This sixteen-chapter novel is a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series and the Lost City D&D module. I do not profit from it. It’s a story set prior to the events of the television seasons, before the boys met Eleven. If I learn that the Duffer Brothers or Wizards of the Coast do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if either of them order a cease-and-desist, I will pull the story down.
The Lost City — Chapter Twelve:
Warriors of the Eternal Truth
He dreamt that he was back in Hawkins, eating breakfast with Jonathan. Eggs, sausage, toast; his brother’s cooking, which was almost as good as his mother’s, less the helicopter nagging that came with it. Mom’s plate sat on the table waiting. She had slept late and was throwing on clothes. Had to be at work soon.
Jonathan was surly, saying how everyone at school thought he was a freak. Will – who for some reason couldn’t taste the sausage he was eating – told Jonathan that wasn’t how he saw him. Jonathan looked at him warily: “How do you see me, Will?”
“With that ugly eye of his,” said his mother, sliding into her seat across from Will. “Look at it,” she picked up her fork and pointed it at him. “It’s bloated, bloodshot, and doesn’t blink. When he sees you, it’s through the lens of a monster. It’s how he sees me.”
Will felt like a monster. He knew the Eye made his face look like a Halloween mask, but this wasn’t how he saw his mom and brother. For that matter, he couldn’t see them at all. The Eye didn’t show anything from his home world. This scene was impossible; a dream. And I am terrified.
Jonathan and his mother were eating ravenously now, jabbing knives and forks into their eggs and sausage patties. Will tried to rouse himself. Wake up. But the dream held him down. His breakfast plate didn’t smell good anymore. It was spoiling before his eyes. The eggs had turned green (like in the Dr. Seuss book) and the sausages were bleeding. Will didn’t care about the food. He just wanted to talk – to Jonathan, and especially to mom. He hadn’t seen them in years… no, not that long, but it felt that long when you experienced everything, in all times, like a god.
Mom wouldn’t look at him as she fed her face. With her mouth full she ranted at Jonathan: “He’s a monster and murderer. I raised a psychopath for a son. A monster and maniac. Look what I raised.” She pointed at Will, furious: “Look what I raised! Look at that thing!”
Jonathan was banging his knife and fork on his plate, as if trying to ward off his mother’s wrath with a cacophonous drum solo. He began crying and called himself a freak.
“Stop your sniveling!” screamed his mother. Without warning she hurled her knife sideways. It hit the kitchen window and shattered it. “Your brother is the freak! Look at him!” She brought up her fork and plunged it down into the table top, where it stood vibrating like an accusation. “Look at him!” she repeated. “He’s a monster and he’ll kill everyone he sees! Everyone!”
Will shook his head, trying to will away the scene. Stop seeing them. Wake up. He was in bed. Not this perverted kitchen.
“Everyone! Everywhere!” yelled his mother, standing up, and clearly about to do something dramatic. “My Will! He’ll destroy the world if I don’t destroy him, Jonathan!”
Mom! No -!
Mom seized her breakfast plate and with the might of a Maiden winged it like a frisbee. Will gaped as it smashed into his head and threw him backwards in his chair. He fell to the floor and – and –
– and screamed as he sat up in bed. Sweating and breathing hard. He hoped none of the Magi had heard him. He looked with his Eye: they were all asleep down the hall. In sweeter dreams.
He sat for a while, crying. For the family he would never see again, and for the destructive person he’d become. The mother in his dream was a virulent fiction, but she was right about one thing: he had an awful power he couldn’t control.
He lay back down, scared of closing his right eye. He needed more sleep but feared more nightmares. He wanted his mother – his real mother, who loved him unconditionally – but she was out of reach. In the days following Lucas’s death and Mike’s flight into the desert, Will had asked Dustin to send him back to Hawkins with the “Black Passage” spell. He’d had enough, period, and was hoping that the Eye’s powers and painful effects would be nullified in his home world. He’d seen the future, of course, and some of those visions showed him playing a role in what was coming for Cynidicea. But he was in no mood to respect fate. He was a kid who wanted his mother.
The spell hadn’t worked. Dustin recited the incantation twice, just to be sure, but Will didn’t go anywhere. The store clerk had either lied about how often the spell could be used (every 28 days, supposedly), or it worked in one direction only.
Probably the latter. The resurrection (“Zoombie”) spell had worked since Demetrius first used it to raise Lucas’s twelve-year old body. A month later he had resurrected a child in the Usamigaran stronghold (who fell from the fortress wall), and then months after that a Cynidicean man (who was killed in the street by a drunkard). So the scroll spells were clearly reusable.
Lucas could have been raised a second time, if Kanadius had agreed to it. He had rejected Demetrius’s request for Lucas’s severed corpse, still believing resurrection to be questionable. There was some difference of opinion among the remaining Brothers, but Kanadius wouldn’t risk it without a clear sign from Gorm. The deity had chosen Lucas once, and Lucas had seemed to fulfill his special role. As an exemplar of warrior integrity, he made the ultimate sacrifice: allowing his best friend to strike him down, so that a fellow Brother could be saved. There was no reason, said Kanadius, for Lucas to cheat death a second time. And no one knew where the Brothers had buried Lucas.
Nor did Will. His Eye had nothing to say on the subject. Will couldn’t always See his Hawkins friends. It had to do with them being other-worldly; the Eye was native to this world. On top of that, Mike’s future was especially hard to See since he fully bonded with the Hand. Somehow the Hand obscured future Sight, or alternatively, wearing the Hand in itself made Mike’s future indeterminate.
Mike, he thought. I miss home. Your basement. The four of us. Our games. Real D&D isn’t fun. I remember being happy but forget what happiness was.
Drifting back to sleep, he thought of Mike’s basement. His dreams weren’t as bad this time.
A few hours later, he woke. He lay for a few minutes, dreading the day ahead of him. It would be a long one.
He rose from bed feeling like a cripple. Which he essentially was; Auriga had reforged him on the Isle. But in the four months without Lucas and Mike, he’d become worse than a cripple. He was managing his headaches but paid for it in the other ways – the shakes, the panic attacks, the goddamn nightmares.
Will Byers was a drug addict.
He reached for the peach fuzz, on the stand by his bed. He always kept a supply within reach, and many more of the mushrooms were in his desk. 400 gold pieces a head. One every morning, one before bed. An expensive habit, but he would have killed himself otherwise. The headaches were a knife, twisting inside him. The grade-1 healing mushrooms neutralized pain. Not completely in his case: this was the Eye of Gaius, after all. Its effects could be dampened only to a point. But the drugs made it bearable. The knife went away and left a dull throbbing that lasted for most of the day. The second shroom at night let him sleep – with nightmares instead of pain. Cut off the nose, spite the face. The addict’s burden.
A burden that Mike and Jilanka escaped, but not me.
For the millionth time, Will resented the fact that Mike and his lady friend had used drugs to “shag each other to kingdom come” – as Dustin put it – without addiction worries. How nice. Will wasn’t interested in recreation. He just needed his headaches to go away. He had worked with Demetrius to procure healing mushrooms, and they had put Jilanka’s theory to the test. He tried all sorts of combinations with the grade-1 healing shrooms – other healing shrooms, acid trips, sedatives, amphetamines. None of the combos cancelled addiction, and none enabled him to turn the effects on and off with his mind. Demetrius thought Will’s mind had been compromised by the Eye, and Jilanka opined that his body was too frail to fend off addiction, but they were both passing gas. The answer was shown by the Eye when Will probed deeper with his omniscience: it was the nature of the healing mushrooms. They were the functional inverse of poison shrooms, healing instead of killing, and like the poisons could not be used in conjunction with other kinds to produce combo benefits. Anyone taking a poison would die. Anyone relying on healing was subject to addiction. No way around it.
Even Demetrius’s prayers were useless. The priest would need to cast two prayers – cure disease and neutralize poison – on Will every day to keep him free of addiction, and people down in the Usamigaran community relied on those prayers. Disease was common in the undercity. Demetrius couldn’t be Will’s special savior.
The Zargonites were his saviors. Their gardens; the peach-colored shrooms. William Byers, the most powerful being in Cynidicea, was as much a slave to addiction as most residents of the undercity.
It took a while for the drug to kick in. When the pain was negligible, Will got busy preparing himself for a day of fireworks.
They started filing into his chamber early that afternoon. The cult leaders of the old gods. For the first time in ages, the leaders of the three cults would sit together as equals, and debate the fate of the Lost City.
Will knew that fate was grim, but his Eye showed alternate ways of it playing out. Things weren’t entirely hopeless. The trick was to get these loggerheads to put aside their differences and band against the real enemy. Which wasn’t the Zargonites.
Pandora and Fiana arrived, joining him and Demetrius. Fiana was the high priestess of the Madaruan stronghold, and completely humorless, though less combative than Pandora.
It was a miracle they had all agreed to this meeting. Will had summoned them only yesterday, and had arranged for the Magi to bring into his room a round table, so that everyone sat as an implied equal. A feeble gesture, truly. As if Arthurian intentions could paper over centuries of resentments and ill will. And Will was no mediator. He was relying on Demetrius to build bridges here today.
Dustin was always good at that too. Reconciliations. Dustin and Demetrius’s personalities had blended significantly over seven months. Either one of them could have run this meeting better than he was about to.
Finally the Gormish representatives entered and sat. Everyone was present: Kanadius and Zoran for Gorm; Pandora and Fiana for Madarua; Will and Demetrius for Usamigaras. Temple leader and high priest; pyramid and city stronghold. Raen was the high priest for Usamigaras but had sent Demetrius in his place, given Demetrius/Dustin’s close ties to Will. That was a problem right off the bat.
“Where’s Raen?” demanded Kanadius.
“Raen sent me to represent him,” said Demetrius.
“Already I don’t like this,” said Kanadius, looking at Will. “Demetrius is your friend, and you’re the one who called this emergency meeting. It smacks of personal agenda, whatever we’re here for.”
“Demetrius is in the dark as much as the rest of you,” said Will, ignoring everyone’s stares. He was used to it. His Eye made him look monstrous. Especially as a child. “I’ve told him nothing yet.”
“So you say,” retorted the Grand Master.
“Honestly, Kanadius,” said Demetrius, “can we not kill this meeting before it starts? All of us have equal voting power at this meeting. Each cult has two members. There’s nothing sinister going on here. Don’t manufacture offense.”
“I agree,” said Fiana, before Kanadius could flame Demetrius. “Let’s get on with it. I want Will to explain why he called this emergency meeting. And I hope he has a very good reason.”
“We’re about to be invaded,” said Will.
They stared at him, incredulous.
“Invaded?” said Zoran. “You mean desert marauders? The pyramid entrance takes care of intruders.”
“No, not marauders,” said Will. “I mean a real army. A huge army. An army that has no concept of surrender. They’d be just as happy to die trying to conquer the Lost City as they would to conquer it.”
Pandora laughed. “Then they’ll get their wish!”
“I said a huge army,” said Will. “About a thousand. How many warriors and magi and priests can fight for the old cults? About sixty, right?”
That silenced the table.
Demetrius finally spoke. “Seriously, Will, an army of a thousand? Where the hell are they coming from. Cynidicea is in the middle of nowhere. The nearest major town is, like, forty miles away.”
“Distance means nothing to this army. They’d march three hundred miles to wipe out unbelievers. And that’s what we are: unbelievers who don’t follow the religion of the surface land.”
Fiana was shaking her head. “Wait a minute. How do they suddenly know of us?”
“More importantly, who are they?” asked Zoran. “We know nothing about the surface world or what goes on up there. Our history books stop over eleven hundred years ago.” The cults of the old gods had taken care to preserve their history. Each had an impressive library in the underground strongholds. Their ancestors had salvaged all the books they could when the surface city fell to invaders over a millennium ago. But that history was literally all ancient. It stopped in the year 98 BC, when the surface city of Cynidicea was sacked and burned.
“What’s there to know?” said Pandora. “Invaders are invaders.”
“The surface desert is – or was – a land called Ylaruam,” said Demetrius. “But who knows what Ylaruam is like today. I’ve a feeling you’re going to tell us, Will.”
“For one thing, it’s no longer Ylaruam,” said Will. “It’s Yshia. The Emirates of Yshia. Six emirates under control of a ruling Caliph in the city of Yshia, which used to be Ylaruam City.”
Kanadius shrugged. “Names change. Who cares?”
“Everyone cared when it happened,” said Will. “It was a little over two centuries ago, and the Alasiyan Desert hasn’t gotten any peace since. Except for a small time recently. But as of last year, everything’s back to warfare again, and it’s not pretty. At all.”
“You’ll have to give us the details, Will,” said Demetrius. “A solid history lesson. We don’t have your god’s eye view of the world.”
“Make it fast,” said Pandora. “I didn’t come here to be lectured.”
“Nor I,” said Kanadius.
“Actually,” said Zoran, “I’m with Demetrius. Look at this practically. We’ve always been chafing at our ignorance of the world our ancestors come from. Will’s knowledge is something we should be using. Why else did we go the Isle to retrieve the Eye?”
“Fine,” said Fiana, looking at Will. “Tell us, little man. What’s the world like on the surface?”
Will took a deep breath and began. It was a tale of a mad prophet, who turned his nation into a land of holy war and terror. Who made life oppressive in all ways, especially for women. And who mandated a death sentence for anyone who did not follow the religion he established. Will was a terrible speaker, and was rudely cut off and barraged with questions. Demetrius refereed the table as best he could. In the end, everyone was properly educated. And seriously alarmed.
The gist of Will’s spiel went as follows:
The desert land of Yshia consists of six emirates: Alasiya (the largest), Abbashan (the fiercest), Nithia (the oldest), Nicostenia (at the coast), Dythestenia (the remotest), and Makistan (with grasslands and steppes). Cynidicea is technically in Makistan, but right on the border of Alasiya. Not that it matters. Everyone in the Emirates has always believed that Cynidicea is an abandoned ruins. It’s been abandoned since it was destroyed in 98 BC. 1154 years ago. No one on the surface has had a clue about the underground city, or that descendants of the ancient Cynidicean kingdom still exist.
Until now, that is.
The important thing to understand, emphasized Will, is that all of these tribal peoples – the Alasiyans, Abbashanians, Nithians, Nicostenians, Dythestenians, and Makistanians – are first and foremost Yshians, before any of their particular nationalities. For the past 225 years, they have all shared the same over-arching belief: that there are no gods, only the Eternal Truth; and that al-Kalim was the Prophet who revealed that Truth. Anyone who rejects the Prophet’s religion is an infidel, to be converted or slain. The Eternal Truth is thoroughly militant and oppressive. It’s the religion of Yshlim.
“So what?” interrupted Kanadius. “We have our own nasty oppressors. The Zargonites.”
Not quite the same thing, said Will. To understand it all, you have to go back to the Prophet. Al-Kalim.
He was a fanatic who single-handedly changed the culture of the Alasiyan Desert. He was from the city of Abbashan, born in 770 AC. This was back when the desert was the nation of Ylaruam, and much more peaceful. Al-Kalim began receiving visions in his forties and in his fifties became a militant warrior bent on subjugating all of Ylaruam to what he understood as proper Truth. He led inhumane raids, and in 824 AC, when he was 54, he captured the village of Ylaruam and established it as his tribal seat. Over the next two years, other towns – Cinsa-Men-Noo, Parsa, and Ctesiphon, etc. – all fell and al-Kalim united the Makistani and Alasiyan tribes under the banner of the Eternal Truth. Then he took his holy war to the Empire. By 831 AC, every single Thyatian overlord had been thrown out. That was the year he founded the Confederated Tribes of the Emirates of Yshia – which is what the capital city has been called ever since. 225 years ago.
“There’s nothing special about a religion based on warfare,” said Pandora. “I lead a war cult. So does Kanadius.”
Again, not the same thing. You and your Maidens don’t forcibly convert those of different faiths. You don’t systematically butcher those who refuse to convert. You don’t live in a constant state of holy war. You aren’t commanded by your holy book to subjugate the world under your beliefs, on pain of death, and to murder those who step slightly out of line. Neither are you, Kanadius, or your Brothers. The Creed of Gorm and The Circle of Madarua aren’t like The Raysh.
“The Raysh is the holy book of Yshlim?” asked Demetrius.
Yes. And the Raysh requires jihad, holy war, against all peoples who reject the Eternal Truth. Jihad isn’t optional, nor is it restricted to the warrior class. It’s binding on every able-bodied male in the Emirates. To kill and/or be killed while fighting a jihad is the highest glory meriting the highest reward in paradise.
“I assume the Yshians have priests who peddle this fanaticism?” asked Fiana.
The Yshian clerics are called mullahs and they hold authority over warriors. They run the courts like inquisitions. They answer only to the Caliph at Yshia. The caliphs are the Prophet’s successors; there have been nineteen caliphs since al-Kalim’s death in 842. They have – every single one of them – been cold-blooded tyrants.
“Well,” said Demetrius, “I’ll never complain about life underground again. The surface sounds like hell. People have lived like that? For two centuries?”
Except for a brief respite, said Will. And a rather amazing one. Just fifteen years ago, in 1041 AC, the Caliphate was abolished and a Council of Preceptors took control of Yshia. The Preceptors nominally followed the Yshlimic religion, but so loosely that it could hardly be called Yshlim without winking too broadly. The Preceptors were in favor of modern and cosmopolitan values. They believed foreigners should be tolerated and allowed their religious beliefs. They controlled four of the emirates, including the largest and most important one of Alasiya. Only in Abbashan and Nithia was Yshlim still strictly observed and enforced by the state. The four liberated emirates began to welcome ideas from the outside world, especially from urban and mercantile cultures. The Council of Preceptors outlawed jihads; it decreed holy war to be an antiquated concept – even though the Raysh said it was mandatory, and even though the Prophet had established jihad as an absolute pillar of the Eternal Truth.
The Preceptors ignored most of the Raysh. They picked from the Prophet’s teachings whatever could be bent to serve a modern outlook – which wasn’t a hell of a lot. The “Yshlim” they ended up advocating was a religion so massively truncated that it was dishonest to even call it Yshlim. The Preceptors had removed so many essential doctrines that it killed the patient. Conservative mullahs led movements of protest; jihadists committed acts of terror.
Fiana interjected: “I have a feeling, Will, that you’re about to tell us the wonderful liberation didn’t last.”
It lasted for thirteen years. Then in 1054, the Preceptors were overthrown by the army of a fierce emir who came to power in Abbashan. The emir’s name was Sayid al-Naji, and his jihad swept over the four emirates like the Nine Hells come to earth. Yshia City fell to the jihad, the Council was abolished, and the strict observance of Yshlim returned to the Emirates of Nicostenia, and Alasiya. Then, in 1055, the jihad came west to Makistan, and south to Dythestenia. Those emirates were taken that year and Yshlimic Law was once again enforced everywhere in the land. Sayid al-Naji became the twentieth Caliph of Yshia.
“That was just last year,” said Demetrius. “When you and your friends came to the Lost City.”
“Yes,” concluded Will. “The last major town – a town called Warqa – was being sacked when we arrived. Even though it surrendered. The rape and murder was really bad.”
They got the point by now: Yshlim was systemically oppressive and unflaggingly expansionist. It required devout Yshians to wage war on unbelievers anywhere, and subjugate them under the boot of a dark-age tyranny.
“But the jihad is over, right?” asked Zoran. “All the Emirates are subjugated again.”
“The jihad is never over,” said Will. “The duty to wage war in Yshlim always goes on. It will push into other countries eventually. But even this particular jihad – Sayid al-Naji’s war – is still in its mop-up stages. The Caliph is finally turning his eye to Cynidicea. In about two weeks we’re going to have warriors of the Eternal Truth knocking on our door.”
Kanadius laughed. “Let them knock. That pyramid entrance is a death trap. Even for an army.”
“I’m not talking about the pyramid entrance,” said Will.
“What do you mean?” asked Demetrius.
“I’m talking about the hidden tunnel entrances that lead straight into the underground city,” said Will.
“How the hell would they know about those?” demanded Fiana.
Breathe deep. “Mike.”
They stared at him appalled. Then Kanadius slammed his fist on the table. “What a fucking surprise! Are there any limits to what that treasonous shit will do?”
“Watch your mouth, Grand Master,” said Pandora. “What Mike did in your temple wasn’t treason. It was the lesser of two evils.”
“Let’s not relive that,” said Will, cutting off these two before they came to blows. “We can’t fault Mike too much for mentioning the hidden entrances. At the time he had no reason to expect any blowback. He knew nothing about the Yshian people – nothing about jihad, or that Yshlim requires conquering unbelievers everywhere. He was three weeks in the desert, and had just been taken in by a family. All he did was tell his hosts where he came from. They were fascinated to learn about a civilization in Cynidicea, and Mike described it to them, not realizing that gossip would eventually find the wrong ears.”
“But why the hidden entrances?” said Kanadius, livid. “Why did he have to reveal something like that?”
Will shrugged. “Like I said, he was in a no-man’s land. He still is there, with the same family. He was careless.”
“How did he even survive the first three weeks?” asked Zoran. “Before being taken in by this family? As I understand it, he left abruptly – into the desert with no food or water. Or weapons, for that matter.”
“He wears the Hand of Gaius,” said Will. He had told Pandora this months ago, when she came to him after Mike’s departure. “On his second day he was attacked by desert marauders, and he killed them all with his bare hands. He took one of their swords, one of their camels, and all their money. He lived hand to mouth traveling northeast, crossing from Makistan into Alasiya, stopping at villages and paying for his upkeep. Soon he bought a horse and traded in the camel.”
“He hates himself,” said Demetrius. “He’ll never forgive himself for killing Lucas.”
“Don’t even start,” said Kanadius.
“Eventually,” said Will, “something happened right outside one of the villages he was passing – it’s between thirty and forty miles away from us – and a family ended up taking him in.” Will wasn’t about to explain that ugly affair.
“I know I’ve asked you this before,” said Demetrius, “but is Mike ever coming back to us?”
Will shrugged. His Eye still showed different outcomes on the question of Mike’s return to the Lost City. Mike was hard to See.
“Let me be clear on this point,” said Kandius. “The Brotherhood has a claim on Mike Wheeler. He is under sentence of execution, and I intend to carry that out if he ever comes back.”
Pandora reared like a viper. “Lay a hand on my Maiden, Grand Master, and I’ll feed you your balls. Mike Wheeler is no longer yours to claim.”
“He most certainly is mine to claim,” said Kanadius. “He violated the sanctum of our temple and killed half my warriors, including our chosen prophet Lucas Sinclair – who also happened to be Mike’s best friend. He was one of us for three months. You owned him for three days. All of that makes him mine to claim. Your opinions about lesser evils are meaningless.”
“I have owned Mike Wheeler for the past four months,” said Pandora. “Just because he is in some self-imposed exile doesn’t mean he has renounced the Maidens.” She looked at Will. “Has he renounced us?”
Will shook his head. “No. He still considers himself loyal to Madarua.”
“Well, there you have it,” said Pandora.
“I don’t give a mound of feces in Zargon’s shithole what Mike considers himself,” said Kanadius. “His crimes demand satisfaction.”
“I agree,” said Zoran. “I’m sorry, Will, and I’m sorry, Dustin – I assume Dustin can hear this, Demetrius. I loved Mike. The kids at the stronghold loved him. But his deeds speak for themselves.”
“I don’t know why Will and Dustin would want an apology from us,” said Kanadius. “We’re honoring Lucas. Lucas was their friend, as much as Mike is.” He addressed Will and Demetrius. “How do you both feel about what Mike did to Lucas? Keep in mind that he was begging me to kill him – he knew what he deserved – before running off.”
Demetrius spoke first. “Dustin has made it clear to me that he objects to executing Mike for something he never planned to do -”
“Never planned?” said Kanadius.
“Let me rephrase,” said the priest. “Something he regretted having to do, lest he become a moral monster for the rest of his life. Five people had to die. It was that simple.”
“A warrior of integrity would kill himself if faced with those options,” said Zoran.
“But then the Hand would have become useless,” said Demetrius. “We knew the risks when we gambled on Gaius’s curses. You knew the risks, Kanadius, and accepted them.”
“Don’t put words in my mouth, Demetrius. Yes, I accepted the risks, not knowing what they were. And if I had been the Hand wielder faced with that decision, I would have – as Zoran said – cut the Hand off and killed myself.”
“Good for you,” said Demetrius. “But I suggest you get over your feelings for Mike Wheeler.”
“How is my Maiden getting along with this Yshian family?” asked Pandora.
“He’s about to be confronted by jihadists,” said Will. “They’re coming to get him now, as we speak. They know he’s the source of the rumors about the Lost City, and as I mentioned, the Caliph wants to know if these rumors are true. The jihadists will arrive at the home he’s staying in five days.”
“That would solve our problem,” said Kanadius. “I hope they kill him. You said it’s an instant death sentence for anyone who doesn’t believe in Yshlim?”
Will nodded. “More or less. Unless the person converts, or pays a special tax and is willing to be treated little better than a slave.”
The Grand Master laughed in disgust. “Knowing Mike, he’ll convert. He changes allegiances like the rest of us change clothes.”
“He won’t convert,” said Will. “He’s lived with the Yshians long enough now to know that he hates the Yshlimic religion with a passion. As I said, he’s loyal to Madarua.”
“Of course he is,” said Pandora venomously. “He renounced the Brotherhood for the best of reasons. And he killed five of his former Brothers for better reasons.”
Kanadius threw back his chair furiously and stood up. “I’ll kill you right now, woman.”
“I can easily beat you, old man,” said Madarua’s Champion, unfazed.
Kanadius laughed. “Then stand up and let’s find out. I’ve never been beaten by a stupid woman in my whole life.”
Will honestly wasn’t sure which of these two would win in a heads-up match. He probed possible outcomes with his Eye, and they all showed about an even fifty-fifty chance for either one.
“I’d rather you guys not try to kill each other,” said Demetrius. “We need all the strength we can muster against the Yshians.”
“Agreed,” said Pandora. “Kanadius is just being childish.”
“And you,” said Kanadius trenchantly, “are a flippant bitch who needs smacking down.” He sat back down in disgust.
“I wonder, Kanadius,” said Pandora. “Perhaps you’re the one who should switch allegiances. If the Yshians treat women so badly, as Will says, you’d fit in well with them.”
“It’s probably their one good trait,” retorted Kanadius. “If they know how to keep their women in place.”
“You both have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Will.
“Don’t lecture me, boy,” snapped Pandora.
“Pandora, whatever you think of Gormish chauvinism, I assure you it’s nothing compared to how the Yshians treat their women. The Yshians are inhumane. They even remove the – I think the word is ‘clits’ – from women’s vaginas, so they can’t enjoy sex.”
Everyone at the table gaped at him. Then Fiana laughed. “You don’t need to scare us with propaganda, Will. We get the message. The invaders need to be taken seriously.”
Will sighed. “I’m not lying about anything I say.”
Demetrius made a face. “You’re saying that Yshian women have their clits cut out as a matter of general policy?”
“That’s absolutely absurd,” boomed Zoran.
“It’s absolutely barbaric,” said Pandora.
“I don’t believe it,” said Kanadius. “It’s too off the scales. It’s like Zargonite sacrifice, but mainstreamed into society.”
Will explained: “It’s a mandatory rite for all women in the strictest emirates – Abbashan and Nithia – and it’s encouraged in the other four as well, in varying degrees. In those four places, on average, one out of three women have their clits cut out.”
“Unbelievable,” said Demetrius. “Is this rite required by the holy book? The Raysh?”
“If the Raysh required it, it would be mandatory everywhere, like the jihad,” said Will. “It’s required by supplementary religious texts.”
“Speaking of the Zargonites,” said Demetrius. “What about them? I mean, that’s really why we’re here, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?” asked Fiana.
“I mean putting aside our differences,” said Demetrius. “Suspending our hatreds. But that starts at home. With us first. We serve the old gods. We have to be better than we’ve been for the past millennium. The three cults used to be as one in the days of the kingdom. We need to reattain that unity. Kanadius, Pandora, I’m looking at you.”
“But that’s still only a fighting force of sixty,” reminded Will. “To have any hope of stopping an army of a thousand, we need more than just our unity.” Breathe again. “We need the Zargonites.”
Will knew that Demetrius was smart enough to have seen that coming, but the other four were aghast.
“You aren’t serious!” said Fiana. She looked at Will like he was retarded.
“My understanding,” said Pandora, “is that your Eye can unleash manifold destruction. Why do we need a fighting force at all?”
“It’s not that simple,” said Will. He’d seen alternative visions of him using the Eye against the jihadists, and none of them were pleasant. “I can’t summon the death-scream at will, and I have little control over who or what it destroys. In one of my visions I brought down the roof of the underground city. I buried and killed us all.”
“Well, yeah, that’s a problem,” said Demetrius.
Kanadius swore. “Will is right, unfortunately. Only the Zargonites have the numbers to fend off a thousand warriors. But that’s making a deal with the worst devil.”
“The Yshians are the worst devil,” said Will.
“So you say,” said Fiana.
“I’m telling you truth. The Eye doesn’t lie.”
“Let’s put it to a vote,” said Demetrius. “I vote that we ally with each other, and that we ask the Zargonites for a temporary alliance.”
“And I,” said Will.
“And I,” said Kanadius.
“And I,” said Zoran.
“And I,” said Pandora.
“And I,” said Fiana. “Provided the Zargonites agree to treat us as co-equals in this alliance. Just because they have the numbers doesn’t mean Hazor becomes our supreme commander.”
“Agreed,” said Will.
“There is also the matter of Mike,” said Kanadius. “I vote for his execution, if and when he returns.”
“And I,” said Zoran.
“Not I,” said Pandora, seething.
“Not I,” said Fiana.
“Not I,” said Demetrius.
“Not I,” said Will.
Kanadius was sour. “Don’t expect me to ever be in the same room with him.”
“And which of us is going into the lion’s den to beseech Hazor?” asked Zoran. Hazor was the High Priest of Zargon: ruthless, sadistic, and insane. “He certainly won’t agree to come to us.”
“Step into the Zargonite temple?” asked Fiana. “Talk about taking one for the team. I’m not going inside that building.”
“I don’t think you should,” said Demetrius. “You’re a priestess. Zoran and I shouldn’t either. As clerics of the old gods, we could all be vulnerable in that place.”
“I’ll do it,” said Will. He knew he would anyway. He had seen it. “Kanadius? Pandora? Will you come with me?”
“To the temple of Zargon?” asked Pandora. She shrugged. “Fine by me.”
“Of course,” said Kanadius. “It should be the three of us. The leaders of our temples.”
“I can count on you both? To suspend your hatred for each other?”
“Oh, I don’t hate this bitch, Will,” said Kanadius. “I just want to see her beaten and broken. One day I’ll teach her that humility. But not today. Nor anytime soon. I know where my duty lies at the moment.”
“Pay him no mind, little man,” said Pandora. “Kanadius just wants to fuck me. He’s never gotten laid. I can’t waste hate on someone like that. He needs pity – and he certainly has mine.”
Kanadius shouted, purple with rage: “If you think you can -”
“Yes, thank you,” said Will. “Both of you. I’m sure you’ll be models of diplomacy.”
“When are you going?” asked Demetrius.
“We should try to secure an audience with Hazor in the next couple of days,” said Will. “The Yshians will be here in two weeks. I called this meeting as soon as the Eye showed no future alternatives to the invasion.”
Demetrius mused. “If we collapsed the hidden entrances…”
Zoran was shaking his head. “We need those as emergency escape routes. We can’t rely on the pyramid as our only access point to the surface.”
“And we can’t ambush them outside the hidden entrances,” said Kanadius. “It’s all open desert out there, and we’re Cynidiceans. We can’t fight to save ourselves in sunlight. The only way to defeat these invaders is to ambush them as they come into the city. I mean, they don’t know that we know they’re coming. Right?”
Will nodded. “We should have the element of surprise.”
“Unless,” said Pandora, “they worry that Mike might try to come and warn us.” She looked at Will. “You said they’re going to reach him in five days?”
“Yes,” said Will. “But Mike’s future has become so jumbled in my vision it’s impossible to say what he’ll do. Ever since he was fully bonded with the Hand – the day he left us – he’s been hard for me to See.”
“He belongs with the Maidens,” said Pandora. “I hope he remembers himself in the end.”
Kanadius had the grace to hold his tongue.
“All right, then,” said Will. “Thank you all for coming and agreeing to this. The three of us will go down to the city as soon – or if – Hazor agrees to meet with us.” And then things will really get interesting.
As the Gorm and Madarua representatives left, his shakes started in. He wasn’t going to make it to bedtime for the peach fuzz.
“Well played, Byers.”
“What?” He looked at Demetrius, who had stayed behind. No, not Demetrius. That’s Dustin now. The priest had retreated to lurker mode so the friends could spend time together.
“You lead better than most,” said Dustin.
Will shook his head. “I don’t think so. I just know more. I wish I didn’t.” His headache was also rousing from slumber. He needed an early fix. “Can you hand me that?” he asked Dustin, pointing to the bowl of peach colored mushrooms on the bed stand.
“Yeah.” He passed the bowl to Will.
Will’s hand jerked suddenly as he took it, and the bowl crashed to the floor. The mushrooms, four of them, scattered in different directions.
“Got it, don’t worry,” said Dustin, reaching over to pick everything up.
When the shrooms were on the table, Will took one and ate it fast. He closed his eyes as he tried to chew slowly, telling the fifteen minutes to hurry up. He hated his addiction; his tolerance was getting worse.
Dustin was concerned. “Do you need rest, Will? I can go.”
Will shook his head, swallowing. “I want you to stay. I miss talking to you. About home.”
“Yeah,” said Dustin. “I wish I’d never gone into Rotten Gargoyle that day. Never seen that store clerk. I mean, there are things I’ve liked about sharing my body and life with a priest like Demetrius. He’s a great guy. But Jesus Christ, look what it’s cost us all.”
They talked for hours, and then finally Demetrius took over and left for the city.
That night, Will went to bed thinking of Zenobia’s crypt. And the Isle of Death. When the dreams came, they weren’t of his mother and Jonathan. They were of friends dead and undead. And every bit as hurtful.
Next Chapter: The Jihad of Sayid al-Naji
(Previous Chapter: Farewell, Friend)