A Fool’s Errand

(This four-part story first appeared during February 2020 at inthepantheon.com. Details exclusive to that project have been removed.)

Cloud Nine was dark, just the way I preferred it. Dim lights were positioned so the mortals in attendance could see. A stage light illuminated a female performer, who was playing the piano and singing soulfully. After her encore, it would be time to close up for the night. Dawn was an hour away. The performer’s name was Jules, and she reminded me of a mortal I’d known in the 1950s. Someone I had to stop seeing because she started to develop feelings. She must be in her seventies by now.

I shook myself out of the reverie. This was no time for fond memories and thinking of impossible entanglements. Bear approached.

“Hey, Boss. The bar is shut down, and the cash registers are closed out. Everything’s clean and stocked for the most part. We just need to do a quick recheck after everyone leaves. Only a couple people left.”

In fact, other than Bear and me, there was only a single person left sitting at a table, watching Jules. His back was facing us, but he sat still, a cigarette dangling from his fingers. He wasn’t smoking it. He wore a fedora and looked like he was cosplaying Frank Sinatra. Jules was more Tori Amos than Harry Connick Jr. He looked like a man out of place.

“Why don’t you go ahead and take off, Bear? You’ve put in a long day.” I reached down and scratched Seabiscuit’s head and ran a hand down her back. “You can take Seabiscuit home if you want. There’s not much for her to do at my place but chase after Killjoy.”

“I don’t have anything else to do. But I’ll take Seabiscuit. She likes the couch – and food – at my place. No kibble. We’re having steak and eggs for breakfast, girl.” Seabiscuit’s tail wagged as she wandered over to Bear for attention.

Bear was putting in more and more hours. I was getting worried about his social life. I knew mine didn’t exist, but he was a human and they had social…needs. And stuff. I rolled my head around my shoulders uncomfortably thinking about it. As his boss, I should probably take him out to lunch one day; for business reasons, purely. We could strategize and discuss ideas for Cloud Nine, and I could give him a bonus. How did this work? I made a mental note to search the internet for a book about managing employees. If I took him out for lunch, would that be inappropriate? It’s not like there were other employees or I would invite them all, of course.

I made sure they left before approaching the guy at the table. Jules finished her last song. I gave her tips and told her to come back the same time on Friday if she wanted. The man had remained silent and unmoving the entire time. It was almost unnatural how still he was. Humans don’t do that. They move around constantly, jiggling legs, tapping fingers, running hands through hair, or scratching arms, etc. I started to get an uneasy feeling.

With my don’t-push-me look on my face, I walked up to him, and was about to tap his shoulder to get his attention when he turned suddenly, a huge wooden grin on his face. “Brother!”

I was staring at Phantasos, the Greek God of surreal dreams and inanimate objects. My sibling. Oh great.

“Hail, brother,” I said noncommittally. “How goes it?” I sat across from him.

“Not great, Morpheus. Looks like you screwed me over again,” he smirked, crossing his arms. I said nothing because I had no idea what he was talking about. “Nothing to say? Well, that’s typical.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. I haven’t seen you in, what, a hundred years? More?”

“This was supposed to be mine.”

“What are you talking about? Please speak clearly.”

“I was supposed to come back to the human world, not you. You snatched another opportunity from me. Yet. Again.”

“Any god is welcome here. No one tells us what to do as long as we don’t start wars or blow shit up. You can open a business, get an apartment. I would be happy to have you here. We can catch up, become friends.”

“Friends,” he sneered. “Have we ever been friends?”

“I thought we were. At least at one time. We’re family. We can pick up where we left off.”

“And where was that, do you remember?”

“No. Not really. I haven’t spent much time on the mortal plane the last few centuries. I prefer the Underworld and the dreamscape to mundane life.”

“Well, let me tell you what I’ve been up to, dear brother. The god of inanimate objects. Isn’t that fun? Do you think humans want to talk to lamps and books and chairs?”

“I like to talk to books. I bet there are millions of humans who would adore books as friends in their dreams.”

Phantasos shook his head, angrily. “Well, they sure don’t want to sleep with them.”

“Are you lonely? I don’t use human form for sex in dreams. Ever. There aren’t a lot of differences, brother. We both have prophetic abilities. Are you…jealous? Please don’t be.” I snorted. “There is very little to possibly be jealous over. I spend most of my time alone. I don’t have adoring fans. I am celibate. I just started this business.”

“You are the favorite of the Oneiroi.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. “Brother, please. I am not anyone’s favorite except perhaps Seabiscuit’s. Let us not fight. It’s been too long.”

We looked at each other. His shoulders slumped. It was almost as if he didn’t have much of a dog in the fight. We never argued before. The Oneiroi always enjoyed an amicable relationship among one another (which was surprising since there were so many of us). This was puzzling.

“Morpheus,” he said, imploringly. “I need your –”

“HELLO, LITTLE GOD BROTHERS,” a booming voice called through the club. It was so loud, we both covered our ears. Us? Gods covering our ears? Only the sound of Zeus’ lightning could make our ears bleed.

“Aren’t you two just the cutest? Catching up. You, I already know.” A tall figure approached. He was slim and wore hipster glasses. The newcomer went to Phantasos and clapped him on the back, taking an uninvited seat. Phantasos stared blankly ahead.

“Must you yell? We’re closed. Wait, who are you?” I waved my hand in front of my brother’s face. No response. He was like a wax figure or a robot shut off. I couldn’t even see his chest rise and fall.

“I am your Elder, the Titan Epimetheus. Back from the grave. Or prison. Same thing.” He sniffed imperiously. “You two are going to help me obtain my revenge on everyone who wronged me. It’s quite a long list. Your brother here has already agreed to help me. Haven’t you?”

“Yes. Revenge on Morpheus.”

“No, not him. Forget about that unless I tell you to remember again.”

“Forget about Morpheus.”

“No! Just be silent.” Epimetheus made a disgusted sound. “This hypnosis ability is turning out to be more trouble than it’s worth.” He pulled impatiently on his sleeve.

“Epimeetus,” I said, pretending disinterest. “I’ve never heard of you.”

“EPIMETHEUS! SILENCE!” the Titan yelled. “Maybe you never heard of me because THEY stole my life! At least my liver wasn’t devoured by an eagle every day. Precious brother Prometheus, how are you doing now? You, who could do no wrong. The great hero of humankind. Giving them fire! Of course they loved you more. Poor Prometheus, the hero, punished by Zeus.”

He sounded like a raving lunatic. I remembered that the Titans, the ones who failed to stand with Zeus, were either killed or imprisoned. That was so long ago it seemed like a myth. Was I still in the void back then? I needed to concentrate. This was not a situation I wanted to remain in. I needed to flee and figure out how to help Phantasos. Wait, I could use my ring to transport us both out if I could just touch him. I moved my hand, hoping to make but a hairsbreadth of contact. That was all it would take.

The Titan continued speaking. “Right now, we focus on the Olympians. And you, my new friend, need to come closer so I can tell you a secret.”

He motioned me forward with a long finger. His eyes blazed in the darkness. What was I doing? I couldn’t remember. It was something important, right at the edge of my mind, but I couldn’t grasp it. I felt a pull, singing, crying out for me to obey. Obey. I must obey. I moved closer.

***

Epimetheus and my brother. Cloud Nine was closed, and I remembered the surprise of seeing Phantasos again, and our confrontation. I remembered the secret. I wanted, needed, to hear the secret. The Titan smiled as I rose from my seat and approached him. I bent forward and he whispered in a language I did not understand. This was curious because, as a god, I could speak all known languages. The words blew across my face, and I closed my eyes. I listened, and I forgot.

When I awoke, I was lying on a small mat in a small house. I knew instantly where I was – a town called Candel Falls. The village was located in a dark wood rarely kissed by the sun, with a beautiful waterfall nearby. A witch called Avelia lived here.

When young, she served as a medicine woman, brewing and administering healing poultices, and performing rituals to the gods, asking for favor and blessings so that crops would grow and the children would flourish and be healthy. She was beautiful with long curly hair and an easy white smile that spilled from full lips.

A young man asked for Avelia’s hand in marriage. The man was the son of the town’s leader and named Cronis. The witch said yes, and the town celebrated their binding and all were happy for four seasons. Soon, there was a baby growing in Avelia’s belly, and the couple was thrilled to build their new family.

The birthing was troubled, full of pain, and lasted longer than a day. Cronis and the town were frightened and believed both mother and child would die. Finally, the baby was delivered, and he had two small blunt protrusions growing from the crown of his tiny head. The witch’s husband and his father were fearful and angry. They said the baby was born of Hell and accused Avelia of consorting with demons.

Cronis refused to accept the child. He forcefully took the babe from his wife, and with his father’s blessing, dashed him on the rocks near the waterfall. The witch was filled with despair that turned to fury. How ignorant, she raged. They would murder an innocent child because he was born different. She had not lain with anyone but her husband. She thought he loved her. She trusted him. She was a fool. She would not be a fool any longer.

She fled Candel Falls and found a hidden cave a day’s walk away. There, she did exactly what she had been accused of doing, and summoned and communed with demons. For a steep price, the smiling sly creatures showed her a way to exact revenge on the town.

Avelia went into the dark wood and found the items she needed for the spell. The rest she had in her stores. Marjoram, thistle, cones, and nuts. It was a new moon, and a time for births. This wild ritual would birth abominations, and they would feast on Candel Falls. A garnet and onyx stone rounded out the ingredients. She placed them in a pot. She drew her ceremonial knife and sliced open her palm.

Blood dripped in the pot, and she chanted the words the demons gave her. The incantation ignited and Avelia could feel the dead stir under the dirt. She spoke in her mind and commanded them, “Go to Candel Falls at the witching hour. Leave no one alive. Make the deaths of Cronis and his father slow and agonizing, then throw their bodies over the fall.”

I knew the story, so why was I here again? I had shifted in time. The only being I knew of who could manipulate time was Chronos. He was supposed to be in Tartarus, imprisoned for eternity. How did Epimetheus get the power to do this? Was he working with Chronos; did he steal it? I had no idea. Somehow, I was stuck in Europe in the Middle Ages. Great.

Well, I had been through this story before. I went on a quest to the elflands and bargained for the magic I needed to kill the undead. Was I expected to do this again? I had to assume Avelia would try to re-enact her revenge regardless of my return and that the events would unfold yet again. What other choice did I have but to proceed as I had before?

I understood Avelia all too well. But the way she wanted to handle it couldn’t be allowed. She could play with demons all she wanted, but she would try to use her magic to kill the guilty and the innocent. Someone had to step in.

Last time, it was me. It looked like I was about to play the game a second time. It wasn’t pleasant then, and it wouldn’t be pleasant on repeat. I preferred to stay away from mortals unless it was in their dreams. They were prone to violence, disease, and messy entanglements.

I did not see a way out. I knew of no time magic. I could send a message to another deity and ask for help, but which one? We had no comparable time deity in our pantheon that I was aware of. Could Aion help? He wasn’t a past, present, and future type, but he did work with eternity and the afterlife.

Even if he had to kill me to get me out of this timeline, I would return to the Underworld, and end up back at Cloud Nine in no time (pun unintended). I think.

There was Kairos, who dealt with time in the way of opportunity or the right moment. That would take way too much planning. I wouldn’t know how to begin.

Also, I would still need help apprehending Epimetheus when I did return. I was no fighter and couldn’t contain a Titan on my own. I could drag him to the dream world and throw an illusion on him while someone else kicked his ass back to Tartarus. But who? So many questions and no answers ready at hand.

And now, someone was approaching, and there I was, still on the mat, a stranger in a stranger’s house. I needed to think, and there was only one good place to think – home.

(Stay tuned for parts three and four coming tomorrow…)

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