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Featured in The Temporal Element anthology.
The guard handcuffed me and chained my ankles. Then he led me from my cell on death row down a putty-colored hall to the visitor’s room.
A woman in her mid-twenties was sitting in one of the two chairs welded to a metal table. The clock on the wall had a white face and black hands that pointed to bars instead of numbers. The thin red second hand jerked along its relentless path. Time had begun to fascinate me. I heard clocks ticking throughout the prison, twenty-four hours a day. It’s not many men who know in advance the precise time and manner of their death.
She rose and held out her hand, from habit I suppose. She was nearly six feet and built solid. Her light-weight wool suit was designed for air-conditioned offices. In here, the AC labored to keep the temperature below eight-five. She was pretty with silky brown hair and greenish eyes, but the last thing on my mind was hitting on her.
She lowered her hand. “My name is Paulina Gibson.”
I didn’t need to tell her mine.
The guard said, “I’ll be right outside the door.”
We sat down.
Paulina laid her mobile phone on the table.
“We don’t have much time,” she said in a voice that was too small for her.
“I’ve got exactly eleven days if the governor doesn’t commute my sentence.”
She arched an eyebrow. “I meant we have a lot to arrange and only thirty minutes in which to do it.”
“Don didn’t give me any details. Just said he had one more rabbit in the hat. You don’t look like a bunny,” I quipped, followed by a grin.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Don told me you’re guilty. But he doesn’t want to see a client fry. It’s bad for business.”
“I wouldn’t want that on my conscience.” My conscience was overloaded already. I could hardly sleep or eat or breathe. I deserved to die, but, damn it, I didn’t want to.
She hunched forward. “We’re going to establish an alibi.”
“I’m going to send you back in time.”
Her eyes locked with mine. Close-up, hers were a murky yellowish-green, like a pond full of granddaddy catfish and water moccasins.
“Can you follow instructions?” she asked.
I wondered if she was a lunatic, but Don had sent her.
“Do you want to live or not?”
She looked so serious, I started to believe her. Hell, I wanted to believe her. “What do I have to do?”
She crossed her arms. “The price of my services is one million dollars.”
I laughed, the only real laugh I’d enjoyed in months. I’d liquidated my assets and paid every penny to Don for defending me.
She threw me a no-nonsense look. “Once you’re acquitted, the insurance company will pay out the policy you took on Travis McWilliams’s life.”
What did I have to lose? “It’s a deal. Do you have a paper for me to sign?”
“The guard wouldn’t let me bring in a pen. But don’t think you can double cross me. If you don’t pay up, you’re a dead man.”
What else was new?
She took a notebook out of her bag and flipped it open. Her lips moved as she read the page to herself. She raised her eyes.
“Listen carefully. You’re going back to the night of October 25th, two years ago. You’ll arrive at the Longhorn Tavern at 10:00 pm. Sit at the bar and talk to the bartender so he’ll remember you. Don’t go anywhere. Stay put until 11:00 pm. Then you’ll be zapped back to the present.”
“If I’m at the tavern, I can’t kill Travis. I won’t need an alibi, because he won’t be dead. I can’t be in two places at once.”
She smiled impatiently. “Think of it like an anomaly in the space-time continuum. For a brief period there will be three of you. You can’t undo the murder. Don’t try or you’ll screw up everything. Trust me, certain acts are too heinous to change. But the testimony of the bartender at the Longhorn Tavern will plant reasonable doubt in the jury’s mind. You’ll be acquitted.”
I glanced at the clock.
“How can I be gone an hour when we have only seventeen minutes left?”
“You’ll be gone from the present for only four minutes. The third you will be sitting here across from me until you return.”
I wasn’t a sci-fi buff. My literary tastes ran more toward mystery—at least, until I had become the villain in my own true crime story. But I’d seen enough Star Trek episodes when I was a kid to believe that what she said was possible.
“Are there any side effects?”
“Time travel activates cellular activity at the molecular level. One of the side effects is partial memory loss.”
I wouldn’t mind losing some memories. “Any others?”
“Time travel causes a reversal in the aging process. The effect varies depending on the individual. I would estimate you’ll come back ten years younger. You would be surprised to know how old I am.”
If she was on the level, I would be twenty-five again. Young enough to start over.
She picked up what I had mistakenly thought was a mobile phone. “Press your right thumb on the screen.”
The movement was awkward with handcuffs.
She referred again to the notebook. “I’m typing in the temporal and physical coordinates of your destination. What’s your social security number?"
* * *
I was standing in front of the Longhorn Tavern on a chilly, damp night in Austin. A pickup swerved close to the curb and splashed my trousers from the knees down. I laughed. It was good to be free again. To feel the rain. No handcuffs, no leg irons. I leapt into the air like a puppy.
Bars and pool halls stretched out in both directions. This was Sixth Street. I was miles from the gated community of Rob Roy, where I had killed Travis. All I had to do was have some drinks and make sure the bartender remembered me. I felt around in my trousers pocket and found a wallet. I pressed a wad of green bills to my nose and sniffed. The dirty, wonderful, scent of money. With drinking money in hand, I ambled through the old-fashioned swinging doors of the Longhorn Tavern.
The tavern resembled a long, narrow pine box that had been stained dark by cigarette smoke. The bar ran the length of the long side. The place smelled faintly of beer and puke. A few rickety-looking tables were scattered around in the shadowy interior
I hoisted my ass onto a bar stool. “A Bud, please.”
The bartender pushed a frosty mug of golden beer towards me. It tasted like nectar from heaven.
The loud, vintage soul music hurt my ears. I had become accustomed to silence on death row. The only sounds I had heard for the past six months had been the clanging of the metal doors, the shuffle of feet in leg irons, and the occasional sob from another poor bastard in the middle of the night.
There was a gold watch on my wrist. I’d been back for ten minutes. All I had to do was stay glued to the bar stool, keep my nose out of trouble, and in fifty minutes I would have an alibi. My attorney would be able to establish reasonable doubt. I would be a free man.
I ordered another beer.
The saloon doors swung open and a girl walked in. She wore a short suede jacket, a pair of low-hung jeans clinging to slim hips, and cowboy boots with high heels.
She tottered to the bar and hopped onto a stool further down, leaving one empty stool between us. Up close, I saw she was older than my first impression. There were fine lines at the corner of her eyes, and her neck had lost the tautness of youth. But she was gorgeous. Long hair so blonde it was almost silver. Blue eyes like the sky I could glimpse through the bars on the high window at the back of my cell. She caught me looking at her and smiled, putting dimples in her fair cheeks. A woman like that could almost make me forget about money. A woman like that would take a lot of money to maintain.
“Can I buy you a drink?” I asked.
“Sure. White wine.” She flashed an even bigger smile.
I moved over one stool. Her complexion was like white marble, as if she’d never been exposed to the Texas sun.
“Are you alone?” I asked.
She laughed. “If you mean am I here with a man, I am not.”
I wanted to know what a woman like her was doing at the Longhorn Tavern alone on a Saturday night, but the question would have sounded like something from an old movie script.
“My name is Jimmy.”
“Iris,” she said.
We clinked glasses. After exchanging some one-liners, we moved over to a table in the back so we could talk without the bartender hanging over us. An after-game crowd surged into the bar about the same time. They were already drunk and noisy. They kept the bartender hopping. But I didn’t worry about depending on him for an alibi, because now I had Iris.
I looked at my gold watch. It was 10:20. At this moment, my original self, the one that belonged to the past, was arguing with Travis at his spread in Rob Roy. We had been watching football on his wide-screen television and drinking beer for hours. Travis was my business partner and my best friend since our freshman year at college. He’d inherited money, and because of that he was stingy about the small things: light bulbs and splitting the bar tab, but he’d surprised me on my birthday with plane tickets to Aruba. He could afford to be idealistic, too; something he’d caught in college, like a chronic disease. His idealism was a sore point between us. I wanted our company, TLC Software, to be run like a business, with budgets and regular financial statements. But Travis was a salesman, and he held the purse strings.
We were drunk and the argument got out of hand. He slapped my face and I saw red. I knocked him out with one punch, then dragged him out to the pool and threw him in. I honestly don’t know if I wanted to drown him or wake him up.
The murder would happen in twenty-five minutes. It wasn’t premeditated but the jury thought differently because of the million dollar life insurance policy I’d taken out on Travis the month before. He had taken one out on me, too, but only at my insistence. That was the reason I got condemned to die instead of a life sentence. I regretted leaving Travis to drown. Of all my friends who didn’t visit me in prison, I missed Travis the most. Paulina Gibson had told me to let things be. That the murder could not be undone. I wondered what terrible thing would happen if I stopped myself from killing Travis.
“What are you thinking about?” Iris asked.
She gave me a look full of empathy, a look I could fall in love with.
It occurred to me if I didn’t kill Travis tonight I wouldn’t get a life insurance payout. I wouldn’t be able to pay Paulina Gibson her fee of one million dollars. That was what she wanted to prevent.
Iris bombarded me with questions, which I duly answered. I was born in Mineral Wells, got a degree in computer science at UT, and was the brains behind TLC Software. Travis was (or had been) the image man, the one with the charisma, the one who brought in investors and new business. Uninteresting small talk, but she hung on every word I said. I was flattered though confused. I was only average looking. My jokes were usually met with nonplussed stares. I wasn’t rich. I couldn’t understand what she saw in me.
“What time is it?” she asked, when I stopped talking to take a breath.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” I said, as sure as I could be considering I’d zapped in from the future.
“I’ve got to go,” she said, jumping up with such force I half expected her to leave a boot under the table.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
She smiled a little anxiously. “My taxi is outside. Can I give you a lift somewhere?”
I scanned the crowded bar. I couldn’t see the bartender over the wide shoulders, crew-cuts, and cowboy hats. This was my chance to set things right.
I rattled off the address in Rob Roy.
The taxi headed towards Town Lake, rode up the ramp onto Mopac for a short piece, and turned north on 360. Iris and I sat on opposite sides of the back seat. She stared out the window and fingered the fake leather seat cover. We had run out of small talk and didn’t know each other well enough to go deeper.
Ten minutes later the taxi dropped me off at the entrance of the gated community.
Then she said something strange. “You won’t forget me, will you?”
“Never,” I smiled.
The taxi flipped a U and sped away.
Luckily, the guard station was deserted. I was about to scale the wall when a car driving at a high speed without lights barreled towards the gate from inside Rob Roy. The electronically controlled gate swung open just in time to let the car plunge through. I jumped out of the way before my other self could run me down, and I slipped through the gate as it slammed shut. My heart was thudding in my throat. I sprinted along the dark street. On the right were houses set back behind circular drives. Curtains were pulled tightly shut. The hill on the left side of the road was too steep to build houses on, but it was the home of deer, armadillos, and coyotes. Animal eyes followed my progress down the street. The sweet fragrance of wet cedar filled the air.
None of the yards were fenced, which made it easy for me to go around the back of Travis’s house to the solarium that housed the pool. The thick warm air stank of chlorine. He was floating face down, arms spread. It was 10:48. He hadn’t been in the water for more than three minutes. Without stopping to remove the gold watch, I dove into the water and nudged him to the edge. It took a good thirty seconds to get him onto the deck. I started mouth to mouth.
He sputtered and coughed.
“Hey what are you doing?” he gurgled. “Get off me.”
He sat up, rubbing his chin.
“Sorry I hit you,” I said.
He looked mad as hell for a moment, then sighed.
“I deserved it. Let’s go in the house. I’ll lend you some dry clothes.”
My watch had stopped, but it must have been close to 11:00.
“I don’t want to drip on the floor. I’ll wait here.”
“Okay, I’ll be back in a minute.” I watched as Travis walked towards the house, his shoes squishing. I wondered if I would still be there when he came back.
* * *
I was lying on a king-size bed. A ceiling fan buzzed lazily overhead. On my right were three big windows with wooden shutters. Golden sunlight shifted through the slats. A door to my left was ajar. Turquoise tiles on the floor, white tiles on the wall, and a Jacuzzi. Twenty feet from the end of the bed was a door with a shiny gold handle. Next to it stood a curved black console table. I didn’t know where I was, but I for sure wasn’t on death row.
Light footsteps sounded outside the door.
Iris entered with a tray. Her silver-blonde hair was cut short. There was color in her cheeks that reminded me of strawberries. Her eyes were the same incredible blue as her nightgown. Pregnancy agreed with her. She was eight or nine months along judging by the size of her belly. She set the tray on the table, brought me a cappuccino and the newspaper and snuggled next to me.
She placed my hand on her belly. I could feel the baby kicking.
I felt awkward, as though I had no right touching her. She was practically a stranger. I politely withdrew my hand, noticed the wedding band on my finger, and opened the Austin American Statesman. I didn’t dare look at Iris, but I sensed her eyes observing me.
The date on the newspaper was the day Paulina Gibson had visited me on death row. My brain began to process the data. I had prevented the murder and altered the course of events. Iris and I had married. If I could afford Iris, this bedroom, the Jacuzzi, and the house that must go with it, TLC Software had grown more successful than I could ever have dreamed.
The two years I’d spent in prison began to fade from my memory, but there were no memories to replace them. Two years of my life had slipped into a void.
Iris moved closer and stroked my thigh.
I rolled away and got out of bed.
“What’s the matter, Jimmy?”
“I’ve got to go out”
“For a run?”
“Yeah, a run.” Where were my jogging shoes? I went into the bathroom and opened a door to a walk-in closet bigger than most bedrooms. My nose crinkled at the smell of dry-cleaning fluid and perfume. In the men’s corner, I found a faded t-shirt, a comfortable-looking pair of training pants, and running shoes. The outfit fit perfectly.
“Take your keys in case I’m in the shower when you get back.” Iris handed me a key ring with what looked like house keys or office keys and a key bearing the BMW logo.
As far as I knew, I hadn’t jogged in two years, but my condition was excellent. We lived in a new development further west than Rob Roy, I judged. The lots and the houses were even bigger. Though the hills were steep, I ran up them effortlessly. The air was fresh but prickly. By nine it would be at least eighty degrees and climbing. I could already hear the zoom of traffic in the distance.
I was curious how Travis and TLC were doing. After my run, I would shower and go to work.
* * *
TLC Software had moved. A CPA occupied the two-room office suite we had leased on Spicewood Springs Road. I went in anyway and asked the girl behind the desk if she could look up an address. In a few minutes I was on my way to the new location, a ten-story building with the TLC logo on top.
The executive offices were on the top floor according to the building directory. I stepped into a private elevator that whooshed me straight to the penthouse. Reception was covered with a pristine white carpet, so clean I wondered if I should take off my shoes. The sleek furniture looked like black glass. Travis was chatting with the receptionist who wore a white dress and black pendant earrings that matched her desk.
Travis blinked his eyes. “Did you go to the spa or something? You look--rejuvenated.”
“I slept like a log last night.” I couldn’t say the same for Travis. He looked like he hadn’t slept in years.
“Ready for the big meeting?” he asked, looking me up and down.
“You bet,” I mumbled and darted to the door with my name on it: James Harwood. I closed the door, leaned against it, my heart pounding. What big meeting, I wondered?
I turned on my laptop. It wanted a password. I pushed the chair out of the way and crawled under the desk. A list of passwords was written in pencil on the underside of the drawer. All were neatly crossed out except for the last one. It was reassuring to know my working habits hadn’t changed.
I consulted my Outlook calendar. No appointments until 3:00 when there was a meeting with Angel Software. Angel was the biggest software development company in the world. They were interested in buying our new personal health software app. Not because it was better than theirs, but to protect their market share. Ours was just as good and half the price. But TLC could make more money selling the app to Angel (who would quietly bury it) than marketing it at bottom prices ourselves.
How did I know this? The only explanation was that my revised past life and my future were starting to merge. I spent the next couple of hours getting acquainted with the contents of my hard drive; my appointments over the last two years, the date of Iris’s birthday, the projects I’d been involved in. I was curious about the sales figures for TLC, but there were no financial statements on my hard drive, which didn’t surprise me because I had always left money matters to Travis. Except for the time I’d talked him into buying the key employee life insurance policies.
Just before lunch, Travis phoned. “We have to talk. If you have lunch plans, break them.”
I acquiesced, then hastily checked Outlook. No lunch plans to break. He drove me to a Mexican restaurant about a half mile from the office.
We were seated at a booth in the back.
I ordered the works—tamales, chili con queso, beef enchiladas topped with sour cream, Spanish rice, and fried beans. No more bland prison food. I hoped Travis wasn’t going to spoil my meal. We munched on corn chips and hot sauce while we waited for the margaritas.
As soon as the drinks had been served, Travis took a couple of long chugs, set down his empty glass, and picked up mine. A drinking problem would explain the charcoal bricks under his eyes, the loose jawline, and the red blotches on his cheeks. He wore a wedding ring that was too tight for his pudgy finger, and I wondered if he’d finally married Jen. She had been devastated at the murder trial.
“What did you want to talk about?” I asked.
“I want to make sure you’re ready for the meeting with Angel. I don’t have to tell you what’s at stake.”
I must have looked puzzled, because he sighed deeply. I’d never seen anyone guzzle rock salt and crushed ice before.
“You really are a geek, aren’t you? Don’t you know what’s going on?”
“Tell me,” I said cautiously.
“The financial viability of TLC hangs on the deal with Angel.”
“A cash flow problem.”
I was incredulous. But on reflection, I could guess where the cash had flowed to: the penthouse office suite in the prestigious building, my BMW, his Cadillac. My multi-million house in the hills overlooking Austin. I wondered if Travis still owned the mansion in Rob Roy or if he’d traded up.
Travis ranted, ”The real estate market has collapsed. Our building is more than half empty. We can’t afford the interest on the bank loan. Software sales are a fraction of what they were. If we don’t get cash fast, salaries won’t be paid next month, which means all the employees will quit.”
“Is TLC incorporated?”
Travis gave me a withering look. “Jesus, what’s gotten into you! No, we’re not incorporated, and don’t say you told me so.”
If we’d been incorporated, the bank wouldn’t be able to seize our personal assets. Now we stood to lose our homes, too. Travis had sworn he would never become a part of an anonymous corporation. He didn’t want to hide behind limited liability. I wondered if he still had the sign on his desk that said ”The buck stops here.”
I was mad enough to kill him.
“I hope your memory improves by three o’clock,” Travis sneered. Guacamole dip coated his front teeth. “As good as I am, I can’t make the sale without your support on the technical specs.”
I bristled at his threatening tone. It wasn’t my fault I could remember nothing about the personal health app. If only the meeting was scheduled for tomorrow. Maybe by then I would be fully integrated into my old self.
* * *
But the Angel team had flown to Austin the night before. Their IT director, procurement manager, and attorney arrived promptly at three, and the grilling began. Their expressions morphed from friendly to courteous to puzzled. Travis couldn’t see through the technical smoke I was blowing, but he knew what “no deal” meant.
Our disgusted guests left in a taxi for the airport.
Travis and I were alone in the conference room, which was equipped with TelePresence (the latest IP phone), a remote control that operated the lights and the temperature, and a well-stocked bar.
You could have heard a software app drop. I nervously admired the view of north Austin from ten floors up.
Finally, Travis said, “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“I’m a little off today.”
“A little off!” he thundered, his eyes as hard as marbles. “We’re finished. The bank will take everything that’s left, and it won’t be enough to pay our debts.”
“I’m sorry, Travis.”
He stood up abruptly. His hands smoothed the creases in his jacket, trying to recapture some of his dignity. He walked over to the bar and tossed a shot of Wild Turkey down his throat. “My inheritance is gone. All I have left is Jen.” There were tears in his eyes.
“I have Iris.”
Travis looked at me with pity. “Iris isn’t the kind of girl to stick around. As soon as she finds another rich sucker, she’ll be gone. Mark my words.” He didn’t say it in a mean way, which made me think it might be true.
I felt like shit. Had I saved his life only to ruin it?
When I got home, a sports car was parked on the circular drive directly before the front door. Its roof was so low I couldn’t imagine an adult could sit upright inside it.
I went into the house. No sign of my wife or her visitor. “Iris?”
She peeked out of the study, slipped out, and softly shut the door behind her. She reminded me of a deer venturing into a clearing during hunting season.
“What are you doing home?” Her voice trembled.
“Who’s in the study?”
“Let me explain first.” She looked so guilty I expected the worst.
I brushed Iris aside, rushed towards the study, and flung open the door.
Iris’s visitor was Paulina Gibson.
Her mouth curled into an unfriendly smile. “You’ve moved up in the world since we last met. Only this morning, by the way. The house is a vast improvement over death row. You were naughty, but I won’t punish you as long as you pay me what you owe. I was just discussing the situation with Iris.”
“Leave my wife out of it.”
Paulina chuckled. “She’s part of it.”
Puzzled, I glanced at Iris. She didn’t look a day over twenty. I had noticed her youthful appearance this morning, but I had heard that pregnant women glowed. The truth was I had been too preoccupied today to give Iris much thought. When I’d met her at the Longhorn Tavern, even in the shadowy bar, she’d looked closer to forty than twenty.
“Darling,” Iris said, “let me refresh your memory. Two years ago, you murdered Travis, and I murdered my husband. Don Newsom defended us both, and we both got convicted. You were sentenced to death. I got life in prison. Paulina’s time machine was our only hope of getting our convictions reversed on appeal. The bartender was supposed to be our alibi, but you left the Longhorn Tavern early and prevented the murder of Travis.”
Her eyes darted away. “I followed Paulina’s instructions. I was afraid of what might happen if I stopped myself from shooting my husband. You testified at my trial that we were together until 10:45. You were my alibi.”
My head swung around to Paulina. “You sent two murderers back in time to the same bar on the same night! Wouldn’t that have looked suspicious if we had both needed the bartender as an alibi?”
Paulina alighted on the edge of my big cherry wood desk. My eyes ran down her long legs to her purple pumps with narrow ankle straps.
“I admit it wasn’t ideal, but the license for my time machine was about to expire and I needed money fast to renew it. If I don’t renew before midnight tonight, I’ll have to pay a huge setup fee for next year. The economy’s in a recession. Demand for time travel has dried up.” She pulled a gun out of her handbag and calmly pointed it at Iris.
I still had to come to grips with the fact that Iris was a murderess.
Iris must have seen the anguish on my face because she began to sniffle. Or maybe she was plain scared.
“How much do we owe?” I asked.
“A million dollars each.”
“Iris, do we have two million?” I thought I already knew the answer.
“We invested the money from my husband’s life insurance policy in TLC. Your salary comes in, and it goes out.”
Obviously, I hadn’t received a payout from Travis’s policy. And TLC was bust.
“No worries,” I lied. Maybe I could buy some time. “Paulina, if you’ll give me your bank account number, I’ll have the money transferred from the TLC account this afternoon. All I have to do is make the phone call.”
“That’s more like it,” Paulina said, letting down her guard just a bit, but it was enough. I walked slowly towards the desk, and as I reached for the phone, I suddenly changed direction, lunged, and grabbed at the gun. It flew out of her hand and skidded across the wooden floor.
Iris got to it first. She scooped it up, and in one fluid movement, without a moment’s hesitation, took aim and fired. Paulina appeared to be dead when she struck the floor.
“Why did you do that?” I cried. My heart pounded. Visions of prison bars flashed through my head.
“I know the TLC bank account is in the red. There was no other way. We would have been watching our backs for the rest of our lives, which would undoubtedly have been short. I had to think of our baby.” Her eyes were pleading.
From where I stood, she had reacted instinctively without thinking of the baby or anything else. Goosebumps erupted on my arms. She was still clenching the gun. I wrapped my hand around the barrel, pointing it away from me. Her fingers loosened, and she let me take it.
A pool of blood was expanding next to the body and with it a nauseating coppery smell.
“We’ll have to dump the body,” I said. Travis’s family owned a ranch near Dripping Springs—a perfect impromptu burial site. “I’ll get a blanket to wrap the body in. You get a mop and a bucket of soapy water.”
Iris told me where to find the blankets, and we hurried out of the study heading in opposite directions.
I got back first.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. The patch of floor that had hosted the pool of blood was dry and untainted. The body had vanished. All that remained of Paulina was the skirt, jacket, panty hose, underwear, and purple pumps that she had been wearing, heaped on the floor in the approximate position they would be if her body was still wearing them. The ankle straps were still fastened. Her handbag lay on the desk where she’d left it when she pulled out the gun.
Iris entered the study, bent over to one side by the weight of the bucket full of steaming water. In the other hand she held the mop. She stared.
I felt faint.
Iris set down the bucket and sank onto a chair.
Then a crazy idea struck me.
I trotted over to the desk and rummaged in Paulina’s handbag. How could she have found anything? No time to waste. I shook out the contents: a bunch of keys, bulging billfold, hairbrush full of brown hair, sunglasses, frayed tissues, and, underneath, the time travel device.
I perused the user-friendly menu. The software version was dated twenty-seven years in the future. On the back of the device was the familiar logo of Angel IT.
I slipped it into my pocket and headed towards the door.
“Where are you going?” Iris asked, tears sliding down her cheeks.
“To the office. If I can duplicate the time travel software, TLC's cash flow problems will be history. With my programming skills and Travis’s marketing talent, we’ll be back on top.”
“What about us?”
We needed time to get to know each other. Maybe she’d had good reason to shoot her first husband.
I blew Iris a kiss.
Check out The Temporal Element for more thrilling time-travel tales.
Featured in The Temporal Element anthology.
"History waits for no man," said Terry.
"Except, perhaps, for us, yes?" said the Russian with a laugh.
Attaching the last few hardline connectors to the console was a clumsy affair using the bulky gloves of the suit. Still, he and Mikhail were far better equipped than their space-faring predecessors. Environmental suits had come a long way in the hundred years since Armstrong and Aldrin (and, in all fairness to Mikhail's homeland, Gagarin and Titov). Still, vacuum being vacuum, EVAs were always going to be awkward.
The multiwrench slipped from Terry's grasp in mid-turn and fell slowly to the ground. "Damn it." Gray dust plumed around the tool as it struck.
The Russian's hand clasped his shoulder as Terry stood from retrieving the wrench. "Patience, my friend. No rush is needed. Our families will sing our praises even if we—what is word—dawdle, yes?"
"I just want to get this done." The eighteen month buildup of the Hemera project was over. The whole mission would be over in hours now and they'd be on their way home. Two days later they'd be crawling out of the return module on the Kazakh steppe. And not long after, he'd be standing on the deck of his beach house at sunset, the chill winter wind in his hair, the salt on his lips.
The final connector slid into place as a vibration passed through the ground—just enough to stir the dust at their feet and set the cables to swaying. The tendency of the Hemera device to shake the ground a little and the civilian news media's unfailing feeding frenzy over such events had prompted the project directors to move the experiments somewhere more remote.
As the shaking subsided, the heads up display in Terry's helmet informed him all systems were online and the reactor was spinning up for test-level discharge.
The heads up display in Terry's helmet informed him all systems were nominal and the coils in the Ring were spinning up for transition-level discharge. "Finally."
"This is time travel, yes?" asked the Russian with a laugh. "What is hurry?"
The Russian was efficient and highly skilled, but the concept of urgency was alien to him. Here they were, on the surface of the Moon, unknown to all but a few scientists and bureaucrats on Earth, assembling a device that might or might not sling them across time, and the man's pulse was probably not a beat above baseline.
Terry wasn't quite so at ease. Buzzing around between the various inflatables in low Earth orbit, with an occasional jaunt to the higher platforms, was a thrill like no other. Still, those distances were measured in terms of altitude. One hundred kilometers. Two hundred. No one ever referred to the Moon as being at an altitude of four hundred thousand kilometers, though.
The full Earth hung almost four times the size of a similarly full Moon in the terrestrial sky. No, the height didn't bother him. It was the remoteness.
The main control console's monitor, a transparent plate of glass a meter wide and five centimeters thick, flickered, ripples like water expanding outward as it booted up. The illusion of a vertical pool of water against the stark lunar landscape was at once comical and disconcerting. And just plain wrong.
Terry ran down the checklists displayed on the console, cross-checking against his own lists in his heads up. Everything had gone perfectly and in the great tradition of space travel, it was time to start worrying. Another reason to get the tests done and get the hell off this chunk of regolith.
The image on the plate stabilized into three views of the Earth, each taken from the set of telescopes placed with the Hemera Ring. A close-up of the terrestrial horizon dominated half the display. Another showed a magnified dayside disc of the Earth and the last a series of computer-enhanced overlays of temperature, biomass distribution and industrialization. Status data scrolled along the edges of the display as a countdown in the corner signaled that optimum test conditions were minutes away.
"This is great day for Slavsky family, my friend."
The man was incapable of not mentioning his family every few minutes. The two weeks of their isolation together in transit and assembling the Hemera Ring had convinced Mikhail that the two of them were now brothers. Brat'ya. The Russian's incessant stories of futbol games and dirty diapers, though, had only convinced Terry the bachelor life was the only one for him.
A second vibration worked upward through his boots, twice the amplitude of the last.
"Geo-lock is good, yes?" In the lower corner of the largest display window, a tiny icon of the Earth with a padlock through it blinked.
The early models tested on Earth had flustered the project leaders. Despite unwavering certainty that the theory, calculations, and engineering challenges had been met, every practical test had ended with the mock-down Rings vanishing just as planned but not returning as also planned.
An undergrad had realized their mistake. Celestial movements as large as the Local Group had been accounted for, but not the latest models of the greater-verse that predicted movement through a series of hyperstrates. She'd received a personal letter of thanks from the President, simultaneously attaining a higher dimension of professional exile from those she was supposed to be learning from.
"Please to take picture for wife and kids."
Terry turned to see his partner a dozen meters away, arms raised in a triumphant Y, the smooth basin of Mare Vaporum stretching to the distant mountains behind him. Sunlight glinted gold from the cosmonaut's mirrored visor washing out his face, but, even in the bulky suit, something bold and perhaps a little brazen in the man's posture identified research-cosmonaut Mikhail Slavsky as surely as the Cyrillic letters printed on his chest.
Terry sighed loudly to ensure microphone pick-up. "Mikhail, they'll never see the picture."
"You are prude, friend Terry," scolded the Russian. "Must learn to live little, I think. Hemera will not always be classified. When project is public, children will see father as hero and you will wish I had taken picture of you too."
"Fine," said Terry selecting the camera option from the controls on his left sleeve. "Hold still and say—"
Hi-resolution stills of the Ring and various other components of Hemera displayed against the inner surface of Terry's visor, showing the images taken since their arrival. The camera blipped as dozens of shots of Mikhail streamed into the suit's memory. Standard departmental protocols called for all imagery from all devices to be simultaneously transmitted to all mission vehicles as well as Earth-side receivers, but Hemera was an exception. The only transmissions allowed were the line-of-sights between Mikhail and himself. Houston and Korolyov had decided to take no unnecessary chances with intercepted signals.
The secrecy was ultimately pointless and those in power knew that. Sooner or later an industrious Moon-gazer or automated telescope on Earth would spot the hundred meter Ring as well as the landing/living module. Even the assemblers they'd brought along were the size of small cars. Their little photo shoot would be nothing compared to the public's discovery of the three trillion spent on a project that might be nothing more than a new way to stir up dust on the ground.
"Satisfied?" asked Terry as he streamed the photos to the Russian.
"Da," said Mikhail lowering his arms. In several bounds, he skidded to a clumsy stop next to the nearest of the assemblers. "I find woman for you when we get home, friend Terry. Maybe my cousin Yuliya. She give you good children and she has the big—"
"I'll pass," said Terry. "Can't take a leak off the porch if there's a woman in the house."
"I think you miss point, my friend."
Terry had made the joke time and again that the only thing he feared more than disappearing like the previous devices was Mikhail's matchmaking skills.
A third tremor rumbled across the landing site.
"Holy hot damn, yes?" said the Russian bounding to his side and rubbing his gloved hands together. The numbers on the display counted down as sunlight played across the crystal blue waters of the Asiatic on the close up.
"We should say words," said Mikhail.
"Nonsense." Armstrong had flubbed his line and Terry didn't want to be remembered saying something that might not play as well in history. Of course, if things went badly, they would be gone and the few people in the know Earthside might get away without ever having to explain the new hundred-meter gouge in the lunar surface.
"Then I will," said the Russian, pausing until the various counters reached five seconds. "I am honored to be here at this time and all those to come."
Terry felt the vibration first through his boots, a second later through his hand on the console. Then the floodlights around the project site flared, throbbing in sync with his heads up display as the view washed out in a sea of milky white.
And, as though a celestial switch toggled back to home, the whiteness was gone and the ground was still once more. The heads up indicated all systems online and the viewing plate showed the same three views as before. Seconds passed before Terry realized he was staring into the sun which had changed position in the lunar sky.
"Better than Disney Island, yes?"
Terry gave the man a grin. Sliding his fingers across the monitor controls, he instructed the system to make comparisons between the readings a few seconds ago and the data coming in now. Icons blinked on and off as images flipped over one another. The main image of the Earth's horizon remained, but the view of the Earth's surface was now desert instead of the Adriatic Sea of moments ago. Terry felt his heart speed at the thought.
He'd not expected Hemera to fail. In fact, he'd prayed it would succeed and he was not a particularly religious man. Still, at some level, he'd just assumed the changes would not strike him as so dramatic.
One of the smaller monitor frames indicated star positions. Various vector-lines flashed between before and after sampling of key constellations. In the other frame, two columns of data shuffled, blinking as they aligned with their counterparts.
"Pollution index," said the Russian with a laugh. "Negligible!"
He slapped Terry on the back, prompting him to skip a step to control the momentum transfer.
"Habitation and development fractals—negative growth."
"I'll be damned," said Terry. Hemera was also displaying the postulated date. "July 20, 1869. Just as planned."
"Now you want to say words?" asked Mikhail.
The laugh that erupted from Terry's mouth startled him. He felt stunned, detached. Shaking his head sharply, he shook off the feeling before it could take hold. Get thee behind me, hindbrain, he thought, and that made him smile.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah." Terry had to force the affirmation. "Just realizing what we did. Where we are—rather, when we are. No amount of training or psyche testing can prepare you for... this."
"Da." Mikhail stepped to one side to look around the console at the disc of the Earth, steadying himself on a floodlight stand as a small after-tremor passed beneath their boots.
Terry took a deep cleansing breath. "I think I will make a go at the history books."
"By all means, my friend."
Terry keyed the voice recorder. "Like my comrade, research-cosmonaut Slavsky, I too am honored—humbled even—to be part of this momentous occasion. To everyone who helped bring us here and now—to everyone who has ever walked the shores of Earth or the shoals of the Moon—we stand on your shoulders today. My eternal thanks."
The Russian clasped him on the shoulder. "There is poet in my comrade, yes?"
"I guess." Still smiling, Terry called up the mission schedule, scrolling until he reached the list of temporal targets. "Next jump is 500 years."
"After we make calibration jump."
Terry swiped the controls for an immediate return to their present. The geo-lock showed green, as did the coils of the Ring. Hemera had performed perfectly. There would be time for in-depth exploration and observation later—probably by specialists and scientists yet to be selected—and Terry was fine with that. The ground shuddered beneath them, dust dancing in tiny static discharges at their feet. A flash of light and seconds later they were peering intently at the monitor, the sun no longer overhead.
"Star locations are off," said Mikhail, his voice uneasy. "Fractals at zero point one off target."
Terry linked into the console, comparing the star maps and the landforms manually. The main screen showed a sunset streaming through a brilliant cross-section of atmosphere. The colors through the airborne dust and clouds were amazing. Earth was a gem among the heavens no matter when you looked upon it. And the data discrepancies were nothing to be concerned about. "It's okay, buddy. We overshot a day or two is all."
The Russian nodded. "Houston must be shitting brick, yes?"
"No doubt." Terry scanned the emergency-only mission frequencies. If anything went wrong, then future-Houston should know about it as part of their past. Sending a message back to them at this point in Hemera time was the plan should that happen. Since the frequencies were clear and no future versions of themselves had come bounding across Mare Vaporum to stop them, all was well. Terry made adjustments to Hemera's parameters. "A little tweaking is all she needed. Next stop, five hundred years."
"Very well." Mikhail took the controls in hand this time, confirming the computer's automated settings and engaging the program.
The floodlights surrounding the site quivered and brightened, sending eerie shadows dancing across the lunar landscape. Terry held onto the console with one hand and Mikhail's shoulder with the other. The tremors passed like a wave across the surface and, in a final flash from their displays, were still once more.
A bead of sweat rolled down his face and onto his lips. The taste of salt was strong in his tiny closed-loop environment. Someday someone would design a suit that could wipe your forehead or at least a helmet fan that could prevent perspiration.
Mikhail pointed at the screen. An ocean gleamed in the daylight, the sun now shining at their backs, illuminating Mare Vaporum as well. Icons flashed across the main viewer, motion tracking software identifying a pre-programmed significant feature and zooming in. Viewed from an oblique angle against a white-crested section of ocean, a wooden ship of brown and black plowed ahead, white sails billowing.
"Habitation fractals have almost vanished," said the Russian, looking from the viewer to a series of dynamic graphs. "Welcome to 1669—give or take year or three. Friend Terry, we should we make trek to Tranquility and leave note, yes? Second place is bitch or something like."
"You're a funny guy." These moments were the biggest in human history and the Russian was taking it all in stride. As tempting as it was to stay a while and turn the telescopes on other areas of the ancient Earth, they needed to move ahead. "Taking us back to the present."
The transition seemed worse to Terry, but only a little. Could be he was just more sensitive after the last one. He'd make a full write-up for the docs so the techies and theorists could make whatever refinements were needed. Time lag, they'd probably dub it. Hell, maybe they'd even name it after him.
While Mikhail busied himself with the mission checklist, Terry zoomed the main display onto a strip of coastline not unlike the one his own beach house sat on. Smoke billowed up in places. It had been a dry year and California was no slouch when it came to its reputation for seasonal brush fires.
"Temporal targeting still off," announced Mikhail. "Over a week this time."
"The techies are going to be busy when we get back."
"This is why test pilots test, yes?"
Terry laughed, the taste of bile rising in his throat for an instant. The schedule in his heads up blinked. "Next stop five thousand years."
"Forget that," said the Russian, shuffling toward the console, adjusting the controls. "We go for the grand prize, my friend."
Terry watched as the Russian scrolled down the list of target destinations in their linked systems. The bottom-most blinked once and dropped into the destination window. His hand hovered above the initiation icon on the main control console for only an instant. Terry thought the duration of a sixty million year jump ought to take longer than the two hundred or even the five hundred they'd already made, but just as mission scientists had predicted, the transition time was the same.
Seconds traded for centuries—now for thousands of millennia.
Staggering away from the console, Terry fought down a wave of nausea and dizziness, his gaze slowly rising to take in the darkened Earth hanging against a star-strewn blackness. Mare Vaporum was in darkness. Light from the floods crept out a few dozen meters beyond the Ring, but that was all.
Mikhail leaned on the control console, his breathing heavy on the radio connection. "Too hasty, I think." His voice was raspy as if his ever-present optimism might be at war with exhaustion.
Terry moved to his side and tapped the main display. All views of Earth were nighttime but as the telescopic enhancements overlaid the images one by one, all the theoretical details they'd both learned as children came to light. The continent of Africa was recognizable though more isolated. Asia, visible in the full-disc view, was missing the jutting triangle of India and the icy North American wastelands of their own time had formed a swath of land that swallowed all of Europe in a band of mountains and plains before fusing into Asia.
"Sixty million years," whispered Terry.
Their radio connection was nothing more than a whispery crackle and hum of white noise for a long time and, somehow, it made those moments more empty than any Terry had ever known.
"Terry, my friend?" Mikhail's look peaked in the wash of the floodlights. "I am ready to go home."
Across such a large jump, Terry didn't attempt to compensate for the drift they'd experienced in the previous runs. They could fine tune with an additional jump or two once they got closer to their own time.
Right now, though, Terry just wanted to go home. He wanted to pack this site up, climb aboard the return module and get back to normal gravity. To a fresh breeze in his face that didn't come from a cabin fan. To the sounds of gulls and the smell and taste of the sea. To the sound of voices besides Mikhail's and his own.
Hell, when he got home, he might even let Mikhail hook him up. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he touched the activation icon. Unlike their previous jumps, for several seconds nothing happened, as if the universe had lost track of them.
The ground shuddered and Terry watched a ripple from the perimeter of the Ring move inward as the floodlights flared and the white noise in his headset became deafening.
A blank white wall bloomed around him, snatching away every sensation and every thought. He woke as though from a drug-induced slumber. Dust coated half of his visor, sunlight refracting like tiny prisms.
With an effort, he pushed himself into a sitting position. "Mikhail?"
A groan crossed the connection. Terry shoved with his hands and knees to gain his feet, the first few steps clumsy as he made his way to his fallen friend and helped him up. A tremor, the worst they'd encountered since beginning their jaunts, knocked them both to their knees before they managed to stand side by side. Some of the floodlights had fallen, and super-cooled gases vented in the distance from a chiller near the Ring.
The Russian muttered something Terry could not understand, then, "What is happened?"
Rather than answer, Terry moved to the console. The main telescopes were still tracking and rebooting, having been thrown off target by the seismic component of the transition. The computer had already estimated their arrival point though, apparently using inputs from the return module's smaller scopes.
"Over shot by almost ten years," said Terry.
"Not bad," said the Russian, life ebbing back into his voice. "Should be easy—"
A flash of light filled the airless sky. In the distance, a plume of dust and rock erupted upward. Terry tracked a second streak of light and it impacted beyond the mountains, farther than the first. The impactors wouldn't leave large craters, but such events were so few and far between, the odds of them arriving during such an event were—well, astronomical. Maybe they were passing through a particularly dense field of cometary debris. They just needed to make a few calibration calculations and get out of there before any other surprises came their way.
Mikhail stood before the main console. Gouts of glowing red flashed and oozed on the display plate. Terry was reminded of both a magnified image of microbial life and an erupting volcano. The smaller inset image he couldn't make out.
"What are you zoomed on?"
The Russian pointed to the distant smear in the sky. "Not zoomed."
Where the Earth should have been was a shimmering mass, roughly spherical in the middle, and flaring out into a disc of molten red like the birth of a miniature solar system.
Mikhail exploded into motion, hands flying across controls as the final telescopes came online, giving Terry a better view. "We must go back." The Russian twisted quake-loosened connectors back into place and Terry imagined he could hear them snapping home. A tremor passed under their feet as a smoldering shadow moved across the moonscape, blotting out the sun for an instant as it passed.
They were only ten years in their own future. Terry remembered the view of the clouds on their first return. On their second, the fires he'd assumed were the typical California scourge.
The icon of a tiny earth with a padlock through it blinked in the corner of the largest display window.
"We can't go, Mikhail."
The cosmonaut turned on him, brow knitted and fury in his eyes. "I will return to my family—you will help me." Blood ran from a contusion on the man's forehead where he had struck himself when he blacked out. The Russian grabbed Terry's working harness and lifted him. His fury had become madness.
"It was the geo-lock. We used the Earth of our time as our anchor." Their future Houston hadn't warned them because they couldn't.
The Russian blinked hard. Blood oozed down the inside of his faceplate. "And every time we use Hemera…it gets…worse."
Terry nodded. He'd seen pictures of his friend's family for months now, their smiling faces staring up from stills and video. The words were thick in his mouth. "They'll have more time if we just stay here."
Research-cosmonaut Mikhail Slavsky lowered his partner to the ground and dropped to his knees.
Terry sat down beside him in the lunar dust. The fiery reds of their broken world were not unlike a sunset.
The tiny fan in his helmet blew chill air across his face.
And his tears tasted of salt.
Check out The Temporal Element for more thrilling time-travel tales.
Featured in The Temporal Element anthology.
The pools of shadow that surrounded Kepler grew deeper, wider, as if they were a living, multiplying entity. He forced away a shudder, a tingle of panic tickling his nerve endings, and continued to dig through the debris. He pushed aside broken concrete and shattered bone, dug farther down past coils of rotten wire and plastic that would outlast the human race. His hands scrabbled through shards of melted glass that cut through his gloves and summoned forth droplets of blood.
Kepler’s fingertips met the resistance he’d longed to find. He traced his fingers across the square lid and began to work faster. The Continuity Box was battered but whole, as he’d known it would be. Outside the ruined science lab came the sporadic gunfire that signaled an end to this expedition. He was placing the box into a stained duffle bag when he heard the echo of running footfalls.
“C’mon, Doc!” The voice echoed across the ruined lab, its owner coming closer until he materialized from the dark like a battlefield apparition. “We gotta go!”
“Coming, Sergeant.” Kepler replied with an almost childlike glee. “It was here, Sergeant. I told you it would be!”
Sergeant Marconi wrapped his large right hand around the older man’s thin arm and hoisted him to his feet. “Great, Doc, just great.” His voice was a growl, but not menacing or unkind. “Now, let’s get the hell out of here before more bogies show up, huh?”
Outside the cavernous ruins, the sound of gunfire picked up in intensity, and Marconi squeezed his hand reflexively. Kepler gasped slightly at the pressure.
“Sorry, Doc.” Marconi spoke in a gravel-filled whisper and loosening his grip but didn't let go.
“It’s okay, Sergeant. No harm, no foul.” Kepler said with a slight grin, patting the younger man’s hand. “Let’s head home, yes?”
In the night, a chorus of deep, burbling growls could be heard in the distance.
“Doc, that’s the best idea I’ve heard all day.” Placing a finger to his earpiece Marconi spoke in a clear authoritative voice. “Troops! Disengage and haul ass back to the bunker. The Doc and I will meet you there.”
* * *
Kepler’s hands shook as he turned the numerical lock that held the lid in place, missing the combination on the first two attempts. He tried to fool himself, reassure his ego that it was the cold and damp that made his hands disobey. But when one hits the downside of fifty the body grows a will of its own. Compound that with the problem of near starvation, exhaustion, and constant fear...
The locks clicked, hissed once, and slid aside while the lid eased open on two thin hydraulic cylinders. A faint pulsing glow emanated from within, accompanied by an almost sub-audible buzz that Kepler could feel vibrate in his chest. From across the room Marconi shifted uncomfortably.
“Is it working, Doc?”
“Yes, Sergeant. The Continuity Box is operating just fine. Now, we just have to wait for Mr. Faraday to make a connection.”
Marconi sighed. “That’s assuming he survived.”
Kepler straightened and placed his gaze on the weathered sergeant. “I assure you, sir, that your man made the journey.”
“Positive about that? How do we know—“
“Doc!” The voice that emanated from the Continuity Box was crystal clear. “Doc, can you hear me? This is Faraday.”
“Holy,” Marconi said quietly. “It worked.”
Kepler made a shushing motion with his hands. “Yes, yes. I told you so.”
“Doc, you ain’t gonna believe this but... I’m here! It took me a while to get my bearings, and stop puking my shoelaces up, but I’ve made it. The rifle came through without a scratch, but I’m going to tear it down and give it a good once over. I’ve not only confirmed the date but the location. I’m right where you said I would be, Mississippi. I think I… landed?... a few miles outside of some place called Natch—Natch—Nachos— NatCHEZ. Yeah, Natchez.”
Both the doctor and the sergeant could hear a ruffling of paper in the background before Faraday continued.
“Okay, they apparently don’t have a newspaper in this place, so I swiped some food and a diary from a farmhouse. It looks like, from the last entry, that the year is 1840, and it‘s the sixth of June. I arrived a day early, which is fine by me. Your little experiment left me a bit on the weak side right now. I’m going to make camp not too far from where I landed. Got to get prepped, I’ll check in tomorrow. “
Kepler stepped away from the box and grinned a Cheshire cat smile. Before either man could speak, Faraday’s voice once more leapt into the room. “And tell Sarge not to worry. I got this.”
A long silence filled the room, the two men lost in thought. Marconi spoke first. “Is there any way to speed this up? A fast forward button or something? Or do we have to wait for the transmission to get here?”
Kepler laughed. “It doesn’t work that way. What you have just heard was in real-time. That box is a direct link between Faraday and us. Think of it as a one way radio; we can receive but not transmit. He, on the other hand, can transmit but not receive.”
Marconi cleared his throat. “Doc,” he began. “Are you sure this will work?”
Kepler fixed him with tired eyes. “Is your man as good a shot as you believe him to be?”
Marconi laughed. “Frank Faraday is a screwball and a half-assed soldier—but he is, without a doubt, the best shot I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Kepler’s eyes crinkled at the edges as he smiled. “As long as the screwball can hit the mark, it’ll work.”
“Let’s say it does.” Marconi said softly. “Does that mean all this misery will go away? Things will go back to the way they were before those bastards crawled out of the ground ten years ago?”
“Unfortunately, Sergeant, no.” Kepler took a seat upon a rusted folding chair. “What will happen, what we surmise will happen, is that the creatures will cease to exist in the here and now. We’ll know they were there, that they caused the death of billions and the destruction of our world. But they will be gone from the here and now the second his shot hits home.”
“How can you be so sure?” Marconi said, taking a seat on the cold floor.
Kepler sighed and pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes from a shirt pocket. He lit two and passed one to Marconi. As smoke hazed the air above their heads, he spoke. “Let’s say that we plotted to assassinate Hitler in, oh, 1934. Reality would not allow this to happen. Frank’s gun would misfire, or he’d only wound but not kill his target. At any rate he wouldn’t be able to significantly alter the course of our timeline because Hitler would already be ingrained into our reality. You see, Hitler is and always will be, a part of our timeline because he was born from events that originated in our time continuum. Reality will not allow that to happen.”
“Now, the beast that Faraday is going to kill, that creature is different. It’s not of our world, nor our dimension. If we kill it in the past, before it spawns and floods the world with its young, we’ll erase them all from the here and now. But the intervening years will remain unchanged; those years are a part of our timeline.”
“How do you know it’s not of our dimension? It could just be an alien or something.”
“Signs. Clues as to its origin,” Kepler said but elaborated no further. “Now, Sergeant Marconi, I suggest that we get comfortable. Waiting for Faraday to call will be as arduous a task as facing those creatures on the surface.”
They spoke little, as Kepler eventually nodded into a fitful slumber.
* * *
Marconi grew anxious. He wanted to fidget with the humming machine but was afraid he’d destroy what Kepler had worked so hard to create; that he’d ruin mankind’s last chance at survival. Instead, he patrolled the bunker and checked upon the remaining men under his command.
Their living quarters were once part of an underground utility complex that fed power, water, and air to a small government office building. Now it was little more than a series of fortified rooms connected by crumbling concrete hallways. Fallback positions were set up at every t-intersection, heavy machine gun nests and debris blockades manned by no less than twenty soldiers. It wasn’t much, but it was safer than the ruined world above.
Eventually, he stood a shift in the radio room, scanned the frequencies and listened to other areas of the nation as they fought and died. He left the room when the report of Chicago’s ultimate destruction came across the airwaves.
Marconi was chewing methodically upon an energy bar in the makeshift cafeteria when a harried young soldier burst through the door.
“Sarge! Hawking is gone and Harvey is dead.”
Marconi leapt to his feet. “What?”
The young soldier nodded and fingered the trigger guard on his rifle. “I was taking some MRE’s to the guard post when I found what was left of Hawking. Something had crammed his body into a ventilation duct.”
“Christ.” Marconi said. “Tell the men to pull back here to the main rooms and go into lock down. Nothing gets in, no one goes out. I’ve got to check on the Doc.”
* * *
Kepler was asleep on the floor when Marconi found him; started violently when the younger man shook him awake. “Doc! They’re inside! How much longer?”
Kepler’s eyes darted around the room, lingered on the heavy steel door that connected to the main hall. “Should we close that?”
“In a minute. Doc, how long?”
“Doc Kepler? This is Faraday. It’s starting.”
Kepler looked at Marconi with fearful eyes. “We just have to hold out for a few more minutes, Sergeant.”
Marconi nodded, squeezed Kepler’s shoulder. “Lock the door behind me and stay out of sight.”
“Good luck, Mr. Marconi.”
The gruff sergeant smiled a faint, wistful smile before stepping into the hallway. “See you around, Doc.”
Kepler closed the door and rammed the lock home.
“Doc, something strange is happening. The clouds... the sky is boiling and the wind has picked up. I have a clear view to the emergence site. It’s starting to rain.”
Of course, Kepler thought. The transference through time and space is having a metrological effect.
"Uh, Doc? It’s getting really freaky around here. The lightning is... What in God’s name is that sound? Everything is... the sky is green...”
Kepler was vaguely aware of the beginnings of gunfire from within the bunker complex. He heard screams, human and otherwise as the battle raged.
“It's here!" Faraday exclaimed. "Oh God, it's here!”
“Steady, boy.” Kepler said to the empty room. “Steady.”
“The wind is... My God, look at that thing. It’s huge. I can smell ozone burning...”
Kepler could hear slaughter just outside the door. He focused on the Continuity Box before him as Marconi’s screams of agony were silenced abruptly.
He jumped as heavy blows rained down upon the door at his back.
“Okay... okay...” Faraday continued. “I’m aiming for the...”
“The eye, Faraday.” Kepler spoke quietly, as the door to the room began to buckle and give way. “Hit the eye and the bullet will travel through the membrane and into the beast’s skull.”
“...the eye. It’s... it hasn’t noticed me yet. It seems disoriented.”
“Shoot, boy. Shoot!” Kepler urged. “Quick! Quick!”
The steel door crumpled and fell with a metallic resonance. Kepler began to shake as the creatures entered the room. He could hear their claws clicking across the concrete, could smell their fetid breath cloud the air. Tears raced down his cheeks as they approached slowly, their growls vibrating in the marrow of his bones.
“Taking the shot.”
Kepler heard the crack of the weapon through time and space, traced its trajectory with his mind’s eye. The shriek of pain that violated the speakers and filled the air was a sound not found in the natural world.
The growls behind him ceased abruptly.
Kepler let loose a shaking lungful of air he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.
“Oh, God! I missed! Doc, I missed! I’m so sorry!”
Kepler’s eyes went wide as he turned in his chair, only to fall beneath tooth and talon. His screams were matched seconds later as Faraday was pulled to pieces at the other end of time.
Check out The Temporal Element for more thrilling time-travel tales.
Featured in the Quests, Curses, & Vengeance anthology.
There are many things you should never say to someone you love because you can’t ever really take words back – and I had said most of them to my ex-girlfriend, Mica. That was why I was trudging through Central Park that day, going to meet her at our old favorite deli, so I could pick up the key to my apartment.
It was over. I was sick to my stomach over it. My head knew I might enjoy life in the future, but my heart was offended by that kind of optimism. Yeah, she’d been a bitch sometimes. Yeah, she couldn’t ever make up her mind over anything, from how many creams in her coffee to whom to vote for president. Yeah, she’d stepped out on me at least once, well, all the time, really. But I couldn’t help feeling I’d made a terrible mistake by kicking her out.
It was in that self-pitying frame of mind that I was going down a grassy slope and something hooked my foot. I didn’t just trip on it – I did one of those flailing movie “Wa-a-AA-AHHs” before I crashed face first in wet grass, followed by my own backpack smacking my head. It didn’t do very much damage to my dignity because I pretty much didn’t have any left, so I just looked back at what had caused my downfall. I saw the long neck of a green bottle, maybe a wine bottle, jutting above the lawn like an evil little periscope. Testing the ankle that had taken the hit, I stood up.
Some damn kids had probably buried it in the dirt. I had a grass skid mark straight down the middle of my favorite t-shirt. I could also feel a bruise puffing around my ankle. Sighing, I figured I better pull the hazard-to-all-ankles-everywhere out and throw it away before it up and killed someone else less lucky than myself.
Walking up to it, I saw there was a wax-sealed cork on it, and working it out of the soft dirt, I saw it was really a small jug, not a bottle. Despite being sealed, there was no liquid in it… but maybe some dead leaves… no, a wobbling stick… an insect? No, a… I brushed off the dirt and peered in close, closer, closer…
A pair of pale eyes met mine.
“What the—” Insert the swear word of your choice here, because I honestly don’t remember what I said. I couldn’t make myself think – or move. I just held the jug in front of my nose and stared at him.
He was a tiny little living man, long dark hair, long dark beard, and not a stitch of clothes on him. Nothing, not even sneakers. Naked as the sun is bright, he leaned forward, his palms against the concave glass, nodding and smiling at me. It was a long, long time before I could manage anything other than staring.
“You’re a pixie?” I asked. “A fairy?” I wondered if he really had green skin, or if that was just the color of the bottle, but it seemed rude to ask.
“A genie.” I distinctly heard him say.
His accent hinted of many languages. Old languages. He grinned happily at me. I blinked, mostly because my eyeballs were getting dry from staring.
“The three wishes kind of genie?” I asked.
“No, not that kind.”
“Oh. Are you the James-is-now-having-a-psychotic-break kind of genie?”
The genie shook his head, which could be taken as a “yes,” if this was in fact a psychotic break. Great. Here I was, standing in the middle of Central Park, holding a bottle up to my nose, talking to it. I glanced around.
Yep. People were watching me.
In a really weird sort of slow-motion panic, I tucked the jug into my backpack and jogged the rest of the way to the deli.
* * *
Mica came walking up as I turned the corner. All over again, my heart shriveled up and rotted like a monster in an old stop-action horror movie. I loved the way she walked – I love the way all women walk – but her pace, her sway of hips, her shapely torso swathed in cable knit because she was always cold – they were the backbeat of romance for me. It hurt in so many ways, I felt like I was drowning. A thousand words jammed in my throat like the musty bricks of the Berlin Wall.
“Here’s your key,” she held up a small manila envelope. She could see my feelings were running too high. “Everything okay, James?”
Well, my world was over, and I was carrying a hallucination in my backpack, or I had just acquired a naked genie my ex-girlfriend would probably screw in a heartbeat if she had half a chance.
“It can’t get any worse,” I said.
She dropped the key into my waiting hand. “It wasn’t my fault.” She stared at me for a moment –and turned away. Then she was walking away, filling and breaking my heart at the same time.
I groaned and closed my eyes.
“Hey,” said someone faintly, from inside my backpack.
Fine, I thought to myself. I’ll talk to the genie. It’s better than being the lead character in a bad love song.
I took the genie back to my apartment, my lousy small New York apartment which had seemed bohemian and cool with Mica there – two people in love, squished together in love – but now was just a stunted caricature of an actual home. I put the jug in the sink and began to wet-sponge the dirt off it. The genie looked up at me, expectant. The nudity was getting to me, though.
“Can you put some clothes on?”
He nodded, and suddenly was wearing a tie-dye shirt, cut-off jeans, and flip-flops. A tiny beanbag appeared behind him, and he flopped back into it, and crossed his legs. I toweled off the glass and carried him back to my lovese--, uh, sofa, and put him on the shelf next to the TV so we could both sit to talk.
“So you’re not the three wishes kind of genie?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“Because I could really use three wishes right now. I’ve known two of them since I’ve been a kid, and I have a third one I just found out about that I need really, really badly.”
“Sorry,” he said.
“So, what can you do?”
He gave me a hopeful look. “If you let me out of this bottle… I will give you… three curses.”
I think my shocked expression said what I thought about that.
“Yeah,” he added. “I know. It’s a hard sell.”
“Okay. Right. Can’t I just let you out and not take anything in return?”
He shook his head. “Against the rules, I fear.”
“The curse that put me in this bottle.”
“Someone put you in there? When?”
“Oh,” he thought about it. “Fifteen hundred years ago, give or take a fourscore.”
“Ah-uh- What did you do?”
“Unfortunately, I made the error of cheating on my wife—”
Suddenly, I realized that Mica had left nail clippers, her crazy eye-scalding magenta nail polish, and a bottle of perfume – the perfume I’d given her for Christmas, in fact – on the shelf. There it was, right behind the genie’s jug…
“Has anyone cheated on you?” the genie asked. “Because one of your wishes could be to put them in this bottle once you let me out.”
“Yes–No! No, no. I don’t want to do that. Really, I don’t want to curse anyone.”
“Are you sure? It could just be a small curse. Like leprosy.”
“Or psoriasis. I am given to understand that’s not nearly as bad.”
“I…” I shook my head. The genie steepled his fingers contemplatively at me, so I added, “I…I really need to think about it. I’d never thought about being able to curse people before. I don’t think it’s something one should do lightly.” Against my will, the song Genie in a Bottle went through my head. I wondered then: Why couldn’t I get the Barbara Eden kind of genie who wants nothing but my happiness? Why do I have to get the hippie, curse-y kind of genie?
“I’m going to have to sleep on it.” Because I think I hit my head too hard on the grass, and I am really hoping the swelling and you will be gone when I wake up in the morning.
“Okay, man. I understand. But, could you leave the TV on for me?” he asked. “I get bored.”
“Um, sure. What do you want to watch?”
“Law & Order is fine, any of them. Or HGTV.”
* * *
In the morning, I’d made a point of seeming too busy to talk to the genie, although I acquiesced a little, after telling him to put some damn clothes back on, by changing the TV to “Judge Judy” just before I left for work. He’d looked pretty bummed.
Now, sitting at my computer – does it not seem that regardless of your education, desires, or skills, you will in fact be spending most of your days stabbing your fingers at a keyboard and staring at a coldly glowing screen waiting for something to happen? -- I started looking for some way out of my predicament.
A curse, according to Wikipedia, was “any expressed wish that some form of adversity or misfortune will befall or attach to some other entity – one or more persons, a place, or an object.” Also, it could “refer to a wish that harm or hurt will be inflicted by any supernatural powers, such as a spell, a prayer, an imprecation, an execration, magic, witchcraft, God, a natural force, or a spirit.”
That didn’t really help me. Was there anyone I wanted “adversity” or “misfortune” to befall, even just a little bit? I’d thought of old school bullies, insensitive relatives, domineering bosses, a couple of girlfriends (yeah, Mica too), and even a dog that had bitten me when I was a kid.
Heck. The dog was probably dead by now. They don’t live that long. And cursing a place or an object just seemed to have too many possible unforeseen ramifications. It wouldn’t be responsible, I worried. Life always seems to mete out its own brand of justice: did it really need me doing it, too?
“James.” It was Manny in the next cubicle over. “You okay? You look like shit. Girl troubles got you down?”
“Anything I can do?”
“Man, what would you do if you could place three curses on anybody?”
Manny snorted. “—That’s an odd question. But three Kardashians immediately come to mind.”
“No, seriously,” I said. “Who would you curse?”
“Why in the hell is this a serious question? You -- You’re not planning to do something to Mica, are you?”
I shrugged. “I have a genie in a bottle back at my apartment. If I let him out of the bottle, he’ll give me three curses.”
“You can’t just leave him in the bottle?” That was the cool thing about Manny. He would roll with anything.
“It seems kind of cruel to just leave him in there.”
“Okay. Well, pedophiles and murderers and drug kingpins come to mind. But wouldn’t it just be easier if he gave you three wishes instead?”
“You’re telling me,” I said.
“Yeah,” Manny said. “But come to think of it, in all those old stories getting your wishes didn’t make your life any better: it just made you realize you couldn’t wish yourself out of your own life.”
That started me thinking on what curses would make out of my life if I did them on someone else. It also made me wonder why, in fifteen hundred years or so, no one else had let that genie out of his bottle? I was so fretted up by lunch time, I needed to take the rest of the day off. When I started on my way home, I knew that – unless I was gunning for a full-blown ulcer in two days – I had to do something about that stupid genie.
* * *
I’d been so eager to get out of the apartment earlier, I’d forgotten my keys. I was about to go dredge up the apartment manager, when I remember Mica’s key. I’d put it in my backpack, like I do most everything – well, except my own keys, this time. I found the little manila envelope she’d given me the day before. With a shake, the key dropped into my palm.
Looking at it, I knew it was the wrong one. Too small, too old, not enough teeth.
She gave me the wrong key. I turned again to go find the manager when a horrible thought came to me. I stopped. I tried my own doorknob. It was the most sickening sensation to feel it turn and click open.
Mica had been there, all right. From the doorway, I saw my dresser drawers spilled open, and she’d also taken a whole bunch of books – not necessarily hers, either. She’d found her nail clippers and her nail polish, but she’d left the perfume I’d given her.
Oh, and the genie and the long-necked jug were gone.
The thoughts that followed were not especially cogent: That bitch, that bitch, that thieving bitch, bitch, God I can’t believe she did this, now she knows about the genie, did she ever love me or was I just a stupid schmuck, she took the genie, I wonder what else she took, the genie, the genie, GOD, she’ll probably let him out and sleep with him just to get back at me, I’m sure he was naked again, that asshole, damn it, well, now at least I don’t have to worry about having to think up three curses…
At that my brain locked up dead solid like a seized engine, and what the “Engine Trouble” light stated very calmly in glowing red letters was this:
No, you idiot. Now you have to worry about what kind of curse she’s going to place on YOU.
I could become a human Voodoo doll any minute now.
I dared not call her – things always went sideways fast over the phone when we were upset – so I decided to take the bus over to her sister’s house, where Mica had told me she would be staying. It was possible she would not be there, but what choice did I have? It could already be too late, but I had to find her.
Standing at the bus stop four blocks from my apartment, my skin was crawling like a force field waiting for the first torpedo to hit. Every sound made me jump. As the bus pulled up my hands were shaking so much I dropped my change twice.
Maybe she gave me a horrible degenerative disease. That’s why I’m shaking. I hiccupped at that, which immediately felt like a heart attack. The little old ladies on the bus were gripping their canes tightly, waiting to do battle, staring at me.
My curse is I am going to be beaten to death by little old ladies with their canes because they think I’m deranged?
Oh, wait. I am deranged.
Embarrassed, I went to the back of the bus, hugged my backpack, and tightly closed my eyes. I was still trembling. Die like a man. Die like a man. Die like a man, I kept thinking to myself. I wasn’t quite sure what that all entailed, but I was pretty sure it did not involve screaming and crying like a six year old beauty queen who’d lost to the fat kid. Because that’s what I really, really felt like doing.
Every time the bus jerked to a stop, I felt some organ jerk loose in my body, but I was strangely alive when we finally arrived in Mica’s sister’s neighborhood. Getting off the bus, I tripped and nearly busted my knee on the pavement. Death, I realized, might not be the only curse on Mica’s mind.
There were no end to the sorrows that Mica could visit upon me, and for the first time, I wondered if I shouldn’t have been a little nicer about throwing her out of the apartment. I mean, she’d been a harpy and a slut, but I could have taken the high road. Then, maybe…
I saw her sister’s row house, and went up the stairs. Before I knocked on the door, I peeked in the window.
Through the lace curtain, I saw Mica, sitting cross-legged on the couch, the long-necked green jug in her lap, a fraught expression on her face. I couldn’t see the genie from there, but I did see the waxed cork was still in place.
Oh, thank God. I thought. Thank God she’s completely incapable of making a decision.
I knocked on the door in what I hoped sounded like a civil manner, and waited patiently. There was no answer – of course, she knew it had to be me. “Mica?” I called in the gentlest loud voice I could muster. “Mica, honey. I’m not mad. I understand you’re upset. I just want to talk.”
I heard nothing. A little alarmed, I peeked through the window.
She was frantically trying to peel back the wax around the cork.
Panicking, I looked around and saw a pot of geraniums near the handrail, snatched it up, and hurled it at the window. Before my brain even caught up with what I was doing, I was pushing my way through splintered wood, long shards of glass, and lace. I staggered toward her, yelling, “That doesn’t belong to you!”
Stunned, Mica had cringed back, hugging the bottle against her breasts. I could see the genie, surprised at my arrival. He was wearing a tux and his long black beard had turned into a trimmed beard. Yeah, he knew how to work the ladies.
“Give it back to me!” I yelled again. I froze then, seeing how frightened she was. Her eyes were gigantic, tearful, and furious as well.
“You’re a psycho!” she screeched. “I’m going to call the police!”
At that, the genie tried to intercede. “It’s okay, really. I’m fine. Mica has HBO!”
“Please, for God’s sakes, Mica,” I said. “He’s really dangerous. Don’t let him out.”
“Jeez, James.” How many times had I heard that? “He’s been in this bottle for an eternity. It’s not right to leave him in there.”
“Okay, okay.” I tried to kick lace curtain off my leg, and failed. “Mica, let me take him. I’ll put him back where I found him…”
“Back in Central Park? What if a gang member or someone awful finds him?”
“No one else has thought it would be a good idea to let him out, either—” I saw the retort she was preparing. “But, hey, what, what if I gave him to someone who would know how to work safely with him? Like a church, or something?”
“I beg of you! No!” the genie cried out, tragically. “Why do you think I’ve been in this bottle so long? I’ve been locked up in cathedral catacombs for centuries! They’ll never let me out!”
Diamond tears started to roll down her cheeks as Mica began ripping at the old wax with her lurid magenta fingernails. “I’ll think of something,” she muttered.
Every muscle fiber in me wanted to lunge at her and wrest the jug from her, but it was so wrong to physically attack her – my still flip-flopping broken heart wouldn’t hear of such travesty. Besides, I might break the bottle and free the genie.
I watched the last curl of wax fall away.
“Please don’t curse me!” I cried out.
Mica stopped. Her hands dropped. Still tearful, she looked at me, and in an odd way, the deep sadness that overcame her also seemed to relax her a little. “I would never put a curse on you, James.”
I just looked at her, not sure why I was chagrined, feeling helpless.
Her voice was at its most tender. “Why would I curse you? You’re the most…”
My heart was beating so loud I was sure she could hear it.
I felt dizzy.
“…the most cursed person I know,” she finished.
At that point, I had really been expecting a declaration of undying love and the begging of my forgiveness. I stared at her, not a little disappointed, pretty damn raw in fact.
“No one is more miserable than you are, James,” she continued. “You are not exactly the-glass-is-half-full kind of person, if you know what I mean. Nothing makes you happy, and you imagine all sorts of crap when there isn’t anything readily available. Nothing ever goes your way, and you don’t ever figure out that it’s you making sure that’s the case. I don’t need to curse you. You’re already cursed.”
We were both silent.
All I could think was: She’s right. She’s right.
I thought of all the accusations I’d ever made at her – in the beginning, they’d been without any evidence. It was only later… I felt tears in my own eyes. I looked up at the ceiling, so Mica wouldn’t see me about to cry.
“If it helps, I know some great curses,” the genie said.
“Give him to me, Mica,” I said, still staring at the ceiling. “I don’t want some unforeseen consequences hurting you by unleashing any curses. These things can go really badly if you don’t word them very carefully, think them all the way through, I think. I’ll figure out something safe to do with him. I promise.”
Finally, I was able to look at her again.
As usual, she was unable to make up her mind. She looked down at the genie, who met her gaze with an ingratiating leer. I had always hated the way she looked at other men.
Silently, she held the bottle out to me. “Here. And you’re paying for that window, right? If you don’t, Annie will hunt you down and gut you like a salmon.”
Before she changed her mind, I scooped the green glass up into my arms. “Call the repair guy. You know my credit card number,” I said. “I know I told you I changed the numbers, but I didn’t.”
I disentangled myself from the curtain, and left through the front door. The genie was silent, anxious about his fate. Glumly, I walked back down to the bus stop, sat down on the bench, and put the jug beside me. I looked around. The neighborhood was very quiet –no one was on the street. Distant traffic was the only noise. I sighed.
“You better keep your clothes on,” I told him.
I pulled out the cork. It came out slick – my arm flung wide and I almost threw the cork into the street – no difficulty at all, a low-rent version of Excalibur’s sword, with me as the foretold (and cursed) wannabe-hipster Arthur.
And there he was. The genie, standing right before me. I had thought he would be much taller. But he was very short, very wispy, pale as a vampire, large eyes fairy green, mercifully still wearing his impressive black tuxedo. And he was as surprised as I was. For the first time in fifteen centuries, give or take, he was experiencing the air, the sun, the ground, the entire world. He must have felt – and he certainly looked like – a newborn colt shivering at the new planet he’d arrived on.
Softly he said, “Give me your curses.”
“Okay. I’m putting all three of them on myself.” I took a deep breath. “Number one. I want a 1963 cherry red ‘split-back window Stringray Corvette in mint condition.”
Long black hair flickered by a breeze, the genie stared at me.
“Number two. I want a legitimate winning lottery ticket for at least twenty million dollars. And number three, I want to live the rest of my life with my true love.”
He looked at me sadly. “Those sound like those three wishes you wanted, not the three curses I needed.”
“You heard what the lady said. I’m a loser. I turn everything into a curse. So I might as well start with what I want, since it’s going to end up being a curse, anyway.” I told him.
The bright green eyes dimmed a little and he looked away. I thought he might be afraid of returning to his jug. “She did say that.” He fell quiet.
“What happens, now?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never gotten to this stage before.” Worriedly, he shoved his hands in his pockets. Then, he pulled his hands out again like he’d made a terrible mistake. “Hey. These must be for you.”
He showed me some silver keys on a white rabbit’s foot keychain. I accepted them, as surprised as he was. We both looked around. There it was in its glistening cherry red glory, a vintage Corvette Stingray – split window included – parked directly across the street from us. Great rims, too.
He took the other hand out of the other pocket. “And this.”
I read the slip of paper he handed me. It was a New York State lottery ticket with the next day’s date on it. We goggled at each other, both feeling an amazing giddiness. I realized that we had not heard anything from the third “curse.” I looked down the street.
The street remained empty and quiet. No one came out of Annie’s house. It should have been upsetting, I suppose, but instead, I felt a weird wash of relief.
“I guess you’re getting a new girlfriend,” the genie said. He hugged himself, hands on his elbows. It was a little boy’s gesture that made me smile. He added, “Come to think of it, I want a new girlfriend. And a hun-burger... because I’m really, really hungry.”
“It’s called a hamburger, not a hunburger,” I told him. “Come on. I’ll take you.” I jiggled the car keys at him. “I’ve got wheels.”
Check out Quests, Curses, & Vengeance for more thrilling tales.
Featured in The Temporal Element anthology.
It happened in a swift series of violent moments. The door being kicked in, the heavily armored men rushing inside, the screams of the young couple who lived in the house, the brief struggle as they fought back, the way they were pinned down and bound, the dragging out to the waiting vehicle. A minute before, they had been curled up on the couch, in the midst of a movie and a quiet evening at home together. Now they were prisoners, their deaths not far off if all of the rumors were to be believed.
“Why is this happening? Why us?” Beverly cried.
“Just stay calm, we’ll find a way out of this,” Harold told her.
They had been blindfolded and she couldn’t see his face, but it was all too clear from his tone that he didn’t believe his own words.
“Both of you shut up,” a gruff voice barked.
The increase in abductions by this group was covered daily by the news, but like most people Beverly and Harold never thought it would happen to them. No one knew for sure who they were or why the government hadn’t stepped in to stop them. It was the perfect atmosphere for rumors to grow and that’s precisely what they did. In just a few short years the group’s reputation had grown to mythical levels. Some of the most popular beliefs were that they were a government sanctioned group that abducted and experimented on whoever they wanted. Others reported that they brainwashed those they took. The only known fact was that anyone who had been taken by them had never been seen or heard from again.
The vehicle made three more stops and each time more people were abducted and shoved into the back. One woman couldn’t stop crying. A heavily armored man stalked towards her, stepping on the prisoners without a care. The woman’s cries stopped and she gasped for air. The sound of her being choked to death went on for minutes longer than Beverly thought was possible. Finally, mercifully, the woman fell silent. Her lifeless body was flung on top of the rest of them. Beverly scurried out from under it. Tears began flowing from her eyes but she forced herself to stay silent.
Harold held her tight. From time to time he’d whisper reassurances to her, trying to keep her spirits up. Beverly used to think that any situation would be okay as long as she was in it with Harold, and it was true that having him with her now helped greatly, but she struggled to believe escape or survival were possible.
He tightened his grip on her. Harold had always been able to read her moods, they had felt connected the first night they met, and he sensed her despair.
“Do you want me to try to break us out of here?” he whispered.
Beverly was surprised he had waited so long to ask, but was glad he hadn’t acted on the thought without verbalizing it. As much as she liked the idea of escape, everything was in the favor of their captors right now.
“Let’s wait,” she whispered back. “Maybe we’ll see an opening when we get to wherever they’re taking us.”
It was impossible to know how much time passed as they were taken to their destination. Beverly fought against dark scenarios in her mind, trying everything she could to keep a small ray of hope alive within herself. At last, what must’ve been hours later, the vehicle stopped and they were pulled out. The air smelled different here and there was a low roar. They were near the ocean.
A tear escaped from Beverly’s eye as she realized this. Harold had proposed to her on the beach. They were planning to get married in the same spot.
“Move,” a man said as he pushed her.
She stumbled forward, arms out in front of her. Panic was setting in now that Harold wasn’t holding onto her.
“Harold?” she asked quietly.
“I’m here, right behind you.”
“No talking!” someone shouted.
Her foot caught on something and she fell. Rough hands gripped her and yanked her up. They were herded into a building of some sort and then gathered together. Harold found her quickly and again pressed himself against her.
“It’s going to be okay, I’m here,” he said.
She fought against her doubts and struggled to buy into his reassurances. Before she could respond, jets of water slammed into them. All of the prisoners huddled together as they were hosed down, the water battering them. Finally, it stopped, and they were led from the room. Their soaked clothing hung on them, immediately chilling them as the temperature in the drafty building steadily plunged.
The sound of metal gates opening and closing could be heard. Beverly was shoved forward and she fell onto a hard stone floor. Someone crouched on top of her and removed the bindings on her hands. Another crash of closing metal rang out. Then the sounds started moving further away.
“I’m here, Harold,” she said.
She heard him crawling, then felt his hands on her face. He lifted her blindfold. Her vision was blurry and it took a few moments for her eyes to focus. Harold offered her a weak smile and she appreciated the effort. With their hands free they embraced fully now, then separated to take in their surroundings. They were in a prison cell. The walls were made of solid concrete but there was a barred window on each of them. Beverly moved to the window on the back wall and looked out.
“The ocean,” she said. She took a deep breath, trying to get a lungful of the refreshing breeze. Harold approached and studied the bars.
“Those are pretty far apart,” he said as he stuck his arm between two of them.
“We’re on a cliffside and it’s hundreds of feet down to the water. Even if we could get out we’d probably fall into the rocks and die,” Beverly said with a frown.
Harold had his whole arm out now and was wiggling, seeing if he could get his shoulder through.
“Maybe we could clear the rocks and land in the water. At least we’d have a chance,” he said.
Beverly was about to argue with him, to try and talk some sense into him, when they heard a loud voice. It was coming from one of the nearby cells. They went to the side window and peered into the next cell. Three young men were there, and all of them were gathered at their own window, watching something unfold in the next cell down.
“What’s going on in there?” Harold asked.
One of the men turned towards him and answered. “Men in protective clothing are doing something to the prisoners. They’re filming it.”
“What do you mean doing something?” Beverly asked. “What does that mean?”
“Nothing yet, just poking and prodding and— “
“Something’s happening!” one of the other young men said.
The man who had been talking to Beverly and Harold returned his attention to the window. A moment later a wet explosion could be heard. The three young men leapt back in unison and screamed out. One of them fell to the floor while another ran in circles yelling. “GOD IN HEAVEN!” he repeated.
“What is it?” Beverly yelled, trying to get one of them to snap out of it long enough to tell her. “What did they do to the prisoners?”
None of the men answered and Beverly’s hard fought control over her panic started to slip away. Her heart was pounding and black scenarios assaulted her mind. Harold could sense her distress and put his hand on her shoulder.
“Try to stay calm. We just need to..."
A loud metal scraping sound cut him off as the door to the neighboring cell opened. Harold and Beverly watched as the three young men scurried to the back of their cell.
“No!” one of them screamed.
Four men entered. Three of them wore black containment suits that covered their whole bodies. A fourth man, wearing armor and strapped with weaponry, stood guard at the door.
“Stay away from us!” one of the young men yelled.
The three men in the containment suits steadily came closer. One of them held a small camera and filmed, while the other two had strange objects in their hands. A blue liquid shot out from one of the objects and covered the young men.
“AHHHHH!” one of them screamed.
Seconds later the three of them exploded. Blood and gore decorated the walls and the ceiling. Piles of entrails and nastiness were all that remained of the three young men. A stomach turning odor washed over them, almost causing Beverly to puke. It smelled like a mixture of sewage, burnt rubber, and dish soap.
“We have to get out of here!” Harold yelled.
Beverly was frozen, her knuckles white as she gripped the window bars and stared at the horrifying mess in the next cell over. Harold tore her away and lightly slapped her, trying to snap her out of it.
“We have to get through the bars!” he yelled.
She watched as he moved to the back window and again stuck his arm out of it. He grunted and wriggled, and a moment later his shoulder popped through as well. He was having trouble fitting his head and sweat ran down his face as he struggled to get it through the bars. The sound of a key being inserted into their cell door spurred Beverly into action. Her heart was threatening to leap from her chest and she rushed towards the back window.
“What can I do?” she asked frantically.
She placed both hands on his head and pushed as hard as she could. The loud scraping of their cell door being opened gave her new strength and she shoved with all that she had. Harold’s head popped through the bars and he nearly lost his grip on the outside of the window and fell to the ocean far below. He pulled his leg through and was then fully clinging to the outside of the cliffside prison.
“Now you,” Harold said. “Stick your arm out first.”
Beverly could hear the men coming up behind her and she knew. A tear rolled down her cheek and she shook her head. “It’s too late,” she said.
“No!” Harold shouted. “Just stick your arm through and I’ll pull you out.”
Over her shoulder he saw the three men rushing forward. His eyes went wide with panic as he realized Beverly was right, that she wasn’t going to make it.
“I love you, Harold,” Beverly said quickly.
“No, no, no, don’t you say that!” he yelled. “Don’t give up!”
Beverly turned and rushed the three men, trying to block them from the window.
“Jump, Harold!” she shouted.
He reached in through the bars, trying to grab hold of her, but she was too far away. He tried to squeeze his shoulder back through, to get back in, but it was impossible to do from the outside. Beverly fought and clawed at the men as they tried to get to the window. Her eyes met Harold’s and she gave him the briefest of smiles.
“Jump,” she said calmly.
Tears poured down Harold’s face. “I’ll come back for you, do you hear me?” he said.
“We both know I’ll be dead,” Beverly said. “Just go and live your life.”
“I’ll find a way to save you!” Harold raged. “I will come back for you!”
The men knocked Beverly to the ground and moved towards the window.
“I swear it, Beverly. I’ll come back for you!”
“Jump!” she screamed.
Just as their hands reached for him Harold jerked backwards. He fell towards the ocean far below and they watched until he disappeared from view. The three of them huddled together and spoke in hushed tones. Beverly laid her head against the cold floor and sobbed. Part of her was relieved that he had escaped but now she felt completely and totally alone.
She closed her eyes and resigned herself to her fate. She pictured Harold living out the rest of his life, happy and healthy. She watched in her mind as he grew older, found another person to fall in love with, had a family. Beverly smiled, ready now to die.
A strange buzzing sound caused her to open her eyes. The armored man guarding the door was convulsing, as a blue laser beam bored into his head. A moment later he dropped to the ground, giving her a clear view of the perfect circular wound that went all the way through his head. An odd figure cloaked in a prismatic robe stepped into the doorway holding what looked like a small pistol. Trying to focus on the clothing hurt her head, as it shimmered brightly.
The three men in containment suits turned to face this mystery person. The robed figure raised the laser pistol and fired three times in quick succession, burning a hole through each of the men’s heads. They fell to the ground, dead.
Beverly looked up at this unknown rescuer, trying to see the face below the heavy hood of the prismatic cloak. The figure reached up and pushed the hood away.
She could hardly believe her eyes. It was him but in a way it wasn’t. Gone was his smooth, twenty nine year old flawless skin. This man’s face had wrinkles, weathering, and a nasty jagged scar down one cheek.
“You’re as beautiful as I remember,” Harold said with a smile.
Beverly slowly stood up, never taking her eyes off of him. She stared at him hard and it was like staring into the future.
Tentatively, she reached her hand out and touched the side of his face. “Is that you, Harold?”
He brought his hand up and touched the back of hers. As soon as she felt his touch, Beverly knew. Somehow, someway, this was her Harold.
“It’s me,” he said, tears forming in his eyes. “It’s me.”
Loud footfalls rang out in the hall and Harold pushed Beverly into the corner of the cell.
“No time to explain. I only have a small amount of time here and I used most of it getting to your cell.”
He pressed her into the corner and stood in front of her, facing the door. Two armored men rushed into the cell but Harold dropped them quickly with his laser pistol.
“Put your arms around me and hold on as tight as you possibly can,” Harold said.
A million questions rushed through Beverly’s mind but she did as he said.
“No matter what happens, don’t let go,” he said.
She wrapped her arms around him and held as tightly as she could. Her face was pushed into his back but she heard him fire and kill three more guards. Then there was a blinding white flash, and the world around her was gone in an instant. She closed her eyes as tightly as she could, but the light found its way inside. Beverly wanted to scream. It felt like her brain was being cooked inside her skull, but no sound came when she opened her mouth. Just as the pain became unbearable, the light faded and she fell into a state of deep and profound unconsciousness.
* * *
Beverly opened her eyes slowly but was met with nothing but darkness. She moved her fingers, struggling to get them to obey. Her whole body was stiff and as she tried to sit up she felt as if she was emerging from a coma. Her thoughts moved sluggishly in her brain and, as she got shakily to her feet, she groped into the darkness.
The only answer was her voice bouncing back to her in what sounded like a very small room. Flashes of where she had been, the cliffside prison, and what had been about to happen, came back to her. Beverly panicked and moved forward as quickly as she dared in the dark. She found the wall and slid down it, feeling all over for a window or a door. Her hands found a door knob and she yanked it open.
The hallway was barely lit and she rushed down it, looking for any signs of an exit. Just as she neared an intersection she heard voices. Beverly skidded to a stop, then took off in the opposite direction. Visions of heavily armored men and men in head to toe black containment suits haunted her memory and she ran from them. Her bare feet slapped against the concrete floor as she continued her flight.
Several random turns later, she spotted an exit. Beverly pushed herself harder, disregarding any thoughts other than the ones that urged her to escape. She slammed through the door, and immediately her eyes were assaulted by an unfamiliar site and her lungs assaulted with a foul, sulfuric air. The door swung shut behind her, and she covered her mouth as she looked around at her once familiar hometown.
Immediately recognizable was Mount Gregory, the small mountain that the town was built around. But the cityscape she had grown up in, the place she and Harold had called home, was barely recognizable. Many of the larger buildings were partially destroyed, some were in flames. She turned in a slow circle, realizing that she was at the location where the mall should be. Instead, it looked like some sort of a military installation.
The earth beneath her feet shook and Beverly held out her arms, startled by the minor quake. It passed quickly, leaving her gazing up into the orange, dirty sky, wondering what was wrong with her town.
What had started as a minor burning in her lungs slowly grew to be a horrible pain and Beverly covered her mouth with her hand. It grew worse with every breath and despite her great desire for escape she moved back to the door she had come from and pulled on it. It was locked.
Each breath was harder to take than the one before and her lungs screamed out at her for more oxygen. A thin blackness played at the edges of her vision, then grew larger, threatening to overtake her. Beverly fell to her knees and clutched her throat.
She barely heard the voice, but she felt the strong hands pulling a mask over her head. Soon she could breathe again and slowly the burning in her chest subsided. She allowed herself to be helped up and then turned to look into the face of her savior.
“Harold,” was all she could say.
It came back to her now like remembering a dream—the prison, his pledge to come back for her, and then his almost immediate return in older form. She looked upon him, at the aging on his face, the scar on his cheek. This was the same Harold who had rescued her from the prison.
“It’s not safe outside today,” Harold said, placing a reassuring hand on her back. “Let’s get you back in the complex.”
Gunfire rang out in the distance, towards what appeared to be the front gate. Harold frowned. “Get inside now,” he said sternly.
Beverly did as he said. A young woman wearing combat fatigues opened the door as they approached. She clutched a machine gun in her hands and had a laser pistol hanging from her belt.
“Thank you, Amelia,” Harold said as they passed her.
“Of course, Commander.”
Beverly raised her eyebrows. She looked over at Harold questioningly, but he looked away. He led them down several corridors and then into a large, well furnished room. He pulled off his mask and she followed suit. Her eyes never left him as he moved to a safe in the wall and opened it. He removed a pitcher of water and poured two glasses, then offered one of them to Beverly.
“How old are you?” she asked.
Harold looked at her strangely for a moment, then forced a smile onto his face. “That’s your first question?”
Beverly’s cheeks flashed red and she took a long drink of her water to cover her embarrassment.
“Easy,” Harold said, “we don’t have much water left.”
She stopped drinking and nodded.
“Please, sit down,” he said.
Beverly sat on the edge of the couch and continued to stare at the man that she loved. He sat in a chair across from her, studying her face. Finally, he leaned back and took a deep breath.
She tried to process this information. They were both twenty-nine years old, their birthdays were six months apart.
“But you’re Harold,” she said. “You’re my Harold.”
He smiled and nodded. “I’m your Harold.”
“The prison, it was…”
“Twenty-one years ago,” he interrupted. “The worst day of my life.”
Beverly’s mind was overloaded as she tried to piece together what was happening, what had happened.
“I watched you fall,” she said. “They rushed the window and you let go. But then, just moments later, you were back and... older, and you saved me. It wasn’t twenty-one years ago, it just happened.”
She wasn’t sure why but tears had started filling up her eyes. Harold frowned as he watched her.
“For you, it just happened. But for me it has been twenty-one years since the prison. Twenty-one long years.”
An unexplained anger was growing inside of Beverly. “But I was just there!” she yelled. “And so were you!”
Harold nodded. “This me was just there, that’s true. Twenty-nine year old me was splashing down in the ocean at the time,” he said.
Beverly stood up, on the precipice of a mental breakdown. “How is that possible?”
He got to his feet and took her hands in his. Part of her felt strange being this close to him, but another part felt comforted.
“I said I’d come back for you, remember?”
Deep down she knew what he was saying, that what he was implying had happened, but she couldn’t allow herself to believe it.
“I’ve spent the last twenty-one years developing…”
“Don’t say it,” Beverly pleaded.
“… time travel.”
She pulled her hands from his and backed away. She shook her head as tears began falling from her eyes.
“The men that took us that day, they were more powerful than you can imagine,” Harold said, pleading for her to understand. “But I organized a resistance and we fought back against them. We purged them from the face of the planet. And all the while I kept the most brilliant scientists and physicists working on time travel, so I could come back for you and save you from your horrible fate in that prison.”
Beverly kept backing away until she was up against the wall. “This can’t be happening,” she cried. “It can’t be real.”
Harold slowly walked towards her, his arms outstretched.
“I know it’s not ideal, Beverly, and I know I’m not the same as I was back then. I’m fifty and you’re not even thirty, I know it’s weird, but I swear to you I tried to get back to you faster,” he said. “But those bastards, they were imbedded in every level of our society. It’s a miracle we were able to beat them at all. They slowed my research, but I never gave up hope. No matter what the obstacles, I never let anyone stop my development of the technology that could send me back to save you.”
He extended his hand, hoping that she would take it.
“Excuse me, Commander,” a sharp voice said from across the room. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but an attack on the complex is imminent. Your presence is needed in the command center.”
Harold sighed, then nodded. He let his hand fall back to his side. “I’ll be right there.”
“I thought you said they were beaten, the ones who took us that day,” Beverly said.
“They are; there are none of them left. This is... someone else.”
She could sense the tension in his answer but didn’t call attention to it.
“I have to go deal with this,” Harold said. “Please, just stay here and try to calm down. I’m sorry this is so strange for you. I promise I’ll answer any more questions you have when I get back.”
Beverly nodded and watched as he strode from the room. She was glad to be alone and returned to the couch. She closed her eyes and attempted to make sense of everything that she had just learned. Despite her best efforts not to, she felt herself falling asleep.
* * *
Beverly’s eyes shot open and she sat up quickly. She had no idea how long she had been asleep on the couch. Looking around, she saw that the room was still empty. She got to her feet and went to the door. The hallway was empty as well, and she moved down it slowly, totally unsure of where she was going or what was even housed within this complex.
At the intersection at the far end of the hall she saw a line of soldiers sprint past, weapons at the ready. The sound of explosions and gunfire outside were faintly audible through the thick walls.
She was just about ready to accept that she was lost when she heard Harold’s voice.
“You’re out of your mind!” he screamed.
Beverly came around the corner and saw the large command center. There were computer stations set up all over and in the middle stood Harold. He was addressing a dark-haired young man on a video screen.
“Out of my mind?” the man laughed. “That’s a hell of a thing for you to say to me.”
Originally planning on going inside, Beverly stayed just outside of the room, fearful of the scene currently playing out. Something about the way Harold was standing made him seem frightening to her.
“Do your people even know what you’ve done to this planet?" the dark-haired man asked menacingly. “Do they know that you’re the one responsible for the quick death of the Earth? Or are they so brainwashed that they believe only what you tell them?”
“Most of my people have been with me since the revolution!” Harold shouted. “They and countless like them fought and bled and died by my side, so we could rid our world of the tyrants that had silently taken it over! You’re free today because of what I did, you ungrateful little bastard!”
The man on the screen laughed bitterly. “Ever the conquering hero, huh, Harold?”
Harold stalked closer to the monitors and pointed a threatening finger at the screen. “Wipe that smirk off your face,” he commanded. “I freed this planet, and ever since I’ve had to deal with uprising after uprising. Well, I crushed those who came before you and I’ll crush you as well. I’ll paint the countryside with your blood!” Harold looked like a mad god as he sneered at the screen.
“I’ve never disputed that you saved us all, but that doesn’t excuse what you’ve done to this world since then,” the young man said. “Your secret project has killed the planet from the inside out, all so you could reconnect with the love of your life.”
The young man paused and leaned closer to the screen, his face growing even larger. “But I must say, she’s quite beautiful.”
Beverly froze as she realized the man could see her. Harold spun around and his eyes went wide as he saw her standing there. The crazed look on his face slowly faded away.
“My men will lay waste to your complex and everyone inside,” the man on the screen said. “If you come out and give yourself up, I will spare your people.”
Harold didn’t even hear what his opponent was saying. The crushed look on Beverly’s face hit him like a bullet to the chest. He stepped towards her but she took a step away. He opened his mouth to speak but she cut him off.
“You caused everything I saw outside?” Beverly asked.
“There may be ways to heal it,” Harold said. “I’ve got people working on it around the clock, but this little pissant and his revolutionary army have been hounding me for years. It makes it hard to sustain research.”
“What did you do, Harold? Why would you cause such destruction?”
“I did what I had to do! Whatever was necessary!” he shouted, causing her to jump. “The only power source on the planet strong enough to supply the needed energy for time travel was the planet itself.”
He realized he was yelling and paused to calm himself.
“We’ve tapped into the Earth’s core, but it wasn’t supposed to cause so much damage. We’re not sure why it happened.”
Beverly shook her head and took another step away. “You doomed the entire planet, all because of me?”
“I swore to you that I would come back.”
“At the cost of damning the entire human race?” Beverly shouted.
“I couldn’t just leave you there to die!”
He rushed towards her, but she turned and ran.
“Please, just hear me out!” Harold said as he chased her down the hallway.
Beverly ran blind, taking every turn she came to as Harold continued to chase after her. Before long, the hallways began sloping downwards, taking them into the bowels of the complex. Above, it had been more of a military installation, but down here were laboratories and huge banks of computers. And then she saw it. A giant room, and in the center a machine that could be only one thing. She adjusted her course and ran for it, knowing that the love of her life had left her with no other choice. Harold saw what she was doing and ran faster.
She sprinted through the door, then turned and slammed every button on the control panel. The heavy metal door slid shut just as Harold reached it. Beverly studied the control panel, piecing together how to lock the door. She manipulated the buttons that were by a picture of a lock and listened as the door sealed shut. There was a small window in the middle of the door and Harold’s face appeared there.
“Don’t do it, Beverly. You don’t know what power you’re messing with.”
She turned away from him and approached the machine. It was a circular apparatus, and tens of thousands of wires fed into it from the ceiling. A large control panel stood in front of it, and she began looking it over, trying to decipher how it worked.
“You can’t just go back in time. There are consequences you can’t even imagine,” Harold yelled through the door.
“I won’t stay in this future that you’ve ruined because of me!”
“This can be our world, our time to be together,” Harold pleaded. “Come out and work with me. Let’s undo the damage together.”
She punched buttons, familiarizing herself with the map layouts and the time gauge. The machine was still set to the same time and space coordinates Harold had used when he'd gone back to rescue her in the prison.
“What do you think you can accomplish here, Beverly?”
“I’m going to go back, and I’m going to convince you not to come back for me.”
He slammed his fist into the door. “Don’t you understand what that will do? It’ll change this timeline, it will erase it. Once your time in the past runs out, you’ll have no future to return to.”
Beverly paused as she let his words sink in.
“Even I don’t know what that means,” Harold said, desperately hoping he was getting through to her.
She returned her attention to the control panel and pushed a few final buttons. Flashing red lights and an alarm sounded out in the chamber.
“No! Beverly don’t do this! I waited so long to see you again!” Harold screamed.
Beverly saw one of the prismatic cloaks that Harold had been wearing when he'd time traveled, and she quickly put it on. She had no idea if it was essential to the time travel process or not, but decided not to chance it. She stepped onto the platform and then looked out at Harold. He was raging against the door, smashing it again and again with his fist, but when their eyes met he stopped.
They stayed that way for a long moment until finally he spoke.
“I promised I’d come back,” he said. “No matter what I had to do, no matter the terrible price I had to pay, I did it for you.” Tears streamed down his face and he pressed his palm against the window. “I did it because I love you.”
“I know you do,” she replied. “I never doubted that for a second.”
And with a blinding white flash, she was gone.
* * *
Harold twisted as he fell towards the rocky shore. As he got closer he could see the jagged rocks pointing up at him, waiting to greet him. He tried to contort his body, anything to angle away from them. He was almost upon them now, and he grunted as he arched his spine in a desperate final attempt to alter his trajectory.
He slammed into the water and rocketed downwards. Even though he’d managed to narrowly avoid the rocks, the water wasn’t very deep, and he crashed into the ocean floor like a missile.
All of the precious air escaped from his lungs, and his vision went blurry from the impact. Everything hurt, but he knew if he didn’t swim up to the surface soon he would die. The light in his eyes began to fade and he started to thrash wildly. Every movement triggered a thunderstorm of pain, and he was unsure if he was going to make it to the surface before his breath gave out.
Harold felt hands gripping him, tugging him upwards. He thought of the men in black containment suits, but even if he’d wanted to fight against whoever was holding him, he couldn’t. His back was in agony, and he found he could barely move his arms or legs.
The mysterious person pulled him above water, and Harold gasped in lungfuls of air. He was dragged onto the shore, and as his wits finally started to return he craned his neck to look up at the person who had pulled him from the water.
“You’re an angel,” Harold said, smiling as he took the sight of his beloved Beverly in. She was cloaked in shimmering sunlight, but under the bright hood he could see her face. He tried to sit up so he could see her better, but pain shot from his back down into his legs.
“Sit still, Harold. Just sit and listen.”
He shook his head. “We have to get out of here. I have to get you out of here.”
Beverly adjusted the prismatic cloak and knelt beside him. She put her hands on his shoulders to calm him. She knew she should hurry, that there was no time to waste, but she couldn’t stop herself from taking a moment to soak in the sight of him. This was her Harold, the way she remembered him, the way he was supposed to be.
“You need to listen to me very carefully, because I don’t have a lot of time and this is going to be hard to understand,” Beverly said.
She swallowed hard, suddenly overcome by the enormity of what she needed to do. With no idea of how much time she had left before she returned to the future, or if there even was a future for her to return to, she jumped right into it.
“I need to tell you about the future.”
Check out The Temporal Element for more thrilling time-travel tales.
Featured in the Quests, Curses, & Vengeance anthology.
He lowered himself with a grunt onto the skins in his cave. This cave would do, but he would look for a better one during the next sun. As he settled into a somewhat comfortable position, he rearranged the striped fur covering him. He had skinned it from a ferocious cat that attacked him long ago. He opened one eye. The enormous fang he’d taken from that first big kill lay within easy reach. The other men named him “Slayer” for good reason.
At the time, he had been seeking a good cave. He thought he had found one, only to startle the sharp-fanged beast that thought the same. The fight for his life had terrified him more than any other. His heart still raced with the memory of the immense claws swiping at his face. When the cat lunged with jaws gaping, exposing enormous fangs, Slayer thought death was certain. As the cat fell upon him, however, Slayer twisted. The beast’s claw missed his face and istead the front legs entwined him. A lucky roll twisted Slayer on top as the two reached a ledge. The claws of the beast sliced into Slayer's arms as it fell away, crashing onto the sharp, slender rocks protruding up from the lower floor of the cave, leaving Slayer the victor.
He no longer feared the fangs of the cats as he once had. He’d learned they used the things to frighten their prey into submission. The claws are what the beast used to kill. The bite was still something to avoid, but the fear of them no longer held sway with him.
That cave did not suit Slayer's needs as well as he’d hoped, so his search continued.
That battle had been long ago, and Slayer had grown old. Now the younger men fought to replace him as clan leader. He hoped it would happen soon. He truly did not lead so much as others simply followed him on his quest for the perfect cave.
His eyes flashed open and he sucked in air. Pain. More pain than he had ever known crushed his chest, but it was from nothing he could see. Invisible hands reached into him and squeezed tight at his racing heart. He gasped his last breath as blackness claimed him.
Slayer felt warm. He floated. He sought.
Captain Pelagius hired Slayer to protect his boat from the predatory sea creatures that tormented cargo ships. Thanks be to the gods, only one leviathan had reared its ugly head above the surface. It was small by comparison to its kind. Slayer kept his reputation intact by slaying the beast without leaving the deck.
But he, like the rest of the crew, stood helpless before the storms.
The ship rocked hard to port. The squall showed no promise of easing as the boat tried to make way to Poros. Slayer had to reach the isle, and no sea monster would keep him from doing so. A griffin had stolen the love of his life, and the last rumor put her on that spit of land.
According to the whispers, the griffin belonged to a Titan who ordered it to capture the fair maiden Megara and take her to Poros. It was said this Titan occasionally visited the island to have her. Slayer did not fully believe the tale, but he'd eliminated all other rumors of her whereabouts. After years of searching, he was losing hope of ever finding his beautiful Megara.
A wave crashed against the starboard side and nearly heeled the ship. Slayer clung to the mast as the sea threatened to take him. The wave washed past and poured down the port side. The boat lunged upright again as he coughed and heaved out the saltwater which sought to drown him.
As the storm continued to lash the boat, his thoughts turned back to Megara. She had spurned him, though he still wondered why. He was as strong as a Minotaur. His father possessed wealth that would one day be his. Other women told him he was handsome enough, but none had claimed his love. Not even Megara had truly captured his affection—not until he'd watched the griffin grab her in its talons and fly into the unreachable sky. It was then he felt his heart had been ripped from his chest. He had not stopped searching for her since that fateful day. It felt like an unending quest.
A thunderous crack shook the boat and slammed Slayer to the deck. A massive wave engulfed the ship. His feet became entangled within lines attached to barrels. The wave cast the entire tangle into the darkened sea.
The heavy barrels plummeted toward the sea floor, taking Slayer with them. No matter his struggles, he remained tied fast. He looked up to the surface as a lightning bolt lit the outline of the ship he’d been thrown from. Goodbye Megara.
Slayer felt warm. He floated. He sought.
Skulls littered the ground at the mouth of the dragon’s cave. Beyond, darkness hid all. No bird sang. No cricket chirped. No creature dared come near. Or if any did, they did so silently. Slayer, ever observant, followed their lead. He kept as still as the boulders strewn along the mountainside.
The full moon had begun its descent in the west. Soon, it would be at Slayer’s back. The darkness of the cave entrance would be chased back by the soft glow for the space of one hour. The creature hated light, from sun or moon. Sunlight drove it too far back into the close confines of the cave. However, the softer moonlight would cause the fearsome beast to retreat only slightly, leaving room for him and his men to encircle the dragon. Then it could be trapped and killed quickly.
Slayer counted the skulls. How many fools had tried to battle this dragon alone? Here lay at least a dozen, in various stages of decay. The putrid odors from the rotting flesh—coupled with the naturally horrendous odor of dragons—made many of the men retch, yet Slayer had hardened his stomach to the assault on his senses.
He and the men, who had served with him for years, arrived at the dragon’s lair and waited two days for it to fly out in search of food. Once it left, they laid out a net on the cave floor that was twice the creature’s size, covering the thick ropes with mud and gravel. Six men stayed inside and hid along the rock wall of the dragon’s lair with the gut-wrenching, blood-soaked mud smeared onto their bodies. This would hide their natural odor from the beast.
The dragon returned and retreated to the depths of its cave. Now, they waited, silent and motionless.
The moonlight had slid down the rock face of the mountainside, almost touching the ground. The time drew near. When the moonlight reached the ground, the opening would be fully lit. Slayer would stand at the mouth of the dragon's den, and shout for all he was worth. When the dragon lunged toward him, his men would ensnare the wings in that net so Slayer could drive his sword deep through its ear and into the skull.
This had been his quest, to kill dragons, since one of the beasts had dined on his own kin. When he was but a child, a dragon came to the family homestead in the middle of the night. Slayer stayed where his mother had hidden him, and had a clear view when the dragon landed and swept her up in its claws, biting her in half. It then grabbed his older brother, who had tried to rescue their mother, and squeezed the life out of him. The images still haunted Slayer’s dreams to no end.
The moonlight touched the ground before the cave. Slayer ran to the entrance, making as much noise as possible along the way. He wanted the dragon to be aware he was coming, and not become too aware of the smell of men inside.
Slayer bellowed and screeched and waved his sword as he reached the mouth of the cave. He searched for the massive shadow outline that would herald the dragon. He was not made to wait long. The odor of the monster assaulted his senses. He had trained himself not to blink at the onslaught. Swallow the urge to vomit while fighting the beast.
The behemoth roared as it lumbered through the passageway. As it bent its neck to peer out of the cave, the men surrounding it sprang. Two in the front jumped over the lowered neck with their ends of the netting, while the two at the forelegs and the two at the hind legs climbed up and over the beast. It was entangled in a matter of heartbeats.
It tried to take a step forward and stumbled in the trap. Slayer raised his sword and aimed for the soft point of its recessed ear. As his sword was in mid-thrust, the animal twisted its neck. Slayer felt his bones crunch as he was crushed between the beast’s skull and the rock wall. Blackness consumed him.
Slayer felt warm. He floated. He sought.
The fire singed the hair on his arm as he covered his eyes. The searing heat made it hard to breathe, harder to cry out. But he had to find her.
“Cynthia! Where are you?”
He had called 9-1-1 before running back into the inferno. The fire department should be in the driveway by now. The rest of his family was safe, but he hadn’t found Cindy. She should have been in her room, but she wasn’t. He continued his search upstairs, trying to find her in defiance of the flames.
He opened the door to the spare room. A wave of heat threw him back, crashing him against the wall. His head spun as he slid to the floor.
“Cindy,” he gasped.
He thought he could hear sirens over the roar of the flames. They were faint, though. Why had it taken them so damn long? He raised himself to his hands and knees and crawled along the carpet; the smoke above was thick and suffocating.
“Cynthia. Where are you?” Tears of frustration pooled with those brought by the smoke’s acrid touch. He choked on the sulfuric fumes coming from the paint he stored in the spare room.
A crash came from downstairs. He could only hope it was his fellow firemen come to rescue the rescuer.
He heard his buddy, Captain Truck, call out, “Slayer!”
“Here.” His voice was weak, small. He kept crawling, looking for his daughter. They had been fighting that evening about her cutting classes—all the money she’d spent, the lies. All of it meant nothing. He had to find her. He had to find her alive.
Slayer took as deep a breath as he dared. “Cynthia! God damn it! Answer me! Where are you?”
The flames grew quiet then, as if taking a breath, themselves. In the eerie stillness, he heard the faint cry. “Daddy?”
An explosion of flames burst forth, drowning all other sound, but he’d heard her. Her frightened whisper had come from the spare room. He fell onto his belly, dragging his burned body beneath the raging fire.
“Cynthia! I’m here, baby! Daddy’s here! Call to me, baby girl. I can’t see you.”
“Dad! I’m in the closet and I can’t open the door!”
“I’m here, sweetheart. The ladder fell against the door. I’ll get it. Hold on, baby. Tell me you’re OK.”
“I’m OK, Daddy. Please be careful!”
Slayer rose to his hands and knees and tried to coax the six-foot, searing-hot metal ladder out of the way. Rough hands grabbed his shoulders and dragged him away from the door. Lifted off of the floor by his arms and legs, he squirmed and fought those holding him.
“Lieutenant Slayer! Please, stop fighting!”
“Truck,” Slayer gasped. “It’s Cynthia. She’s in the closet. Please get her!”
The two firemen set him down in the hall and went back into the room. The Captain took off his helmet and mask and leaned close to Slayer’s face.
“You ain’t slaying this one, Lieutenant Slayer. This fire almost got you and your girl,” Truck shouted over the flames. “We’re gonna get you both out of here!”
As the Captain spoke the words, the two firemen lifted Slayer’s seventeen-year-old daughter out of the closet.
“Cynthia!” Slayer sobbed. She clung to the neck of one fireman as the three rushed past him and disappeared into the smoke down the hall. Her hand reaching out to him was the last he saw of his daughter. His quest to save her was done. Relief rushed through him as Captain Truck lifted him from the floor.
A crack of timber above Slayer and Truck’s head was the last thing he heard.
Slayer felt tired. In his exhaustion, he floated.
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The wizard Bertram heard the howls of the werewolf pack coming closer as he limped into the dark alley. The beasts couldn’t be more than a block away. That doppelganger he’d conjured and sent running in the other direction hadn’t fooled them at all, not with the lingering trail of blood from his chewed-up leg for them to track. He figured the alpha leader would be on him in less than a minute and he was too exhausted to win another battle.
A minute was all he needed—that and a doorway. Even a brick wall would do in a pinch. He thrust his staff out. “Sanctuary!” he intoned. The wall before him shimmered and a solid wooden door appeared, light and sound spilling out around the edges. Bertram grabbed the latch, yanked the door open, and stepped through just as a snarling, furry demon bounded into the alley.
The noisy tavern fell silent as Bertram slammed the door shut behind him and limped into the extra-dimensional tavern called Sanctuary, using his wizard’s staff as a cane to spare his injured leg. He ignored the curious faces and made straight for his reserved corner booth, sighing with relief as he slid onto the cool, vinyl padding. His leg throbbed even with his weight off it and he checked the bandage under his torn trousers. There was fresh blood seeping through, so his healing spells weren’t up to the task. No surprise there. A werewolf bite was resistant to ordinary magic.
The noise level of the tavern picked up where it left off, as the other drinkers decided Bertram probably wasn’t in the mood for company and went back to minding their own business. He looked across the room and caught the bartender’s eye. Old Chiron the centaur was on duty tonight. Chiron pointed to the top shelf and Bertram nodded. The centaur clopped out from behind the bar, bringing over a shotglass and a couple of bottles from the wizard’s private stash.
“This is the last of the Healing Elixir,” Chiron said as he filled the glass from the smaller bottle. “You keep getting yourself chewed up like this, you need to buy more. I gotta warn you: the guardians of the Spring of Eternal Youth have doubled their prices again. They say there’s been another drought. Supply and demand, you know.”
Bertram’s hand shook as he scooped up the glass and downed the elixir in one gulp, closing his eyes and leaning back while it took effect. It tasted like pond water but the familiar icy effects of the magical fluid soon spread from his guts to every part of his body, erasing all the aches and pains he’d accumulated on this last quest. Eventually, even his toenails tingled.
Oh yeah, that’s the good stuff. Bertram sat up straight, reached for the other bottle, and poured himself a chaser of bourbon, then pulled his pants leg up to examine where the werewolf’s teeth had torn into his calf. He peeled a large scab off. The wound had healed without even leaving a scar, as expected.
“Can’t blame them,” he replied while peeling the bandage off his leg. “I’d be dead or crippled a thousand times over without the elixir. I’ll pay whatever they ask.” He pulled an ornate medallion on a chain out of his pocket and handed it to Chiron. “Put this in the safe, would you? It keeps a person from changing into a werewolf every full moon. Once my client comes to collect it and pays my fee, I’ll have enough for more elixir. Don’t worry about me.”
“Bert, have you ever heard the term junkie used in any of the realms you’ve explored?” The bartender stood with arms crossed across his broad chest, the bit of face that wasn’t hidden by his long, grey beard scowling down at his friend.
“I’ve heard of junk yards,” Bertram said. “Is a junkie someone who picks through other people’s trash?” Bertram poured another shot of bourbon. Fortunately, the world of Kentucky this particular elixir came from remained unaware of how much a bottle of quality sipping whiskey was worth across a dozen thirsty realities.
Chiron shook his head. “Never mind. Don’t get too comfortable. The Boss says you have a new quest and you need to see the client soon as you get back.”
“Oh, no! I’m off the clock for now. I’m going upstairs to my room for a shower and a change of clothes, and then I’m going to find a woman and pretend I actually have a life of my own for one night, at least. Nothing Dion can say is going to change that.” Bertram started to slide out of the booth. “Tell the client to come back in a few days.”
The centaur shook his head again. “She’s already been here a week and nobody else will accept her quest. We finally rented her a room upstairs until you got back. The Boss says he’ll erase your debt if you’re successful and if you have any questions, come see him about it. It’s a friend of his from the old country named Apate.” The centaur stomped a front hoof, a sign that Chiron was getting tired of arguing with this obstinate mortal.
Bertram slid back into the booth. As long as he owed Dionysus, that god pretty much owned him. Dionysus might have been the god of drunken revelry to the ancient Greeks, but retirement, joining an AA group, and opening a magical tavern connected to all the realms had brought out a shrewd businessman who never failed to collect a debt. This was too good an opportunity to pass up. Too good. Must be a catch. He started to reach for the bottle of bourbon again while trying to make up his mind, but the centaur scooped up the bottles and glass and turned to clomp away.
This revealed a lovely young woman standing behind the centaur, hidden until now and patiently waiting her turn. So this would be Dion’s friend with the quest. She looked like something off of a Greek vase, from the simple white sleeveless dress that came to her knees and cinched with an ornate girdle to the matching white sandals strapped to her pretty feet. She had the same dusky skin and wavy, deep black hair as Dion. There might've even been a family resemblance. If not brother and sister, they were at least cousins.
But then, all those Greek gods were related. A friend of Dionysus from the old country? A goddess, in other words. Divine egos were always tricky to handle, so it was no wonder the other questors for hire didn’t want anything to do with her. He motioned for her to sit at the booth while racking his memory.
Apate…Apate…nope, doesn’t ring a bell. Those damned Greeks had a hundred obscure gods and goddesses. Who can keep track of them all? She wasn’t one of the important ones, obviously.
She smiled at him but remained silent, and he had to make a conscious effort to look her in the eyes. Apparently, Greek goddesses didn’t wear bras, and the thin white dress that cradled her breasts above the girdle made sure he knew that. Bertram’s heart beat faster. The Healing Elixir also acted as an aphrodisiac, so he was glad for the table that hid his lap and hoped he wouldn’t have to stand up for a while.
“You must have been listening in,” he told her. “I might not have made a good first impression. I’m a powerful wizard and if I agree to your quest. I’ll use all my power to complete it. I’ve never failed a client.”
The goddess nodded, eyes sparkling, but still didn’t say anything. It was starting to get on his nerves. “Please don’t be insulted,” he finally said, “but I don’t recognize your name. Are you the Goddess of Silence?”
“I don’t like to talk much,” she finally replied. “I’m the Goddess of Truth. Everything I say must be the complete truth.”
Seems harmless enough. “So what’s this big, important quest of yours?”
Instead of answering, she pulled a folded piece of paper out of her cleavage and handed it to him. It was a page torn from a book with an illustration on it. He didn’t even need to read the title to recognize the drawing.
“Pandora’s Box? It’s been lost for thousands of years and everyone knows it’s empty now. That’s what you want?”
She seemed to think about that question for a minute. “I don’t want the box,” she replied. “I need it.”
“I’d need some clue where to start looking.”
She reached out and turned over the page. There was a detailed map on the other side. He examined the page closely. “Ancient Thebes, and a maze, and I’ll bet that little bull sign means a Minotaur. Tricky, but I can handle it. I’ll get a good night’s sleep and tackle it in the morning.” He slid out of the booth and took her hand to help her up. “Anything else you can tell me about what I’ll be facing?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “The trip into the heart of the maze to get the box will be very, very dangerous. The trip back out will be very, very easy.”
“Huh. Thanks for the warning.” He was about to make his excuses and head for a hot shower and cold bed, but hesitated and continued to hold her hand. Most of these Greek gods and goddesses had quite a reputation for being… he supposed lusty would best describe it. This one certainly gave off the right vibes. Bertram decided it wouldn’t hurt to ask.
“You, um… You wouldn’t happen to be in the mood to… spend some time getting to know me better… would you?” He looked down at his bloody, ripped pants. “After I clean up a bit, of course. I could come by your room later with a bottle of wine.”
She cocked her head and smiled as only a perfect goddess could smile. “I couldn’t allow that,” she replied. “I would be highly disappointed if you came to my room tonight.” Then she pulled her hand away, turned, and walked off, her swinging hips clearing a path through the crowded tavern.
Just my luck. She’s one of the few chaste gods in the entire pantheon.
He started for the stairs to his own room when Chiron waved him over. “So, you’re all right with this?” he asked. “You know what she is and what she wants?”
“Yeah, she told me,” Bertram said. “I’ve dealt with worse. As for Pandora’s Box—well, I guess she’s got as much right to it as any of those Greek gods. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need a cold shower and a good night’s sleep.”
* * *
The following morning, Bertram picked through his arsenal of tools and supplies, magical and mundane both, trying to select everything he might need for this particular quest. His trusty staff always went with him, but anything else was optional, and a matter of weight versus utility and the right tool for a job.
For a quick smash and grab like this quest, he decided on a vest covered in pockets instead of a backpack. The license on his wall proclaimed him a wizard in good standing, but he didn’t even own a robe and thought peaked hats were just silly. He ended up in comfortable jeans, a light shirt because of the hot Thebes climate, and stout hiking boots to complete the outfit.
The morning shift had finished cleaning up the tavern when Bertram finally stumbled downstairs and headed for the continental breakfast provided for overnight guests. The buzz from the healing elixir was long gone, so he settled for coffee to clear his head.
Apate was already sitting in his booth and nibbling on a piece of buttered toast. He supposed even a goddess had to watch her weight. Bertram pulled out the page with the map she’d given him, giving it another careful look in case he lost it and had to trust his memory.
“This shouldn’t take long,” he told her, “but those can be famous last words. There’s never a guarantee. If I’m not back by tomorrow morning, don’t bother waiting around. Leave instructions with Chiron on how I can notify you when or if I return.”
She nodded, started to say something several times, then came over to grab him by the vest and plant an unexpected kiss on his lips. “I’m glad you didn’t come to my room last night,” Apate said as she stepped back.
If the goddess wanted to confuse Bertram, she’d succeeded. He decided to concentrate on the job in front of him instead of standing there pondering the mysteries of women. He walked over to the tavern door, gripped his staff tightly, took hold of the door latch, closed his eyes, and willed himself into the world of the map where Pandora’s Box awaited. Then he opened the magical tavern door and stepped through... and just like that, he was there.
The first thing Bertram did was quickly scan for threats or people looking his way and likely to start screaming about a stranger. He was alone in a town that seemed in ruins and abandoned. The magical doorway had appeared on the crumbling wall directly across from an arched stone entryway on the side of a hill, topped with the same carving of a bull from the map. He hadn’t expected to arrive any closer because the doorways wouldn’t work below ground. It was hot, the sun was beating down out of a cloudless sky, and not even a bird could be seen. He sighed with relief as he walked across the short distance to the maze. This was a promising start.
Traversing a dark, underground maze of tunnels wasn’t particularly worrying or new to Bertram. Half the magical doodads that he’d been hired to quest for were found in places like this. He lit up the end of his staff with a whispered word. Then he pulled a can of spray paint out, popped the lid off, and started shaking it as he began walking the maze. Every time he came to an intersection, he painted an arrow on the wall pointing to the way out.
The longer Bertram went without encountering anything more dangerous than another dark tunnel, the more nervous he became. He finally came to the conclusion that the Goddess of Truth was simply unaware that things had changed since the old days when she’d last been here. Time takes its toll.
It took him half a day of careful exploring before he finally made it to the center of the maze. Only then did he notice signs of life, as he saw a glow coming from around a corner to the central chamber and heard noises. It sounded like splashing accompanied by singing, if a cow could sing. The sounds cut off as he got closer, so he bet the creature had noticed him coming. Bertram decided to simply confront whatever was in there openly, painted one final arrow on the wall, dropped the now-empty can, and stepped into the room.
It was a large, cluttered room built to scale for a giant—Bertram could see that right away. Several tall oil lamps provided adequate light. The oversized furniture made him feel like a child again. There was a large desk that easily came to his chest, with a large chair behind it and a very large bed in one corner. The Minotaur still managed to dominate the room. It was exactly as Bertram imagined: a huge, naked, muscular human body topped by a bull’s head and with lethal horns sticking out on either side of its head. The creature was on the far side of the room next to the biggest bronze bathtub Bertram had ever seen, standing in a puddle of water while drying an ear out with the corner of a towel.
“It never fails,” the Minotaur said in a rumbling voice. “First bath I take in years and some hero pops in to interrupt me. Who the hell decided kill the Minotaur should be on everyone’s heroic task list, that’s what I’d like to know.” The creature tied the towel around its waist, thankfully hiding another oversized part of its anatomy inherited from its father, and walked over to a table. It picked up a vase half as tall as Bertram and filled a large goblet with about a gallon of wine, then sat down in the chair, leaning back and putting its big feet on the desk. It motioned to a stool on the other side.
“Take a load off. Nice to have company for a change.”
Bertram had never met such a chatty monster, or one that acted so civilized. Nothing about this quest made sense. Maybe he could talk instead of battle his way through this. He perched on the stool, but kept his guard up and staff ready.
“So what’s your story?” the Minotaur asked, taking a slurp of wine. “Out to impress a girl, are you? You don’t even wear a sword. Planning on beating me to death with that little stick?”
“Uh…the name’s Bertram. I’m a wizard. I’m not here to kill you. The Goddess Apate sent me here to get Pandora’s Box. Do you have a problem with that?”
“Apate? Boy, I haven’t heard that name spoken in a long time. Rumor is, she’s a goddess likes to have fun. So she wants her box back? I just wish she could come here to collect it herself. The big boys declared this place off limits to all the gods a long time ago, so everyone started stashing all the crap here that they wanted to keep out of divine hands.”
“Her box? Why would the Goddess of Truth claim something that contained the evils of the world?”
The creature snorted and wine shot out of its nose. “Goddess of Truth?” it said. “Of course she has to say that, but you believed her? So you don’t—” The Minotaur threw its head back and started bellowing with laughter.
Bertram knew when the joke was on him and didn’t like it one bit. He’d never considered himself stupid, and surviving many years of dangerous questing had proven his intelligence the hard way. His pride on the line, he set his mind to figuring out the joke.
All right, so it’s her box. The box contained all the evils of the world, and after Pandora released them the Greeks turned those evils into gods of their own. The box contained greed and blame and revenge and deceit and violence and…oh, crap.
“Deceit,” Bertram said. “Apate is the goddess of deceit, not truth. She lies. I bet she’s not allowed to do anything but lie. You have to take the opposite of what she says. I’m the Goddess of Truth means she’s the Goddess of Lies. So when she told me...” Bertram felt himself blush deeply. I would be highly disappointed if you came to my room tonight, she’d said.
He didn’t say the last out loud but the Minotaur must have figured it out from the blush because it brought another bout of laughter. Finally the creature wiped the snot from its nose, stood, and walked over to a shelf. It took down a small bronze box, blew some dust off it, and brought it over.
“Here, you earned this,” the Minotaur said, handing it over. Bertram held it up to the lamplight, finding it hard to believe this was the famous Pandora’s Box. It was smaller than a cigar box. He supposed the evils of the world didn’t take up a lot of room when they were squeezed down to their very essence. He slid the box into a vest pocket while the Minotaur put a huge, friendly hand on his shoulder.
“Oh, I should probably mention,” the creature said. “You’re not getting out of here alive.”
The friendly hand on his shoulder squeezed and Bertram screamed as bone crunched. The creature used that grip to sling him across the room and he slammed into the side of the huge bed, causing another wave of overpowering pain from his shoulder. Somehow, he’d managed to hang onto the staff, but before he could get to his knees the Minotaur was on him again and jerked it out of his hand.
“Heroes are the only people who visit anymore,” the creature remarked as it reached down and removed its towel. “Too bad none of the heroes are ever women, but a Minotaur’s got needs so I can’t be choosy.” The creature looked closely at the carvings on the staff. “Don’t know what a wizard is. I suspect it’s another name for hero.”
“Flash,” Bertram whispered, and the staff went off like a strobe light in the Minotaur’s eyes. It bellowed again, this time in pain instead of laughter, and threw the staff away to rub its eyes. “Attack,” Bertram whispered then, and the staff flew back to start whacking the creature around the head on its own as the Minotaur stumbled around the room, blinded and swinging those big fists at an attacker that wasn’t there.
This was only giving him time to catch his breath. The staff was raining blows that had recently kept a werewolf pack at bay while he dealt with the cub that was chewing on his leg, but this was only annoying the powerful giant. Bertram concentrated and muttered a spell that numbed his shoulder, dangerous because it didn’t heal the broken bones inside and those could end up slicing an artery. Not as dangerous as staying here, though. He scrambled to his feet and ran for the exit, holding his bad arm against his chest. He stuck his good arm out and recalled the staff as he ran past. He needed it for light.
This allowed the Minotaur to stop and sniff the air. “I can’t see,” the creature said, “but I can smell and hear you, little hero. I don’t need light to find my way through the maze. I wonder–“
Bertram never found out what the creature was wondering because he was already past the first turn and on his way out of the maze. Very, very dangerous to get in; very, very easy to get out, the Goddess of Lies had said. He should have remembered that instead of worrying about a missed opportunity in her bedroom.
The race out was a matter of running from one painted arrow to another. He didn’t have time to set an ambush or do anything other than use the thought of what awaited him in the creature’s bedroom to spur him on. When Bertram did finally have to stop and rest, he realized there was no way he could keep up this pace with his injury. All he’d done was open up a few minute’s lead. He’d have to deal with the Minotaur instead of outrun it.
Suits me just fine. I’ve been doing too much running from trouble lately. This creature deserved to be taken down a peg or two, and he was just the wizard to do it.
He propped his staff against a wall, took a piece of chalk out of his pocket with his remaining good arm, then dropped to one knee and started drawing on the flat stone floor. The tunnel had narrowed to only about four feet wide at this point, so it didn’t take long to create a simple pattern of mystic runes surrounded by an unbroken circle that stretched from wall to wall.
He’d just finished when he finally heard the creature approaching. Bertram grabbed his staff, walked another ten paces or so down the tunnel, and stood with feet planted. He began softly chanting ancient words and the light from the staff brightened.
The Minotaur stomped into view, its huge body filling the tunnel. It stopped and squinted at Bertram. “Trying to blind me again?” it said. “Won’t work. I can follow the stink of your sweat with my eyes closed. You might as well get it over with. You and me got a date tonight.” The Minotaur was still naked and gave a thrust of its hips to illustrate.
Bertram finished the spell and relaxed. “No thanks, big guy. I already have a date tonight with a goddess.”
The creature only grinned and stepped forward, closer to the circle, then hesitated and gave another long sniff. “I smell magic. I figured out a wizard must be like a Priest. Those guys were always full of magic tricks. What are you up to?”
“I’ll give you one chance to turn around and leave, or you’ll find out the hard way.” The monster had stepped far enough into the light that Bertram could see his spell working. It was Bertram’s turn to grin. The impressive horns that stuck out on either side of the Minotaur’s head were growing longer. The powerful creature hadn’t even noticed the extra weight.
The Minotaur looked at the chalked floor. “So this is your big trick? I’ve seen these before. Circles are traps.” It stretched a leg out and stepped over the drawing. “So much for your magic. What you going to do now, smart boy?”
“I already did it,” he replied. “I placed a growth spell on your horns when you arrived. The circle is there to distract you while it worked.”
The ends of the horns finally reached the tunnel walls and continued to grow, locking the Minotaur’s head in place. The creature bellowed, grabbed the horns, and tried to twist himself free, but only succeeded in jamming the points deeper into the stone. When it was obvious the monster was securely caught, Bertram stamped his staff to stop the spell. He could have allowed the horns to grow until they crushed the skull between them like a vise, but he generally preferred not to kill unless absolutely necessary.
He waited for the bellowing and thrashing to stop. The creature finally hung there with fearful eyes and foaming mouth. “Kill me now,” it pleaded. “Give me the mercy of a quick death.”
“Oh, stop that,” Bertram said. “The spell will wear off in a day and your horns will shrink back to their original size. Let this be a lesson. If you’re that horny, find yourself a nice cow and take her out on a date. Heh…horny, get it?”
Bertram turned and continued following his arrows while the Minotaur bellowed what were probably dire curses and threats at him in another language.
When he finally exited the maze, he was staring directly into the setting sun, and it blinded him as completely as the Minotaur had been earlier. Bertram tripped on a stone, staggered, and almost fell, using his staff as a crutch to keep going. This situation was getting to be all too familiar.
He made it to the wall of the building across the dusty clearing, yelled “Sanctuary!” and saw the cracked plaster turn into the familiar portal. He stepped into the cool tavern and leaned against the inside of the door while the room stopped spinning. The numbness spell was beginning to wear off. He needed to sit down before he passed out.
It wasn’t until he’d slid into his booth with a deep sigh that he realized there was someone already sitting on the other side of the table. It was Dion. Apate might have stuck with the classic look, but Dionysus had long since moved to an expensively tailored business suit. Bertram thought the god resembled a young Dean Martin. Dionysus even preferred to be called by the shortened “Dion”. This was a god who tried to keep up with the times.
Right now, Dion was sipping on a cup of coffee and taking his time checking Bertram over. “You look like crap, Bert,” he finally said. “You’ve only been gone twelve hours. It usually takes you a whole week to get this banged up.”
“Thank you, Captain Obvious,” Bertram replied. Just because this was an immortal being as well as his sometimes employer didn’t mean Dion got special treatment from him. To his credit, the old god tolerated this irreverent attitude without comment. “Is Apate around?” he asked. “I have something for her, which means I don’t owe you anything as of tonight.” He pulled the box out and slid it across the table.
“She’s in her room. My cousin had a bit too much to drink and retired early.” Dion gave the box a brief examination and put it back down. “I notice you keep looking over at the bar and from the way you’re holding that shoulder, your collar bone is shattered. Chiron told me this morning you’re out of Healing Elixir. I can either help you get to a hospital, or…” Dion pulled a flask out of his pocket and set it on the table next to the box. “You can arrange to get it from me. It’s expensive, but your credit is good.”
It meant once again being in the god’s debt, but at this point Bertram would have sold his soul to get rid of the crippling pain. He started to reach for the flask, but Dion grabbed his wrist in an unbreakable grip.
“Not so fast,” Dion said. “Chiron also told me, as your friend, that he was concerned you might be addicted to this stuff. He means a lot to me, so I agreed to help. Here’s what I’m offering—I keep you supplied with Healing Elixir, but you stop the questing. From now on, you work behind the bar and the closest you get to risking your life is ejecting drunks at closing time. I’ll pay top wages and benefits. Deal?”
Bertram looked over at Chiron, but the centaur was pretending to clean already clean glasses and refused to catch his eye. He looked back at the flask of elixir. He wanted it so bad, it made his mouth water. Did he really need to risk his life questing for other people?
He never doubted his answer. “No deal. Guess I’ll have to heal the hard way. I’d appreciate some help getting to a hospital. I figure you owe me that much.”
Dion laughed and pressed the flask into Bertram’s hand. “I knew you’d say that. I tried telling Chiron—it’s not the elixir you crave, it’s the quest. You’re addicted to the danger, just like every hero I’ve ever met. Here, this one is on me, with no strings attached.”
He stood and brushed the wrinkles out of his expensive pants while Bertram unscrewed the cap and took a big gulp of the elixir. “Get yourself healed before you go upstairs,” Dion said. “I’d hate for you to disappoint my cousin again. I believe she’s determined to thank you properly this time for getting the box. She’s in room twelve.”
Bertram took the stairs two at a time and knocked on her door, tingling from head to toe with the magic effects of the Healing Elixir. Apate opened the door, saw the box he held in his hand, and squealed. She wrapped her arms around him, gave him a kiss on the cheek, then grabbed the box and clutched it to her chest. When he started to say something, she held a hand up, turned her back to him and did something with the box. Near as he could see, she opened the box, held it up to her mouth, and whispered into it for a minute before closing it back up. When she turned around there was a huge expression of relief on her face.
“Finally!” she said. “I can talk normally. Tell me you’ve figured out I’m the Goddess of Lies.”
“Yessss…” He’d come prepared for her opposite-speak, and she’d thrown another curve his way. He needed to know what this meant for any plans tonight. “I figured out that when you said you didn’t want me to come to your room, it meant you did want me. So how are you–“
“Pandora’s Box.” She held it up. “I can store my lies in it. They leak back out after an hour and I’m forced to lie again every time I open my mouth, but in the meantime I can hold a normal conversation.” She put the box down, came over and put her arms around him. “Now shut the door, get those clothes off, and let’s make wild, passionate love. I’ve wanted you ever since I first saw you limping through the tavern door, and that’s no lie. Some of you mortals are better lovers than even the gods.”
* * *
Bertram woke up to an empty bedroom the next morning. Since Apate’s divine toothbrush was missing from the bathroom, he figured she’d moved on.
He spent the day catching up on gossip with the other regulars in the tavern and making a short trip to a market to replenish supplies. That evening, he sat at his booth nursing a beer and brooding.
Chiron came on duty and waved to him before checking the cash register. Bertram tried to ignore him, but soon enough the clopping announced his old friend’s arrival. He looked up to see Chiron’s familiar scowl above arms folded across the vast chest.
“The Boss told me about the deal with the box and that you spent the night with his cousin,” Chiron said. “Thought you’d be in a better mood. You mad at me for getting the Boss on your case?”
Bertram waved a hand. “Nah. Hell, you’ve got a point. Lately, seems like every quest I take on, I get banged up. Maybe I’m starting to look for excuses to get hurt so I’ll have a reason to hit the elixir. It’s that, or I’m slowing down. Tell me the truth, Chiron—am I getting old?”
Chiron threw his head back and laughed. Finally, he wiped his eyes with the edge of his bar apron. “My friend,” he said, “every single questor in this place refused Apate once they found out they’d have to face a Minotaur. They all told her that only you were foolish enough to enter that maze and skilled enough to come back out again.” Chiron took the empty mug from the table. “Everyone here knows you’re the best in the business. I’ll get you a free refill, if you first tell me what’s really bothering you.”
Bertram looked around to make sure nobody else could hear, then spoke softly. “It’s silly, but… Dion told you how Pandora’s Box lets Apate tell the truth for an hour if she whispers into it, right?” Chiron nodded. “Well, late last night we were… relaxing in bed, and I asked her if I was one of those mortals who were better lovers than the gods that she’d talked about. She patted me on the arm and told me I was a great lover, then went to sleep.”
“It was only later that I realized it had been way over an hour since she’d last whispered into that damned box. She was lying.”
Being a good friend, Chiron managed not to laugh this time. He clopped away to get the well-deserved refill. Bertram sighed again, wishing Apate had stayed for another day so he could try to improve her opinion of him.
“Ahem,” said a voice from under the table.
Bertram leaned over to check. There were four tiny people down there—tiny people with peaked hats that still wouldn’t come up to his knees. He’d seen this race before, or at least statues of them.
“Thanks for pointing that out. Did that half-horse giant say you were the best questor in here? We can’t use you if you’re getting too old for the job. We need the best.”
“Big talk for walking lawn ornaments. What’s the job?”
The little man jumped up on the seat opposite him, followed by the three others. “An evil wizard kidnapped our queen. We recently went to an oracle who said only the best questor in Sanctuary could help us rescue her.”
“Is it dangerous?”
The little men looked at each other. “When we started, there were a dozen of us and we’ve already gone through two questors. You’re our last hope. So, you the best or not?”
“I might not have made a good first impression,” Bertram said. “I’m a powerful wizard and if I agree to your quest, I’ll use all my power to complete it. I’ve never failed a client.” He signaled to Chiron, who put four smaller cups on a tray and added a pitcher of beer to the order.
Bertram hunched over the table while the Gnomes told him their tale of woe. He’d worry about his skills as a lover later. Right now, he had better things to do.
It was time for another quest.
Check out Quests, Curses, & Vengeance for more thrilling tales of questing.
Sir Chelmsford Chase knew he was the best. Everyone told him so. Whether it was the thrill of jousting, or the art of swordplay, he could win out every time, yet it was all fun and games. He was tired of being kissed by noble ladies and adorned with superficial ribbons after staged competitions. It was time he proved his mettle, and did something only "the best" could.
Touring the tournament circuit, he'd heard lots of rumors; tales of evil sorcerers, demonic knights, and even hobgoblin-infested forests, but one task appealed to him more than all others. The cursed bridge at Bannocksburg Crossing was said to be home to a troll, one notorious for eating the gentry. This was the best chance for Chase to show everyone he really was the greatest combatant in the land. To slay the troll, why, they'd sing songs about him until the end of time!
As simple as it seemed, trolls were not to be taken lightly. They had magical powers and a significant resistance to conventional weapons. To beat the green-skinned devil would require something special, and Chase knew just where to find it.
The log cabin sat alone in the woods, amidst deadfalls and rusted hunks of metal. The dilapidated yard was a stark contrast to the fine tiles of the roof and the carefully painted window frames of the structure. It screamed caution into the hearts of many an adventurer, though Chase knew the man in residence, so there was no need to fear.
Three hard knocks on the front door did nothing, though Chase knew someone was home. He kept knocking and when that failed to work he began kicking the base of the door. He paused a moment and listened carefully. Noises echoed from behind the door, a few grumbled words and the hissing and whizzing of tools. Waiting provided no satisfaction, as the door remained shut.
Chase was being ignored on purpose? This was unacceptable! How dare this petulant wizard ignore his summons! He'd beat the door down if he had to.
Thundering fists and furious kicks eventually got him an answer, though the door remained shut. A glowing effigy floated out of the wall and grabbed him by the shoulders, then slapped his cheeks back and forth to get his attention.
"Here now, what's all this about?" the ghostly figure asked with a cockney accent.
"I'm here to see Millikan," Chase answered.
The ghost floated back and looked him over. "Hey, I know you. You're that bloody Wanker knight what grew up with me master. Come for a reunion, eh?"
"That's Walker Knight," he corrected, "but I haven't served under the Earl of Walker for years. Though, I don't expect you to know anything about that, seeing as you're a dead man."
"Right, dead I be," the ghost said. "Millikan done brought me out of the ground, you know, after me own dear mum told me I was bound for Hell. Guess I got me a reprieve of sorts..."
"Enough of this stupid banter," Chase snapped. "Let me in to see him!"
"Can't do it yet," the ghost said.
"Ye've got to answer me three riddles first."
Chase rolled his eyes and regretted the man was already dead. If he were facing a physical obstructionist, his sword would answer the riddles for him.
"Riddle the first; if a deaf mute breaks his arm in the forest, and no one's around to hear him, does he make a sound?"
"Of course he does, you idiot!" Chase growled. He saw through the little trick, and wasn't about to fall for it. He'd heard many bones break during competitions, and they made a definite sound.
"Right-o," the ghost said, looking amused.
Turning back to the door, Chase beat on it again. "Millikan! Open the door, damn it!"
"Not so fast," the ghost said with amusement. "Riddle the second..."
Before the ghost could continue, the door swung open, and a rotund man dressed in tight-fitting clothes stood in the way. "Chelmsford, I thought I recognized your voice." Shooting the ghost a nasty glare, he said, "Paxidnomy, why didn't you tell me?"
The ghost cringed back and floated half into the ground. "Master, you were right engrossed in your work and asked not to be disturbed. I done what I thought you'd uh wanted."
"Imbecile!" Millikan chided. "This is my friend. Come in, Sir Chelmsford." He waved Chase to enter, and the bold knight marched in with his head held high, smiling arrogantly at the rebuked ghost.
"So, what brings you to my abode?" Millikan asked. "We haven't seen each other in quite a while. How go the tournaments?"
"They are fine, old friend," Chase answered, taking a seat in a wicker chair beside a hardwood table. The would-be dining room was cluttered with various contraptions and tools, all part of Millikan's infamous inventor's hobby. "Though, I find myself growing weary of such idle sportsmanship."
"Finally?" Millikan remarked, sitting down on the opposite side of the table and setting his eyes upon the various trinkets there. He started to fiddle with a long, slender tube as his friend continued to speak.
"Yes, it is time I finally did something of value, used my talents to truly achieve something."
"The country has been at peace for decades," Millikan said, staring intently at the thin tube and poking it with a glowing fingernail. "Though I'm sure someone's at war somewhere. Planning to vet yourself as a mercenary?"
"Oh, no, nothing so hazardous and extensive," Chase said, brushing off the notion. "I have a much more practical and immediate goal in mind."
"And that would be?" Millikan asked.
"I shall slay the troll of Bannocksburg," Chase answered.
Millikan stopped fiddling and glanced up at his friend. "That is certainly ambitious."
"Indeed," Chase said, "and no doubt it will be difficult, but I'm up for the challenge."
Millikan smiled. "Even so, you'll need more than physical might to best such a foe. I see why you have come."
"Can you help me, old friend?"
Millikan froze for a moment, then turned his attention back to his work. "To your left, second shelf from the floor. Take the dagger."
Chase turned to the large rack of shelves on the wall, and knelt down to view the many objects set there. Talismans and chains covered the hardwood planks, though only one dagger waited. Picking it up, he felt a twinge of static roll up his arm.
"This thing will kill the troll?" Chase asked. Turning it around in his hand, he thought it wasn't much to look at. The sheath was a dull gray, with no decorative markings. The hilt was plain, coiled wire around a metal stud, and the blade seemed like ordinary steel. It was a poor man's dagger, not even suited for a squire. Of course, the most powerful of weapons were often disguised in such a manner.
"The blade's enchantment will allow it to penetrate the breastbone of various creatures, including trolls. Where your best sword would be deflected, that little beauty will sink in. Just make sure you hit the heart, and be quick."
"Thank you, Millikan. I knew I could count on you," Chase said, tucking the dagger into his belt. He saw the wizard had stopped fiddling with his project, and had to ask, "What are you making?"
"One second," Millikan said, tapping the thin straw with his finger. He held it up and studied it, looking pleased with himself. "Ah, it's done."
"What is it?" Chase asked.
In response, Millikan jammed the point of the object into one nostril. A hiss sounded, and he pulled it free, only to insert it into the other side of his nose. After a second hiss, he held the object up proudly. "A magic nose hair trimmer!"
Chase thought the idea was absurd, but forced a neutral expression onto his face, wishing not to offend his longtime friend.
As the knight turned to leave, Millikan grabbed his attention one more time. "Say, Chelmsford, after you're done with this whole troll business, perhaps we could market this marvelous invention together. It could make us both rich."
"Maybe," Chase said, heading out the door. There was no way he would sully his good name by endorsing such an unsightly device. Even if there were a market for it, he didn't need the money. He'd found his fortune, and now he was prepared to immortalize his fame.
* * *
It was warm and sunny as Sir Chelmsford Chase rode his brown mare toward Bannocksburg. It seemed things were going his way, as usual. With any luck, he'd slay the filthy troll and be done in time for dinner. The grateful townspeople would no doubt wish to shower him with gifts, though he had no need of it. Regardless, he'd welcome their charity, and spend the rest of his days basking in love and admiration abroad.
Daydreams of pretty wenches and penitent peasants faded, as Chase came to a fork in the road. The weathered sign clearly identified both ways to Bannocksburg, though there was nothing to identify which trail led to the troll's bridge. The sprigs of tall grass and thick moss on the right roadway alluded to its lack of use, giving Chase the impression that it could be the route he wanted. Logically, people would seek to avoid the more hazardous way.
A few hundred yards along the road, the trees turned to grassy fields, allowing Chase a clear view of the gently sloping hillside, and the large wooden bridge right up ahead. He nudged his horse to haste, eager to fulfill his mission, though when he approached the bridge he found a pair of guards standing at attention, their glistening pikes crossed to block the way.
"Tis fifty pence to cross," one of the men said, sticking out his hand.
"I beg your pardon," Chase said, finding the request odd.
"This is a toll bridge, Sir," the other guard replied. "Gots to keep up wit' the repairs, and what not."
"I believe there's been some mistake. I have come to slay the troll," Chase said.
The two guards looked at each other. One snickered, while the other shook his head dubiously.
"The troll's at the other bridge," one guard said as his comrade continued to chuckle. "Go back to the fork, take the left."
Chase nodded politely and turned around, feeling slighted. Those cocky guards would have to pay for their insolence, but that could wait. They'd get theirs in good time.
Returning to the fork, Chase started down the other road, and thought it strange that this way was so well-kept. The trees were trimmed back, and there was fresh gravel on the surface, covering the holes and ruts created by regular use. This was obviously a well-traveled route, yet how could that be, if a troll barred the way?
The road continued on for several miles before the bridge appeared; a gentle arch built of cobblestones. It wasn't as expansive as the toll bridge, for the stream was much more narrow at this point, though there was still plenty of room for beastly things to lurk under it.
Dismounting from his horse, Chase put his hand on the hilt of Millikan's enchanted dagger. It was time for some thrilling heroics.
"Come forth, you filthy troll!" Chase shouted as he set foot on the bridge, keeping his eye out for his quarry.
A struggling groan echoed from under the bridge, and after a few moments a large, green hand appeared, gripping the raised edge of the cobblestone construct. With an ungallant leap, the troll appeared, looking ragged and unkempt. He wore only a brown loincloth, leaving his bulging green muscles exposed to the sunlight as he stared down at the human who had summoned him. "Yeah, what do you want?"
"Prepare to die!" Chase shouted, drawing the dagger.
The troll gritted his teeth and growled. "You dare threaten me?"
"It's no threat," Chase replied. "Your reign of terror ends today."
The troll sighed. "There ain't no terror here. You just hate me 'cause I'm green, don't ya?"
"You're just another racist pinky, out to persecute me."
Chase couldn't believe his ears. "You're a troll! You eat innocent people who try to cross the bridge!"
"Hey, I built this bridge. It's mine, and any dumb pinkies that cross it get what's coming to them. They only come here because they don't want to pay the toll downstream. If they'd rather take their chances with me, so be it. It's not like I kill everyone, but I get hungry once in a while. A troll's gotta eat."
"Not any longer!" Chase said, infuriated by the troll's comments.
Chase lunged forward with the dagger, targeting the troll's heart. The troll tried to dodge out of the way, but the knight had anticipated that maneuver, and managed to hit his target. The blade sank into the green chest up to the hilt, and a quick twist opened the wound for black blood to spurt forth. The troll sent a swift backhand to Chase's face, but it was too late. The wound was mortal, and within moments the beast's strength faded.
"You'll pay for this," the troll said as he collapsed. "You've no idea... what..."
Chase rubbed at his bruised cheek and sheathed the dagger, feeling a great sense of satisfaction as he saw the last breath expelled from the troll's mouth. This slaying had been easier than expected. Millikan had really come through!
All that remained was to present the slain beast to the locals, and secure his reward.
* * *
It was mid-afternoon as Sir Chelmsford Chase rode into Bannocksburg, dragging the conspicuous corpse behind him. Before long, a crowd gathered to witness the spectacle, though enthusiasm was low.
"Behold, I have defeated the foul troll!" Chase proclaimed.
The expected fanfare didn't materialize. After a few moments, tears began to flow, and several women of the crowd wailed. Three men stepped over to the troll's body and examined it with frowning disapproval.
"It's no trick," Chase said, wondering if the people suspected fraud. "You'll no longer have to fear for your lives whenever you cross the north bridge."
"No, instead we'll all starve to pay the Duke's tolls," someone from the crowd shouted. "That troll never did nothin' to us. If anything, he helped folks around here, kept out the riff-raff and gave us a way around Duke Bannock's toll road. We could come and go, take our grain to markets outta town without getting taxed, all 'cause this here troll kept the royal yahoos off our backs. Now you done kilt him!"
Agreeing with the impassioned protest, the entire crowd descended upon Chase, seeking to exact revenge against the knight for the slaughter of their beastly guardian. Fists and feet swarmed in before Chase could arm himself, bludgeoning him to a bloody pulp. By the time consciousness left him, Chase welcomed it, even though he knew it would never return.
* * *
In the years following his untimely demise, word of Chase's accomplishment spread far and wide. Days of remembrance were invoked in numerous cities, and tournament bouts were named after him. The legend of the troll slayer was told in epic fables around campfires and at the dinner table of kings across the civilized world. Thus, the great knight had acquired the fame he'd sought.
Profit was also to be had from the knight's tale. Most notably, Millikan's "Chelmsford Noser" became an overnight bestselling sanitary product amongst the upper class, though whether the name was a definitive factor of its success remains in contention with historians.
As beloved as Sir Chelmsford Chase was abroad, his name was a blight upon the people of Bannocksburg. Twelve villagers were put to death for his murder, and many more died of starvation following a series of fines that Duke Bannock levied upon the population for back taxes. Their green savior could no longer frighten away the taxman, and fresh guards were stationed at the north bridge to collect duties on all goods coming in and out of town. It was a grand victory for the ruling nobility, but a tragedy for the commoners.
Amidst protest from the locals, a twelve-foot tall bronze statue was erected in the heart of Bannocksburg to commemorate Chase's epic battle with the notorious troll. Despite the abject poverty of the townspeople, not a day goes by that a fresh egg is not wasted in the defacing of that stunning memorial.
Check out Quests, Curses, & Vengeance for more thrilling tales of questing.
Featured in the Quests, Curses, & Vengeance anthology.
Light flurries settled on my shoulders. My bare buttocks suffered through my tartan wool kilt, as I sat upon the damp cobblestones of an alley. Damn that fat schoolgirl for not discarding a better frock. I would have preferred to wear her father’s cast off pants, but... the kilt was all I could find.
Serves you right, Artur Pendrago, I thought.
I'd lost my pants while sleeping on the street under the influence of poppy syrup. It was not a frivolous addiction. The opiates dulled the pain of hunger and the cold. The crude hovel of packing crates I shivered in was in the alley of a two-story brownstone I used to own. In my mind, I recognized the building was in receivership, ostensibly by the same New York bank I used to work for. But in my heart, in my blood, sweat, and tears, this was still my home.
My life hadn’t always been like this. I hailed from a well-heeled society in Atlanta, but then came the century’s worst conflagration. The War of Northern Aggression took its toll on the South and my family. I still carried a Minie ball in my thigh from a blue-belly at Gettysburg, though I counted myself lucky as I still had my leg, unlike many of my brothers-in-arms.
Before the North had pushed us to war, I'd studied Economics in New York City and schooled my natural accent to a passable mid-western drawl to fit in. After the war, my mentor, Jay Cooke, had hired me into his investment-banking firm. My employment was based on my financial history and contacts in the South. With his economic backing, I single-handedly rebuilt the railroads in Georgia that the rat-bastard Sherman and his men had destroyed. And then, President Grant bunged the economic tap. That son of a bitch—I had him in my sights at Antietam, but I hesitated and lost the opportunity.
In an effort to save his company, my mentor did what he had to do. He fired all the vice-presidents in the firm and called in our promissory notes.
I'd believed the money would roll in forever. It was a big mistake as I had leveraged my positions 'til my eyes bled. If only I had heeded the fiscal signs. Jay Cooke’s firm went bankrupt anyway, and three hundred families got kicked to the curb, literally. None of it would have been necessary if Grant had stayed the course.
Now, I want the President dead.
Not just dead, but disgraced. I want him dragged through the human manure of these Northern States. I want his wife, Julie, and his four children to shun him as the vermin he purports not to be, and die a rude death as all rodentia in Europe had during the plague. I crave his death. For a man in my position, killing the President of the United States was impossible. I couldn’t eve afford a gun. No, I needed help to kill and disgrace the man, and to do that I needed a witch.
* * *
I stood and massaged my cheeks, they tingled with numbness. The foggy gloom and moonless night would hide me from peering eyes as I liberated property from its rightful owners. It was the only way I earned a living nowadays. The gas lamps flickered in their glass housings as I stuck to the shadows of stoops. I glanced up at my brownstone and heat rose to my less frozen, ruddy cheeks. My feather bed with crisp sheets waited for me, still made-up in my room. One day last winter, I broke in and slept through the night between those very same sheets only to be beaten by an Irish beat-cop when he'd found what I had done.
That same cop stood at the corner with his back to me. He was a big man, and the conical helmet he wore made him appear even taller. The officer swung his nightstick from a leather strap as he whistled a fractured tune. I slipped across the street to avoid him, but stealth didn’t work. The big man turned in my direction as the ringing peal of miniature bells sounded from my way. He fell on me like a feral dog on a newborn lamb.
The cop picked me up by my collar and shook me. “Whoa there, matey, what do you be about this time of night? Stealing?”
“I’m out for a stroll, Paddy; I’m not doing anything wrong.” I squirmed, and hoped he didn’t tear the meager shirt I had found the day before.
From around the corner, a two-wheeled carriage turned toward us.
The big man cuffed me on the back of my head with his nightstick. “I know you. You’re that squatter I roughed up a bit ago, ain’t you?”
“No,” I lied. “That was someone else.”
The carriage stopped beside the two of us, and the cop’s grip lessened on my neck. The cabbie stood on a rear platform and directed the horse from over the surrey. He leaned over and spat on the cobbles.
A sultry, female voice spoke from within the darkness of the cab. “Officer, may I speak with you for a moment, please?”
The cop’s massive hand gripped my throat as he leaned into the cab’s window. “Yes, Ma’am?” he said.
“If your young friend isn’t in trouble, I have need of his expertise.”
The cop glanced at me. “Him? Why him?”
Her voice sounded like silk on steel. “I sense his need for me.”
He pointed a finger as big as his nightstick in my face. “Behave yourself, my friend, or I’ll take you swimming in the river.” He shook me one last time, released me, and said, “Madam Bruja, good evening.”
She purred like a tabby stalking an injured mouse. “Good evening, Paddy,”
The cop stepped away, twirling his baton.
“Please come in, young man.” A pale, white hand opened the door to the carriage from the inside.
I peered behind me, wondering if she might be referring to someone else. I was long beyond what the average person would call young, but other than a few stray gray strands, I still had most of my mouse brown hair. With my long, greasy hair and kilt, I suppose I could still be considered young to some.
I climbed into the cab.
The woman appeared as pale as an albino mink, and I would've bet my remaining coinage that her skin felt softer than said rodent. The pearl buttons of her black silk dress strained in their holes as they ran north and south. Her hair shone as ebony as a crow’s plumage and as fine as a baleen brush. I became mesmerized, until I realized my shoddy state and appearance was as embarrassing as Jeff Davis fleeing Richmond. I pressed myself into my side of the carriage.
The woman slid over next to me and grasped my inner thigh, sliding her cool hand under my kilt. “I sense you have needs.” Her Cheshire grin made my eyes water.
I swallowed, trying to buy time as I placed my hand on her’s and pushed her twitching digits toward my knee. “What d-do you m-mean?” I knew she didn’t sense anything carnate from me. I was hardly in the mood at the moment. The only yearning I had was for the death of President Grant.
She whispered, “I was told you have need for my special services.”
I blinked. “What—”
“The services that only Madam Bruja can provide. You want the President cursed, yes?”
“How…” My mind withdrew to an escapade weeks ago with a street hooker. In a vulnerable moment, I had recounted my carnal desires for all things possible. The woman had listened to me, commiserated with me, and then delivered the only service doable to one in my condition. If pillow talk wasn’t sacrosanct, then what was?
Madam Bruja smiled with little, ivory colored teeth surrounded by red painted lips. “For a price I can deliver all of your desires, real or imagined.”
I sat back, wiped the cold sweat from my forehead and blew out a deep breath. “I want nothing else in life.”
Madam Bruja nodded. “Then all your yearnings shall be yours.” She reached up and knocked on the surrey. “The parkway, please.”
The cabbie replied, “Yes, Madam.”
“Are you hungry?” Madam Bruja slid away from me as she spoke.
My mouth began to water. I hadn’t eaten in days. “Yes,” I said, clearing my throat.
We rode in silence as she stared at me with black luminous-eyes.
“Don’t you want to know what I desire of you?”
Her voice pimpled my skin, I girded what I had left, and replied, “I will do whatever is necessary. Say it and I will make it so.”
It was no idle offer; I would pay any price, perform any possible feat to kill the President.
The carriage stopped, and shifted sideways as the cabbie stepped off the back. I glanced out the side of the cab. A man stood at the curb with a tray of food. He was dressed in white, mimicking the chefs down at the plaza. God, I missed eating. The cabbie retrieved the food and brought the serving tray to us.
Madam Bruja removed the cover from the main dish.
“Roast beef,” I sighed. I licked my lips and reached for the steaming delight.
She lightly slapped my hand. “Please, one moment, let me add some spice for you.” She undid three buttons over her cleavage and reached in. She fumbled around for a second or two, and then withdrew a small bottle of red fluid. “This will enhance your… dining experience.” She poured the contents of the vessel over my meat.
I picked up the cut with my fingers and shoved as much into my mouth as possible. I swallowed it whole. The added flavor tasted spicy with chili overtones. I took another mouthful, this time stopping to chew a little, and glanced at Madam Bruja.
She wrinkled her nose. “I need you to retrieve something from my sister.”
I choked down half-chewed chunks of meat. “What?”
She blinked her eyes and grinned. “A golden cup, it’s a family heirloom.”
“That sounds easy,” I replied before stuffing bread into my mouth.
“Not too easy, I assure you. The holy grai…” She paused, cleared her throat, and then continued, “The cup is heavily guarded.” She yawned and covered her mouth. “Do you agree with my terms?” She dropped her hand and smiled.
Her pearly-whites made the hair on my arms get fluffy. “Yes,” I said.
If possible, her smile widened to include sharpened canines. “I should warn you, never agree to terms until they’re fully illuminated.”
The carriage came to a stop. I glanced outside; we were in the park.
“Keep the setting sun to your left until you come to a lake with a castle in the middle of it. There, seek the cup. Return it to me.”
I wiped my lips on my sleeve. “Is that all?”
“No.” The corners of her mouth fell grim and her eyes lost all sparkle.
I didn’t like the sight or sound of that.
“To put alacrity to your step, everything you wish for President Grant now applies to you. Renege at your own peril. Seek the cup, drink from it and you shall be temporarily healed until you can return it to me. You have twelve hours before you die.”
I didn’t feel the cabbie step off the carriage, but his hand wrapped around my shirt collar and he dragged me from the cab. He threw me to the ground, and kicked me as I passed.
I stood as he remounted the back of the carriage. “Your sister lives in Central Park?” I held out my arms. “You must be kidding.”
The cabbie reached over the surrey and closed the carriage door.
Madam Bruja leaned out the window. “No, she doesn’t live in Central Park. When you awake, seek the castle and find the cup. When you have completed the task, I will dissolve your curse permanently and transfer it to President Grant. Trust me; I want to fulfill all your wishes.”
“Here!” The cabbie threw a short sabre and belt at my feet. “You were an officer in the war. I’m sure you know how to use that.” He flicked the horse with his whip and the carriage moved on. They left me in the dark with a spicy burn on my lips as my head began to spin. I staggered, tripped, and fell as I lost consciousness.
* * *
I awoke to a cawing crow. A dense, ground-hovering mist clung to the forest floor. It was dead calm in the stand of trees surrounding me. The sun’s rays picked their way through the black barked hardwoods. When the street gangs came looking for sport; I slept in Central Park, so I knew the layout pretty well. This didn’t look like any part of the park I knew. The ground was wrong, the trees were wrong.
Owooooooo… An eerie howl cried out.
Wolves didn’t inhabit the largest city park on the eastern seaboard. But they were here, wherever here was.
A sharp pang pierced my belly. A wave of nausea rushed up the back of my throat as boiling water coursed through my bowels. I projected violently and voided as I squatted—blood tinged everything.
That bitch was serious. I could only hope that Grant would suffer half as much—this curse would unman him to his core. The thought made me grin as I emptied my bowels a second time. Warmth swirled around my bare feet.
Setting sun to the west, rising sun to the east—I took a step north, and my entrails settled down. Behind me, the wolves howled again. I didn’t know if I was hare or fox, or who drove the dogs, but in my present state I preferred to leave it a mystery.
I retrieved the sabre where the cabbie had thrown it and buckled the weapon around my waist. I withdrew the curved short sword, tested the edge, and then sucked the blood welling out of my thumb. The blade wasn’t ceremonial. Loose cordage dangled around the hilt and interfered with my grip. I removed the strap and used the leather thong to tie back my hair. I never understood why men at war allowed their tresses to fly freely in battle. It was almost as if they posed for the crude drawings inscribed within the Saturday evening rags, of which noncombatants devoured voraciously.
Every step north calmed my stomach and quieted my bowels, and my belly roiled if my pace stalled for a second. If I continued on this course I would encounter Central Park Reservoir, if indeed New York City was where I had awaked. The sun appeared at the tops of the trees by the time I stood on the reservoir’s banks. This wasn’t the same body of water I bathed in during the summer. Other than the general outline, this lake appeared totally different. The water was near black, and scaly critters with red eyes swarmed below the surface. And then there was the castle.
The stone building rose out of the water with little or no land outside of its tall, gray walls. No bridge connected the castle to the shore. It would be a long swim.
I spun as a gray wolf sprang at me from behind. I don’t know how it missed me, but the massive beast bounded and landed in the water. The animal disappeared beneath the surface and did not come up. Blood blossomed from below as the scaly, red-eyed wyrms devoured the animal.
This was definitely not Central Park.
“What a shame,” said a voice behind me. “He was such a delightful puppy.”
I spun again; I tired of surprises. To my horror and complete revulsion, a clown stood hardly an arm’s length away. More correctly, it was a jester right out of a vaudeville act from Broadway, dressed in motley, sporting a scepter. I don’t know how he sneaked up on me with all the bells adorning his multi-legged hat. I took a step toward him, drew my sabre, and said in my most menacing voice, “Who are you?”
“I’m the Fool!” He gasped, retreated, and held a hand to his chest. “Who are you?”
“None of your business,” I said, sheathing my weapon. I studied the diminutive man in white face-paint for a moment. He didn’t seem capable of hurting me, unless he pushed me into the lake. I glanced at the water and stepped away from the shore. My stomach lurched to remind me of my need to find the cup. I smiled at him. “Do you know how to get to the castle?”
The Fool raised an eyebrow and pursed his lips. “By... boat?”
I gripped my sabre and loosened it in its scabbard to further loosen his tongue.
He held his hands out to me, palms forward. “Alright, I got a boat, but I wouldn’t go over there.”
I shoved the hilt back down and loomed over the Fool. “Why?”
“The lizard men, that’s why.” He shivered. “They’d as soon as rip your head off and shite down your neck as look at you.”
I’m not sure if I puckered at the mention of lizard men ripping my head off or the gallon of water rushing through my bowels. I clenched, and said, “No such things.”
The Fool shook his scepter at me. “Suit yourself.” He stepped back and swept his left hand toward the shoreline. In the thick mist a boat appeared, floating on the water.
I don’t know how I didn’t see the boat before. When I turned, the Fool was gone.
* * *
The boat was small, not really big enough to call anything but a skiff. The lake seemed shallow so I poled my way over to the castle. The red-eyed critters rose to the surface and stared hungrily as I passed. On the water and away from the sight-limiting trees, I could view the surrounding land beyond the arbors. To my fascination, this version of Central Park was surrounded by granite cliffs with craggy clefts dividing the faces at regular intervals. I shivered with an eerie, baumy feeling.
Absent guards at the small quay in front of the castle made me queasy. I tied the bow line to a cleat as best I could; marlinspike was not, and will never be, my forté; I hoped the line would hold. I drew my sabre and opened the sally door next to the closed and sealed portcullis and entered a grand hall backlit by a single window to the north. A wooden throne stood on a dais, and to the left of the chair trickled a large sand clock. No one was home. Maybe the Fool had lied to keep me from gaining my treasure.
I suppressed the urge to yell hello to listen for the echo. My bowels reminded me of my purpose and my throat began to constrict. While in a Union prison hospital I'd watched men die of consumption. Their breath rattled out of them time after time until they ceased living. At that moment, on entering the castle, my own personal death rattle started. Fluid began filling my lungs and anxiety stole my breath. I needed to find the cup quickly.
Two doors hung in the wings, one to the left and another to the right. Odds were I’d pick the wrong one. I chose the one furthest away. God save me.
Stairs led down to a dungeon. Perfect, I thought, maybe a hot pincer through my gut would solve the back pressure problem I was experiencing. Torture and mayhem surely couldn’t feel worse.
I entered the lowest room. The ambiance was dark except for a single candle at the entrance. I used the flame to light a torch in a sconce, and then held a second torch as I explored the room. In a near corner, a stack of human bones stood nearly five feet tall; I skirted them with a shudder. The middle of the room was bisected by a moat. The span was too far to leap across and a large wyrm swam rhythmically back and forth. Something warm trickled down my leg and my wind came in gasps.
My torchlight glinted against an object in an alcove on the rear wall, across the other side of the moat. Peering hard, I saw a golden cup gleaming in the niche. Gazing at the object of my desire, I was able to take a deep breath, my entrails calmed momentarily, and I swallowed the accumulating bile in my throat.
Within a second of dropping my gaze, I started dying again. I watched the huge wyrm for two cycles, back and forth, in its enclosed moat. Any longer, and I wouldn’t have any strength left to steal the cup. At the wyrm’s farthest point from me, I took two steps back and ran forward, leaping as far as I possibly could.
I fell short. I went under and didn’t touch bottom. I grasped the extinguished and soggy torch in a claw like grip as I treaded water. I don’t know why I didn’t let go of the useless piece of wood. An audible underwater scream pierced my ears. The bubbly screech might have been mine. I opened my eyes as I struggled. In the deep gloom of the dungeon I saw white teeth in a mammoth mouth swimming toward me.
My imminent demise broke my concentration. I voided underwater. A massive brown-bloom engulfed me and the monster. I swam through warmed water, pulled free of the blight, and reached the far side of the moat. I crawled up on the floor of the dungeon and rolled beyond where I thought the wyrm could reach me. In the dim light of the torch at the entrance, I saw the great wyrm belly up and struggling.
“Serves you right!” I screamed at the dying beast, but Madam Bruja’s curse wasn’t done with me yet. I wheezed, I puckered, and I swallowed bile. A thought flitted through my brain—the cup!
I staggered over to the alcove and swiped the cup from the shelf. I gripped it with both hands and peered into the life saving maw of the golden vessel.
It was dry.
I glanced at the moat and at the now, dead wyrm.
The sound of stone sliding across stone reached my ear. I gasped for shallow breaths. Burning acid and whatever else remained in my stomach was released on to the floor. I feared I had only moments to live. I clenched my eyes closed in preparation to die.
“He’sss a dirty bugger, issn’t he?” A voice hissed above me.
I opened my eyes to find what the Fool had warned of—red caped and hooded lizard men. Two bipedal creatures with scaly green skin, sharp teeth, and red marble-sized eyes that glared down at me.
One of the two retrieved the chalice from my limp hand. I doubt I could have fought his advances if I had been hale. The second slipped a crude wineskin from his shoulder and poured something into my cup. Huge, scaly claws lifted my head as if I were a doll and brought the cup to my lips. It tanged of sour wine, but nothing tasted so sweet as my lungs cleared, my stomach settled, and the fluids in my bowels retreated. Within moments, I had the strength to stand. Once I stopped wobbling, the two giant lizard men picked me up by my elbows, and they carried me upstairs to the grand hallway.
A crone sat upon the dais. She roused at our entrance. Her eyes were glassy, her skin waxy, and she stared at the ceiling as she swayed back and forth. “I am the Oracle,” she introduced herself. Before I could reply she continued. “To fulfill the curse... initiated by my sister!”—her ear-piercing cry hurt my ears—“you must quest forth to solve the riddle to save our world.” Her black eyes had flames in their pupils. “To fail is to die and your entrance to Hell shall precede ours by only moments, but it will feel an eternity.”
I swallowed hard. It seemed President Grant’s curse would be slightly delayed.
Continued in Quests, Curses, & Vengeance!
Featured in the Quests, Curses, & Vengeance anthology.
London – October 1940
Penelope’s feet landed on a pile of soggy sand. Had she miscalculated? The TT4500 remained strapped securely to her wrist, but her hands shook so badly she couldn’t read the display. Bloody adrenaline, she thought. A red blur rumbled past, spraying her stockings with dirty water. She jumped back as the double-decker disappeared around the corner, her back colliding with a soft wall. Sandbags stacked four rows high. It was sand from a burst sack that littered the pavement. The TT buzzed—18 October 1940, 17:03. This was it. She was here.
The adrenaline fading, Penelope removed the watch-like device from her wrist and slipped it into her coat pocket as a gaggle of women in navy blue uniforms passed. Her eyes followed them, and she caught sight of the sign beside her: London Bridge. Damn it. She meant to land closer to Bermondsey. She could take the Jubilee... no. The Jubilee line didn’t exist yet. She would have to walk, and daylight was fading.
Sandbags and barricades lined Borough High Street on either side, protecting the busy men in uniform and women in headscarves passing by. A roar sounded overhead. Penelope glanced up as a formation of Hawker Hurricanes streaked above floating, silver ovoids. The hydrogen-filled barrage balloons, anchored in place by heavy steel cables, littered the sky like bloated ticks. A little boy in short pants and cap regarded her strangely as his mother pulled him up the street, and Penelope realized she’d been standing there gawking like some stupid newbie. She hurried down Duke Street Hill, every step in her ridiculous wooden-soled shoes paining her. She used the sensation to anchor herself, keep her mind from thinking too much on her task. She couldn’t get overexcited now that he was so close.
Many things about London had changed, more than she’d anticipated. As she made her way across Tooley Street, she occasionally passed a building that was vaguely familiar or an intersection she knew she had crossed before, in her own time, but the farther east she went, the less familiar the city became. When she reached Queen Elizabeth Street, she couldn’t remember if she should follow it or stay on Tooley. She wanted to check the maps on the TT, but natives were everywhere. Yet, wasn’t she a native? She’d been born here—had owned these streets when she was fourteen. Looking conspicuous in London had never been her problem, yet here she was now, her body language practically begging some stranger to walk up and offer directions. She could already feel many eyes on her.
Was she really so out of place? Her hair was permed perfectly to 1940s trends and her shoes handmade to match the Forties style. The plaid Eisenberg coat was a restored antique. Perhaps that was the problem. Perhaps her clothes were too perfect, her face too fresh. Everyone else looked worn and tired but Penelope, despite dehydration from the jump, was invigorated. Maybe that was enough to draw attention, and what if he noticed? Could he spot her in the crowd? If he did, she would lose the drop on him. He’d know where she was from, know enough to get out of her way, and all this would be for nothing. Another failure, just like her uncle predicted she would be, and that wasn’t fair. Not after she’d spent so much time, had done so much research.
“Miss, are you all right?”
Penelope startled. The man wore a brown Army captain’s uniform, and his blue eyes showed a kindness she could not accept. If it weren’t for the pencil moustache it could be him. It wasn’t; he was never a captain, but it could be, and that was enough. Her breath came in hesitant gasps and she could feel her carefully painted makeup erased by cold sweat.
“I’m fine, thanks. Thank you. I have to go.”
Penelope hurried away and ducked round a corner. She held her breath, waiting for the captain to follow. When he didn’t, she took the blister pack from her pocket, popped out a pill, and dry swallowed it. Her therapist told her not to do that, but Dr. Rosalind said a lot of things Penelope never listened to. She felt the pill crawl down her throat and settle in her stomach, then lifted her trembling hand. She watched until it was perfectly steady. The paranoia, again, that was all it was. She returned to the street, glancing at faces as she passed. That captain was gone. No one cared she was here. She was one of them, as far as they were concerned.
Penelope felt the trail of the pill as she swallowed and searched for a street sign. Where had she hid herself? The name Potters Fields was nailed above her on a brick building. A deep breath and she could smell the river. The river, of course. How could she be such an idiot? The Thames would guide her exactly where she needed to be.
Her feet traced the same route she and Mum took when they were housed in the old City Hall building. In 1940, that building wasn’t even a thought in an architect’s head, but Penelope felt compelled to head towards it, as if Mum were guiding her, telling her she was on the right path, that she was doing the right thing despite what her uncle and Dr. Rosalind said.
But, when she reached the river, any thoughts of her uncle or her mission were forgotten.
Tower Bridge was a fixture in her life. She saw it nearly every day and in every permutation—decked out in lights and fireworks for King William and Queen Catherine’s Silver Jubilee or with the hanging murals memorializing those lost in the New World War.
Never had she seen it as it was now—with both the North and South towers intact. It was so much more beautiful in person than in archival footage. If the camera app weren’t busted on her TT, she would’ve taken a thousand pictures. Then again, if the camera weren’t broken, it wouldn’t have been in the easily breachable repairs department in the first place.
An overweight man in uniform jogged towards her. Occupying soldier, she thought, and reached for her gun as if it were Mum’s hand. A glance at Tower Bridge reminded her of when she was.
The man bent over to catch his breath. “Gasmask,” he huffed.
“Don’t be daft, girl. Your gasmask. Where is it?”
Girl? She was nearly twenty-four.
“Well?” As he coughed into his sleeve, Penelope read the white band on his arm—District Warden, Southwark.
“Oh. I forgot it?”
“You forgot there was a war on?”
“I’m really... I mean, terribly sorry.”
“I should fine you, you know. Lucky for you, miss, I’m in a forgiving mood. Now, where’re you headed?”
“The Parish of St. Mary the Virgin.”
“Ain’t that in Rotherhithe? You’ll get caught out in the blackout, no doubt. Best you went home instead. Run along now.”
“Please, it’s really important. It’s this way, isn’t it?” She used the same voice and pleading eyes that had worked on Zeke in repairs. He eyed her up and down then sighed. Men never changed, no matter the year.
“About twenty minutes, if you hurry,” he said. “But it ain’t safe for a girl out there in the docklands.”
“I’ll be all right,” she smiled. “For the first time in a while.”
She passed under the bridge, berating herself for her foolishness. Gasmask, of course! No wonder every native was staring at her like an idiot. And if that man had seen her gun... It was an antique and the ammunition had taken two years to track down. Well, it didn’t matter now, she thought, as she made her way around St. Saviours Docks. The gun was hers, and the Germans never used gas bombs in this war anyway, so it was the natives who were the real idiots.
Behind her, the sun dipped out of sight as she delved into the maze-like streets with their walls of towering warehouses. These buildings, still fulfilling their original purpose, were silent. If anyone were inside, heavy blackout curtains hid their movements. All of London was going dark. The TT could provide light, but wardens like the one she left behind would be on her in an instant, and she couldn’t be caught. Not now. A flicker of fear rose up within her, but was smothered by her medication.
In the blackout, it was easy to ignore the differences between this time and hers. The fears which plagued her when she first landed trickled away, leaving her with only the purpose of her mission. She’d had to keep it hidden for so long—from her friends, her uncle... especially her uncle—that she was used to pretending it didn’t exist, that it wasn’t a part of her. But there was no need to keep pretending now. She let it out to play as she skirted the narrow streets, let her heart fill with the rage that had lived, sedated, inside her for so long.
Planes flew overhead, but Penelope could not see them now. She could see almost nothing in this darkness, not even Tower Bridge. She followed the cobblestoned street, keeping a hand on the brick buildings to guide her. Close. She had to be getting close. She could practically smell him. When the buildings disappeared, she risked a little light from the TT and recognized that grassy knoll beside her; King’s Stairs Gardens. The adrenaline kicked in. The parish was less than five minutes away. The gun pressed itself, cold, against her thigh. Soon it would be warm.
If the parish had changed at all, Penelope could not tell. In the dim light of the TT, at least the church’s iron gates seemed the same. Penelope hid the device as she walked through the open gate, then placed her hands on the heavy wooden doors. Behind them, James Cuttlethorpe was praying for his salvation. Well, today, she was here. Penelope pushed.
Inside, all the blackout curtains were drawn, hiding the light of the candles burning in the empty sanctuary. Penelope entered with caution, inhaling the scent of smoke and wood polish. Where was he? Was it a set-up? No. He couldn’t know she would be here. Her heels echoed, clacking against the floor as she progressed up the aisle, past pew after empty pew. Had she gotten the date wrong after all? Was it 1941 not 1940? No. She was right. She had to be. James Cuttlethorpe came every Friday to this parish to pray for his dead wife. Penelope had researched this. She couldn’t be wrong.
Penelope stood at the front rails, facing the altar. ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was Slain’ read the inscription. How many times had her uncle taken her here to church, where she’d been forced to stare at those words for the duration of the service? How many Sundays had she spent desperately, then angrily, asking what made Mum so worthy? She had forgotten them as soon as she turned seventeen, when her uncle could no longer force her to attend a service. Now, here they were again, providing no final answer, no actual relief.
Her hands were shaking again. Penelope popped another pill from the blister pack.
A door clicked open.
She dropped the loose pill and hid behind a pew.
In the shadows, the tall, silent figure of a man walked up the aisle and slid into the pew adjacent to Penelope’s, where he bowed his head and began to pray. She could see the outline of his jaw, his nose—the profile that had haunted her dreams since she was thirteen years old. The realization that she was right negated the need for another pill.
Penelope rose from her hiding place, the gun warmed by her hand. He was too involved in his prayers to notice her. She wondered if it were a bigger sin to kill a man while he was praying than to kill him when he was not. Remembering Hamlet’s mistake, she made her presence known.
“Why did you do it?” Her voice shot through the silence louder than any gun. James Cuttlethorpe startled and fell off the pew onto the floor.
“I... I beg your pardon? Hello? Who are you?”
She didn’t let the stutter fool her. “James Cuttlethorpe?”
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, if you can tell me why.” Penelope stepped forward. The metal of the gun glistened in the candlelight. He scurried backwards on his hands and feet, like a crab, trapped between the pews.
“In all my research—and I’ve done quite a bit—it’s the one thing I’ve never been able to determine. I figured out the how, and that’s really easy. She had a whole team that traveled back and forth to postwar London. No better way to research rebuilding efforts, that’s what she always said. So you must have met one of her colleagues. Convinced them to give you a TT, teach you how to use it. But it’s the why. I’ve never been able to sort that one out.”
“I’m so sorry. I have no idea what you’re on about. Please, my son is waiting outside. Please, let me...”
“No! You don’t get to beg. She begged, too, but it didn’t matter to you, so it doesn’t matter to me. I can see you’re confused, so let me tell you a story. No, no. Don’t interrupt. I’ve been rehearsing it for a really long time. I’ll start with a few spoilers. This war here? We win. Huzzah. But, many years later, turns out there’s another, this time with an enemy who’s not scared of invading our little island. England is the new France. Eventually it ends, and we start going about our normal lives. We start rebuilding. My mum is—was—one of the people in charge of rebuilding. We get a nice, new flat, my first real home outside of a refugee camp since I was born. But I think you’ve already guessed that this story doesn’t have a happy ending. And the reason for that is you, Mr. Cuttlethorpe. You arrive in our flat at 178 Rotherhithe Street just as Mum finishes making dinner—Thai green curry. You land in our kitchen and you take out a gun and you shoot her.”
“That’s enough. This is ridiculous. Who put you up to this? The future? No one can predict the future. It’s impossible.”
“I don’t predict the future, Mr. Cuttlethorpe. I am the future. Your future. See, the reason you’re so confused is because you haven’t done it yet. I wasted so much time trying to figure out the why, that I finally decided it didn't really matter, if I could stop you from doing it in the first place.” She aimed the gun on the wrinkle between his eyes.
An air raid sounded. Penelope fired. James Cuttlethorpe collapsed. She stepped over to him and watched the blood pooling around his head. These antique guns were remarkably effective. She waited but felt nothing. She supposed she would have to wait until her medication wore off.
A small, choked cry sounded from the doorway. Penelope turned and saw a boy, eleven or twelve years old, standing there. She returned the gun to her pocket and walked towards him. The air raid sirens continued to blare.
“The bombs are about to fall,” she said. “You better find cover.”
She left him and walked calmly across the street to the empty cemetery watch house. The door was locked but easily forced. Inside, Penelope checked the TT. It needed two more hours to fully recharge before she could jump home. She crouched in the corner, knees to her chest, and listened to the bombs falling on London. Some sounds never changed.
She never thought she would feel so numb, but when anger drained away it left only a void in its place. Warmth, that was what she wanted, what she had always wanted. It must be the medication. Once it wore off, she’d feel warmth again. She took out the blister pack and popped out each pill one by one, and crushed them under her heel. She would never need them again. Another explosion far off, across the river maybe. Oh the things she could tell Dr. Rosalind at her next visit, if there was a next visit. Her whole past would be different now, wouldn’t it? Her whole life? Penelope closed her eyes and focused on the moment she would return home, the moment when she would again see her mother’s smiling face.
* * *
A pair of feet wearing his father’s shoes lay in the aisle, the rest of the body hidden by the pews. The same hollowness that had come with Mother’s death sat in Martin’s stomach now.
“Father?” His voice was fragile, consumed by the bombs, and crying was useless. He knew the meaning of such stillness.
Martin ran to the doors. That woman, he should have stopped her. Why had he let her walk away? Where had she gone? He was going to find her. Find her and... and...
A glimmer of light came from within the watch house. But old Phil wasn’t in tonight. Martin had seen him drinking in The Mayflower not ten minutes ago. Surely, it was her.
He ran. An explosion threw him back against the church.
He came to with a ringing in his ears and stinging smoke in his nose as fire lit up the night. The watch house was gone. As Martin limped towards the rubble, his foot kicked something in the road. First he thought it a brick, but when he picked it up he saw it was a gun like the one his uncle in the army carried. It was hot from the flames, but Martin held it and let it burn. Beside it was something else made of metal, something unlike anything he’d ever seen. It was like a wristwatch but with a larger casing and black glass where a clock face should be. It, too, was hot.
The fire wardens approached. Martin ran before they could catch him, and he crawled into the ancient ruins in King’s Stairs Gardens. Safely concealed, he pulled out his torch. On the back of the odd device was a second square of black glass, but this one flashed green letters intermittently, like a flickering light bulb—Username: Penelope Castlewaight. Penelope Castlewaight was dead now, blown apart by the bombs like his mother. Dead, like his father, and as Martin realized that, the emptiness he felt changed to something else, something closer to the feel of the warm gun still clutched in his other hand.
* * *
London – March 2063
“Penelope, go wash up. Dinner’s ready.”
“You can read after dinner.”
“Fine.” Penelope tossed her e-book aside and loped down the hall to the bathroom. Mum called, but her voice was muffled by the running water.
“I can’t hear you. I’m washing my hands like you said!” she shouted back. Penelope took her time, still in awe over indoor running water, private bathrooms, private anything really. She shut it off before Mum could yell at her for wasting water and dried her hands on the rough, purple towel. It needed to be washed. Mum was probably going to harp on about that, too.
With a sigh, Penelope took a moment to fix her hair, then went back down the hall.
“Mum, what...” She froze.
In the living room stood a man pointing an old gun at Mum’s head. He was young, but his clothes were old—a long brown trench coat and one of those hats Granddad liked, fedoras.
“Please,” Mum begged.
“You think I wouldn’t remember you? Your face is burned into my memory, Miss Castlewaight. A face I’ve never wanted to remember but have never been able to forget.”
Penelope cowered in the hall, wanting to help but terrified of being seen. She reached for her phone, but it wasn’t in her pocket. She’d left it on the coffee table.
“My name is Mrs. Joyce...”
“I know exactly who you are. It’s why I’ve come to return the favor.”
“Please, tell me what’s going on. Have I done something? Tell me what I did and I swear I’ll make it right. I can make it right.”
“Let me put it in your own words, Miss Castleweight. The reason you’re so confused is because you haven’t done it yet.” He cocked the gun. “And now you never will.”
He fired. Mum crumpled to the floor. The man pocketed the gun and tipped his hat.
“Courtesy of James Cuttlethorpe.” As he moved for the hallway, Penelope ducked into her bedroom, too panicked to scream. The front door opened and shut. Body trembling, she ran to Mum, but there was no chance she was alive. Her eyes were as lifeless as Dad’s after the Southbank Raids. Through the window, she saw the man leave her building and head towards St. Marychurch Street.
Penelope left her flat and ran out after him, weaving around bomb craters while keeping hidden behind corners. The man seemed stunned by the world around him, confused by buildings and the cars parked in front. He passed the parish then walked up Elephant Lane towards the river, pausing to stare at Tower Bridge.
There were no tears when he shot her mum, but there were some now as he gazed at the collapsed remains of the North Tower. Hand pressed against his head, he stumbled onward towards King’s Stairs Gardens. Penelope kept back. Why would he be heading there? The mines weren’t cleared yet. How could he not know?
He stumbled through the broken fence. Penelope waited, but not for long. An explosion shook the ground. She ran towards it. Debris was scattered outside the perimeter, thrown over the top by the force. Sirens rang out. Amongst the rocks and dirt, Penelope found the old gun clutched in the lifeless fingers of a detached hand. Beside it was another device.
It looked like the TT1000s Mum used for work trips to postwar London, but a much sleeker, more advanced model. She picked it up. It was still warm. Across the back was stamped TT4500.
Penelope ran away before the emergency crews arrived and hid in the watch house ruins, smelling the smoke as it drifted east. This device was damaged beyond repair, but her uncle was always building more. He kept saying he wanted to recruit Penelope into the family manufacturing business. Now she would agree. And when she was old enough, she would make her own trip. Penelope knew she would never forget that man’s profile or his name. The numbness that she felt in the flat, the emptiness which prevented her from saving her mother melted away, replaced with a burning anger that would keep her heart beating for the next ten years.
Read more uncanny tales of revenge in Quests, Curses, & Vengeance!
Featured in the Quests, Curses, & Vengeance anthology.
“Did you finish cleaning up?” Jasper growled from underneath his dragon skull helm.
Marko beat a small hammer into his black mailed fist. “Yeah, we’re done. Just finished up the bridge.”
“Excellent,” Jasper snorted. “Did you paint...”
“Yes, we painted it like you asked.” Marko dropped the hammer to the ground in anger.
Jasper pointed his twisted iron claw at Marko. “What are you doing? We don’t litter. Pick that up.”
Marko obliged, scooping the hammer back up. He gritted his teeth so hard he felt his jaw crunch.
Yarly ran up through the town gate, blood spattered on his chain mail. His toothy smile made Marko cringe.
“Finished up. And just in time. It was getting messy down there,” Yarly said.
Finally, some bloodshed. Marko turned to the lazy-eyed soldier. “You killed someone? Really? Did they scream? How did you do it?”
Yarly chuckled. “No, it’s red paint, buddy.”
“Red paint? I told you green!” Jasper roared. “Red makes people angry and hungry. We want green. Nice, peaceful nature colors. Are you stupid?”
Yarly’s shoulder drooped. “A little bit?”
“Go back and paint it green. I’m going to come down there personally and check it too, so no half-assery!”
Marko clenched the hammer. How he wanted to just bash in Jasper’s head and be done with it. The Black Jackal Mutilation Death Squad once was the most feared in all the land. But ever since that do-gooder Michael Whitecrown brought peace to the Kingdom of Hazmander and slew the dread warlock Norrick, they were painting and building instead of burning and killing.
If Michael found out that Marko even uttered the word “killed” he’d come down and give a training seminar about how that kind of language wasn’t accepted in his kingdom anymore. The self-proclaimed “Hero of Heroes” used strange words like “harassment,” “lawsuit,” and “unsafe work environment.” Marko dreamed of seeing that rotten bastard with his golden cloak and golden hair trampled by unicorns. Especially unicorns, since he loved them so much.
Jasper turned to Marko, his red eyes burning behind the dragon skull. “Marko, you know I can report you for saying the ‘K-word.’ That would be two reports just this month. I’m going to let you off with a warning this time.”
“Two reports? What was the first one?”
“You said the ‘S-word’. Don’t you remember?”
“You mean ‘shit?’”
Jasper gasped. “Yes, that one. Listen, this is your last warning.”
“A warning,” Marko muttered. “Why not give me a lashing or cut off one of my fingers? You know, like the old days?”
Jasper removed his helmet, placing it on the carpentry supply cart. He brushed back his comb-over, swatting a fly that had been sleeping underneath the dragon skull. Beneath the fearsome helm and spiked black armor, he was just a middle-aged man with floppy ears. “We don’t do that anymore. How many times do I have to tell you?” His voice was no longer booming, but a soft, sensitive whisper.
“I just don’t get it. We used to strike fear into the hearts of all men. We razed from the Hills of Kortha to the Dead Plains of Del-Garrah. Our name meant something. We cut out the entrails...”
Jasper cleared his throat. “You know ‘cut out the entrails’ is not appropriate language. It was in your Death Squad Handbook.”
“I pissed on that.” Marko sneered in Jasper’s face.
“I’m sorry, Marko, I’m going to have to report you.” Jasper fumbled for a notebook with his over-sized iron claws. “Let me just scribble it down here...”
Marko fumed, swatting the notebook out of Jasper’s claws. “Like I was saying. We cut out the entrails of any who opposed us. What stops us from doing so again? Even if Norrick is dead...”
Jasper shook his head. “Tsk, tsk. Boy, you’re just racking up the reports today. You know there is no mention of N-O-R-R-I...”
“Quit spelling his damn name. At least he boiled his enemies or threw black lightning at them. What do you use?” Marko spat. “A notebook?”
Jasper’s lip quivered. He put his metal claw to his chest. “I’m feeling really threatened right now. I need you to just step back and let me breathe.”
Marko almost brought the hammer up when Yarly came running back towards them. More of the red paint was on him, this time smeared on his face.
Jasper focused his fury on Yarly. “What are you doing? Are you finished already? Get back down there...”
“T-there’s a problem.” Blood burped out of Yarly’s mouth.
Jasper put his hands on his hips. “You’ve been drinking the paint again, haven’t you?”
“That’s not paint, you idiot.” Marko shoved Jasper aside, catching Yarly as he slumped over. “Hold on, stay with me. What happened?”
“The bridge. I started to paint it green and...” Yarly coughed. He’d taken several stab wounds to the gut, side, and back.
“What’s going on?” Jasper mumbled.
“Go get a cleric,” Marko barked at the commander. “Hurry!”
Jasper blinked several times, probably wondering if the order warranted a report. He scurried off instead.
“They didn’t like the red.” Yarly smirked. “When I told them I was there to paint it green, they just started stabbing me.”
“Who stabbed you?”
Marko’s lips curled back. “How many people, Yarly? Be specific.”
“Four?” He coughed harder, bloody spittle flecking against Marko’s cheek.
“A cleric’s coming. Just hold on. What did they look like? All four of them.”
Yarly’s eyes widened. “You’re not going to do anything, are you?”
Marko gripped Yarly’s neck tight, pulling him closer. “I’ve never liked you much, really. You’re an asslicker, if I’m being honest. But deep down you’re still like me. A killer.”
“Not anymore,” Yarly said. “Brother Hadra put me on some mix of gray clover and bitterwood that makes the voices go away.”
“You’re a killer!” Marko said with more force. “Now, tell me, what did they look like?”
Yarly closed his eyes.
“Get up! Don’t die yet!”
Yarly sniffled. “Yet?”
“I mean, don’t die.”
Yarly’s lip stiffened and he raised his chin. “The first one had yellow hair. Like straw.”
Yellow hair. Straw.
“Man or woman?”
“The second one?” Marko prodded.
“Fat and bald.”
“I need more. A lot of these villagers are fat and bald.”
“It was a woman.”
“Oh,” Marko replied. “Human?”
“Looked half-ogre or something.” Yarly’s eyes fluttered.
“Where’s that damn cleric?” Marko looked up, his eyes scanning for any sign of Jasper returning with help.
Fat, bald, half-ogre woman.
“The third,” Yarly sputtered, “wore blue. Lots of blue. That’s all I remember.”
“The last one?”
Yarly’s eyes rolled back.
“Yarly? The last one! Give me the last one!”
“Behind me,” his voice trailed off. “The last one was behind...” Yarly’s mouth hung open.
Marko growled as he lowered Yarly’s head to the ground. He swiped his hand over Yarly’s eyes and made the Sign of the Black Jackal across his own chest. The motto of the death squad came to his lips: “Die in pain, rest in silence.”
“I’m here!” The cleric arrived, a dead rat in his hand. “Oh.”
Jasper put his claw on Marko’s shoulder. “Don’t be ashamed to cry. We have a grief counselor available if you want to talk about this more.”
He knocked Jasper’s claw away. “What the hell took you so long?”
The cleric rubbed his stomach. “Bad chicken. I apologize. Were you two close?”
“Does it matter? You didn’t do your damn job,” Marko snarled as he faced off with the cleric.
Jasper stepped in front of Marko. “That’s it. You’ve crossed the line. You’re...”
“Don’t say it. Don’t dare say you’re going to report me. Somewhere deep inside you there is still a soldier—one that wouldn’t let one of his comrades be slain without swearing vengeance.”
Jasper’s lips flapped. “We’ll find those responsible and deal with them accordingly. They’ll go to trial first, of course. That may take at least a year to pan out. And if they have lawyers, they can maybe get the trial dates pushed back. I just have to find the right report to fill out here...”
Marko cut him off. “I know the ones that did this to Yarly. I’m going to find them and cut out their entrails. Do you hear me? I’m going to c-u-t out their e-n-t-” Marko paused, “however you spell entrails. Got it?”
“One problem with that,” Jasper said.
“What?” Marko shouted, blowing back Jasper’s comb-over.
“I wanted this town perfect because King Michael is on his way as we speak. The Black Jackals can be forgiven for our past sins if the town is to his liking. That means no bloodshed, no cursing. Only clean houses and nicely painted bridges.”
Every fiber of Marko’s being screamed for him to bludgeon Jasper to death, but he stopped himself. If King Michael was coming, it would be his only chance to finally come face to face with him. And he couldn’t screw that up.
“I’ll make you a deal. I know some secrets,” Jasper whispered. “Big secrets.”
Marko stared ahead.
“There is another squad. One that doesn’t follow the rules.” Jasper made a face as if he smelled rotten eggs.
“Oh?” Marko’s ears perked up.
“They call themselves the Horns of a Thousand Goats. They’ve been razing in the north, near the Icewand Tundra. They still follow these,” Jasper’s eyes fluttered, “barbaric ideals you cling to. Stabbing people and equally outdated modes of communication.”
Jasper scoffed. “Of course they are.”
“I want to meet them,” Marko said, his eyes wide.
Jasper squinted. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll void your contract with the Black Jackals and recommend you to their leader Turlis of Tongues. You’ll be free. All you have to do is not harm anyone.”
Marko squirmed. “But can I still exact my revenge?”
“How are you going to do so without violent means?”
“I’m resourceful,” Marko said.
Jasper sighed. “I was going to send Bullrath and Zerkum to deal with the peace-keeping, but if you can promise me no violence, then you can deal with Yarly’s killers.”
“And I’ll be free of this damned company?”
“Free as a mongoose,” Jasper said.
Marko nodded. “Fine. I’m off then.” He turned to go into the town.
Jasper called out. “Wait! You promise no violence? I’m serious. King Michael will be here at any moment!”
Marko yelled over his shoulder. “Would I lie to you?”
He stormed past the gates, scanning the area for anyone that matched Yarly’s descriptions. In truth, he didn’t care much for avenging the goofy soldier. He wanted to avenge all of his brothers and sisters who had become empty shells, trading in their swords for paint brushes.
As he entered the town, he saw a fellow Black Jackal, Orak the Bloated. A beast on a battlefield, he once kicked right through an elf’s chest, his boot sticking out its back. Marko saw him fixing a doorknob, grumbling all the while.
The warrior’s blubbery face turned to Marko. “Oh, it’s you. Look, I don’t want to get reported again. For the last time, I’m not helping you pluck Jasper’s eyeballs out.”
“Nevermind that,” Marko said. “Yarly’s dead. Did you not see him bleeding as he went past?”
“I was busy.” Orak fiddled with the doorknob. He looked down at the ground. “He’s dead?”
Orak sighed. “What do you want me to do, Marko? I’m not killing anyone.”
“I don’t want you to. Just let me know if you’ve seen anyone with these descriptions.”
Orak’s eyelids drooped. “Go on.”
“A man with hair like yellow straw?”
“A bald half-ogre woman?”
The warrior put his finger to his lip. “Nope.”
“A man in all blue?” Marko said with more venom.
Orak’s eyes flickered. He knew.
“So you do know him?” Mark stepped closer. “Tell me.”
“I don’t know if you’ve forgotten, shrimp-shit, but I’m a good two heads higher than you. I suggest you piss off.” Orak glowered, veins bulging in his head.
“Ah, that’s the Orak I know. Go on, tear my arm off if it’ll make you feel better.” Marko had witnessed Orak’s explosive temper first hand more than once. Normally, the fellow would have already snapped a couple of Marko’s fingers off, but tinkering with doorknobs somehow calmed the brute.
“Don’t tempt me,” the warrior growled.
“Just tell me where the man in blue is and I’ll leave you to fiddling with doors.”
His eyeballs looked ready to pop out of his head. He took in two deep breaths. “Fine.” Orak looked around to see if anyone was listening. “I’ve seen him now and again lurking about. He’s some kind of clown.”
“Not a very funny one either. Creepy-like,” Orak said. “If I were you, I wouldn’t go looking for him. We matched eyes once. He’s killed a lot, that one.”
“So he’s an assassin or something?”
“Come on you, big tub of whale guts, spill it!”
“You can only prod me so much. I won’t warn you again,” Orak said, brandishing the door knob.
Marko backed off, raising up his hands. “I know when to quit, mate. Off I go.”
The crowds gathered in the streets; stands selling meat-on-a-stick, murky beer, and streaming paper dragons and unicorns. No doubt tribute to that lack-wit King Michael, slayer or dragons and lover of all things that resembled horses. The story went that he swooped down from a thunderhead on his pegasus, chopped a snow dragon’s head off, and dismounted onto the top of Mount Catskar. All in one fluid motion, his hair still intact.
The faces in the crowd were mirthless, chewing on flavorless meat and staring at the ground. The beer must have been non-alcoholic, watered-down swill. No one smiled or laughed. Even the children who rolled a brown block back and forth didn’t make a peep.
Marko’s stomach rumbled. He went over to one of the vendors and said, “One whatever-on-a-stick.”
The vendor frowned and turned his back.
“Hey, did you hear...”
“He heard you, friend. He just doesn’t want to serve you.” A voice whispered in his ear. When Marko turned, he saw a man with neatly parted hair and a black coat. He smiled vacantly.
“And who the hell are you?”
“We are lawyers, friend.” Another man said on Marko’s other side. He looked identical to the other.
Another clone appeared behind the stall, holding a meat-on-a-stick. “Our client would appreciate it if you didn’t harass him.”
“Look here!” Marko went to put his hand on the first lawyer’s shoulder, but it passed through. Just like a ghost.
“We are the representation of a Restraining Order spell. If you get within five feet of our client, you will experience a sharp pain in an area of our choosing,” the second lawyer said.
“If you persist despite the searing pain, we will be forced to take further action. Perhaps something involving your skin turning inside out.”
“This some kind of joke?” Marko laughed.
“It is not,” the lawyers said at the same time.
A flash of blue caught Marko’s eye. “There he is, the bastard.” He pushed his way through the zombie-like crowd, getting closer, when he felt it. Like an ice pick jabbed into the side of his head. He shrieked and stumbled forward, his eyes still locked on the blurry blue shape.
“We told you,” the lawyers’ voices reverberated in Marko’s head. “You’ll be hearing from us again.”
He stopped, trying to shake off the pain. The clown employed some kind of magic that rivaled even Norrick. It was incredibly annoying and dangerous at the same time.
A roar caught his attention.
The bald ogress. She stuck out like a sore thumb, munching on skewered lamb at one of the food-stands. Gorging herself on all manner of greasy meats, a group of goblins goaded her on. At least the goblins weren’t like the rest of the townspeople. Maybe they were too stupid to know how much everything sucked. “Bacon! Eat the bacon next, Katza!”
Katza’s puffy face glistening, she shoved a handful of bacon in her mouth. Marko wasn’t sure if she even chewed it before she reached down on a platter for some sausages. The owner of the stand weeped softly as the goblins continued to take food from his stand.
“How many?” A goblin called out. “Six? Seven?”
Marko joined in. “A dozen!”
Katza’s beady black eyes locked on Marko. The cheers died down and they all glared at him.
She spat the remaining bits of pork from her mouth. “A dozen? You don’t think I can do a dozen?”
“No, I was saying that for myself. I can do a dozen,” Marko said. “Easy.”
The goblins gasped, some muttering in disbelief.
A one-eyed goblin hobbled forward. “A dozen? In one minute, yeah?”
“Yep.” Marko cracked his neck. “Do it every year.”
Katza’s shadow fell over Marko as the she-ogre stared him down. “My record is eleven. You look like any typical scrawny Black Jackal searching for bones. A dozen my wart-covered ass.”
“I can do a dozen. I swear.” Marko smirked up at her. “You up for it?”
She stared for a long time, picked a piece of gristle out of her teeth, and spun around. “Bring me a platter!”
The goblins hooted and whipped into a frenzy. They threw down coins to place their bets.
Marko and Katza sat across from each other at a stray table. The ogress snorted and growled, while Marko sat with his hands folded, waiting for the contest to start.
“A dozen sausages in one minute,” the one-eyed goblin replied. “It’s going to be tough. You both ready?”
Katza grunted, spittle hanging off her lip.
“Ready, set, eat!”
Katza thrust three sausages down her gullet all at once, only taking a split second to chew. Marko took two and bit down, chewing as fast as he could. The she-ogre grabbed a handful more, but Marko was too busy chewing his third and forth.
“We have a race here, fellas!” The one-eyed goblin shouted.
The crowd began to chant, “Go Katza! Go Jackal!”
Once Marko got to his seventh, he looked up at Katza. Her eyes crossed, half a sausage dangling out of her mouth. He wasn’t sure what number she was on, but she stuffed two more in.
When he looked back down at his plate, instead of sausages, he saw squirming black snakes. “Ah!”
A flash of blue caught his eye again. The clown. He watched, arms folded, a wicked smile on his painted face.
Marko blinked. The snakes were sausages again.
“You quit, man-flesh?” The she-ogre slammed her hands on the table.
“No, no,” Marko said, shoving another in his mouth. It tasted of socks, old goat’s milk, and raisins. He sputtered up the sausage. Standing on top of a nearby building was the clown, chuckling. But Marko worked past the stench and choked it down. He had to keep Katza eating.
“Five, four, three—”
Katza shoved in two more. Marko started on his eighth.
“—two, one! Stop!”
Marko stopped, sweat dripping off his forehead. The she-ogre rocked back and forth as she swallowed hard. Her stomach burbled.
“The Black Jackal got seven and a half.”
Some of the goblins moaned in disgust, throwing their caps or kicking the dirt.
“Katza got twelve, right at the last minute! Impressive!”
“Pathetic, human,” Katza said. She went to get up, but got a puzzled look on her face.
“Too bad. Only seven and a half. I was sure I could have done more.” Marko stood up. “Oh, well. You’ve bested me. Farewell.”
Katza clutched her chest. “Wha...”
“Something’s wrong!” The one-eyed goblin yelled out. “Give her room.”
“My heart!” Katza groaned, hurling the table out of her way, staggering forward.
Marko pulled one of the meat stand vendor aside. “How much meat did she eat before I came along?” He feigned concern.
“Three steaks, five skewered lambs, two plates of bacon, and a whole chicken,” the vendor said.
“Oh.” Marko winced. “Maybe I shouldn’t have challenged her, then.”
Katza lurched forward, flattening two unfortunate goblins as she collapsed. Her eyes rolled up into the back of her head.
The goblins didn’t notice as Marko strolled away. They were too busy pounding on Katza’s chest to revive her. So much grease, so little time. Marko burped. At least he got a free meal out of it.
One down, three to go.
The Black Jackal felt a breathing on the back of his neck. “I don’t need my lawyers to deal with you.”
Marko felt as if his hair was on fire. He grabbed his head and ran down the street screaming.
“I’m still here!” The clown giggled in his ear. “You won’t get rid of me now.”
Worms fumbled out of Marko’s mouth. “Ack! Leave me alone!”
“I know your intentions. You won’t get me, though. I’m too much for you.” The clown floated in front of Marko as he ran. He threw a handful of bees into the Black Jackal’s face.
“Shit!” Marko ran full blast until he crashed into something. Dazed, he looked up to see Orak standing there.
“Surely you know this means I have to hurt you now,” he said, dropping a doorknob.
“No, Orak, listen. That clown, he’s—” Marko stopped himself. “—he said you’re a fat bastard.”
“Yeah,” Marko gasped, his face swelling up from the bee stings. “He said he’ll turn you inside out or something.”
“Is that right?” Orak growled. “Too bad you’re the only one standing here. Looks like I’m going to have to take it out on you.”
“Silly, Jackal,” the clown whispered again. “That’s not going to...”
Marko spat on Orak’s shoe. “Sorry.”
The brute’s face turned bright red. He charged at Marko like a rhino, but the Black Jackal fell on his side. Instead Orak trampled the clown wizard.
"The hell are you?" Orak grumbled.
A voice whimpered from underneath Orak's boots. “Help.” The clown wizard tried to reach up, but his arms just quivered. His chest was caved in and his pants soaked with red.
Marko ran away before Orak turned around to find him. He wouldn't forget the spit on his boot. He didn't forget much.
The ghostly lawyers appeared in front of Marko, cutting off his path.
“Most regrettable,” the lawyers said in unison. “You shan’t be hearing from us again.” Their images flickered before dissipating into a green mist.
Two down, two to go.
As Marko wandered about, he saw at least ten different men that matched Yarly’s description. With his right eye swollen shut, people were getting harder to identify.
“Nice hair, assface,” Marko said, bumping into one.
The man glared at him, but didn’t do anything else.
“Not him,” Marko mumbled.
After bumping around and insulting people for a good twenty minutes, he made his way out of the crowd. His back and chest throbbed from Orak’s massive kick, his face numb from the bee stings.
“I have to piss,” Marko moaned. He went to a nearby alleyway and began to relieve himself when he heard a shrill voice. “What did you say?”
Finishing up, Marko turned to see a straw-haired man with a spear, jabbing it in an old man’s direction. A fancy spear, silver-tipped with a white oak staff. The man wore a fox-fur cloak with ermine gloves and a small, gray hat that tilted to the left. Marko about lost his lunch just looking at the guy.
“I’m going to sue you. That’s what I’m going to do,” he screeched at the old man. “I’ll sue you and have you sent to the dungeons, you worthless cleric!”
“I’m sorry, Elex. I should have kept my mouth closed,” the cleric said.
“You should be ashamed! That’s a bad, bad word!”
Marko interjected himself into the conversation. “Excuse me. What’s going on here?”
Elex’s reaction was as if a dog came up to him and started talking. “Pardon?”
“Why are you saying you’re going to sue him? What does that mean? You’re going to stick him with needle and thread?”
“Sue him, you idiot. For money.” Elex sneered. “I’m going to bring my lawyer from Highhaven and he’s going to sue you for all you’re worth!”
“You’re going to take his money? Are you a thief or something?” Marko asked. “I thought thieves were outlawed by King Michael.”
“Are you that dumb? Have you not studied the new laws, ignorant Jackal? Or are you too busy screwing up our bridges?”
Marko knew this was the guy. “I’m not familiar with them, no. But if you sue this cleric here, does that mean I can sue you?”
“Sue me for what, you dumb shit? I haven’t done anything!”
“Oh,” Marko gasped. “You just said the ‘S-word.’ I could sue you for that, couldn’t I?”
The old cleric giggled.
Elex thrust the spear back at the old man, inches from his throat. “Shut it. I’ll deal with you in a minute.” He turned back to Marko. “Do you not know who I am? I’m King Michael’s cousin, Lord Elex Whitecrown. I can say shit, damn, hell, or whatever else I want.”
“Truly?” Marko said. “That’s pretty impressive. So you can say ‘bastard?’”
“Of course, you bastard.”
“How about, ‘asshole?’”
“Why are you wasting my time? Yes, I can say whatever I want.”
“Can you say N-O-R-” Marko stopped himself. “Nevermind. That’s too dangerous.”
“What? Go on. Finish!” Elex sputtered.
“No, I don’t want someone to sue you or anything.”
“Are you daft? I can say what I want.” His spear-point darted at Marko’s eye, touching his eyelash. “Say it.”
“Norrick? I can say that fool warlock’s name. What do I care?”
The old man’s eyes bugged out.
Marko bit his lip. “Wow, you are incredibly brave. That name is forbidden in this kingdom. Even King Michael wouldn’t dare utter it.”
“Bah, hogwash! I’ll say what I want. Norrick, Norrick, Norrick. That filthy wizard...”
“Elex, what am I hearing?”
Marko looked behind Elex to see a procession of mounted riders, all on white stallions or unicorns. Their armor and helms shone like mirrors. They frowned in unison. Elex cringed, letting the spear fall from his hand. He spun around, falling to his knees in front of the largest unicorn, draped in dragon scale barding, feathers woven into its mane.
“King Michael, forgive me.” Elex blubbered in the dirt. “This Jackal goaded me with blasphemous names. I was teaching him...”
“You were doing nothing of the sort,” King Michael said, sweeping his blond hair behind him. Marko found Michael looked like a long-haired turtle. His massive armor was like a shell with his tiny, pale head poking out. A glimmering scabbard bejeweled with rubies, emeralds, and diamonds glittered at his side. He dismounted with a flourish, landing like a cat in front of his cousin.
Marko nodded in approval. Even he had to admit that was pretty remarkable.
“You know the penalty for uttering the warlock’s name.”
“I know, my Liege. Please forgive me.”
Michael cocked his head slowly, his eyes narrowed. “I’m sorry, my cousin. I’m going to have to sue you for one million gold coins.”
“No, anything but that!” Elex grovelled at Michael’s feet.
“That’s it?” Marko blurted. “The penalty isn’t the dungeons? Or death? Just paying money?”
All of Michael’s gathered men pursed their lips and spread their nostrils. Marko imagined steam would have come out if it were possible. Jasper emerged like a little rat from behind all the splendid mounts and their grim riders.
“Marko? What the bloody hell are you doing?” He whispered through gritted teeth.
“I’m taking care of what you told me. Avenging Yarly.”
“Jasper, who is this impertinent Jackal?” the king asked.
Jasper’s teeth chattered. He bowed low. “He is Marko, my Liege. Forgive him. He tends to run off at the mouth a bit.”
“Yeah, I do.” He gestured to Michael. “Your little cousin here killed one of my—” Marko searched for the right word, “—friends. Four-on-one. Isn’t murder forbidden in your kingdom? Isn’t that what your peace is about? That’s why I’m forced to paint bridges when I should should be fighting wars?”
“Oh, was that your friend?” Michael looked at his fingernails. “I do apologize for that. I hate red. Now that is punishable by death.”
Marko turned to Jasper, his stare blank.
“I tried to tell you. He arrived early. He’s been here for hours, I just didn’t know.” Jasper gulped.
“Anything else you want to share with me?”
Jasper bit his lip. “Yeah, the whole Turlis of Tongues thing? I just made that up so you wouldn’t go on a psychopathic rampage.”
Marko pushed Jasper down.
“Leave this alone. I’m begging you,” Jasper whined.
“You’re the fourth?” Marko pointed at the king. “You stabbed my friend. From behind, no less. Like a coward.”
The assembled riders all reached for their swords. Michael waved them down. He regarded Marko with curiosity. “Your type are a dying breed, aren’t they? No one dares talk to me like that. However, since I killed your friend, I will give you a pass. I understand the grief you are feeling right now. We have grief counselors available if needed.”
Jasper almost fainted. “Thank the...”
“Eat shit,” Marko said as the king turned away, “and die.”
Michael’s eyebrows raised. His hand went to the hilt of his sword. His riders bristled. Elex wisely slid out of the way.
“Now that I know Jasper lied, nothing is holding me back.” Even unarmed and outmatched, a smile lit up his face. “I’ll gladly face death to smear a king’s blood across my breastplate.”
Michael unsheathed his sword, even as his riders looked like their heads were about to explode. He held them off with his other hand. “Oh, dear Jackal. You should have walked away while you had the chance. I’m not only a king. I’ve killed dragons, wizards, trolls, demons, harpies, goblins...”
“Yeah, me too, shithead. So what? Let’s fight. Two warriors. No rulebooks, lawsuits, or whatever.”
Michael glanced over at one of his riders. “Throw him your blade.”
“But, my Liege—”
“Do it or I’ll bloody you next.”
The rider tossed down his sword to Marko—a rather unremarkable one, but to hold a sword in his hands again was like falling into the arms of a long lost lover. Euphoria washed over him.
“Norrick, Norrick, Norrick,” Marko taunted.
The king rushed forward, his blade a blur as he battered Marko back. His skill with a blade was almost as impressive as the way his hair never seemed out of place. But his technique proved too flowery. The Black Jackal waited for his moment as the king rained blows down upon him.
Now! Marko gained his footing and hammered back at Michael with brute strength, every blow vibrating through his bones. His whole body ached from all the punishment it had taken throughout the day. The king kept his posture, but flashed a look of worry. A glint of silver appeared in Michael’s other hand. A small knife slipped out of his gauntlet. With a flick of his wrist, the blade spun at Marko’s face, but the Jackal batted it aside with a loud clang.
“Ah, tricks, huh?” Marko kicked dirt in Michael’s eyes, much to the chagrin of the king’s riders. They hissed and made all manner of hideous faces.
Marko barreled over the king, knocking him flat on his ass. Blinking dirt out of his own eyes, he went to thrust his blade through the king’s throat. Too quick, he rolled out of the way. Springing back up to his feet, Michael spat out dirt.
“You’re a nasty one, Jackal,” Michael said. “But I’m afraid I’m always going to out-nasty you.”
A dart shot out of Michael’s cod piece, nicking Marko’s ear. Just like a wasp rushing past.
“The bloody hell was...” A bitter taste enveloped his tongue. Marko found his muscles getting weak, his vision blurring.
“One of Norrick’s gifts before I slew him. He was always so fond of poisons. Dimdrake root. How do you like it?” Michael knocked Marko’s sword aside, sending it skittering away. “Now I’m going to kill you. Understand that this doesn’t bring me pleasure.” He smiled. “Remember, I hate red.”
“That’s too bad.” Marko gave a goofy, sleepy grin. “It’s my favorite color.”
When Michael went to run Marko through, the Black Jackal fell on the shimmering sword instead. The old “stab yourself before he can stab you” trick. Blood rushed out of his shoulder.
“Now you’ve gone and spoiled it.” Michael frowned. He stared at Marko’s bleeding wound as if mesmerized. The king gave an empty smile, wavering like a charmed snake. That’s when he realized that Michael didn’t hate red at all. He was entranced by it.
Catching the king off-guard, the Black Jackal charged, grasped Michael under his arms, and flung him in the air.
The riders gasped. The now-gathered crowd joined them.
The king’s unicorn whinnied.
“Gah—” Michael spit out blood as he looked down, realizing he was impaled on his unicorn’s horn. “I’ll sue you!”
The unicorn dipped its head down, letting Michael slide off into the dirt. It pranced in place, confused as to what it had just done.
Marko held his wounded shoulder, the poison still coursing through his veins. “The king is dead!” he shouted.
“Shit,” a man said in disbelief. He giggled after he said it.
“Damn!” his wife joined in.
“Hell, shit, ass!” The rest of the crowd laughed and cheered.
A man punched another man. “I’ve wanted to do that for a year, you stupid asshole!”
More people started fighting, cursing,and hurling bottles at the king’s riders. Soon people were jerking them off their mounts, stripping off armor, and beating them with rocks and paint cans.
Marko raised up his hands and shouted over the din, “Wait! Cleric! I need a cleric!”
“Here I am,” the old cleric said. “Are you wounded gravely?” Through blurry eyes, Marko could see townspeople ripping into the screaming Elex.
“Dimdrake poison. What does it do? Am I going to die?”
“You’ll suffer blindness, have diarrhea, and lose feeling in your legs for about a week.”
“Is that all?” Marko smiled.
“You’ll need someone to watch over you.”
“I’ll watch over you,” exclaimed a man with blood running down his shirt. “Our hero! Shit!”
“No, let me! Our hero!” A woman grasped at Marko’s arm.
“Praise...” the old cleric said. “Uh, what’s your name, son?”
Marko thought for a while and finally answered, “Turlis. Turlis of Tongues.”
If Jasper’s lie—and one window of hope—didn’t exist, Marko would make him real.
“Praise Turlis!” The crowd chanted as they carried him on their shoulders. The smiling, busted faces of the townspeople beamed back at him, even as their homes burned around them. Amid all the smoke and bleeding people, Marko saw the bridge.
All this because of some red paint.
Read more wild tales in Quests, Curses, & Vengeance!