(This 5K story first appeared at inthepantheon.com. Any identifying details from the project have been removed.)
There was a knock on my door; an insistent banging that roused me from a deep sleep. What was I dreaming about? A tall and lanky male with sandy brown hair whose kisses surpassed my wildest fantasies, perhaps? I hoped it was him. However, he didn’t know where I lived, so the knocking wasn’t him. “Who is it?” I croaked out, cranky upon waking from a world I wished to return to. I didn’t dream like others did, but I still created illusive fantasies to lose myself in occasionally.
“Your little brother, Phantasos, Morph. Open up. Please.” I went to the door, opened it, and there he stood, wearing clothes that looked like a Frank Sinatra cosplayer’s wet dream. He tipped his fedora. “Are you glad to see me?”
“I’m not a fan of unannounced visitors – or surprises. But, it is good to see you. Come in.” I opened the door wider for him to enter, and he walked in, surveying my living quarters.
“Just like the Underworld. Why am I not surprised? You’re so predictable and slow to change. I’m sure this was high fashion back in the 1100s, but now people have electricity, mobile phones, computers, real furniture, appliances…”
I looked him up and down, pointedly. “You are one to talk, Sinatra boy. And I have all that, brother, if you must know. It’s just not the focal point of my home. I like the dark, I like reclining, and I like memories of home.”
“Gods, but that place is dreadfully dull. If I had my own place here, I would choose glamorous decorations to rival the wealthiest mortal.”
“You are free to do that.” I shrugged, growing impatient with his presence. “To what do I owe this visit, brother?”
“Rumor has it you are returning to the Elflands. I wish to accompany you.”
I grunted in displeasure. “It’s not a vacation, brother. It’s a business trip. There will be camping, eating rabbits, bland stews, and fire for light at night. It’s nothing you would be interested in. Why?”
“I wish to see the elf princess.”
“And why?” I prompted. I could not imagine why Phantasos would want to meet an elf.
“I have heard of her beauty and fame. It would be an honor to make her acquaintance. I would also like to meet your gnome friend.”
I grimaced. This made no sense. “You have never shown any interest whatsoever in the Elflands or meeting any of my friends. What is your true motive? Do not lie to me.”
Phantasos flopped down on some of the pillows I kept for relaxation. “Morpheus, I have no motive. I am lonely and have no purpose or meaning. I seek to change that. Just this one time. I swear I will not cause any trouble. I just need something to do. Anything.”
I considered having him help tend Cloud Nine, but suspected I might return with no business left standing. He was never good with responsibilities. I could ask him to watch my home and feed Kat and Killjoy, but I didn’t trust him. I would only trust him if I could keep my eye on him. “Very well,” I acquiesced. “No tricks and you follow my instructions. There are things in the Elflands that can devour gods. Or trap you for a thousand years in a deal that is beneficial to everyone but you.”
“All right. I will follow your lead. I swear it. I just need an adventure. Something to give me a spark of joy, the will to keep existing. It hasn’t been easy.”
I felt sympathy for him. I knew I would allow him to make the journey with me. Komenu walked in at that moment.
“I was eavesdropping,” he said flatly. “I wish to come too.”
I brought my hand to my face and swiped down in a version of the popular mortal facepalm gesture. This was getting better and better. “Komenu, why do you wish to travel with us?”
“For the same reasons as your brother. I was trapped in a lamp for a thousand years. I have no idea what to do with my life now. Making this journey might trigger some ideas for me to pursue. I have no future right now. I am lonely. Wandering, drifting. I want a purpose.”
Why – and when – did I become some kind of wayward foster brother for these beings? I didn’t want the responsibility. I just wanted to go get Benticle and see Gray Leaf and her daughter. Gray Leaf was dying. I was responsible for Tiamelle’s future, whether that meant binding myself to her for fifty years or finding a substitute. Phantasos and Komenu were not suitable substitutions. I sighed.
“Fine. You can both come. But this is my mission – and Benticle is my second in command. You listen and obey us. If you don’t, I refuse to be responsible for what happens. Do not show or speak gratitude to any creature in the Elflands, lest you wind up owing a debt you will not wish to pay. Trust me. Don’t make me regret this or I swear, I will throw you at the mercy of the four winds and let you find your way back.”
Komenu said, “You forget I was there, and I know their ways. Perhaps I learned a few things while stuck in that lamp. I was well educated.”
“I’m not as worried about you as you,” I pointed to Phantasos.
“I gave you my word, brother. You wound me.”
“And you don’t sound completely sincere. Even now.”
“I am. I accept the consequences if I break my promise.”
“Fine. We leave tomorrow morning, break of dawn. Pack light, be prepared for dirt, stink, and rough living until we reach Gray Leaf’s castle. I have issues to take care of before then. I will see you here. Don’t be late.”
I had no idea where my brother was staying. He had an eternal place in the Underworld dreamlands, but most deities had a house in the mortal world. We couldn’t resist observing, collaborating, or meddling with humans. Phantasos was a trickster and could be an amiable figure or a conniving misanthrope.
Komenu, I knew even less about. Once a whisper of a spirit, he became more solid every day away from his lamp. He was staying at Cloud Nine, out of sight, watching and helping out behind the scenes. I hadn’t learned anything new about him or his people. I felt owed some information and we would be having a discussion soon.
When morning came, I took inventory of everyone’s packs and we set off. There are many doors to the Elflands, and I knew a few of them. I wasn’t about to share that information with my two travel companions, so I made sure we slipped in without them knowing, and it was a good two hours later before they noticed there were more trees and unpaved roads than buildings and people walking by on streets.
“We will soon be at Benticle’s residence and you will be respectful to him.” I saw his home up ahead and was excited to see my friend again.
Phantasos looked around. “We’re there already? I didn’t even notice. How did you do that?”
“Never you mind. I’ll warn you now, the gnome has fifteen children and two goat nannies who bite. That’s the least of what will happen to you if you piss off his wife. Gnome females have bad tempers and are slow to forgive. Be quiet and follow my lead.”
I knocked on the mossy door and heard a female scream from within. “We don’t want any, you troll-faced pool of lizard’s piss. Be off before you have no hands left to knock with.”
“Greetings, it’s Morpheus. I’ve come to see Benticle, ma’am.”
The door opened abruptly and a wrinkled puffy face peeked out. “Morpheus!” the voice crooned. “Come in. It’s so good to see you.” Her tone changed as she howled, “Benticle, it’s your friend. Get your ass out here. I have things to do!” Her tone switched back to molasses as she bid us to come in. “Have a seat in there and he’ll be with you shortly.”
We sat on a wooden seat with handmade cushions that looked like they’d seen better days. Phantasos picked one up, sniffed it, and then tossed it to land on a nearby chair. He made a disgusted sound. “Foul-smelling. Is that made from horse shit?”
“Shut up,” I hissed. “Trust me, you do not want to offend here, brother.” I sat patiently on the couch. I was used to the pungent smells of a gnome habitat. Komenu didn’t seem bothered either, but he remained standing, whether because he was still not solid enough to sit or because he wished to avoid touching the dirty couch was unknown.
Benticle entered the room and smiled. “Morpheus! So good to see you, friend.” “It is good to see you too. Truly.” I stood up and we clasped arms in greeting. “This is my brother, Phantasos. And also traveling with us is Komenu, the djinn we procured from Gray Leaf.” Benticle nodded at both but did not offer a more personal greeting, which was usual for gnomes.
“We ate already, but I can fetch a small supper if you are hungry?”
“We ate before we came, but appreciate the offer. We could use a place to bed down in if you have space, though.”
“There is space with the kids or you could bed out back with the nannies. I added new hay to their sleeping stalls. It might be preferable to the noise that will undoubtedly keep you awake if you sleep in the children’s room. Besides, the goats will get up many times to go kick the ones who won’t shut up and bite the others who keep asking for a drink or to go piss. Also, the goats don’t shit where they sleep like the kids do. But, your choice.”
“We will sleep with the nannies. Thank you.” I bowed my head and elbowed Phantasos in the ribs when he opened his mouth to protest.
We spread our sleeping bags out on the hay and slowly fell asleep. Throughout the night, there were random screams from the kids as they were disciplined and intermittent braying from the goats as they warned the children to shut up and slumber. I’d had worse sleep.
The royal elven castle lay in ruins. I caught flies, my open mouth gaped in shock. Bricks tumbled over the smoldering building. Phantasos looked at me and then over at Benticle and back again. “It’s not supposed to look like that, obviously,” he said. I stared straight ahead. “No. This is all wrong.” We walked the grounds and saw no one. There were no bodies or signs of life. I looked at my gnome friend. “What happened here?”
“Hard to say,” he answered, scratching his chin wearily. “They may have gotten out. There are enemies of the elven royal family, but I haven’t heard any rumors of unrest or terrorism. This is strange.” He shrugged.
“You don’t look half as shocked as I feel. Why is that?” I watched as Phantasos investigated some of the ruins, kicking at unidentifiable charred lumps.
“Nothing surprises me anymore. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were burned down intentionally. I have a knowing spell I can use that might be able to show us something.”
I nodded. “Please. Let’s try it.”
Benticle searched his pack for the items needed. When the spell was invoked, he fell over in a faint. Phantasos looked over in question, and I shook my head. This was how the magic worked for gnomes. They learned what they sought while unconscious and then woke. I waited. When he stirred, I helped him sit up and eagerly awaited to hear what the invocation had uncovered.
“Beetle stew with mashed berry roots. My favorite childhood meal. I’d forgotten that. Mmm, that would be tasty right now.” He shook his head and looked at me, rubbing his eyes. “Gray Leaf is dead. Tiamelle is in hiding. Her guard set fire to the house so nothing valuable could be stolen, none of the magical artifacts, that is. I didn’t see who the threat is, or was. As soon as Gray Leaf passed, and it was from natural causes, an old blood feud stirred. Tiamelle left with her guard. Wait. She left the elven lands! She’s not here—at all. That’s all I got.”
Phantasos raised an eyebrow. “That’s quite a spell you’ve got there. Would you be interested in a trade? I’ll make you a good offer.”
I elbowed him. “Not now, brother.” Focusing on Benticle, I helped him stand. “According to elven custom, Tiamelle is not of age. She is what humans would refer to as a teenager. I made a bargain with Gray Leaf to be her regent for the next fifty years or find someone acceptable to stand in my place. I feel responsible for finding her. What do you think I should do?”
The djinn, Komenu, stepped forward. “I do not think Tiamelle would leave her home. There was plenty of protection here for her to stay and defend.” He raised a hand. “Before you ask how I know this, I remind you that I spent a thousand years in the elder elf’s study, in a lamp. The lamp was not soundproof.”
I glanced up in surprise after nearly forgetting he was with us. “What would make her flee?”
“The only sworn enemy of the elves I am aware of are the succubi. The demonesses are the only creatures to make the elves nervous.” Komenu stated.
“The succubi? How did I not know this?” I looked at Benticle.
He grunted. “It has been so long since the truce, it never crossed my mind. They are magic thieves, and Gray Leaf had a whole lot of magic.”
“What magic would Gray Leaf have that would be interesting enough to start a new war?” The gnome picked at a nail and then flicked whatever was underneath away. I frowned. “I really couldn’t say. We need to find Tiamelle.”
“Morpheus, I can’t leave right now. My wife is about to have another child.”
“I thought she couldn’t be trusted to not eat any more children?”
“She promised me she wouldn’t.” He shrugged.
“You know, there are ways to prevent pregnancies, friend.”
“You think I don’t know that!?”
“Just saying. Fifteen and now another on the way…”
He grumbled, “Don’t remind me.”
“All right, friend. We will travel back with you and continue our journey after seeing you home.”
We dropped Benticle off with his pack of young gnomes, chattering and wrestling, happy to see their father. We returned to Cloud Nine, where the remaining three of us sat at a table and drank beer.
“I’d like to volunteer to help, brother.” Phantasos slung an arm around my shoulder and squeezed. “This will be the first time in centuries we’ve spent so much time together!”
I looked at his arm on mine and then into his eyes, suspicious. “Fine. But it’s more so I can keep an eye on you than for the enjoyment of your company.”
His face contorted into a gesture of feigned shock. “You wound me.”
The door to the club opened unexpectedly, and Bear walked in. He found my eyes and then looked at Phantasos and Komenu. “Hi.”
I was nervous, and I had no reason to be. Well, yes, I had every reason to be nervous. His timing couldn’t be worse. “Hi, Bear. This is my brother—and Komenu, who is visiting. How are you?”
“Fine. Just dropping by to make sure the deliveries arrived out back. Hi.” He waved. Phantasos stood. “Well, I’m bored. I’ll be back later.” He gave me a pointed look (he always could see straight through me), and waved to Bear. As he opened the door and
walked out, he looked back and smirked, then made his exit.
Komenu then rose. “I also have, um, things to do. Thank you for your generosity in hosting me, Morpheus.” I wondered where the djinn was headed. We needed to have a
Bear went out the backdoor to check in the new stock. I followed him. “How have you been?”
“Fine. And you?”
“Fine.” This was the problem with having humans around. Secrets. Although I knew from visiting him in his dreams that Bear had more knowledge than he should, there was still a hell of a lot he was clueless about when it came to my family and me. If I gave him my brother’s name, connecting the dots would be simple information gleaned from the internet. He would think I came from a weird, Greek god-naming family or suspect the truth. But there was more information that I had to share, regardless of my status as a deity.
I folded my arms and watched him. “Do you need help?” He shook his head. “Uh, I have to tell you something.”
Bear sighed and stood up. “I told you it was no big deal. You don’t have to explain.”
“What do you mean?”
“The kiss. It didn’t mean we were together. It was fun, but nothing serious.” He squatted down again and opened the lid of a box with a cutter to verify its contents. This young man was smart. I didn’t wish to hurt his feelings or make him feel like an idiot. “That is what I wanted to talk about. I wouldn’t classify it as no big deal, and it was fun. I value you more than I can say, as co-manager—and as a friend. What you think and feel is important to me. I do feel we should put the brakes on a physical relationship, though. I sincerely wish to continue our friendship, and to have you work here. Is that amenable to you?”
He laughed. “I’m not going to say I’m not a little disappointed. But, yes, that’s fine. Your friendship is important to me too. I should get back to unpacking this stuff. I have some errands to run before I need to be back here to open up.”
“I’ll see you tonight. Hey, on a different note, do you think that server from Captain Stack’s, Trish, would want to work here? She could run the bar or the tables?”
“I can ask her. She would be good.” He nodded his head, agreeing.
“That would be fantastic. Thank you. We need serious help around here.”
“She’s good. I’ll bring her tonight. We should get a fenced-in area set up out back so she can hang there while we work. We could get a little house installed so she can have protection and sleep when she wants.”
“That’s a great idea! If I give you the funds, could you find a way to schedule that during the day?”
“Thank you, Bear.”
“No problem.” He turned back to the boxes, and as I turned to leave, he said, “Morpheus. Why don’t I ever see you during the day?”
Did he still think I was a vampire? This was dangerous territory. “I’m nocturnal,” I smiled.
“I don’t think you’re a vampire. But I’m not convinced you aren’t more than you appear to be. See you tonight.” He returned to inventorying the new items.
I decided to turn and walk away without commenting. What was there to say? Was I going to continue my duck-and-dodge handling of the situation? What if I did tell him? I couldn’t. What if I let him believe I was a vampire? Would that be better than the truth? It might pacify him. Did I really consider him a friend when I kept vital parts of myself hidden? Was that lying or just omission of a rather significant detail? I had to find Tiamelle, Bear’s suspicions could wait.
“Komenu,” I nodded to the djinn, who walked over to the table where I was sitting. He took a chair and scooted it in, the wood scraping across the floor. It was early morning, and Cloud Nine had just closed for the day. Bear had left with Seabiscuit, as usual. I think the pooch was starting to favor him, and I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t entrust her care to my human co-manager permanently. My home would never be bright enough to harbor the needs of an animal who required sunshine, grass, and someone who liked to throw balls.
“Morpheus,” the djinn greeted me after arranging himself comfortably. “I am prepared to be regent for Tiamelle when we find her.”
I raised an eyebrow. “I thought you were bound to this side of the world once freed from your lamp?”
“No,” he rolled his eyes. “It was simply the hope of Gray Leaf that I would never return. If
simple spoken words could be a curse, then hers would have nailed my feet here. You see, I broke her heart, after abandoning her and our newborn child.” He paused and waited for me to understand.
“Tiamelle is your child?”
“Yes. A half elf and half djinn progeny. I…admit to having many shortcomings, the least of
which is having itchy feet. The need to wander, travel, see new things. Gray Leaf wanted to plant roots and nest in her family’s castle, as all elves do when they have children. When she found me, well, you know what happened.”
“She put you in a lamp for a thousand years because you, what? Just disappeared?”
“I was there the first decade. I tried. I wanted to do the right thing. Elf children just age so
slowly. Ten years passed and the halfling still looked like she was just learning to walk! Her communication skills were fantastic, but time seemed to pass so slowly. I grew restless and…mean.”
“Why did you put yourself in that position then?”
Komenu laughed. “Love, Morpheus. Lust, adoration, attraction. She was older than me and powerful with magic. I was smitten.” He shrugged a shoulder, one hand falling across the top of the table where we sat.
“Mmm,” I said meaningfully. “So then what?”
“I started dropping hints, talking about us visiting places far away, traveling as a family. She was not receptive. One day, I just finally left. She used magic to find me and then bottled me up when captured.” He chuckled as though spending the last thousand years stuck in a genie lamp was just a long hangover weekend that you joked about after surviving. “I’ve still got plenty of living left in me, Morpheus. Don’t go getting melancholy about it. Plus, I learned a lot of her magic stuck in that brass nightmare. She still talked to me. I could hear everything.”
“Well, it appears your daughter has inherited your wanderlust. She’s here somewhere and we need to find her.”
“Well, she’s probably where all young djinn go when they come to the mortal world, Morpheus.”
I waited in silence while Komenu looked at me. “And where would that be?” I inquired,
“Why, Disneyworld, of course.”
We did not take a plane there or pack a suitcase. We used our abilities to teleport, diaphanous, shifting through the narrow band of dimensions surrounding the planet. Don’t be surprised to learn that Morpheus, the God of Dreams, has vacationed at this tourist attraction. That is why we were able to travel there using the easy method. You have to know what you are teleporting into for it to work.
I learned that djinn have a way to scent their species, so we found Tiamelle in front of a ride full of smiling and screaming children, spinning around in teacups. She was licking a chocolate ice cream cone, her short brown, curly hair blowing in the light breeze. “Hi Dad,” she said, after glancing over and seeing who had approached.
“Tiamelle,” he nodded. “I’m sorry about your mother. What happened to the family home?”
The young halfling sighed. “I burned it down. Mom passed. I was there. I had never seen an elf die before. They just kind of fold in on themselves and shrink, then turn to dust – or ash? It was weird. Will that happen to me?” She shivered. “Mr. Brightside, our human caretaker, just collapsed with her. I guess her magic was keeping him alive. I just freaked out. I don’t want to live there anymore. I know Mom wanted me to be this great leader and follow in her footsteps, but that’s not me. I think…I’m more djinn than elf.” She looked down at her ice cream cone, frowned, and tossed it into a nearby trash bin.
“You don’t have to go back if you don’t want to. Apparently, there isn’t anything to return to even if you wanted to. I suppose I should be angry that my daughter is an arsonist, but after a thousand years in a tiny lamp, you have to choose your battles. Have you ridden Space Mountain yet?”
“That’s my girl.”
I looked at the two of them, bewildered. “Wait. You were in the lamp for a thousand years. And you,” I said, pointing at Tiamelle, “Are fifty years old. The numbers don’t add up.”
“Every year in the elflands is like twenty years in the human world. As a mortal plane-dwelling being, I automatically convert the years in human time.” Komenu looked at me in curiosity. “You didn’t know?”
“So, you really only ‘tried to make things work’ for, what, six months?” I scoffed.
“It was a long six months that literally was ten years. Time moves so damn slow there.”
“So you were in the lamp for forty years in human time?” My head was starting to spin.
“It was a long – ”
“I get the idea. Whatever. I’m starting to wonder why I bothered to give so much of my energy to a mission that wasn’t even necessary at all. I was missing a few pretty big pieces of information. I thought I could trust Gray Leaf. She gave no indication that she had any ties to you whatsoever. Now I feel like I’ve wasted my time. Although, I suppose I am happy to see the two of you reunited, even though I had no idea you were related at all.” I rolled my eyes. “What will you do now?”
“Our people are nomadic. We do a little of this and a little of that. Experience is what we crave. You need more employees at your club. We will work for you for a few months and then, when we feel the pull to continue our journey, we will find a new experience. Is this acceptable, Tiamelle?”
“Well, how about asking me, the owner of the club, if it’s acceptable, eh?” I had every intention of saying yes, but I didn’t want to make it too easy on him and his assumptions.
“Of course, my apologies. If you will have us, we would love to help you run your club.”
“I guess it would be okay. There is a small apartment connected to it that can be used as living quarters. I’ve been using it as an office, but we can move that downstairs. The two of you can take care of the tables and grill, when we’re able to re-open. I hope we will be able to resume business as soon as the COVID-19 quarantine ends.”
Komenu clapped his hands together. “Yes! I am an excellent cook. Tiamelle will serve the food.”
“That sounds fun. I’ve never done anything like that before.” The halfling smiled. It was curious to see how her royal bloodline mattered so little to her. She was just as happy working magic as an elven princess or working in customer service. The experience was what she wanted. New opportunities to play with.
I decided right then that I liked djinn. At least these two.
I watched as Bear clocked in and counted the money in the cash register, preparing for an
opening hour that wouldn’t come until restrictions were lifted on social distancing due to the Coronavirus. “Hey,” I said, sliding on to a bar stool.
“Hey,” He said, shutting the drawer. It dinged shut, and he sat down next to me.
“We have two new employees. Komenu and his daughter Tiamelle. Komenu will run the grill and Tiamelle will serve the food. Are you okay behind the bar still?”
“Yep. I talked to Trish, and I think she wants to work here too. I told her to come in after she gives her two week’s notice, and then I’ll start training her. She can help run food and make drinks when we get busy.”
“That sounds great. If they all work out, we’ll finally have a real team here.” I smiled at Bear and he returned the gesture. There was a pause, and I said, “About Komenu and Tiamelle. They are…different.”
“You mean not human?” He asked flatly.
“Yeah.” I ran my hand through my hair. “You okay with that?”
“Yep. What are they?”
“Spirits who can take physical shape and live a long time. Humans call them genies or djinn. Tiamelle is half djinn and half…elf.”
“Elves are real,” Bear mused. “I knew it.”
“So what are you?”
“I am also a spirit being who took physical shape a very long time ago. Not a djinn. There isn’t really a good word for it.”
“God? The Dream God, Morpheus, from Greek mythology?”
“I don’t like to use that word. I guess technically I could be considered a type of deity. I can’t believe I’m talking about this with you. It’s a bad idea, Bear.”
“I won’t tell anyone. I’m glad you finally admitted it.”
“I know you won’t tell anyone, but the knowledge could be used to hurt you. Be careful. I’m glad you know.” We embraced in a quick friendly hug and walked around Cloud Nine, taking care of little details before making our way back out into the world, moving down a path that led to a place none of us knew.