Before the Storm

Hacking through the dense forest of mushrooms with my sword proved unusually challenging. I grumbled while I made my way through the multicolored fungus. I couldn’t believe Merlyn had convinced me to go after Ashley in the Nether. The spirit world did not abide by the physics of Earth. Time, distance, and a long list of other things were wrong there. Depending on where Merlyn’s portal dropped me, Ashley could be days away. Combine the wonkiness of the Nether with the fact that I didn’t know where Ashley was, days could easily become decades.

As I exited the toadstool forest, I stumbled into a field of flowers of every color I’d ever seen — and many colors I hadn’t. Smooth white stones dotted the rolling hills. My steps kicked up a rainbow of pollen dust into the lavender sky. Walking by them, I realized the white boulders were the cleaned bones of some massive animal.

A scream rang from over the next hill. I turned to avoid the source of the child-like shout, but then an animal roar responded to the scream. Against logic, I sprinted over the hill. At the bottom of the slope, a woman fought a centipede the size of a city bus.

To say the woman was beautiful would be like calling a flame hot. While true, the description lacked all nuance and ignored the subtle, intricate details that brought the beauty to life. She looked human but vaguely insectorid with hard, angular features and sharpened teeth. Curly raven hair matted against her sweaty brow, framing her emerald eyes. A charcoal dress hung in tattered rags from her milky skin. Jets of fire leaped from her hands and feet as she struggled against the mountainous centipede.

“Are you just going to gawk?” the woman shouted in a melodic accent. “Help me!”

I became aware of how hot my skin felt. Half sprinting, half sliding, I descended the muddy hillside. I fired off blasts of energy, but the attacks bounced pitifully off the beast’s carapace. The centipede dropped the woman and rushed towards me.

The monster’s barbed limbs gained more purchase in the soft, wet earth than my sneakers could. The creature’s mandibles spread open, revealing a writhing maelstrom of spiked pinchers that snapped at the air. I stumbled backwards and slammed my ass into the mud. The centipede bore down upon me. I fired into the nightmare maw. The energy ball exploded in the beast’s convulsing mouth. The centipede reared back and growled in agony.

With the monster distracted, I drew Grasscutter and shoved myself off the ground. I lunged and buried my sword hilt-deep into the thing. The blade met no resistance against the hard exoskeleton. The carapace sizzled with blue flames and turned to ash. The blade slipped through the beast as if cutting air. I hacked at the centipede and streaked its body with rotting, ashen gashes. In what felt like seconds, the centipede collapsed in a heap.

The fae woman ripped away her shredded dress until she was left with a miniscule skirt. I held Grasscutter at arm’s length between she and I. She arched a slender eyebrow. “Have you never seen tits before?” she asked, gesturing at her bare chest.

“I don’t trust faeries,” I said.

“You’ve nothing to fear from me. At the moment.”

“Still don’t trust you.”

“I’m in your debt for saving my life. Let me give you a gift to return the favor.”

“I don’t need anything from you.”

“Of course not,” the faerie said. “But I’m offering anything you want.”

“The only thing I want is to find my friend.”

“Done.”

“You’ll help me find my friend?” I asked.

“I’ll give you the tools to navigate,” the faerie said, extending her hand.

I eyed her clawed fingers as I walked the few steps between us. “If this is a trick, I’ll kill you,” I said. I grasped the fae’s forearm in a handshake.

With uncanny strength, the faerie jerked me towards her. She pulled me down by the hair and kissed me. I melted into her, parting my lips and allowed her tongue to roll over mine. Something slithered from her mouth into mine. I pushed her away, but the faerie’s insane grip held my still. Thousands of tiny pinpricks crawled up the back of my throat and beyond my nasal cavity. I screamed into the faerie’s throat as I felt the thin slide across the inside of my skull.

The faerie pulled away from the kiss. Deep, angry hunger burned in her eyes. She dabbed away what looked like bloody spider webs from the corner of her ruby lips.

“What the fuck did you just do to me?” I asked as I wiped my mouth on my sleeve. “What did you put in my brain?”

“That was my gift,” the faerie said. “You’ll be able to find anything now.”

“That’s not what you said would happen.”

“You never asked how I’d bestow my gift.”

The faerie produced a red, wooden cylinder from seemingly nowhere. She placed the object in my hand as she kissed my cheek. “You may call me Aragnis. If you ever want me, break this and I’ll find you.”

I thought I’d never seek Aragnis out again, but I stuffed the totem in my pocket anyway. “How does your magic compass work?”

“Just think about what you want to find,” Aragnis said. “Though, I’d hurry if I were you. We’re in Telemos territory, and they do not like humans.”

With that, Aragnis vanished in a burst of flames.

I tried to not concern myself with the strangeness of the Fae. Instead, I focused on Ashley and attempted to use the magic compass. A gentle force tugged inside my head, pulling me toward a distant hill. I stomped back through the kaleidoscope fields, kicking rainbow pollen into the air. The faerie’s magic compass provided a constant, gentle pull in my mind as I walked. I simply knew which way to travel.

At the peak of the flowery hills, the land dropped into a deep valley. Cradled in the valley, a dark forest loomed. The black trees stood eerily still, even their gloomy leaves motionless. Burgundy fog oozed from the treeline. The mental compass pointed through the center of the forest. Far to my left, I saw where the abyssal wood gave way to a golden field. It would’ve added several miles to my trip to walk around the woods to those happy-looking fields. Against the urges from a tiny voice inside me, I marched down the slope and into the blackened forest.

I decided to call the woods Death Metal Forest. A symphony of wolves howling and crows cawing echoed in the still air. The red fog carried the scent of rotting flesh. Blood seeped from the trees, and glowing eyes watched me from the shadows. Cold gripped at my bones. On the surface, Death Metal Forest was eerie and uninviting, but posed no real danger.

A low growl vibrated the earth. I grasped a bloody branch to steady myself against the quake. Remaining calm, I scanned the forest and spotted an unsettling blue light. A snarling beast talked through the trees, giving off that azure glow. Taking a wide, low stance on the shaking ground, I eased Grasscutter form its sheath.

The Picasso creature was a wolf made from thousands of jagged, topaz triangles. The triangles moved independently in waves and pulses. Blue slime dripped from between the scales. Five limbs bent at angles that would make movement impossible, yet the dog stalked towards me with jerky steps. Balls of emerald glass shards stared at me from irregular eye sockets. Somehow, I knew the monster wasn’t three dimensional. Pain throbbed behind my right eye as my brain struggled to interpret the side of the dog shifting between something like a piece of paper, a single line, and the horror that faced me.

The origami dog’s bottom jaw detached and floated in the air. A second set of jaws slid forward from the gap. As the second mouth opened, a third extended from the black, sinewy tissue almost a foot in front of the hound. A long, convulsing tentacle sprouted from the third set of teeth and ended in a fourth mouth. From the tentacle mouth probed along, needle-like tongue. The proboscis whipped back and forth through the fog. “You should not be here, Son of Adapa,” the hound hissed.

Ignoring the beast, I unleashed a roaring gale from Grasscutter. The burst of wind shattered the origami hound, scattering triangles of glass across the undergrowth. Not returning Grasscutter to its scabbard, I crept through Death Metal Forest. Shadows and small eyes darted around me in the brush, but the forest creatures seemed more apprehensive about me than I was afraid of them. As I tread through the blood red fog, the forest fell silent except for the faint sound of wind chimes.

“The stench of Chronos permeates your bones,” the origami hound’s voice called out.

Turning, I saw two of the beast’s legs walking between the trees. A swarm of amber triangles drifted through the air. I gripped Grasscutter tighter as I watched the hound reassemble. As the last piece of the hound fell into place, its quadruple jaws unhinged. The hound’s whip-like tongue flicked about, tasting the air.

“What is your problem?” I asked as I backed away from the hound.

“You are an abomination,” the hound’s voice said despite the prehensile tongue snaking in the fog. “The Sons of Adapa were meant to move with the Sands of time, not travel through them.”

“Doesn’t seem like a reason to kill a man,” I said while forming a ball of energy in my open palm.

The hound shouted, “This is our pact! Since the seven sages cast us form the mortal realm into the Dark, we have sworn to destroy all Sons of Adapa who invade our home. Long ago, as children of Tiamat, we stopped those who would control the Sands of Time. You, Son of Adapa, have done both.”

I threw the energy ball. The blast tore the origami hound in two. The beast’s insides convulsed like a mass of black snakes. Slick tendrils launched from pieces of the hound to other pieces like bloody hands. The sinewy webs pulled the beast back together.

“The Hounds of Telemos cannot be stopped,” the creature said.

Leaving the monster to reconstruct itself, I sprinted through Death Metal Forest. Branches smacked me in the face as I sprinted in the direction the mental compass pulled me. Faint windchime sounds drifted through the trees as the hound followed. The gentle music filled my body with dread, but the increased adrenaline propelled my frantic escape.

The treeline broke. Death Metal Forest gave way to an icy field of mauve grass. I hid with my back pressed against a large boulder. Panting, I listened for the hound’s chimes. Over my heart pounding behind my ears, I couldn’t hear anything. I relaxed. I became suddenly aware of the sweat between my shirt and skin and the snot and drool running down my face. Exhaustion settled over me and left my body shaking and hollow. I pushed up my sleeves and took several deep breaths as I closed my eyes.

“Son of Adapa,” the hound said, “you cannot hide.”

The hound stood atop the boulder, its four jaws open and flailing in the air. The hound’s needle tongue lashed out and coiled around my forearm. In one motion, I drew Grasscutter and cut the hound’s head off. I tore the tongue from my searing arm, and I stabbed the hound’s face repeatedly.

Struggling against fatigue, I ran across the grass while the hound reassembled behind me. Red weals grew on my forearm where the hound’s tongue had gripped my flesh. The thick welts throbbed in sync with my pounding heart, distracting me from the soft wind chimes following me. As I looked across the frosted field, the thick scent of mud filled my lungs with every labored gasp. Soon I heard the rushing water and crested a small hill to find the violent stream.

Without a thought I raced into the stream. The rapids tossed me about. Not knowing which way to go, I flailed in the water, frantically seeking the surface. The current bashed my thigh against stones. Ignoring the pain, I latched onto a rock and dragged myself along the bottom of the stream as my lungs blazed in protest.

I crawled from the water coughing. My battered hip throbbed out of time with my infected forearm. Blood spotted my jeans. The whelts left my the hound’s tongue had turned a deep red with streaks of unnatural green and blue. Across the stream, the unearthly beast acted like a regular dog, inching toward the water’s edge and sniffing before jumping back to cautiously approach again. I watched the hound and shouted, “That’s right you magic son of bitch! Good luck crossing running water.”

The ground vibrated with the hound’s growls. The beast paced along the water’s edge. Its shattered glass eyes locked on me. The beast dove into a nearby boulder and disappeared. I turned in the direction of the gentle pull of my magic compass, and the hound leaped from a blade of grass. The monster’s quad-jaw tore into the back of my calf. Screaming a chain of obscenities and nonsense, I unleashed a storm of slashes and energy blasts into the origami hound until all that remained was a mound of glass and slime.

Awkwardly, I used my sword to cut away my jeans. I tied strips of bloody denim just below my knee and over the gash in my thigh. I ignored the lousy condition my body was in and focused on the mental compass. Avoiding the hound as it reshaped, I followed the pull of the compass in my mind. At a determined limp, I walked along the riverbank.

And the hound followed.

My legs protested every step. Stabbing pain in one hip alternated with throbbing numbness in the opposite calf. The origami hound’s body played its eerie melody as the beast stalked me. I tried to speed up, but my wounds fought against my efforts. My spine froze as I felt the hound draw near. I continued to flee until I couldn’t. The river spilled over the edge of a cliff, spiraling down twenty feet through the air and crashing onto the rocks below.

The hound stood before me. “There is no escape, Son of Adapa. Those who toy with Time must be dealt with. There is nowhere left for you to run. Accept your fate.”

“You’ve clearly never met Cletus Francis Clemens,” I said. “I don’t stop running from problems I can’t deal with.”

I threw myself over the edge of the cliff. Time seemed to slow as I drifted toward the rocky earth below. The origami hound launched through the air above me. The creature descended faster than gravity would’ve allowed. Its four extended jaws thrashed. Serene calmness fell over me. I drew Grasscutter and thrust the blade into the glass dog’s chest. The origami hound snapped at my face. With Merlyn’s focus orb clenched in my fist, I punched my mangled arm into the beast’s maw. Blue light and flames leaked form the millions of joints between the glass shards of the hound’s flesh. Time sped back up. The hound exploded, and I rocketed into the wet, stony ground.

I groaned. Pain flared in my side and prevented me from taking a satisfying breath. I puffed shallow intakes until my head spun and my vision swam from hyperventilating. I tried — and failed — to stand. Gritting my teeth, I pulled my body through the mud with my one good limb.

Despite sliding across the ground, I felt as if I was falling sideways. My flesh hung heavily from my bones and weighed my movement. The trees rocked back and forth. A door stood in the forest attached to nothing. The air shimmered for several inches around the door. Gold trim lined the black polished wood. The floating door lacked a handled. A pewter dragon’s head sprouted from the door. The metal beast grasped a jewel-encrusted pentagram in its teeth. Struggling against the pain, I pulled myself up and leaned against the door. I pounded the knocker against the heavy wood, and wind chimes answered.

I slammed the knocker repeatedly. I scanned the trees, but I couldn’t see the hound. Pain strummed in my head as the magic tugged at my mind in time with the beating of the pentagram against the blackened wood. I shrieked and begged the door to open. The wind chimes grew louder and inched ever closer. I pressed my clammy forehead against the sealed door and screamed.

The spiraling feeling of falling in several directions at once washed over my body. I slammed onto a dusty hardwood floor. Groaning, I rolled onto my back. Ashley Skelten stared down at me. Before the bewilderment in her expression spawned a question, I said, “I’m being chased by a mutant origami demon that won’t fucking die. Also may be bleeding to death.”

Blackness encroached around my vision. Ashley said something. I could hear her voice but couldn’t understand the words. Slowly, she stopped speaking. Cold crept deep within my bones. Then, all feeling faded away.

Warmth spread across the surface of my skin. Ashley called to me. I sat up from the milky pool. A thick layer of wax coated my naked body. Wax tore away as I crawled onto the frozen stone floor around the inlaid tub. Where was my sword? I ripped wax coating from my face and scanned the room. Grasscutter was nowhere to be seen. I spun, searching for an exit. Ashley grabbed my wrist, but I shoved her away as I raced around the room.

“Cletus!” Ashley screamed.

Some unseen force lifted me from the ground. My limbs froze in space. I fought against the power but couldn’t move. Setting my gaze on Ashley, I asked, “Where’s my sword? I need my weapon. The hound is chasing me.”

“There is no hound,” Ashley said. “There never was a hound.”

“Of course there’s a hound. The Hound of Telemos chased me across Faerie. It wounded me.”

Ashley lowered me to the ground but kept my limbs magically bound. She rested her hands on my shoulders. “You inhaled a lot of marsont pollen,” Ashley said. “It is highly hallucinogenic. Yes, you were hurt, but you probably did it to yourself.”

“That can’t be right,” I said. “There was a giant centipede, a dancing faerie, Death Metal Forest, and the hound.”

“I don’t know if any of that actually happened.”

I sat on the cold stone and fought against the stream of confusion. The hound wasn’t real? I couldn’t reconcile that idea with my horrid memories of the chase. Emptiness settled in the pit of my stomach.

Ashley brought my belongings to me. Tears littered the jeans in all the places I’d been injured while fleeing. New scars shined pink on my legs and forearm. Merlyn’s focus orb was missing, and the faerie’s wooden relic rested in the front pocket of my hoodie. If the hound hadn’t been real, what had actually happened to me?

So Two Years Ago

I slotted the ceramic cube in place, and the temporal displacement system Mark II whirred to life. The honeycomb matrix contained precious metals that filtered radiation from the cletonium crystal inside the cube. A tiny amount of palladium and platinum served the same function for the chronometer on my wrist. Finally, my time machine was repaired and ready.

Brian stomped down the basement stairs in khakis and a nice, blue shirt. I glanced at him and turned away without speaking. He positioned himself between me and the TDS. “Are you coming?” he asked.

“Where?”

Brian shook his head. “You know where.”

“Yeah, sure. Let’s go.”

“You can’t go dressed like that.”

I looked down at my rust and grease covered shirt and cargo shorts. “I guess I’ll shower,” I said with a deep sigh.

“We’re already late. Just change.”

“We won’t be late. We’ll never be late to anything again.”

An hour later, Brian and I arrived early in a blaze of electric blue light. Brian doubled over and wretched in the grass along the sidewalk.

“You get used to that,” I said quietly.

Brian and I walked into the funeral home. I stayed in the lobby during the visitation while people filtered in. The experience reminded me of waiting with Ashley in the same room during her mother’s funeral. I couldn’t go in and look at her. From the doorway, her body looked pale and bloated. The thing in the casket wasn’t my friend. Everyone whispered about how sweet she was and how unfortunate her suicide must be for her father. Only Brian and I knew the truth about the vampire killing Ashley.

Brian and I stayed at grave until after the casket had been lowered into the earth. Everyone else had left, even Ashley’s father. I placed her blasting rod and daggers atop the glazed wooden box along with the silver broadheads Ashley had forged to fight a werewolf that had never existed. With the groundskeeper’s blessing, Brian and I shoveled red clay dirt over the coffin without a word.

When I missed school for a couple of weeks, rumors spread of my death. I wasted none of my time correcting anyone. I saw no point in going to school. Class focused on information I already knew and posed no challenge to me. I spent most of my time wandering in the past, smoking myself into a stupor. Brian stopped spending as much time at my house. Honestly, his absence made it easier for me to disappear unnoticed.

I had just returned from Woodstock and fallen asleep in my own bed for the first time in days when David burst into my bedroom. “You ain’t a little kid no more,” David said. “So, I can’t believe I gotta say this, but you smell like shit. Shower. Right now.”

“Got it.”

“And tomorrow you’re either gonna take your ass to school, or you’re gonna go get a goddamn job. Don’t care which, but you ain’t gonna sit around on your ass doing nothing. You will contribute in some way.”

I rolled out of bed and shuffled downstairs. Less than a minute later, I returned with a large box. I pushed the box into David’s hands and sat down at my computer.

“The hell is all this?” David asked.

“Mostly war bonds,” I said. “Some old silver certificates. Old money you might be able to sell. Legal documentation showing you as the inheritor of a sixty-year-old account and all its accumulated interest. I think that’ll cover my half of everything for the next decade. That enough contribution?”

“Where the fuck did you get all this? You stealing shit? Selling drugs? You know I’ll find out.”

No reason to lie. What did I have to hide? “That big ass thing I built in the basement from scrap is a time machine,” I said. “I just went back in time, gathered all of that, and came back exactly one second after I left.”

“You expect me to believe that? I ain’t fucking stupid.”

“You can believe whatever you want. The truth doesn’t rely on your belief in it.”

“If you got a time machine, why wouldn’t you go back and fix the shit that’s bothering you? Keep that girlfriend of yours from killing herself.”

“She’s not my girlfriend,” I said, “but I don’t know why I couldn’t fix things. Leroy David Clemens, you’re a goddamn genius.”

“Don’t use my first name,” David said. “The hell are you doing?”

I grabbed a handful of random clothes and the hoodie Ashley gave me. “I’m going to shower,” I said. “And then, I’m going to make all of this right.”

I crept through thick trees under the full moonlight. I could see the white wolf walking through the field just beyond the treeline. As I approached the edge of the clearing, dizziness and nausea racked my body. Before I broke through the trees, I collapsed to my knees, and the world spun around me. “Hurts, doesn’t it?” a voice said behind me.

I rolled onto my back and looked up at the man standing over me. Short white hair and a matching beard lined his face. Baby blue eyes stared at me. A thick blue trench coat, tied at the waist, covered his body. Clenching my guts I asked, “Aren’t you the guy that played the Devil in that shitty Dorian Gray movie?”

The old man spun cocked an eyebrow. The pain in my stomach and head doubled.

“Who are you? Why are you doing this?”

“I came to protect the timeline from a child with more power than he deserves,” the old man said. “You clearly don’t realize what would happen if you altered your own past.”

“Chronos would probably kill me,” I said. “Worth the risk.”

My pain and dizziness disappeared.

“Fool. You’d be risking our entire existence. This is a point in Time that cannot be changed. If you tried, catastrophe would befall you sent by the time god himself. If you altered these moments, the deviations in Time would be so drastic that the time stream would fracture. The branching timelines from that rupture would rip away into closed time-like curves and slowly disappear.”

“This is kind of moment when I’d expect Chronos to stop me.”

“Such arrogance from a pissant. Why would an elder god dirty his hands over the likes of you? He could dip his finger into the time stream and prune this branch without any of us knowing. I would much rather that not happen.”

“You’re not Chronos. Who are you?” I asked.

“The only time mage to ever exist,” the old man said. “From my perspective, we’ve had this conversation countless times now. You did not read the letter that Ashley gave you upon her deathbed.”

I had not read the letter. I had avoided the unmarked envelope. Reading her final words to me would mean admitting Ashley was gone. The old man snapped his fingers, and the envelope appeared in my hands. I stared at the envelope for so long I heard the fight between Ashley and the vetoli begin beyond the trees. “Open it,” the old man ordered.

Inside the envelope, I didn’t find a letter. The package contained a single note card covered with a string of numbers, two dates, and a single message:  Take me there.

I exited the time stream the night of December 20, 2003, the first date from Ashley’s card. I rapped Grasscutter’s pommel on the outside of Ashley’s bedroom window. She answered the knock in a nightgown. “Cletus?” Ashley asked as she forced her window open. “What’re you doing here?”

“Can I come in?”

Ashley stepped back, and I struggled to drag myself through the window onto her bedroom floor. I adjusted my belt and hoodie as I stood up off the carpet.

“Are you wearing a sword on your hip?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Long story.”

“Sounds like you should start telling it now then.”

“Better idea,” I said. “Do you trust me?”

“I guess. What kind of question even is that?”

“I need you to trust me right now,” I said. “I’m from the future. I’m here to help  you because you and a time wizard both told me to.”

“Are you high?”

“Not at the moment, but maybe you should be. It’d make things easier.” I pulled my sleeve up to show Ashley the chronometer. “You have to accept that I’m from the future without any questions.”

“Okay. You’re from the future.”

“Really? You’re actually just going with it.”

“You’re taller. You have more facial hair than you did at school today. You’ve got that weird giant watch thing going on there. Makes more sense than a twelve-hour growth spurt.”

“That’s actually pretty smart. I should’ve led with those things. Alright, cool. You need to get dressed, pack a bag, and grab whatever magic shit you think you need.”

“Why?”

“I’m taking you to the past.”

To her credit, Ashley turned unusually pale but did not vomit after her first jump through time. The second date and set of coordinates dropped us in a clearing surrounded by lush forests with light rain drizzling from the grey sky.

“Now, I need your help,” I said. “This is the spot future-you told me to take past-you, but we need to go further. Cast a spell to find other sources of magic.”

“I might be able to do that,” Ashley said.

“Might?”

“I can, but it’ll take awhile.”

I paced for over an hour while Ashley prepared and performed her ritual. She drew glyphs and runes on a sheet of paper before wandering in a circle with incense. Ashley knelt within her invisible circle and etched a pentagram into the soil. While she worked, Ashley explained the importance of symbolism in magic to connect small rituals to a greater source of power. Each point of the star represented the four classical elements along with spirit, the primordial life energy that bound magic to the mortal world. Ashley used interesting choices to portray the elements. She chose a full plastic bottle for water, a rock for earth, a paper airplane as wind, and a lit candle represented fire. At the top point, Ashley placed a necklace with a heart-shaped pendant as her symbol of spirit. She set a large, black candle at the center of the pentagram. Ashley lit the candle and grasped a crystal in her hand while she chanted.

Ashley pressed the crystal to the outer rim of the pentagram. The lines ignited with white light. Each elemental symbol glowed a different color. The energy collapsed to the center of the pentagram and changed the candle flames to a deep indigo. Ashley burned the rune-covered paper in the candle while continuing to chant. As the last of the ashes crumbled, the flame lazily tilted to the side.

Returning things to her bag, Ashley plucked her magic compass from the ground and scuffed away her magic circle with her heel. “Let’s follow the flame,” she said.

Ashley led the way. Her purple flame grew in size and changed direction as we walked. The flame compass directed us through the forest. Ashley asked questions about the future. I refused to tell her about her own fate, but I openly discussed building the time machine and the misadventures of my maiden voyage. I stressed that she could not tell the me of her time about the TDS in any way before I told her.

After what seemed like forever, the magic compass brought Ashley and I to the base of an ancient oak. A man who looked older than the tree sat on a gnarled root. His braided white beard hung lower than the end of his goldenrod tunic. The man’s brilliant eyes matched his bright blue trousers. When the man noticed Ashley and me, the geezer clapped and shouted, “You’re late! I think I’ve been waiting for days.”

I wasn’t sure I could be late for an appointment I’d never made. As the old man moved about, Ashley’s purple candle compass followed his motions. The man waved use forward. “Come on. We’re wasting valuable learning opportunities.”

“What are you?” I asked, placing myself between the man and Ashley.

The man paused and started at me. “Oh,” he said, “that’s right. You haven’t officially met me yet.”

I rested my hand on Grasscutter as the lanky man jogged toward us. He extended a hand that was more wrinkles and liver spots than skin and said, “Forgive me, young friend. I did not introduce myself that night in the forest. I am Merlyn. It’s good to see you again.”

Merlyn ushered Ashley and me around the grand oak. A thin hole cut into the side of the tree. Merlyn disappeared into the hollow. Unsure what else to do, I followed the old man. I stepped into the gash in the oak’s bark and out onto a grassy lawn. The courtyard surrounded a stone tower that stretched into the sky. Ashley gasped as she appeared beside me. “Where the hell are we?” she asked.

“Spirit world,” I said.

“Specifically, my demesne,” Merlyn said from my other side.

Ashley and I followed the wizard across the grass to the tower. Through the tiny wooden door, we entered a massive entrance hall. “How does this room fit inside the tower?” Ashley asked.

“Nothing makes sense in the Nether,” I said.

“Almost nothing,” Merlyn said. “There are rules, you know.”

At the end of the entrance hall, a massive staircase ascended into the tower. Smaller hallways branched off to either side of the stairs. “Ashley, head right,” Merlyn said. “Cletus, go left.”

“Why?” I asked.

“To begin your training.”

“I didn’t come for training. That’s why I brought her here.”

“You’ll see. Just go.”

I looked at Ashley before we split up. “Stab the creepy old bastard if he tries anything weird,” I said.

Merlyn waved as I departed. The left hall ended at a single wooden door. I pushed on the thick mahogany and stepped into a small, dark room. Candles in each corner cast dim light across the stone walls. Multiple, interconnected magic circles covered the metallic floor. A man in jeans and a black t-shirt fumbled with papers at a desk across from the door. The man’s thick leather boots clacked on the floor as he turned to face me. “Well,” he said, “close the door.”

“Who the hell are you?” I asked.

“Merlyn.”

I cocked my eyebrow at the man. Shoulder-length black hair framed his sharp face. “Don’t say you’re Merlyn in a tone like I should just assume you’re the same person as the old guy in the hallway.”

“Right. You don’t get this yet. I’m the hybrid son of a witch and a demon. I exist outside of the time stream. I’m the only time wizard to exist. I’m the Merlyn at sixty-four. The one in the hallway is almost seven hundred. The one that stopped you from sticking your dick in the timeline was three hundred something. There’s a Merlyn in the garden and one in the kitchen. I’m also cleaning the aviary. It’s confusing, but I am Merlyn. So are all of them.”

“Do you guys just hang out and play cards with yourself?”

“No,” Young Merlyn said. “I avoid interacting with myself. You ever see Timecop?”

I imagined two wizards melting into a single mutated blob upon touching each other. “Probably a good idea,” I said.

“Well, step into the magic circle, and we’ll get started.”

“Started with what?”

“All of this will go faster if you stop talking and just do what I say.”

“That’s not why I’m here. I just gave Ashley a ride.”

“No, see, I also wanted you to be here. It’s probably more important than her being here. Just step into the magic circle.”

I moved to the center of the massive circle in the floor. “If this is a trap, I’ll kill you.”

“You could try,” Young Merlyn said as the circle ignited with blinding pink light.

The flash faded to a subtle rose tint along the edge of my vision. I floated in the air. Beautiful, grassy hills rolled beneath me. My view drifted over the valleys below. I looked over a group of men with spears and clubs hiking the hills. The leader of the hunters bore a striking resemblance to me, aside from his darker skin and slabs of sinewy muscle.

My field of vision rolled upward. Another group of men stood higher up the mountain side. The second group rolled a massive long down the hill. I screamed, trying to warn Apeman Cletus, but nothing escaped my lips. The attackers threw boulders down the slope before drawing weapons and sprinting at the first group. Apeman Cletus noticed the assault. He shoved his hunting party out of the way of the log. Apeman Cletus rushed uphill and drove his club into the earth. The log crashed against Apeman’s club. With inhuman strength, Cletus stopped the log. Leaving his club, Apeman Cletus hurdled over the log and sprinted at his attackers.

The ambushers converged on the single caveman. Cletus stomped on the side of the first attacker’s knee. The caveman’s leg folded at the wrong angle. The next attacker swung his club. Apeman Cletus caught the weapon and wrenched it from his opponent’s hands. Cletus shoved the other caveman to the ground and brought the weapon down like a golf club. The arcing blow separated the other man’s jaw from his head. One of the remaining attackers launched a spear. Apeman Cletus snatched the spear from the air. Cletus snapped the haft in two and buried the tip in the nearest caveman’s chest. The spear thrower leaped atop Cletus. The cavemen sprawled across the ground and grappled. Cletus gained the top and pinned his struggling opponent to the ground. Cletus ripped a stone from the soil and bashed it against the other man’s skull. The caveman fell still except for a few subtle jerks.

“He’s quite fascinating, isn’t he?”

A muscular, vaguely Asian man floated in the air beside me. The shirtless man’s skin pulsed with golden light. “I think I’ll name him Cletus,” the gold man said. “He just sort of looks like a Cletus, doesn’t he?”

“I’d say so.”

“I’d like to keep him.”

The golden man drifted down. Cletus stared up at the vibrant glow. The man extended his hand, and light enveloped the caveman. Apeman Cletus transformed into a stone sphere the size of a softball. The golden man pocketed the sphere in his billowing pants and disappeared.

The world rushed around me. I landed back in Young Merlyn’s tiny room. Sitting up, the walls spun around me. I lay back down. My brain throbbed inside my head.

“What was that?” I asked.

“A vision,” Young Merlyn said. “Specifically of the past.”

“Why’d the caveman look like me?”

“That was your grandfather, in a way. That was the original Cletus, a Neanderthal granted immortality by the Buddha. Cletus was a good friend of mine, or he will be.”

“But why show me that?”

“I want to help you understand where you come from, and hopefully influence where you’re heading.”

“I didn’t come here for history lessons,” I said. “I already know where I came from.”

“Do you?”

“Parents are from Chicago. Mom was a nurse. Dad was in the Army. He died in the Gulf War when I was a baby. Mom moved to Mississippi to live with her parents. Grandma died. Mom ends up going crazy and being institutionalized. I live with my grandfather until he died when I was eleven. Uncle becomes my guardian at that point.”

“Only partly right. That’s why you’re here.”

“No, I’m here because I brought Ashley here so you could teach her to be a wizard and die fighting a vampire.”

“Did you?” Young Merlyn asked. “Or did she send you here because I asked her to?”

Young Merlyn sent me away for the night. An orb of light guided me through the twisting halls. I climbed a winding staircase to the top of a tower. Two doors stood on either side of the small landing. My guidance orb bobbed in front of the right hand door.

Entering the room, simple decorations greeted me in my temporary bedroom. The wooden floor and walls smelled like pine. Doors to a closet and bathroom stood directly across from the entrance, and to the right a window overlooking the Chicago skyline somehow. Away from the entrance hall, the room opened into a small living space with wooden furniture.

Walking through the far door, I entered a forest clearing. A waterfall spilled into a small pool. Numerous bronze pipes covered the mossy stones behind the waterfall and around the pool. Towels hung from a rack just inside the clearing.

I threw my dirty clothes on the bed in my room. Under the cool waterfall, I found a seashell on the rock wall that controlled the water temperature. The bronze pipes dispensed a wide variety of soaps and shampoos. I showered under the steamy falls until my skin pruned.

After my shower, I slid into the pool at the base of the falls. The bronze pipes filled the water with bubbles and lotions and salts. I rested against the rocks in the warm pond and closed my eyes.

A small shriek woke me from my nap. “What’re you doing here?” Ashley’s voice came from behind a group of trees.

“Bathing,” I said.

“Well, leave. I need to shower.”

I climbed out of the pool and returned to my room. Someone had replaced my dirty clothes with simple pants and a tunic. I found my cleaned clothes in the closet and pulled my hoodie over the tunic.

Half an hour later, Ashley entered my room in a dress that matched my tunic. “Where have you been?” she asked. “I’ve been freaking out.”

“I went with Merlyn,” I said. “Just like you.”

“I’ve been here for weeks and haven’t seen you once. I didn’t even know this room was here.”

“It’s only been a few hours,” I said.

“It’s been like a month and a half, Cletus,” Ashley said as she sat next to me. “I thought you left me.”

“I wouldn’t do that. I think the vision Merlyn sent me into may have lasted way longer than it seemed.”

“Merlyn showed you a vision? Of what?”

I told Ashley about the immortal caveman. After my story, Ashley recounted the weeks she’d spent in the tower. Merlyn had taught her to control and manipulate her emotions, dampening and exciting feelings to match desired characteristics to enhance spells. Merlyn structured Ashley’s days like a strange military academy. Ashley spent the mornings exercising and learning to fight from an animated scarecrow named Frank. After breakfast, Merlyn tutored and instructed her on the details and history of magic. In the afternoon, Merlyn guided Ashley through learning a single spell or magical skill. Ashley researched assigned topics at night.

I listened as Ashley explained that all magic in our world counted as thaumaturgy. She detailed that magic could be classified as sympathy, contagion, ceremonia, invocation, evocation, or chaotic based on either the source of power or method of casting the magic. The most power magic relied on chaos, simply willing magic to alter the world around the caster.

“I’m glad you’re learning so much,” I said.

“I’m just grateful you brought me here,” Ashley said. “But, I have to research the poison made from gnem lizard kidneys and how to best counteract it without harming the afflicted person.”

After breakfast the next morning, I met Young Merlyn in the metallic chamber. I found him playing with a yo-yo and smoking a rolled cigarette. “You’re late,” he said as he waved his cigarette in my face.

“No, you never gave me a time to come back. I can’t be late.”

“I certainly expected you to be here earlier.” Merlyn ground his cigarette out against the side of a candle on his desk. “Are you ready to get started?”

“Another vision or something else?”

“A couple of visions if you’ll shut up so we can start.”

I stepped into the circle, and magenta light bathed over me. My vision floated above a version of myself. This new Cletus was taller than me, lanky, and had straight hair instead of my curly mop. He sat in a dirt-floored hut. Across from Cletus rested a white-haired old man and a teenage girl.

“He said to leave,” the girl said sternly.

“Explain to him,” Cletus said in a thick, Brooklyn accent, “that I can pay him handsomely.”

“You do not understand. Your money will not help you. Go now.”

Lanky Cletus left the hut. He sat in the grass outside. The girl followed after. “He will not change his mind,” she said.

“I’ve studied with mystics and trained with shamans,” Lanky Cletus said. “I’ve learned to move objects with my mind and to eliminate pain from my body with a thought. I control my mind, body, and soul, but I need his secrets.”

“He will not teach you because of your greed. You seek only power.”

“I seek to save the world from pain and hardship.”

“You wish only for yourself.”

Lanky Cletus didn’t leave. He sat in the grass until night fell, and then, continued to sit. Night passed, and day broke. Cletus remained in the same place. Lanky Cletus remained for three days without moving. He did not eat, did not sleep. He did not stir to relieve himself. Lanky Cletus only waited.

The fourth day, the girl brought food to Lanky Cletus. He did not move. The girl rolled her eyes. “Eat,” she said. “He says you may stay, but you must work.”

“He will teach me?”

“No. You will work. Maybe in time you will earn his trust.”

“Then I will work,” Cletus said, taking food from the bowl.

“I am Aapti,” the girl said. “Do you have a name?”

“My name is Benjamin Bartholomew Brown, the third,” Lanky Cletus said.

Benjamin Brown worked in the mountain village. He tended to beans and wheat. He gathered water and fished. Benjamin helped Aapti care for the old man. Benjamin woke in the early morning to watch and mimic the old man’s elaborate breathing and exercise routine. Benjamin ran and meditated during his free time. Two years passed. “Cletus” Benjamin Bartholomew Brown had fully integrated within the mountain community and abandoned his quest to learn the old man’s secrets.

While cooking with Aapti one morning, four white men attacked the village. Much like Benjamin, the attackers sought the old man. With a whisper, Benjamin sent Aapti inside the hut and placed himself in front of the men. “Gentlemen,” Benjamin said, “I must ask you to leave.”

“We heard an old man here has a treasure,” one of the men said.

“Thought he’s clever hiding here in the mountains,” another added.

“There’s nothing for you here,” Benjamin said. “The old man’s treasure is not one that will gain you riches. Please, leave.”

The men attacked Benjamin. One stabbed Benjamin in the shoulder. Ben did not react to the knife wound. He struck the man in the chest. Ben’s attacker flew several yards after the blow. The next attacker swung a club. Benjamin caught the weapon and threw the man into the air. Benjamin extended his arm. The other to men froze mid-step. Strain spread across Benjamin’s face. The men slid backwards through the dirt until stumbling over their comrades.

Benjamin panted. “Please, leave.”

The men gathered each other from the dirt and ran. Benjamin stumbled to the hut and sat down. Aapti knelt beside him. “You’re hurt,” she said.

“I feel nothing. Get me sewing supplies and water.”

Aapti gathered a bowl and rags. With instructions from Benjamin, the girl dressed his wounds. The old man emerged from his darkened room and sat in front of Benjamin. The old man spoke, and Aapti translated. “He says you are ready.”

“For what?”

The old man held out his hand, and a ball of red light formed in his palm.

“To learn.”

Hunger burned in Benjamin’s eyes as he smiled.

The breath ripped from my chest as I slammed back down in Young Merlyn’s tiny chamber. I pressed my fingers against my closed eyes to relieve the pain behind them. “Another distant relative?” I asked.

“Less distant,” Young Merlyn said. “The first reincarnation of the Neanderthal.”

“Benjamin Brown. Shitty comic book name.”

“Says Cletus Clemens.”

“I’m not taking shit from a guy named Merlyn.”

“Not my real name,” Young Merlyn said. “How do you feel?”

“Like little jack hammers are pounding away at the back of my eye sockets.”

“Drink more water. Proper hydration will help with the side effects. Though I thought you’d be stronger.”

“Bite me, old man.”

“You wish.”

I stumbled toward the door. As I reached for the handle, Merlyn shouted, “Catch!”

I flailed but managed to snatch the small ball from the air. As my fingers locked around it, flaming jets of blue light erupted from the ball. Torrents of energy burst from my loose fist. I yelled and threw the ball away from me. When it broke contact with my skin, the ball ceased spouting power.

“What the hell was that?”

Merlyn doubled over with laughter. He placed the ball in a leather pouch and offered it to me. I grasped the pouch. The ball inside remained dormant.

“That is a focus orb. Touch it and boom. If you concentrate, you can control the energy and pull it back into the ball. You’ll get better, hopefully.”

“Thanks, I guess.”

“Eat. Sleep. Lots of water. I’ve more to show you.”

Back in my room, I toyed with the focus orb. The ball flared to life as I touched it. If I tried to draw the energy back toward the ball, i could reduce the intensity of the orb’s blaze. It felt like forming an energy ball only much harder. As I concentrated on pulling the power back into the orb, I felt a barrier inhibiting my control.

A knock resounded from my wooden door. I hid the orb under my pillow and called Ashley into the room. She collapsed next to me on my bed.

“How long was I gone this time?” I asked as I curled up beside her.

“Couple weeks again,” she said. “See another vision?”

“The caveman got reincarnated as a guy that looked enough like me that he could be my father. He learned to make energy balls from an old guy living in the mountains.”

“Is that where your powers came from?”

“Hell if I know. What’d you learn?”

“Mostly water magic, which also means ice magic and potions and healing and blood. I know more about anatomy than I ever thought I’d need to. Like, did you know erections are actually decreased blood flow out of the penis instead of increased blood to the penis?”

“I did not.”

“Me neither. I also got turned into a fish.”

“What?”

“Yeah, it was nuts,” Ashley said. “Merlyn took me somewhere else in the Nether. I had to walk up a river. I almost drowned, but beautiful spirits helped me swim. At the end of the stream there was an amazing waterfall surrounded by ice and snow. I meditated under the crushing flow. Thought I was going to freeze to death. Actually passed out.

“I awoke transformed. I had become a fish. A catfish ruled the lake I lived in. Things were peaceful, but the catfish had strict rules, Anyone old, sick, or injured was killed. Weakness wasn’t tolerated. Everyone helped maintained the community. Anyone that couldn’t pull their weight was not part of the community, and outsiders were eliminated.”

“That sounds kind of awful,” I said.

“Not at first, but I eventually had to stand up to the catfish. I died protecting an old lady fish.”

“That’s fucking morbid. What’s the point? What’d you learn from that?”

“I mean, I learned to work as a team, but also when to go against the group. I learned to protect other people. And my magic got way stronger.”

The next morning, after six eggs, two bowls of cereal, and half a gallon of milk, I returned to the tiny metal room. Young Merlyn wasted no time throwing me into the next vision.

I floated in a black room with several couches. A screen covered one of the four walls. Three boys identical to Benjamin Brown stood in front of the screen. Each boy glowed with faint, colorful mist. One pressed his hands against the screen.

“Who’re you?”

I froze and slowly turned to face the person questioning me. Another copy of Benjamin sat on a couch. This fourth copy didn’t glow like the rest. “You can see me?” I asked.

“Yeah,” the young Benjamin said. “Why wouldn’t I be able to? You’re in my head.”

“Wait, what?”

“I’m Tom,” the kid said. “I’m a mostly normal eleven-year-old. Those three,” Tom waved at the other boys, “have super powers and live in my head.”

“Like split personalities?”

“What’s that?”

“One person has like multiple personalities. I don’t actually know how to describe it beyond that.”

“No, they used to have their own bodies. Someone put their memories in my brain.”

I sat on the couch next to Tom. The screen showed a first-person-view of a fight against a man in military fatigues. Every so often, the three boys would switch positions at the screen. “What kind of powers do they have?” I asked while watching the spectacle.

“The red one, Scarlet, has super strength,” Tom said. “Amber is really fast with super senses. Sapphire is geeky smart and can heal really fast.” Tom looked over his shoulder. “Then, there’s Zero.”

I sat up and followed Tom’s gaze over the back of the couch. A man sat in the corner of the small room. He looked like a bearded Benjamin Brown only emaciated to the point bones pushed against his pale skin.

“Zero doesn’t do anything,” Tom said. “Just sits in the corner. Never talks. Never moves. Never takes control of the body. That’s why we call him Zero.”

“Yeah, I got that.”

We turned back to the screen. Sapphire and Amber lay on the floor. Blood oozed from a gash on Scarlet’s chest. A first slammed into the screen. With a flash of white, Scarlet collapsed. Tom swore and looked at me. My skin burned under his pleading gaze. I stood to move toward the screen, but a hand pulled me back. “My name isn’t Zero,” the starving Benjamin copy said. “I am Chaos.”

The skeletal young man placed his hand against the screen. Light exploded across the room as thousands of smaller displays appeared in the air. Combined, the countless screens provided a three-hundred-sixty-degree view of the fight between Tom’s body and the military man. Tom’s eyes glowed white as Chaos took control.

The boy floated in the air. Streams of sand churned against gravity all around him. Tom’s hair stood on end. Chaos-Tom lifted his hand. The man launched into the sky. From his open palm, Chaos-Tom fired a beam of light the size of a small car. The blast engulfed the man, leaving nothing behind. With the man dead, Chaos rocketed across the sky.

“Holy shit!” I said. “He can fly.”

Chaos crashed down on a small island. He looked around at the inhabitants of the village and began firing beams of light.

Back in their head, Tom and I leaped from the couch. I grabbed Chaos by the shoulder and slammed back into Young Merlyn’s room.

“Send me back!”

“It already happened,” young Merlyn said. “That was only a vision. Nothing you did would change anything.”

“Send me there for real.”

“You can’t change your own past. There would be dire consequences.”

“Yeah, shattering the time stream. Time will fix itself, or Chronos will do it.”

“And he would erase you from all of Time. Do you want to know what happened?”

“Yes.”

“Then go on your own,” Young Merlyn said as he activated the magic circle.

I dropped into a white room. Three chairs stood around a glass sphere. Inside the sphere, a slightly older Tom fought a mountainous, bear-like man. Three glowing teenagers sat in the chairs over the sphere. One boy pressed his hands against the globe. I assumed he was controlling the body through the orb like they had through the screen before.

“You’re that guy,” the yellow teen sad. “Does that mean something awful will happen again?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.

“Well,” the blue one said, “last time you showed up, Zero and Tom disappeared. So, Amber thinks that’s why you’re here now, to take more of us.”

“That’s not why I’m here. What’re you guys doing?”

“Fighting Scarlet’s dad.”

“Why?”

“Strongest guy on the planet,” Amber said. “When we fought that last guy that nearly killed us, Tom and Zero vanished when the three of us almost died.”

“We’ve been doing tons of deadly stuff since,” Sapphire said. “Jumping off cliffs, out of planes. Hopping trains. Rodeo. Lots of fighting.”

“Ya know, risking life and limb. We’re trying to get our brothers back.”

On the screen, the ogre punched Tom so hard that back in the room Scarlet released the orb and collapsed into his chair. Not missing a beat, Amber took control. I watched in silence as the three boys fought the small giant. They switched control of Tom’s body among them as they fatigued or suffered injuries. Soon, all three controlled the sphere at once. The colored mists wafting off their bodies swirled together. The Benjamin clones melted into a multicolored cloud over the control orb.

With a blinding flash, I reappeared inside the magic circle.

“What the hell did I just watch?” I asked.

“That was the first Cleti,” Young Merlyn said. “A single body with the knowledge, abilities, and experiences of multiple lives.”

“How?”

“A perversion. A mixture of advanced science that should not have existed at that point in time and black magic. That boy — your precursor — was the result of an abominable experiment.”

“You think I’m an abomination?” I asked.

“That is not what I said.”

“No, you just strongly implied it.”

“I brought you here to teach you of the evil wrought to create you in hopes to turn you away from such darkness.”

“Which means you think that without your intervention I would evil.”

“Because you would. I’ve seen into the branches of your timeline where I did not seek you out. In almost all of them, you become a monster. But in this timeline, I guide your course.”

“That seems to be working real well,” I said.

 

***

 

I didn’t talk much that night as Ashley rattled on about her own adventures. With the two Young Merlyn visions back-to-back, Ashley had been training for almost four months since the last time we’d seen each other. Ashley’s training had shifted to wind-based magicka naturalis. Her scholarship had focused more on blood as well as the effects of night on magic and how to control the flow of magical energy.

Ashley had experienced another animal vision quest. She had been a sparrow in a kingdom ruled by a court of raptors. Ashley had led a revolt against the hawk king and died in battle.

Ashley slept in my bed, taking up an awkward amount of space. At first I tried to sleep on the floor, but then I got up in the middle of the night. I used the flare from the focus orb to light my way through the darkened castle. In the dining hall, food covered the table as it always did any time I entered the room. While I munched on a turkey leg, Young Merlyn entered the room.

The wizard piled potatoes and gravy almost a foot high on his plate. He topped the starchy mountain with a fist-sized chunk of butter. Merlyn sat across from me and shoveled food into his mouth. He ignored me as much as I ignored him as we both ate. Sometime in the middle of his third plate of potatoes, Younger Merlyn cleared his throat. “Think you’re up for more?” he asked.

“I really don’t know,” I said. “This all feels kind of shitty. You’re basically just telling me that I shouldn’t exist, but you need to tell me I’m a piece of shit to keep me from becoming a bigger piece of shit.”

“Fair assessment. I think the vision I plan to show you next should help though.”

“Not like I was sleeping,” I said as I threw my fork down.

The next vision departed from Tom’s head and returned to a disembodied perspective from above. My view floated above a teenger that was a muscular copy of Benjamin Bartholomew Brown. He leaned against a wall across from a bloody man tied to a chair. “Where’s Brown?” the muscular copy asked.

“I’m not giving anything up to you, White,” the beaten man said.

“Cut the shit, Zickefoose,” White said. “I want answers. Tell me, and I’ll let you go.”

“Brown knows you’re looking for him. He probably knows that you’re here. If you don’t kill me, he will.”

“I can stop him. I’ll protect you.”

Zickefoose tugged at his restraints and shouted, “Want to shake on it?”

“I could at least kill you quickly,” White said. “Benjamin Brown would never give you that comfort. Where is he?”

“A compound in Georgia,” Zickefoose said. “Some medical research company called RightCore.”

“Thanks, Zickefoose,” White said as he walked out of the room.

My vision faded to black. Light crept back in and revealed White in an elevator. The doors slid open. White stepped into the hallway and immediately starting flinging beams of light at guards. He sprinted through doors and burst into an open room.

A tank of sorts stood at the center of the room. Several men in lab coats and polos stood around the vehicle. At their center, an aged Benjamin Brown oversaw the work of the technicians around him. The group turned as White ran towards them. Brown waved his guards off. “Please excuse me, gentlemen,” Brown said. “Project Osiris, I’m so glad that you could join me.”

“Benjamin Brown,” White said, “I’ve come to kill you.”

White pointed at Brown. Bullets of light spat from White’s fingertips. Brown waved his hand. A wall of shimmering red energy stopped White’s attack. White sprinted across the room and threw a punch at Brown’s gut. Brown lashed out with his cane and broke White’s hand. Brown kicked White across the room. The old man tossed his cane aside and rose into the air. Balls of energy appeared in his hands. “Let’s settle this like only two gods can,” Brown said.

Brown threw the balls at his younger clone. White crossed his arms in front of his face. A dome of light sprang up around White to block Brown’s attack. White launched a beam at his flying opponent. Brown caught the beam and redirected it as a bolt of lightning. The red streak slammed into White’s chest. The younger clone spasmed and dropped to the ground.

Benjamin Brown landed beside White’s corpse. The old man clicked his tongue against the back of his teeth and sneered at the teenager. Brown spat on the body. “Pathetic,” Brown said. He waved at a group of scientists. “Take this failure to the labs in Oklahoma. Use him as the framework for Project Einherjar.”

I crashed back into my body, which no longer left me disoriented. I sat up to find Young Merlyn strumming a guitar in the corner. “The fuck is an  in-here-yar?” I asked. “I know Osiris, but not einherjar.”

Merlyn continued to play as he answered. “The einherjar are the ‘once fighters,’ the honored slain. Those who die in combat go on to Valhalla where they will die in battle every day and be reborn each night.”

“White was actually Tom after all five personalities merged into one.”

“Smarter than you look, Clemens.”

“No shit. What’s Project Einherjar?”

“Tell you tomorrow,” Merlyn said. “I’ve got a gig in 2011.”

“You’re literally the only time mage in all of existence. You can do both at the same time.”

“Trust me, get some sleep. However, in a couple of years, feel free to stop by the show.”

Back in my room, Ashley sat on my bed and read a book that floated above her head. “How long this time?” I asked.

“A few weeks,” Ashley said. “Haven’t really been counting.”

“What’d you learn?”

“Earth magic, mostly. Got turned into an ant. It was the most confusing experience I’ve ever had.”

“Full-on hivemind?”

“Yeah. How’d you know?”

“Happened to Wart in one of the King Arthur books. Sounds awful.”

“More chaotic, just acting without thinking.”

“Still sounds frightening,” I said.

“What did you learn about?” Ashley asked as her page turned on its own.

“Somehow the caveman’s reincarnation engineered five boys with super powers similar to his own,” I said. “He then combined them into one body called White. Brown killed the White to use for something he called Project Einherjar.”

“What happened next?” Ashley asked.

“I don’t know,” I said as I lay beside her, “but I assume I’m going to find out.”

The next morning, I wasted zero time. I skipped breakfast and went straight to Young Merlyn’s tiny room. Saying nothing, I sat at the center of the magic circle. Merlyn shrugged and pressed the toe of his combat boot against the edge of the circle. The magic came to life and blinded me with pink light.

A muscular copy of Benjamin Brown lay naked on a metal examining table. Another copy paced around the chrome room with a clipboard. The clone on the table opened his eyes and began pulling needles and electrodes from his body. “Oh good,” the pacing copy said, “you’re awake.”

“Where am I?”

“An underground facility in Indiana. We’ve finally activated you, Subject Black.”

“I have so many memories,” Black said. “Who am I?”

“You are the product of what we’ve been calling Project Zeus, originally Einherjar. You are a clone, a culmination of over one hundred twenty individuals. The simulated experiences of the last generation were designed with your enhanced physiology in mind. Some of your predecessors were scientists, doctors, engineers, martial artists, soldiers, philosophers, and a deep variety of other things. All of this, we did to create you for a single purpose. You will kill Benjamin Bartholomew Brown.”

“I can sense him,” Black said.

“It is one of your abilities,” Lab Coat said. “There’s a chip implanted in your skull that will transmit your memories back here in the event that you die. Failure will initiate another generation of clones being incubated to replace you. From them, another Subject Black will be created. Good luck.”

Lab Coat press a pistol to the side of his head and pulled the trigger. Black stole the other clone’s clothes. He exited the compound to find a barren field that went on for miles. Black looked around for a moment, and then, he launched into the air and flew away.

My vision faded as Black disappeared over the horizon.

The world snapped back into view in the middle of a chrome room. Benjamin Brown — almost hairless and more wrinkles than man — flew circles around the room with Black. The men exchanged volleys of energy blasts while scientists watched in horror. Brown fired a blast into the ceiling. Rubble showered the bystanders. Survivors ran for the exits. With a twist of Brown’s wrists, the doors slammed. Brown smiled as he fired on a crowd of his employees.

A flickering blade of light formed around Black’s arm. The young clone snarled as he rocketed across the room. Black sliced Brown in two. With the old man dead, Black dug through the wreckage to save anyone he could. Black uncovered a single living woman. Rust red hair spread messily from her bun, and her glasses had lost one lens. Blood soaked her clothes from mid-stomach to below her knees. A slab of concrete rested across her lower legs and a metal pipe jutted from her left side. Black tended to her injuries.

An armored fist punched through Black’s stomach. The robotic arm lifted Black into the air. “You,” wheezed Brown from inside his power armor, “are perfect. Finally, my Übermensch has been created. I will copy your body and implant my mind. I will live forever, shedding bodies as they grow too fragile. Thank you for your sacrifice, Project Einherjar.”

“Go fuck yourself,” Black said as he unleashed a beam of light that engulfed Brown’s robotic suit.

Black dragged the auburn-haired woman to the tanks lining the walls. He removed the metal pipe with care not to further harm her before he placed her inside one of the tubes. Black punched commands into the console computer before climbing into a pod himself. “Good luck, kid,” Black said with a smile.

I slammed back into Young Merlyn’s room and wretched.

“I told you to eat,” Young Merlyn said.

“That was my mom,” I said. “I’d recognize my mom anywhere. Why was my mom there?”

“You’re smart, Clemens. I’m sure you’ve figured it out.”

“I’m so sick of your cryptic shit. Just tell me.”

“You just witnessed your conception.”

“So I’m just another clone?”

“To a degree. Technically your mother was already pregnant. Granted, her child died from her injuries. Black used the tanks to heal her and clone himself as a replacement for her lost child. Through cannibalizing the other fetus and some epigenetic weirdness, you’re more like a child of your mother and Black than a clone.”

“I’m just a clone of a clone of a clone.”

“You’re more of a chimera. You have your mother’s hair and eyes. You have some genes from your father. But yes, most of you is a copy of Black. Despite all of that, you’re actually more similar to the immortal caveman than his first reincarnation since you are clearly his second.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” I asked.

“It should. Cletus was my only friend. He was King Arthur. Cletus was Gilgamesh. He was Hercules.”

“I’m not him.”

“You can be better than him. That’s why I brought you here.”

“I wish you hadn’t,” I said as I left.

Ashley walked into my room a few hours later. She turned on the light and found me crying in bed. Ashley paused before she crawled under the comforter with me. She wrapped her arms around me. “I’ve never seen you cry,” she said. “I honestly thought asshole was your only emotional setting.”

“I’ve had a pretty fucked up couple of months,” I said. “All the visions Merlyn’s been showing me boiled down to the fact that I’m barely even human. I’m a clone. Everything about me was engineered. Yet him revealing that somehow keeps me from becoming evil in the future.”

“Is being made really a bad thing?”

“How wouldn’t it be?”

“Instead of being random, you were created purposefully to be you.”

“Which makes me a freak.”

“Why would you even want to be normal? You shoot laser beams out of your hands. You built a time machine out of scrap metal. Anyone would give their life to be you.”

I wiped mess from my eyes and nose, but stayed silent.

Eventually, Ashley said, “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t even be a wizard.”

“Yes, you would.”

“No, I really wouldn’t. My mom taught me magic. After she died, I thought my life was over. I thought about killing myself. The only people there for me were you and Brian. You kept me alive. Then, you showed up from the future and brought me here. You gave me all of this. I wouldn’t trade you for anything.”

Again, I didn’t answer. I buried my face into a pillow. Ashley pulled me tighter, and we drifted to sleep.

The next morning, I changed back into my own clothes instead of the dusty tunic. I strapped my sword and the focus orb to my belt. After stealing food from the dining hall, I wandered into the courtyard. Old Merlyn sat on a stone outside the tower. The ancient wizard was speaking to an unusually large frog.

“Hey,” I said through a mouthful of biscuit, “can you let me out of here? My time machine doesn’t work in the Nether.”

“Just going to run off?” Merlyn asked. “What about your friend?”

“You’re a time mage. Can’t you bring her home?”

“Probably. Not sure. Best to not risk it.”

“When will her training be done?”

“Oh, it’s over,” Merlyn said. “She’s taking her final exam right now.”

“How’s that working out?”

“No idea. She might be dead already.”

“Come again.”

“She’s backstage right now. She has to cut through the aether to form her own demesne.”

“Is she going to be okay out there in the Nether on her own?” I asked. “She’s a really powerful wizard, right?”

“She has the potential, but you and I know she won’t reach it.”

“I know she doesn’t die here,” I said.

“But maybe she only survives because you help her,” Merlyn said. “Wouldn’t want to negatively impact causality would you? Time can mend from minor changes, but significant differences would collapse the timestream. I’m sure it’ll be fine. Chronos will just reset Time. Unless you want to help?”

The wizard tossed a rock in front of him. The stone spun in the air and multiplied into a ring of dozens of rocks. Yellow flames ignited within the ring of stones. The smell of sulfur poured from the portal on a wave of heat.

“What do you say?” Merlyn asked with a grin. “Up for a little adventure beyond the Veil?”

A Bad Idea

Buying and selling used catalytic converters happened to be illegal, which was why I stole them instead. Dogs howled somewhere in the night behind me. Junked cars stacked in towers whipped by as I sprinted through the maze. Metal clanked in the bag over my shoulder with every stop. Gunfire erupted behind me followed by a cascade of metal pellets striking cars.

   Oh Christ, I thought. This idiot has a shotgun.

   Since returning from being trapped in time and learning that I even had powers, I exercised extreme caution when using them. I hadn’t called on them at all outside my uncle’s property until that moment. I threw a sphere of blue light into the air behind me. The ball soared in a slow arch over the junkyard. The dogs stopped howling. More shotgun blasts rang out, but pellets didn’t hit the rusted cars.

   I bolted for the fence. I tossed my sack over and climbed after my stolen parts. A puke green Dodge Shadow sat in the grass with the trunk open and the engine running. I snatched the laundry bag of catalytic converters off the ground and dove into the car’s trunk. Slamming the hatch closed, I pounded on the backseat and shouted, “Drive! Drive! Drive!”

   I breathed in relief as the car started moving. I relaxed against the rocking of the worn suspension on the dirt road below. After a few minutes, I felt the mint-mobile lurch to a stop. The trunk opened, and my friend Brian helped me to my feet. Despite only being a month older than him, I towered at least a foot over Brian. In just a few months, I had grown from five-four to six-two and hadn’t adjusted to my awkward new size.

   “That was close,” I said.

   “No shit,” Brian said. “Was that guy shooting at you?”

   “In my general direction.” I hopped in the driver’s seat with Brian to my side.

   “What’s your haul?”

   “Managed to saw off seven catties before the dogs freaked out.”

   “What’re you doing with these? Gonna sell ‘em?”

   “I told you; I’m building a time machine.”

   I looped around our high school and the elementary school where Brian and I worked as janitors to be sure no one followed us. Certain no one was in pursuit, I drove home.

   A dog barked as soon as Brian and I crept through the front door. I whispered, “Shut up, Roscoe. It’s me.”

   The Australian shepherd quieted down.

   Brian went straight to my room. I took the catalytic converters to the basement. In less than an hour, sweat and soot covered my arms and face. I sawed through the steel casings and removed the ceramic honeycomb structures that housed the platinum and palladium. The first time I’d done this, I had gone through the complicated process of chemically extracting the precious metals from the ceramic. The labor had left me with less than an ounce of platinum and a respiratory infection from inhaling the fumes. While coughing up globs of blood, I decided to find a way to use the intact ceramics instead.

   I stored the honeycombs in a box in the far corner of the basement with the rest of my things. I turned to leave and faced Uncle David. My uncle stood at the bottom of the stairs in his boxers with Roscoe at his side. Tattoos and scars covered his freckled skin. Muscle bulged from David’s shoulders and forearms, making him appear larger than he already was. “You know you going to school. Tomorrow,” David said in his thick drawl. It wasn’t a question.

   “Yeah, I know.”

   “Then what in the sam hell are you doing down here at two in the morning making all this damn racket?”

   No point lying. “Cutting up catalytic converters.”

   “You smoking dope? Cause I’m gonna tell ya now. You ain’t too big to get your ass whooped.”

   “I’m not on drugs. I just need the palladium. We can sell the rest to Alvis.”

   “You’d make more just selling him the whole thing. If he’d even buy it knowing you stole ‘em.”

   “You know he’d buy it. Alvis don’t care. But I need the metal for a project.”

   “Go to sleep, boy,” David said. “And tell that midget bastard in your room to go home. Gonna start charging his ass rent if he keeps eating all my food.”

   I followed David upstairs. Our bedrooms stood across the end of the hall from each other. I found Brian asleep in my bed with the lights on. I killed the lights and turn the TV on. I crawled into bed next to Brian with my feet by his head.

   The next day after class, Ashley, Brian, and I sat at Ashley’s kitchen table. Ashley was the definition of average. She wasn’t tall nor short, neither fat nor thin. Her hair was an unremarkable, medium brown. Her face looked forgettable with no distinctive features. Ashley was a boring teenage girl in every way but one. Ashley was a wizard.

   Even before I learned about magic and faeries, Ashley had been open about her magic use. After I came out to her and Brian about my own abilities and mishaps through time, Ashley had revealed she wasn’t just a hippy Wiccan with crystals and candles but an actual wizard.

   “What are you going to start doing with your powers?” Ashley asked, abruptly changing the subject from classwork.

   “Uh, nothing?” I said.

   “You have to.”

   “I don’t have to do anything. I used my powers to live through hell. I’m not going to just start using them for the fun of it.”

   “Man,” Brian said. “If I had powers like y’all, I wouldn’t be going to school every day. I’d use ‘em.”

   “To do what? Be a vigilante in the middle of nowhere?”

   “I don’t know, man. I’d use them to save the world.”

   “From what?”

   “Monsters,” Ashley said.

   I laughed. “Monsters?”

   “They’re out there,” she said. “Not as many as in the past, and not in the open, but monsters are an issue. Plus, with a time machine, you can fight monsters anywhere. Any time.”

   “I’m going home,” I said.

   “Thought you didn’t want to deal with your uncle?” Brian asked.

   “Listening to David bitch about me not having a job is preferable to listening to you two bitch about me not being a superhero.”

   “Wait,” Ashley said. “I want to show you something.”

   Brian and I followed Ashley to her bedroom. She pulled an ornate quilt down from her wall. A rectangle of white paint rested under the blanket. At the top of the rectangle, Ashley had painted a pentagram within a broken circle. More circles, filled with runic symbols, accented each point of the large star. “Don’t freak out, you guys,” Ashley said.

   Ashley dragged a metal box from under her bed. She unlocked the chest and plucked a piece of chalk from the box. With the chalk, she filled in the gaps in the outer edge of the pentagram. Ashley lifted a blue gemstone the size of a marble from the lockbox to her lips and whispered. The stone flashed with blazing sapphire light and transformed into a sphere of churning water. Ashley pressed the orb of violent ocean into one point of the pentagram. She repeated the process with globes of cloud, mud, and flames. Ashley placed the fifth sphere — a ball of warm, golden light – at the top point of the pentagram. Ashley whispered into her closed fist, and then pounded against the center of the pentagram three times. The wall disappeared.

   Brian and I both mumbled curses under our breaths as we stared into a room beyond the wall. Ashley walked through the archway she had created. Brian and I followed after a few seconds’ hesitation. The gap between the two rooms where the walls should have been stretched endlessly into swirling darkness. Ashley marched across the small room and through a wooden door. Rows of shelves filled the next room, packed with books and oddities. Ashley went to a small alcove in the back of the room.

   The eeriness sat in the air. Recognizable unease washed over me. “Are we in the spirit world?” I asked.

   “This is my demesne,” Ashley said. “My own little pocket beyond the Veil. I call it the stacks.”

   “You’re a really powerful witch,” I said. “Why do you even still pretend to be human?”

   “Wizard,” Ashley said, ignoring my question. “I’m not a witch.”

   “What’s the difference?” Brian asked.

   “My magic is mine. It comes from my own power. Witches gain power by making deals with demons.”

   “We’ve seen your dusty library,” I said. “Can we go?” I wanted nothing to do with the Nether. I had had less than stellar experiences with the supernatural.

   Ashley pointed at a cork board hanging on the wall. Newspaper clippings covered the board. The first told the story of a mother and her teenage daughter murdered in their Tishomingo home in 1999. Both had their throats slit, and animals had started eating the corpses before the bodies had been found. The next article discussed two supposed cougar attacks in 2001. The ‘01 attacks had occurred in Baldwin and Pisgah, Mississippi. All the cutouts told similar stories of gruesome murders or animal attacks in our tri-county area. The attacks increased in frequency with at least one per month occurring in 2004.

   “What is all this?” I asked.

   “I think they’re monster attacks happening here in our backyard,” Ashley said. “I think a werewolf has slowly gone crazy and started killing for sport.”

   “Why would you think the deaths were linked? Some of them were animal attacks, but there were also stabbings, strangulations, slashed throats. There’s nothing suggesting any connection.”

   “The full moon disagrees with you. I disagree with you.”

   “Happening near the full moon is all you’ve got? Pretty sure that’s just statistical anomaly,” I said. “Even if you’re right, this isn’t our responsibility.”

   “It has to be somebody’s,” Ashley said. “You and I are the only ones around that can stop this thing.”

   “I’m leaving,” I said, “like I tried to do before.”

   Brian and Ashley both shouted behind me. Ignoring their protests, I stomped out of Ashley’s pocket dimension. I fantasized about arguing with them over the subject as I drove home. After mentally discussing it hundreds of times, the mint mobile skidded to a stop in the gravel driveway, and I stormed into my uncle’s house.

   As always, a stack of my mail sat on the kitchen table. I sorted through the magazines and college pamphlets. A single envelope stood out from the rest. Rather than a return address, a stylized I stood in the corner. The envelope lacked a stamp, and my address was handwritten at the center. Inside I found a letter and a business card.

 

Mr. Clemens,

I have been watching you for some time. I know about the device you developed. Using technology my Organization calls chronoscopes, I have watched many of your exploits. After a great deal of discussion, my superiors and I would like to invite you to join our Organization. We believe your skills and knowledge would allow you to excel under our guidance. If you have any questions or would like to accept our offer, please contact me immediately.

Leonard

 

   I wadded the business card and letter into a single clump before I tossed them in the trash. As if I needed some government organization watching my every move.

   With a glass of milk and a sandwich, I hid in my room and ate at my desk. Why did everyone want me to help them? My friends pushed me to use my powers as a vigilante, but that wasn’t how I saw myself. I only ever used my powers to survive and defend myself. I treated my abilities as a tool, not a gift. Extraordinary power did not define me.

   I looked around my room at drawings of comic and anime characters that covered the walls. Movie and video game posters stood out in the sea of drawings and paintings. I pulled my wallet free of my back pocket. Running my fingers over the stylized S sewn into the leather, I realized I was an idiot.

   After making another sandwich, I drove back to Ashley’s house. I entered without knocking. Her dad nodded to me from the couch as I passed on my way to Ashley’s room. She sat on her bed, carving a piece of wood. “I’ve changed my mind,” I said through a bite of my sandwich. “I decided you’re right.”

   “Are you eating just peanut butter?” Ashley asked.

   “And honey. That’s unimportant right now.”

   “It’s just weird. What am I right about?”

   “We should hunt the werewolf.”

   Ashley stopped whittling the chunk of wood. “Are you serious?”

   “Absolutely.”

   “What changed your mind?”

   “I just want to be the kind of person Clark Kent would be proud of,” I said. “How are we doing this? We can’t just be vigilantes off the cuff. We’d die.”

    “I actually already know when I’m going to die,” Ashley said. “So, I’m not too worried. Let’s go to the stacks.”

   I waited for Ashley to repeat the ritual to open the door through the Veil. We marched through the stacks, stopping for her to grab a massive tome from a shelf. At the back of the room, Ashley slammed the book on a table. Flipping through the pages, Ashley said, “First, we have to figure out which type of werewolf we’re dealing with.”

   “There’s more than one?”

   Asking was a mistake. Ashley fell into a detailed lecture on the various types of werewolves in our world. She talked about the demonic loup-garou, car-sized wolves originally created by curses handed out by Catholic saints. The bipedal rugaru were rare and most resembled Hollywood depictions of the monsters. According to Ashley, Zeus created lycanthropes as punishment for cannibalism. Boxenwolves, ludivic, and lobison were magical, voluntary transformations. The benevolent Hounds of God served as guardians of innocents and gatekeepers of Hell. Finally, vudkolak were werewolves of classical folklore. Ashley’s breathless yelling frightened me, but I found the rant informative.

   “Based on the timing of the attacks,” Ashley said, “I assume we’re dealing with either a vudkolak or a rugaru.”

   I hesitated, but asked, “Why?” I prayed the question wouldn’t spark another exasperated explanation.

   “The full moon. Loup-garou, rugaru, and vudkolak all involuntarily transform during the full moon.”

   “Should we just assume it’s a vudkolak then?”

   Ashley’s brows pushed together. “Why do you say that?”

   “Loup-garou are like moose with claws that go on rampages. Someone would’ve noticed by now. Plus it would’ve eaten the bodies. Rugaru are the only species that can infect others. If it were rugaru, we’d have new werewolves instead of corpses. Only leaves vudkolak.”

   “You picked up on that pretty fast.”

   “Being smart is a superpower,” I said. “Plus you just finished screaming all of this at me.”

   She rolled her eyes. “Rugaru is still on the list because it killed the victims. The bitten can’t change if they don’t survive the attack in the first place.”

   “Fair. So, how do we kill it?”

   “If it’s vudkolak,” Ashley said, “it’s easy. Same way you’d kill any dog.”

   “But if it’s not?” I asked.

   Ashley pulled a small jewelry box from a shelf and shoved it toward me. Inside the box, I found an ornate spade-like blade. Intricate patterns etched the silver. The spearhead seemed almost weightless as I lifted it from the jewelry box. I slid my thumb across the sharpened edge, surprised to find the silver strong enough to cut my skin. “What is this?” I asked.

   “A spearhead magically forged from my mom’s jewelry,” Ashley said. Ashley hadn’t spoken about her mother since the funeral.

   “Why?”

   “All werewolves are weak to silver.”

   “But your mom’s jewelry?” I asked, but I already knew the answer from her previous lecture. Loup-garou, as a function of their damnation, could be killed by objects of pure love. Using her deceased mother’s silver, Ashley covered all werewolf varieties we might encounter. “Nevermind.”

   “Next full moon is in two weeks,” Ashley said. “Think you can be ready?”

   “Is there any chance you could remake this into a bunch of arrowheads?”

   “Seriously?”

   “I’ve never used a spear. I don’t think we have long enough for me to learn, but I’m great with a bow.”

   “Fine,” Ashley said and snatched the blade from my grasp.

   “What do we do until the full moon?” I asked.

   “Prepare.”

   Ashley studied a variety of spells and magic along with research on werewolves. I spent time practicing archery, which was already a typical hobby for me anyway. While I could hit practically any standing target, my ability deteriorated as my mark moved. Brian and I set up a system of him throwing things and me shooting at them. The concept proved simple yet effective. Within a week I could hit soda cans out of the air at about twenty-five yards.

   I worried none of it would be enough. If the wolf was a vudkolak, it’d be as easy to kill as any animal. However, if the beast turned out to be a rugaru or — God forbid — a loup-garou, I feared failure and maybe death. Every creature I’d fought could easily be hurt by normal weapons and my energy manipulation. Even those monsters above my weight class, I had beaten with help and quick thinking. Sometimes just dumb luck. I might be capable of struggling through a fight with a rugaru. I knew facing a loup-garou would be like fist fighting a minivan. I would lose.

   The night of the full moon, Ashley and I sat in the stacks. “Why did you make me bring along the hoodie you gave me?” I asked.

   “That thing is filthy with magic,” Ashley said. “It’s why I gave it to you. Brian’s is the same. I wove so many protection spells into the fabric those hoodies should be bulletproof.”

   “I don’t think I’ll test that,” I said as I pulled the sweatshirt on.

   Ashley had reshaped the silver spearhead into four nasty-looking broadheads. I attached the barbed monstrosities to my best fiberglass arrows. The arrows sat in slots on the side of my compound bow, which I slung over my shoulder. My sword, Grasscutter, rested on my hip. Ashley made me feel unprepared in jeans and a hoodie. She wore all black with boots and a leather jacket. Several pouches hung from her thick belt, filled with bottles of dark liquid and random bizarre objects. Intricate daggers sat on either hip. A single glove with a massive crystal set into the back covered her left hand. With her hair pulled into a tight bun, Ashley looked fierce.

   “So, you have a wand?” I asked, nodding to a wooden baton holstered behind one of her daggers.

   “No,” Ashley said. “Weak wizards use wands. This is a blasting rod.”

   “Which is different how?”

   “Combat magic is hard. It requires complete emotional detachment. The rod serves as an anchor to quickly cast complex, offensive spells.”

   “That honestly explains nothing.”

   “Are you ready?” she asked.

   “Yeah.” I couldn’t admit to her that I didn’t think we’d ever be ready.

   On a wall in the stacks, Ashley drew another door. She filled in runes and magic circles beneath the chalk archway. Starting with the smallest circles, Ashley touched two fingers to the glyphs. She mumbled chants and released power into the drawings to bring the magic to life.

   “Why are your spells so intricate?” I asked.

   “This isn’t the movies,” Ashley said. “Wizards can’t wave our hands and wiggle our nose to get things done. Real magic is complicated. It requires rituals, symbolism, research, and sometimes complex anchors to work. There’s really only one wizard capable of what I’m sure you’re imagining.”

   “Who?”

   “Merlyn.”

   Ashley pressed her hand against the last circle. The door erupted in a rainbow of light. Color spread to the edges of the doorway. The chalk lit in a thin, golden blaze around the edges of the archway. The space in the gold light looked black, but it was nothing. Without speaking or looking back at me, Ashley stepped through the emptiness. Hesitant, I followed through the portal.

   Fear gripped me. My body screamed that everything was wrong. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t feel. I didn’t exist. The sensation of falling in every direction at once overwhelmed me. The next instant, I stumbled across dew-soaked grass. My viscera rushed into my skull. My limbs gave in to weakness, and I fell to the ground. Darkness encroached around my field of vision. Finally, I breathed in deep, and the world normalized around me.

   Ashley’s hand rested on my shoulder. I wanted to yell at her for not warning me how awful the portal would be, but she pointed in the darkness. I bit back my anger and followed her signal. Across the field, a white wolf trotted in the pale moonlight.

   Relief washed away the tension in my body. There would be no struggle against a rugaru, no slaughter by a loup-garou. Vudkolak were no different from ordinary wolves. Killing the werewolf posed no greater challenge than a deer or rabbit.

   I knelt with one knee pressed into the wet earth. Drawing the bow to my cheek, I aimed down the arrow shaft at the wolf. The arrow soared toward a point just behind the wolf’s foreleg, toward its heart. Easiest monster hunt ever.

   The arrow froze in mid-air. The wolf turned blazing red eyes toward the floating arrow, and then to me. A mass of writhing shadows rose in the field as the wolf melted away. Something formed from the darkness. A white-skinned man with dirty black and grey hair rose from in the wolf’s place. I blinked. The man had moved the twenty feet. He plucked the arrow from the air and inspected it. The man closed his bone-like fist. The arrow shattered.

   Almost whispering, Ashley said, “That’s not a werewolf.” Panic rose in her voice. “That’s a vetoli.”

   Ashley chanted under her breath. Light sprang from the crystal on her glove, forming a wall around us. The man moved like someone under a strobe light. He traveled several yards in an instant and seemed to pause unnaturally before blinking to another spot in the field. Within a few heartbeats, the man stood in front of Ashley’s wall.

   Dirt covered his black clothes. White skin stretched over his bones to the point he looked like a skeleton. Hair sprouted in thin patches on his head. The man had no pupils or irises. Blood red circles marked the centers of his jaundiced eyes. “Wizard,” he said, revealing mangled, pointed teeth crowding his jaw.

   The demon hissed and wheezed in a strange language while moving his hands and fingers in flowing patterns. Red light formed at the tips of his blade-like fingernails. He pressed his magic-coated claws against the wall of light. Ashley grunted and frantically chanted. The crystal on her glove glowed brighter, and the wall around us thickened. The beast growled and pressed harder into the light. Ashley screamed as her magic barrier shattered.

   I blinked and found myself dangling in the air. The creature held me at arm’s length by the neck. He smelled like a nursing home, like dust and death. I clawed at his hand. Papery skin peeled away beneath my fingers. The red-eyed man hissed and released me. An unseen force slammed into my chest, and I flew for what seemed like forever.

   My right side crashed into the ground. Snapping rang out. Air tore from my lungs. Pain flared in my chest and side as I heaved, failing to breathe in or out. I forced a feeble cry from my lips. Sharp stabbing filled my side as I finally inhaled. Dull burning followed as I breathed out. I took precious minutes to roll onto my feet. I jogged a few steps before pain dropped me back to my knees.

   Over a hundred yards away, Ashley fought the skeleton man. Bolts of lighting and jets of flame streaked across the field from her blasting rod. The walking corpse created shields of red light and blocked Ashley’s spells with ease. The dead man fired back wisps of red mist that Ashley deflected with her own shield. They danced around each other exchanging magical blows that lit the night sky. Until the creature blinked forward and lifted Ashley off the ground by her throat.

   Groaning, I struggled to my feet. I ran with a limp, avoiding stepping with my right leg. Even with the awkward gait, my side protested with stabs of pain. I wouldn’t make it to Ashley in time. I drew Grasscutter and sliced at the air. Wind gusted violently from the sword. With hurricane gales rushing in front of me, I launched the blade toward the demon. Grasscutter rode the wind in half a heartbeat. The sword slammed into the back of the demon’s skull. The skeletal man crumbled to dust.

   I retrieved Grasscutter as I tumbled to Ashley’s side. Blood rushed out of her pale skin from wounds in her chest and neck. Wet crimson stained her shirt just below her bust. There was so much blood. I pressed my hands against the wound to no avail.

   “You’re amazing,” Ashley said. “You killed a vetoli vampire on your own.”

   “Stop talking, I said. I tried to tear away strips of the hoodie, but I wasn’t strong enough. “We have to get you to a hospital.”

   “Can’t. No point. Too much blood loss. Vetoli venom thins blood and accelerates the heart. I’m already gone.”

   “Don’t say that. We have to do something.”

   “It had to happen this way. It had to.”

   Ashley touched a crystal on her necklace. Gold light bathed over us. The sickening feeling of nonexistence swam through me before we crashed onto Ashley’s bed.

   “You have to go,” she said.

   “I’m not leaving.”

   “There’s nothing you can do.” Ashley pointed to an envelope on her bedside table. “Take that letter and go.”

   “I can’t.”

   “I need you to go. You can’t be here when someone finds my body. Too many questions that way. This isn’t the last time you’ll see me. Just go.”

   I stood from Ashley’s bed and grabbed the letter. As I opened her window to climb out, Ashley said, “Cletus, I want you to live well.”

   An invisible force washed over me with Ashley’s last words. The power pulled me to my knees. When I stood, I found the light gone from Ashley’s eyes. I removed the belt of magical artifacts from her waist. No one should know about those things. I closed Ashley’s eyes. I slid from her bedroom window. Tears streaming down my cheeks, I hobbled to my car and fled.