The rank fumes assail my nostrils an hour before I reach my destination. My guide points me in the right direction, wishes me good day, and he’s off faster than a prom dress. This is where I’m to meet The One with No Name, which is itself a name, although I guess that’s mere pedantry on my part.

This swamp is the home of the palace alchemist of Aesir. Now, if you were to ask me, I’d assume the palace alchemist actually lives in the palace, but what do I know? I first spot the alchemist sitting on a log, feeding breadcrumbs to some creature that’s bubbling in the water underneath. He’s bald, with the exception of a few wisps of hair. His robe is muddy, skin a discomforting shade of gray. He doesn’t stand to greet me, but I can tell the old fellow is tiny. I wonder, are there any ancient masters of the arcane arts tall enough to enjoy the kiddie rides at the county fair?

“I was told of your arrival,” he says to me in a high-pitched, irritating tone, “in a dream a fortnight ago, yes…”

“You sure about that?” I ask. “Because I’m almost positive your king, Thund’r, sent one of his messengers this morning to arrange the meeting.”

“You, of the sharp tongue, would do well to learn manners, yes…”

I can tell this is going to be a nightmare, but what choice do I have? This toothless codger is supposed to help me reconnect with my roots. I’m not looking into my Daddy Issues (I assure you, I have none), I’m looking for a way out of this dungheap dimension. Unbeknownst to me, the teleportation device so lovingly willed to my possession by my aide was damaged during that dust-up with the Armodi soldiers. If I’m ever going to get out of here, and exploit this realm’s painfully handsome ruler as a part of my master plan, I’ll need to reacquaint myself with a bit of the old magik-with-a-“k”.

Hours pass. After enduring several of his tedious lectures, I’m sent on what would I assumed to be a snipe hunt. Only this snipe turns out to be very real, and quite dreadful. Fortunately for me, he’s not ugly enough to scare off a tranquilizer dart.

“And what’s this beast called again?” I ask upon my return.

“It’s a Chlamydosaurus; a baby one, at that.”

The One with No Name takes the lizard-thing from me, pulls a blade out of somewhere I’d rather not dwell upon, and cuts the beast open.

“Come,” he says.

I approach the dolt and am rewarded with lizard blood in my face. He paints a pattern under my eyes and over my nose with the blood; I can’t see what it is, but I’ll go along with the joke and assume it holds some deep, numinous significance.

“Now, oh civilized one, you do recall the value of the bones, yes…?”

“I can remember enough of it, yes,” I answer as I use my personal blade to skin the beast. The bones will probably be used in some divination ceremony, one that will offer me frustratingly vague visions of a future I’ll never be able to act upon. Lucky me.

“You realize, civilized one, that this will be no overnight journey, do you not?”

“Yes, yes…”

“Because to embrace the world of alchemy, you must erase everything you’ve taught yourself in recent years. All of this accumulated wisdom must be abandoned as a mother abandons a fawn after weaning. The ways of the ‘modern world’ are not the ways of the sorcerer.”

This Chlamydosaurus thing stinks worse dead than it did alive. “Yeah, I get it. They’re bloody convenient, though. I’m really going to waste years of my life learning how to cast a spell and turn someone into stone…when I could just shoot the bastard? Sounds like poor time management to my ears.”

“And that’s why you’ve fallen so far, my haughty little acolyte. You’ve been seduced by the superficial whore men call ‘Progress.’ To learn, you must…unlearn.”

Gaah. I get a good whiff of the guts housed inside the beast’s ribcage and lose my lunch. Or maybe it was just the pretentious twaddle coming out of that Muppet over there. Whatever the case, I decide I’m done here.

“This is all wonderful, oh one-too-pretentious-to-be-named, but I’m not signing up for the advanced classes. I just need a refresher course. Now, can you send me where I need to go or not?”

He looks me up and down. “I fear your arrogance will serve a poor companion in the future, civilized one.”

“Deep. And that wasn’t an answer. I asked your too-cute monarch for a journey to the center of the mind, and since no one in this world seems to have those brownies I used to enjoy, I was pointed in your direction. Are you preparing me for a solipsistic expedition into the deepest corners of my consciousness or aren’t you?”

“I’ll help find the way, certainly, but be warned…”

“Ugh. What? The hardest truth to learn lies within? That the darkest secrets of our souls cast the longest shadow? That I might not like what I find? Can you just get on with this?”

The decrepit bug does this weird combination giggle-sigh thing, then composes himself. I’m told to sit on the ground and cross my legs. I’m doing this in the swamp, mind you. I can only hope the palace’s serving wenches offer round-the-clock laundry services.

“Fine. Now what?”

“Now, I want you to breathe…”

“I know how to breathe. I’m doing it right now, you fool.”

Another giggle-sigh. “Surely you’ve not forgotten the art of meditation, have you? Modern world hasn’t deprived you of that?”

“Oh, chappie, ‘modern world’ has practically swooned over this nonsense. Every housewife with an extra inch on her paunch is downward doggy-ing as we speak right now. I’d rather not waste my time with the foolishness, however…”

He walks over to me, and I notice he’s holding a flower’s blossom in his hands. It’s pink, oddly large, with droopy and tentacle-y buds. The stigma is proudly displaying itself in the center, spread out in a thousand directions like a medusa monster. It’s also emitting a dense, soupy smoke from its center. This isn’t going to end well, I imagine.

“If you wanted a shortcut, I have just the thing,” he giggles. “Now — breathe!”

He shoves the smoky blossom right into my face; it greets me with a thick cloud of fog. I hack my lungs out for a moment, look up, and the Muppet is gone. Actually, everything’s gone. I’m surrounded by pure whiteness; the musky swamp smell has been replaced with absolutely no smell at all, and the gentle chirps of whatever-the-hell creatures were all around me have been silenced.

Pure, virginal whiteness. No distractions, no noise, nothing to invade my personal space. Just me and eternity. Almost as if I’m at one with the universe. How boring.

Actually, I’m not totally alone. Far off into the distance, I see a small figure. I stand, attempt to wipe off my cloak, realize it’s gone too, and walk towards my neighbor. I pray it isn’t No-Name-The-Obnoxious; he certainly seems to be the right height.

No, it’s a boy. With a stunning mane of flaxen hair, innocent eyes, and chubby cheeks just begging to be pinched.

Oh, Baal. It’s me.

Yes, that’s me at five-years-old, sitting legs-crossed, holoscreen in hands. The whiteness fades, replaced by the details of my childhood bedroom. I see two of my favorite serving ‘bots — one was a dinosaur, the other kind of a Betty Boop-ish cartoon lady with gigantic eyes and elongated lashes. “Betty” is offering me a choice of mid-morning snack; I select the chocolate-covered strawberries and order her to do a dance for me. Hmm…it’s pretty suggestive, in retrospect. Must be before they passed that bill, the one banning the original model during the hysteria over “commercialized exhibitions of sexuality.”

The door opens. I’d recognize that shaggy beard and rumpled suit anywhere — it’s father. This was likely during one of his periodic attempts to “refuel” during the day. He’d take a few minutes off and spend time with the fam, go for a walk, appreciate nature. Nauseating, isn’t it? He sits on the floor next to me and places a hand on my shoulder. (The kid me’s shoulder; not the naked, adult, hopefully invisible me.) His breath, like always, smells of peppermint. No, you fool, I’m not implying the man’s a drunk — it’s the scent of his post-nasal drip remedy. Built half of the family fortune on that one, he did.

“Son, don’t you think it’s time you left your room?”

“Uh-uh. Never,” I answer. Little me answers. Present me just stands there, taking in the sights. The room is just so miniscule, I realize now. As a kid, it felt like my entire world. And the old man…I can’t believe how young he is.

“Well, son, you know there is a law about this. I might be a man of some standing, but even I can’t shield you forever.”

Oh, I know what this is. I’d spent a day at school the week earlier, found that I hated it, and declared I was never going back.

“Shield me from what?”

“The law, son. It’s mandatory — ages five to twenty-five must be educated in a state-approved learning facility.”

“And you can’t send the teachers here?”

“No, no. That’s been illegal for some time now. Can’t have certain kids gaining an advantage over the others, can we? That’s not the Harmonia way. C’mon, son. Don’t you want to give school one more chance?”

I begin to tear up. Apparently, I was quite the wimp. “No, I don’t! Not ever!”

“Son,” he says in that “let’s be reasonable” tone, “is school really that bad? You don’t think you can make any friends?”

“Those other kids are morons, Daddy. They eat paste and imitate bodily functions with their hands all day. Why do I have to tolerate such nonsense?”

“Son, if it’s really that bad, you know you can have a state-appointed friend, don’t you? I’m sure he or she would serve as a suitable companion. Maybe as a starter friend, while you learn the ropes of, well, basic human interaction.”

I toss the plate of strawberries against the wall. I guess I was born with that flare for the dramatic.

“I don’t want some fake friend! I don’t want any friends! Why do I need other people? I have my ‘bots, don’t I? I have you and Mom! I have a trust fund, Daddy. Why should I be forced to do anything?”

The old man sighs. “Because, son, we don’t live in a ‘Do What I Want’ society. We live in a society that values Equality, Tolerance, and Collaboration. And all of that starts with your compulsory state-approved education. It’s not that unreasonable if you think about. And it’s only twenty years out of your life; once you graduate, you’ll be free to follow your muse. Assuming you’re not violating the Big Three, naturally. Would you like to hear the ‘Gimme a Piece of that E-T-C’ song again?”

Little me attempts to respond, but the words are slurred. I pass out on the floor; Daddy smiles and picks me up. Mother enters the room and giggles.

“Aww, our little rebel,” she says while half-covering her grin. She’s almost undistinguishable from an actress I discovered in reruns while in America. What was the name? Not the one with the identical cousin, and not the redhead, either. Oh, I think I remember her name. Donna…Donna Reed, I believe it was.

“It’s like he thinks he can take on the whole world,” Daddy says with a smirk.

I remember this day; it’s my first real day of school. Those strawberries were drugged, as you might’ve guessed, and I’m on my way to that institutionalized hellhole.

No, no. Too dramatic. It wasn’t that bad of a school. The kids were idiots, as were many of the teachers, and the days were certainly long enough, but it was fairly tolerable, all things considered. I couldn’t make a friend if my life depended on it, and that state-appointed friend was as dense as cement, but I found ways to amuse myself. I have a feeling I could’ve ran the place, had those annoying anti-bullying laws not gone into place while I was in my second year.

Reality swirls around me. My old bedroom disappears in a whirl and is replaced by my high school library. Ah, I get it. This is one of those A Christmas Carol things, and I’m Scrooge looking back on my life. Feh. That story is pure hack; outside of the cartoon duck version, I have no patience for it.

I guess I’ll play along, though. Apparently, some aspect of my subconscious views this day as significant, so it might be worth my attention. An image forms of seventeen-year-old me, hiding underneath a desk. I suppose I wasn’t in the mood for whatever immersive holographic film the other students were enjoying that day. What’s that I’m holding? A dusty old book, it seems. The binding is falling apart, and it’s difficult to discern the title.

Ah, I know what this is. I remember discovering that book, hidden in the back room. We have no need for printed books in my world, of course, since all significant works of man were digitally archived decades ago. Physical books tended to be viewed as historical curiosities. Outside the homes of diehard collectors and the storage closets of the average library, you didn’t see the things.

Many of the old books had been banned; perhaps not officially, but the state didn’t deem them worthy of digital archiving. The printed copies were expected to simply fade out of existence. Some effort was made to pass a bill, listing which books needed to be “forgotten,” as in “burned,” but the assembly always found more important issues.

This is a book they really should’ve gotten around to burning, had they known what was good for them. I’ll never forget the Omninecronominon…a good sorcerer never forgets his first book of spells. Yes, at age seventeen I was turning the popular kids into frogs. At twenty, I was shapeshifting into all of the popular holofilm stars. At twenty-four, I’d overthrown our entire system of government. And at twenty-seven, in the midst of a mid-mid-life crisis I guess you’d say, I’d decided to find a new world to plunder.

Using my arcane abilities, I traveled to a world similar to my own, only more…primitive. Their technology wasn’t nearly as advanced, but the dominant species was recognizably human, and in terms of fauna, plants, environment, etc. we seemed to be simpatico. They counted the years in an odd manner, apparently in honor of someone’s birth several ages ago. By their estimation, it had been 1,996 years since this peach of a fellow had arrived on “Earth.” (I’ve probably mangled some of the details, but during my time there, it didn’t seem as if the average citizen knew much more about this guy than I did.)

Conquering the planet didn’t pose too much of a problem. Two superpowers dominated global affairs — one was controlled by a corrupt bureaucracy that suppressed the liberties of its citizens, and the other had a puppet government that lived under the thumb of an oil cartel.

Yes, oil. On this world, they got it from fossils they dug out of the ground. (Which is actually quite clever, if you think about it. Back when my world relied on oil, we never moved passed the “kill those whales” stage.) It powered pretty much all of their technology, which as I mentioned earlier, was rather backward. I swear, their computing devices took up entire rooms, and required these long cards, with odd marks punched into them, to be shoved inside tiny slots.

I should mention in their defense, I suppose, that they did somehow master the flying car. That one I’ll never figure out. The finest engineers on my world never even came close to getting that one to work. My father wasted a good ten years of his life on that pipedream. These dips had that thing nailed, even though they were still married to archaic ways of fueling it.

Anyway, these lovely citizens of the planet Earth just loved their oil. One superpower had a decent amount, just not enough to feed its needs. The other superpower had an abundance, but the bureaucracy in charge had no clue how to divvy it out amongst its citizens. The oil cartel behind one superpower was desperate for all of that poorly allocated black gunk from the other superpower, which led to an endless series of proxy wars and international squabbles. If that weren’t irritating enough, the emissions created by all those burned-up prehistoric bones had damaged the environment, triggering an early ice age.

So, things were a bit of a mess.

I assumed the form of one of the world leaders, the guy who lived as a puppet for the oil cartel (the weather was nicer at his place), and spent a week mapping out world conquest. It wasn’t so hard, really. I cast a spell transforming the world’s oil supply to water, causing the global economy to crash in around three weeks. My oil cartel “masters” were eliminated during a particularly rambunctious board meeting, and I was on television that afternoon counseling this lovely nation of “Amerixxa” not to fear. I was still President, and I had just the solution to this pesky ol’ “oil crisis.”

Step One: See ya, opposing superpower. I discreetly transmogrified enough water back into oil to power a few bombers sent out East, which resulted in a series of fiery-hot mushroom clouds were cities used to be. This also created a perpetual winter around the globe, much worse than the one people were already bitching about, but hey — I took care of those “Roooskies,” didn’t I?

Step Two: That little issue you’re having with food and warmth? Pffft…didn’t our hairy-knuckled primeval ancestors deal with similar problems? At least you citizens of 1996 have a benevolent dictator to look after your best interests.

Within a week perhaps, I’d already outlined a basic agrarian economy and detailed everyone’s role in our happy little utopia. Any dissent was silenced fairly quickly; I didn’t magically convert gun powder into water, of course.

That’s it; just two steps and I was running the joint. Luckily for me, this was a realm of humanoids and not anthropomorphized walrus creatures or something. Wouldn’t make for a suitable harem, no sir.

Reality warps around me once again, and perhaps in response to my thoughts, the void has now transformed into Earth, 1996. And there I am, on the throne. The jeweled crown and the scepter were a bit much, I’ll grant you, but I’ll never regret that velvet, fur-trimmed cape. Never.

Ah, look at that expression on my face. Already bored. One of the palace wenches makes the mistake of feeding me an unpeeled grape, and she’s dealt with in the customary fashion. This amuses me for a second, but soon enough, I’m back to moping around. Oh, dear. Was this the day? Yes, I believe it was…the day Jack Power and his bimbo galpal entered my life.

The world warps again to bring me a vision of a meek, pocket-sized man with wavy brown hair. He’s in his early thirties, accompanied by a blonde bombshell who, in a sane world, would be far out of his league. They’re arriving in a flash of light, and seem rather disoriented. Odd that I’m seeing any of this, since I wasn’t physically here for the event…

“Jack! Heavens, this land — it’s so…foreboding! Why have we traveled here, m’love?”

“Because dear, this is the source of the chrono-disturbance. The chaos in 1976 is coming from here — the hellish future of 1996! Something’s wrong here, and it’s up to us to fix it!”

“And if we can’t…?”

“Then, love, I fear that the entire space-time continuum will simply cease…to exist.”

I realize this is turning out to be a bad trip, after all.

The world continues to morph around me. I’m trapped reliving a greatest hits collection of my most embarrassing failures. Reality is going full “montage” right now and I can’t say I care for the clip show. Let’s see…that time I trained a species of man-apes to mine diamonds for me? It’s there; thwarted after Professor Jack Power purchased one of the gems for Gloria’s birthday and quickly discerned its origin.

My scheme to place subliminal messages into television broadcasts, brainwashing the gullible public into serving my whims? Check. Jack discovered the truth while watching a VHS recording of the 1987 International Chess Championship match. He caught a glimpse of my glorious visage while fast-forwarding through the commercials. Super-smarts and an eagle eye? Too bad he’s already taken, huh, ladies?

That time I used Dr. Brainteaser’s new holographic technology to impersonate the head of the EPA and eliminate the regulations strangling my oil company? Check. An early plot from my CEO days; foiled by Gloria in one of her rare solo missions. (Woof, look at her hair in this adventure. That boyish pixie cut the females of this world seemed so fond of during this era. Hasn’t aged well at all, sweetie. Fortunately for me, bald is always beautiful.) I see that I’d already abandoned sorcery for technology by this point, relying on the wit of Dr. Brainteaser instead. What a nightmare that guy was to work with; bald may be beautiful but full-on alopecia is just creepy. I doubt anyone misses the little freak.

And who could forget my failed plot to create a new, energy-efficient automotive engine? It’s all a part of this malicious medley. This was the engine that created a surreptitious, “invisible” pollution, one that the world wouldn’t discover until after it had devastated the environment. Of course, the faultless intellect of Jack Power cracked the scheme before any real damage could be done. Oh, our hero.

I was especially hung up on pollution for a while there. In hindsight, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’ll ask again — why did I want to create pollution? To maximize profits in the short-term, I suppose. But on a dead Earth, where would I spend the money? Is there an interdimensional currency exchange out there and I’ve simply forgotten about it?

Okay, looks like we’re moving forward. Who would’ve thought my psychedelic trip through the depths of my subconscious would’ve been laid out in perfect chronological order?

Ugh…these are no fun at all. After my days as CEO, I returned to my home world of Harmonia, and it looks like I had to commit an abominable act or three in order to establish my dominance. I’d rather not dwell on this distastefulness for long. Sure, I was responsible for some abhorrent actions in the past, but I don’t recall so sadistically relishing in them. During this era, it’s like all I do is lord over my victims while they bleed, plead for mercy, and…oh, I’m not getting into this. I’ll just say that this is when some element of…deviancy was introduced into my motivations, and I’d hope we’d all agree now that this was “regrettable” and move on.

During these days, I turned my genius intellect over to the manufacture of weapons, as I recall. Yes, for a while there I was developing innovative weaponry and conquering new kingdoms on a monthly basis. I did make the occasional foray into the small stuff, such as convincing a group of “urban youths” to upgrade their ordnance during one of their petty squabbles over street corners, but for the most part, I was conquering kingdoms and just making an interdimensional menace of myself.

And I suppose that leads us back towards the beginning of this narrative. I witness the Powers arrive in A-dor-al, once the home of these fluffy, four-foot chipmunk-things that you’d swear had been conceived by a toy company. I’d eradicated the lot of them a week earlier, naturally, which seemed to place a crimp in the Powers’ vacation plans that year. I’m sorry, but those things were annoying, and the real estate of their dominion was quite enviable.

Jack and Gloria just had to play the role of self-righteous heroes — who’s surprised? It seemed to take the Powers forever to pull off the job, calling in every heroic acquaintance they’d ever made for help, but ultimately the square-jawed killjoys prevailed. I was banished to that prison planet once again, left to plot my revenge. Oh, I suppose I should mention that one of the Powers’ allies was an alternate-reality variation of my daughter, Lilith. My Lilith can be a bit of a brat, but at least she’s fun. This one was just a priggish, sanctimonious bore.

I think this alternate, dull Lilith proved to be the inspiration for my next scheme. They used my daughter (of a sort) against me, so why not use their daughter as a weapon against them? Come to think of it, I believe my original plot was to raise their infant, teach her my ways, groom her as my protégé, and pit her against her family. (I assume some time travel was to be involved.) How did I end up with that “eat the baby” scheme again?

Oops. No more time for This Is Your Life, it seems as if something’s actually happening now. Reality swirls again, now taking the form of a snake. A snake composed of smoke, it seems, a glowing emerald hue that’s quite mesmerizing. As I gaze upon the spectacle, I realize the snake’s growing so large it dwarfs my meagre presence.

Am I to plead for mercy? Challenge it to battle? No, it would appear the snake wishes to…join with me. Is this really necessary? Out of all the animals in the multiverse, I’m stuck with a snake? I realize we can’t always control the subtext, but this is most unfortunate.

The snake charges toward me, compresses its size, and enters my mouth. My mouth. Suddenly I’m consumed by the emerald smoke. My body tingles; soon, I vibrate. Teeth feel as if they’re going to dance out of my mouth. Beams of light flash out of my eyes, mouth, ears. All I can taste is charcoal, all I see is a hazy ochre. An earthquake travels through my body and for the first time ever, I fear for my life. The tremors intensify. The light grows brighter and brighter until I’m…standing nude in the swamp. Or what used to be the swamp.

It’s really just a smoldering ember now. And there’s a diminutive corpse blazing next to me. Aw, did I eradicate the Muppet during my first expression of reborn eldritch power? What a bloody shame, huh?

***

Editor’s note: check out Henry Vogel’s “The Gift,” the winner of the Heroes contest and then cast your vote for who should triumph here.

Photo by lau.svensson