He hovered over the scrying bowl. Water dripped into it from the canopy above him. What was he trying to gain by coming here in bad weather? The light had faded from his skin. Warmth was beyond him now. His brother had left, and his father was angry. Those around him wanted him to brighten parties and to be the new shiny toy to show around. His lyre no longer sounded right beneath his fingers. Even the raven had stopped crowing.
He sighed. The hum of the earth beneath his feet steadied his nerves. He placed a hand to the water and muttered. A sigil glowed across the ripples. Leaving the huge brass bowl, he headed back to the small shrine hidden beneath a large camphor tree. He sat down on the short porch, rested his head against the door frame, closed his eyes, and waited for an eternity to take him away.
It was a stupid dare. I know. But, hell, fifty bucks was fifty bucks, and it was easy money. Hop the fence and go sleep in the old hotel. Not like it hadn’t been occupied by squatters and homeless folk before now.
It was coming down in a couple of months. It had been closed down since the 90s. Camelot. The Outsiders was filmed near it. It was perfect. So what if it had lead and asbestos and fire alarm problems. Most of the houses in Tulsa had that crap, and no one batted an eye at it. Creepy? Oh yeah. Especially after dark. It was butted up against the highway, so road noise was constant until midnight. Fire engines and ambulances would add to the eerie factor.
“You sure you aren’t gonna chicken out, Eric?” Travis goaded.
“You’re the real chicken here, Trav. I don’t see you going in.” I pointed out as I eyed the ten-foot fence and the barbed wire.
“Oye, want the easy way in?” Corey yelled from over near a dead light pole. He pointed out a bust in the chain link.
“Brilliant.” I clapped him on the back and pushed in through the tight fit. Travis lobbed my ratty backpack over the fence. It caught on the barbed wire spiral for a moment, bobbing precariously before dropping into my hands.
“Fifty bucks. Get the film developed with the date stamps, and it’s yours,” Travis promised. A siren went up along Peoria.
“Twenty-five more if you come back with a picture of the ghost,” Corey whispered conspiratorially as we all ducked.
“That’s another hundred there, Corey. Twenty-five isn’t gonna cut it at that,” I hissed.
“Fifty and your unwrapped collector’s edition of Bioshock.”
“Either Fifty or Bioshock.”
I turned and scurried off to the back of the building under the shadows cast by the goliath. The windows on the bottom floor were all boarded up. I was almost done with circling the back when I found one of the boards had rotted out. I pushed in on it, and the whole plywood panel fell in. I stilled the tremble running through my fingers as a flash of lightning lit up the sky. Ducking at the following thunder, I slipped into the decrepit building.
It was rank. Mould and smoke were the first two overwhelming smells. I’d have to make for one of the upper rooms to escape from the rot of water line breaks and sewage backups that had plagued the building since its closing. The room I had gotten into had to be some kind of back office. The door was busted off the frame. I pulled my flashlight out of my bag and clicked it on. Black mould crawled the walls. Travis would make fun of me for this. I tugged a dust mask out and shoved it on my face.
I wandered through the first floor, snapping pictures of the old rooms where there was once a throne and the kitchen. Rats were everywhere, and I swore I heard raccoons. Rain started coming down, and the first floor had rivers running through it shortly.
Finding one of the fire wells, I took it up into the second-floor hotel rooms. Several hours of exploration and two rolls of film later, I still hadn’t seen a ghost. Too bad. I had hoped to get my hands on the collector’s edition.
I was still hyped up but exhausted. The rain did little to alleviate the July humidity. I found a room that was relatively mould-free. I tossed my bag to a vacant corner and walked around to look out the window on the backside of a line of buildings. Not much of a view.
Turning, I went to look at the bathroom, which was like every other one I had seen up to now. The tile was falling down, and the walls were sloughing. The mirror over the sink was dusty and cracked. A tiny scribbled note on faded yellow paper had fallen on the counter. I picked it up and turned it over, trying to read it in the dark. Flashlight, right. Click.
Please, don’t enter the mirror.
Oh, boy. Crackheads had nested in this room. I glanced back out the door to my bag. I’d need to check the carpet for needles before I sat down for some sleep. I tossed the note back on the counter, a puff of dust rising. I turned at a red glint out of the corner of my eye. I looked up to the left corner of the mirror. I waited, listening. No firetruck or EMT. Where had the light come from? I backed up, trying to get the light to come back. Nothing. I stepped closer. A glint, now from the lower right. Nothing. The hell?
I put my hand to the glass and wiped the dust off.
A coughing gasp and splash of water drew him from his meditation. He blinked, pulling his brain back into his skull. The rain had calmed. The trees dripped in tone. Another splutter. “Help!”
Hands reached up through the scrying bowl. A mouth, a nose. He rushed to the bowl and grabbed for the floundering person. Heat radiated from his hand, and ran up his shoulders. He pulled, dragging a man not much older than twenty out of the water and brass vessel.
“Where, what the, how?” I looked around me in horror. There was something else in the hotel, and it was making me trip balls.
“Are you healthy?” A man in a full-blown white toga asked me. I blinked at him. He was glowing. That wasn’t quite right. He was golden. Maybe he was glowing. I rubbed at my eyes and took in a couple deep breaths, trying to clear my lungs. The man and the forest I was now in had not evaporated.
“Highly doubtful,” I responded, turning to my right and left to get a better view of the remote space.
“Are you in pain?” the man asked with concern. He had a bizarre accent that I couldn’t quite place. An uneasy feeling sat in my chest when he talked. Like he wasn’t speaking my language, but I understood him.
“Nope, just confused. What is this place? What was that? Who are you?” I demanded.
“This is my private retreat in the realm of The Great Houses. I set a sigil on my bowl to call a companion, and you answered. I am Apollo. Who are you?”
“Eric Schneider.” I twisted, lunging for the scrying bowl as a thought occurred. “Bioshock!”
“Nice to meet you, Eric Schneider Bioshock. Where do you hail from?”
“You came from a bag? How interesting. I know some of the gods live in clams and caves, but a bag, I would think that one new,” Apollo mused, setting finger to chin in a composition of a painter’s portrait of contemplation.
“No, you doofus, my bag is back in the hotel your water bowl brought me out of. Dang it. My camera was gonna be my ticket to a copy of Bioshock.” I reached into the bowl, only to find the edge of the container.
“I am still lost.” Apollo approached. “May I?”
“As am I!” I backed up.
He muttered something and touched the centre of the water, calming it from my splashing. Images flashed against its silvered surface: towns, canyons, rivers, rainforests.
“What are those?” I wanted to touch the surface, the gleam mesmerizing.
“Sigil channels that I left my call in. Any look familiar?”
Camelot flicked across the surface, rain obscuring it save for the lamposts on the highway, making it look like a bad Hollywood interpretation of a Transylvanian-themed movie set. “There, there! That one. The trashed castle.”
Apollo stalled at the image with another finger. “You live here? Are you a king? Looks like you’ve fallen on hard times.” There was no judgement in his voice, maybe light curiosity as he studied the image.
“You kidding? Dude, I don’t think there are any kings alive anymore that live in castles. Nah, mate, that’s just an old hotel that’s gonna get torn down next month. I’m just a student at TCC.” I left his bowl to sit down at a little building with a porch.
“Not a king, but instead a scholar? There is much to be respected of such a profession.” Apollo continued to pursue the images in his bowl. “Your village is quite strange, is it not?”
“Could say that. My folks don’t think much of where I want to go with my career, but hey, I’m twenty now; I get to make decisions for my life.” I put on a show of my bluster, puffing up my chest.
“What is it that you study?” A mist settled across the forest, cloaking Apollo in a soft haze offset with gold halos from his glow.
“Forestry. Well, not right now. I mean, I’m in their Environmental Sciences course, but when I transfer out to OSU next fall, I’m taking their Forestry major. Want to work in the National Parks.” I flopped back on the smooth boards of the temple to stare up at the slat and thatch.
“Are you a follower of Silvanus?” His eyes flashed up to me, a look of calculation crossing them.
I frowned, raising an eyebrow. “I have a Silvester in class that is a right pain in the ass?”
“No, no. Silvanus, god of the wild woods and countrysides.”
“Bro, I’m an atheist. Don’t let mom hear that; she’ll never let me back in the house, and I can’t live without Sunday roast.”
“Atheist?” Apollo sat next me.
“Eh, got tired of being dogged by the majority religion. You hear it from every girl and guy at school. ‘Oh, come to potluck with me.’ ‘Did you make it to worship?’ ‘Are you saved?’ ‘John 3:16.’ The number of times I have heard that verse. Well, it’s on a bunch of advertisements around town, at least. Anyway, it gets old when you watch those same goody-two-shoes spout racist shit in the same breath and justify it as something to do with some guy named Ham or Ishmael, depending on their mood. I can’t stand it. If that god is real and I someday have to stand in front of him, I’m giving him a piece of my mind. If you can be morally better than some windbag who can’t even save little kids from their dad’s fist, then the concept of a god falls apart.” I deflated, my back popping against the floorboards.
“To be morally better than a god, huh?” Apollo leaned against the doorframe to watch me.
“Are you God?” I rolled to my side to match his stare.
“I don’t mess with Abrahamic Houses. Hermes would probably know more. He’s been over there with messages before. No, I’m not that one you are talking about.”
“But you insist you’re some kind of heavenly overseer, is that it? You look at a person and go ‘oh, you’ve sinned by some definition or another, and now you’ll die and go live in a horrible place.’ Is that what I’m doing now? You weighing my heart against a feather?”
“I am also not of the Duat. We don’t do feather scales.” He rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “No, Eric Schneider, I am Apollo, as I have said before.”
“The Apollo? The sun god? That’d explain the golden glow.” I rolled up to lean against the opposing door frame. “So what now, Sun God? I’m here. Can you send me back, or am I stuck on this side now?”
“I could send you back. It might not be in the exact time you came to me, though.” His gaze dropped from mine.
“What do you mean by exact time?” I tugged my hiking boots and socks off, tired of the dampness.
“Could be a difference of a few decades, give or take.” Apollo shrugged.
“Eh, I wasn’t that attached to where I was. Trees are pretty here, anyways.” I needed the butterflies in my fingertips and the sweat on my neck not to tell him that I was nervous. And excited. The number of nights I had wished for something like .Hack//Sign or Inuyasha or Bleach to happen to me. To get me away from the house. Away from the darkness.
“I would say your parents will miss you, but putting you back in the timeline would mean you being the wrong age to them. It complicates matters.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m good not going back. Not like there’s much to miss. I don’t exactly have any skills, though, to get money. Not sure what I’ll do about getting food. Could turn into a hermit; there’s plenty of fruit around here I recognise just from where I’m sitting.” There were some fruit trees of the rainforest jungle variety, but it was a bluff on my part. I had no idea if the ruby and sapphire-coloured orbs were edible.
Apollo rose and dusted off his toga. “I don’t think you will need to worry about that now. I summoned you. My sigil is on your heart. Therefore, I am responsible for your needs.”
“Hold up. You did what?” I clambered to my feet and raced after him, stones slick against my toes.
“That sigil in my scrying bowl when you came through? It’s now on you. Well, technically on your soul, but neither here nor there. It’s mine and a way for me to protect you while you’re in the Great Houses.”
“You baptised me?”
“Not with the intention behind what you are referring to.” Apollo’s stride was relaxed, but I had trouble keeping up with the man.
“Then what intention, Sun God?” I bristled.
“A companion. That’s what I set that sigil up for, to summon a companion.”
I slid on one of the path stones. “A companion? Like…like a…”
Apollo paused to frown, waiting on me to get my tongue to work. Not like I had any intention of saying what I was thinking. He had no intention of walking on until I did, though. The mist turned into a light sprinkle, soaking us both through.
“Is this a friendly companionship sort of thing, or are you going full hentai here, dude?” I whispered, glancing around the forest.
“Hentai? Again, I am from the Great Houses, not the Takamagahara Houses,” Apollo sighed.
“Look, I’m not the one here that sounds dense, bro. You’re avoiding the point of the question, and you know it. Fact you knew to assign that over to whatever that House was called means you know what I’m asking.” I crossed my arms, willing for him to be clear in his reply.
“You ask that I be direct with you, and yet you will not be direct.” Apollo countered.
I snorted. What I wanted to reply would be injurious at best. I went with the diplomatic path. “Fine. Direct then. Did you summon me here to have sex with you?”
His cheeks turned the colour of clouds at sunrise.
“So you can’t be honest with yourself,” I needled.
“I-um,” he cleared his throat.
“Jeez, dude. Maybe you’re more repressed than I am.” I walked past him to continue down the path. “Where are we going anyway?”
“My house is at the end of this little forest.” He caught up with me.
“Got any decent food before we do things. I’m hungry.”
His smile was kind enough. “A plethora is on hand and can be found.”
“Do you have other companions?” I figured I might as well know what I was stepping into this time, rather than the mirror last time.
“No. My last companion died some time ago, and I have found my home empty for too long. It might have been foolish of me to seek someone after all.” The remorse in his voice told me I might be more of a rebound sort of one-night stand for this guy.
“Still have feelings for them, I take it?”
“She was wonderful, and we had a good life together, her and I. Humans live such short lives. Hellena. She lived to 92, and I loved her as I have with every other companion that has entered my house.”
I shoved my hands in my pockets. “I thought your consort was Melia.”
“There have been several. Melia, Eudne, Chrysothemis. As times change, so too do they move on or pass on, dependent upon their level of gods’ blood.”
“No jealous lover to come behead me in the night, I should hope?”
“None that I am aware of.
A mansion of white marble and red and gold paint lay at the edge of the forest. Beyond it sparkled the sea. “Nice place. What of Hyakinthos or Kyparissos?”
“You know much more of my history than I would expect. No, they are no longer with me.” He motioned to a set of marble benches under the deep porches. “A servant will bring us food shortly. Let us rest.”
The pillows were comfortable enough. “There’s a level of acceptance with the Greek and Roman pantheons for people who don’t quite fit the mould I grew up in. Felt kinda nice to find some gods that weren’t as judgemental, even if I didn’t believe they were real. Just meant a society had formed up at some point that wasn’t all for abandoning me.”
“Abandoning you?” Apollo sank into a bench in time for wispy, see-through women and men carrying platters and pitchers to emerge from the mansion.
“Eh. You know how it goes. Some communities decide that people’s natural predilections ain’t so natural and like to kick them out of the house or abuse them, hoping it’ll ‘straighten out their character’ as my dad likes to say.” I ducked a thanks to the whisps and grabbed a handful of grapes in time for my stomach to growl.
“I have a feeling there’s a reason I don’t enter into the world’s plane of existence anymore.” Apollo downed whatever was in the goblet one of the whisps had given him.
“Yeah, no, it’s not worth it bothering with that place.”
“But you had friends? People that you will miss and be missed by?” Apollo set aside his drink and picked up a plate of cheeses.
“You were the one who told me I’d end up in the wrong time if you put me back.” The grapes were particularly sweet, and the sliced cucumber and bread were distinct in their flavour compared to what I had grown up on. A little went a long way.
“I did. It’s not to say that I would wish you to completely abandon their memory in coming here.” The man across from me wouldn’t meet my eyes at that statement.
“You feeling guilty?” I surmised.
“I always do.”
“Then why did you do it?” I set aside my plate. The food settled heavily in my stomach.
“Because those who answer my call only ever do because they’ve given up on being happy in the world they’re in. I wish I could do more to make it a better place. I have some things I can help with, but none of us are all-powerful.” The man curled up to lounge on his bench.
“Sigil has a clause in it, huh?”
The god across from me nodded.
“Anyone wanting a new life, one not what they are stuck in, or willing to give up?” I guess I wasn’t too surprised. I was getting into ‘mischief’ as mom called it, more and more to just feel something, anything. Existing wasn’t living. It just wasn’t me dying. “Well, I guess that’s one way for me to finally stop swimming in denial, right? Kinda predatory though, don’t you think?” He finally met my eyes, horror washing across his features. I crossed my arms. “I mean, you are reaching out specifically for people who aren’t quite in an emotionally good place anymore. It’s kinda manipulative.”
“I can put you back, I promise. It might not be in the right time, but I can get it close.” Apollo promised.
“No one ever point this out to you before?”
“Not like that! Most people were relieved to not have to go back to what they were escaping from.” The golden god bowed his head over his hands. “Morally better, huh?”
“Makes for some pretty loyal followers. Doesn’t feel like you’ve got a saviour complex for it, though. It is a bit of hunting the vulnerable for your own satisfaction, though. Anyways. Not like I’m changing my mind. I’m one of those vulnerables, and you’ve got a pretty sweet set-up here. I think I’ll stick around if you’ll have me?” I offered. Maybe putting it into words felt safer. Voicing what I was seeing, giving it a name, acknowledging what it was before I jumped way in over my head. Or maybe I was still being naive.
“I have a feeling you and I are going to have some pretty long evenings talking out here.” Apollo picked up his goblet and frowned at its lack of contents.
“I’d like that. Haven’t really had anyone to talk to, not really, in a long time. You don’t feel like you’ll jump down my throat if I’m being honest, either.” I set away my plate and came around to sit on his bench to see what his view looked like.
The forest, shrouded in mist and the silver of a veiled moon sprawled out before me. For once, the night didn’t feel so dark, and the coming of the morning didn’t feel so scary.
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