Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights

“This is a trigger warning for the entire book. Reading it, you should be triggered.” (from the cover page of Prey)

I wasn’t triggered by Prey, but many readers have evidently been, not least Jill Filipovic who wrote a grossly inaccurate hit piece for the New York Times. Read Tunku Varadarajan from the Wall Street Journal for a worthy review of Prey. What follows is my review.

Prey is in fact Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s best book to date. Vilified for speaking truth, and castigated for her common sense, she now turns her guns on the problem of Muslim immigrants in Europe, especially since 2015, when more than a million migrants and refugees crossed the border and ignited the well-known crisis.

“The rape game [taharrush gamea] crossed the Mediterranean in December 2015. During New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne, more than a thousand young men formed rings around individual women, sexually assaulting them. And when the victims identified the perpetrators as looking foreign, North African, and Arab, they were pilloried as racists on social media.” (p 161)

The “rape game”, or taharrush gamea, is sexual harassment/assault in crowds, and the inevitable expression of many elements — religiously sanctioned misogyny, values of honor and shame, lack of sex education, and repressed urges. Far from being the reprehensible crime it is in the west, in many Muslim-majority countries the rape game happens openly. Immigrant Muslim men do not — contrary to the claims of some — use sexual violence to lash out at host societies because they feel disenfranchised. These men simply behave as they always have. If Egyptian men play the rape game on the streets of Cairo and then come to Germany and do the same thing, it’s not because they feel inferior or oppressed. It’s because of entrenched factors — religiously sanctioned misogyny, honor-shame values, lack of sex education, and repressed urges — and because they think they can get away with it, as they always have.

Until recently, sexual violence in public places — especially when orchestrated by gangs — had come to be seen as an aberration in most of Europe. Rape and sexual assault rates had been falling for decades, and it was widely known that most sexual violence occurred within established relationships. Europe was simply unprepared for what ignited on New Year’s Eve, 2015, and before long, women avoided going outdoors as much as possible.

It’s important to stress that Hirsi Ali’s book doesn’t demonize migrant men from the Muslim world. As she says, there’s no racial component to her argument at all. A certain proportion of men of all ethnicities will rape and harass women. But the rates are incredibly lower in some parts of the world than others — especially in places where men are raised to respect a woman’s autonomy — and I was particularly struck by the her analogy with the #MeToo movement, and the usual leftist/woke hypocrisy:

“As I was researching for this book, the #MeToo movement shone a light on sexual abuse and exploitation in the upper echelons of North America. I found myself wondering why an equally bright light was not being shone on the often more serious crimes against women in lower-income neighborhoods in Europe.” (p 9)

“I am not claiming that sexual harassment is a vice unique to immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. On the contrary, part of my reason for writing this book was to make sense of the changing attitudes of women toward sexual harassment, which have come to be associated around the world with the #MeToo movement. For me, it is a puzzle that in the United States and other Western countries, countless pages and copious airtime have been devoted to the misdeeds of a few hundred prominent figures in the entertainment industry, politics, education, and finance, but much less has been written about the far more numerous acts of rape, assault, and harassment perpetrated by recent migrants to Europe.” (p 61)

And one could of course expand this critique to swipe huger hypocrisies and misplaced priorities. Westerns, for example, will crusade over being misgendered or called by their non-preferred pronouns, but fall utterly silent about honor-killings and female genital mutilation in the Islamic world.

The Playbook of Denial

Another important point: Hirsi Ali was an asylum seeker and an immigrant (first to the Netherlands and then to the U.S.), and the last thing she wants are obstacles put up to those who want to escape religious oppression and have better lives in the west. She wrote Prey “not to help the proponents of closed borders but to persuade liberal Europeans that denial is a self-defeating strategy” (p 10). I’ll get to her proposed alternative to right-wing “closed border” solutions at the end of the review. For now let’s focus on denial — since leftists and wokes have made such a bloody art of it — of which Hirsi Ali identifies eight different types (see chapter 9):

1. The Brush-off. Police and politicians simply don’t take reports of migrant sexual assault seriously, because they fear the political ramifications.

2. Misdirection. People conjure up a smoke screen by universalizing the problem of sexual violence. They claim that it’s not immigrants who disproportionately rape women, but rather that “all men are rapists” and “every third woman experiences physical, sexual, psychological, and economic violence”. While it’s obviously true that sexual violence is a universal problem, it is also true (just as obviously, to those living in reality) that such violence from migrant Muslims has been a disproportionate problem across Europe, especially in Germany and Sweden.

3. The Semantic Muddle. Suspects in police reports and media coverage are described as “southerners”, “men with dark skin”, or people with “poor German” language skills, deliberately obscuring their migration status. In some parts of Europe, the semantic muddle is officially imposed by media regulators. To suggest that an immigrants’ religion and culture may have anything to do with their attitudes to women can jeopardize a journalist’s career in Europe.

4. Bogus Research and Commentary. Manufacturing statistics and surveys debunk reality on the ground. Attitudinal studies in particular are designed in such a way to reflect the preferred conclusions of researchers. Such studies will conclude falsely that attitudes to immigrants in various European countries are highly stable and becoming more favorable, when that is not necessarily true.

5. Dismissal of Honest Academics as Bigots. Academics often reject evidence supplied by their honest colleagues that goes against woke agendas. False charges of racism are leveled against those who portray Muslim societies as far more patriarchal and oppressive than Western ones, and against those who explain the links between Islamic beliefs and the idea of women as commodities.

6. Appeals to Compassion and Platitudes. Virtue-signaling at the expense of reason or caution is also a common denial tactic. When politicians implore citizens to fulfill their moral duty to rescue migrant workers, they imply that any critics of immigration policies are automatically immoral, inhumane, and racist.

7. Bad Advice and Bogus Solutions. Police and politicians have engaged in victim-blaming. After the mass sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve 2015, for example, the mayor of Cologne suggested that women were afraid of being assaulted should keep themselves “at arm’s length” from strangers. Police have suggested that women wear comfortable shoes that are made for running so that they can flee fast if they need to. Instead of implementing measures to ensure women’s safety, they place the onus on women to protect themselves from predatory men.

8. Fear of Bigotry and Backlash. Probably the most powerful tool in maintaining denial about the religious and cultural aspects of sexual violence is to claim that talking about the facts will fan the flames of racism, empower right-wing populists, and further divide society. This excuse has been used repeatedly by the police, politicians, social workers, and the media. To avoid being perceived as xenophobic, people would rather cover up the problem and leave victims at risk.

The last is especially a problem, because right-wing groups can be very effective in exaggerating or fabricating anti-immigrant stories. Anyone who tries discussing the negative aspects of immigration is almost certain to be accused of legitimizing the alt-right. But we can’t let fears like that intimidate us. Hirsi Ali is right: openly honest books like Prey can provide far more effective arguments against the alt-right than strategies of denial and perverted woke multiculturalist agendas.

Hard Truths

The unpleasant fact is that hard-won gains that women have made are being eroded in Europe by immigrants from places that don’t grant such rights to women. Women who walk outdoors (assuming they don’t stay shut inside at home) have adopted some of the mannerisms of women in the Middle-East and Africa — shrinking from men, being on guard, and avoiding drawing attention to themselves. The simple act of traveling or enjoying lunch in a cafe has become a thing of the past for many women, who no longer recognize their neighborhoods or feel safe.

Likewise, German public transit has lost its reputation for safety. Women and girls have been increasingly reluctant in recent years to take the subway lines alone where many young Muslim men are traveling. Sexual assaults from migrant men take place daily in certain subway lines. In a 2014 report (by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights), about half of the 42,000 women surveyed had restricted their movement out of fear of sexual assault. Street harassment is obviously not a new phenomenon, but only recently has it become so dramatically pervasive to make women change their behavior patterns.

What’s astonishing is that Chancellor Angela Merkel made her fateful decision (to welcome refugees fleeing the Syrian war in 2015) almost absent-mindedly. As Hirsi Ali explains, there was no decision. An official thirty-page order to close the German borders had been drafted, but no one had the courage to sign off on  it. It wasn’t a policy change or a strategy; it just slipped through everyone’s fingers and happened. And at first a lot of Germans were (understandably) happy about the unrestricted welcome to immigrants. It signaled a humanitarian approach and made the German people look enlightened.

They changed their tune mighty fast, not only when women felt unsafe to go outside alone, but with the wave of jihadist attacks that followed in 2016: an Afghan asylum seeker stabbing five people on a train near Wurzburg; a Syrian refugee blowing himself up outside a music festival in Ansbach; a twelve-year old Iraqi boy planting a bomb at a Christmas market in Ludwigshafen; a Tunisian asylum seeker (who had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State) who drove a truck into the crowd at a Christmas market next to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, killing twelve and injuring fifty-six others.

The Problem of Islam, and Collectivist Societies

And just as Islam mandates jihad (holy war) against unbelievers, it sanctions the treatment of women as inferior commodities, especially sura 4 of the Qur’an. While wife-beating obviously exists everywhere, only in Islam does it have divine sanction (4:34). Polygamy is sanctioned as well (4:3). The sexual enslavement of infidel women also has divine approval (4:24).

Hirsi Ali describes harrowing accounts of the survivors of sexual assaults. One victim of a gang rape in Rotherham said that her rapists said that she deserved to be raped because she was non-Muslim and dressed immodestly. As she was raped more than a hundred times, her attackers quoted the Qur’an to her (pp 173-174).

Accentuating the problem of Islam is the nature of group-oriented collectivist societies like the Muslim-majority nations which immigrants come from. Hirsi Ali points out that in our western world, “the individual, whether male or female, is recognized as a decision maker responsible for his or her behavior. In the Muslim world, by contrast, it is the group that is responsible. Whether it is the family, clan, or the whole ummah (community), the group makes decisions on behalf of individuals, and the condemnation of an individual is considered vilification of the group.” (pp 174-175)

So if the group doesn’t acknowledge the individual’s action as criminal (as in cases of rape), then the whole community feels victimized by the state. And this is what fuels Muslim communities to deflect individual responsibility for sexual assault by charging others with “Islamophobia” and the fear of a backlash — or, ludicrously, a “Muslim Holocaust”.

All of this dramatically reduces the chances for successful Muslim integration, and this takes us to the chapter on that subject.

Why Integration Hasn’t Happened

Muslims of course have been migrating to Europe since long before the 2010s. And it would seem logical, based on the history of other immigrants: the inherent superiority of secular democratic pluralism would be so attractive that migrant Muslims would eventually welcome it. The question of competing values would take care of itself as the migrants became employed and their children went to school. But that’s not what has happened with most Muslims; the values don’t rub off, and the cause comes down to religious (not ethnic) differences.

According to Hirsi Ali, Muslim immigrants take one of four paths (see pp 180-181):

1. The Adapters. Those who use the freedoms they find in Europe to learn, educate themselves and their children, find gainful employment, to start businesses, to vote, and to take part in society and thrive. Ayaan Hirsi Ali herself was an Adapter, in the Netherlands in 1990.

2. The Menaces. Those — mostly young men — who become a danger to their own homes and outside in public. Some drop out of school, some commit crimes big and small, and many spend time in prison. They’re often into alcohol and drugs, and most are unemployable. They tend to be neither religious nor morally driven. They take full advantage of welfare, and of criminal lawyers when they are charged with stealing, vandalizing, and sexual assault.

3. The Fanatics. Those who come to Europe driven by religiosity. They use the freedoms they find in Europe to spread Islamism and jihadism. They become language proficient in their host country and employed, and seek to work within the system to to destroy it and replace it with sharia law. They will use whatever means necessary to bring about the Islamic vision, using violence, threats, intimidation, blackmail, and peer pressure.

4. The Coasters. Men and women with little or no formal education who accept welfare benefits, live off them, and invite their families from abroad to come and join them. They see no reason to work because the jobs available to them are menial and pay little more than their welfare benefits. They attend mosque but also send their children to local schools. They are not criminal, but when enough of them live in close proximity they create ghettos, in which the Islamic way of life is replicated in the west. It is in these neighborhoods that children of the Coasters can either become Menaces, or find their way to the Fanatics.

Obviously these categories aren’t rigidly separate. A Coaster’s children can become Adapters; some Menaces clean up their acts; Menaces can turn into Fanatics; etc. The point is simple: If European officials and academics are honest with themselves, they would acknowledge that significant numbers of immigrant Muslims fall into one or more of the last three categories: Menace, Fanatic, or Coaster. The Adapters are there, to sure, but they are a minority (p 182).

What Holds Back Muslim Integration?

Italians, Irish, Jews, and Chinese integrated well into America, even though they faced they same obstacles as Muslim immigrants in Europe. They lived in crowded accommodations and ghettos, were unable to speak English well at first, began as unskilled workers, and faced worse bigotry and prejudices than Muslims do (Chinese immigrants were thought of as the “yellow plague”, Jews were exposed to intense anti-Semitism and discrimination, etc.). By the middle of the twentieth century, Italian Americans and Irish Americans were more or less fully integrated into American society, without repudiating their cultural heritage (even acknowledging the problem of mafia crime). Why haven’t Muslims done so after one or two decades?

The common answer is that Muslims come from countries with low education, poor protection of human rights, and societal trauma. But the history of Vietnamese integration refutes that argument. In the ’70s and ’80s many Vietnamese refugees fled war, communism, and poverty, and arrived in the west with a poor education and few language skills. Some relied on welfare but within two decades were thoroughly integrated. Many of them retain their customs, language, and religious beliefs, while embracing western values.

Hirsi Ali says that of all the forces holding back Muslim immigrants from integrating properly, the Islamic religion is the biggest. She’s right: Islam is a political religion that allows for no separation of mosque and state, and envisions a sharia-based society where unbelievers are subjugated (if not slain), and women kept firmly under the boot of oppression. In surveys comparing the attitudes of the children of migrant parents, it is only Muslims who do not develop more egalitarian views of women as they grow up in the west.

Many Islamic organizations advise Western governments on integration policies that encourage the respect of illiberal Islamic beliefs, and the further entrenchment of practices that keep Muslims segregated from the rest of liberal society.  “It is paradoxical that in the name of freedom of religion, governments permit Islamist organizations to hamper the integration of communities and new arrivals. It’s trying to put out the fire with a flame thrower.” (p 190)

Two Alternative Solutions: Populism or Radical Reform

So what’s the solution? In the final two chapters, she considers two responses to the problems of migrant Muslims. The first is the right-wing populist solution, that favors expelling illegal immigrants and restricting future Muslim immigration — which Hirsi Ali considers neither wise nor practical — and the second is to radically reform the European systems of integrating immigrants.

Populism: The lesson of the past decade is clear. If wokes and leftists refuse to listen to citizens’ concerns about Muslim immigrants, or dismiss them as racist, right-wing populists will gain an audience. Populist parties do a great job of articulating voters’ grievances when everyone else fears to. You have to give them that. But their promises to expel immigrants or “stop the boats” is usually not the humane approach, and it’s easier said than done in any case (in Europe anyway; it’s easier to enforce in America). Europe, says Hirsi Ali, must face facts and create the right incentives for immigrants and native populations to succeed together.

Reform: To emphasize again — especially since critics have misrepresented Hirsi Ali on this point, including the New York Times reviewer — she advocates a humane approach: “I have been a beneficiary of the asylum system and of a successful integration program. I have emigrated twice in my life. I would be a monstrous hypocrite if I lent support to the proponents of deportation and immigration restriction. What I want to see is many others like me enjoying the same opportunities that I have enjoyed and contributing to the health of the West’s open societies. But without drastic reforms of Europe’s immigration and integration systems, that is not going to happen.” (p 256)

Indeed, if leaders continue to bury their heads in the sand, then Hirsi Ali is probably right: within a decade or two at the most, there will be a serious rollback of women’s rights in Europe. Public spaces will look very different. Women will no longer walk about confidently, unaccompanied, in the streets or taking the public transit alone.

Specifically, Hirsi Ali proposes six measures of reform:

1. Repeal the Existing Asylum Framework. The global asylum and refugee system is outdated and ill equipped to cope with the challenges posed by mass violence and global immigration today. The distinction between migrant and asylum seeker has become blurred so that’s no longer useful. Rather than focus on where people come from and their motivations for leaving, Hirsi Ali suggests that the main criterion for granting access should be how far they are likely to abide by the laws and adopt the values of their host country. Those who can demonstrate their ability to adapt, and who will most likely enter the labor market (instead of the welfare state), would be those who qualify. Officials should ask migrants what they know about the culture and laws of the society they wish to join, and what the migrant envisions for him or herself in the west. Then, instead of being thrown in a reception center for years (to wait while asylum applications and appeals are assessed), the migrant will be given a reasonable time frame to prove a willingness to adapt to the west — a probation period of say one or two years — and if unsuccessful, the migrant will be ordered to leave or be deported.

2. Address the Push Factors… She suggests that western countries need to invest more resources into examining the problems in countries that cause migrants to flee to begin with. Trade agreements, developmental aid, diplomatic pressure should be used to help stabilize the Muslim world, instead of leaving everything to the United States.

3. … as well as the Pull Factors. The original welfare state was predicated on a notion of reciprocity, but to immigrants it looks more like a universal basic income. There must be meaningful limits on what outsiders can claim. The Austrian government has been demonized for trying to inject reciprocity back into its welfare system. The Austrians should be lauded. The threat of penalties and deportation works; it gets migrants to register for courses and language training.

4. Reinstate the Rule of Law. European national governments need to reform their criminal justice systems. As they stand, they are way too lenient on violent offenders, and they make outrageous exceptions for immigrants on grounds of “cultural sensitivity”.

5. Listen to the Successful Immigrants – not to the Islamists or the wokes. Rather than pander to Islamist spokesmen and white wokes, western governments should reallocate their resources to support the ideas of the successful Adpaters — the immigrants, that is, who have adopted the values of the country that has given them sanctuary, and come out as well-adjusted liberal Europeans. In other words, listen to people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

6. Provide Sex Education to all Children. The only way to crack the shell of those who live an honor-shame framework of sex (in which clit-cutting, honor killings, sexual repression, and treating women as commodities are the norm) is to have mandatory sex education.

The Road to Gilead

It’s fitting that Hirsi Ali ends her book with reflections on The Handmaid’s Tale. I have said myself that the scenario envisioned in the novel/TV series evokes Islam far more than a hypothetical Christianity that takes over the state. Hirsi Ali writes:

“Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985 to warn that American Evangelical Christians might one day succeed in establishing a patriarchal regime in the United States — or at least part of it, as ‘Gilead’ is supposed to be New England. Most of her readers appear to have missed the fact that something very like this had already happened in the Muslim world as religious ideologues seized power in the 1970s and ’80s in Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia. Islamic dystopias completely changed the circumstances of women in these countries — particularly better-off women in the large cities, who, in the 1950s and ’60s, had enjoyed at least some of the freedoms of women in the West. Islamists turned back the clock for women by claiming the public space for men with a religious fiat. Women were reduced to the role of mere breeders of sons.”

“I am not predicting that European women will meet exactly the same fate. History is unlikely to move as far back in time in Sweden or Germany as it has done in Iran and Somalia. It would be hyperbolic to suggest that Europe is sliding toward sharia law. Yet the recent wave of sexual violence and harassment in Europe is subtly but undeniably changing the nature of female life in Europe for the worse. Do we want a Europe in which photographs of female life taken before 2015 become objects of fascination, like the pictures in the books that the central character censors in Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments? If we wish to avoid it, we must imagine Old Europe as Gilead. It is already a closer fit than New England.”

I hope it’s not too late, for Europe’s sake.

The Lost City: Maiden of Madarua

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 Eight:

                            Maiden of Madarua

 

Mike was out of control and it felt good.

He slammed Jilanka against the altar and tore her shirt, working over her mounds as if he’d never seen the female form. And in a way he hadn’t. Not like this, souped up on drugs that had no business mixing together. Raging he slapped her; and then shredded her tunic completely. Then he threw his face into it, devouring her, running his tongue along breasts he saw as the size of mountains.

God, what world am I in?

He boiled with desires a mind wasn’t made for. Everything about Jilanka was dialed up by five, then twenty, then impossibly more. The shroom combo had pushed sex into the fourth dimension. He roared with libidinous fury and threw her on top of the altar, and she bellowed affirmatives while cursing him. She tore at his pants, promising castration if he didn’t make this good – and he tore hers right off. She was wetter than a swamp after days of rain, and the sight of that put Mike over: he shot over her stomach and fell onto her, devouring, devouring her again…

His head was yanked up and she clobbered him hard. Then she reached for his nethers and soon had him building to another climax. She forced him inside her – and Mike went off the charts, slamming and pounding her in a humping fury. He came but stayed hard; and came again. His thrusts never stopped. He bit into her shoulder, and came again. Her legs had his torso in a vise. She shouted his worthlessness, screamed his praises, and came six, seven, eight times. He yelled and kept yelling – unbelieving this was life – as he fucked the proverbial living shit out of Jilanka Maw for fifteen minutes more.

Pinning this girl on the altar of some unnamed forgotten deity was fitting, considering how unspeakable their union was. They were forbidden lovers in a forbidden room – a temple that had been abandoned ages ago. Tattered tapestries hung from the walls. Days ago there had been evil-looking relics on the altar before Jilanka cleared it for her and Mike’s fuck-fest. A rotten cloth, curved candlesticks, an offering bowl, and a holy symbol looking like a demon – all these had gone crashing to the floor, and were still there now. This was their fourth fuck in the pyramid, in this shunned room where no one would intrude to see blasphemous lovers – Brother and Maiden – hump each other frantically as if possessed by demons themselves.

They were possessed by a near equivalent – a mushroom combination that blew their minds sky high. And without the perils of addiction or prolonged tripping. It was Mike’s first time on the drugs. He’d drunk the kool-aid. He could have gone wild like this for hours more.

When he spent himself again – he was dry ejaculating now, having cum way too many times – he realized she was lying under him motionless, regarding him with amusement. She switched off. He tried to do the same. He moaned into her neck, wanting to pound her more. He didn’t know how to switch off.

“Just tell your mind to stop it, and it will,” she said.

And sure enough, it was easy as that. The world quickened and caught up; his libido went to sleep. He returned to himself and lay in her embrace.

They stayed on the altar like that for a while, he in her arms, as she ran her fingers through his hair. Black shaggy hair that she loved to play with. Hers, like any Cynidicean’s, was snow white.

“Jesus Christ,” he said softly. “Don’t tell me anyone ever had sex like we just did.”

Her fingers massaged his head. “Anyone who’s eaten sex craze has had more and better. We didn’t go for very long. And who is this ‘Jesus Christ’ you keep mentioning? Is he a god in your world?”

“Sort of,” said Mike.

“Gorm’s your god now,” she said.

Your sarcasm is noted. And Gorm is a shit name for swearing. Lucas said things like “Gorm’s bolts”, “Gorm damn you”, and “For Gorm’s sake”, and but Mike couldn’t let go of Jesus when it came to profanity.

“And Gorm doesn’t approve you fucking anyone, especially a Maiden,” she said.

“Hypocrite,” said Mike. “How does Madarua feel about you fucking a Brother?”

“She doesn’t give a filthy shit,” said Jilanka. “It’s her Maidens who have that hangup. The Madaruan Circle allows for sex with followers of any creed. The taboo against Brothers is an oral tradition from recent centuries.”

“Well, excuse the fuck out of me. That’s probably the same for us.”

“Yes and no,” said Jilanka. “It’s true that your clan’s dislike of us is from recent centuries. After Zargon came and the cults started mistrusting each other. But celibacy is holy writ for you guys. It’s always been that way. The Creed of Gorm says that his closest disciples can’t have sex with anyone, whether Maiden or not. Don’t you know your own holy book?”

“Of course I do!”

“And don’t you think what it says is stupid?”

“All religion is stupid,” he said. “I mean… all religions have stupid requirements. We have celibacy. I’m sure you have something just as stupid.”

She ran her tongue over his face. “I’m sure you’re stupid and don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. In fact, I think you’re the stupidest shit alive.” She started rubbing his balls.

“Knock it off.” He pulled her off him. “I have to go.” He sat up and swung his legs over the altar.

She yanked him back into her embrace and kissed him roughly. Then she had him on his back again, and was on top readying for another assault. She had reactivated the drug effect.

“No,” he said, trying to disengage. “Come on, Jilanka, I have -”

She struck his face and began thrusting over him. She didn’t need him erect inside her; this was the sex craze drug. She could have ten orgasms without even touching herself.

Mike had two options at this point. Wait out her rape, or reactivate the drug so that he could match her physically in speed and reflex. But if he did the second he’d be sex-crazed again too – and a most willing partner. Either way, he wasn’t leaving the room right now.

They’re going to come looking for me.

He sighed and switched on.

 

Over a half hour later they were putting their clothes back on. He had destroyed her tunic but she didn’t care. She had spares. She put on her chain mail without a shirt. She was beautiful – tomboyishly in the way that Mike liked.

If any Brother or Maiden saw them like this, their careers serving the old gods would be over at once. The Brothers took their oaths of celibacy seriously, and while the Maidens were under no such vows, they despised the Brothers as a matter of principle – oral tradition or not. Mike and Jilanka’s relationship was a grievous offense on both sides. To say nothing of their drug consumption: that too was forbidden. In the three cults, only the Magi were allowed to use mushrooms.

He had fallen hard for Jilanka. The past five days had been his wildest if not best in the Lost City, and the guilt was eating at him. He’d thought he was happy in the Brotherhood; that he and Lucas were partners for life. They were best friends sworn into the best cult. But his few days with Jilanka had called those assumptions into question. If her accounts of the Maidens could be trusted, they didn’t seem so bad; in some ways perhaps better than the Brothers. Authoritarian but less so; making room for more freedoms. Mike found himself angered by some of the limitations placed on women in this world (except in the flaming libertarian Usamigaran community). He’d been blind to it because it didn’t affect him, but now he saw things through the eyes of his girlfriend.

And to her credit, she didn’t glorify the Maidens. Jilanka Maw was no blind follower. She was loyal to Pandora – Madarua’s Champion – but only up to a point; she ultimately did as she pleased. Her outrageous affair with Brother Mike proved that.

He said good-bye to her and left the abandoned temple, and went down the diagonal corridor to the door that summoned the revolving passage. Jilanka would follow only after he used the passage; they couldn’t chance being seen together. Mike pressed the button on the wall, and the passage moved on its turntable to align with the door. Mike opened it and went inside. The door at the other end led to the Brothers’ temple. Mike was due there in less than hour for military drills. He selected a button from the column of eight, the one that made the passage align with the north-south axis. The grinding noises began as the turntable moved. When the passage stopped he opened the door to the southern corridor that led upstairs to Tier 2. He began hurrying, wanting to get back to Lucas.

He heard footsteps ahead around the corner, and felt a flash of guilt. Are her juices still on me? Do they smell? The figure turned the corner.

It was Lucas.

He stopped when he saw Mike and stared. Mike went red, feeling another wave of guilt.

“Where the hell have you been?” demanded Lucas.

“Nowhere,” said Mike feebly. “I just wanted a walk.”

“Well you’re walking the wrong way,” said Lucas. “We’re due in the temple. Now.”

“What?” That wasn’t right. Their exercises didn’t start for an hour. His fuck-fest had gone on for too long, but not that long. The slow-time drug affected one’s perception of time, but he and Jilanka had gauged their activity with that in mind. Mike knew what time it was.

“You heard me,” said Lucas. “Kanadius has some big announcement. It’s a mandatory meeting. Everyone’s down here already. I’ve been looking all over for you upstairs, even outside. Let’s go.”

He followed Lucas back to the revolving passage. They could hear rotating noises and the door wouldn’t open; the passage was in use. Jilanka. She was returning to the Maiden barracks. Mike’s heart raced. She and I are going to get caught someday.

The grinding stopped, and Lucas pressed the door button again. When it lined up, they opened the door and went inside, selecting the northwest-southeast axis – exactly where Mike had just come from. The passage shifted and stopped, and Mike looked at the northwest door. We were just fucking down there. On the altar of a demon. I’m still on the drugs now. What has my life become? He and Lucas left through the southeast door.

They walked down the corridor to their temple. All the Brothers were there, glaring over their shoulders at Mike as he came in after Lucas. They turned back to Kanadius, who stood in front of the altar. Mike prayed the drugs wouldn’t reactivate during this meeting. What would happen if they did? Would he start masturbating on the floor, or try raping one of his fellow Brothers? Jilanka’s voice came back to him: Once you have the technique, it’s easy. On and off as you please. The drugs obey.

“Nice of you to join us, Mike,” said Kanadius. The Grand Master was plainly furious.

“I’m sorry, sir,” said Mike, standing rigidly at attention.

Kanadius began. “I have big news for all of us. Momentous news. I spent a late night yesterday over in the Magi sector. We all have a low opinion of the Magi. They’re lawless sorcerers who care little for the welfare of others. But they do serve the old ways, and they hate Zargonites as much as we do. Auriga invited me to hear a proposal. They’re sending a group of Magi to the Isle of Death. And they want some of us to join them.”

Mike saw the shock on the Brothers’ faces. No one went to the Isle. No one came back when they did.

“The Magi have become aware of something hidden on the Isle – or which may be hidden there. It could be a false lead. But it’s something that has been long desired by the old cults: the Eye and Hand of Gaius.”

There was muttering now; reactions of awe and disbelief. Mike couldn’t remember anything in his gaming module about an eye or a hand. He looked over at Lucas, who shook his head.

“The Eye and the Hand are supposedly resting at Vark’s Ring – the archways that some say have strange powers. I think you all know what this means. Except Lucas and Mike. Gaius was the twelfth Cynidicean king who reigned over 1300 years ago; he was mighty and powerful, a lot like the Nithian god-kings of old. Before he died he preserved his left eye and right hand and gave them incredible powers – powers that well could turn the tide of our war against the Zargonites. Or at least help us a great deal. They’re also cursed, but no one knows exactly how. The Magi are proposing that the Eye go to them, and the Hand to the Brothers. The Hand is supposed to make a warrior nearly undefeatable. The Eye is designed for a mage’s use.”

The room erupted in fury. The proposal was outrageous. The news was either too good to be true, or too perilous if it was true. A lich was a lich and couldn’t be trusted. The Brothers began hotly objecting.

“Shut up!” yelled Kanadius.

The room quieted at once.

“When I want your worthless knee-jerk reactions, I’ll ask for them! We are accepting this joint mission. I thought very hard about it last night, and that was – is – my decision. If any of you object, then feel free to leave this pyramid and walk your spinelessness out into the desert. Right now. Anyone?”

No one spoke.

The Grand Master went on: “I saw the impossible happen three months ago, as did you all. What seems ungodly and evil is not always so.” He looked at Lucas and pointed. “Gorm’s Chosen stands among us. We’re unable to agree on what that means, but we agree that Lucas Sinclair is privileged in Gorm’s eyes and made for holy purpose. If a zoombie can offer the Brotherhood salvation, then who is to say a lich cannot? The legends surrounding the Eye and Hand are murky and conflicted. What matters is our eternal war against Zargon. Worn by a Brother, the Hand of Gaius could wreak devastation on the Zargonites.”

He paused to let it all sink in. There was some murmuring, mostly of approval. Mike’s mind was reeling. He was clueless about these artifacts. He wondered about Will and how much he knew about this joint mission. Auriga must have briefed the Magi by now.

Kanadius fixed his audience with a glare. “So I ask you, Brothers: Are we as one?”

Twelve Brothers, including Mike and Lucas, thundered: “Yes, sir!”

Will we aid the Magi in their quest?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Will we hold the Magi to their word, and to their end of the deal?”

“Yes, sir!”

“And if we obtain it, will we use the Hand with the grace and humility becoming us, not for power’s sake, but to crush the Zargonites and return Cynidicea to the ways of the old gods?”

“Yes! Yes! Yes, sir!”

“Very good!” said the Grand Master. “You inspire me, Brothers. The mission to the Isle departs early tomorrow morning. Training exercises are cancelled today. I need five volunteers for the mission. There will be five Magi as well. Lucas, you and Mike are volunteering. So I need three more. Before any of you volunteer, are there questions?”

A warrior named Dracut immediately raised his hand.

“What?’ snapped Kanadius.

“Who is in charge of the mission, sir?” asked Dracut.

“We agreed on a joint leadership,” said Kanadius. “Auriga will command his people, and Lucas will command the Brothers. All decisions will have to be agreed upon by Auriga and Lucas.”

Lucas cleared his throat. “Sir?”

“What?”

“I’m humbled by your choice of me, but I think it’s appropriate that you lead the Brothers. You’re our leader. Like Auriga leads the Magi.”

“And as your leader,” said Kanadius, “I delegate as I please. Do you agree with that?”

“Yes, sir, of course, but -”

“You are Gorm’s Chosen. The Isle of Death is plagued with your kind. For a mission like this, surely, you are the one to lead us.”

Mike almost laughed out loud. Lucas was no undead and he never had been. The Brotherhood’s resurrection-phobia was superstitious crap.

Lucas inclined his head. “As you wish, sir.”

“I do wish. And you, Mike, will back your friend in every way and guard him with your life.”

“Of course, sir,” said Mike.

Another hand shot up. A Brother named Djibor.

“What?”

“Sir, the Isle is crawling with undead and no one ever returns. We’re not cowards. But neither are we suicidal.”

“There will be a Usamigaran priest on the Magi team: Demetrius Rhone. Many of you know this priest was killed by his Zargonite brother well over a year ago, and he returned to life three months ago in the body of an alien – Lucas and Mike’s friend. Demetrius has a powerful medallion that can keep undead at bay, though it only works in a fifteen-foot radius. Still, he’s a powerful priest, and he can turn undead and use other prayers. We will also be sending one of our own priests from the Gormish stronghold: Atsu Horjei. Atsu is a high priest and will be very useful against any undead. So the team will consist of a total of five Magi, five Brothers, and two very powerful priests.”

Djibor nodded and bowed.

“And remember The Creed, Brothers. Dying on a holy quest guarantees your salvation. But as Brother Djibor points out, these are undead. Avoid being touched by the Isle’s inhabitants at all costs. If you’re lucky, you die for good. Only Brother Lucas has been otherwise blessed in this regard.”

Another hand went up. Mike winced. It was Azariah, one of the fanatics.

“What?” said Kanadius.

“Sir!” Azariah stepped forward boldly. “It is my contention that sharing command in this venture is an affront to our deity. Lucas Sinclair is Gorm come again. That he should defer in any way to the snake Auriga is an unbearable offense. Sir.”

The other two fanatics, Moser and Hyme, nodded approvingly. Everyone else was shocked and held their breath.

Kanadius looked at Azariah and then marched straight up to him. He swung his fist and Azariah went sprawling. A tooth clattered on the floor, and the warrior spat blood.

Mike’s heart raced. The man is in his sixties and he’s a fucking bull.

Kanadius looked down at the warrior. “Question my judgment again with that kind of contempt, and the desert will be your reward. Do you hear me?”

On the floor Azariah nodded, holding his bleeding mouth.

“On your feet,” said the Grand Master.

The warrior stood – and Kanadius slugged him again. Just as hard. There were gasps as Azariah collapsed with a broken nose.

Next to Mike, Lucas was keeping cool, but barely. He didn’t like being the cause of this.

“Now you can get up,” said Kanadius. “And look smart.”

Azariah stood proudly, and shouted, spitting blood: “Yes, sir!”

“Mind yourself, Azariah,” warned the Grand Master. “And remember me kindly in your prayers.”

“Yes, sir!” said the fanatic.

“Anyone else?” asked Kanadius.

Mike was rankled by something. He raised his hand.

“What?”

“Sir, what about the Maidens?”

Kanadius was nonplussed. “What about them?”

“Why are the Magi willing to team up with us, but not them? They represent the old gods as much as we do.”

“Gaius left two artifacts from his body, not three,” said Kanadius.

“Right, but why us and not them?” asked Mike. “The Maidens are warriors like us. They could use the Hand.”

The Grand Master laughed uproariously. A few Brothers laughed as well.

Mike frowned. “Did I say something funny?”

He heard Lucas hiss through his teeth. You better watch yourself. You could lose a mouthful and be sent into the desert.

“Yes, Mike, you said something very funny. Your alien otherness excuses you, perhaps. Women are not true warriors. They can aspire to be second-class fighters at best. That’s what the Maidens are.”

That rubbed Mike the wrong way. For the first time since Kanadius tried to have Lucas executed, he found himself furious with the Grand Master.

Kanadius went on: “As you hopefully know from your readings of The Creed, a woman’s proper place is in the home – where she can wage war on dirt and house pests, and the pots and pans she’s liable to burn.”

Now everyone except Mike was laughing – even Lucas.

“It seems to me,” said Mike recklessly, “that the Maidens have a history of kicking some serious ass. Yes, I read The Creed, but I read the history books you give us too.”

The room went silent. Kanadius stared at Mike for a long time.

Dig yourself out. Right now.

Mike cleared his throat. “What I really mean, sir, is… yes, we know women are inferior” – he choked on the lie – “but the Magi don’t believe that. As I understand it, they hate the Brothers and the Maidens for their authoritarianism, but to them the Maidens are the lesser evil. Why aren’t they offering them the Hand of Gaius?”

Kanadius seemed to relax. “I see your question. The Magi are pragmatic above all. They claim to be egalitarian, but when push comes to shove, fantasies about feminine strength are suicidal. Do you really think they would entrust their safety to a bunch of women? The fact that they chose to ally with us just proves how hollow their rhetoric is about the equality of the sexes.”

Mike doubted that was the right explanation, but he knew when to clam up. He bowed his head.

Another hand went up.

“What is it?” barked Kanadius.

A warrior named Gore spoke: “Sir, who will become the Hand’s owner? Who among us will wield the Hand to our greatest victories?”

“Never mind that now,” said Kanadius. “Let’s actually obtain the Hand before we decide who is going to wield it. Remember, this may be a wild goose chase. The Magi aren’t even sure the Eye and Hand are really on the Isle. It could be a trap we’re walking into.”

Mike wanted to know how the Hand was used. Was it a glove-like cover that went over someone’s hand? And what about the Eye? Was it like a gem of seeing, that someone looked through – strapped over the user’s eye?

“More questions?” No hands went up. “No? Good. Now we need our three volunteers besides Lucas and Mike. Raise your hand if you want to be considered for the mission.”

All ten hands shot up.

Kanadius smiled. “My Brothers, you are worthy of your shoulder marks – each and every one of you. May Gorm’s lightning bless you all. Stand forward when I call your name.”

Mike knew what the Grand Master was going to do.

“Dracut!”

“Sir!”

The warrior who had first spoken stepped forward. Dracut was one of the four moderates, as Mike called the faction who believed Lucas to be a prophetic role model.

“Coval!”

“Sir!”

This was one of the three militants, who claimed that Lucas was indeed a prophetic role model, but that he was also destined to lead the Brothers as the next Grand Master.

“Azariah!”

“Sir!”

That surprised Mike. He thought Kanadius would choose either Moser or Hyme from the fanatics – those who believed that Lucas was actually Gorm himself – instead of the one who had just given him lip.

But on whole Kanadius had done as Mike predicted. He’d chosen a warrior from each of the three factions that disputed Lucas’s role. Very shrewd. He was a hardass but he didn’t play favorites.

Everyone seemed pleased as Kanadius adjourned the meeting. “The five of you will rise early tomorrow morning and depart to the city. The others will be busy today, preparing food and travel stuff for the five volunteers. You will meet the Magi down at the lake. Our priest Atsu will be there already. Auriga and Demetrius are leasing a boat, which should be ready by the time you arrive. If any of you need to see me today for any reason, I’ll be in my chamber. May Gorm bless you all.”

The Brothers drew their swords and cried a salute as Kanadius left the room. When he was gone they began nattering about the mission.

“Pushing your luck,” said Lucas quietly.

Mike didn’t need recriminations now, especially not from his best friend. “It isn’t right,” he said.

“What isn’t?” asked Lucas, exasperated.

“That the Maidens are being left out.”

“Seriously, Mike?”

“All the cults are important, Lucas. Not just the Brothers.”

“That’s sure not how you felt as a dungeon master. We chose right. And Kanadius is right. The Magi know they need the Brothers if they want to get rid of Zargon.”

Kanadius is wrong. Whatever reason the Magi had to ally with the Brothers, Mike was sure it had nothing to do a grudging acknowledgment of Brotherhood superiority.

“Anyway,” said Lucas, “you want to stay and spar?”

“Hell, yeah,” said Mike, “Whup your ass.”

In sword matches, it was usually the other way around: Mike was good, but Lucas beat him three times out of four.

The Brothers began leaving the temple. Azariah, Moser, and Hyme bowed to Lucas on their way out. As soon as Mike and Lucas had the room to themselves, they went at each other hard. Their blades clashed and their blood sang. On this they agreed: sword fighting was an art, and worth living for.

It was a close match, but Lucas won.

 

That night they were on the altar again. Tasting forbidden flesh, riding forbidden highs. Seen by no one, save a forbidden deity who had faded from the collective memory. There was power in obscurity, and Mike wondered if he and Jilanka were better off kneeling here and telling Gorm and Madarua to go to hell.

“I wish you could meet them,” she said.

They’d switched off after an excessive marathon of unbridled sex, and now lay naked in each others arms.

“Me too,” he said, opening his eyes. He’d started to drift. “They’d hate me though.”

Jilanka ran her tongue over his cheek. “You’d be surprised. I think they’d see you for what you are. Certainly Pandora would.”

She won’t get off this. In the five days they’d known each other, not one passed by without her insisting he didn’t belong in the Brotherhood. Maybe this room really was for him. “I love the Brotherhood,” he said. “I just wish they’d accept the Maidens – and same for you guys.”

“We’re not guys,” she said, “and the Brothers will never accept anything outside their narrow Creed.”

“Your Circle has just as many problems as our Creed.”

“Mike, we reject the chauvinism of the Brothers, the deceptions of the Magi, and the evil of the Zargonites. How can you have a problem with that? We want a society with law and order, but one that gives strength to women.”

“You mean only women,” said Mike. “I’m not wild about the Magi, but at least they stand for true equality. There are men and women in the Magi. You Maidens prohibit men from becoming full members of your community.”

“That’s a temporary state,” she said, “but a necessary one, in order to balance the Brotherhood. Especially since they have the most influence.”

“Your ‘temporary state’ had lasted for centuries,” said Mike.

“Tell that to Kanadius,” she retorted.

“So your dream for a restored Cynidicea includes men as full members?” he pressed.

“Our dream for the restored kingdom is that all Cynidiceans can do what they want with their lives.”

That wasn’t exactly a yes. “Including drugs?” he asked. “You’re as much a heretic as I am.”

“Of course,” she said. “I’m not saying the Maidens are perfect. I believe my sisters can be moved to accept mushrooms once they realize addiction can be avoided.”

“Dream on,” said Mike. “The fact is that only the Usamigarans are okay with mushrooms, and only they practice true equality.” We should both be Magi, like Will.

“The Usamigarans are anarchists,” said Jilanka. “Their history is saturated in dirty back-handed opportunism with little regard for compassion. Is that the kind of society you want?”

“No,” said Mike. “I’m just -”

“Run by mages and thieves and assassins?”

“No, but -”

“You need warriors in charge to have justice,” said Jilanka.

“I agree with that!” said Mike. “I’m just playing devil’s advocate, because you make the Maidens seem much better than they are.”

“No,” she said. “It’s that I make the Brothers seem as bad as they really are. They’re bigoted against women, and even worse against homos. Their law codes are inflexible – sometimes more tyrannical than just. They are ultimately what male warriors can only be: deficient and unenlightened warriors.”

“Jesus, you’re so full of shit,” said Mike.

“You know I’m right.”

The truth was that he didn’t know what to believe anymore. His past five days with this girl had upended his rosy view of the Brotherhood. Practically, for one: he liked fucking her, especially on drugs. But also philosophically: now that he had a girlfriend, The Creed‘s bigoted teachings were more than just intellectual exercises; they affected someone he loved.

Loved?

It was the first time he allowed himself to think he was actually in love with Jilanka. She had raped him (more than once), and that was hardly the foundation of a healthy relationship. But he was in love with her. His first time in love. He’d skipped from twelve years old to twenty-two and never known the heartbreaks of teen affairs. Romance was uncharted waters. He was clueless how to navigate it.

All things considered, he was probably in for disaster.

“I suppose you’re always right,” he said, deadpan.

Damn right,” she said, disengaging from his embrace. She repositioned herself to straddle him. She had switched the drug effect back on.

“Wait a minute,” he gasped.

She paused over him. “What?”

He came so close at that moment to telling her about the mission to the Isle the next morning. About the Eye and Hand of Gaius. Then he thought of something else. No, he scolded himself, appalled by his perfidious idea. Then: yes, knowing it was right.

“Quit stalling,” she said.

“Not stalling,” he said. “Just switching on.” Which he did. This was his second time taking the sex craze/slow-time drug combo. And for tomorrow’s mission, he had quite a different combo planned. He had arranged it that afternoon with Demetrius.

He thought of that combo – of the dead speaking and life disembodied – as Jilanka abused him and bruised him, and he cried and came and then again before working her over just the same.

 

 

Next Chapter: The Isle

(Previous Chapter: The Spider of Usamigaras)

Supreme Court Rulings (End of Term)

For those who follow the Supreme Court rulings at the end of June, I’ve summarized the highlights. I’ll add to this page as other rulings will likely emerge before July 1.

Thus far, SCOTUS has ruled that:

(1) a Catholic adoption agency is within its rights to refuse to certify same-sex couples as foster parents (9-0)
(2) the Affordable Care Act remains (7-2)
(3) college student athletes can receive education related payments (9-0)
(4) a high school student is within her rights to spew F-bombs and post vulgarities on social media for being denied a spot on the varsity squad (8-1)
(5) the government cannot force people to allow union recruiters to trespass on their private property (6-3)
(6) Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) do qualify as federally-recognized tribal governments, and thus are eligible to receive CARES funds (6-3)
(7) Only a plaintiff concretely harmed by a defendant’s violation can seek damages against the defendant in federal court (5-4)
(8) a company can sue a state to secure land-use rights for its projects; the state isn’t protected by sovereign immunity just because it has federal approval for the project (5-4)
(9) illegal immigrants who reentered the U.S. without authorization after already having been deported are not entitled to bond hearings (6-3)
(10) Arizona’s voting restrictions are not racially discriminatory (6-3)

I agree with rulings (1), (3), (4), (5), and (9), and not with rulings (2), (6), (7), (8), and (10). Details below.

(1) Fulton v. Philadelphia (6/17/21). The decision: A Catholic adoption agency is within its rights to refuse to certify same-sex couples as foster parents. Written by Roberts for a 9-0 ruling.
— It’s the correct decision but interpreted so narrowly that it leaves the wider question hanging. In this sense it mirrors Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (6/4/18), which ruled that a private baker could refuse to bake a wedding cake for same-sex couples, but only “in this particular case”, because of a technicality. Instead of ruling unambiguously — declaring that business owners cannot be compelled to artistic design, only to provide equal access to whatever products they do make — the justices copped out, saying that the baker in this particular case had been treated poorly by the human rights commission. Gorsuch was the sole justice to face the issue head on in a separate concurrence. Fulton v. Philadelphia repeats the side-stepping maneuver of the wedding-cake ruling. Instead of ruling firmly — saying that non-discriminatory policies still need to make carve-outs for religion and other forms of free expression — Roberts said that Philadelphia’s non-discriminatory policy is not generally applicable “in this particular case”; that the city’s policy was not a “neutral policy”, implying that if the city somehow made it a neutral policy, then “maybe” the city could then refuse to work with Catholic Social Services. Three concurring justices — Gorsuch, Thomas, and Alito — were rightly scornful of Roberts’ correct-but-feeble ruling. [See my full details here]

(2) California v. Texas (6/17/21). The decision: The Affordable Care Act remains. Written by Breyer for a 7-2 ruling.
— As above, the real issue wasn’t addressed. The justices didn’t decide whether the ACA had been rendered unconstitutional; they simply ruled that neither the states nor the individuals challenging the law had a legal right to sue. The substantive question should have been answered. When Congress eliminated the penalty for failing to obtain health insurance (in 2017), it no longer imposed a tax on individuals who didn’t comply. And if the ACA is no longer a tax, then it is unconstitutional, because that was the whole premise of the ruling of National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (2012): Obamacare was Constitutional precisely because it was a tax. I believe the two dissenters, Gorsuch (the best justice on the court) and Alito (the worst), were correct: the change in 2017 to the penalty transformed the health care mandate into a “standalone command” to buy health insurance, which is something that Congress has no power to do. Without the mandate, the entire Affordable Health Care Act must fall. It’s time indeed for Obamacare to go away. Once again, the justices (especially Roberts) didn’t want to get their hands dirty and take the issue head on.
— It’s worth citing Alito’s dissent (which Gorsuch joined), as it’s a rare case of him showing juridical intelligence: “The Court is presented with the daunting problem of a ‘tax’ that does not tax. Can the taxing power, which saved the day in the 2012, sustain such a curious creature? In 2017, Congress reduced the tax imposed on Americans who failed to abide by the individual mandate to $0. With that move, the slender reed that supported the decision in 2012 was seemingly cut down, but once again the Court has found a way to protect the ACA. Instead of defending the constitutionality of the individual mandate, the Court simply ducks the issue and holds that none of the Act’s challengers, including the 18 States that think the Act saddles them with huge financial costs, is entitled to sue. Can this be correct? The ACA imposes many burdensome obligations on States in their capacity as employers, and the 18 States in question collectively have more than a million employees. In prior cases, the Court has been selectively generous in allowing States to sue…” [See further here]

(3) National Collegiate Athletic Association. v. Alston (6/21/21). The decision: College student athletes can receive education related payments. Written by Gorsuch for a 9-0 ruling.
— The ruling allows college athletes to receive education-related benefits such as graduate school tuition, opportunities to study abroad, computers, tutoring, and achievement awards for their academic progress. In other words, it allows more money from a billion-dollar industry to go to the players themselves. College athletics get filthy rich from the sales of tickets and merchandise plus TV contracts for high-profile sports like football and basketball. But the NCAA has argued that restrictions on student athletes are necessary to ensure they maintain amateur status. The justices called out the NCAA for treating athletes poorly and directing the profits generated by college sports to everyone except the actual players. However, the ruling does uphold the NCAA’s general right to pass and enforce amateur rules — to monitor college athletes’ lives, from where they can and cannot work, to their academic degree progress, to their dietary intake, etc. It was a sound ruling and not surprisingly 9-0.

(4) Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. (6/23/21). The decision: A high school student is within her rights to spew F-bombs and post vulgarities on Snapshot for being denied a spot on the varsity squad. Written by Breyer for an 8-1 ruling.
— This one is a slam dunk. Of course this girl can vent her bile on social media, because her inflammatory speech took place outside of school hours and away from the school’s campus. There’s no loco parentis at issue here. The school had no business giving her a disciplinary action, let alone suspend her from the team for a whole year. Thomas dissented, in a feeble excursion on loco parentis.

(5) Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid (6/23/21). The decision: The government cannot force people to allow union recruiters to trespass on their private property. Written by Roberts for a 6-3 ruling.
— In this case, union activists had entered Cedar Point Nursery to recruit farm workers to join the United Farm Workers union. The farm owner wasn’t legally allowed to tell them to leave because of a California law that allows union activists to invade private property for recruitment purposes. This Supreme Court ruling declared that law unconstitutional, and rightly so. The government cannot force people to allow third parties to trespass, even if only for a temporary period of time (aside from a few exceptions, like health and safety inspections, and enforcement of regulations that prevent owners from violating others’ rights). The three dissenters were the liberals — Kagan, Breyer, and Sotomayor — in what is becoming an increasingly alarming trend for liberal justices on property rights issues.

(6) Yellen v. Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation (6/25/21). The decision: Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) do qualify as federally-recognized tribal governments, and thus are eligible to receive CARES funds. Written by Sotomayor for a 6-3 ruling.
— I like the end result but disagree with the ruling. The background: there are twelve Alaska Native corporations (ANCs) that were established in 1971 to operate oil and gas services, in order to generate revenue that provides benefits to the Alaska Natives. It’s an arrangement unique to Alaska; in the other states the Native Americans operate their own tribal governments on reservations recognized by federal law. The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 (ISDA) assured that both Native American tribal governments and ANCs were given the self-autonomy to operate as governments for their respective peoples. The Treasury Department reasoned that the ANCs should thus be awarded CARES funds during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Treasury Department, however, was challenged by three Native tribes: the Navajo Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. These Natives asserted that the ANCs were not officially recognized as tribal governments under the language of ISDA, and thus were ineligible to receive any of the CARES funds during the Covid-19 pandemic. (The Natives were obviously concerned that the amount of funds available to them would be diluted.) The majority backed the Treasury Department against the three Native tribes.
— Though my heart lies with the majority ruling, I believe the dissenters (Gorsuch, Kagan, and Thomas) probably have the legal right of it. See Gorsuch’s dissent here: “Our disagreement is simply about applying the plain meaning, grammar, context, and canons of construction to the particular statutory terms before us. As I see it, an ordinary reader would understand that the recognition clause applies the same way to all Indian groups. And if that’s true, there’s just no way to read the text to include ANCs as ‘tribal governments’ for purposes of the CARES Act.”

(7) TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez (6/25/21). The decision: Federal courts lack jurisdiction to hear many class action lawsuits. Only a plaintiff concretely harmed by a defendant’s violation can seek damages against the defendant in federal court. Written by Kavanaugh for a 5-4 ruling.
— Thomas, correctly, wrote a furious dissent and was joined by the three liberals: “TransUnion generated credit reports that erroneously flagged many law-abiding people as potential terrorists and drug traffickers. Yet despite Congress’ judgment that such misdeeds deserve redress, the majority decides that TransUnion’s actions are so insignificant that the Constitution prohibits consumers from vindicating their rights in federal court.” Thomas and liberals are right, this is a bad ruling. Basically the majority usurped Congress’ power to protect victims by authorizing lawsuits when their rights are violated. Because of TransUnion’s sloppy and inaccurate system, victims were denied credit because TransUnion told businesses they were serious criminals. Not only that, but TransUnion didn’t even tell these individuals that the company had flagged them as serious criminals; it declined to provide them with a summary of rights required by law. This class of victims certainly suffered a “concrete” enough harm, according to Congress. The Supreme Court shouldn’t be violating the separation of powers. Thomas blasted the majority for overturning a precedent that goes right back to America’s founding: Congress has always had the power to define legal rights, and federal courts have never required plaintiffs to demonstrate “concrete” injury.

(8) PennEast v. New Jersey (6/29/21). The decision: PennEast Pipeline Company can sue New Jersey to secure land-use rights for its 116-mile natural-gas project. The state isn’t protected by sovereign immunity just because it has federal approval for the PennEast project. Written by Roberts for a 5-4 ruling (3 conservatives and 2 liberals).
— The result is that private companies have more leverage to negotiate with states when they need the state’s public land. It’s a win for private companies who want to put down pipelines or any kind of infrastructure, and a loss for that states who don’t want such private intrusions. The logic of the majority ruling is that PennEast had been properly delegated the power of eminent domain from the federal government, to which by their nature, states had agreed to upon joining the union. I agree with the dissenters that there is a problem with that logic. After the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the pipeline in 2018, PennEast sued to gain access to land owned or partially controlled by New Jersey. A Philadelphia-based federal appeals court said (quite rightly, I think) that, while the law gives companies eminent domain powers, it doesn’t let them sue states to enforce those rights. That appeals court (again, rightly) pointed to the Constitution’s 11th Amendment, which limits the circumstances in which private parties can sue states without their consent. But Chief Justice Roberts rejected those arguments, saying that lawsuits like the one filed by PennEast “do not offend state sovereignty, because the states consented at the founding to the exercise of the federal eminent domain power, whether by public officials or private delegatees”.
— Barrett wisely dissented (joined by Gorsuch, Kagan, and Thomas): “A straightforward application of our precedent resolves this case. Congress passed the Natural Gas Act in reliance on its power to regulate interstate commerce, and we have repeatedly held that the Commerce Clause does not permit Congress to strip the States of their sovereign immunity. Recognizing that barrier, the Court insists that eminent domain is a special case. New Jersey has no sovereign immunity to assert, it says, because the States surrendered to private condemnation suits in the plan of the Convention. This argument has no textual, structural, or historical support. There is no reason to treat private condemnation suits differently from any other cause of action created pursuant to the Commerce Clause.”
— Basically, the majority grounded its argument on the fact that Congress and the States, like the Colonies before them, have consistently authorized private parties to exercise the right of eminent domain to obtain property for mills, roads, and other public improvements. But the question isn’t whether Congress can authorize a private party to exercise the right of eminent domain against another private party. Nor is it whether Congress can authorize a private entity to take state property through means other than a condemnation suit. The question is whether Congress can authorize a private party to bring a condemnation suit against a State, and on that point the majority doesn’t seem to have a legal leg to stand on.

(9) Johnson v. Guzman Chavez (6/29/21). The decision: Illegal immigrants who reentered the U.S. without authorization after already having been deported are not entitled to bond hearings. Written by Alito for a 6-3 ruling.
— Meaning that they are not entitled to be released on bond while waiting to find out if they will be sent back again; they must be detained. The liberals dissented, but I can’t see a basis for it. The majority ruling appears sound.

(10) Brnovich v. DNC (7/1/21). The decision: Arizona’s out-of-precinct policy and restriction against ballot harvesting do not violate the Voting Rights Act, and are not racially discriminatory. Written by Alito for a 6-3 ruling.
— The background: Arizona invalidates ballots that are cast in the wrong precinct, and it also bans ballot harvesting, in which third parties collect and return other people’s ballots in cases of early voting. Many voters, particularly minorities, who vote early used third parties to collect and drop off voted ballots, until 2016, when Republican legislators passed H.B. 2023, which criminalized the collection and delivery of another person’s ballot. The DNC challenged H.B. 2023 as violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the Fifteenth Amendment because it was enacted with discriminatory intent. It also challenged the restriction against out-of-precinct voting. The restrictions end up disproportionately affecting voters of color, and that they therefore violate the Voting Rights Act. Ballot harvesting, for example, is particularly useful to the state’s Native Indians, because polling places can be far away and mail service isn’t always reliable. The majority denied that Arizona’s restrictions amounts to racial discrimination.
— I believe the liberals (Sotomayor, Kagan, Breyer) were correct to dissent, and that Arizona’s restrictions are effectively discriminatory. And the upshot of this ruling is that states will easily be able to change rules that govern their elections. When you sit this ruling on top of Rucho v. Common Cause (2019) — which ruled that federal courts can’t even consider limits on partisan gerrymandering — this is sure to lead to state-level majorities preserving their power.

Fulton v. Philadelphia: A Repeat of the Wedding Cake Issue

In Fulton v. Philadelphia (6/17/21), in a decision penned by Chief Justice Roberts, the court unanimously upheld the rights of a Catholic adoption agency (Catholic Social Services, or CSS) to refuse to place foster children with same-sex couples. It was a 9-0 decision, as it should have been, but it was decided narrowly and artificially by six of the justices, which irked the other three.

The background: A law in Philadelphia says that no contractor with the city government may discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, which is obviously reasonable and enlightened. This law, however, was construed to be conflict with Catholic adoption and foster agencies. Meaning that if a woman wants to give her baby up for adoption or foster care, and wants the family to hold Catholic values, and so wants the baby to be fostered by a male-female couple, that is now considered (by some) to be discriminatory. This led the city to say that they would no longer do work with Catholic foster agencies, and the issue was elevated to the Supreme Court. Two days ago, the court ruled 9-0 in favor of the Catholic adoption agency, which is obviously the right decision. To call the Catholic Social Services’ practice discriminatory is absurd: no one is saying that same-sex couples cannot adopt children, only that biological parents have the right to request the genders of parents for their own children whom they are setting up for adoption.

Here’s the problem. Most of the justices — and Chief Justice Roberts in particular, as usual — refused to take the issue head on. The question was whether or not to overturn Employment Division v. Smith (1990) (penned by Justice Antonin Scalia), which has always been a problematic ruling. That ruling held that the state could deny unemployment benefits to Native Americans who were fired for using the drug peyote, even though the drug was part of a religious Native American ritual. The liberal Blackmun had penned a strong dissent, stressing that eating peyote is an act of worship and communion for the indigenous peoples, and should be protected on grounds of freedom of religion/expression. Oregon, he wrote, should not be a hostile environment for the practice of Native American religion, and he further noted that the religious use of peyote helped curb effects of alcoholism on the Native American population; there was practically no illegal traffic in peyote to worry about; etc. Employment Division v. Smith, in a word, was a decision made by conservative justices out of hostility to an “unorthodox” religion, and it demolished forty years of judicial precedent.

The ruling of Employment Division v. Smith remains just as problematic today when applied to an “orthodox” religious group like Catholic Social Services. But the justices copped out and didn’t face Employment Division v. Smith squarely. Instead of saying that non-discriminatory policies still need to make carve-outs for religion and other forms of free expression, Roberts said that Philadelphia’s non-discriminatory policy “is not generally applicable”; that the city’s policy was not a “neutral policy” — implying that if the city somehow made it a neutral policy (?), then maybe the city could then refuse to work with CSS; etc. This is the same evasive maneuver he pulled three years ago, with the ruling on wedding cakes for gay couples.

Flashback to the wedding cakes

In Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (6/4/18), the majority (7-2) upheld the right of a private business owner (Jack Philipps) to refuse to design one of his products in a particular way (i.e. the right of a baker to refuse to make a wedding cake that celebrates gay marriage). Of the seven justices, however, only Neil Gorsuch took the issue head on, arguing that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had failed to recognize that private business owners cannot be compelled to create a product that they object to on religious or moral grounds, which is indeed what the Commission had already acknowledged in its own treatment of three bakers who refused to bake cakes with anti-gay messages on them. The Commission, said Gorsuch, should have found in the Philipps’ favor, just as it had found in favor for the other three bakers. All four bakers were in the same situation. The three bakers refused to sell a cake that denigrated same-sex marriage, just as Jack Philipps refused to sell a cake celebrating same-sex marriage. Most critically: The atheist bakers in the first case were happy to sell to persons of Christian faith, just as the conservative Christian baker in the second case was happy to sell to gay people. In both cases, it was the kind of cake, not the kind of customer, that mattered to the bakers. Gorsuch’s reasoning was correct: Business owners cannot be compelled to artistic design, only to provide equal access to their products.

But instead of saying that — that private business owners have a right to not design their products in a way they choose not to — the seven justices waffled, saying that the way in which the Civil Rights Commission decided the case demonstrated “animus for Philipps”. Implying, in other words, that if the Commission had not demonstrated “animus” for the baker (?), then maybe the baker could have been forced to bake the cake for a same-sex couple. These evasive rulings sidestep the critical Constitutional issue. They narrow the issue so artificially so that Chief Justice Roberts can get as many possible justices to agree, for sake of court harmony, without ever really deciding anything.

Right decision with no resolution

Gorsuch was rightly impatient with his fellow justices (and Roberts in particular) in the cake-baking episode, and now, Gorsuch, Thomas, and Alito are all rightly impatient with their fellow justices (and again, Roberts in particular) for another feeble ruling. Technically it’s the correct decision. Under the the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, Catholic Social Services has the right to place children in homes as they have been doing. But Employment Division v. Smith should have been either overturned or qualified as needed. Gorsuch was also right, in his separate concurrence, when he noted that the majority had undertaken a “dizzying series of maneuvers” to arrive at their judgment.

Put simply: Chief Justice Roberts needs to worry less about harmony on his court, and more about fulfilling his mandate. The goal shouldn’t be 9-0 rulings. They should be proper rulings, regardless of the fireworks they bring.

The Lost City: The Spider of Usamigaras

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 Seven:

                      The Spider of Usamigaras

 

The trick to the spider climb was to not think so hard about it. Press one hand firmly, lift the other, and same with the feet. Imagine a single crawling movement, and soon it was streetwalking. Think too hard, and you overcompensated; next the ground was claiming you.

The trick was not – contrary to what Shanti insisted – to not look down. Will loved looking down, and he never mucked his steps when he did. He loved looking down because he felt a secret power over those below him. He had no fear of heights, so vertigo wasn’t a problem.

Auriga was below him now – far below, almost eighty feet – watching his student with the usual mixture of pride and contempt. They were down in the city, at the cavern wall on the east side, not far from the stronghold of Usamigaras. Their weekly trip, and Will’s favorite day, when he could test his limits.

The more perilous the wall, the more it called to him. He loved how it felt, to crawl up and across ceilings in bare feet. The city ceiling was too high – two hundred feet from the ground at least – but he’d conquer it some day. If fly was the more powerful spell (Will had yet to learn it), spider climb was artfully superior. It was so unobtrusive; the coveted technique of spies, thieves, and assassins. A hawk preyed openly, but a widow stalked in murderous silence. Will was the Magi’s widow: the Spider of Usamigaras.

He’d felt reborn receiving that moniker.

Two other Magi had spider climb in their spellbooks, but the alien child William Byers had mastered the art in less than half the time it took them to memorize the spell. Most of the Magi were proud to have a kid in their ranks, but some burned with envy. Auriga, for his part, seemed to enjoy fomenting whatever resentment he could of his prodigy.

He looked down at Auriga and saw him wave, the signal to keep going. Will grinned and resumed his crawl. Onwards and upwards, his mother used to say. He wished she and Jonathan could see him now. A hundred feet. I’ll make a hundred feet today. The city wall was a challenge, and not just because of the monstrous height. It wasn’t smooth like the walls of the pyramid rooms. There were natural rocky protrusions all over. The big and sharp ones could dislodge you, or fail to stick to the hands and feet, if you were crawling too fast or not careful.

Will wasn’t feeling careful; he was feeling his oats. He wanted to impress Auriga. The spell gave him twenty minutes of spider climbing, and he’d been on the wall for a little over five minutes. He still had time before he had to be back on the ground. He was a second level mage – an impossible achievement for a twelve-year old, and usually even for an adult in such short time – and proud of the spells he’d acquired. Auriga was now sixth level, having advanced impressively over the past few months. The other ten Magi in the temple ranged between first and third level. Shanti, Will’s best friend, was still only first. There wasn’t a sliver of envy in Shanti. If he were here, he’d be applauding me.

He must have been at ninety feet now. He paused and glanced below, thrilled by the vastness of open air. Everything below was inferior, insignificant; even Auriga. He went on upwards – and was hit by a sudden feeling of exhaustion. He stopped himself at once. Whoa. He shook his head to clear the fog, but he was getting weaker. It wasn’t vertigo. He’d been fine looking down moments before. Something else…

He began to panic. He was perched ninety feet above the ground, and his muscles were failing him. Auriga! He couldn’t shout for help even; all that came out was a raggedy gasp. And then fear knifed into him as he realized: It’s a spell. I’m under a spell. Someone was assaulting him. With no other recourse, he began a desperate crawl back down.

In his state of enfeeblement his left foot banged against a rocky protrusion, and he overreacted to compensate. Both of his feet slipped and his hands scraped uselessly across the wall. Then the wall was flashing past. The city floor rushed up to meet him. Mom! Help me!

A cushion of air arrested his fall a split second later. He tossed and turned, seeing that he was about twenty feet from the ground, and now falling like a feather. Auriga, he thought. The chief mage had saved him with a levitate spell.

When he touched the ground, Auriga’s look was a reprimand. “What have I told you about getting cocky?”

I did what you said! Will almost shouted. You told me to go higher! He’d seen the mage wave him upwards.

“Even the gifted need to be taken down a peg,” said the chief mage. “Today you were taken down quite a few.”

Will could hardly stand. His legs were shaking from the terror of the drop. “I… it was a spell. Someone put a spell on me.” He looked around the area but saw no one.

“Nonsense,” said Auriga. “You exceeded your limits and got fatigued. Let that be a lesson to you.”

No. There’s no way that was fatigue. He’d been at full capacity and then suddenly overwhelmed by an unnatural exhaustion. And then he saw the truth of it. You.

It was Auriga who had made him fall.

 

Later they lunched at the stronghold. The mess hall bustled with the usual activity. Will saw eight adults and three kids, two Magi, and the priestess Shira. But no sign of Dustin/Demetrius. At that moment he wanted to see Dustin’s face more than anything.

He and Auriga were eating a meal of maize and split yellow peas. The cooks called it split pea soup, but to Will it was split pea goop. He liked it that way – eating split peas like mashed potato. They didn’t often have split peas in the pyramid, despite the requests Will had put in for the supply runners. More of Auriga’s petty power plays.

But he loved his city trips with Auriga. The Usamigaran stronghold was a community for everyone, not just Magi. It felt warm and inviting here. He knew that Mike and Lucas felt the same about the Gormish stronghold – or at least Lucas did. Apparently Mike didn’t always visit the stronghold during their supply runs.

Will wasn’t a supply runner for the Magi. His best friend Shanti was, along with a mage named Makran. Will was too good for such tasks – and he was a child besides – so instead he was subjected to the backhanded privilege of praise and insults, and being set up to fail when he exceeded himself.

“You did good today otherwise,” said Auriga, feeding his face. “Great things are in store for you. I keep saying. But you need more discipline.”

Will nodded obediently. What will he do next to “discipline” me?

He knew that Auriga had sent him falling, and that the chief mage wanted him to know that without having to admit it. According to Demetrius, Auriga was a sadist with an inferiority complex. He enjoyed scaring and belittling Will both to gratify and feel better about himself. Then there were the logistics of spell casting. Auriga had saved him in the nick of time with levitate. That spell took only two seconds to cast, but a fall from the height of ninety feet had you on the ground in two seconds. There was no way Auriga could have reacted in time to levitate Will unless he’d known what was coming. It was obvious: he had cast some kind of exhaustion spell on Will, then immediately started the levitate spell to intercept Will’s fall.

It had occurred to Will on many occasions that Auriga was a terrible human being, but he refused to let that matter. He would certainly not tell his Hawkins friends about the indignities and dangers that came with being Auriga’s student. He was going to be a powerful mage, and the way to that future was Auriga, whether he liked it or not.

He looked up as someone came over from another table. It was the priestess Shira.

“Well, look who’s here,” she said, favoring Will with a greeting. “That day of week?”

Will smiled back at her. “Yeah.” He liked Shira.

“If you have time after lunch, you should join us in the courtyard. The kids are putting on a play. About Alexander and Zenobia.”

Auriga wiped his mouth with a napkin. He was seething at being snubbed by the priestess. “We should really be heading back,” he said, refusing to look at Shira.

“Thanks for inviting us,” said Will.

She smiled and proceeded to greet someone at another table.

“Shira,” called Will.

She stopped and looked back. “Yes, Will?”

“Is Demetrius around?” He knew the question would irritate Auriga, and that’s the main reason he asked it. Make me fall, will you?

“Yes, but he’s busy with Raen. If you stayed and waited a while… ” She glanced at Auriga who coughed irritably.

“It’s okay,” said Will. “Like Auriga said, we have to be going.” It wouldn’t do to provoke his teacher too much.

Shira smiled and moved on.

Auriga shoved his plate aside. “Are you finished?” he asked curtly.

“Almost,” said Will. He still had plenty of food on his plate, as the mage could easily see.

“Well since you eat so damn slow, and you’re determined to keep us here, give me the breakdown of the city’s population. Go.”

So this was his penance for speaking out of turn. No matter, he knew the figures by heart. Auriga had grilled him weeks ago on demographics. A while back the Magi had conducted a census of the underground city. Four of the Magi took lead on the project. It was about three years ago, but the population remained fairly constant in Cynidicea, with little outside interaction and no warfare to reduce the population by much. As for the problem of increase, the means of population control was at the sacrifice altar. The Zargonites put just enough victims under the knife – adults and youths – to maintain a steady population of around 1200. If you counted the goblin and hobgoblin population, the total was about 1600.

Will had the census committed by photographic memory. The current year was 1055 AC (“after the crowning” of some emperor in a foreign land, he forgot who). The census had been conducted in 1052 AC. He recalled the breakdown:

Census of Cynidicea, 1052 AC

In the Underground City

Throughout the City – 996 (809 adult citizens, 187 youths)
Temple of Zargon – 85 (25 priests, 36 warriors, 24 hobgoblins)

Stronghold of Gorm – 49 (4 priests, 10 warriors, 26 adult citizens, 9 youths)
Stronghold of Madarua – 36 (2 priestesses, 11 warriors, 17 adult citizens, 6 youths)
Stronghold of Usamigaras – 25 (3 priests, 5 mages, 13 adult citizens, 4 youths)

In the Goblin Cliffs – 300 (estimated; about 120 goblin and hobgoblin warriors at the emergency call of the Zargonites)

At the Catacombs – 100 (estimated; mostly hobgoblins who guard the area and patrol the main streets of the city)

In the Pyramid

Temple of Gorm – 11 (1 Grand Master, 10 warriors)
Temple of Madarua – 10 (1 Champion, 9 warriors)
Temple of Usamigaras – 12 (1 Chief Mage, 11 mages)

Apparently the Zargonites had accommodated the Magi students, even allowing them into the temple to see the numbers for themselves. The message was obvious. It was a blatant power display for the priesthood, putting their superior numbers beyond doubt and making it official, lest anyone – especially the old cults – get seditious ideas.

Will rattled off these numbers around mouthfuls of split peas, which Auriga barely acknowledged. He was wasting his breath but getting off easy; this penance could have been far worse. When he was finished with his facts and his food, he brought their dishware to the kitchen bins, and they headed back to the pyramid.

 

Two days later, Will got a surprise visit in the morning.

“Dustin!”

It had been at least two weeks since he’d seen his friend, and rushed around his desk to give him a hug. Dustin laughed and hugged him back.

“Thanks for that, Will,” said Dustin, releasing him. “I needed one of those. But I’m actually the other.”

Will looked up at him. “Demetrius?”

“The very same,” said the priest. “But I wouldn’t have gotten a hug like that if you’d known, right?”

Will smiled. He liked Demetrius – almost as much as Dustin. The priest would have gotten a hug anyway.

“By the gods, look at this space you have,” said Demetrius, marveling at Will’s privilege. “Your own room.”

It was part of his reward for being a prodigy. Almost a month ago, Auriga had cleared space in the Magi treasury room and made it Will’s private chamber. Will now slept in a room full of chests containing the Magi’s wealth. And he still had enough space left over to match the size of Auriga’s chamber.

“I know,” said Will. “I can’t believe Auriga does all this for me.” On top of playing tricks that nearly kill me. “Do you want to see him?”

“Ah… no,” said the priest. “I came to see you, actually.” He stopped and stared at the tapestry. “Leaving your mark, I see.”

The tapestry had been woven by Shanti and two other mages, and hung on the wall facing the room entrance. It was a giant widow spider. When Will sat at his desk – as he had been upon Demetrius’s entry – visitors saw the spider in the background over Will. The Magi took pride in their Spider Child.

“Do you like it?” asked Will. “Or is it… too much?”

The priest seemed lost in thought, and then answered: “Oh no, it’s fine, Will. Truly. I’m fully behind the Spider Child.”

“But you came to see me about something?” If he talks to me about pedophiles and the bird man, I’m going to scream.

“Yes, I did. Do you want to take a walk?” Demetrius looked pointedly around the room, at the walls and ceiling.

Will stood up, understanding. “Sure.” He knew that Demetrius wasn’t being paranoid. It was more than likely that Auriga had a scrying device planted somewhere in this room, though Will had never been able to find one. It may have been invisible. Not that it bothered him. With all the wealth stored in this room, he rather expected the chief mage to keep tabs on his private doings. Though that did contradict the libertarian platform of the Magi. Shanti’s refrain came back to him: Auriga is no true Magi.

“Good,” said Demetrius. “Let’s go outside.”

“The top?” asked Will, excited.

“You’ll never be a true Cynidicean,” laughed the priest, “if you like being out in the sun.”

Will grabbed his sun-goggles and key, and locked the door behind him as they left the room. They walked down the corridor that put them at the southwest door of the revolving passage. They didn’t have to push the button. The passage was still aligned at this door where Demetrius had left it.

Inside they swiveled the passage a full seven notches to align their door with the southern corridor. From there they went up the stairs to Tier 2.

“Can we stop and see Mike and Lucas?” asked Will as they climbed.

“If we must,” said the priest sourly.

“They might be sword training downstairs,” said Will.

At the top of the stairs they took a right detour down to Mike and Lucas’s room. Will knocked on the door but no one answered.

“Like you said,” said the priest.

Will nodded, disappointed, and they both retracted their steps to the corridor that went ahead, then branched right down to another door. They opened it and entered the central room of the tier.

It was the way to the desert surface, with three ladders spaced ten feet apart; each ladder climbed up to the first tier and beyond it to the top of the pyramid outside. The rest of the room was filled with weird looking parts of machinery, clay pots, and oil flasks. There was a small foundry – with a forge, anvil, tongs, and hammers. Will remembered Shanti saying the foundry was used in old days to fix broken parts of the three god-statues on top of the pyramid.

“Middle ladder,” said Demetrius, positioning himself to climb. Not that it mattered. All three led to the same place. He began his ascent.

Will climbed up after him. At the ceiling they entered a huge cylinder and kept climbing for twenty feet, until they reached a door in the cylinder wall. It was the door to Tier 1, which they bypassed – a single room filled with traps for the unfortunate. Any desert explorers who chanced upon the pyramid and entered uninvited got a rude surprise in that room.

 

They continued to the top, where the cylinder took on the shape of a hollowed-out statue. Will felt a thrill of excitement. They were inside the statue of Usamigaras – the way he’d come with Shanti. Like the other two statue interiors, this one had a special speaking tube. In the days when Cynidicea was a surface city – well over eleven hundred years ago – the priests of the old gods used these tubes to “speak the god’s will” to the people. The days of unity, thought Will. Before Zargon. When Brothers, Maidens, and Magi fought as one. 

There were also levers inside the hollow, and Will reached for one, heaving it to one side. He needed both arms to move it, and even then it was hard. He was moving some part of the Usamigaras statue – an arm maybe, or the head, or the eyes – though no one was outside to see the effect.

“Enough play,” said Demetrius. “Let’s go. And put your goggles on.” The cleric was already strapping on his eye protection.

Will put on his goggles, which were an absolute requirement for walking the surface. Months of living underground had given him night eyes. When Demetrius opened the door at the base of the statue, Will squeezed his eyes shut as sunlight blazed in. Even with goggles on they needed to let their eyes adjust. Then they stepped out onto the pyramid top, and saw the desert.

It was a land out of Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Will had been outside like this only twice: once with Mike and Lucas, and then a few weeks later with Shanti. All the cults forbade their members from going outside alone, and even partnered or group visits were discouraged. The desert was a lifeless, scorching, arid land, and there were occasional marauders bred to the climate. Hardly anything remained of old Cynidicea. A few ruins and stone blocks stood out, but the blowing sands had effaced most of them. Over three hundred yards away were hints of the old city wall, jutting out of the sand.

And then, overcome by the vast expanse, Will Byers started weeping. He missed Hawkins. Out here in the open sky he didn’t feel like the Spider of Usamigaras. He felt like the tiny kid he was, who needed to be home with his mom and Jonathan; to start middle school with Mike, Lucas, and Dustin; and to ride his bike for miles. He missed bike riding more than anything. There weren’t even horses down in the Lost City. Just a few camels.

Get a hold of yourself, dammit.

He hurriedly wiped his eyes under his goggles before Demetrius could see him crying. The priest had no patience for it. Will turned around to hide his face, and looked up at the statues. They towered like the titans of Greek mythology. Gorm stood thirty feet tall: a strong bearded man holding a balance of scales in one hand and a lightning bolt in the other. Madarua, also thirty feet, was on the other side: a female warrior holding a sword in one hand and a sheaf of wheat in the other. In the middle was Usamigaras, twenty feet tall: a winged child – some said he’d been a hobbit in mortal life – with two snakes twined about his body. The cherub/hobbit held a wand in one hand and a fistful of coins in the other. From within these statues, priests had blared out divine imperatives.

“Humbling, isn’t it?”

Will faced the cleric again. He nodded, still too overcome to speak.

“Cynidicea wasn’t always lost. It was a kingdom of thousands, not hundreds. But anyway. Now that we’re out here, tell me true. How has Auriga been treating you?”

Will’s heart picked up, but he kept a poker face. “Fine. You know, he’s a bit shifty, but… you know, a really good teacher.”

“Mm-hmm.” The priest regarded him carefully. “Shifty. I can think of other words I’d use to describe the man. You’re being charitable. And loyal. Good traits in a student, I suppose.”

Telling Demetrius about his ninety-foot fall was out of the question. Not that he didn’t trust the priest to keep a secret like that. He thought he probably could. It was Dustin he didn’t trust, and Dustin was hearing this now. Dustin would shoot off his mouth to Mike and Lucas at first opportunity, and they, in their overprotective fury, would descend on Auriga and remove Will from the Magi. Will wasn’t having that.

“I’m doing fine, Demetrius,” he said. “I’m happy in the Magi.”

Demetrius nodded absently and turned to look over the city ruins. He stayed quiet for a couple minutes. “I hate the outside,” he said finally, “but every once in a while, I like this view from the top. All this emptiness. And a reminder of what we once were.”

Will waited, unsure of what to say.

“You were a surface dweller in your world,” said the priest. “Underground life must be quite an adjustment.”

What’s eating at him? Whatever the priest wanted to discuss, it wasn’t Will’s welfare or fresh air.

Demetrius went on before getting a response: “I try to imagine Cynidicea when it was up here under the sky. The glory days. I guess most places in the world still are still like that.” He looked at Will. “What about where you’re from? Are there underground cities in your world? Anything like our Lost City?”

“Not many, I don’t think,” said Will. “But there’s this place in the middle of Turkey, where, like, twenty-thousand people lived underground. Like, for centuries, until recently. But you can visit them and see the chapels and schools and stables. And other rooms.”

“Twenty-thousand?” said Demetrius. “Fascinating.” He sounded anything but fascinated. “I’m sure you must miss the open sky. And I’m sorry if this fucking place feels like a fucking prison.”

Will took a deep breath. “I miss being outdoors. I really miss bike riding. But even if I had a bike here, I couldn’t ride it in the desert.

“What’s a ‘bike’?” asked the priest.

Will stopped to think how “bike” had rolled off his tongue in the alien language. It had come out as an invented word. “It’s a thing you ride with two wheels. It has pedals. And there are brakes -”

“I see,” said Demetrius, cutting him off.

“I’ve gotten used to the underground,” said Will. “It’s not so bad.”

“Well, you don’t have much choice. So there’s no sense complaining.”

“I wasn’t com -”

“And if our food still upsets your bowels, you’ll just have to choke that down too.”

Will didn’t know how to react to this. He waited as the priest started pacing, clearly troubled by something. Demetrius went to the edge of the pyramid again and stood looking out, with his hands on his hips. He stood like that for a long time.

“Demetrius?” said Will. “Is something bothering you?”

The priest turned to face Will again, sighing. “I want to show you something.” He removed a parchment from his tunic. “This is a letter written to Keldor.”

Keldor. The chief mage before Auriga. He had vanished mysteriously seven months ago and still hadn’t been found. He was presumed dead.

Demetrius continued: “It’s from one of the mages in our stronghold. His name was Sinbar. This letter from Sinbar was never sent. He died from poisoning, probably by Zargonites. About a month before Keldor disappeared. We found the letter just a few days ago.” He held it out to Will. “Read it. I’d like your opinion of it.”

Will took the parchment, flabbergasted that Demetrius was bringing him in on something like this. The handwriting on it was sloppy but legible:

 

Keldor,

Get thy uppity arse down here, soon’s you’re able. Things be not as they seemed. The Eye and Hand be on the Isle, not the Catacombs. At Vark’s Ring, if thee can believe it.

Regards to the Magi, and a pox on Jess if she be refusin to spread herself for thee.

– Sinbar

 

He read it multiple times, struggling through the archaic grammar. “The Isle” almost certainly had to be the Isle of Death – the only island in the city, and which every Cynidicean refused to set foot on. “Vark’s Ring” was apparently a site on the Isle. “The Eye and Hand” were – what? Magic artifacts of some kind? The last sentence made no sense to him. Jess was one of the Magi in the temple. Her bunk was two beds down from the one he’d slept in before being gifted with his private room. She was a nice person and Will liked her. He took a dim view of anyone calling down disease on her.

“The last bit’s not important,” said Demetrius, as if reading his mind. “It’s the stuff before.”

Will looked up. “I don’t understand most of this. What’s the Eye and Hand that are supposed to be on the island? What’s Vark’s Ring?”

“The Eye and Hand of Gaius,” said Demetrius. “Two artifacts that the cults would kill for. Some say they’re cursed, but that the powers they grant are so great as to make the curses worth it. This letter implies that Sinbar discovered their location. Up until now it’s been assumed that the Eye and Hand were somewhere deep in the Catacombs. The lich Gaius is entombed down there, but anyone who goes too deeply into the Catacombs never comes out again. Vark’s Ring is the ring of stone arches at the isle’s center.”

“Aren’t there a lot of undead on the island?” asked Will. In Mike’s game, he, Lucas, and Dustin hadn’t gone out to the isle, but they’d heard the rumors.

“Yes,” said the priest. “But no one knows what kind. The island is only eighty feet across, so gods only know where all the undead rest. Probably in underground caves. When the Cynidiceans first built the Lost City, they dug up all the dead bodies in the areas they were clearing out, burned them, and reburied the ashes on the island. Not long after came the undead, and no one is really sure how, except that the ashes must have had something to do with it.”

“And so the Eye and Hand are at this ring of stone arches, surrounded by undead?”

“It would appear,” said Demetrius. “If this letter can be trusted.”

“You don’t?”

Dustin’s face took on a vexed expression. “I don’t believe Sinbar wrote this letter.”

“I’m lost.”

“So am I,” said Demetrius.

“Well… how many people talk like this? In my three months here, I’ve never heard anyone speak with ‘thee’s and ‘thy’s’.”

“Oh, it sounds perfectly like Sinbar. He was raised to speak that way by his deranged mother.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“It’s not Sinbar’s handwriting. One of our people found this letter in the corner of the trash storage. Which means that it’s been there since Sinbar disappeared – eight or nine months ago. Which I find hard to believe. The letter was given to Raen and he called in me and Shira to discuss it. Even aside from the astonishing revelation about the Eye and Hand, it seemed fishy to me.”

“You said Sinbar died from poisoning? From Zargonites?”

“Zargonites is our best guess. I was dead during this time, of course, so I had no idea what was going on. When I was dead, Sinbar and two other people in the stronghold were poisoned by a blackface mushroom that somehow got in the food supply. Everyone presumed the Zargonites were behind it. It’s a common tactic of theirs.”

“When did Keldor disappear?” asked Will.

“About a month after the poisoning incident. This letter would seem to confirm what Auriga told me on your first day here: that Keldor was after something in the Catacombs.”

“The Eye and Hand of Gaius,” said Will.

“Which I also don’t buy,” said the priest. “Keldor wasn’t nearly experienced enough – or stupid enough – to go after artifacts like that on his own, or with someone like Sinbar. So I told Raen to fetch one of the mages who had worked closely with Sinbar, copying scrolls. We showed him the letter.”

“Forged?” asked Will.

Demetrius nodded. “The mage swore up and down this wasn’t Sinbar’s handwriting. So unless Sinbar was possessed, he didn’t write this letter.”

“I’m still lost. What kind of opinion do you want from me?”

“You’ve played scenarios like this, back home in your games. You’re a prodigy in our world, being showered with special privileges. Start earning them. I’m asking for your counsel.”

Start earning them? That wasn’t fair. “Demetrius… I don’t know what to say. If Sinbar didn’t write the letter, then you’re saying it was planted?”

“I believe so, yes.”

“How could I guess who did that?”

“I’m not asking you to identify the forger. We’re not going to solve this mystery standing up here today. I’m asking you what should be done with what we know.”

“Have you or Raen told Auriga about this?” asked Will.

“Not yet. But I’ll be doing that as soon as we finish our talk.”

“Well… do you think he wrote the letter?”

“It crossed my mind,” said Demetrius. “But I find it hard to believe. If he’s the forger it would mean that he’s playing a very deep game within the Magi community.”

“That’s… possible,” said Will. Or was it? Auriga was mean and petty, but this letter involved murder, disappearing acts, and conspiracies.

“I’ve suspected his involvement in Keldor’s disappearance ever since I returned to life in Dustin’s body.”

“Well, if that’s true…” said Will. Come on, think. “Then Auriga was after Keldor’s position as chief mage. Keldor had to be removed. Keldor was never interested in any magic artifacts or a suicide mission into the Catacombs.”

Demetrius kept nodding. “Go on.”

“Keldor was just… in the way.” Blocking Auriga’s climb to power. “Auriga would never have become chief mage with Keldor holding the title.”

“Good. Which means?”

“Which means what?” asked Will.

“If Keldor never had any sights on the Eye and Hand of Gaius, then what does that say about Sinbar?’

“He didn’t either,” said Will. “They were never working together on some mission like that.”

“And yet he’s no longer around either.”

“But he was poisoned. And not just him, but two others. Were they mages too?”

“One of them,” said the priest. “The other was a citizen. They all ate the same product – a dried fruit – that had been laced with the blackface mushroom.”

“That’s different from Keldor. You never even found his body. Do you think Auriga was behind the poisoning incident?”

“If he was – and/or if he’s the forger of this letter – then, as I said, he would be playing a very deep game.”

Will was straining to keep up. “Someone wants the Magi to think that the Eye and Hand of Gaius are at the island.”

“Yes.”

“Even though they’re not.”

“Why do you say that?” asked the priest.

“We just determined it.”

“No, we determined that Keldor and Sinbar had no interest or involvement in them. So someone is now using Keldor and Sinbar – who are conveniently dead – to wave the Eye and Hand under our noses. Maybe it is smoke; maybe it’s bullshit; maybe it’s true. What we know is that the forger wants the Magi to think they are there.”

Will felt a chill go through him. “So it’s a trap. Whether or not the artifacts are really there.”

Demetrius smiled. “Someone either desperately wants the Magi to retrieve these items, or someone – equally desperately – wants to send the Magi on a suicide errand.”

Will shook his head. “I can’t offer much beyond that.”

“Nor can I. But I wanted to bounce this off you before bringing the matter to Auriga, which is what Raen sent me here for. You spend more time with Auriga than anyone. What does your gut say? About him being the forger – or at least being the one who orchestrated the forging of this letter?”

Will remembered his fall two days ago. His muscles failing. His feet out of step. His hands shaking. The wall flashing by. His rescue – and his rescuer’s sneer.

Jesus, he’s a monster.

Sweat broke out over Will’s skin. “I’d say,” he answered slowly, “that anything is possible with Auriga.”

“Thank you. I take your opinion seriously. And now the difficult task lies before me, when we go back and I talk to him.”

“So why tell him?” asked Will.

“He’s the Chief Mage! The second in command of our community. Raen leads the stronghold, and Auriga leads the temple. When Raen makes a decision like this, Auriga has to be involved.”

“What decision?” asked Will, fearing the answer.

“We’re going to the Isle. To get the Eye and Hand – if they’re there.”

“You’re going to walk into the trap?”

“No choice,” said Demetrius. “Raen, Shira, and I agreed. If we can get the Eye and Hand of Gaius, the Magi could tip the balance of power. The Zargonites wouldn’t rest so easy anymore.”

A part of Will felt excited. This was a classic D&D quest; a hunt for legendary artifacts. The other part said this mission was crazy. “What exactly do the Eye and Hand of Gaius do?”

“No one knows exactly,” said Demetrius. “In order to be used, they have to replace a missing eye or hand on a person’s body. And it has to be two different people. If one person were to bind himself to both the Eye and Hand, he would die instantly – the power would be unendurable. And once someone is bound to the Eye or Hand, it’s for life. They’re supposed to be impossible to remove without killing the person.”

Will was aghast. “You’re saying that you need to rip out one of your eyes or chop off one of your hands to use these things?”

The priest smiled grimly. “The price of power.”

“But what do they do?

“The Eye is supposed to grant visions of near omniscience. And the ability to kill creatures just by looking at them.”

Holy shit.

“The Hand is supposed to make a warrior nearly invincible.”

“Wow.”

The priest nodded. “So you understand the Magi’s interest. If we had the Eye and Hand of Gaius, the Zargonites would have cause to fear us. So would Zargon himself.”

“Maybe,” said Will, feeling skeptical. “But there are no warriors in the Usamigaran community. Who would wield the Hand?”

“Well, yeah. I’ve been thinking about that.”

“I don’t know, Demetrius. In our D&D games, if there was even a chance something was cursed, I didn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.”

“This is no game, Will. We’re fighting for our survival. I’m aware of the risks, as are Raen and Shira. We didn’t decide this lightly.”

“Well, I hope it goes well for you. Who would be the ones to go on this quest?”

“That’s what I need to discuss with Auriga.”

“Do you think he’ll volunteer himself?”

The cleric smiled. “If he did, that would, at the very least, mean that he believes the artifacts are on the Isle. But I don’t see him agreeing to put himself in that kind of danger.”

Will nodded. He looked out over the ruins and blinding sand. The heat was becoming brutal. It had to be over a hundred degrees. He didn’t care. Being outside was a rare treat.

“So tell me, Spider Child,” said Demetrius, changing the subject, “what new spells are you learning?”

They stayed and talked that way for a few minutes more. Finally the heat was too much, and they started to go back. Demetrius was on top of the ladder inside the statue when Will thought of something.

“Hey, Demetrius.”

The priest paused on the rung, looking at him.

“Was Keldor really ‘uppity’? The letter called him that.”

Demetrius laughed. “Funny how you ask. He sure as hell was. Keldor could be mighty condescending. But he was a very good man. Why?”

“I don’t know,” said Will. “But it seems like a small detail that makes the letter sound genuine. You know, like it’s really from Sinbar.”

“That’s very perceptive of you. But for that very reason, it’s the kind of detail a good forger would want to include. To make it look real. That’s why he also included the extraneous bit about getting laid.”

“Getting laid?”

“Come on. You need to get back to your studies. And I have a hard afternoon ahead of me.”

He went down the ladder, and Will followed.

 

Next Chapter: Maiden of Madarua

(Previous Chapter: Brothers of Gorm)

Dungeon Magazine Picks

I’ve never been a fan of Dungeon Magazine, mostly because it dominated during the 2e period of D&D (the Bronze and Dark Ages), when the game was on a downward spiral. But there are some good adventures from Dungeon‘s pages, excellent ones even, and I thought it worth sharing ten that I value in particular.

1. Kingdom of the Ghouls. 5+ stars. Wolfgang Baur, 1998, Issue #70. Levels 9-15. The best Dungeon module hands down. An army ghouls is taking over the underworld, forcing other races to flee or join. Baur develops a compelling culture of an intelligent race of ghouls that speak their own language and set an agenda to rival the drow and mind flayers. Those who love the classic D1-3 series, especially Vault of the Drow, will eat this right up. Do not use the 2009 remake for 4e, which is as awful as this original is excellent… and so weird and demented.

2. Tears for Twilight Hollow. 5 stars. Angel Leigh McCoy & Christopher Perkins, 2002, Issue #90. Levels 6-8. Twice the length of most Dungeon adventures, and it never cheats with its complex layers of plotting. A paladin has been murdered, and the trail eventually leads to catacombs under the village, and the discovery of a cult that enforces masochism and pain.

3. The Forgotten Man. 5 stars. Steve Devaney, 1999, Issue #75. Levels 6-8. A story of redemption. A man who seems decent enough has lost his memory. If he regains his memories, things will become very bad, because he’s Evil with a capital E. Starts in a village setting and ends up in a deadly castle requiring lots of shrewdness on the part of the players.

4. The Mud Sorcerer’s Tomb. 5 stars. Mike Shel, 1992, Issue #37. Levels 13-15. Many claim this is the best thing Dungeon ever published, and you can certainly make a case for it. It’s basically a Tomb of Horrors that gives the players a chance of surviving. The traps and tricks are creative, the puzzles make sense, and the tension never lets up.


5. The Ghost of Mistmoor. 4 ½ stars. Leonard Wilson, 1992, Issue #35. Levels 3-6. A haunted mansion adventure with creative rooms and clever traps — my favorite haunted house adventure ever made for D&D, even more than Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. Involves one ghost or more, and ghostly impersonators on top. Nothing is quite as it seems, and it’s not easy to figure out what the hell is going on.

6. The Styes. 4 ½ stars. Richard Pett, 2005, Issue #121. Levels 8-10. Set in a coastal town, the plot involves solving a murder and clearing the wrongly accused, which in turn leads to running afoul the Tharizdun cult, an aboleth, and a young kraken. Heavy Lovecraft vibes, and it’s hard to go wrong there.

7. Mightier Than the Sword. 4 ½ stars. Willie Walsh, 1991, Issue #29. Levels 1-4. A scribe invents a metal nib for the end of a quill, for which he is loved and hated in equal measure, by the town’s guild of scribes (hated), ink makers (loved), druids (hated), and paper manufacturers (loved). Then he’s murdered, and everyone starts jumping to conclusions. Probably the best murder mystery I’ve seen in D&D.


8. The Harrowing. 4 stars. Monte Cook, 2001, Issue #84. Levels 14-16. If you use the classic module Vault of the Drow in conjunction with Drow culture material from Dragon #298, and then follow it up with this module instead of Queen of the Demonweb Pits, you’ve got a kick-ass campaign. PCs can be expected to die, as The Harrowing takes place in the Demonweb Pits on the Abyss… but then who wants to live forever?


9. Slave Vats of the Yuan-ti. 4 stars. Jason Kuhl, 1998, Issue #69. Levels 3-5. Set in a swamp where the wildlife grows too big, thanks to enchanted atmosphere. It ends at an abandoned house being used by the Yuan-ti as a laboratory for hideous cloning experiments. That’s down in the basement level. The ground and upper floors are playgrounds for gremlins who wreak havoc on unsuspecting intruders.

10. Into the Fire. 4 stars. Grant & David Boucher, 1986, Issue #1. Levels 6-10. For a game called Dungeons & Dragons, there are surprisingly few good modules focusing on dragons. (The Dragonlance series of the mid-’80s was horrible.) Into the Fire is a decent adventure from the very first Dungeon issue that gets right back to basics. A red dragon needs to be dealt with ASAP before more people are roasted.

The Lost City: Brothers of Gorm

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 Six:

                             Brothers of Gorm

 

The gardens were a paradise, drug war be damned. Mike was floored whenever he visited them. No matter how many minds they fried and lives they destroyed, they were twenty shades of salvation for countless others. People found themselves in addiction, rose to a desperate endurance, and lived in impossible dreams. The alternative was the slaying of the heart and soul.

Everywhere in the underground, but at the gardens especially, were things that had fired Mike’s obsession when the Lost City was a game. The adventure module had suggested a fallen race, that retreated into fantasy to cope with enslavement. A tragedy of lost culture, and vain struggles for its restoration. He had wanted to go there; that’s the kind of grip it had had on him.

Now he was here – impossibly here – and was part of that hopeless struggle. The gardens were a reality check, ironically, on what Kanadius required of him. The return of the old gods. Upending eleven centuries of drug culture. Just thinking of it is absurd. The natives wouldn’t give up their lifeline. If a thirty-five-foot tall monster was nominally their god, the real deity lay stretched out below, over a 200 x 400 foot field of multi-dazzling color. Most of the mushrooms were blue, but there were a score of colors, all of which Mike and Lucas had been required to memorize. Kanadius had summoned Mike to his chamber last week and given him a tome from his library.

“Part of your qualification for command,” he had said, handing it to Mike.

“Command?” Mike felt privileged to be invited into Kanadius’s chamber.

“If you or Lucas ever want to lead,” said the Grand Master. “I won’t be around forever.”

Mike was stunned by the idea that Kanadius would be willing to consider him – a recently initiated alien – to ever fill his shoes. The man was in his sixties but could fight like Hercules. Did he have a health issue, or was he just planning for the future? I’m not the future of the Brotherhood, and everyone knows that. He’s talking about Lucas. And just being polite in summoning me.

The tome was heavy as he leafed through it. “Is this more doctrine? I’m burned out on theology.” Mike loved the daily sword drills; the twice-a-week readings of the The Creed of Gorm, less so. Lucas was no theologian either, but of course Mike didn’t add that. Lucas was the Chosen.

“Not theology,” said Kanadius. “Mycology.”

Mycology? Isn’t that like botany? He skimmed more pages and his eyes widened. There were drawings of mushrooms in every color and spot and stripe. He looked up at Kanadius. “Are all of these grown in the gardens?”

The Grand Master nodded. “Except for the priestly mushrooms, which are grown in secret somewhere – probably the Catacombs. Cynidicea will never reattain greatness until addiction is wiped out. Defeating Zargon and the church isn’t enough. And we can’t wipe out a problem we don’t understand. I want you and Lucas to familiarize yourselves with the mushrooms – every kind cultivated by the Zargonites. They’re all addictive, except the poisonous ones obviously. Visit the gardens in the city. Spend time on the streets observing people. You told me once that you have special treatments for drug addicts in your world. I’m not expecting you to work miracles here, but if you or Lucas can think of anything to help in our war on drugs, let me know.”

Our war on drugs. Life and art again. Back in America, President Reagan and his wife had promised to rev up that same war. Mike’s parents approved the Reagan efforts. Mike was becoming less sure that a drug war could be won.

Kanadius wouldn’t tolerate that opinion. And Lucas was optimistic that drugs could be done away with. Mike swore thinking of Lucas. Gorm’s Chosen. He remembered their initiation rite three months ago, and the divine intervention that had stunned every warrior in the temple. Who would have guessed?

He looked around for Lucas, wondering where he was. Probably still yakking with the idiot who was hawking biscuits. They were down in the city for supplies, but Mike had insisted on a detour to the gardens. Not that he’d learn anything new. But he loved staring. The shrooms were eye candy.

He watched as city workers moved over the garden floor, tending to the irrigation channels. Zargonite warriors and hobgoblins patrolled the area, alert for thieves. When Mike saw the pens along the northern perimeter he made a face. The pens were filled with cave crickets that infested the city; bugs that gorged on fungus, and had to be caged to keep the mushrooms safe. The crickets were then kept as foodstuff and consumed for nutritional value. Mike had vowed to never eat a cave cricket.

Someone cried out, and he looked down the street. A man in a racoon mask was fighting an unseen foe and swinging his fists in the air. Not far from him, a medusa-masked woman had disrobed and assumed a lotus posture in the middle of the road, fondling her breasts. A few passersby – a demon, a flying squirrel, and a kangaroo – ignored them both, the kangaroo humming a listless tune. Thus are they easily ruled.

It was the key to Zargonite dominion: keeping the citizens drugged. In return for a few peasant labors, the Cynidiceans had license to spend most of their day in dreams – baked on acid, stoned in sedation, whatever their flavor. Those who refused mushrooms became lesser addicts anyway. Acid was in the water supply.

These fields would have to burn.

It felt good to imagine it. But you couldn’t bring down Eden and expect people to go on.

Mike wished he could enter the gardens and see the crops up close, but knew he would be shot on sight without a worker pass. And a Brother of Gorm would never have such a pass. Mike wasn’t wearing his mask – the golden face of the stern warrior – but from the neck down he was in uniform: chain mail over a blue tunic, like all Brothers. And of course he had his long sword strapped to his back. On top of that, his black hair marked him as an alien. He was a walking bullseye when he was in the city – to say nothing of when he had Lucas by his side.

“Mike!”

He turned again and saw Lucas hurrying up the street. It hit him suddenly, how far they’d come since being here. He thought of Darius’s hobgoblins. Was that really three months ago? He and Lucas had been so wet behind the ears and absurdly proud – proud of a slaughter that owed nothing to the warrior discipline that ruled them now. They’d been juiced up on rage; a maniacal rage made possible by this garden. Since then neither of them had touched a shroom of any kind.

“About time,” he said as Lucas joined him at the fence.

“Got biscuits,” said Lucas, belching. He had already devoured his, and handed the other one to Mike.

Mike shook his head. “I’ve been thinking,” he said, staring down at the garden floor.

“Then we’re in trouble,” said Lucas. He stuffed the other biscuit in his mouth.

“Trying to get rid of all this is hopeless. And counterproductive.”

“What?”

“We’re talking about a drug culture that’s over a thousand years old,” said Mike.

“The Zargonites are over a thousand years old. The two go hand in hand.”

“Who says?” said Mike. “I mean, who says it has to be that way? Get rid of the Zargonites and the old cults are in power again. What happens to the gardens at that point is up to the old cults – up to us.”

“I don’t follow. You want us to be like the Zargonites and rule over a city of acid heads? You think mushrooms are okay?”

“For some people, yes – no, hold on, Lucas. I’m just trying to work this through.”

“Well, while you’re working it through, walk down those streets and take a good look.”

“I know this shit does a lot of damage.”

“Gee, you think?”

“But so does ale and mead. Look at the alcoholics living on some of those streets. Do you want to outlaw booze?”

Lucas made a face. “That’s a stupid analogy.”

“It’s a perfect analogy.”

“I can’t believe you’re defending acid and comparing it to a glass of wine. Or berserker rage – what that shit made us do – and say that it’s like having a shot of whiskey.”

“Drink enough of that whiskey and you’ve got wife beating and child abuse and lies and thievery and homelessness – and just as much poison in your body as any drug will do to you. Booze destroys lives too, Lucas. But booze isn’t bad for everyone.”

“Come on, Mike, you’re reaching. What mushrooms do is on another level.”

“But for good as much as bad. For some people the shrooms foster artistic creativity. And they make life bearable – even enjoyable – when you live under these constant fucking threats. How would you get through your day knowing your wife or your kid might be chosen for the next altar sacrifice? If I were a peasant in this city, I’d take the acid over drowning in booze.”

“Mike, there wouldn’t be any blood sacrifice under the old gods!”

“I know that,” said Mike. “My point is that drugs aren’t bad for everyone. And there should be a choice, don’t you think?”

“No,” said Lucas. “I don’t think. That’s what the Usamigarans think. I hope Will hasn’t been brainwashed with that libertarian garbage.”

“But you believe in your choice to have a pint of ale.”

“Okay, you’re talking crazy,” said Lucas. “And don’t let Kanadius hear this shit. Or any of our Brothers.”

“Lazur might agree with me.”

“Lazur has been disciplined twice for heresy. Do not, I say not, float these ideas with anyone else.”

“Well, you’re the Chosen,” said Mike. “I guess I’ll just do as you say.”

“Shut up,” said Lucas.

Mike sighed. Lucas had replied as expected. He turned back to the gardens, and saw one of the field workers staring at them. Also as expected. “That guy’s eyeballing you.”

“I’m more worried about that guy,” said Lucas, inclining his head in the other direction, and closer to the fence line.

It was a Zargonite. The guard glared at them across a patch of sea green mushrooms. Again, mostly at Lucas. They were used to this by now.

The fish-bowl experience was a constant in the city. Cynidiceans were chalk white – hair and skin – and most of them had never seen a black person. Strangely, few of them were racist. The creeds of the old cults explicitly condemned racism, and the Zargonites preached that a person’s ethnic background had no meaning. The peasants embraced the Zargonite teachings. There was a shop owner who had tried throwing Lucas out for being a “black burn” – Lucas had quieted him with a draw of his sword – but that sort of reaction was exceptional. The Cynidicean people self-identified as mammals, reptiles, demons, and a lot weirder. A human being of different color was hardly likely to offend. Still, in their sober moments they stopped and stared. The sight of a black wasn’t bothersome, but it was extraordinary.

“He has a hard on for you, dude,” said Mike.

“Ugh.” Lucas was disgusted. “Stop it with that shit.”

Mike couldn’t resist: “He wants your Indiana black snake pounding his a -”

“Hey, enough! When the day comes my skin color isn’t an issue anymore for anyone – including you and your homo humor – I won’t know what to say.”

“Cry me a river,” said Mike. “Black has made you a fucking celebrity.”

“That is not what made me a celebrity,” said Lucas. “As you very well know.” Which was both true and false.

Lucas’s skin color and something else had made him a hero. Being black was a huge score in the Brotherhood. In his mortal life Gorm – the first Cynidicean king – had been dark-skinned, and the Brothers never forgot their origins. Being a resurrected black was the jackpot – though an ongoing bone of contention. Lucas had almost been executed for it.

Every day Mike relived their induction ceremony. Lucas had collapsed in front of the temple altar, unable to speak the words of initiation. He kept trying, but the holy words felt like nails in his cranium. Kanadius had roared for his death immediately – for this was the clear reaction of a “zoombie” who had been resurrected, and who could not utter the sacred rite without feeling immense pain. Mike had launched himself at the Grand Master, threatening to slay the entire Brotherhood. He was restrained at swordpoint by two warriors, while two others seized Lucas and positioned him for beheading. Mike had screamed furiously. Then everyone in the room got a rude surprise. A clap of thunder boomed – impossibly – above the altar. And then – also impossible – a tattoo materialized on Lucas’s right arm. The Brothers gasped. It was the blue lightning bolt of Gorm. The sign of acceptance. The tattoo that was burned onto every initiate at the end of his induction ceremony. From the hands of a Brother. Never before had the tattoo appeared magically. The sign was clear: Gorm had spoken. Lucas Sinclair was his Chosen.

“I’m glad we’re missing the drama this morning,” said Mike. “The fanatics should be settled in when we get back.”

Lucas made a noise. “It’s about time Kanadius moved them.”

“You realize you’re like Jesus, dude?” said Mike. “There was this verse in the Bible that said Jesus didn’t come to bring peace but a sword, and set family members against each other – brother against brother, shit like that.”

“The Bible said that?” asked Lucas. “Swords and shit? Doesn’t sound like Jesus.”

“Honest truth,” said Mike. “Maybe we’re Christians, in a weird way. And you’re the savior, causing all these divisions.”

“Please,” said Lucas.

“Everyone should be happy about the move,” said Mike. “That room’s been empty for years – like the one you and I took over. Our Brothers need to spread out.”

Mike and Lucas had the luxury of sharing a room on Tier 2. The other ten Brothers had been crammed into a single barracks. As of today that barracks would house only seven. Lucas’s status in the cult had triggered a three-way doctrinal war, and the hot-heads needed to be separated. Kanadius in all his politic could only keep things so smooth.

And Mike’s analogy from the Bible was apt. While all the Brothers, including Kanadius, agreed that Lucas was Gorm’s Chosen – he had been obviously singled out by the god for special approval – they disagreed vehemently on the meaning of that approval. Brother was set against brother in an unprecedented factionalism. Mike had taken to calling the factions – behind their backs – the moderates, the militants, and the fanatics. The moderates (four Brothers) said that Lucas had been chosen to set an example for them all by his righteous behavior. The militants (three Brothers) believed as the moderates did, but also that Lucas was destined to lead them as the new Grand Master, to replace Kanadius at some point. The fanatics (three Brothers) believed as the militants did, but also insisted that Lucas was nothing less than Gorm come again – that their god had come to live among them as a fellow Brother, and to prepare them for a great test, possibly a “war to end all wars”. Lucas’s black skin proved it in their minds; Gorm had been a negro.

Resurrection was also up for grabs. According to the moderates and militants, the doctrine had to be completely rethought. It couldn’t be so sacrilegious if Gorm had made a zoombie his chosen instrument. Perhaps it had been evil in the past, but Gorm wanted that to change. But the issue was complex. Lucas had been pained by the ritual holy words, and unable to speak them – a sign of rejection. Yet he was divinely accepted. He was a zoombie and Gorm’s Chosen, an outrageous paradox that mocked The Creed of Gorm.

Things were simpler for the fanatics. They believed nothing had changed at all: resurrection was still an abomination; Lucas was the exception who proved the rule. The privilege of resurrection was reserved for Gorm, who had chosen to return in the body of a zoombie, cleansing the corrupted entity and transforming it by his divinity. How else to explain the impossible? Lucas had felt the pain of the holy words as an evil zoombie. And at that moment Gorm had entered Lucas, cleansing him, and revealing his stamp of approval. Lucas had to be Gorm.

Mike felt sorry for Kanadius. He was in his sixties and didn’t deserve this nonsense. Mike had wanted to murder him when he called for Lucas’s execution, but he had grown to like the old man (Lucas adored him) and envied his leadership skills. It was a tightrope act to referee three factions impartially and encourage their heated debates when his “neutrality” was a posture. Mike knew the Grand Master was a moderate.

And it was no accident, Mike was sure, that the fanatics were also the strongest sexists and homo-haters. The Creed of Gorm was sexist to begin with, but not misogynist by any means; it didn’t promote hatred or fear of women. It taught that women deserved to be happy and obtain pleasure within the patriarchal boundaries prescribed for them. But the three men who hailed Lucas as their deity showed hints of borderline misogyny. And while homosexuality was a sin and stigma that led to expulsion from the Gormish community (let alone the Brotherhood), Mike had heard one of trio calling for the death of homos.

He feared a schism if Kanadius didn’t assert himself more.

Lucas, for his part, had taken his role as the Chosen in stride. He was the eternal diplomat. As the object of the Brothers’ reverence, he refused to show favoritisms. It was for Kanadius to take sides (if only he would). Mike worried about the conflicting expectations for Lucas, and in their first week hadn’t slept so well.

“Don’t worry about me, Mike,” Lucas said on one of those nights as they lay in their beds. “I like it here. I don’t know what my ‘magical’ tattoo means, or what role I’m supposed to play, and I doubt any of the Brothers know either. I just know I feel at home here. The Brothers aren’t perfect, but there’s not a racist bone in their bodies. Like it or not, women are different from men, and homos are perverted. But color, it just doesn’t matter.”

It does in this garden, thought Mike, looking down at the myriad of pigments that saved or damned if they weren’t one and the same. All this potential. It doesn’t need burning. It needs harnessing.

“Hey,” said Lucas.

Mike broke away from the view. “Yeah.”

“Let’s go.”

They started walking back to the main part of the city for supplies. Noises sailed around – cries, warbles, off-key notes, the occasional shriek – and the sights were just as sore. This was a seedy part of the city and dirt poor.

When they crossed a street, Mike saw another ogler: a woman with an eel mask in a yellow robe, watching them intently. Had he seen her before? The eel looked familiar. He pointed her out to Lucas.

Lucas shrugged. “I don’t know. We’ve probably seen everyone here before.” They stopped on the other side of the street. “Our usual? You hit the shops, I’ll see Zoran.” Zoran was the high priest at the stronghold of Gorm. He insisted on seeing Gorm’s Chosen whenever Lucas came down with Mike to make the supply runs. The priests sent them back to the temple with blessed food and purified drink.

“Fine,” said Mike. “I’ll meet you at the tunnel.” That’s what they called the passage winding up from the city to the pyramid.

“No, meet me at the stronghold. It won’t kill you, and we could stay for lunch.”

“I should visit Dustin or Demetrius,” said Mike, and then thought: No you shouldn’t. The Magi have no love for the Brothers. It wouldn’t look good.

“Forget those two in one,” said Lucas. “Come on, Mike.”

“If you want to stay for lunch, go ahead,” said Mike. He didn’t like visiting any of the strongholds, though he’d never been inside the Maiden Tower. They were the communities of holdouts – the few Cynidiceans who rejected Zargon in favor of an old god or goddess. The Gormish community loved Mike and Lucas, but Mike couldn’t take the hero worship.

Lucas sighed. “Then go back without me. I’m going to linger.”

“Enjoy, dude.”

They parted, with Lucas continuing straight ahead and Mike veering right. This would be a fast run. Kanadius needed just a few items: candles, ink, and a new lock for one the doors. Lucas’s food haul would be bigger, and a warrior from the stronghold would help bring it back.

The street Mike was on now always depressed him. Most of the buildings were fallen apart and run down. Some of the people were homeless, and catatonic stares were the norm. Mike turned down an alley that would connect him to the street of the shop he liked.

He heard the softest footstep behind him, and was immediately alert. But his warrior reflexes weren’t fast enough. An arm suddenly had him in a choke hold. He was professional enough not to panic and relied on his training, but his assailant anticipated his moves – every evasive feint taught to him by the Brothers. This was a professional fighter. Christ, is this the day I die? He thought of Zargonite sacrifice and bloody altars – and then heaved backwards with all he had. His assailant saw that coming, released the choke around his neck just in time, and spun him around one-eighty, slamming him into the alley wall. The breath went out of him, and he heard a blade sliding from its sheath; he knew it was his own. The tip jabbed the back of his throat.

“Nice sword,” said a light voice. “Keep facing the wall and don’t move.”

Mike coughed, outraged at being so easily disarmed, but even more outraged by the voice itself. It was the voice of a woman. A woman. He tried turning around. Stupidly.

At once his feet were kicked from beneath him, and he fell like cement. He heard his sword being tossed aside, and then the woman was on his back, pinning him in seconds. Mike yelled, demanding release, and was rewarded painfully: she smacked the side of his face so hard that his eyes watered.

“Start doing as I say, or you’ll be leaving with broken bones. Do you understand?”

He coughed into the alley floor, and nodded. What did this killer bitch want?

The answer to that became quickly clear. She reached under him for the front of his pants and pulled them down. Her hand slid roughly around and seized the prize she sought. She began to stroke him.

“Hey!” He struggled wildly.

She seemed to have every maneuver and trick at her command. With the one hand still on his member, she kept him overpowered with the other and his face pressed into the ground. “You’re pathetic,” she said, tonguing his ear. “Brother.” She stroked him more; he grew hard as his fury built. “You and Black Boy. Make me sick. Make me – Oooh, you’re a big one… the size of you… the size of you… you celibate waste… you celibate fucking waste.”

Mike was brick hard and flooded with unwelcome desire. Her hand was absolutely shaming him. “Stop it,” he gasped. “You can’t…” You can’t do this.

He was turned over on his back and finally got a look at his rapist. She was snow white like everyone in this world, had a tomboyish face, and looked everything of a hundred thirty pounds – which was about his own weight. She was shorter but had more stock – and looked strangely familiar. Where have I seen her?? She yanked his pants down more, and hers at the same time – and with shocking celerity shoved him up inside her and began riding him. “Ooooh, gods… ” she moaned her satisfaction, and devolved into a shocking vulgar litany, demanding that he stay hard, hard, and hard…

There was no way Mike could obey that command. He was a virgin, for Gorm’s sake, at age twenty-two. He had discovered the relief of masturbation in his aged body, but it was nothing like the real thing from a woman – or girl (was she even eighteen?) – manipulating him at all the stress points. In less than a minute he shot his load. He braced himself for her fury and more abuse.

Astonishingly, she appeared to be on the highest plane of ecstasy – even after he came. Her face contorted in a manner suggesting an orgasm that stretched on forever. Her hips never stopped; she kept thrusting, and as he went soft inside her, she seemed not to notice. She moaned throatily. Her legs quaked as she fucked his wilting cock; she cried and came, and cried and came. Drenching him. He tried pushing her off him, but she slammed him down ferociously. Then she began thrusting again, moaning again, building to another climax of rapid-fire orgasms – this time screaming with such pleasure over a completely deflated penis that Mike thought she had to be faking it. Except there was no way this was an act. He waited her out. It was all he could do.

Over fifteen minutes later she was finally done. Mike wondered how many people had passed by the alley. Her obscene racket would have been heard like a building collapse. She looked indifferent – and not the least bit tired – as she stood up and pulled up her pants, ordering him to do the same.

Mike clambered to his feet and looked around – and his heart stopped when he saw the figure at the end of the alley. Lucas, he thought irrationally… but it wasn’t Lucas, only a beggar staring slack-jawed at the spectacle he had witnessed. Mike went red with shame. He could never tell Lucas this.

“You broke your vow,” she said.

He turned to face her. She was handing him his sword. Where have I seen her before? He snatched back his sword and waved it threateningly: “I didn’t break shit!”

“Honestly,” she said. “Put it away. You look silly.”

He was right about her age. This girl looked barely eighteen, maybe nineteen – an adult woman, yes, but in his eyes a girl. He had three or four years on her, five or six inches on her – and a man’s biology on her – but she had just kicked his ass and raped him with little effort. Then he saw the mask not far from her feet: the eel. And the discarded yellow robe as well. His blood began to boil. She’s been stalking me.

“Who are you?” he asked hoarsely.

“Do you feel better now?” she countered. At her waist she was adjusting her own sword that she had thrown aside to commit her rape. Mike registered her apparel: bronze chain mail over a green tunic. Who -?

And then he knew.

“How you Brothers get through a day without raping each other is beyond me,” she said.

“We have discipline,” spat Mike, “unlike you bitches.” He had seen this girl a couple of times in the revolving passage on Tier 3. She lived high in the pyramid and served the old gods like him. She was a Warrior Maiden of Madarua. Demetrius’s words came floating back: Those man-hating bitches.

The Maiden rolled her eyes. “If you say so.”

“You’re rapists!” shouted Mike. “Using some kind of magic!”

With swift fury she belted him across the face.

“OW!” he yelled.

“Only some of us are rapists,” she said. “And don’t pretend that I didn’t do you a favor here.”

“Favor??” he screamed.

“And as for magic,” she said, “the Maidens aren’t into that shit. Cheap tricks are for Magi.”

“Why have you been stalking me in that?” he asked, pointing to the eel mask and yellow robe.

She looked at him as if sizing him up. “You go to the gardens. Sometimes with Blackie. Most of the time alone.”

“His name’s Lucas,” said Mike.

She smiled. “Yes. Everyone in the pyramid by now has heard of Lucas the Chosen.” Clearly mocking.

“Shut up, bitch.”

“What’s your interest in the gardens?” she asked. She sounded genuinely curious.

“None of your business,” he said.

“Mike,” she said exasperatingly.

So she knew his name. Of course she does. Everyone in the pyramid knows of Lucas the Chosen, his friend Mike, and Will the Spider Child.

Mike looked away. “You fucking raped me. I’m reporting this to Pandora.” The lead warrior of the Maidens. Madarua’s Champion.

She walked right up to him. “Be my guest. And I’ll tell Pandora – and also report to Kanadius – that it was the other way around. That you raped me. Tell me who you really think they’re going to believe.” She laughed hard. “And also who will get excommunicated – for breaking his stupid childish asshole vows of celibacy?”

Mike exploded. He slapped her face, as hard as he done to him.

That finally hurt her. She looked slowly up again. Then she grabbed his face and kissed him ferociously.

Stunned and inflamed, he returned her passion – and then broke off, backing away. “Jesus! What’s wrong with you?” He turned to leave.

“Mike!” she called.

Keep going. Don’t listen to another word from her. If he had obeyed himself, future events would have unfolded differently.

“Mike!” she repeated.

He slowed and then stopped. Turned around; glared at her.

She walked up slowly. “I’m on a supply run too. Come shop with me. We can go back together. I know Blackie is staying longer – I heard you both talking.”

“His name is Lucas,” snarled Mike.

“Lucas,” she said, this time without a trace of mockery. “My name is Jilanka. I’m not as mean as you think. And maybe I can tell you a thing or two about mushrooms.”

 

That night, Mike stayed up reading long after Lucas went to sleep. The mycology tome consumed him. After his heated argument with Lucas, he wondered if he was too radical. After listening to Jilanka, he feared the opposite; that he was downright hypocritical. The mushrooms had his full attention now – their dangers, but also their unexplored potentials. Jilanka had tapped those potentials, and Mike had seen the results firsthand.

You mean you experienced the results. She raped you.

He was still furious at being attacked and degraded, but he was also getting over it more than he had any right to. His opinion of Jilanka had turned quickly in the short time of their shopping down in the city. By the time they were heading back he was enjoying her company, and her conversation in particular.

She had told him “a thing or two about mushrooms” which – if her suppositions were true – required a complete rethinking of the drug problem. Mike needed a solid handle on all the mushrooms and what they did, how much they cost, and he studied the tables in the book over and over.

The first page listed the staple drugs: hallucinogenics, sedatives, and amphetamines – in that order of abundance and popularity.

Drug Name
Mushroom Color
Cost per Dose & Effects
Hallucinogenic 1 Acid trip Dark blue 3 cp. The world takes on a dreamlike state.
Hallucinogenic 2 Dream share Sea green 6 cp. The same as acid trip, but communal trips are possible if the drug is taken by several people at once.
Hallucinogenic 3 Sex craze Yellow and orange spotted 2 sp. Enhanced sexual performance and enjoyment, even without a sex partner or manual stimulation.
Hallucinogenic 4 Warped sensations Red and white spotted 5 gp. Radically altered senses: sights are perceived as sounds, sounds as smells, smells as touches, and touches as sights – or different combinations.
Hallucinogenic 5 Creative artistry Fuchsia 100 gp. The shroom eater enters a state of wildly delusional creative energy; mages can work their magic at double, triple, or even quadruple the usual effect, which they have a hard time controlling.
Sedative 1 Sleep Purple 5 cp. Uninterrupted and peaceful sleep.
Sedative 2 Numb Silver 8 cp. Numb relaxation and riding a pleasant high.
Sedative 3 Quick-time Pale cerulean 3 sp. Distorted sense of time; the shroom eater perceives the world as if it is passing three times as fast.
Sedative 4 Fade Lime green 2 gp. The shroom eater is wide awake and fully alert, but also completely “stoned” (calm and high) and can move about while the body rejuvenates as if sleeping.
Sedative 5 Come-down Piggy pink 50 gp. Negates the effects of any amphetamine.
Amphetamine 1 No sleep Black and orange 10 gp. The shroom eater is able to ignore exhaustion and function without sleep or rest for 24 hours.
Amphetamine 2 Haste Yellowish brown 20 gp. Haste, moving fast, running fast.
Amphetamine 3 Slow-time White and burgundy stripes 30 gp. Distorted sense of time; the shroom eater becomes energetically fast, perceiving the world as if it is passing three times as slow.
Amphetamine 4 Berserk Blood red 40 gp. Fearless and psychotic fighting, with the benefits of slowtime (everything seems too slow) and also masochism (wounds and injuries energize and empower the shroom eater).
Amphetamine 5 Come-up Purple with green spots 50 gp. Negates the effects of any sedative.

The amphetamines were pricey, but that was no surprise. The Zargonites preferred people in fantasy-land or sedated, not on speed. Mike and Lucas had plenty of money from their dungeon crawl in the pyramid. Still, you had to really want a mushroom – or be addicted – to pay anywhere between 10-50 gold pieces for it.

The currency of the Lost City followed the D&D game standard pretty closely. I gold piece (gp) equaled 10 silver pieces (sp) which equaled 100 copper pieces (cp). Copper was the currency of day laborers and beggars. A single copper piece bought a candle, a torch, a piece of chalk – thing like that. Three or four copper pieces might fetch a shitty breakfast, or some hard bread and cheese for lunch. For most Cynidiceans, silver was the most common coinage. One silver piece bought a nice pint of beer. Two silver pieces paid a peasant for a day of work. Two would also buy an elaborate breakfast or a very decent lunch. Gold was out of reach for most citizens – the money of merchants, the elite few, and the Zargonite priesthood. Two gold pieces paid for a seven-course dinner, fifteen gold pieces for a nice sword, fifty gold pieces for chain mail, hundreds for plate mail, and thousands for a private home. Most Cynidiceans lived in communal dormitories, unable to afford homes.

All of this put the drug prices into perspective. The average citizen was restricted to grades 1 and 2 hallucinogenics and sedatives – maybe an occasional grade 3 after saving up. Beyond those staples, mushrooms were an expensive privilege.

On the next page were listed the poison and medicinal mushrooms, used for assassination and healing. Both extremely expensive.

Drug Name
Mushroom Color
Effects
Poison 1 Rotgut Persimmon orange 200 gp. Victim suffers diarrhea, vomiting, and excessive dehydration, usually dying within 24 hours.
Poison 2 Blackface Black 300 gp. Victim’s face turns black as blood vessels in the head explode; the increase in blood pressure to the brain results in a massive stroke.
Poison 3 Bluetongue Midnight blue 300 gp. Victim’s tongue swells to enormous proportions until suffocation occurs.
Poison 4 Jellybones Watermelon 400 gp. Victim’s skeleton liquifies within thirty minutes, resulting in death.
Poison 5 Rictus Raw liver 500 gp. Victim’s face contorts into a “grin of death” rictus; muscle spasms induce heart and lung failure, causing jerking motions of the body; death follows within ten minutes.
Medicine 1 Healing Peach 400 gp. Neutralizes pain and heals wounds.
Medicine 2 Restore senses Cornflower blue 600 gp. Cures blindness, deafness, smell, taste, etc.
Medicine 3 Cure disease White 800 gp. Cures any disease.
Medicine 4 Restore mind Smoky gray 1000 gp. Cures insanity, fear, anxiety, mental illness.
Medicine 5 Liberation Shamrock green Not for sale. Removes all withdrawal symptoms of any drug, and allows recipient to break free from any one addiction per dosage, but does not prevent re-addiction to the same substance in the future. (A very rare drug, cultivated only by the high priest of Zargon in his private gardens.)

Mike chewed his lip, wondering about the medicines. They’d be nice to have on hand. Demetrius wasn’t always around to pray his healing spells, and healing potions were rarer than shrooms. He did a mental tally of each of the four that were for sale. Shit. Close to 3,000 gold pieces.

He considered the wealth they’d amassed from their dungeon crawl in the pyramid. From the treasure piles of the ghost and hell hounds, he and his friends had acquired a total of 5,000 copper, 15,000 silver, and 6,000 gold. From Demetrius’s secret room they had already taken 300 gold, but Demetrius ended up giving them his entire fortune (a minimum of thanks for possessing Dustin’s body). That was an additional 3,000 silver and 4,700 gold, bringing their grand total up to 5,000 copper, 18,000 silver, and 11,000 gold. In the gaming room, Will had lost 2,400 silver and 1,500 gold in the card games. Which had brought them down to 5,000 copper, 15,800 silver, and 9,500 gold. They’d agreed to split this four ways, leaving Mike, Lucas, Will, and Demetrius/Dustin each with 1,250 copper, 3,950 silver, and 2,375 gold.

Mike and Lucas had each made a donation of 500 silver and 500 gold to the Brotherhood after their induction ceremony – a generous sum that was already about half of the Brothers’ treasury. That had left Mike and Lucas each with 1,250 copper, 3,450 silver, and 1,875 gold. They had spent some of that money in three months, though not much. When he last opened his chest (kept triple locked under his bed), Mike had something like 1,100 copper, 3,200 silver, and 1,800 gold. Needless to say, he wouldn’t be buying many medicines on a bankroll like that.

The third page listed the untouchable priestly mushrooms. Few outside the Zargonite temple had ever seen these colors. None were grown in the public gardens or for sale, and all were jealously guarded by the temple priests.

Drug Name
Mushroom Color
Effects
Priestly 1
Speak with the Dead Olive Not for sale. The shroom eater can speak with the dead or the undead.
Priestly 2
ESP Bright red Not for sale. The shroom eater can read peoples’ thoughts.
Priestly 3
Spirit Walk Robin egg blue Not for sale. The shroom eater can have out-of-body experiences.
Priestly 4
Glowbug Gold Not for sale. The shroom eater sees the aura of all living things – knows if they are good or evil, if they are lying, if they are possessed, etc.
Priestly 5
Nightmare Trip Indigo Not for sale. Creates a gate to the shadow world of nightmares, and allows a creature from that dimension to possess the shroom eater’s body for 1-6 days. (A very rare drug jealously guarded by the Zargonite high priest. He usually uses it in ritualistic magic to bind a nightmare creature to use as an assassin.)

Mike shuddered at the idea of a nightmare trip. That a mushroom could open a gate to the shadow world was beyond him. The others too. The priestly shrooms would have to be cultivated with the aid of powerful prayers to work such magic.

He flipped back to other pages, digesting it all, hardly knowing where to begin applying his newfound revelations. So many colors. So many combinations…

What Jilanka had explained to him overturned assumptions about drug addiction. It was true, she had said, that all the mushrooms were addictive (except the poisonous ones, which killed you right away), but when taken in combinations of two, their addictive power was cancelled. Not only that, eating two kinds of mushrooms simultaneously diffused the effect on the psyche; the shroom eater could repress the effects of the drugs, provided that his or her willpower was strong enough. Mike couldn’t believe that at first, but Jilanka’s rape illustrated the point.

She had taken the grade 3 hallucinogenic (sex craze) to produce a state in which she could enjoy enhanced sexual performance, regardless of her victim’s performance – or indeed regardless of any manual stimulation. She could have had the orgasm of her life without Mike, though he certainly added to the experience. This was the mushroom that the bird man had taken when he assaulted Will. But Jilanka hadn’t seemed like the bird man. She’d been more in control of herself – out of her mind during the twenty-minute orgasmic earthquake, but instantly in control afterwards.

And she’d been in control of him. Thoroughly, and despite all his physical advantages.

The way she had dominated him was by grinding up grade 3 amphetamine (slow-time) and mixing it with the sex craze drug, to produce the distorted sense of time which gave the shroom eater super-fast reflexes. To a person on the slow-time drug, the world seemed sluggish and people clumsy. Mike had gotten a dose of this experience when he and Lucas took the grade 4 amphetamine (berserker), and massacred the hobgoblins who normally should have slain them with ease. But again, Jilanka had shown no signs of being juiced up after she finished raping him. She should have: mushroom trips lasted hours; at least six, and as many as fifteen. Mike and Lucas had taken the grade-5 sedative (come-down) to cancel their berserker trip. Jilanka had taken no such sedative.

No, she had simply “switched off” the effects of both mushrooms with willpower. She could have reactivated them at any time during the 6-15 hour duration, and kept switching on and off until the trip actually ended. Mike had been skeptical of this too.

“Do you want me to prove it?” she had asked in the tunnel, as they ascended to the pyramid. “Rape you again?”

“Don’t even think about it,” said Mike. It was a feeble retort and she knew it. He wouldn’t mind a tumble with her again – he hadn’t made any female friends since being here – but on coequal terms, and to prove that he could satisfy a girl without her mind blown high.

“What I’m saying is true, Mike. I discovered this by accident. I don’t know who else knows, if anyone does. Are the Zargonite priests even aware of it? Just imagine what other drug combinations would do – with no addiction problems and being able to turn the effects on and off whenever you want.”

Mike was shaking his head. “That’s assuming this rule you discovered holds true for every mushroom combination. How do you know that the sex craze and slow-time combo isn’t exceptional?”

“I don’t,” she admitted. “But it stands to reason.”

“And you’ve told none of the Maidens this?”

“Not on your life,” she said. “If they knew I took shrooms, I’d be expelled.”

“But you’re telling me. And I’m your worst enemy. You bitches hate the Brothers.”

She had looked at him then as if knowing his secrets. Smiled a bit sadly. “I can’t afford to hate outsiders. And you, Mike Wheeler, are an outsider. You don’t belong with the Brothers.”

 

Next Chapter: The Spider of Usamigaras

(Previous Chapter: A Special Place)

The Lost City: A Special Place

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 Five:

                                     A Special Place

 

“You really expect me to believe that you’re Demetrius Rhone?”

Will didn’t like the chief mage. But he was intrigued by him.

“I am Demetrius. Yes, my brother killed me last year. I was worried that might happen, so I made a dying wish: that my spirit live on. I knew where he was hiding and the rest of the Magi didn’t. None of you up here in the temple were equipped to take him on anyway. You’re still not. I waited for a body to possess. It took a long time but it happened today, and now Darius is dead. You’re welcome, by the way.”

The chief mage stared down from a seat that was too big for him. He didn’t seem thankful. “And how were you granted such a dying wish?”

“I was given a ring by Keldor, the chief mage at the time. It was a ring of three wishes and it had one left.”

“As I said before, Keldor is no longer with us.”

“And as you didn’t say before, what the hell happened to him?”

The mage kept smiling at Demetrius, but Will wasn’t fooled, and he doubted Demetrius was either. Auriga Sirkinos reeked of bad vibes. Just like the Auriga in Mike’s game.

“I have a better question,” said the mage. “How does this boy feel about you possessing his friend?”

“It’s only temporary,” said Will, wanting to diffuse hostilities. “He just needed to stop Darius.”

“Which he has done, according to you both,” said Auriga. “And yet your friend – Dustin, is it? – remains possessed. Tell me, priest, how that makes you any better than your brother.”

Demetrius scowled.

“As I thought,” said Auriga. “You know, I believe you actually are Demetrius. Selfish vengeance would be just like him. Not to mention -”

A chime sounded, and Auriga looked over their heads. Will and Demetrius turned as someone came through the temple door: a mage apprentice, wearing a rainbow colored robe and silver mask. The dress code of the Magi. The mask was a cherub, the sacred image of Usamigaras. Seeing that he was interrupting, the apprentice moved quickly towards a side door.

“Hold,” said Auriga. “Wait there, Shanti. We’ll be only a few minutes.”

“Or maybe more,” said Demetrius.

Maybe a lot more, thought Will.

They were in the Magi temple, which served the dual role of worship chamber and audience hall. At one end was a star-shaped altar, at the other a small dais with the huge ornamental chair. Tapestries hung on the walls: at the altar end they showed star constellations; at the audience end, silhouetted people with their hands in the air celebrating freedom. The Usamigarans were libertarians – mages and astrologers (the full members in charge of the temple), but also clerics (like Demetrius), thieves, and assassins – anyone who resisted the authoritarian leanings of the other cults. Auriga, however, was a power hungry sleaze. He spouted the libertarian rhetoric, but it was just that. Will knew this from Mike’s gaming module. Demetrius had apparently never trusted him.

“Auriga Sirkinos?” he had spat, unbelieving, when Mike told him who the chief mage was. They had left the party rooms on Tier 5 for the upper-tier temples.

“Yeah,” said Mike, as they climbed corridors. “In the game he’s a scumbag.” He and Lucas were struggling to keep up. They had eaten the piggy pink mushrooms and come down hard from the beserker drug. Their bodies were pulverized with exhaustion. Mike’s back wound had barely healed from Demetrius’s cure spell. They needed a bath; they had tried to clean their faces but still wore bits of Darius’s brains.

“He always struck me that way,” agreed the cleric. “And he’s not leadership material at all. What about Keldor? Is he down in the city now?”

“I don’t remember anyone in the module named Keldor,” said Mike.

“Well, shit.” Demetrius looked grim. “He was a good leader and friend.”

“Never mind Keldor,” said Lucas. “Just remember your promise. You get out of Dustin’s body as soon as you tell your people about Darius.”

Demetrius had gone silent at that point. They proceeded to Tier 3 and the revolving passage Will couldn’t wait to see. It was a corridor constructed on a turntable, made to revolve by a system of weights and counter-weights. On the wall next to each of the two doors inside the corridor was a column of eight buttons, each labelled by a hieroglyph. They matched the buttons on the walls of the eight surrounding halls. Pressing one of the buttons caused the end of the passage to rotate clockwise and line up with its corresponding hall. From the other direction, pressing the single hallway hieroglyphic caused the revolving passage to swing clockwise and line up with the door, so that the hallway door would open into the revolving passage. Will thought it was one of the coolest dungeon designs he’d ever played, and he wanted a ride.

They came up from Tier 4 into a corridor that led to the northern hallway, and at the door pressed the hieroglyph. Grinding noises indicated that the revolving passage was turning from wherever the last passenger had left it; when the noises stopped the door opened. Inside the corridor was the column of eight hieroglyphs; Demetrius knew what they all stood for and pressed the one for the Magi temple. The passage rumbled and the two doors disappeared; the hall rotated past two more doors, five times, before stopping at the door they needed.

“Cool ride,” said Will, who had wandered down to the other end during the rotation.

“Does it ever break down?” asked Mike. “Like an elevator?”

“I don’t know what an elevator is,” said Demetrius. “But this thing broke down twice in my lifetime. It wasn’t funny.” He looked down at the other side. “Come back, Will. That door goes to the Maidens. They’re man-hating bitches.”

“Yeah, they weren’t friendly to us in the game,” said Lucas.

“Neither were the Magi,” Mike pointed out.

“I have a feeling,” said Demetrius, “that I should do this alone.”

“What do you mean?” asked Will, walking back.

“I’ll see Auriga by myself. He’ll require delicate handling. You guys and your opinions about everything can have a wander. Push this button to the south hallway.” The cleric pointed at one of the eight hieroglyphs. “It leads to the top tiers. You’re familiar with what’s up there, Mike; you can go all the way up and outside. Relax and get some air. You two look deader than undead.”

“I can use some air,” admitted Lucas.

“Some dry, choking desert air,” said Mike. “Great, let’s go.”

“Go ahead,” said Will. “I’ll stay with Demetrius.”

“Oh, you will?” asked the cleric.

“I want to see the Magi. I won’t be a problem.”

The priest looked at him hard. “You’d better not be. Keep quiet and let me do the talking.”

And that’s how they had settled it. Mike and Lucas were exploring Tier 2. That meant the Brotherhood. The warriors of Gorm split their domain between the second and third tiers. Their temple was here on the third, their base quarters up on the second. As players in Mike’s game, Lucas, Dustin, and Will had allied with the Brotherhood against the Zargonites. But Will had had a soft spot for the Magi. Despite their entirely untrustworthy leader, Auriga Sirkonos.

“I’m glad you reported this to me, Demetrius.” Auriga was trying to end the audience. “The Magi will of course investigate your claim that Darius is dead.”

“There’s a big bloody mess where I told you,” said Demetrius.

“Yes, the party rooms,” said the chief mage, sounding amused. “Who would have thought?”

Demetrius cleared his throat. “Auriga, could you clear the room?”

Auriga frowned. The vast temple room was clear, save for the one apprentice. He looked over by the door. “Leave us, Shanti. And arrange food for our guests. And fix me my usual, but leave it in my chamber.”

“Yes, Auriga.” Shanti bowed low and then went through the door into the Magi quarters.

“Thank you,” said Demetrius.

Auriga was sour. “Why the need for privacy?”

“How have things been, Auriga?” countered the priest.

“What do you mean?”

“Darius had a network of spies going. Moles inside each of the cults, or at least according to rumors. Could any of the Magi be a problem?”

“Highly doubtful,” said Auriga. “What would a mole accomplish? We have a few spells that we keep secret, and a couple of minor artifacts, but not much else worth the espionage.”

“I doubt Darius cared about Magi spellbooks,” said Demetrius. “Sabotage was more likely his goal. Sowing dissension, spreading misinformation, that kind of thing.”

“Dissension?” asked Auriga. “Among the cults or within?”

“Both,” said Demetrius. “To a Zargonite it amounts to the same thing. Anything to weaken the gods who came before. You may want to keep a close eye on your apprentices.”

“I’ll certainly take that under advisement,” said Auriga. “But I’ve seen nothing suspicious with the Magi. Naturally, I can’t speak for the Brothers or the Maidens.”

“Of course,” said Demetrius.

“So tell me when you plan on departing from the body of this Dustin Henderson. You’re dead, and this man deserves his body back.”

“Soon,” said Demetrius. Will sensed he was annoyed by the question. “I want to see our people down in the city. And Raen.” Will didn’t know who Raen was, but he assumed he was the high priest of Usamigaras.

“So you can resume your post?” asked Auriga bluntly. “Shira is getting along fine without you.”

“She’s very capable,” said Demetrius, containing his fury over the insult.

“Indeed,” said Aurgia. “And of course, I have no say in how the stronghold is managed.” As chief mage Auriga was in charge of the temple, here in the pyramid. Down in the stronghold, the high priest led the Usamigaran community, and Will recalled Demetrius saying that he’d served under the high priest with the priestess Shira. “But it would be unseemly – and most unpriestly – for you to return as the community’s savior at the expense of an innocent man robbed of his life and free will.”

Will didn’t believe for a moment that Auriga cared for Dustin’s well being. Auriga didn’t care much for anyone but himself, and Dustin was an alien.

“I agree,” said Demetrius.

“I’m glad,” smiled Auriga.

“I agree that it’s none of your business, is what I meant.”

Auriga went cold.

Demetrius continued: “And while the management of this temple is likewise none of my own business – and though I hate to engage in pissing matches – I’ll remind you that I do outrank you, Auriga.”

“Yes, yes,” said the chief mage, waving his hand dismissively. “I know your power. And I agree that pissing matches are boring. Like this conversation.”

“I asked you about Keldor,” said the priest. “And I want a real answer.”

“Keldor had ideas,” said the chief mage. “Ideas that he evidently acted on. He wanted to explore the catacombs for some reason. Need I say more.” It wasn’t a question.

Will remembered from Mike’s campaign. The catacombs were down in the city and held terrible monsters of enchanted nature. He, Lucas, and Dustin had avoided them so he didn’t know the extent of the horrors.

Demetrius scoffed. “Keldor wouldn’t have gone into the catacombs. Certainly not alone.”

“Yet he remains vanished,” said Auriga. “After four months.”

“Did he leave anything in his chamber? Any letters or writings?”

“Nothing, I’m afraid.”

“Who took your bunk when you were promoted?”

“I haven’t replaced myself yet. We’re eleven Magi and still need a twelfth.” Auriga was eying Will as he said that.

“All right, then,” said Demetrius. He turned to Will. “We’d best be going.”

Will wanted to protest. What about dinner? He was hungry again. Demetrius had provided them a sumptuous lunch, but that was hours ago.

“The Magi are preparing a feast for you both,” said the chief mage. “An expensive dish. Or is our food not good enough for the great Demetrius Rhone?”

“I appreciate your hospitality, Auriga.” The priest’s tone said otherwise. “But I can’t linger. I need to collect Will’s friends and get down to the city.”

“Very well,” said Auriga. “But perhaps you could let Will stay. For dinner and overnight, as a guest of the Magi.”

Will felt jolted. Why would the chief mage be interested in him?

“Uh, why?” asked Demetrius.

“Will is from another world. To my knowledge, no one in Cynidicea has ever been exposed to an alien – let alone an alien who can fluently speak our language. We’re Magi. This needs studying.” Auriga smiled at them both. “I know he’s a child. I promise he will have my full protection as a guest. And we can put my old bunk to use.”

“Yes,” Will blurted out, before Demetrius could overrule him. “I’d like that… I mean, I’d be honored. Sir.”

“Very well.” Auriga clapped his hands. “It’s settled.”

Will could see that Demetrius wasn’t happy. But the cleric relented. “If Mike and Lucas are fine with this, then we’ll plan on picking you up tomorrow morning.”

“Yeah,” said Will. “Tell them I’ll be okay.” He could already see them hating the idea, but he didn’t care. He was going to meet the Magi, and he was going to do it alone.

Auriga got up from his chair and walked down the dais. “I’ll go find Shanti and have him show you around, Will. He’s our youngest apprentice. Just turned eighteen.”

“The food up here is still drug-free, right?” asked Demetrius.

“Of course,” said Auriga. “Supplies from the city twice a week. Food and water blessed by your priests. None of the Magi will turn into unwilling addicts on my watch.”

Demetrius nodded as the chief mage left the temple through the side door.

“Thanks, Demetrius,” Will said when he was gone. “And I mean it, I’ll be fine.”

“If I didn’t think that, you wouldn’t be staying,” said the priest. “Now come with me for a minute.” He led Will out the main door, to the corridor that connected with the revolving passage. In the hallway he stopped and faced Will. “No eavesdroppers out here. Now listen. Go ahead and stay for dinner, and have a nice evening. But be careful of Auriga. He’s a snake in the grass.”

“Why would he invite me like this?” asked Will.

“I’m not sure,” said Demetrius. “But don’t worry, he’s not the bird man.”

“What?” said Will, turning red. “What do you mean?”

“He doesn’t want to fuck you.”

Will turned redder – and got angry. “I didn’t… I never thought that.” Thinking of the bird man stirred nausea and shame inside him. He resented Demetrius for bringing it up.

“Auriga’s a scumbag, but he has a certain problem that I’m not complaining about. He’s impotent.”

“What’s ‘impotent’?” asked Will.

“It means he can’t fuck anyone.”

“Oh.” He wanted Demetrius to drop the whole subject.

“How are you doing, by the way?”

“What?” said Will, caught off guard. “What do you mean?”

“You’ve been through a lot today for a kid.”

“I’m… fine.”

“Someone tried to fuck me when I was your age.”

Will went red again. “I… it was nothing. You don’t have -”

“Let’s not bullshit each other. It’s not ‘nothing’ when something like that happens. It’s a personal violation. Apparently in your world even more so. I believe Mike used the words ‘scarred for life’. A bit melodramatic, if you ask me… but perverts do leave their mark.”

Will was getting furious. “He just took me by surprise. He was on drugs. Mike overreacted. You said so yourself.”

“Mike overreacted by killing the guy, but he’s right to be protective of you. My parents never cared about me. A Zargonite priest put his fingers up my ass while my father stood by and laughed. If the priest hadn’t passed out drunk, he would have followed that act with his cock.”

Will re-tasted the tongue being jammed down his throat. He gagged and felt his stomach rebel; he needed to sit down. “Why do you say it’s worse in my world?” He hardly heard himself speak.

“I don’t know your world, but in Cynidicea most kids are abused daily and conditioned to brush it off. Beatings especially. I doubt that we’re psychologically damaged by things that you are. Or at least not to the same degree. I saw how you reacted in the lounge. Mike could barely calm you down. Being finger-fucked infuriated me – and I’m not making light of it – but it never traumatized me.”

Will fell to his knees and vomited. Demetrius’s words were as raindrops on a window; soft noises with no meaning. The bird man’s face had replaced Dustin’s. Will squeezed his eyes shut. I’m fine. God, what’s the big deal? His body felt like pins and needles.

Someone was saying his name. He opened his eyes and saw someone shaking him gently. Sweat soaked his shirt and the world was out of focus. He waited for the awful feeling to pass. A minute and then two.

“Can you get up?”

He could make out words again. He nodded to whoever was saying them and stood on his own. He wiped his mouth. The man before him solidified into Demetrius.

“Now let me ask you again,” said the priest. “Are you sure you’re up to being on your own tonight?”

Will felt a spark of defiance. “I said it already. I’m fine.” And he was better now. The hideous flashback had passed.

Demetrius nodded. “I’ll accept that, then, against my better judgment. Go on back inside. I’m going to find Mike and Lucas and do my best to convince them this isn’t a crazy idea. If I’m successful in that task, we’ll see you tomorrow morning.” He turned to leave.

“Demetrius,” called Will.

The priest stopped and looked back.

“What do you think happened to Keldor?”

Dustin’s lips pressed together. “It’s what I intend to find out. Auriga’s hiding something, if not outright lying.”

“Do you think Auriga killed him?”

“Will, I have no idea.”

And that’s when Will realized: He’s not going to let Dustin go yet. Not by a long shot.

 

“Thank you for agreeing to talk,” said Auriga. “It’s late and I know you had quite a day.”

They were in Auriga’s chamber, facing each other across his medieval looking desk. Will wondered where this interview was going, and recalled Demetrius’s warnings.

Quite a day. Quite an understatement.

In truth, Will could barely keep his eyes open. The bassil dinner had been splendid but he had gorged and was sleepy. His physical activity for the day – piled on everything stressful that happened, plus what he had done with Shanti – was beyond what most twelve-year olds could endure without collapsing by now. Will was grateful that Auriga wasn’t treating him like a child by sending him to bed, even though that’s where he clearly belonged.

“It’s no problem,” said Will. “I like your room.” Will supposed he should have been scared of the gray wolf lying at the foot of Auriga’s bed, but he liked wolves, and this one was obviously trained. The candlelight on the mage’s desk cast shadows that lent the chamber a menacing atmosphere, but Will liked that too.

“Has Shanti been a good host?” asked the mage.

“Oh, yes,” said Will. “He showed me all the Magi rooms, and some of the spellbooks. Did he tell you what we did?”

“He told me what you did,” smiled Auriga. “He said you successfully cast a cantrip.” Cantrips were minor (zero-level) spells that apprentices cut their teeth on before learning the real spells.

“Yes,” said Will. “I couldn’t believe it.” He had cast message by reading it from a book and performing a few basic hand gestures. “The spell allowed me to whisper to Shanti when I was in the bunk room and he was out in the hallway. He was, like, fifty feet away and around the corner of the door, where I couldn’t see him. We carried on this impossible conversation. In whispers.”

“I have to be honest, Will. I’ve never seen anyone cast a successful spell – even if only a cantrip – without months if not years of prior schooling. Nor have I seen anyone work magic at such a young age. The youngest Magi we have on record lived over three hundred years ago. He was fourteen and exceptional. Are people from your world born wizards?”

“No, no. Not at all.” Will was stunned to learn that he was a prodigy. “Just the opposite in fact. We don’t have magic in my world.”

Auriga’s expression said that he didn’t believe that. “Don’t lie to me, Will.” At the foot of the bed, the wolf growled.

“I’m not!” Will protested. Is that wolf going to eat me? “There are no wizards or mages where I’m from. Honestly, spells don’t work.”

“Except the one that brought you here?”

“Yeah, but… I can’t explain how that one worked. It shouldn’t have.”

“I see,” said Auriga. He leaned back in his chair, pondering impossibilities.

Will risked a glance over at the wolf. It was staring at him with bared teeth. He was oddly thrilled by these threatening theatrics, and thankful for the adrenaline rush. His body cried for sleep.

The chief mage abruptly leaned forward on his desk. “I have a question for you, Will. And think carefully before answering.”

Will’s heart skipped a beat. “Yes?”

“Would you like to join the Magi?”

Will gaped. Would I like to join -? “That’s… well, I don’t know what to say.” Yes you do, you fool. This is your dream come true. Say yes. But he couldn’t. This world wasn’t his. He had a mom and brother waiting for him back home. “I… really don’t know.”

Auriga laughed. To Will that laugh sounded contemptuous. “A fair enough answer, after everything you’ve been through today. I want you to sleep on it. And I want your unequivocal answer by tomorrow morning. Do you understand?”

Sleep. That word was all that mattered in Auriga’s reply. Will’s eyelids felt like mountains. “Yes.” Unequivocal. “I understand.”

“There’s a place here for you,” said Auriga, with the look of a predator, but Will barely heard or saw. “A very special place…”

Will finally gave up trying, and fell fast asleep in the mage’s chair.

 

“Wake up, Byers!”

Will rose from the depths, then pushed himself back under. Go away. He needed to sleep forever.

Then he was being shaken roughly. “Will, come on.” A different voice. “It’s late, dude. The Magi ate breakfast already.”

Will moaned and pulled the blanket over his head. It was yanked off immediately and then he was being pulled up into a sitting position on the bunk. He opened his eyes, vowing to kill his tormentor. It was Mike. No… it’s not. It was an adult with long shaggy hair, an angular face, and a body taller than Jonathan. Mike was a kid. Like Will. Then it all came back quickly.

“Rise and shine, sunshine,” said the first voice, another permutation of a familiar friend. Dustin. No: Demetrius, he corrected himself.

“How have they treated you, Will?” It was Lucas, standing with the others. Elsewhere in the room, a few Magi bustled about. All the other bunks were empty and the beds made. Will had slept like a corpse.

“Fine,” said Will, rubbing his eyes.

“Your new friend over there” – Mike looked across the room – “oh, he’s gone now, but he left you breakfast.”

Will saw the mug and plate on the small table by his bunk, and was instantly hungry. Mike handed him the plate. Shanti had fixed him dog sausage and black toast and a hard-boiled egg. There was a glob of butter next to the toast. He smiled, thinking of Shanti, and began devouring the skinny sausage.

“How was the city?” he asked, his mouth full. “Where did you guys stay?”

“The Magi stronghold,” said Mike. “They put us up as guests. Once the high priest got over shitting himself.”

“Yeah,” said Lucas. “Raen didn’t believe that Dustin was his dead friend Demetrius, until he used a detect lie prayer.”

“I had bassil for dinner,” said Will.

“They treated you to bassil, you little shit?” asked Dustin.

“It was good,” said Will, buttering his toast with his finger. Bassil was like a Middle-Eastern rice curry; the spices had been heavenly.

“Yeah,” said Dustin. “Nothing’s too good for you, Lord Byers. Our supper was blander than naked bread.”

Will stopped chewing. This insulting version of Dustin who had called him “Byers” twice now didn’t sound like Demetrius. Which could only mean…

“Dustin?”

Dustin grinned at Mike and Lucas. “He finally caught on. Like it or not, Will, I’m back. The cleric is letting me drive. At least for now.”

Letting you drive? Will shook his head, not understanding.

“He’s in lurker mode,” said Dustin, “and letting me control myself. We came to an arrangement last night. We’re going to swap turns controlling this body. Based on his needs, of course, and not mine, the arrogant bastard.”

“He’s a lying asshole,” said Mike. “He promised to let you go after he killed his brother.” Mike put his mouth to Dustin’s ear: “Do you hear me in there, Demetrius? You’re a lying sack of shit.”

“Will you stop spitting in my ear!” said Dustin. “He can hear and see you just fine.”

“Dustin, are you’re seriously okay with this?” asked Will.

“Being possessed has its upsides,” said Dustin, “and Demetrius is a cool guy. He let’s me ride his consciousness without suppressing my own, so I can still witness everything going on. I saw everything that happened to you guys – the ghost, the three of us turning into men while screaming our bloody heads off, the acid heads, Mike chopping that guy’s head off, the bloodbath with the hobgoblins – Jesus, it was the best horror movie I ever saw. When Demetrius casts spells, it’s like I’m casting them. When he wields that mace, I’m fighting too, but without doing the work. It’s fucking trippy, you guys, I feel like I am this 7th-level cleric. I’ve shared his consciousness and I know his mind. I can see why people love and follow him. He’s the kind of hero we always try to be when playing D&D.”

“That’s funny,” said Lucas. “None of the characters I ever played robbed people of their free will.”

“You said you were cool with this, Lucas,” said Dustin.

“Hey, it’s your body,” said Lucas. “If you’re cool with it.”

“But why isn’t Demetrius letting his spirit go?” asked Will. But he already knew the answer. Keldor. Auriga.

“More unfinished business,” said Dustin. “He thinks Darius put enough into motion that his death may not even matter. He also doesn’t trust Auriga. He thinks the Magi are in serious trouble with that conniving shit leading them.”

“They are,” said Mike. “Auriga is a conniving shit.”

“But how long is this arrangement for, Dustin?” asked Will. “You can’t take Demetrius home.”

“Home?” said Dustin. “Byers, this is our new home. What the hell is waiting for us in our world if we go back in a month? We’re men now. Mike and Lucas are twenty-two, and I’m thirty-two. What do you think would happen to the three of us if we went back to Hawkins?”

“I don’t know,” said Will lamely. “But at least we’d be home.”

“I’ll tell you what would happen,” said Dustin. “The government would take us and lock us in a lab. They’d probably think we were Soviet clones who kidnapped or killed the real Dustin and Mike and Lucas.”

“I hate to say it but he’s right,” said Lucas. “We need to think about making a life for ourselves here. And Mike and I decided something last night.”

Will somehow knew what was coming next.

“We’re joining the Brotherhood of Gorm,” said Mike.

Of course. Life and art. Again. In Mike’s game, Lucas, Dustin, and Will had joined the Brotherhood, mostly at Lucas’s urging. But Will hadn’t cared for the Brotherhood. He had liked the Magi. Then he remembered his activities with Shanti. Their whispered conversations around corners, far away from each other. And Auriga’s offer.

“We met Kanadius yesterday,” continued Mike. “He’s awesome, Will. He liked us right away. And Dustin, shut up.”

Will barely heard him. A spell. I cast a spell, Mike. Auriga wants me to join the Magi!

“All the Brothers are cool,” said Lucas. “And Jesus, do they know how to fight. When we told them about us – and how we slaughtered Darius’s bodyguards – they were practically begging us to join.”

Dustin began: “If I may add my not so humble opinion -”

“You may not!” said Mike.

“- I think Kanadius is a judgmental prude. He’s kind and well-meaning, I’ll give him that. But he epitomizes all that the Brotherhood stands for, and some of that – no, a lot of that – is pretty bad.”

“Seriously, Dustin?” said Lucas. “The Brotherhood stands for justice and mercy. More than the Maidens or the Magi. They defend the weak.”

“I’m not denying that,” said Dustin. “But they’re insufferable bigots. They think women shouldn’t be warriors.”

“Well, they really shouldn’t,” said Lucas.

“And they hate homosexuals. They distrust magic-users.”

“Don’t tell me you’re going to start defending homos,” said Lucas, disgusted.

“I don’t have a problem with homos,” said Dustin. “There’s also the justice code. You guys will be committed to studying that every week. The Law of Gorm. It’s like the Jewish Torah; or the American tax code. When you have laws that are so complex and unbending, it gets in the way of compassion. It even becomes a tyranny. That’s why the Magi are libertarians.”

Will kept a straight face but inside he was cheering Dustin. I cast a spell. I can be a mage!

Mike played the mediator. “It’s true the Brotherhood can be rigid. As full members we’ll have to take vows of celibacy. But they are virtuous, and their sword skills are mind-blowing. We start our training tomorrow.”

“But wait a minute,” said Will. “They’re also prejudiced against resurrected people.” What was their cuss word? Zoombies.

“Yeah, we talked about that last night,” said Lucas. “And this is important, Will. Not a word of my death and resurrection. To anyone. Okay?”

“Yeah, of course.” He hated to think what Kanadius would do if he found out his new initiate was an “evil zoombie”.

“Did you tell any of the Magi?” asked Mike.

“No. I didn’t tell anyone,” said Will.

“Please keep it that way,” said Lucas. “I’m not saying the Brotherhood is flawless. They do have some hangups that are a bit silly. But they’re by far the best option in this city. They have the largest following of the old cults, and they’re the oldest.”

“Yeah,” said Mike. “Gorm was the first Cynidicean king, long before he became a god. Madarua was a queen centuries later, and then Usamigaras – he was a hobbit, believe it or not – came last.”

“Coming first doesn’t equate to greatness,” said Dustin.

“Dude,” said Mike. “It’s called seniority. The Brotherhood has pride of place.”

“I think there’s a lot going for the latecomers,” said Dustin. “I share a mind with a Magi priest, and from everything I’ve gleaned, I rather like the Usamigaran philosophy.” Will was loving Dustin.

Lucas bristled. “But they hate everyone – the Brotherhood and the Maidens almost as much as the Zargonites. Everyone is too authoritarian for them.”

“Yeah,” said Mike. “They’re more tolerant of alien religions than of the Brothers and Maidens. That’s fucked up.”

“Not really,” said Dustin.

“And then, as we said, there’s Auriga,” said Mike.

“Auriga is a bad leader,” said Dustin. “That happens in all religions.”

Will wanted to shout: Auriga wants me to be a mage! I’m a prodigy! But he couldn’t accept Auriga’s offer. He had a mother and brother back home.

“Well, Kanadius is a good leader,” said Lucas. “Of a good religion. I can’t wait for our initiation ceremony.”

“When is it?” asked Will. In the game their induction into the Brotherhood had been a big show. They had dressed up in white robes and gold masks, knelt before the altar of Gorm, washed their hands in holy water, and sworn to uphold the Brothers’ creed. Then one of the warriors had branded a tattoo on each of their right arms: a blue lighting bolt, symbolizing their status as full members.

“This afternoon,” said Mike. “In the temple. On the other side of this tier. You and Dustin can’t attend. But don’t worry, Will, we made a special arrangement with Kanadius. You’ll be able to bunk with us upstairs. They’re going to clear out an unused room for us. Lucas and I will have it all to ourselves, and you can live with us.”

“I still say he should live with me down in the city. Demetrius has no problems taking on Will. He and I -”

“You and he are two different people,” said Mike. “I trust you. I don’t trust him, no matter how much you two have bonded inside that head of yours.”

“I’m just saying,” said Dustin. “Demetrius is solid. And I dare say he could protect Will better than you guys. You start combat training tomorrow. You’re barely 1st level warriors, feeling high and mighty because you slaughtered some goblins with the benefit of drugs. Demetrius is a 7th level cleric, for Christ’s sake.”

Will couldn’t believe how casual they sounded. They would be living in the Lost City for the rest of their lives. His eyes filled with tears and he angrily wiped them away. “You guys don’t sound like you’ll miss home at all.”

“That’s not true, Will.” Mike sat on the bunk and put his arm around him. “Believe me, we haven’t been taking this lightly. We all cried last night coming to this decision.”

“Got a little drunk too,” said Lucas.

“And a little sick this morning,” said Dustin. “If not for Raen’s generosity with some healing potions, we’d still be in bed. But we’ll make a new home here, Will. And new family.”

“Easy for you to say,” said Mike. “You hardly have a family in Hawkins.”

“Hey listen, Wheeler. I love my mom and it’s killing me being away from her. She needs me… she’ll need someone. She doesn’t do well on her own. So don’t give me that shit, just because I don’t have siblings and a second parent. We all miss our families.”

“I agree with your point about siblings,” said Lucas. “I’m not missing Erica and I don’t know that I will.”

Mike laughed. “Yeah, sisters. Lately Nancy’s been so uppity and bitchy.”

“True, but I had a bit of a crush on your sister,” said Dustin.

“Jesus, that’s gross!” said Mike.

“How can you say gross when we’re adults now? Don’t you feel desires, dude?”

“She’s my sister!”

“Jesus. Your vows of celibacy won’t do you any good.”

Will was upset by the sibling trash-talk. “I love Jonathan,” he said. “And my mom. I can’t not ever see them again.” But his internal voice contradicted that homesickness. I can cast spells. I’m a mage.

“Don’t worry, Will,” said Mike. “There’s no reason you can’t go back.”

“Mike’s right,” said Dustin. “In a month we’ll be able to read the ‘Black Passage’ incantation and send you back. You’ll have some explaining to do – where you were for the past month, and why the rest of us are missing, but we’ll have a story for you by then.”

I want your unequivocal answer by tomorrow morning.

“It’s going to be a tough sell,” said Lucas. “Our families will go ape-shit. They might even blame you for our disappearance.”

“It’ll be your choice,” said Mike, “and you have a month to decide. For the three of us, at least, there’s no future back there. I can’t see us stumbling on an artifact that will reverse our ages.”

And it was right then that William Byers made his decision that would unleash catastrophe in the months to come. “I won’t need a month,” he announced. You want your unequivocal answer, Auriga? “I made a decision of my own last night.” There’s a place for you here… a very special place… Auriga’s voice came back to him, dripping venom. Or had Will imagined that part? It didn’t matter. I am a mage.

They looked at him, waiting.

“I won’t be going up to the second tier with Mike and Lucas. And I won’t be going down to the city with Dustin and Demetrius. And I won’t be going home in a month. I’m…”

A mage.

“… I’m staying right here.”

Yes, Auriga.

 

Next Chapter: Brothers of Gorm

(Previous Chapter: Mushroom Madness)