifelong abstinence. With a violent burst of lightning and blue flames, I collapsed on top of a pile of stones.

The stones burned my ass enough that I yelped and jumped to my feet. I looked around. Steam filled the tiny hut along with a circle of Natives. I raised my open hand and said, “How.”

Confusion spread across their faces. One whispered, “Manitou,” and the word murmured through the whole room.

“This pale man has been sent to help us,” a young man said.

Another Native seemed to scold the first in a garbled language I didn’t understand.

“Where have you come from?” the English-speaking Native asked.

“That’s honestly a really long story,” I said. “I’m not here for any particular reason though. Where I end up seems to be mostly random based. You speak English?”

“I learned as a slave.”

The old man at the center of the room spoke. When he finished, the young man translated. “The Great Connection has brought you here,” the old man sad. “You have been sent to help us even if you do not know this. We prayed, and with lightning and fire you came. You must stop the wendigo.”

I thought about fighting sea monsters, spirits, and other nasty things. “I’m good,” I said. “The last several times I played hero didn’t go so well. I got lost in time. Then, I almost got imprisoned by English slave traders until I proved that I wasn’t Jewish.”

I stepped out of the steamy hut. Snow covered the ground outside up to my hips. My sweat practically froze against my skin. I stepped back into the hut.

“On second thought,” I said, “I’ve never been that cold in my life. So, wendigo, huh? What’s a wendigo?”

The Natives had been struggling through a harsh winter. Many starved to death. Others killed themselves. Most suffered the famine together, except one man. One man murdered his wife and five children. He ate their corpses. Somehow being a cannibal left his soul tarnished, according to the Natives. An evil spirit possessed the man, turning him into a wendigo. Those that didn’t starve, the wendigo ate. Only six men remained in the village.

“How do we kill the wendigo?” I asked.

“Only being burned alive can destroy it,” the old man said. “It is too strong for us to capture now. With every corpse it eats, it grows stronger. We cannot stop the beast. That is why we prayed for help. That is why you came.”

“I guess I’ll figure something out,” I said.

I spent that night in a hut with Squanto, the young one. Slightly older than me, Squanto was the youngest Native still alive. He knew English because he had been enslaved by a man named George Weymouth and given to a British governor named Gorges, who taught Squanto English. Squanto returned to New England on an expedition with John Smith, only to be kidnapped by another man on the same expedition. Thomas Hunt sold Squanto to a group of Spanish monks. The monks allowed Squanto to return home, but instead the voyage landed him in Newfoundland. There, Squanto found an expedition heading south. The journey’s leader refused to allow Squanto to join without the Governor’s permission. Squanto sailed all the way to London and back just to find most of the coastal tribes of his nation had been decimated by plagues and famine. He had been travelling for months but hadn’t reached his home tribe yet.

By Squanto’s account, I arrived in the winter of 1619. That meant the malfunctioning time machine had thrown me across the Atlantic and around sixty years into the future. If I was lucky, there might be a pattern. If so, it could only take eight or nine more jumps to get back home. First, I needed to figure out how to trigger the machine since the two accidental jumps that had happened shared almost nothing in common.

In the meantime, Squanto gave me warm furs to replace my clothes. Squanto fed me a soup that he made with spoiled meat and tree bark. The soup tasted like leather and overcooked chicken. It wasn’t bad. I had definitely eaten worse. After the meal, I curled up on a mountain of furs in the corner and fell asleep.

A scream woke me in the night. I went out into the wind and snow. The wendigo occupied the village center. It stood taller than me despite sitting in a deep squat. Its ashen skin stretched so taut over its bones that I could count individual ribs and see the contours of its skull. Massive deer antlers grew from its head. Three half-eaten bodies rested on the ground at the wendigo’s feet.

As I watched the corpses disappear down the beast’s gullet, the wendigo turned its head to me. I met its hollow, yellow gaze. Blood sprayed from the wendigo’s mouth as it said, “Hungry. So hungry.”

The wendigo stood to a towering ten feet. The beast shambled toward me. I drew my dueling rapier, the only weapon I had. The sword had been made to use for sport, not as a weapon, but it would have to do. The wendigo lunged. I rammed the sword through the creature’s hand. The beast staggered backwards, clawing at the sword, and tearing its papery flesh to ribbons.

The wendigo’s screams woke the remaining Natives. Squanto and his companions attack the wendigo with spears and arrows. The weapons did little real damage, but the assault drove the monster from the empty village. Footprints pocked the snow along the wendigo’s bloody trail. “The snow won’t fill those tracks for hours,” I said. “We should follow it back to wherever it’s sleeping.”

One of the Natives shook his head.

“Why not? We’ll be able to kill it while it recovers.”

“Its wounds will heal quickly,” Squanto said. “Only silver can do lasting damage.”

“It will come back tomorrow,” a Native said through Squanto. “We should resign ourselves to death and kill ourselves with dignity before it eats us alive.”

I slept poorly the rest of the night. The next day, Squanto and I set to work on a trap. I wouldn’t sit back and die. We tore down most of the huts from the dead village. Working heated my body so much that sweat formed a swamp inside my furs. Taking them off meant freezing to death while covered in sweat. I miserably alternated between the two temperature extremes while we assembled our trap.

We piled the wood from the huts into the single longhouse left standing. We tossed the corpses of our cowardly companions into our mountain of logs. Squanto and I gathered sticks and leaves from the surrounding forest. We worked all day until the longhouse became a tightly packed box of kindling.

“The wendigo will go for the corpses first?” I asked Squanto.

“I believe so,” he said.

“It’ll avoid fire?”

“Yes.”

Squanto slept outside near a massive bonfire. Armed with a sharpened branch, I waited in the longhouse for the wendigo to come. I chuckled to myself. That would have been a terrible time for my time machine to malfunction again. I’d leave Squanto to fight against the wendigo alone. Not that the two of us would fare much better. Thankfully, the chronometer did not freak out, but it made me wonder. If I never made it home, would people think I ran away? Maybe they’d assume I committed suicide. What would happen if it took so long to get home that I was an old man? How long would it take before no one remembered me at all?

“Help!” Squanto shouted in the night.

“Goddamn it, Tonto,” I said.

I ran outside. The wendigo had scattered Squanto’s fire. Only a handful of burning branches remained.

“Help!” Squanto cried again.

I didn’t see him at first, but then, firelight blazed against the wendigo’s eyes. Squanto dangled in the air, his ankle grasped in the wendigo’s oversized hand. The beast shook Squanto violently and shouted, “Hungry!”

I grabbed Squanto’s bow and fired an arrow into the wendigo’s eye. The beast dropped Squanto and roared. Unhindered by the loss of an eye, the wendigo chased me into the longhouse. I dove into the nearest corner. The wendigo burst through the wall in its rampage. The monster charged into the dark room and impaled itself on the spiked logs.

“Heal from that, asshole,” I said.

I used the remains of Squanto’s bonfire to set the longhouse ablaze. The wendigo burned in a pyre fit for a demigod. Its disgusting screams would probably haunt my nightmares for decades.

The wendigo left Squanto in rough shape. Deep gashes covered his body. The fall from the wendigo’s grip broke Squanto’s leg in multiple spots. I splinted Squanto’s leg from ankle to hip using sticks and furs. I found honeycomb and aloe stashed away in one of the surviving huts. I sewed his wounds closed the best I could with fish hooks and thin, leather strips before covering them in honey and aloe leaves. I crafted a sled from random wood scraps. Bundling Squanto in a mountain of furs, I dragged the sled south through the snow.

I kept us alive by hunting any game I could, fishing, and eating any plant that survived the cold. Some days we didn’t eat. Other days we didn’t travel at all. Squanto’s leg healed after a few weeks without any noticeable deformity. We fought more creatures as we slowly made our way south including a demon with a heart of ice, a princess that transformed into a giant toad, and a poor girl with skin made of moss. We parted ways eventually with Squanto heading east for the coast while I continued south, hoping to reach what would become Mississippi.

Chrono Trip 2

I lazily stirred lemon juice into my tea, if the drink could be called tea. The liquid barely resembled the sweet nectar from back home in Mississippi. Not much I could do about it from a couple thousand miles and a few hundred years away though. I examined the crude distillery we used to desalinate water. I was beginning to think it may have been cheaper to sail to the arctic to harvest and melt ice than it was to boil and condense sea water. On the plus side, the tiny brewery in the same room cost far less to maintain. The product kept the crew happy, but I hated the taste of the beer we made.

I took some salted fish and pickled eggs from the galley. I stopped by Lenny’s tiny office on the way to my quarters. “Lenny,” I said as I popped my head into the room.

“Yes, Captain?” the scrawny, bespectacled man said.

“We should try to get our hands on more copper,” I said. “The stills are damaged. Also, I’d like to build a second one. We can start making something else. I’m sure one of the men knows a recipe for something awful.”

“Aye, sir.” Lenny, like most of the crew, spoke a dialect of English I barely recognized but could decipher.

“And, Lenny,” I said, “I swear on all that is holy if I catch you stealing from me and the crew again I’ll cut off your whole hand. I hired you as an accountant and quartermaster because I’m lazy. I’m smarter than you; I’ll catch you.”

“Aye, sir,” Lenny said as he pushed his glasses up his nose with a three-fingered hand.

I took my meager meal to my quarters. A desk took up most of the room. A thin wall divided my tiny office and my even smaller bedroom. I sat at my desk. I rolled up the silk sleeve of my red shirt and looked at the chronometer on my wrist.

I twisted and played with the various dials. The time device hadn’t worked since the witch Baba Yaga had struck me with lightning, stranding me in the sixteenth century. I had done what any adventurous young lad would have done though. I played pirate.

Historians would probably say the Caribbean a few centuries later would be the golden age of piracy. I disagreed. The western coasts of Europe and northern Africa were unregulated, unprotected, and constantly teeming with traders and explorers. As a maritime bandit, there was no better time to be alive. Assuming one didn’t get caught, that was. I heard tales of pirates being tarred, feathered, hanged, drawn, quartered, and then burned. I made a point to avoid capture at all costs. Scurvy and dysentery were also high priority concerns.

As I played with my time machine, my first mate burst through the door.

“Captain!” Orthwein shouted. “There’s three ships spotted leeward.”

Booty! Splendid.

“I’ll be right up,” I said.

I strapped my thick belt on over my blue trousers. I attached my sabre and holstered my pistol. I pulled on a thick, black overcoat and beat up old hat. I had to look as intimidating as possible in front of my crew. I stomped up to the deck.

“What do we have, gentlemen?” I asked.

“Three ships traveling together southeast of our position,” one sailor answered.

“Release all of the sails,” I ordered. “We want all of the power and speed we can get. Hard turn to port. Set a course directly for them. Open the gunports, and man the cannons. Get moving.”

“Sir, which gunports need to be opened?”

“All of them,” I said. “I want to overwhelm them as quickly as possible. We’ve got ships to rob.”

My ship quickly overcame the other three. Cannon fire held off two ships as my ironclad vessel pulled against the third victim of our attack. Hooked ropes and planks launched across the gap onto the deck of our target. Dozens of pirates rushed off our galiot, St. Elmo’s Fire, onto the other ship in search of anything valuable. I sprinted onto the ship to fight alongside my crew, slowly disabling merchants with my massive saber. My pirates slaughtered innocent sailors until all aboard the vessel lay dead, injured, or had dropped their weapons in surrender.

One of the captured men shouted in a language I didn’t understand, but vaguely recognized. “What tongue is he speaking?” I asked.

“Spanish, Captain,” one of my men replied.

“Translate for me.”

“Our captain wants to speak to whoever is in charge,” the survivor said through my interpreter.

“I’m the captain,” I said. “Bring me your leader.

“Our captain will only speak in his chambers.”

I jammed the barrel of my ridiculously long, snaplock pistol against the cheek of the sailor. “Tell your captain that we’ll speak on my terms, or I’ll have your comrades do so after they toss your headless corpse overboard.”

The man ran away into the bowels of the ship. Moments later, he returned with a white-haired old man in a black tunic and trousers.

“You look like a priest,” I said to the mustachioed man. “Are you the captain of these vessels?”

“I’m leading these ships on this voyage,” the man said, translated through my crewman. “My name is Juan Fernando de Bergara. I sail in the name of King Philip.”

“You’re a merchant vessel for the Spanish treasure fleet, I assume. How fortunate that I’d just happen to meet you in these waters. I have a proposition for you, Juan. I’ll allow you to leave, and I won’t pillage or destroy any of your ships. My men and I will provide you with protection on your journey. All I ask in return is a modest sum as payment.”

My interpreter and Juan Fernando argued for a few moments. My own men had trouble understanding my English compared to theirs. Sometimes, translation to other languages proved to be cumbersome. Finally, I received de Bergara’s response.

“What price?”

“Thirty percent of everything.”

“Impossible. These goods are not mine to bargain with.”

“You will accept my offer,” I said, “or we’ll kill you and take everything.”

“I will not stand for this extortion,” Juan Fernando said. “What is your name? I will report you to the authorities.”

“You may call me Cyrano de Bergerac,” I said. I formed a ball of blue light in my hand and held the glowing orb near de Bergara’s face. “Unfortunately, we will be taking over your vessels, Juan Fernando.”

I threw the energy ball into the air, and it exploded into a brilliant, blue flare. Murmurs of diablo and Erasmus swept through Juan Fernando’s men. I locked de Bergara in a headlock and pinned the barrel of my pistol to his temple. My crew spread through his three ships like the wrath of God, killing those that resisted but sparing any that surrendered. Within just a few minutes, I controlled de Bergara’s three vessels and those that survived of his crew.

I threw Juan Fernando to the deck. “Be thankful that you’re still alive,” I said.

“I am in your debt,” Juan Fernando de Bergara said.

“That you are,” I said. I turned to a crewmate. “Get me Orthwein and Lenny.”

With my first mate, my accountant, my interpreter, and Juan Fernando by my side, I explored the two ships. We traveled into the bowels of the first ship. Crewmen stripped rooms of everything but furniture. In the deepest hold, we found countless people shackled together, crammed into a space made to fit half as many people. “What is this?” I asked.

“Cargo,” Juan Fernando responded.

“This is not cargo,” I said. “Orthwein.”

Without question, my first mate followed my unspoken order. Orthwein grabbed Juan Fernando by the hair and jerked his head back. Orthwein slid a blade across the Spaniard’s exposed neck. The skin spread apart, revealing pinkish structures beneath for a brief glimpse before blood rushed from the wound. Orthwein kicked the dying man to the dirty floor. Juan Fernando de Bergara choked and gurgled as he slowly died at our feet. I clenched my teeth and took several deep breaths to steady myself. I had only killed twice since becoming captain of my vessel. Once I stabbed a man with a sword during a duel, and another time I shot a man in the back as he attacked one of my crew. Otherwise I only disabled or injured opponents while ransacking merchant ships. Such personal closeness with murder still bothered me, but murder was simply a fact of life at that point in history.

The crewmen and I unshackled the dark-skinned captives. I assumed they were Native Americans. “See that they’re fed,” I said to Orthwein. “Lenny and I will finish the inventory.”

The total stock of the three ships yielded insane stockpiles. The merchant ships carried various metals including silver and gold, pearls, gemstones, tobacco, silk, sugarcane, lumber, and a large variety of fruit, vegetables, and meat. Lenny and I divided the spoils to be shared equally amongst the crew. My men shepherded what remained of de Bergara’s crew onto a single ship. We forced the Spaniards to watch as we set the other two ships ablaze. I turned to the survivors. I light the air around me electric blue with an energy ball. “On this ship, I have left you with twenty percent of the goods you were carrying and half of your food,” I said. “The provisions I’ve taken are the price for your life. Before I set you free, any man who wishes to join me may board my ship at this time. All I ask for is devote loyalty and a willingness to fight.” Three men left Juan Fernando’s crew. “For those that choose to remain in service of King Philip, know this; if you retaliate against my crew, you will be killed.”

I threw the energy ball into the air and disappeared below deck.

Weeks later, I stood on the foredeck drinking a mixture of homemade rye vodka and tea with a touch of apple cider. When we’d go ashore in England or Spain, I would hear rumors in taverns of the demonic pirate with no name who threw lightning from his sword and fire from his hands. I began to enjoy my place as a pirate. Thanks to Juan Fernando’s contributions, I had built another ship, and appointed Orthwein captain of Calypso’s Envy. Unfortunately I had tossed Lenny overboard after I had caught him stealing silver from my stockpile. I hadn’t felt that bad about it since I technically didn’t kill him. I just placed the thieving bastard in a position that he could not possible escape alive. I had plans to become a pirate king, building my own empire of ships. I couldn’t allow such insubordination to thrive in my presence.

The cool breeze I enjoyed with my drink suddenly turned deathly cold, and the sky changed to a sickly swirl of grey and red. I watched over the crews on my two ships. The flesh of many men turned a pale green. Their eyes disappeared, leaving empty sockets that spilled black fluid over their faces. The men screamed in garbled tongues while clawing at their own flesh. The water beneath the ships churned and bubbled, sucking my tiny fleet into a maelstrom. Lightning and dark emptiness streaked the skies. Hideous, winged toads the size of horses appeared in the sky. Seven eyes and three horns protruded from the toads’ faces. The beasts had six insect-like legs, and massive pincers grew from the corners of their mouths. The monsters calmly circled in the sky above the ships.

What sort of hell had opened upon us? The crewmen that had not mutated looked to me for guidance and found nothing. After spending time in the Netherworld, I had entertained the thought that maybe sea serpents and monsters of the deep could be real, but I never imagined such grotesque beasts as those that rose before me could exist. Time stood still as my ships orbited the whirlpool. My crew and I stood in Hell, and I had no idea what to do.

A massive beast burst from the sea, destroying Calypso’s Envy as the creature rose from the depths of the swirling waters. Green scales covered its bloated flesh. Enormous dragon wings spread open on either side of a shark’s head growing on the demon’s back. Thousands of slimy, grey tentacles and serpents extended from the horror’s waist instead of legs. Empty, white eyes punctuated its smooth, black head. Six, scaly arms reached out toward the remaining ship.

Chaos broke out. The mutated crew members attacked and ate those that remain unchanged. The toadbats swooped down on the deck, grabbing anything that moved. “Kill the infected!” I shouted at my surviving men. “Ignore the flying things unless they’re close enough to touch you. Someone man the cannons! Fire at the eyes of the damned devil.”

I volleyed pistol fire at a toadbat that landed on the deck to eat my crewmen. The shot tore the beast in two, iron disintegrating its otherworldly flesh. I drew my saber and made my way to the mast, cutting down the infected men and toadbats as they drew too near. I grabbed the closest rope and climbed up to the crow’s next. There, I perched and waited.

As a toadbat flew beneath me, I dove on top of it. I latched onto its horns and dug my heels into the creature’s sides. As we thrashed about the air, the giant demon picked up St. Elmo’s Fire and forced the ship into its mouth. Cannonballs continued to soar through the air until the boat’s end, tearing through the demon’s cheeks and ripping toadbats from the skies. Near endless bloodshed spread out across the decks as men battled through their final minutes.

I gained control of the toadbat I rode. Kicking the beast in the sides, I ripped through the air toward the devil. I fired a pistol shot into one of the blank, white eyes. The monster convulsed violently as it cupped its hands over the eye. Hopefully the eye injury distracted the beast enough so that I could attack its brain. I steered the toadbat into a divebomb toward the demon’s face.

Moments before I drove my ghastly steed into the sea demon’s forehead, I stabbed the reptile in the head and dove into the air. I plummeted for several seconds before I slammed against the devil’s skin with a loud sploosh. I tried to hold onto the demon’s slick, scaly skin but I slid off the monster into the air over the maelstrom of water below. I stopped in the air as one of the devil’s six hands caught me from my descent. Slimy fingers coiled around my body and drew me in. Seconds later, I disappeared into the black opening in the demon’s face.

I slipped into the beast’s throat. Darkness, slime, and the smell of salt engulfed me. The walls of flesh around me rhythmically contracted and pulsed, slowly pushing me down into the demon’s guts. I panicked. I frantically threw energy balls in every direction. The walls stopped pulsing. Wind howled from above. Fluid crashed against me from below and launched me back into the air.

I fell forever before pounding into the swirling depths. Currents ripped at me from every direction. I struggled to swim to the surface, but I had no idea which way was up. My lungs screamed for me to breathe. I opened my eyes in the burning salt water. I spun about until I spotted sunlight. Fire filled my chest. I flailed my arms and legs, clawing my way to the surface.

Tearing out of the water, my chest heaved spastically as I gulped in air. Deep purple died the ocean. Bits of wood floated on the calm waters. Debris and blood were the only signs anyone but me had ever been in that tiny section of the seas. I swam to a nearby scrap of my ship. I discovered the bit of wood to be a sealed barrel as I wrapped myself around it. I clung to the floating container of booze. I prayed someone would find me before I died of dehydration, and that they wouldn’t immediately kill me. My chances of either working out in my favor were slim and slimmer.

Fuck my life.

Chrono Trip 01

“Just hit him back, Cletus,” Brian said.

We stood in the dim school hallway where we all worked as janitors after class. I faced Trey with my fists raised defensively with Brian off to our side. Despite being four years younger than him, I was a head taller than Trey and probably outweighed him by close to fifty pounds. Trey’s gaudy class ring bashed into the bones of my forearm as I blocked another punch from him.

“I’m not going to fight you,” I said.

“Yes, you are,” Trey said as he threw more easily deflected punches.

“No, I’m not.”

“Why don’t you just beat his ass and get it over with?” Brian asked.

“Because he’s scared,” Trey said, “and weak. Just like his mom.”

I parried the next punch, stepped in, and drilled my right fist into the side of Trey’s chin. He tumbled across the ground backwards. As he sat on the floor blinking erratically, I said, “Don’t talk about my mother.”

“You knocked my contact out of my eye,” Trey said.

Brian doubled over, whooping in laughter. “You punched his contact out. Oh my god.”

I offered to help Trey up and to find his contact. “Fuck you,” Trey said.

“Just go dude,” Brian said. “I’ll help this kid.”

I sighed and stormed through the hallways to the main exit. I passed our boss, Floyd on my way out. “I didn’t see shit,” Floyd said.

“Thanks, Mr. Downs.”

Damp grass soaked through my sneakers as I walked through our tiny town to the single, nameless grocery store. A mint green Dodge Shadow sat in the far back corner of the parking lot. The hub caps didn’t match. There were no windshield wipers, and the hood was a faded red with a black dragon painted on it. I couldn’t park my car at school because I didn’t have a driver’s license. I threw my backpack into the passenger’s seat, and crammed myself behind the wheel. Turning the key in the ignition, the Mint Mobile roared to life, mostly because of the hole in the muffler. I gently eased the car onto the main road that ran through the only four-way intersection in the entire town.

I pulled into my driveway and found Uncle David’s white pickup hitched to a trailer loaded with junk. David Clemens next to the truck, glaring at me with a queer look as I got out of my car. Uncle David stood two or three inches taller than me. We had the same thick, curly hair, but his mane was a fiery scarlet like autumn leaves accompanied by a matching beard. He folded his thick arms across his chest, and muscle bulged beneath his freckled skin like taut, coiled rope. “Why you home early?” David asked in his thick, Southern drawl.

“Got in a fight,” I said.

“Am I gonna hear from the school?”

“Nope.”

“Good. What about the cops?”

“No.”

“J’ya win?”

“Yeah.”

“Even better,” Uncle David said. “Well, since you’re here, you gimme a hand.”

“What’re we doing?”

“Taking all this out to Uncle Alvis.”

David drove from our house out to my great uncle’s house. Alvis had the dark skin typical of a half Chickasaw Native. His mostly bald head grow meager patches of short, white hair. Alvis was a living gelatinous blob. He easily weighed four hundred pounds with a gut that hung into the knees of his overalls. Watching him waddle on his cane filled me with immense unease. David and I unloaded the scrap from the trailer while Alvis sat in a lawn chair and silently watched us with his one good eye and the glazed white bad one stared into space. After an hour of work in the autumn air, sweat drench my shirt and heat poured off my skin. I stood anxiously under Alvis’s uneasy gaze while he inspected the bits of metal and random appliances. Finally, Alvis said, “Giv’a ‘bout two-fiddy fo’ all of it. ‘Nudda hunnit fo’ the trailer.”

“You can’t have my damn trailer, Alvis,” David said as he took the money from his uncle’s hand.

Back in the pick up, Uncle David handed me a fifty and stuffed the rest into his wallet. He packed his lip with a wad of tobacco and drove us home.

I holed up in my bedroom the rest of the afternoon. I tore through algebra and biology homework. I sat at my desk, using my computer with a ruined, rainbow-colored monitor from a large magnetic I had left too close for too long. I instant messaged my only friends, Brian Vukoja and Ashley Skelton while researching for an English paper. Around midnight, I grabbed my compound bow and a few arrows from my closet. I climbed out my bedroom window into the night air.

Most people I knew considered me at least a little strange. I gave off a vibe less than creepy but stranger than eccentric. Some found me intimidating due to my large size at such a young age. My Uncle David thought I struggled to adapt to normal life. My mother saw me as a freak, but her opinion didn’t matter much to me anymore. A few medical professionals said I may be autistic. One psychologist even told David that because of my IQ and lack of social aptitude, I’d most likely become a serial killer out of sheer boredom. School teachers thought me a genius. I would think most of those people were partially right, but I’d also been described as fairly narcissistic.

After midnight on a cool, October night most people would probably be sleeping, especially other high school freshmen. I, on the other hand, roamed my backyard that night, alternating my time between pacing in the dew-moist grass and target practice with my bow. The darkness dampened my visibility, but what better time to practice? There was zero wind, plenty of moonlight, and crickets filled the crisp air with a slow chorus to work to. Seemed pretty normal to me.

Despite being half-blind, I could hit a nail on the head from two hundred yards even without my glasses. Other times I missed by a mile. That night happened to be another time. My good arrows cost a ton, and I only owned five of the good ones. I should have practiced with the cheaper arrows, but to hell with that. Practice how you play. I waded through trees and briar thickets looking for my arrow. I heard a deer running around the underbrush with me. It pissed me off that I couldn’t find my arrow to kill whatever it was.

While searching, I saw a beautiful shooting star. The meteorite blazed blue in the sky as it flew. It grew larger, heading toward me. I watched in awe as an arrow of baby blue flames crashed into the trees maybe one hundred yards from me. Lightning immediately struck the port where the star had fallen.

I sprinted through the woods. Thorns tore at my skin and clothes. Branches whipped my face. I didn’t care. I stumbled into the burning crater face first. Pulling myself from the dirt, I found the most incredible thing, a rock, but not just any rock. This rock glowed with electric blue light. I picked the stone up, and it electrocuted me. Blue light blinded me. The rock spun me in violent circles and threw me to the ground.

I dropped the meteorite and retched in the grass. I whirled around and retched again when I realized I was no long in the crater. I stood somewhere in the middle of the woods. I found my arrow though, buried in the earth near me. Thank God for small victories. I heard something moving in the trees nearby. I grabbed the arrow and the rock. I started walking home until I noticed myself wandering the woods. I didn’t understand how, but a few feet away, I watched another version of me walk between the trees. He stopped and looked in my direction. I ran away from my other self. I ran and ran. I slid to a halt as the blue rock blazed in the sky overhead. Before the meteorite landed, I bounced through the blinding wall of blue light again.

The rocked dumped me back into the crater, probably only seconds after I’d left. Cobwebs dusted out of my mind, and the gears started turning. A glowing rock fell from the sky and not only teleported me to a different place but also to a point in time where I could see myself. This rock could put the name Cletus Clemens on even ground with Newton and Einstein, maybe even higher.

I rushed home to my lab, which was actually just a section of our dusty old basement filled with my junk. I had done a lot of work in that lab like build a gun out of a microwave and a hand receiver that picked up satellite television signals. Somehow I just knew things without having to learn about them. I didn’t understand what tachyons, Hawking radiation, or chronotites were, but I knew the rock produced them and what I could do with the rock.

I named my meteorite cletonium. I discovered a completely unknown element, and I had every right to name it after myself. I spent months experimenting with the cletonium. The softball-sized mineral produced enough energy that it could have easily powered my house for centuries. With the right stimuli, cletonium could teleport or travel through time. It was most likely giving me cancer, but that meant nothing to me in the face of time travel.

I wasted little time before building the device. The machine cost a small fortune to build, but Uncle David had the money. Most of the cash had been buried in the backyard, and I dug it up without permission. David would be pissed, but he’d understand once I finished. I hoped. I mostly salvaged parts from scrap and junk yards. Countless home appliances, car and tractor parts, and even an old OTIS elevator went into the machine. I spent forever tinkering, adjusting, and testing my rudimentary contraption. I finally finished the machine almost six months after initially discovering the cletonium.

I wore blue jeans and a black t-shirt, pretty standard uniform for me. I rolled out of bed just after six like every other morning. I took a morning piss and ate a light breakfast of cereal. I walked down to the back corner of the basement to my underground laboratory. A massive concrete cube stood against the wall. The side of the cube had silver sliding doors like that of an elevator and a panel with two flashing buttons on it. The cement box was the crowning achievement of my entire life. Pressing one of the buttons, the doors slid open to reveal an interior that also looked much like the elevator the machine I had built the machine from. I snapped on the metallic wristband that tethered me to the temporal displacement system before stepping into the elevator.

My maiden voyage. I’d bounced ten or fifteen minutes into the future, but had never traveled multiple years or to different places. Theoretically it would work. If not, I’d probably die. I closed the door and input my coordinates into the panel on the wall. A column of electric blue light bathed over me from the top of the tiny room. The next moment, I slammed into invisible barriers all around me. I pounded into an unseen wall, blue light spinning around me and burning patches of my clothes. I spun uncontrollably until I felt nauseous. Then, I stood on a dirt path beside a small stream.

Dense forest surrounded the path. I may have messed up. I had no clue where I was standing. My breath misted in the cool air. Crimson and amber trees lined one side of the path. I spun in circles having a mental orgasm. The time machine had worked.

A small group of children ran by and nearly knocked me over. All the children wore masks and carried strange, glowing turnips. A boy wearing a crude costume that vaguely resembled a crow ran away as the rest of the group chased him.

As I watched the children, a quartet of young men around my age passed by. All the young men carried swords and wore white robes. One of them covered his face with a veil while another wore a demonic mask. The other had simply painted with faces black with dark mud. The boys ignored me in solemn silence as they walked the path.

I started to follow the people down the path when a small, chimp-like creature pounced on me from the trees. It had a face like a dog and mangled tree branches for hands. The monster tackled me, dragging me to the ground and viciously clawing at my face and chest.

“Get off him!”

A teenaged girl ran to my aid, swinging one of the strange turnip lanterns around as she charged at the animal. The creature screamed and ran away into the trees as the girl approached. The girl wore a white gown and a veil over her face. She helped me to my feet. The girl stood a head shorter than me and had long, dark hair.

“You were asking to be attacked, you know,” she said as she pointed in the direction the creature had run off. “I mean, you’re wearing such a strange costume. Black is only going to provoke the spirits. Plus, your face isn’t even covered. It’s Samhain. Why are you not carrying any sort of protection from the spirits with you?”

“I,” I said. I had no idea how I understood what she said. “I’m not from around here. I’m just a traveler. I’m not really aware of your customs.”

“You talk oddly too,” the girl said.

“Yeah, like I said, I’m not from around here.” I held my hand out to the girl. “I’m Cletus Clemens.”

“They call me Teasidh,” the girl said.

I pulled my hand back from the failed handshake and awkwardly wrapped it around my left wrist. My heart sank. The blue jewel that should have been embedded in my wristband was missing. Without it, the chronometer would not work at all. I’d be trapped without a way home. I had to find the creature that stole it.

“What was that thing that attacked me?” I asked.

“It was a spirit,” Teasidh said as if that should be common knowledge. “It is Samhain. What else would it be?”

“Where’d it go?”

“Back beyond the veils between the worlds one might think.”

“Worlds?” I asked as my heart imploded in my chest. “As in another world?”

Fuck me.

“Are you alright?” Teasidh asked.

“I’m not sure,” I said. How would I get home?

“You should probably rest,” Teasidh said. “Spirits drain the life from men they assault. Why do you not come back to my village? You can sleep at my home.”

I sluggishly followed Teasidh down the path. I didn’t care about sleeping. I needed to get my cletonium crystal.

“What is Samhain?” I asked.

“You really are a traveler,” Teasidh said as she laughed at me. “Samhain is the final large harvest of the year. Summer ends. Everyone takes stock of crops and animals to decide what needs to be kept and what should be disposed of. It is the time when we show respect for the dead. The veils between our world and the world of spirits grow thin. Evil things easily make their way over to the living world.”

“What’s the deal with the costumes?”

“To defend against the spirits, we wear clothing to scare the spirits or hide from them. Folk carve lanterns from turnips in the shape of family faces to bring the good spirits back to gain power against the evil.”

“Sounds a lot like Halloween.”

“What?”

“Nevermind.”

As Teasidh and I walked into town, a disgusting, hunchbacked woman hobbled up to me.

“YOU!” the old hag shouted with a snarl. “You’re the traveler. Not from around here. Not from around now are you?”

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“Come with me,” the hag yelled as she grabbed my wrist and pulled me into a nearby hut. The old hag pushed me into a seat near a crude fireplace. She set a wooden bowl of water on the table next to me. The hag cracked three, grey-speckled eggs into the water. She watched the milky film swirl about the bowl.

“You are from far away,” the hag said. “You come from a world that does not yet exist. You worry about something lost to an evil spirit. Fear not, boy. You will find your parcel soon. You will travel from this world Beyond. Travel the spirit world down the river of souls.”

“How?” I asked.

“You cannot yet! Your heart and soul are shattered to countless pieces. You cannot use your own power. Fix the pieces with the purifying flames. With the burn of fire you will pass to the Nether while still living. Cross where the veil is weak and find Grandmother.”

The old had disappeared in a burst of smoke. I stepped outside, but there was no hut I had just left. Teasidh continued our conversation as if we’d never been interrupted. I said nothing and followed her home. I slept on Teasidh’s floor.

Teasidh woke me in the afternoon and dragged me into her village for the festival. I wandered through the attractions in bewilderment. I watched costumed children perform displays of talent for adults in exchange for anything people would part with. Villagers slaughtered animals in preparation for a massive feast. As people cleaned the animals they tossed bones and unusable remains into massive piles of logs in the village center. As night fell, the village slowly gathered around the mountains of wood. Far in the distance, a brilliant fire sprang to life. With the signal from afar, the villagers set their two pyres ablaze.

“For luck,” Teasidh said, “people walk between the two fires. It brings hope and prosperity by cleansing the soul so we can start anew.”

People cleansed their souls with fire. I walked toward the bonfires. Look for the purifying flame, flames that cleanse the soul. Taking a deep breath, I slowly marched between the pyres. Heat from the massive flames dried my skin, stretching it tight against my flesh. Fire licked at me from every side as burning embers erupted from the cracking wood into my face. Before my eyes flashed a vision of thousands of lives I had somehow lived before and just as many deaths. Faces peered at me through the darkness. Images of myself reflected in their eyes. I watched versions of me fight and die so many times. Something deep within me snapped into place like the snapping of a guitar string. I understood. I didn’t know how, but I was not merely Cletus Clemens. More than I filled my mind and body. Countless Cleti compiled to form the single Cletus. A single faced left the darkness as another Cleti stepped into the orange glow. I walked between the fires of Samhain, through the shadow of myself, and finally felt complete.

I thought I came out of the other side holding myself differently, calm and understanding filling my eyes. Teasidh came running to my side with a torch in hand. “Cletus?” she said, but I placed my hand over her mouth and stopped her from saying more.

“I think I’d like to be called Cleti now,” I said. “We should go.” I grabbed Teasidh by the hand and led her back to her hut.

The next night, a nearby lord hosted another massive celebration. People traveled from all the neighboring villages with food and drink to fill the banquet hall of the dingey castle. Everyone made merry, drank, ate, and laughed together.

At one point in the night, the lord of the castle brought out an elegant sword with a beautiful golden hilt.

“To any man!” shouted the drunken lord, “I will give this magnificent blade as a gift. Three days hence, I hanged three men for stealing horses from my stable. To any man courageous or ignorant to go to the gallows where their bodies hang during the harvest moon, I will give this sword.”

Countless men cheered and claimed they would brave the Veils and go to the gallows. All of them joined into a large group to march there together.

“No!” the drunken lord shouted. “One must go alone and tie a twig to the ankle of the dead men to prove you went.”

“No one would do this alone,” some old lady said. “The Veil is too thin. A man could slip right through.”

That was just too convenient. “I’ll go,” I said as I jumped to my feet.

I didn’t wait for an answer from the lord. I stormed toward the exit. Everyone silently watched me march to my supposed doom. A young man stopped me at the door to offer me his sword. I took the blade. The weight of the weapon felt right in my hand. As I pushed onward, Teasidh blocked the doorway. “You can’t do this,” she said.

“You couldn’t understand,” I said. “I have to do this. If I don’t, I’ll never go home.”

“At least take this,” Teasidh said as she handed me a massive vegetable.

“It’s a turnip.”

“A turnip lantern I grew and carved myself in the face of my father. I will protect you from evil spirits.”

“Thanks, Teasidh,” I said as I stepped around her into the darkness.

At some point, I realized I had no clue where the local gallows actually were in relation to the castle. I wandered around the grounds in the rain for an hour before I found them. I peeled small branches off trees. Taking great care to avoid eye contact with the corpses, I bent the green sticks around the ankles of the dead men. Satisfied with proving I had been to the gallows, I paced back and forth in the square. I hoped that I would slip through the Veil just as easily as everyone had said I would, but after ten minutes I was still firmly on Earth.

“To hell with this,” I said as I turned to leave. “This is” — I glanced around at the grey and purple fog surrounding my ankles — “apparently working.”

The fog created a corridor with a small, cobblestone path in front of me. The cobblestone ended at a tiny hut surrounded by trees. The hut appeared to be an ordinary cottage other than it stood upon a single bird’s leg, spinning in place. As I approached, the house stopped turning and nestled in the underbrush between the cluster of trees. The door facing me slowly opened inward. Teasidh stood in the doorway, bathed in an orange glow from a fire somewhere inside the hut. “Don’t just stand there,” she said. “Get inside. There’s much to be done.”

“How did you get here?” I asked as I entered.

The hut contained a single room much larger than the exterior. A bed stood opposite the door. A table and chairs occupied the corner to the right of the entrance with a wood-burning stove on the left. A massive golden rug with orange roosters sewn into it covered the entire floor. Shelves filled with oddities lined the walls. Cleaning supplies along with a giant mortar and pestle rested in the far corner across from the bed.

“Come in,” Teasidh said. “Hurry, you’re wasting precious time.”

“This is my home, but that is not my name.” She hopped on top of the wood stove and sprawled across the searing metal without a care. “I am Baba Yaga,” she said. “I knew you would be a bad hero. You don’t have the russky smell to you. You weren’t even curious how you spoke with people who couldn’t possibly know your tongue.”

“I actually wondered about that,” I said.

“Bah. I translate for you. In your head. You’re a dumb one too. All these coincidences fall in your lap; you don’t question it. You ignore signs and calls to action. But like any good fool, being told not to do something made you want to do it. Being tempted by a pretty girl helped too.”

I sat down at the table. What the hell had I gotten myself into?

“Who told you that you could sit?” Baba Yaga asked. “So rude! Get up. You have work to do.”

I awkwardly stood from the chair. “What do I have to do?”

“You had visions in the flames of Samhain, no? Do you recall seeing yourself throw balls of light?”

“Yes,” I said. In fact, in almost all variations of my life flashing before me, I had that power.

“Good. You must remember how to do this.”

Baba Yaga slunk off the stove and walked over to me. Her finger glowed white as she pushed it into my chest. “Feel your power and remember.”

I could feel that power inside me, some energy I vaguely knew had always been hiding beneath the surface.

“Draw from it,” Baba Yaga commanded.

I pulled the energy from the depths of myself to the surface.

“Channel it.”

I pushed the power through my body to my right hand. A tiny cloud of blue light formed in my palm.

“It is useless like that. Give shape to your power.”

I focused on the light and formed it into a ball.

“Seal the construct. Create a shell to hold it together.”

Another layer of blue light pushed out of my hand. The shell enveloped the blue mist to form a perfect sphere of pure light.

“Good,” Baba Yaga said as she passed a hand through my energy ball, dissipating it into a fine, blue mist. “Now, you may leave.”

“Leave?” I asked. “To go where?”

“You have a sword. You have energy manipulation. You have turnip lantern. That is everything you need. Go find your crystal.”

“How?”

“Follow the path. It will guide you for now.”

“How do I repay you for everything you’ve done?” I asked. “You opened my eyes and made me feel whole when I never knew I was incomplete. I have to do something for you.”

“Ah,” Baba Yaga said, “maybe not as dumb as you seem. In the Nether, a favor given always begets a favor returned.”

“So, what do I owe you?”

“Lay with me again,” she said. “Keep your eyes closed. I don’t want you to see me.”

Baba Yaga had given me the same command in the hut the night before. The first time, the hut had been pitch black, and closing my eyes had made no difference. I closed my eyes as instructed though. As a fourteen-year-old male, I would do basically anything for the chance to have sex even with a weird spirit woman. Baba Yaga pulled my shirt over my head. I felt her naked breasts press against my bare chest. She kissed my neck. I wrapped my arms around her to pull us tighter.

Without thinking, I opened my eyes. The beautiful brunette no longer stood before me. A grotesque old hag stood in place of the young beauty. Barely any hair covered her head. Wrinkles and blisters pocked her loose, ashen skin. Deflated breasts hung over the crone’s potbelly. Her arms and legs grew thin and preternaturally long from her trunk with several excess joints poking against her paper thin flesh. Her beak-like nose grazed my stomach as her black and yellow eyes pierced mine.

The door to the cottage flung open behind me. Baba Yaga cackled as she threw me from her hut. I slid across the cobblestones, friction tearing burns into my back and arms. The tiny cottage rose to its feet and hopped away into the purple fog.

I had slept with that disgusting thing, almost twice. I took a deep breath and considered the numerous atrocities such a creature could have done to me. Baba Yaga could have eaten, enslaved, or tortured me like a witch from a fairy tale. In comparison, I could live with regrettable sex.

I had a sword, oversized turnip lantern, and no shirt. The cobblestones that had brought me to Baba Yaga actually continued into the mists beyond the tiny grove where the chicken hut had stood. I did the only thing that made sense to me. I followed the path. The trail gradually turned from stone to mud and led to a small stream of silvery water. Here, the fog pushed in until I only had the option of walking through the water. I waded knee-deep into the stream and trekked against the current. I reached another path that cut through the fog off the water. In the distance, I could see a brilliant blue light that I recognized as the glow produced by cletonium. I followed the parted fog to a clearing.

Numerous monsters made from shadows and dirt filled the clearing. The monsters danced in a circle around a massive blue flame. At the center of the fire rested the clentonium crystal. The monsters stopped dancing to face a pumpkin plant that grew over an altar at the edge of the clearing with a single pumpkin sprouting from the vines. The shadows dropped to their knees and bowed to the pumpkin. The monsters chanted a disgusting gurgle to the plant as if they worshipped it. With the monsters distracted by their ritual, I rushed into the clearing. I slashed the sword in an upward arc, knocking the cletonium out of the fire and into the air. I caught the crystal in my open hand as it fell back to the ground.

“Shit! That’s hot,” I shouted as I threw the searing jewel to the ground.

The clearing fell silent. I slowly looked around and met the gaze of the monsters as they turned to me. Somehow, much like with the energy ball, I knew exactly what to do. Without hesitation, I unleashed a blood-chilling war cry and charged. The sword felt like an extension of my arm. I hacked and slashed at creatures as they came at me. The turnip lantern’s light seared the beasts’ flesh. The monsters burst into mud and black mist after a single blow from the sword. Within a few short minutes, I had leveled the clearing’s population to nothing more than a large paste of black, loamy muck.

I picked up the much cooler cletonium and stuffed it into my pocket. As I turned to leave, a voice came from nowhere and said, “Impressive, but I cannot allow a mortal to leave my demesne.”

I watched the pumpkin vines on the altar animate and twist into a strange, convulsing body. The pumpkin sitting atop the writhing mass turned to reveal a jack o’ lantern filled with sorrowing emptiness beyond its carved features. “I am the pumpkin king,” it said, “and you have disturbed my celebration.”

“Listen, I just want to get out of here and go back home,” I said. “How about you leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone?”

“I cannot let you leave,” said the pumpkin king.

“I really don’t have time for this,” I said. I formed a small ball of blue light in my left hand with ease. “Eat hadouken, jackass.”

I threw the energy ball through the fire that still roared between me and the pumpkin king, setting the projectile ablaze. The ball tore into the stomach of the pumpkin king, turning its body of vines to an inferno almost instantly. The jack o’ lantern head plummeted to the ground and burst open, releasing thousands of screaming faces made of red mist into the air. As the ghasts filled the clearing, the fog closed in around me. I panicked and ran blindly through the purple mist. I tried to run in what I thought was the direction that I came from. I never found the stream again, but soon I came running through the courtyard where the gallows had stood the night before.

Back on mortal soil, I walked in the early morning light and dew to Teasidh’s house. I knew she wouldn’t be there, but I called for her as I entered. The only answer I received was the creak of wooden floors. I sat on the bed and reaffixed the cletonium crystal to the chronometer on my wrist. I definitely had to start working on mark II as soon as I got home.

The door slammed shut. I looked up at a girl in white robes with a gold-hilted sword on her hip. The girl had white, wavy hair and greenish eyes that pierced my soul. She drew the sword and leveled it at me. “Why are you in my home?” she asked.

“Listen” I said through gritted teeth, “you do not want to mess with me right now. I just got back from doing some serious shit and am not in the mood. I will destroy you.”

Undeterred by my threat, the girl sprinted across the room with inhuman speed and pressed her blade against my throat. “You cannot harm me,” she said, a disgusting sneer spreading across her cheeks. “They call me banshee, crow, and vulture. I have the strength of a horse and conjure thunderstorms. I shoot arrows of light from my fingers. Anything I want I will ruthlessly kill to obtain. In battle, I make blood fly through the air like rain. No man has ever touched my flesh because none are worthy. All that have tried have had their heads separated from their necks.”

She kept going, spewing a five-minute monologue on how badass she was. Until that point, I had thought that sort of thing never happened in real life.

“I just came to say goodbye to Teasidh,” I said, “and fix my time machine.”

“How do you know my mother’s name?”

“Who are you?” I asked.

“I am Mor, daughter of Teasidh.”

“No way Teasidh had a daughter as old as you are,” I said. “Where is she? Where is Teasidh?”

“My mother abandoned me when I was a child,” Mor said. “She and my father disappeared on Samhain. A year later, my mother returned with an infant she left with the villagers. That was fifteen years ago.”

“Bullshit,” I said as I rubbed my throat. “Teasidh was only Baba Yaga in disguise.” Which would probably explain the white hair and supposed super powers. Fuck. I grew paler than her hair. “What was your father’s name?”

“My father was the Traveler, a dark spirit. He came during the festival of Samhain. He wooed my mother, and I was conceived. Then, he disappeared into the spirit world through the gallows of three hanged men.”

I felt sick. I wasn’t even fifteen yet. I could not deal with having a child, let alone one that was clearly older than me. “No,” I said, “he isn’t in the spirit world, Mor. I think I am your father.”

Mor fell silent. No matter what I tried to do to get her to respond, the girl had gone completely comatose.

“Like you should be freaking out,” I said. “I’m only fourteen, and I’m already the father of some kind of demon warrior goddess in the middle of ancient Ireland. I think. I’m still not actually sure where I ended up.”

Mor cackled as her eyes changed to black with yellow pupils.

“Baba Yaga?” I asked.

“So easily fooled,” Baba Yaga said. “Stupid boy. Your story is not yet finished.”

Baba Yaga pointed at me. Lightning leaped from her finger to my chest. The lightning strike threw me through the wall and into the mud outside the house. I lay there panting. A horrible burning sensation filled my left arm. I initially thought I was having a heart attack, but the lightning had heated the metal chronometer enough that it burned my skin. Sparks sizzled from the fried circuitry. As I examined the extent of the damage, the chronometer made an unusual beeping noise. The cletonium crystal flashed rapidly to the rhythm of the beeping. Nothing in my designs or the machine’s programming should have allowed that to happen. I didn’t know what was happening.

“The fuck?” I asked right before disappearing in a burst of blue electricity.

The Adventures of Cletus XII

Cletus left Europe on a boat with a group of men going viking. A man named Leif captained the ship of thirty-five crewmen from Norway toward Greenland. Leif searched for a land west of Greenland that only one other ship had ever found. Twenty years prior, a man named Bjarni found a land covered in wheat and grapes after a storm threw his vessel off course. Leif had bought Bjarni’s ship for his own search and hired men to join him.

Leif followed Bjarni’s return route in reverse. The boat landed on a rocky, barren island. Leif stayed for a night before setting out to sea. After a day, the party found a land covered in lush forests, but no wheat or grapes. After two more days at sea, Leif found a land whose streams brimmed with salmon and lands covered in wild grapevines. Leif decided to encamp on the land for the winter. He divided the men into two groups. One group stayed to build a settlement while the other trekked inland to explore the forests.

Cletus accompanied the group exploring the land. He ditched the group as soon as he could. Cletus discovered native people a day’s walk inland. The natives took a strange liking to Cletus and welcomed him into their homes. The night Cletus arrived, the natives held a celebration that seemed to be in honor of the caveman. The natives fed Cletus a strange, green goo and forced him to smoke from a large pipe.

Cletus found himself in a field of beautiful flowers. The natives and the cold winter forest disappeared, replaced by meadows and brilliant blue skies. Massive statues dotted the landscape. Ominous cliffs rose into the sky on the far east and west horizons. To the north and south, thick mist eventually swallowed the far off edges of the valley. Cletus walked into the mist. Whispers and unintelligible voices drifted on the wind.

A man in beautiful, white robes approached Cletus in the mist. The dark-skinned, curly-haired man grabbed Cletus by the shoulders and said, “Hello, friend, do you believe in the five pillars? Do you follow them?”

“What?”

“Of course not. No one here follows the five pillars.”

The man scoffed and disappeared into the mist. Cletus continued to walk.

Slowly, the mist cleared. The valley had vanished. Cletus walked in a giant hall filled with massive tables. Warriors and monsters of every kind lined the tables, including countless familiar faces. At the end of the hall sat five stone thrones. Cletus marched past the feasting tables and approached the stone thrones. “Where am I?” Cletus asked Buddha.

“You’re in a special place,” Jesus said from his throne.

“A place you shouldn’t be, my little monkey friend,” Buddha said.

“WELCOME TO THE VALLEY OF GODS AND HEROES,” boomed an old, naked man on the center throne.

Cletus scanned the other two thrones. An old, one-eyed man in a cloak with ravens nested on his shoulders sat on one throne. Jupiter filled the final throne. Anger burned in his blue eyes. A massive pink scar covered the center of Jupiter’s torso.

“I’m sorry I killed you,” Cletus said to Jupiter. “At least you got better.”

“You can’t kill an idea, ape,” Jupiter said with a chuckle. “And indeed I got better.”

“Who’re you?” Cletus asked the naked man.

“YOU KNOW WHO I AM,” the naked man shouted at Cletus. The words boomed in Cletus’s head despite the man never opening his mouth.

“Yahweh,” Cletus said with a nod. “And you?”

The cloaked man leaned forward. “I am Wodan,” he said. “I am the All Father, and despite what these idiots tell you, this used to be Valhalla. I fear as more men begin believing in the naked war monger and his son, less of my great mead hall will remain.”

“Chill out, old man,” Jesus said.

“What is this place?” Cletus asked. “Valley of Gods and Heroes? What is that?”

“It is our true realm,” Jupiter said. “This is our piece of the spirit world where we exist outside of myths and minds of men. All gods, heroes, folk tales, and superstitions throughout time exist in this plane.”

“Why am I here?” Cletus asked.

“You aren’t,” Buddha said. “At least not wholly. Only your mind has come to us. Your body is elsewhere.”

“Sorry, brother,” Jesus said, “but you really have no place here. You must leave. Return to your physical form.”

“How the hell do I not belong here?” Cletus asked. “Am I not a hero? You all know the things I’ve done. I’ve lived thousands of years. I’ve killed numerous gods. I hunted monsters. I ruled multiple, prosperous kingdoms. Why do I not belong?”

“IT IS MOSTLY YOUR OWN DOING,” Yahweh said. “PEOPLE DO NOT REMEMBER STORIES TOLD OF CLETUS THE CAVEMAN.”

“Indeed,” said Wodan. “People remember tales of Hercules, Gilgamesh, Roland, King Arthur, Reynard, Robin Hood, Son Wukong, and Samson. All those men, those incarnations of you, exist here. Just as the rest of us, they were created by the belief and imaginations of people who heard tales of your deeds. You, Cletus, are real regardless of belief and worship.”

“If I don’t belong here, maybe I should just go.”

Cletus stomped away back into the mist. As he wandered into the fog, Cletus noticed small creatures flying around him. Cletus ignored the small, bulb-headed beings as he continued to walk. Massive statues of men and monsters still littered the valley. Cletus wondered if the statues had been gods that people stopped believing in. Cletus read names on the statues’ bases. Some names Cletus found familiar, especially from his time as Son Wukong and Gilgamesh.

While Cletus wandered from statue to statue, he did not notice the swarm of tiny creatures forming around him. Without warning, the things attacked Cletus, engulfing him. He swatted at them, but they held onto him. Cletus cursed the spirit world as he tried to tear the monsters off. The caveman struggled, but eventually the creatures carried him away.

The bulb-headed monsters flew Cletus deep into a volcano. The creatures abandoned Cletus in an enormous chamber. “They are called thetans,” a hoarse voice said.

Cletus barely saw a bald man with massive eyes and a ridiculous cloak chained to the volcanic wall. “They are called thetans,” the man said again. “They are lost and cannot find their bodies. Long ago, I kidnapped them from their planet. I destroyed their homes and bodies with nuclear bombs. I stole and confused their souls so they could never return home. Some of them trapped me here in this electronic cage.”

Cletus began screaming, but he had no clue why. As he screamed, Cletus awoke alone in a forest. The native village had disappeared, and winter had passed. Collecting himself, Cletus set out into the forest.

 

<><><>

 

Cletus woke before dawn. He milked his pale, blonde cow. Cletus fed his ox and his horse. While Cletus shoveled out his stables, a horseless carriage pulled to his cabin. Armed men stepped from the carriage followed by a man who looked like a fat eagle. Cletus set his work aside to greet the men.

“What do you want?” Cletus asked.

“Do you know who you’re talking to boy?” the fat eagle asked.

“Do you? Don’t fucking call me boy. You’re whole lifetime is barely an afterthought to me. I’ve got two fingers on my left hand, but I could beat your ass with just one of them before your two thugs could draw their pistols. I’ll ask you again, what do you want?”

“I am William McKinley,” the fat eagle said. “I’m the President of the United States.”

“What do you want, fat ass?”

“There are records, you know,” McKinley said. “Secrets kept that only the President can know. There are documents of a wild man, like a red ape. This man can’t die. This man fought in practically every war this country’s been a part of. Supposedly this man lived with coyotes in the desert. He’s bigger than a mountain, logged an entire forest with one hand, can lasso a tornado, has a blue ox, and has a horse so wild it bucked his wife all the way to the moon. According to Lincoln, this caveman is the greatest military tactician to ever live. Grant claims the Union would have lost the war without him.

“Now, of course as an educated man, I assumed all these stories are nonsense. Tall tales and folklore. Then, a few weeks ago, there are reports of a man appearing from nowhere at a steel mill who caught a fifty-ton crucible in midair to keep it from killing anyone.”

“Get to your point,” Cletus said.

“There’s a war going on, and your country needs that wild man. I’m putting together a regiment, the First Volunteers Cavalry. I need that wild man to lead those men. Will you come?”

“I’ve got seven fingers, one eye, and a wooden leg. What the fuck can I possibly do to help?”

“Just think about it,” McKinley said. “If you decide to help, there’s a meeting point in Arizona for the Volunteers. Right now the unit’s being led by Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and Colonel Leonard Wood. However, I think the regiment could use a Brigadier General.”

“I’ll think about it,” Cletus said. “Get the fuck off my lawn.”

Eventually, Cletus made his way to the meeting place in Arizona. Thanks to Roosevelt, the regiment remained well stocked with weapons and supplies. The regiment traveled by train to Florida and boat to Cuba. Most of the men arrived in Cuba, but most of the horses did not. During their first armed conflict against a Spanish fort, Cletus took an artillery shell to the torso. Cletus died in the sand, gasping and alone.

 

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Cletus lay still in darkness. The sand had gone. The sky had gone. The whole world around Cletus had disappeared. Flames engulfed Cletus and burned away his clothes. Heat scorched his body, boiling away sweat as it formed on his searing skin. The flames vanished.

Cletus plummeted through darkness. He drifted forever. Centuries could have gone by, Cletus would not have noticed. He slammed against hard stone at the end of his fall. Cletus climbed to his feet, stumbling as he realized he was on a stairway. A few steps up, the stairs ended in nothing. Cletus turned and made his way down the stairs.

The bottom of the steps opened into a barren field. A single tree slowly died at the center of the field. A silver disk in the sky that Cletus knew was not the moon lit the wasteland. Statues dotted the rocky earth. Cletus recognized all of them as he walked toward the tree. The name on each statue change, but the image carved into the stone was the same. At the base of the tree, Cletus found a tiny, stone figurine. Unlike the other statues, the figurine’s name matched the image of a man who lived through lies and violence. Somehow, people remembered his story if not his name.

Cletus stared at the statuette of himself, running his thumb over the embossed letters of his name. An owl called out from the scraggly tree. Cletus looked at the owl, meeting its golden gaze. “I bet you were the one that knew my name, huh?” Cletus asked the owl.

Cletus wrapped his meaty fists around the figurine and tried his best to crush the stone to no avail.

“WHO?” the owl called.

Cletus tossed the chunk of stone at the owl. “Shut up,” he said in a cracking voice.

The owl spread its wings and took flight. An explosion of feathers filled the area around the tree. Out of the mess stepped a woman with bird’s legs. Feathers covered her head and neck instead of hair. She pressed her warm skin against Cletus. Golden eyes glared into him as she jabbed a frighteningly long, clawed finger into his chin.

“I asked twice,” the old woman said. “Who are you?”

“I am Cletus.”

“No,” she said, “your true name.”

“My parents used to call me Ukku,” Cletus said. “That was so long ago.”

“No, I want your real name.”

“I don’t have one.”

The owl woman placed her hand on Cletus’s forehead. “You do no longer,” she said. “Choose your path wisely.”

The owl woman disappeared in another tsunami of feathers. The tree and field vanished. Cletus stood in a courtyard full of ash-colored flowers. Two doors stood before him. Cletus chose the door to the left. Darkness filled the tiny hall beyond the door. Cletus could reach out and touch the walls on either side. He began walking along the narrow corridor. The walls lit up around him with soft, blurry light. The lights displayed colored, moving photographs. Cletus walked, observing all the things displayed before him. The first he stopped to watch showed Cletus talking with the owl woman. The next showed his death, followed by a scene of the ship sailing to Cuba.

One scene showed Cletus hiring John Wilkes Booth to assassinate Lincoln in hopes the tragedy would reunite the Union through the loss. Several wars flashed by. Cletus recognized almost all of America’s conflicts. Meetings with Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington popped up as Cletus walked the hallway.

Decades, sometimes centuries, of adventure filled the gaps between major events. Cletus saw his transition from the murderous, treacherous Reynard the trickster to the kinder Robin Hood. Cletus watched himself pull the sword from the stone. Tears welled in his eyes. Cletus missed Merlyn, Lancelot, and Guinevere. Cletus fondly watched himself kill Grendel and the beast’s mother. Cletus watched a crowd of people carry Jesus away. He watched the destruction of the Temple of Dagon, his imprisonment by the Philistines, and all the things he did to earn it.

Cletus watched himself build Rome. Before that, he had been swept away by some strange spell of Prometheus after murdering Zeus. Cletus watched the slaughter of the Olympian gods with weapons of their brothers and sisters as well as the marvelous sword crafted by Hephaestus. Rage filled him at remembering the murder of his brother-in-law. Cletus watched with bliss as he performed his twelve labors for Eurystheus. He saw the meeting with the Oracle after killing Megara. Cletus almost wished he’d chosen Virtue over Pleasure when offered the gifts from Zeus.

Pain filled his chest as Cletus watched Enkidu’s funeral. He saw his travels with the monk Xuanzang and all his time as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven and the Handsome Monkey King.

Thousands of images rushed by as Cletus sprinted down the hallway with tears rushing from his eyes. Cletus ignored thousands of years full of loneliness and desperation as well as years of hibernating in a stone egg. Cletus slowed as he reached the end of the hall. Cletus watched the war he led his people in against the subterranean lizard people. Buddha had been so impressed with his courage and strength that he gave Cletus many magical gifts such as intelligence and immortality. He loved the last few scenes. Cletus watched as he taught a small group of other Neanderthals how to start a fire. Cletus watched himself grow up. The final scene in the hallway showed Cletus his birth. The caveman sat on the cold, stone floor and wept.

Cletus wiped away snot and tears as he exited the corridor. He stepped into another courtyard. Three doors faced Cletus. Faint light shined from the two doors on the sides. Cletus wanted no part of whatever lies or memories those doors had to share. Cletus wanted everything to be over. The center door engulfed Cletus with darkness as he walked inside.

Cletus stepped onto the shore of a small lake. Black mud stuck to his feet as he approached the water. Out on the lake, a muscular old man stood in a boat. “Hey!” Cletus shouted. “Over here.”

Cletus waved his arms about, but the man gave no attempt to respond. The boat slowly made its way to the shore, stopping twenty feet from Cletus. “You’ll have to swim out the rest of the way,” the old man said. “Boat’s old and rotted. I’ll tear up the bottom if I come any closer.”

Cletus nodded and swam out to the boat. He grabbed the sides and tried to pull himself in. The oarsman jabbed him with his paddle. “You got the toll?” the old man asked.

“I’m dead,” Cletus said. “I don’t have anything.”

The old man shook his head. He reached down, digging his finger into Cletus’s left eye and pulled out a large, silver coin. “It’s right here,” the old man said. “Come on up. Your feet’ll get wet. Damn thing’s been taking on water for at least a thousand years.”

The old man helped Cletus into the boat. The two stayed silent as the boat drifted across the lake. Cletus felt like the water watched him throughout the journey. On the other side of the lake, the old man pushed Cletus into the water. Laughing, the old man paddled away.

Cletus waded ashore. Another set of stone steps stood before Cletus. Cletus grew eager at the idea of facing the sort of monster that would need such massive stairs. He ran and leaped up the steps. At the top, Cletus discovered a giant man with skin colored like darkness and the head of a sharp-faced dog. The behemoth grabbed Cletus and squeezed him. With the dog man’s eyes glaring into his soul, Cletus could feel every pain and joy he had ever caused. When it finished, the dog man set Cletus down on the floor. The owl woman approached Cletus and set down a pair of golden scales.

“Where am I going?” Cletus asked. “Is any of this even real?”

“We will know shortly,” the dog man growled.

The owl lady pulled a feather from her head and placed it on one side of the scale. She smiled at Cletus as she tore into his chest to pull out a ruby mass of flesh that pulsated in her hand. The owl lady set Cletus’s heart on the other side of the scale. Cletus had killed and stolen many times in his life. He feared the worst. Cletus felt his heart sink, but knew better as he watched it wobble on the scale. After several minutes of tipping back and forth, the feather and his heart balanced out.

“Now what?” Cletus asked.

“Now, you choose,” the dog man said.

“What do I choose?”

“Whatever you want.”

“I want nothing,” Cletus said. “I just want it all to end. Just nothing.”

“So, you have decided,” the dog man said. “So, it shall be.”

Everything disappeared. Not even darkness remained. Cletus found nothing very soothing. From the nothing drifted a mass of tentacles that wrapped around Cletus. Two bulbs of meat appeared before Cletus. “What are you?” Cletus asked the mass of meat and tentacles.

“I am the true creator of all things,” the mass said. “You’ve chosen wisely, Old One.”

“Why do gods always insist on calling me that?”

“For most of us, it’s true. I won’t even be imagined by anyone until 2005 CE. You’re much older than I am.”

“But you exist now.”

“Nothing exists now. All things are neither now nor then. Existence is relative, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about.”

“Why are you here? I was promised nothing. My heart was equal with the scale.”

“You shall receive nothing. You don’t believe that nothing meant you’d float here endlessly, did you?”

“I assumed nothing meant nothing.”

“No, my boy,” the mass of tentacles said. “There are big things in store for you. Just not you as you are now. You’ll have to be reborn a few more times first.”

Cletus glowed with every color imaginable. The caveman exploded into a burst of thousands of streaks of light. Cletus’s soul became a meteor shower of power and emotion that covered all of time and space.

The Adventures of Cletus XI

Cletus wandered through the forest until he reached a road. He followed the road for a long time, moving out of the forest, through towns, over rivers, and through smaller patches of trees. Cletus merrily greeted young ladies, old women, fat monks, and shining knights as he passed them on the lane. He took a path into the trees that led to a pebbled stream. A single log formed a bridge across the waters. As Cletus drew close to the bridge, he saw a stranger coming from the other side. Cletus had never seen a larger man. The stranger stood nearly seven feet tall, broader across the shoulders than two tree trunks, and nearly four feet around his waist. While Cletus walked faster to cross the log first, so did the stranger.

“Step back and let the better man cross first,” Cletus said.

The stranger said, “Then stand back yourself since I have to say that I’m the better man.”

Cletus drew a bow and arrow. “Stay where you are or I’ll show you how men from Nottingham play by sending a shaft between your ribs.”

“I’ll tan your hide until it’s as many colors as a beggar’s cloak if you so much as touch the string of that bow.”

“You sound like an ass. I could have this arrow in your heart before you can ask God forgiveness.”

“From my side of the stream, you sound like a coward,” said the stranger. “You stand there with a bow to shoot me from afar while I have nothing but a staff to beat you with.”

“Can’t say any man’s ever thought me a coward,” Cletus said. “I’ll lay the bow aside, and come at you with a cudgel.”

“I’ll wait here for you to go cut an oak branch and joyously whip you when you return.”

Cletus set his bow and arrows on the ground. He pulled a black pin from his ear and shook it out to transform it into a larger, iron staff.

“What wizardry is this?”

“Just a parlor trick,” Cletus said. “This is my good staff. It’s made from a tough iron and lusts for blood like no man ever could. We’ll fight until one of us falls into the stream.”

“The idea makes my whole heart warm,” the stranger said as he twirled his staff above his head, making the wood whistle in the wind.

Never had another soul met in a harsher fight than did those two men. Cletus feinted and bashed at the stranger’s head with a blow that could kill a man. The stranger deftly blocked the blow and returned one twice as hard which Cletus knocked off target. The men fought on the log for over an hour. Many blows struck their mark and left the men covered in bruises and gashes. Neither behemoth cried for the fight to end. The match seemed unlikely to finish by either man falling from the bridge. From time to time, the men stopped fighting to catch their breath. Cletus knew in all his life he had never seen a man so talented and brutal with a staff, and the stranger thought much the same about Cletus.

Finally, Cletus bashed the stranger on the ribs with such force that dust rose from the stranger’s jacket. The stranger came within a hair’s breadth of falling, but he quickly regained his footing. The stranger cracked Cletus on the forehead. Blood rushed down his face. Cletus snarled as anger filled his bones. He swung his staff at the stranger with all his might. The stranger warded off the blow and again whacked Cletus in the head. This time, the staff caught Cletus in the temple and sent him heels over head into the stream.

“Where are you now, good lad?” the stranger shouted, roaring with laughter.

“Floating downstream it would seem,” Cletus said, but he couldn’t help but laugh at himself.

The sound of bees hummed in his head. Cletus waded to the bank. “Give me a hand out of the water. I need you to be aware that you are the bravest, sturdiest man I’ve ever known, and you have the hardest swing with a staff I’ve ever had the misfortune of feeling.”

Cletus drew a horn from his belt. He pressed the end to his lips and blasted an eerie melody that echoed through the forest. Cletus remembered fighting Enkidu. He remembered the struggle of facing a man actually his better. Cletus looked at the tall stranger and remembered that feeling of challenge and burning desire to be better in the face of that adversity. “There’s no man between here and Rome that could beat me like that.”

The stranger pulled Cletus from the stream and said, “And you take a beating with a brave heart. You’re the stoutest little man I ever knew.”

Distant twigs and branches snapped with movement in the forests. Nearly forty men in dark green tunics burst out from the trees. “Good master,” said the man at the head of the swarm, “what’s happened here? You’re drenched to the bone.”

“Well, Will,” said Cletus, “the fellow over there tossed me into the water and gave my hide an impressive tanning.”

“Then he shall be beaten himself,” said Will. “Have at him, lads!”

The men pounced upon the stranger, but they found him ready to fight. The stranger striked right and left with his staff. When the green-clad men finally overcame the stranger through sheer numbers, many stepped away with broken bones and bleeding skulls.

“Stop, boys!” Cletus shouted, still laughing against his sore sides. “He’s a good man. Any harm that falls to him will be doubled back to you.” The men released the stranger. “Young man, will you stay with me and my band? I can’t offer much. You’d get three suits of lincoln green each year, a one-time pay of forty marks, and you’d share with us whatever good shall befall us. You’d eat the sweetest venison and drink the stoutest every night. You’d be my right hand man.”

“I do not know,” said the stranger, anger seeping into his voice. “If you handle the bow and arrow as poorly as you do a cudgel, I can’t see fit to call you my master, but if any man here can shoot better than me, I will join you.”

“I will bow to you like I’ve never bowed to a man before,” Cletus said. “I’ll stoop down to the level of playing games to decide.” Cletus turned to Will. “Stutely, cut a piece of white bark the size of your hand and place it eighty yards downstream.” Will Stutely did as asked. “Now, stranger, hit that to see if you can call yourself an archer.”

“I will,” said the stranger. “Give me a bow, and if I cannot hit it, choke me blue with the bowstrings.”

The band of men sat or lay upon the grass and watched the stranger shoot. He chose a bow from one man’s back and an arrow from another. The stranger drew the arrow to his cheek and loosed it down the path. The shaft shot to the very center of the white bark chunk.

“Beat that if you can,” the stranger said.

“Impressive,” Cletus said. “I can’t beat it, but by the blessing of Artemis, I can more than match it.”

Cletus took up his bow. He nocked an arrow with care and shot with the greatest skill. The arrow flew straight and true. The arrow hit upon the stranger’s own and shattered the shaft into splinters. The band of men leaped to their feet and shouted for joy.

“I’ve never seen anything like that in my life,” the stranger said. “I’ll be your right hand man.”

“Than I’ve gained a great man,” Cletus said. “What’s your name?”

“I’m called John Little back home.”

Will Stutely laughed. “Nay, little stranger,” said Will. “I don’t like your name, and I won’t pretend to. Indeed you are quite small though. Therefore, we’ll call you Little John, and I will be your godfather.”

Cletus and all his band laughed aloud until John Little grew angry.

“You keep making fun of me,” John said to Will, “and you will have sore bones right quickly.”

“No,” said Cletus, “bottle your temper. The name fits you well. No man would fear Little John until it’d be far too late to escape you. Little John you shall be called henceforth. Come, my merry men, we will prepare a christening feast for our fair infant.”

Turning away from the stream, the merry men disappeared into the forest. The men traced their own steps back to where they dwelled in the depths of Sherwood. In the woodland, the merry men lived in huts of bark and branches around a grand oak. Here they found the rest of the band roasting deer over great fires. When the feast finished cooking, they all sat down in the moss and grass or on stones and logs. Cletus sat upon a mossy boulder beneath the oak tree with Little John at his right.

As the feast ended, Will Stutely said, “It is now time to christen our tiny babe, merry boys.” Laughing and joyous shouts echoed through the woods in response. “Then we need sponsors!”

Little John sprang to his feet as Will approached with seven other men. “Lay a finger on me and you shall rue it,” John said.

The men seized Little John by the limbs and held him tightly despite his fight to free himself. A bald man dressed in dirty robes stepped forward with a pot of ale.

“Who brings this babe before the church of theft and merriment?” the fake priest asked.

“I do,” said Will Stutely.

“What name will you call this boy?”

“Little John I will call him.”

“Little John,” said the mock priest, “you have lived till now just to get through this world. From now on you will truly live. Little John, I christen thee.” With that, the priest dumped the pot of ale over Little John’s head.

All the merry men yelled with laughter as ale washed over Little John’s hair and beard. At first he looked angry, but the mood of the other men infected him. John bellowed with laughter while licking beer from his mustache. The men stripped Little John. Cletus clothed the sweet baby boy from head to toe in green and presented Little John with a bow of his own. As John grasped the stout wood, he officially became a member of the merry band of thieves and ruffians.

Will Stutely clapped Little John on the shoulders before departing. Will apologized to Cletus, but he had a prior arrangement with a young lady in Nottingham. Cletus shook Will’s hand as the man crept into the shadows. Back in the fire light, Little John’s baptism party continued throughout the night.

Days later, Cletus stood under the grand oak thinking of Will Stutely. Men of the band were free to come and go, but Will had no other home to go to. As Cletus worried, two men ran toward him with a busty young lady. Cletus recognized the woman as the barmaid of the Blue Boar in Nottingham. His heart fell. Cletus knew they bore ill news of Will Stutely.

“Will Stutely has been taken by the Sheriff,” the men said as they came to Cletus.

“And you bring me this woeful news?” Cletus asked the lady.

“Ay,” she said. “I saw it all. He’s wounded. One of the Sheriff’s men stroke him so hard it tore his head open before they bound him. I came running when I heard the news they’d hang him tomorrow.”

“He won’t be hanged tomorrow,” said Cletus.

Cletus blew three blasts from his horn, and men came running through the woods until over one hundred stood around him.

“Listen!” Cletus shouted. “Dear Will Stutely has been captured by the Sheriff. He has risked life and limb for all of us. We shall risk life and limb for him.”

The merry men craftily left Sherwood Forest in groups of two and three. At midday, the disguised men entered Nottingham and mixed with the people. Merry men pressed as near city guards as they could. Cletus and his men stayed hidden in the town, watching each other and the Sheriff’s men. When the sun dipped into the western sky, a bugle sounded from Nottingham castle. Crowds shifted through the town as rumor spread that the famous Will Stutely would be executed.

The castle gates opened, and the Sheriff led his men on a noisy parade. At the center of the guards, a cart pulled the shackled Will Stutely. Blood clotted in his blonde hair and on his pale face. Will begged the Sheriff to set him free to fight rather than kill Will like a coward. Cletus met Will’s gaze. Color sprang to Will’s cheeks, and he fell silent.

“Now, stand back!” a guard shouted.

Little John pushed through the crowd of guards to reach the cart. “What do you rats mean to push upon us?” a guard asked. “Stand back I say.”

“Stand back yourself,” Little John said.

Little John bashed the man on the side of the head. The guard fell dead instantly. John leaped upon the cart where Will lay. Little John tore the cage open with his hands and ripped the shackles from Will. “Leave the rest of us here, Will,” said John. “If you stay and fight, you will most likely die. I wouldn’t want you to die for I couldn’t ask for a nicer friend.”

Will jumped from the cart.

“Rebels!” screamed the Sheriff. “Guards, take him!”

The Sheriff kicked his horse toward Little John and swung his sword. John ducked the blow and rolled under the horse’s belly. “Sorry, Sheriff,” said Little John. “I must borrow your sword.”

Little John dragged the Sheriff from his horse and snatched the blade from the Sheriff’s hand. He tossed the sword to Stutely. “Will,” said Little John, “the kind Sheriff has given you his sword. Thank him for his gift and defend yourself!”

The Sheriff bellowed like an angry bull. He rushed at Will and Little John with no weapon. A strange horn sounded, and an arrow whistled within an inch of the Sheriff’s face. Curses filled the air as the merry men attacked. Swords and staves clashed, and arrows soared through the streets.

“Retreat! Retreat!” the Sheriff shouted.

The guards tore through the crowd back to the castle gates. Cletus commanded his men to stand down and let the guards flee.

“Stay!” said Will Stutely. “You can’t catch the dastardly Robin Hood if you never fight the man face to face, Sheriff.” Will laughed and turned to Little John. “Little John, my true friend, I did not think I’d see your face today or meet you this side of Heaven. I think now I may love you more than any other in the world.”

Cletus gathered his band in a tight group around Will Stutely and disappeared back into Sherwood.

 

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Spring passed away, leaving its flowers and rain. Summer too faded away with its scorching days and mellow nights. Fall came. Cletus and his men brewed ale, smoked pigs, and stored away food for roasting when winter would bring its winds and snow. Seasons passed and passed again. Leaves grew lush and green, and then crumpled to flat brown before falling, year after year.

“This is too nice a day to sit idle, Little John,” Cletus said one April morning. “Gather a group of men and go east. I’ll go west. Each of us will bring back a guest to dine tonight beneath our greenwood tree.”

Cletus brought along Will Scarlet, Allan a Dale, and Midge the Miller’s son. Men stayed behind to prepare a homecoming feast while others left with Cletus or Little John. Cletus and his group left the forest and wandered the highway through villages. At noon, Cletus stopped the men at a crossroads lined with large hedges. The men hid behind and beneath the giant bushes to rest and eat in the soft grass.

As the sun began to dip toward the western sky, a knight slowly rode over a nearby hill and toward the spot where Cletus and his men hide. The horse walked with a hanging head to match its limp rider’s brooding demeanor. Cletus walked into the road. As the knight passed, Cletus grabbed the reins and pulled the horse to a stop. “Hold, Sir,” Cletus said, “I beg you to wait for a short while. I have a few questions I’d like to ask you.”

“Who are you to stop a traveler like this on his Majesty’s highway?” asked the knight.

“That’s hard to say,” Cletus said. “Some would say I’m kind. Some call me cruel. Some might call me a murderer or a thief. Few may even call me good and righteous. There are too many eyes to judge a man. It depends who’s looking at me what I may be. People in this time and place call me Robin Hood.”

“Truly, good Robin Hood?” said the knight with a smile. “I hear much good of your name and little ill. What do you desire from me?”

“If you would come with me to Sherwood Forest, I will give you a merry feast greater than you have had in all your life.”

“You are too kind, but you will find me a sorry guest. It’d be best to let me be on my way.”

“No, I can’t let that happen. We keep a home in the depths of Sherwood, but so far from the roads and paths no one comes to visit. My friends and I have to seek them out when we grow bored. Although, I will say, Sir Knight, that our guests pay a fee for spending their nights with us.”

“I understand you,” said the knight, “but I am not the guest for you. I have no money at all.”

“That so? And if I don’t believe you?”

“I am ashamed to say that I have only ten shillings with me. That is every dime Sir Richard of Lea has to his name in this world.” Sir Richard handed his purse to Cletus.

“Put it away,” Cletus said. “I don’t doubt you. No one so pitiful would waste time lying to me. I’ve been many things in life, but I realized long ago that as a young man I made the wrong choices. Now, I seek to bring the proud down a peg or twelve, but I try to help the downtrodden whenever I can.”

“That’s what the stories say,” Sir Richard said.

“Come with us, Sir Richard,” Cletus said. “Warm your heart with us in the greenwood. Hopefully I can help you.”

“You mean to help me? I don’t think that you can, but I will go with you into Sherwood.”

Cletus called forth his men. Cletus stood on one side of Sir Richard’s horse with Will Scarlet on the other. The rest of the merry men fell in behind the knight. The group trotted into the woodlands to Sherwood forest. Cletus and Sir Richard continued to speak as they moved through the trees. Sir Richard suffered many debts to the point that in three days he would lose his castle and all his lands if he could not pay his debts in full. His money and property would forfeit to the church where Sir Richard would never be able to regain it.

Sir Richard lost his money by paying a ransom to the friends and kinsmen of Sir Walter of Lancaster. In a jousting tournament, Sir Richard’s son killed Sir Walter. To keep his son from prison and death, Sir Richard pawned his lands to the church to raise the money for the ransom. Sir Richard sent his son to Palestine to fight as a Christian for the Cross and to avoid the ill and hatred of Lancaster’s kinsmen.

“What more do you owe them?” Cletus asked.

“Four hundred pounds,” said Sir Richard.

“Your entire life will be forfeit over four hundred pounds?”

“It’s not my life I worry for, but my wife’s. When I lose my lands, she will have to return to her parents and live on the charity of her family. I will break her heart. For myself, I will join my son overseas to fight for the holy sepulcher.”

Will Scarlet asked, “Will your friends not help in your dire need?”

“While a rich man, I had many friends that spoke of their love for me,” Sir Richard said. “But like animals escaping a falling tree, they left me when I lost my money and gained powerful enemies.”

“You say you have no friends, Sir Richard,” Cletus said, “but many men have found Robin Hood a friend in their need.”

“So the stories go,” said Sir Richard. “I assume Robin Hood is a title? I’ve heard stories of your deeds since I was boy, but you are younger than me, good Robin.”

“The truth is more mysterious than that, but I’ll let you believe what you want.”

Night had fallen when Cletus led his band to the grand oak. From the distance, Cletus saw Little John and his men had returned already. When Cletus came near, he realized Little John had grabbed the Lord Bishop of Hereford as a dinner guest. The Bishop paced beneath the great tree while three Black Friars stood close behind him. Six horses stood hitched to the branches of the oak. One horse wore silken white and gold cloths while the others carried massive packs. The Bishop tried to flee upon seeing Cletus approach.

“Don’t run away, Lord Bishop,” Cletus said loudly. “I will be at your side soon. I could not have asked for a better dinner guest in all of England.

“How dare you treat a man so high in the church as I this way?” the Bishop asked. “Seven feet high heathens attacking a man on

“Stuff it, Bishop,” Cletus said. Cletus patted Little John’s shoulder as the crowds of merry men snickered. “Is this the man who hurt you, Lord Bishop?”

“Yes, the naughty fellow.”

“Have mercy on me, master,” Little John said whimsically as everyone began to laugh.

“Little John,” Cletus asked, “did you hurt his lordship?”

“Ay.”

“He called me travesties,” the Bishop said. “Fat priest, man-eater, greedy usurer.”

“Little John, did you call his lordship a fat priest?” Cletus asked.

“Ay.”

“And a man-eater?”

“Ay.”

“How about an usurer?”

“Ay,” said Little John so sorrowfully the crowd stopped laughing.

“Sadly,” Cletus said to the Bishop, “all these things must be true, you fat, greedy bastard. Little John is the most honest man I’ve ever known.”

Laughter rang into the air. Even Sir Richard joined the uproar.

“God will punish all of you monsters in time,” the Bishop said.

“Nay, Lord Bishop,” Cletus said. “Yahweh actually likes me quite well. We are ruffians, but we are not the evil men you think we are. No harm will come to you while you’re here. However, there are no kings nor bishops nor betters of any kind among us. All are equal men here. Sit down, Bishop, while my merry men prepare a woodland feast for us.”

Cletus bade his guests be seated. Fires roared. Men played games of archery and wrestling and drinking. Food cooked. Many men played instruments, and Allan a Dale sang magnificent songs. Allan’s songs told of love, war, glory, and sadness. Allan sang to the guests of a tale of man who lived forever, a lonely wanderer that began life as a murderous king but slowly softened his heart. Allan sang his ballad into the night.

When the full moon hovered over the great oak, Cletus led his guests to where steaming dishes filled the clearing with mouth-watering aromas. Plates covered a white cloth spread over the grass. Torches cast red and orange around the clearing. Men sat upon grass and moss around the linen table. On a signal from Cletus, men fell upon the food. Merriment filled the woods with rattling plates, talking, and laughter. As the feast dimmed to a close, men passed wine, ale, and cakes briskly about the circle. Cletus called for silence as everyone drank, and all fell quiet.

Cletus told the men the story of Sir Richard and his plight. As Cletus recounted the tale of death and debt, the Lord Bishop’s face lost color and grew stern. Over the course of the feast, the Bishop had become comfortable and had laughed with the merry men. As Cletus talked of Sir Richard, happiness left the Bishop to be replaced by a serious scowl. The Bishop set aside his wine. He fidgeted and constantly glanced about him as Cletus spoke.

As Cletus finished his tale, he looked to the Bishop and asked, “Lord Bishop, do you think this is not evil for any man to do to another, let alone a churchman?”

The Bishop did not answer but glared at the ground.

“Lord Bishop, you are the richest clergyman in all of England. Could you help Sir Richard?”

The Bishop still did not answer.

“Little John and Will Stutely,” Cletus said. “Bring the pack horses here.”

As the two men followed orders, Cletus obtained the ledger of goods from the Black Friars. John and Stutely scattered the packs at the center of the circle where the food had been. Cletus handed the ledger to Will Scarlet. Loud enough for all to hear, Scarlet read, “Three bales of silk to the mercer at Ancaster.”

Picking at his fingernails with a dagger, Cletus said, “Leave that alone. He’s an honest man who has risen from filth to prosper by his own hard work.”

“One bale of silk velvet for the Abbey of Beaumont.”

“What do priests and monks and friars want with velvet? I won’t steal it outright. Measure it off into lots, one for charity, one for us, and one to go onto the abbey.”

“Twoscore candles for the Chapel of Saint Thomas.”

“Leave that be. It belongs fairly to the chapel.”

In that way, Cletus progressed through all the goods and packages carried by the Bishop’s horses. Cletus ordered the goods adjusted as he saw fit. Some things he had set aside untouched, and most Cletus divided into three equal parts for charity, for the merry men, and for the owner. Soon goods covered the ground inside the circle of men so much that the grass could not be seen beyond the silks, velvet, clothes, wines, ales, dried meats, paintings, ornate sculptures, and many other things. Finally, Will Scarlet read off the last item on the list, “A box belonging to the Lord Bishop of Hereford.”

“My Lord Bishop, what is in your box?” Cletus asked.

The Bishop shook in the warm night as Little John dropped a wooden box with iron strips in the circle.

“My Lord, do you have the key to your box?”

The Bishop shook his head.

“Will Scarlet,” Cletus said, “go and bring an ax straightaway, and cut this box open.”

Will left and returned with a great, two-headed ax. He struck the ironbound box, and on the third blow the box burst open. A heap of gold streamed across the ground. Coins glowed ghastly orange in the torchlight as murmurs spread through the band of men. Cletus ordered three men to count the gold. It took a long time to count the money, but when the men finished, they called out that the gold added up to two thousand pounds in all. Along with the gold the men found a paper. Will Scarlet read the document aloud so all gathered heard that the money was the fines and forfeits from estates belonging to the Bishopric of Hereford.

Cletus shook his head. He placed the dagger point against the Bishop’s chin and forced the holy man to look up from the grass. “My Lord Bishop,” Cletus said, “I will not strip you completely. You will take back one third of your money. One third of it I will be keeping as payment for the entertainment and food my men have provided for you tonight. One third will go to charity as you can spare money for such a noble goal.”

Cletus turned to Sir Richard and said, “Now, Sir Richard, it seems to me that the church wanted nothing more than to leave you and those like you penniless. As punishment for that, a portion of the Bishop’s third will be given to you. You will take the third meant for charity as well as for a total of twelve hundred pounds. Pay your debts and make your life whole again.”

“I will take your gift,” Sir Richard said, “but not as charity. I will pay my debts and secure my livelihood. In a year and a day, I will return it safe to you for I feel free to borrow but not to steal.”

“I do not understand the pride that weighs your heart,” Cletus said. “It shall be as you say if that is what you wish.”

“Sadly, I must go, kind friend,” Sir Richard said. “My wife must be anxious.”

Will Scarlet said, “Let us give Sir Richard a golden chain and jewelry that befits a man of his blood.”

“You speak well,” Cletus said. “Make it so.”

“Let us give him a bale of rich velvet,” Will Stutely said. “And a roll of golden cloth and a case of wine to take home to his noble lady as a present from Robin Hood and his merry men.”

“Good master,” Little John said, “we cannot let him go unattended. Let me choose a score of fellows, and let us arm ourselves. We will serve as retainers to Sir Richard on his travel home.”

“You speak well Will and Little John. It shall be done.

Sir Richard failed to speak as tears fell from his eyes. Sir Richard kissed Cletus upon the cheek. Little John and nineteen armored men led Sir Richard through the woodlands by the glare of torches and steel. As the men marched away, the Bishop said, “I must be going as well, good Robin. The night grows too late.”

Cletus laid his hand on the Bishop’s shoulder and pointed the dagger at the holy man. “Unfortunately,” Cletus said, “you’ll be going nowhere. I can’t have a festering sore of a man like you causing trouble for that good gentleman. You’ll be staying here with us for a while. Lay at my mantle. There will be great sport of hunting to be done, which I’ve heard rumor that you enjoy. Try to lead a joyous life for a few short days. Hopefully you will learn to be a better man while here.”

The Bishop and his Black Friars stayed with Robin for several days. The Bishop enjoyed hunting and feasting with Cletus so much that when the time came for him to leave, the Bishop was sorry to leave Sherwood Forest.